So here we are. Back home after a 4800 km long journey through several ex-Soviet countries (some of them not even recognized). We did what we went there to do. On the 1st of August 2012, at 12 o’clock we managed to summit Mt. Elbrus, the highest point in Europe at 5642 m.
The journey itself was an adventure that deserves a couple of words.
As any “properly planned” trip, ours started with not being able to find Hunor’s (the lead driver’s) license. No problem – so we said – mine should be enough for the both of us. The bags were packed, part of Hunor’s equipment had not arrived yet and with plenty of food we set out for what was to become a daunting couple of days on the road.
In Romania, nothing much happened. Partly good, partly bad roads. Lots of winding roads through the mountains, and hills, and plains and we reached the Moldavian border in the afternoon. The plan was to reach Odessa (Ukraine) by nightfall and overnight there. The Moldavian border control asked for Hunor’s license. We simply said we lost it and I had to cross the border, so nothing too much to worry about. The Romanian they spoke in Moldova was a funny mix of Romanian with Russian words and a Russian accent.
Moldova in itself did not offer too much. It is one of Europe’s poorest countries, the roads can range from good to horrible and the small towns and villages are quite run down. The excitement started when after almost an hour of driving from Chisinau we stumbled upon the first Russian army tank and a “Stop” sign in red. ‘Dammit’– we thought. It looks like this whole Transnistrian thing is alive and kicking. For those who do not know yet, the eastern side of Moldova (Transnistria) is an unrecognized, de facto independent country with its own currency, leadership and heavily protected borders. We were stopped by two heavily armed Russian soldiers and we were told to follow a small road (probably used by tanks) to get to the border control.
By this time Hunor was driving again, and just before the border control a police officer stopped us, telling us in Romanian that we did not see the “Stop” sign. ‘Stop sign? Where?’ – we asked. ‘There’ – the police officer said pointing at nothing. So we looked at each other. Hunor slipped a 10 dollar bill in our passports and miraculously the problem got solved; with the condition, that the other driver (me) had to drive through Transnistria.
The border control was yet to start. Our passports and car papers were handed over to several Russian speaking soldiers and officials. Everyone spoke only in Russian; they sometimes laughed and sometimes looked serious. The bottom line was that another 5 dollar bill was slipped into someone’s pocket. The advice followed as well – go ahead and do not stop. We drove slowly in one of Europe’s strangest regions, where the statue of ‘comrade’ Lenin still stands tall and the ‘unknown’ worker’s memorial is the central park’s main attraction. But we must hand it to these transnistrians. Their women are drop dead gorgeous!
There is a strange feeling in the air when going through Transnistria. You have the feeling that someone is permanently watching you and people are reluctant to speak to foreigners, either because they do not speak the language or not too many outsiders pass through (or maybe Big Brother is watching them?).
We continued our journey towards the next border control with the Ukraine. For those travelling for the first time in such a region, you are not given a passport, but a paper (everything in Russian) is stamped instead and you will have to hand in this paper when getting out of the “country”. This however seemed easier said than done. Before entering the Ukraine, we had to go through the same routine; military personnel and officials taking our passports, checking our car, speaking only Russian and our passports ‘disappearing’ in different buildings. We thought everything was over when they told us to pull over and go into ‘the office’.
Comrades ‘Igor’ and ‘Sasha’ were sitting at a table and looking suspiciously at our passports. One of them was pointing to the stamped papers and was asking us, where are our papers? We explained to him in a semi-English, semi sign language that they took it from us. ‘Igor’ and ‘Sacha’ looked at each other and then looked at us. Noo…They? They did not take it. We do not have the papers, well, then we can go back straight to Moldova. ‘Igor’ looked at Hunor’s sunglasses. ‘Mafia! You are mafia.’ – he said. ‘Two boys travelling together, uh?’ – and he showed the sign of two homosexuals. We looked at them and started speaking in Hungarian, just to frustrate them as well.
They told Hunor to leave the room. So here I was with two corrupt transnistrian officials and our passports in their hands. ‘Igor’ pulled me aside and miraculously he knew what to say in English. ‘You know. Boss good man. He need little present’. I looked at him. ‘How much? 20 euros?’. He looked at me with his disgusting smile. ’20 euros? No! No! 50 euros’ and started laughing. I told him we are students and we do not have that money. He looked at me again and said ‘No money? Nice computer in car, nice boots. You have money’. In the meantime Hunor came in and asked me in Hungarian what they want. I told him they want 50 euros. Hunor started swearing in Hungarian, but keeping his normal tone. ‘You two mother fucking pieces of shit. You should go and f..”. I nearly cracked up, when one of them asked me. ‘He speak good or bad?’. I responded, nearly bursting out of laughter. ‘He speak very good. Transnistria great nation.’
There was not much to do. They wouldn’t budge for less than 50, so we gave them the big bill and we got our passports back. Luckily the Ukrainians were slightly more civilized and we were on our way to Odessa. But surprise in Odessa. The hostel we booked (‘The Fat Swan’) was nowhere to be found and no one picked up the phone. So after an hour of searching and people speaking no English, we found a cheap hotel, with a bathroom the size of a toilet.
We woke up early in the morning and took the great Ukrainian sun-flower fields, so we could reach Rostov in Russia (810 km away) and overnight at one of the couchsurfers. Luck was not on our side though. We reached the Ukrainian-Russian border by 9 pm and thought that we will have an easy passage.
It took us an hour to get through the Ukrainian check and we waited another hour in ‘no men’s land’. Before entering the Russian passport control we filled out all necessary documents, we got the stamps but Mr. ‘Vanja’, a Fat old F..ck (F.o.F., in other words a corrupt, bored customs official) had other plans.
Before leaving, Hunor translated his own delegation in Russian, saying that the company car we drove in is delegated by the company to himself. The translator messed up the birth year of 1984 with 2012. Everything else was the same. And Mr. F.o.F. Vanja managed to spot the “big problem”. He looked at us and pointed back to the Ukraine. We started arguing, even slipped a 40 dollar bill in the passports but he threw them back. He said he needs a correct paper. We bagged him to let us fax something, but to no avail. We asked the passport control whether we can still cross into Russia, once we go back to the Ukraine and get a fax. They answered in the affirmative.
So by 1 am we were on the Ukrainian side again, in a copy room, where we were “receiving” our new fax. We took the old document, copied it and found the numbers “1, 9, 84”, glued them and faded the lines with enough copies, that it looked like a new copy. We crossed the Ukrainian control, to go back into Russia. By the time we got to the Russian control at 3.30 am, passport control decided that “well, we cannot cross into Russia again with a one entry Visa”. So once again the whole bargaining started with dumb officials, calling up the bosses, trying to explain in English the situation to only Russian speaking guards. Our luck was about to change when all of a sudden a young official, speaking fare English, managed to convince them to annul the old stamps and give us new ones. By 5 am we reached customs, but Mr. F.o. F. Vanja told us that he will not work until 7 am.
So we managed to sleep until 7 a.m. and went into his office with the ‘new fax’. He looked at us and was asking where the stamp is. We explained it is a ‘fax’. A small argument ensued and suddenly we heard him ‘slipping’ the words ’50 dollars’. We got into the car, gave him the 50 bucks and left disgusted. We gave him 40 the previous night, but he did not accept them.
At least we were in Russia, speeding to Terskol (at the foot of Mt.Elbrus) to reach our team in time. And speeding is not a good idea in Russia. On half way through the Russian leg of the journey, the Russian road police pulled us over. 133 km/h (we had a maximum of 110 km/h) in a 90 km/h zone. Hunor was in a good mood. He talked to them and came back telling me that they need 40 dollars. Two minutes later he comes back and tells me. ‘Hahaha. I told them this is our first time in Russia, so could they only charge us for 30 dollars and give us back the rest in rubbles? And also whether they could let us take a picture with them? And they said yes!”
So not only were the Russian police kind enough to give us back 10 dollars’ worth of rubbles from the bribe money, but they were even happy to take a picture with us. We took our pictures, continued the remainder of our journey and to our big surprise, we ended up staying in a 4 star hotel, with Mt. Elbrus waiting for us J