I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore

As I boarded my flight in Moscow, I could not believe that the moment had finally come, I’d been planning this trip for so long that it was difficult to really remember how it all stared! My mother has labeled me a risk taker and insisted I not go, friends in Russia had warned me against visiting, my doctor was speechless when I told her my plans……asking in a rather soft and shocked voice……”why”???? My answer was “why not, I love off the beaten path places”. In only two hours, what seemed like a far off distant place would soon become reality. The plane took a right turn and started to descend over the water. After nearly a year of planning, this dream that once felt soooo distant and far-fetched would soon come to fruition.

At last our Boeing 737 was on the ground! I had arrived…..arrived in a place that I had heard so much about on the news, a place that had a very nasty reputation for ethnic violence and war and a place that is not exactly on the beaten tourist path. This place? Makhachkala, Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus. Makhachkala was the first stop on an individual tour that would take me from The Caspian Sea eventually to The Black Sea in Sochi with many stops in between. One of these stops would include the infamous republic of Chechnya, which suffered through two horrific wars during the 90s and early 2000s. But, that’s for later. For the time being I was focused solely on Dagestan.

The stewardesses opened the door to the runway and I descended the stairs to the tarmac. After being in St. Petersburg and Moscow for two weeks where it was cold, rainy and rather dreary, it was a bit of a shock to the system to suddenly be in a climate where it was sunny, dry and mild. On the tarmac sat three vehicles, a bus (to take passengers to the terminal), and two vans. I rushed to the bus to get a good seat, knowing soon there would be a crush of people and it was important to be in a place where I would not be boxed in like a sardine. But suddenly I was told that since I had flown business class that I did not have to ride the bus the 100 so meters to the terminal, that I was entitled to ride in a private van. So, I exited from the bus to the van.

When I got to the van there were plenty of open places. Just as I was about to get into the van and take my place, some guys in three piece suits asked me in Russian if I was in business?? I said yes. They then told me to go to the next van. What, I thought! Why if I flew business was I told to get into another van? Whatever, I just need to get to the terminal. However, it seemed a bit petty of them not to let me ride in their van. I suddenly had visions of my middle school days when I was not allowed to ride in the back of the bus since that was where all the “cool, cliquish” kids rode and I was not a part of that circle. But whatever got me those 100 so meters to the terminal was fine by me, it was not exactly a three hour or even three-minute ride.

I arrived at the terminal and exited the van to find a metal detector at the door. I quickly threw my backpack onto the belt and walked through the metal detector without any trouble. But the terminal I had exited into was not what I had expected. It was as if I was in some type of airline lounge, with big couches and easy chairs scattered throughout the lounge with people sitting around drinking tea and chatting. It struck me as odd that there was no baggage claim or anything that remotely looked like a regular airline terminal. But, I figured that we somehow must pick up our bags outside. As I got close to the exit to the street, I noticed another metal detector and airport officials checking passports and tickets. I had not left Russia, but knew that this was the North Caucasus, so of course things were likely a bit different than back in Moscow or Petersburg. I reached for my passport and just as I was about to show the officials, they waived me through saying I was a foreigner and could go right through the metal detector. I left the building onto the sidewalk, still perplexed to where I had been.

I was a bit surprised when I left and there was absolutely nothing there! No, baggage claim or truck with bags, just a sidewalk and parking lot. I searched for my guide who was supposed to meet me at the airport, but no sign of anyone remotely close to him. I walked toward the regular terminal building and still no baggage claim or guide. I was still pretty calm, but started to worry a bit. I wandered around for about five minutes trying to find something that resembled baggage claim or my guide, but alas….nothing! Finally, I saw a man from my flight and asked him in Russian where we picked up the bags. He told me I needed to go back to the building I had left from.

So, I walked back to the building and luckily found my boarding pass and baggage claim sticker, which I would need in order to get back into the building. I showed them my boarding pass and baggage claim and they told me to take a seat in the lounge and wait for my driver. But what about my bag I asked in a rather worried voice. They told me to simply wait for my driver. At this point my concern level was going up quickly to mild panic. Where was my bag??? And, where was my driver??? I sat down and searched for the phone number of the tour director, Evgeniya. I sent off an angry message to her in English (my Russian had shut down at this point) asking just where the hell my driver was and why I hadn’t been met at the airport.

I waited a few minutes and nothing, radio silence! I figured at that point I should call her. I hurriedly dialed her number only to get a message that the user was not available at this time. I was a bit perplexed as I had a mobile plan that allowed me to make nationwide calls, so this should not have been an issue. I then figured I would call the tour agency she works for and who organized my tour. I told them I was a client of Evgeniya’s. Unfortunately, they had no answer for my situation, leaving me with no other option but to wait and hope my bag somehow showed up.

After about 15-20 minutes of sitting around worried, I noticed people’s bags being delivered. It finally dawned on me that this place was the business arrival hall where you waited until your bag is personally brought to you. This calmed my nerves a lot knowing that my bag would eventually show up. Just then I got a text message saying the user was back online and within a few moments I received a message from Evgeniya apologizing for the confusion. Just then my driver/guide Gadzhimurad called me apologizing for the confusion asking me where I was. I tried to explain but it was a bit tough to pinpoint exactly where I was. He eventually understood and said he’d wait for me outside. And just as we hung up an airport employee showed up with my bag! I was overjoyed to see my beloved crimson red and black bag and thanked them!!

I exited the terminal bag in hand and looked around and saw a guy waiting outside. Within a few moments he found me and asked me if I was Steve. I said yes. He took my bag and we went to his car. He knew I had come from Moscow, not only because of the information I provided to the tour organizer, but the fact I was carrying both my heavy sweatshirt and coat. I guess since the temperature was near about 18°C or about 67°F it was a dead giveaway that it was indeed me.

The drive into town would be about a half hour. At first the scenery reminded me of somewhere out of Arizona or California desert with empty, desert like scenery and roads. But as we came nearer to the city, the desert like conditions gave way to a large city with blocks of flats and full of chaotic traffic!! The streets of Makhachkala were absolutely INSANE!! Cars zig zagging in and out of traffic, people bolting, across the road in front of cars narrowly missing being hit, drivers making video calls on their phones and one guy who was working his way between cars in a rather primitive wheelchair. I had been to India where mass chaos on the roads is just a fact of daily life with cars moving in and out of traffic and avoiding giant cows and monkeys that wander the city streets, so I had seen some pretty chaotic scenes. However, Dagestan really gave India a run for its money in terms of road chaos. My driver Gadzhimurad made his way through traffic like a pro, never flinching, not giving an inch to other drivers, all while giving me an in-depth narration of Makhachkala and Dagestan.  

Finally, after what felt like a crazy war of cars on the streets of Dagestan we arrived at my hotel. But it did not look like your usual hotel. There was no sign in front, no parking lot, no nothing. We walked into the building and there was no lobby, just stairs and an elevator with a sign board of the businesses in the building. There had to be a mistake, where was the hotel I thought? But then it dawned on me….in Russia they have such things as mini-hotels, hotels within a building that only take up several floors and not the entire building. We eventually got to the 11th floor and off to the left was an office. This office turned out to be the “lobby”. I walked in with my guide and gave them my passport for registration. They gave me my key and told me I was on the 9th floor.
So, down I went in the elevator and behind a large wooden door was a hallway with rooms. I entered my room and it was stunning!! A giant living room, beautiful bedroom and two bathrooms!! After about 12 hours of travel from St. Petersburg, it was good to be in a comfortable place, if only for a few hours before our city tour. As I made myself at home, unpacking my things and laying down for a quick nap, I started to think about just where I was. The famous words from the protagonist, Dorothy, from the world-famous film, "The Wizard of Oz" came to mind when she said to her dog, “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.” In other words, I was in a whole another world!! 

The Caucasus

Apologies to readers for dropping out of sight for the last few weeks! Moscow and St. Petersburg have sucked up all my time and energy in every single way. From meetings with old and new friends to doing an interview in Russian for my Russian teacher’s YouTube channel to walking 10+ miles a day, I’ve hardly had a moment to breathe. But, now I am forced to take some down time as I am on my way to Makhachkala, Dagestan in The Caucasus, which is on The Caspian Sea.

My journey promises to be an exciting one! I have a 12-day excursion planned that will take me through the heart of The Caucasus and to places that have been home to some VERY, VERY ugly ethnic conflicts and horrible wars. Whenever I tell people of my plans to visit these areas, their reaction ranges from shock to utter distress to comments like “you sure are brave, I wouldn’t be caught dead in these areas”. When I told my doctor I was visiting Chechnya, she paused for a good 15 seconds and calmly said……….”why”?

So, why would I go to an area that is not exactly a place that is associated with peace and love? Like a moth attracted to light, I am drawn to really off the beaten path places, where there is adventure and even a hint of danger. Traveling around North America and even Western Europe to me is boring. I have no desire really to travel in my own nation, especially with all the gun violence. I truly feel safer on the streets Russia than I do in my own hometown of Seattle. 

I begin my journey in the city of Makhachkala, the capital of the Republic of Dagestan. I continue my path down south to the ancient city of Derbent, near the Azeri border and the furthest point south in Russia. From there I will travel over to Chechnya and spend several days in the city of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya and a city that has been rebuilt from the ground up after two very bloody and violent wars in the 1990s.  Thanks to the republic’s over the top ruthless autocratic, Instagram star leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, Grozny has become a sort of mini-Dubai with over the top buildings and the largest mosque in Europe. After Chechnya, I’ll visit the mountainous republic of Ingushetia, where I have received a special permit for travel. Following Ingushetia I will visit North Ossetia, the highest mountain in Russia, Mt. Elbrus and the city of Pyatigorsk, home to my favorite Russian author, Mikhail Lermentov. 

I’m looking forward to the adventure ahead of me and hope you will follow along as I wind my way through The Caucasus to Sochi, my final destination in the south of Russia. It’s gonna be a hell of a long journey, so let’s go!!!!

In The Beginning

Last year when I came to Russia, my trip got off to a rather slow start. The combination of jet lag plus extreme sorrow over the election had me down for the count, causing me to lose valuable days in Moscow. However, this year luckily I’m off to a much quicker start and am supercharged for what lays ahead.

My journey began with a Trans-Atlantic flight to Keflavik International Airport in Iceland. Surprisingly enough this time around the trip over was quite pleasant and non-eventful…… at least compared to last year, which was painful at best. I love landing in Keflavik as it looks as if you’ve landed on Mars, with black lava rocks everywhere and not a tree in sight.

Iceland holds a very, very special place in my heart since this is where part of my family comes from. I have fond memories of my Aunt Peggy, who had a thick Icelandic accent and was known to be an “elf whisperer”, someone who talked to the elves. In Iceland, elves are an enormous part of society, where entire road projects are literally diverted to avoid elf churches and settlements.
But, unlike previous visits to Iceland, which would be 8-10 day affairs, this one would be relatively short and sweet, a total of about 8 hours. I basically landed, went outside, hired a cab, was ripped off for about $20, and went to my room, slept only to wake up several hours later to return to the airport for a connecting flight to Helsinki, Finland.

My connecting flight went by quickly and before I knew it I was back in Helsinki or what I like to call my “hub for Russia”. Helsinki serves as an excellent transit point as there are two trains to Russia, one fast speed train to St. Petersburg called The Allegro, which takes only a few hours or the overnight train to Moscow named after the famous 19th century Russian authors, Lev Tolstoy. Both are great options for entering Russia.

But before I was to enter Russia, I had planned a few days in Helsinki as a way to soften the blow of jet lag. My first night was at The Hotel Seurahuone, which I have zero idea how to pronounce! My first night was free, a nice way to start off the trip! Why was it free? The last time I was in Helsinki, I arrived at the hotel with a reservation from booking.com at about midnight. When I walked in and tried to check in, the girl told me they were completely sold out and there were no rooms. I insisted on a room, but there was no getting around the hotel was completely booked. I was furious!! Luckily there was another hotel I’ve stayed at in the past that had a few rooms left, so I reluctantly took my luggage and dragged it over there.

The next day I went by the hotel and had a word about this phantom reservation with the manager. She was horrified and assured me it would never happen again. As a way of showing me her sincerity that was indeed sorry, she promised the next time I came through Helsinki my first night would be free.

Luckily, my check into my hotel went a lot, lot smoother this time since they were expecting me and made sure that there would be a room available. I figured since I was getting a free night out of this whole thing that she likely would put in me in an economy room. I was cool with this and was prepared to get a small room. As I put down my credit card preparing for them to say "ok we have you in an economy room for two nights", instead the girl says "we have you in a suite". WOW! A suite! How lucky was I!! I guess all that pain and suffering I went through last December paid off since I got a beautiful suite overlooking the train station!

The first day in Helsinki, I got off to a rip roaring start, walking 9.5 miles or for those used to the metric system, 15 kilometers. There was no stopping me, I walked everywhere, no way was I going to be taken down by jet lag for a second time. Helsinki was pretty much the same wonderful seaside city as it was the last time I left it, except for one thing, Chinese tourists!! The city was absolutely INFESTED with Chinese tourists. Everywhere you looked were Chinese. It felt intimidating and maddening because they seem to just be taking over everything. In my neighborhood, busloads of Mainland Chinese are brought in every day to go house shopping. They then take their cash and make offers on houses, thus jacking up the prices through the roof. There seems to be no end to them, like locust they keep spreading and wrecking havoc wherever they go.

Helsinki is a great city, but on average I would say that it could be seen in about two days, if maybe even one and a half days. All the main sights there are generally located within a one or two kilometer radius. If you are visiting Helsinki, a day there is incomplete without a visit to Senate Square and the beautiful Lutheran Church that towers over it. Last year when I was there during the Christmas season I walked into the church and heard the beauty of a girls’ choir singing Finnish Christmas songs all dressed up in white with one girl wearing the famous Santa Lucia with candles on top. It was magical and if you are in Helsinki during this time of year, be sure to make an effort to see these girls sing and to also visit the Christmas market down below the church.

Besides Senate Square, one absolutely must see when in Helsinki is to take a ferry across the harbor to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. I did this on one of the few nice days I have had on my trip and it was incredible! The leaves were turning and the islands were like a maze intertwined with beautiful fortresses and different types of dwellings. I would suggest allowing at least a half a day to get the utmost enjoyment. Tickets are pretty cheap, only a few Euros for a round-trip all day ticket.

Two days of touring Helsinki by foot left me exhausted! Luckily, I had the night to recover on the overnight train to Moscow, The Lev Tolstoy. Stay tuned for more of my adventures as I make my way down to Southern Russia and The Caucasus!

NOTE: Apologies about no photos, blogger seems to have virtually thrown up on me and cannot seem to handle the format of having photos. I hope to resume placing photos in future blogs. 

A Walk on The Wild Side

I crave off the beaten path destinations! Several years ago, I spent a week in Turkmenistan, a nation that has been compared to North Korea due to its isolation from the world, last winter I traveled by train to Murmansk, Russia, the world’s biggest city north of The Arctic Circle, I’ve visited what’s been named the most “dangerous place on earth”, the DMZ, a buffer zone between North and South Korea and nine years ago I ventured up to the disputed region of Kashmir on the Indian-Pakistani border. To say the least I am not one to like leisurely cruises to Alaska or Mexico where you sit around by the pool all day and stuff your stomach full of gourmet food and liquor at night. This hardcore traveler likes to live on the wild side! That’s why a trip to the once war-torn region of Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus was a natural fit for me.

When people think of Chechnya images of mass destruction and extreme danger pop into minds. I admit I also have these images in my mind, but the beauty of the Caucasus Mountains and the totally rebuilt, modern capital of Chechnya, Grozny, really attracted me. My interest in The Caucasus began in 12th grade when in fourth year Russian my teacher had us read an abridged of the famous Russian novel, “Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermentov. The author’s depiction of the region’s beauty and its people mesmerized me and got me thinking about someday visiting this region. But I kind of forgot about visiting here until I was at my Russian Meetup group and a member, after my telling him of all the weird and different places I’d visited, recommended I visit Chechnya. He told me the capital city, Grozny, had been rebuilt entirely from scratch and had the largest mosque in Europe. I gave it some real thought but really never seriously followed up on it until last winter. I’d just completed a visit to Murmansk in Russia’s far north, north of The Arctic Circle and felt I needed a new off the beaten path destination to visit. Suddenly as my train was lurching through the northern tundra in the middle of the night, I thought……..what about Chechnya!!! I always am looking for new and exciting places and Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus fit that niche. The dream was born!

When I got home from Russia last December I found a good tour agency that specialized in travel to The Northern Caucasus and I put the wheels in motion for a trip to this once war-torn region for spring. My mother was none too happy about my wanting to go to Chechnya and worries for my safety as any mother would if their son were announcing their intentions to visit a place associated with Islamic extremism and war. After a lot of reassurances and showing her documentaries about the beauty of the Caucasus republics, she is a bit calmer about my visiting, but still has her hesitations.

But after a lot of thought, I decided spring was just too soon to return to Russia and opted instead to go to Asia. However, the thought of visiting Chechnya was never far from my mind, so when I returned from Asia I started to plan a return trip to Russia for this fall. I thought about going back across Russia on the train to The Far East, but this time taking the train eastbound instead of westbound like I’d done in the past few years. But, I had done this already twice, so I was a bit hesitant to do it a third time plus I’d lost a couple of friends out in Vladivostok due to their support of tRump and one’s rabid anti-LGBTQ attitude. Due to this, Trans-Siberia was looking like a less than desirable option, so I decided I’d go to Chechnya and The Northern Caucasus.

My trip to The Caucasus will take me through the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, North Ossetia and Ingushetia. At the end of the trip I will visit the nation’s tallest mountain, Mt. Elbrus, which also is the highest peak in Europe. After a tour through The Northern Caucasus I hope to visit the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia, where my good friend and Pushkin Hotel front desk girl, Vanda, is from. It should be a hell of a journey, so stay tuned to this blog as I start my trip to Russia, The Northern Caucasus and Abkhazia on September 30th!