08 November 2010

Backpacking and Bribes

(This is a recap of our travel in Russia in late August)

Our first trip in to the Caucasus Mountains was a mild hike over Epchik pass. We could have done this in two days, but the transportation alone took 4 hours each way. We turned it into a three-day trek and enjoyed the down time.

Now, it seems like I am getting into the habit of starting a blog by writing a horror story from our travels in Russia. I wish I could tell you that this blog will be different, but it's not. This trip had three exciting stories.

(1) We were carrying illegal maps. Our trip was organized by a friend who works at the government Geology Institute. He gave us some customized topographic maps: good resolution, 1:100,000 scale and in color. Then he ripped off the printed governmental info at the top of the map. He also gave us some generic black and white photocopies. He told us to use the good maps, but to keep the poor-quality map handy as a decoy. The good maps were illegal for civilian use and we shouldn't use them in view of anybody else. 

(Note: After three months of backpacking in Russia, I realize that hiking maps are really hard to find. It was a fluke that we easily found a good quality, color topographic map of Khibini Mountains for our first trek. For the remaining trips, we were lucky to get anything as detailed as 1:200,000, though we even settled for both a1:600,000, and a hand-drawn map. For reference sake, American topographic maps are 1:24,000, in color, updated regularly, and easily available in public libraries. Of course, things are different in Russia. Even hand-held GPS units are outlawed for foreigners.)

(2) We were nearly trampled by a heard of wildly curious cows at 2am on our first night. We lived but we didn't sleep well the rest of the night.

(3) At the end of the trek, soon after we started driving home, we came upon a road block. It was a "park official" in a soviet van. He wanted to see our permit. We didn't have one. We paid a park official at the park entrance, but didn't get any documentation. I should have insisted on a receipt. 

Well, the official at the park exit wanted us to pay a 500 ruble ($17 fine). At first I refused, stating our case of innocence. He couldn't care less. To make sure the fine was official, I asked for his name and badge number. At this point, he got really upset, said he wouldn't take the 500 rubles, and stormed to his van yelling at me to follow him and bring our passports.

With Denis' help, we convinced the officer that he should take the 500 ruble "fine" instead of issuing a 4000 ruble fine. We shoved the money onto his desk and walked briskly back to the car. We drove off quickly before he could blockade the road. This was the first bribe I ever had to pay, and I was really upset that it was for only trying to enjoy nature in its natural splendor.

Nevertheless, this part of the Caucasus really was a beautiful area. The competing mountains to the south, near the border with Georgia, look even more dramatic. Alas, we could not hike there as it is a border zone, where sections are either completely off limit or you need to apply for a permit two months in advance. And now, for the photos.

On our early morning drive south, we stopped to admire Mt. Elbrus, like a ghost in the distance.

It didn't take much hiking before we decided to hike off-trail a bit to enjoy a nice lunch and a light nap next to the river.

We continued our leisurely pace by stopping very frequently to eat wild berries.We found mostly raspberries, but came across a few wild strawberries, which were the sweetest ones I've ever tasted.

In the late afternoon, the trail disappeared amid the overgrowth of waist-sized plants. These large spiders built very strong webs between these plants. We had to hack our way through these fields until the trail emerged on the other side of the river. This was one of the creepiest moments I've ever had while backpacking.

Sunset looking south over the Caucasus, with the semi-wild horses nearby.

That night at 2am we almost got trampled by the cows, who are apparently not accustomed to visitors. Or tents. We narrowly escaped by exiting our tent and running up a hill. There we waited one hour in the freezing night until the cows moved on. The next day they weren't as scared, but we were!

Just having a little fun.

Evening at our campsite on the second day. We found a valley where no cows could reach us.

The next morning at sunrise. This photo looks completely different than the one directly above, only because the fog has lifted.

On our way down the valley, we saw this cowboy meandering uphill.

Yaks! We couldn't get any closer as there was a sharp descent separating us from them.


A smattering of homesteaders populated and cultivated the river valley through which we exited. The people were super friendly - some of the most outgoing country folk I have ever come across. One guy even gave me his phone number and told me to stay with him the next time we visited. He also told me to say hi to Schwarzenegger. All Russians know he is our governor.

We had a nice walk down the valley, stopping for dinner along the way. We eventually met our friend, who drove three hours to meet us and then drive us home. Thanks Denis for organizing this wonderful trip, providing us with excellent maps, and even driving us half way to Georgia!
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1 Year Ago: Tamarindo, Costa Rica

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