Monday, September 17, 2012

Part VI : Fun with Ferries and Feds

Hello world! It has been a long time since The (Bare) Bear Boxers have been able to properly update you on the adventures of the 2012 Mongol Rally, and quite adventurous it has surely been.

At the last regular post, we were on our way to a ferry in Trabzon, Turkey bound for Sochi, Russia. Now, anyone who has had the pleasure of frequenting public transportation knows that simply getting from A to B can be quite the adventure. This does not even begin to describe the ferry we signed up for. Aside from the entirely incorrect website that listed the wrong days, times, and prices for the ferry, the departure time told to various groups of travelers for THE SAME FERRY was completely different. Fortunately, none of the times turned out to be correct and instead of 6:00 PM like we were told, it was going on 8:30 PM by the time we were beckoned onto the boat with our cars and several other Mongol Rally teams bold enough to join in the adventure.

Some of the other teams daring enough to cross the Black Sea via a somewhat buoyant ferry. 

The ferry itself was nice enough, with airplane-style seating and a galley that served simple hot meals for a reasonable price. We had been told by the ferry operator (a boisterous, animated Russian individual who would have been right at home in a James Bond film) that the trip across the Black Sea would take 15 hours. In keeping with the previous times we were quoted, this one turned out to be a woeful underestimation. Instead of an 11:30 AM arrival the following day, it was more like 1:30 PM. And this was well before we were actually allowed to disembark with our cars.

When at last foot passengers were allowed to leave, Nick and Alex stayed behind to fill out the tedious Russian paperwork in duplicate before getting hurried off the ferry and into Russian customs which had no more paperwork, but made up for it with plenty of bureaucracy. All told, it was 4:00 PM by the time our temporary hosts were pleased with our papers and vehicles, and said vehicles were insured on Russian roads (a feat that would have been nearly impossible if not for an extremely generous fellow traveler who offered to translate for us). Roughly 4 hours later than we had hoped, and smack-dab in the middle of rush hour in a rapidly modernizing and growing port city, we began our journey to Kazakhstan.

At this point it should be noted that although Russia is by no means a developing country, they have not yet embraced the warm, benevolent techno-dictators at Google and shared their highly complex and poorly signed road system with them. This meant we were forced to rely on static maps and intuition (which we lacked entirely), and we could not figure out which of the Sochi ports we had arrived at. After blundering about Sochi for half an hour or so, we finally found the highway we wanted, and having read a healthy amount of less than positive anecdotes from the internet on traveling in Russia, we decided to book it for Astrakhan and the Kazakhstan border as fast as 1000 cubic centimeters would allow.

We made it to Tuops as it was getting dark and decided that we would much rather take our chances car camping well outside the city than finding somewhere to sleep within it as night set in. Our first choice at a spot turned out to be less than ideal. After pulling a ways off the road and starting to settle down for the night, we realized that the building directly near us was not the pleasant lumber mill it first appeared to be. We never knew for sure exactly what it was, but there were barbed fences, lots of lights, barking dogs, and plenty of Russian flags, so we decided to continue on a bit down the road just in case it was exactly what we feared. As luck would have it, not 5 minutes away was a nice pull-off shielded by a large dirt pile. We quickly went to sleep and resolved to get up at sunrise to continue our blitz to Astrakhan and the Kazakh border.

In the US, getting stopped by the police is maybe a yearly occurrence. The next day alone in Russia we were stopped at least half a dozen times. Most seemed to just check our passports, registration, and insurance. A few appreciated the signatures on the Perodua and even added to them, but soon enough we fell victim to the legendary police corruption we had read so much about.

While driving through Astrakhan, we needed to make a quick cash stop at an ATM before crossing the border. Finding one was easy, but finding a way out of the city again turned out to be much harder. While navigating back to the main highway, we took a wrong turn. Michael quickly made a U-turn, a maneuver we had seen countless locals execute, but as the police were able to immediately discern, we were not locals. A police officer immediately flagged Michael down and, much to our distress, he was instructed into the passenger seat of a nearby cop car. Thankfully, Nick and Byron in the Perodua had been following at enough of a distance that they did not make the same “mistake”.

From the vantage point of the spectators, the situation was getting very real very quickly. We were searching the maps for the nearest police station so we could follow Michael to what we could only assume would be Russian jail. It was stressful to say the least. Thankfully that was not the case, though not for lack of trying. When at last Michael emerged from the police cruiser, he walked quickly over to the Getz and simply said “I have two minutes to give that officer 3000 rubles (about $100), or I'm going to jail for 4 months”. Apparently the initial “fine” was $200 (asked for in USD, the trademark of a bribe), and when Michael tried to tell him that he didn't have that much, the officer thought he was being a hard negotiator and asked him to write down what he thought a fair payoff would be. Michael wrote down all the US money he had: $8. This led to further argument wherein they settled on the 3000 rubles we ended up paying.

We had never been more relieved to have just gotten cash. We paid the “fine” for the “illegal u-turn” and were almost literally breathing a sigh of relief when we saw another police officer get into the Perodua with Nick and have him drive off. When we asked the remaining policemen what was going on, they indicated to us that Nick was simply being shown a legal way around the block to get back to the rest of us. We took that as good news. It was a lie.

What Nick's new passenger was actually doing was trying to extort us further, though neither Nick nor the Perodua were doing anything remotely unlawful, that is, until this other officer was instructing him to. After being told to drive the wrong way down a one-way street and break several other traffic laws, Nick and the policemen were pulled over by yet more cops. The officer in the passenger's seat flashed his badge and was arguing with his compatriots when a group of very drunk Kazakh gentlemen walked by, got wind of what was going on, and proceeded to hassle the cops about hassling Nick. In the chaos, Nick was told to drive off and finally directed back to us. Keep in mind that the entire time, the cop was badgering Nick for “presents for his girlfriend” in broken english, to which Nick responded with a heroic bout of ignorance that frustrated him past the point of caring.

With ample amounts of time and money wasted on that encounter, we drove off, restocked on cash, DIDIN'T take a wrong turn, and finally exited Astrakhan heading towards the Kazakhstan border, which was about an hour away. That meant we had an hour to further psyche ourselves out about the border crossing, which we had both read and been told might be an even more harrowing experience than a police stop with plenty of militarized guards and general hatred towards Americans.

Thankfully, that turned out not to be true at all. Not only was the Russian border easy, but the guard who was sent to inspect our car had done the Mongol Rally himself! He spent most of the time he was supposed to be combing over our bags showing us pictures of the car he used and other MR vehicles he had cleared in the previous week. After a cursory glance inside the car and a quick stamp of the passport, we were officially out of Russia. It was equally simple and friendly to get into Kazakhstan. In fact, the hardest part about the whole border by far was the road we hit as soon as we entered Kazakhstan. And we use the term “road” generously. The swath of what at one time could have been pavement was two lanes wide. However, at any given point, there was no more than half a lane' s worth of intact tarmac, and it was never in line with the previous bit. In short, it was a car's worst nightmare. This was not helped by the fact that, thanks to our police encounter, it was 1:00 AM and very, very dark. We quickly decided to stop early in the first small village we came to and wait until morning to tackle the rest of the “road” to Atyrau.

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