We were a little bit apprehensive about the Russian border crossing, but my thinking was that if they didn’t let us through then we’d just go back to Bulgaria, and sod the lot of them! I have written this post in a little more detail than usual, because others that are following us might find it useful.
The road to the border had disintegrated in places, but we stood up on the footpegs, so it was fine. It was pretty, and twisty, as it went alongside the mountains. When we got to the border, we stopped beforehand to take off the GoPro, so nobody would get upset, and I took the lead, as we’d discussed. The Georgian desk was fine; they just asked us for our passports and V5s, and they briefly mentioned the fines we had received. I told them we had paid, and we showed them the receipts. I was happy and cheerful with them, and they were the same with me. We got through without incident, and then made the journey through the longest no man’s land I’ve ever gone through, to the Russian side.
There were cameras everywhere so I made sure I wasn’t speeding, although that didn’t stop a few Russians in their big cars from beeping me and pushing past. No bother mate, I’d rather know that they have no reason not to let me in. We got to the first guard, who was the other side of a barrier, which he lifted for the car in front. I waited until he beckoned me forward, and then he spoke to me in Russian, and I made my “I’m really sorry mate, but I don’t understand you, although I am trying” face, which prompted him to look at my number plate and say “Great Britain?”, “I’m afraid so!”, I reply with a nod. He smiles and hands me a piece of paper (the migration card), motions that I need to fill it in and then give it to the people in the booths. “Spasiba!” I say, which was one of my two-known Russian words (the other being “nyet”) and we head further down and park up to fill out our migration cards. Crucially, we put ‘tourism’ as our reason for visiting, as we thought they’d probably see right through us if we put ‘business’, what with our method of transport and our route plastered over the sides of our panniers. Our thoughts were that if they questioned it, we could tell the truth about having to get the business visa because of the timing and the number of entries, or we could even say that our next entry into Russia would be for business. We also put the name of a lovely gentleman (Mikhail) down as our host, who had very kindly ordered us some new tyres, organised a garage to fit them, and found us a place to stay in Stavropol for a few days.
After we’d filled it in on both sides, we went to join a queue. We waited in line for a bit, and then they opened the lorry lane especially for us. I thought that might be a good thing, but probably a bad one, as it pointed towards them thinking of keeping us for a while, and not holding the rest of the traffic up. Never mind either way! The guard beckoned me forward, so I drove through and parked my bike where he told me to, and then gave my documents to the man in the booth, who was refusing to smile, and just furiously tapping away as his computer, whilst looking at my documents. I only gave him my passport, my V5, and then after a while he asked for my migration card. The guard was asking me a couple of questions though, like where I am from, where were we going (Stavropol to see Mikhail) etc. He had few English words, but he was being nice, so I was trying to answer his questions in a way that he would understand. The man in the booth then told me that he was holding on to my passport for the moment as his colleague needed to speak to us, and he’d be with us in 5-10 minutes. After a while he beckoned Roger over too, and did the same with his papers. Whilst that was happening, the guard asked me to unlock my panniers, so he could see what was inside, and I did Roger’s too, although he didn’t bother looking in to his inner bags. It turns out we were stood next to the bikes for probably 10-15 minutes, and we’d removed the keys from our bikes, and our tank bags, as per our plan, just in case they wanted to take us off for an interrogation somewhere. Another guard then came through and asked us where we were from. After we replied, he said “can I have some English coins please, as I like them?” I said of course, and did he collect them? He said that he did. I fished the bag of coins I’d saved for that purpose out and emptied the lot into my hand, expecting him to want all of them. He looked through them and took a single 10p piece from me, and then gave me the equivalent Russian 10 Ruble coin. I was quite touched by that as I didn’t expect anything back, and it was a bit like when Beaker gives Michael Caine his red scarf in the Muppet Christmas Carol, after Scrooge turns good and agrees to donate to their charity. This experience was really not what I expected it to be! The other nice guard was looking at my English coins, so I offered my hand out to him too. He took a 2p coin.
We waited some more and then after another 10 minutes or so, another man came along and he had our passports in his hand. He asked us where we were going (Stavropol), and wrote down our home addresses in his book, and then gave us our passports back. “Welcome to Russia!” said the nice guard. A different chap in a blue camo suit then said to us we needed to fill out a customs declaration/temporary importation permit for our bikes, and he pointed to where to go. The nice guard then gave us some chocolate coated marshmallow things, and insisted we take two each before we left! It was so surreal compared to what I’ve read about other’s crossings. We scrambled back on the bikes and blue camo led us down to park them, right outside the office for customs declarations. Another guard who spoke English very well then came and offered to help us as well, and we thanked him and told him that we’d come and find him if we needed help. We went inside with blue camo, and he showed us the forms (written in Russian only), and the board where they have an example translated into English (yay!), so we used that and filled two copies out, and then took them outside to the lady in another little booth. She also spoke English a bit, and asked for our home addresses, stamped our forms and told us we’d need to give the other copy of the customs form/TIP when we leave Kazakhstan for Uzbekistan. Then we could go! (Really? That was it?!) Hurrah!
We went no more than 40kph out of the border zone, as we’ve heard stories of the rozzers waiting just down the road from the border to catch anyone speeding/overtaking/breathing, once they’ve relaxed after the border crossing. We went past the rozzers, and pulled over to exchange our driving licences for our photocopied ones*, plus to put the GoPro on, as I intended to record everything from now on, to try and combat any bribery for ‘speeding’ etc. We rode along and I saw a sign for ‘Sigorta’, which I remembered from Turkey meant insurance, and I remembered that we hadn’t got any! We turned around and pulled in, and the place looked closed, but I saw a number, so I rang it. A man answered, and I said “sigorta? Insurance?” he said “yes!” and we had a failed conversation as he spoke Russian and German, which didn’t match with my English, French or Spanish! Anyway, I hung up and we were just debating whether to drive on, or to drive back and ask at the border crossing, when a chap drove up and waved at me. It was the man on the phone, and it turned out he’d popped out for pizza, and he offered us some when we came in. He also made us coffee. The insurance was $25 each, so I paid and he wrote out the certificates painfully slowly (for Roger, as he was aware of the fact that we had a long way to ride. I was just happy to have made it through the border!) Anyway, the whole border plus insurance** chapter must’ve taken us just over 2 hours in total, which was still shorter than Georgia!
We’ve only gone and gotten ourselves in to Russia!
*Our driving licences we had photocopied in Bulgaria, as we’d heard reports of people giving their real ones to some unscrupulous police at the side of the road, when they’d been ‘speeding’, and the police wouldn’t give them back unless they paid a hefty fine/bribe. We only ever use our real ones at borders, and leave our photocopies for Police officers who stop us at the side of the road.
**There are plenty of insurance booths all along that road by the way, so don’t assume (like me) that the first one is the only one. You may get a better price if you’ve the time and inclination to play one off against the other!