04 November 2010

(Don't Drink the) Mineral Waters

(This is a recap of our travels in Russia, dated August 19)

Our arrival in Mineral Waters remains to be the beginning of one of the worst travel experiences I have suffered anywhere in the world. And this was just a forewarning of a few more unpleasant situations in our near future.

Unfortunately, I don't know if I can do this story justice . . .

After spending the night in the Moscow Airport during our layover between Murmansk and Mineral Waters, we finally arrived at our terminus on a beautiful sunny morning. We took three steps into the airport and a police officer pulled us over and demanded to see our passports.

We were supposed to register our visa within three days of entering the country and again if we stayed in one town for more than three days. We have been moving around so we hadn't registered yet. I didn't know the special rules as we didn't have normal 30-day tourist visa. We had gotten a 90-day business visa with the help of an online company.

The officer told us we had to register and I argued with him that we did not. He said he wouldn't let us leave until we paid 200 euros ($280) each for the fine. "Are you serious? This is crazy!" I said

He badgered us to bring our bags into his office, but our backpacks hadn't arrived at the baggage claim. He also insisted he talk to whomever was us picking up. I think that the officer didn't believe that I understood him correctly and therefore wanted to talk to a Russian.

Well, we were very fortunate that anybody was picking us up at all, as we usually are on our own for navigating cities. However, our couchsurfing hosts offered to meet us at the airport. We hadn't even met these people yet, and I was embarrassed that we were already in trouble with the law.

Eventually our host, Nadia, showed up, along with her friend, Marina, who drove. Even though we didn't know who this Marina person was, she elected to go inside and talk to the officer. She came back ten minutes later, gave us a look like "what were you guys thinking?" and told us all to get in the car.

Nadia and Marina at the entrance Essentuki city

We didn't have to fork over $560 in fines (though we still had to officially register later and pay $130 in fines). Incredibly grateful and surprised, we asked Marina how she was able to get us off the hook.

It turns out that Marina's grandmother owns a hotel in town. That hotel happens to be used by a lot of government officials for secret meetings . . . with prostitutes. Marina called the head of the border control office and told him that she wouldn't report their "clandestine operations" if Kristin and I were released.

Driving out of the airport parking lot, Marina told us to take off our seatbelts. It would draw attention from the police as nobody wears seat belts in the back seat. And she didn't want the police to stop us because she didn't have a license.

Welcome to Russia.

Dinner with Dennis and his wife, young Arthur, and Marcos - our family for three weeks.

Dennis took  us hiking to the peak of Mt. Beshtau, one of the five mountains for which Pyatigorsk gets it's name. This mountain is centrally located between several mineral spring towns. 

Russians love fountains. 

See, told you.

Kristin and I waited for a young Russian couple to finish their photo taking. We copied them by standing in the same position and not smiling. Russians generally don't smile in photos. We're not very Russian.

The many natural mineral springs in the area have, over the centuries, become home to a plethora of sanatoriums. These are a sort of health resort where one might stay for several weeks or even months. Sanatoriums aren't very popular anymore and are generally only used by the older generation. 
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6 months ago: Villcabamba, Ecuador
1 year ago: Chirripo National Park, Costa Rica


  1. wow. what a story but not entirely surprising.

    on sanatoriums - my mom and I spent 3 weeks in Sotchi by the Black Sea in a sanatorioum in the 60's - I had a great time while she was soaking in the healthy mud baths to relieve he agressive rheumatoid arthritis...

  2. Nina - after our adventures in the Caucasus Mountains, we took the train to Sochi and spent 5 wonderful days there. Such a beautiful area!