The northern side of the Caucasus mountains doesn’t look that different from the Georgian side. The peaks and valleys are just as beautiful in Russia, or I should say in the Russian Federation. Because this region is a puzzle of diverse republics, krais and districts. To get to Astrakhan we’ll be crossing North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Kalmykia.
Our first stop is Vladikavkaz, to score some more Rubles and provisions. The city lies a ways beyond the mountains in a much flatter area. In fact the transition from the mountains to the flatlands is rather abrupt. In some ways it reminds me of the Pyrenees in Catalunya. We don’t really linger about and head towards Ingushetia. The first of a few republics in the region that are strongly discouraged for travel by the Belgian government. Luckily we have also consulted some other sources before coming here and those are a lot less scary. Except for a large number of check points for trucks people seem to go about their lives normally and are generally just as friendly as elsewhere.
When we pass a war memorial in the predominantly Muslim republic of Ingushetia it seems like a good place to take a break. It has all of the grandeur so typical of Soviet memorials and is dedicated to local soldiers who lost their lives in combat. Not just in the two world wars, but also in other conflicts like in Afghanistan during the eighties and in more recent regional conflicts.
We’re not the only visitors, still it is rather quiet. Even the guards are looking bored to death. It is a shame, because there’s all sorts of interesting equipment on display around the site. Some of it is just historical, some of it is hard not to interpret as a protest against past and present Russian oppression.
The road takes us further into Chechnya and through Grozny past a few more check points. The landscape is rather unremarkable and the road straight and boring. Grozny itself provides some navigational challenges as there are a lot of detours for roadworks. We manage to come out the other side though and pick a more interesting smaller road to continue our way east. After fuelling up on some very cheap Russian benzin we make one more stop to pick up groceries for the evening. The Chechnian lady running the shop at first refuses to accept our money, but after grabbing an additional bread and some extra encouragement she ends up letting us pay for the goods. She does seem to be very happy to have foreigners at her shop and especially a women on a motorcycle. Sofie is almost getting used to all the attention and respect she has been receiving, especially in the Muslim regions. With a bit of trial and-error we find a spot to pitch our tent away from the road and mostly out of sight. There’s a farmer in a shed a bit further. We go and say hi and check if he is ok with us spending the night there, somewhere near the border between Chechnya and Dagestan.
The vegetation is becoming more and more sparse as we are entering steppe territory the next day. Temperatures are just below 40C during the hottest part of the day. The day started off very different though. This morning the tent was covered in condensation and we could hardly see anything of the landscape around us because of a thick fog obscuring the view. Now we are riding through the Great Hot and Dry Nothing where the sparse grasses are only interrupted for the occasional dried out salt lake or a sand dune. You’d think that miles upon miles of the exact same view would be boring, but the landscape is so impressive it just makes us feel small. Riding through it induces a curious state of zen and we are really enjoying the ride.
Very little noteworthy happens on the long road to Astrakhan. Kalmykia is the last republic to cross. It is the only officially Buddhist republic in Europe. We notice it first when we come across a few small Tibetan style buildings and see the mongoloid faces of the people. Many have been displaced here during the “Sovietisation” period in the USSR, some are still descendants of the infamous Golden Horde. I also spot 2 camels grazing by the side of the road. Sofie misses them, being rather focused on the car she is trying to pass. Other than that all we experience is straight roads and more steppe.
Astrakhan itself is a pleasant surprise. The city on the banks of the Volga river is surrounded by typical Soviet style high-rise suburbs around its cosy, green and pleasant historical centre. After a few attempts to find lodging we finally settle in to a small and cheap hotel very close to the Kreml. They even have secure parking for the bikes. When we are checking in the sweet lady behind the front desk registers our immigration cards. She points out that there’s an error on mine. Apparently I entered the same date for entry and exit on my half of the document when entering Russia. I’m pretty sure I put the correct dates on the half that was kept by the officials at the border. Don’t know whether this is going to pose any problems when exiting or being stopped by the police, but there’s little we can do about it now. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
We end up spending a few days in the city, exploring the parks, the Kreml, the shops. Strolling on the banks of the river and in the parks provides some cooling. In the direct sun it is pretty hot, although the locals claim 2 weeks ago they were experiencing temperatures that closed in on 60C in the sun.
A large city like this also has many phone shops where we can buy ourselves some Russian SIM cards. We’ll be spending some time in the country and it is nice to have an internet connection on the road. The friendly young girls at a phone shop hook us up with a scheme that has unlimited data for the first month.
Coincidentally, while we are in Astrakhan, Russia is celebrating Navy Day. Many ships of the Caspian See fleet are stationed on the Volga river and we are told that there will be a parade and a fireworks spectacle. Lots of people have come out to enjoy the pleasant evening temperatures and watch the ships on the river against the setting sun. There is a cosy bustling atmosphere and all kinds of stalls with food and drinks and games. A significant police presence as well, mainly checking bags before letting people onto the river bank.