Its long I know but its a good story, possibly the best of eurotrip, I mean its not everyday you get shaken down by the KGB right? Do remember most conversations in this story happened in Russian and they were translated to me after the fact. Most of the time I had a fair idea of what was happening anyway, tone and body language can tell you a surprising amount when you don’t hear any of the words being yelled at you.
Georgia is a pretty safe place, we haven’t had any trouble at all but the Australia Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT), gives the country a 3 out of 5 AK47’s on its danger rating, still we know they are overly cautious, its their job. However there’s a special clause on the page, the separatist regions, including South Ossetia, get a full 5 out of 5 which puts them in the same category as say… Iraq. Remember how I said I was going to try and stay out of these areas? Well.. you know how long THAT was going to last.
In the hostel Iiris and I had 3 these 3 cool American guys. Victor, Emmett and Jacob. Victor and Emmett were mates who live in Ukraine and make it their business to go everywhere REALLY interesting, like break away regions and other such hardcore zones. They both speak very good Russian and are walking wikipedias of foreign national knowledge. Then we have Jacob, a convert to Islam who made it his job to go to every country in Europe… with that boundary being the Ural mountains meaning he’s got all this great territory to go through also. He doesn’t speak Russian but his creditentials are solid, anyone who’s been into Afghanistan for a holiday to check it out without speaking the language gets my respect. Then finally you have one blondie Estonian girl and one funny looking, loud Aussie guy. What is such a motley crew meant to do?
Iiris and I were actually just going to go to a town outside Tbilisi for the day but then we met the guys at the bus station and they told us of their plan. They want to go into South Ossetia just for the afternoon, to check it out, have a beer, meet some locals and then come back. Sure, I mean you can just stroll into a war zone and have a quick pint right? What better way to learn about a conflict than to get amongst it. Beside all those "warnings" from our government, we know they are overly cautious, how bad can it be? Come on!
So after a few minutes of deliberation Iiris and I decide to join them, its 3 hours away but how often can you say you went into DFAT 5 out of 5 territory? We now had 3 Russian speakers amongst it and by golly, we were going to need it.
So we took a minibus from Tbilisi to the Georgian side of the border. The first thing we notice is going through a check point armed by Russians flying "MC" flags, which stands for Peace Keeper. Phew, I’m glad the RUSSIANS are here to keep us safe. Who the hell asked these blokes to guard the area? Alright so the Russians don’t stop us and we keep on going up to the Georgian side.
The first thing you see is the road is blockade and heavy looking Georgian dudes with AK47s are guarding the area. They also wear the uniform of US soldiers too, no doubt provided as foreign aid in some manner. We stroll up and say we are travelling through to the mountains and we want to go through. The head solider guy is sceptical, the sort of sceptical which transcends language boundaries and why not, he’s just been presented with 5 odd looking foreigners who want to stroll into his enemies territory. In fact I look more like I’m about to go to high tea with the Queen, we didn’t plan to come at the start of the day so I’ve got a suit jacket and an umbrella with me. Don’t worry boys, its a lead lined umbrella for sure.
So the nice solder with the big machine gun takes our passports and tells us to wait, writing down our details in the process. He says he’s got to make a few calls and clear it with his superiors. We feel a bit tense, I mean these guys are laughing and joking while armed to the teeth around us but its cool man…. eventually after about 45 minutes the soldier gets back to us, his guys called the US Embassy and they asked them not to let us in… now that sounds a bit strange… they asked the Georgians not to let us pass… we are pretty sceptical they even phoned at all and we try and plead with the guy but he’s having none of us. Dejected we start to walk back down the road, missing the line up of taxi drivers waiting like vultures for anyone who’s crossed the border.
We decide to not quite give up yet and walk the 2km back down the road to the Russian peacekeepers. The first thing you notice is these guys clearly have the best equipment in the region, there’s at least 2 tanks under wraps there and the entire base is cammoed up and you’d have a tough time seeing it from Google Earth alright. Their uniforms are also the newest, best ironed I’ve encountered before… far better than your average Russian grunt im told… do the "public" soldiers on the front lines get a better set of threads? More than likely.
Again we encounter quite the sceptical reception from them but they are nice, if not a bit short with us. "is there another way through?", "can you give us some advice?" are all met with a short and professional response. We ask if we can take photos but the guy says we have to be beyond the limits of those signs… well not before I snapped a few out of my jacket. Those trips to the motor show sure paid off Detes! We went down to the signs and I could line up a few good shots of the Russian base and even a quick video blog.
So again we walk off back to the town and after being sick of walking we hail a ride with a local, 5 of us squeezed into the back of his small Opel car. For some reason he thinks we are a sporting team, maybe because of Emmett’s Nike jacket but still, it does sound more plausible than us wanting to have a beer over in South Ossetia. Back in the town we are dropped at the main (read: only) corner and we are the object of attention of everyone there. Don’t make eye contact and don’t speak English loudly, we are going to be like 5 little fonzies and you know what fonzy is like? He’s cool, that’s what he is. We ask around a few locals again and we are told we are insane, we are mad that it is "like Iraq" in there and as soon as we cross over the border we will be kidnapped and murdered. hmmm good times. Still they WOULD say that wouldn’t they? The South Ossetians are their sworn enemies now, they probably think the eat small children too. Speaking of eating its about 6pm by now and we are hungry so we find a small shop with a table of the front with plenty of mummas hanging around who agree to provide us with a meal… and mmmm good Georgian food it was. Some goulash type stuff with potato and salad and some funky salty cheese all washed down by a good Georgian beer. By this stage though I was starting to feel a bit sick, it has been coming on in the last week and combined with my excess alcohol intake from Irena’s party the night before and the fatigue of the days events, I was feeling it… still I was determined to push on. It takes more than a tummy ache to keep me from DFAT 5 outta 5.
Sitting around eating food we are throwing around ideas on how to proceed and we realise… we haven’t contacted the embassy ourself! We were still fairly sceptical old mate had called at all and we wanted the good word so we could use it to bargain with him. A few smses and a phone call to the US government yielded the number for the US embassy in Tbilisi and a lovely young lady by the name of Lindsay answered… and GUESS WHAT? Someone HAD called earlier in the day asking if they should let in a random group of Americans… well Ill be! However the truth comes out, she never asked them to keep us out, that part was some creative interpretation on behalf of the Georgians. ALRIGHT! Armed with this knew knowledge we were going to try a second border point and the mummas called us a taxi….
However entering the taxi the drive seems rather scared and confused as to why we want to go to the other check point and in fact he wont take us there at all.. hmmmm so wanting to make the most of it we ask him to take us back via the Russians and we will go talk to our old Georgian mate with our new knowledge of US diplomatic functions.
We roll back up to the checkpoint again and Victor hits up the guy and in a very surreal moment, almost as fast as we had rocked up, they were waving us through… the guy said words to the order of "you are insane, I have warned you" but this was it" We were walking across the border! This is it! Excitement and a certain twinge of fear comes over all of us, will we be shot at in any moment? Will some bloke jump out of the bushes and try and kidnap us?
Now this doesn’t get us into South Ossetian territory just yet. There’s a no mans land of about 500 meters, a pot hole filled road lined with large relics of the soviet times, storage contains, gas cylinders and old railway carriages and on the other side was the South Ossetian checkpoint which we also had to make it through. Time for more quick talking.
As we walked up we were surprised these guys weren’t armed however their AKs were sitting just inside of their building which was merely an old shipping container.. a "building" which flew the flag of both South Ossetia and … Russia also! Well this is some interesting developments going on here. There’s a sign which says 50 rouble entry but the nice man says we don’t need to pay this… good because its not like we have Russian Roubles on us.. all we have is Georgian Lari. He takes our passports as we wait out the front, they are even nice enough to offer us a coffee, how good is that? When was the last time you had any border guard offer you a drink? I cant understand the conversations directly but I can hear tone of language and observe body language and I will say these guys are pretty relaxed and while suspicious of us, quite calm that 5 foreign retards have shown up seemingly to just have a beer with them. We ask if we can take photos and the guy says no, which is a pretty regular response, I don’t think there’s a federalie in the word who will let you take a photo but not to be put back, I kept the Nikon in my pocket, got out my mobile phone and turned it onto silent mode… where I could right in front of the soldiers, snap a few shots of the area from where I was sitting. Check it out people, these are the only pics of South Ossetian soldiers your likely to see in any online "news" department.
So the nice man comes out again and has finished asking question but he cant let us through… he’s called a member of the KGB to come and talk to us…. THE KGB? Holy shit! Now as you all know the KGB doesn’t exist anymore, its now the FSB but all they did was change the name, same shit different smell. The soldier even referred to it as "KGB" however. Maybe that’s how its still perceived or maybe he didn’t think we would know what the FSB was? Either way were sitting there, on the border of a war zone, getting a bit chilly but kinda perky from the free coffee, wondering what indeed the KGB will look like when they roll up… a big black BMW? guys in suits? drunk Russian guys in tracksuit pants? All we know is these guys are about to ask us questions and the 5 of us couldn’t be more excited about the experience, we knew we were getting somewhere.
But before the guy comes something deeper dawns on us. The South Ossetians cant make a seemingly simple decision like letting some foreigners in without consulting with the Russians… officially Russian supports and recognises South Ossetia but that’s it.. but it seems on ground level, the Russkis are running the show here, which is politically a very different thing. My mobile phone even gives away the situation, they are using Russian networks inside of the area. This adds a tremendously chaotic mix to the region, think back to the map I showed you. You start in Georgian territory, then go through the Russian peacekeepers… then pass through a Georgian checkpoint.. then reach the other side which is run by the Russians anyway… how did the Russians get on BOTH sides of this conflict? As fits with the accounts of some locals we spoke to, the Russians aren’t so much peace keepers and general rabble rousers in the region.
Eventually old mate rocks up and he’s just a Russian guy dressed in a soldiers outfit, he’s calm and relaxed if not a bit young looking. Did his hardcore KGB training turn him into such a cool guy? He is just young and nervous and lucked out by getting a posting on the edge of the Russian frontier but nevertheless this guy is ok and asks us the same round of questions. We just want to see a church and stuff… what church… ahh who’s got the lonely planet? Good thing the guy cant speak read English, which is strange and lends itself to option two of our personality breakdown of this guy, surely hardcore KGB training would mean he could at least read English. Eventually we just confess and say we want to go have a beer. He’s hesitant but seems to buy our truthful but absurd premise. He ponders it for a while and wants to know if we know what we are getting ourselves in for. Did we know people will ask for our documents on every corner?
we feel we are about to face an impasse here, the sun is setting and its getting colder over the south ossetian plain. Added to that Emmett and Victor have a 9am flight so we cant spend the night here, we need to get in and out within an hour and we need to do it soon. We ask the officer if he knows someone who can take us on a tour, we would even be willing to pay… its not a bribe… oh no… its merely compensating someone for their time taken…. he thinks… behind his cool demeanour the decision is difficult.
… and eventually he knocks us back for good. He says its not about the money and I sense he’s trying to make the wisest decision, 5 westerners can only mean trouble in his land and that’s bound to get back to his superiors. We plead with him one more him but his mind is made up, the KGB has spoken, we have to turn back.
As we walk back down that road through no mans land to the Georgian border we all have mixed feelings. We didn’t get in eventually which is disappointing but we had such a good time doing it we didn’t care so much, we got so close to South Ossetian territory, we just missed that last bit. The no mans road sits on a hill looking down over the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and we can see it clearly in the red glow of the evening, its a typical concrete soviet monster, but a monster we wished to explore. Even from our distance we can see the flag of the Republic of South Ossetia flying over the city, its unmistakable.
We take photos, as many photos as we can, its a gorgeous afternoon and there’s nothing they can do to stop us now. You can see more of these in the photo gallery, the pro Russian graffiti again gives us a timely reminder of who is on who’s side here.
Ossetia + Russia
Just as we thought we were home and hosed though, we pass back through the Georgian check point, feeling a bit happy with ourselves only to find old mate Georgian doesn’t share our feelings of good will. He starts to get very short with us, demanding Emmett go back with him to the Police station for questioning and we soon realise he means business. Emmett refuses to get into the car and things get pretty tense, he’s pissed we didn’t listen to him and indeed probably more pissed we called the embassy behind his back… eventually the real source of his questions is apparent.. "how many of them were there?" "what were they wearing?" "what sort of guns did they have?". It takes some very sweet talking from Victor and Emmett and to their credit they got us the fuck out of there in the closest taxi. As 5 of us squeezed into 4 seats for the 80km ride back to Tbilisi the driver informs us we only made it out of there because we are foreigners, a Russian or Georgian trying such shit with him would be in the lock up straight away.
So that’s the end of our adventure, as long winded as it was. Its hard to put across the real sense of the day, being in the middle of nowhere, working the plan our as it happens, having the real feeling that as we walked down that road there could indeed be dangerous territory ahead. In my head the entire time all I could think of though were the words of Henry Rollins "I wanna know therefore I go", this was far better than any text book.
Theres some more high res photos of the day in the photo gallery