22 Hours In Russia
As the policeman in front of me adjusts the strap on his Kalashnikov, I can’t help thinking of Withnail’s refrain: “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.” I’m standing at the side of a busy road in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, only because our route on the inaugural Central Asian Rally had to take a massive detour around the south side of the Black Sea, having been refused entry to Ukraine. We were never supposed to be here. That was four days ago, in which time myself and my Hungarian co-drivers, Gabor and Attilla, have managed just 11 hours of sleep in 3000km of driving. Now I’m uselessly trying to communicate with this lawman while his comrade takes Gabor into his police car. It’s overcast and the humidity hangs over the city like a wet duvet. Added to the pollution, it strikes me as a particularly disgusting type of day. We’ve been in Russia for an hour.
We were waved over because Gabor wasn’t wearing his seatbelt at the wheel. The cop holds out a fat hand and asks for my passport. He could be anywhere between 45 and 60, his skin a deep ochre, covered in an unhealthy sheen; his nose is ravaged and boozy. He scans my documents with unkind eyes while an endless stream of cars rumbles past. The Rally started in Budapest and will end in Tajikistan 8000km later. It was never supposed to be easy.
“Inguleesh?” He asks.
“Scottish,” I answer, not knowing the correct Russian word. (Though I have an English mother and a Scottish father, I have yet to visit a country where it’s not advantageous to claim my paternal lineage. Most people in most countries do not realise that Scotland is part of the UK and was/is complicit in the sins of the British Empire. But they do know, and love, Braveheart.)
“Inguleesh?” He asks again, growing impatient.
Fine, close enough. “Da,” I say like a goddamn local.
He considers this for a second, frowning, verifying my sweaty, unhappy face with the picture in the passport. Then he looks up, points at himself and says: “Manchester United,” before jabbing a short, hard finger into my chest. “Liverpool,” I say, hoping that like most Man United fans, he’s little more than a glory hunter.
At this he leans back and lets out a bellowing, mad laugh. We have communicated. Then: “Leeverpool – Vladikavkaz…” he furrows his brow, unsure of how to proceed. He turns to our Nissan Vanette, the infernal machine responsible for bringing us here. His hard finger writes ‘1995’ into a thick layer of dirt coating it. He looks at me again: “Leeverpool – Vladikavkaz…”
“Oh, wait! Liverpool came here and played Vladikavkaz in 1995?” This is how Erik The Red must have felt on reaching the new world. “Da da da,” he says, at least as happy as I am. “Vladikavkaz (he holds up one finger), Kasumov (he makes a short darting motion with his head, the kind you see managers make when a good cross comes into the box). Leeverpool (he holds up two fingers and makes a sad face).”
“OK, ok – so Liverpool came here and won 2-1,” I say. “And in Liverpool?”
The cop holds lets his machine gun hang loose and holds up two fists: “Nool, nool.”
Hours later, having paid our bribes and bought supplies, we’re driving north, hoping to eventually end up in the border city of Astrakhan where we will cross into Kazakhstan. Ahead, a T-junction offers us the devil and the deep blue sea: to the right, Gronzy; to the left, Beslan.
If you added together everyone murdered in Dumblane, Columbine, Utoya Island and Sandy Hook, then multiplied it by three, you still wouldn’t have the number that died when the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis at School Number One ended in disaster. After a three-day stand-off between Islamic Chechen separatists and the Russian military, the tanks rolled in. When the dust had settled, 385 were dead. One hundred and eighty six of them were children.
Instead of Beslan, we must turn right to Gronzy, capital of Chechnya, where the dead are measured by the thousand. The main battleground of the first and second Chechen wars, Grozny has known hell in the past 20 years; its very name conjures images of death on an industrial scale. To worry their loved ones back in Hungary, my co-drivers decide to pull over at the city limits for a photo opportunity in front of a massive Cyrillic sign that reads: GRONZY. We’ve barely taken a few steps when Gabor stops and picks up something off the ground. He holds it up between his thumb and index finger, like a jeweller checking the clarity of a diamond – it’s a 9mm bullet casing, one of dozens littered across the ground, alongside spent shotgun cartridges and empty AK-47 rounds.
The next half hour is perhaps the most nervous of my life. As we get downtown, the sat-nav cuts out, forcing us to rely on instinct to get out the other side. But even though I’m slouched down in my seat, nervous that my blonde hair and blue eyes will draw the worst kind of attention, I can’t help think: Grozny isn’t as bad as all that. In fact, when we reach the city centre it looks oddly like Dubai – all luxury apartments and billboards advertising ludicrous developments.
“Hah! They bought them!” Says Attila from the driver’s seat. I ask what he means.
“The Chechens are fucking crazy, man – every 10 years or so they’re going to rise up, but it looks like someone has paid them off.” Certainly things seem fairly placid, enough that Attila pulls over next to the gaudy Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. Gabor leaps out and starts taking pictures; Attila slopes off for a cigarette. I stay glued to the seat, but before long some locals come over to inspect the decals that cover the Nissan, advertising the Rally. They ask me to get out. They insist.
I’m met by two men in dishdashas; one stands with his hand on his hip, yellowy green eyes staring at me, his face a mess of acne scars. But it’s his pal that worries me. Around 6’2”, his stands with his muscular chest puffed out. Above, his powerful jaw hosts a thick, impenetrable beard, a nest for a row of golden teeth. If you tried to punch that jaw, I have no doubt you’d break your wrist. It’s impossible not to imagine this mad motherfucker leaning out of a tower block window, an AK in each hand, gleefully cutting down on-coming Russian troops.
Something tells me these fellas might not get my Withnail and I reference, but I do my best to explain that we’re not here on purpose.
Back on the road, and we’re almost clear of Grozny when the police stop us again, this time at a make-shift road block. Drivers line up to toss backsheesh into a little hut, where an fat man in uniform shovels it into a draw. When we’re stopped, Attila negotiates our bribe down to just 300 rubles, around £6. It doesn’t take much to make beggars of the police in Chechnya.
As Attila moves to hand over the money an expensive-looking car with tinted windows comes flying through the checkpoint, scaring up great plumes of dust into the air. Most people don’t seem surprised by this, but one cop takes exception, wildly flailing his arms in protest.
The car skids to a halt and a small, furious man in a suit leaps out from the back seat, apoplectic that the police have dared to delay him. His face purples as he screams threats and insults at the policeman. Then his bodyguard gets out of the car, quickly putting himself between this squealing little gangster and the offending officer. My hand fumbles for my camera, but I think better of it – my balls aren’t anywhere near big enough to lift it to the window.
The bodyguard looks like Roman warrior, a pedigree killer. His hideous, veiny neck strains out of his enormous body like a tree stump out of a hillside. This monster puts one hand out towards the policeman and one behind, in front of his boss. I can’t work out who he’s trying to save. There is a quickening in the air. Life is so cheap here… Mercifully the policeman backs down and in an instant the car has sped off down the dusty track, back towards Grozny. It’s a long time before I remember to breathe.
Chechnya, what a strange and violent place… It’s followed by Dagestan, a god-forsaken republic which hugs the Caspian Sea. The police are no less corrupt here – over the next five hours we’re stopped another dozen times by cops looking for bribes. We pay around half of them, including one particularly drunk idiot who agrees to let us go in exchange for some foreign currency for his wife, an alleged collector.
As we head north to Astrakhan, the check points thin out and eventually disappear. The moment they do and we relax, our exhaustion comes sliding back. Attila crawls into the backseat, assumes the foetal position and falls asleep. Gabor takes over driving and I ride shotgun, trying to keep him awake. But we’ve been travelling for so long and slept so little that several times I fall asleep mid-sentence, then come-to talking about something else altogether. Finally I give up and let my head bump limply against the window.
I’ve no idea how long I’ve been out when the car leaves the road, but instantly I think Gabor has fallen asleep and we’ve crashed. Attila is thrown from the back seat on the floor of the van. There is a lot of swearing.
Half-conscious and deranged it takes us a long time to accept our situation: the tarmac has run out and the route to Astrakhan will now continue off-road, cutting our speed in half. When we restart, the atmosphere in the van is unbearably low.
After a few hours of this bumping, bruising madness, something in my brain gently cracks and I start to hallucinate. As the lights from the Nissan catch dusty little hillocks of the desert, I see terrifying animals run across our path. Lanky wolves sprint in front of us; a giant snake disappears beneath the wheels. I open my mouth to mention these spectres to Gabor, but he says: “This is a waking nightmare,” then lets his foot off the accelerator, letting the van to gently bump into a sandy mound. “I cannot go on,” he says.
I’m tripping with fatigue and in no fit-state to drive, but thankfully Attila volunteers. Over the next three hours, his driving is little short of Herculean, fast and confident as though the Rally has only just started. Eventually the sun cracks over horrid horizon and somewhere in the distance we see the smog of Astrakhan.
The city straddles part of the mighty Volga River delta; on the eastern side is the border with Kazakhstan and our exit out of hellish Russia. Even by the most extreme interpretations of its borders, this is the very end of Europe. As though to underline the point, it’s also the home of the last McDonalds between here and Pakistan. We’ve been driving for 21 hours when we pull into its car park, desperate for coffee and the chance to scrape some dust from our eyes.
Standing in the queue, body aching, mind fractured, it feels like I’m on the edge of some catastrophic fall. As I get to the counter, a stern-looking store manager comes to greet me. I say greet, but I mean: glower like she wants a fight. Instead of meeting her intimidating gaze, my eye is drawn lower, to her shirt, which is on the brink of rupturing under pressure from two iron boobs that alternately reveal themselves as she turns left and right. As she sashays over, one of her teenage employees can’t help but sneak a peak too. He must love those things. I giggle when I point at a number on the menu behind her, then I stop laughing and take another look one of those unruly domes. It’s not enough to change my mind: this has been the worst journey of my life.
A version of this piece was published in Vice in April 2013.