As the policeman in front of me adjusts the strap on his Kalashnikov, I can’t help thinking of Withnail’s refrain: “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.” Only, I'm not a deluded alcoholic in rain-whipped Cumbria, I'm standing on the side of a busy road in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia (about 50 miles from the Georgia/Russia border) because our route on the inaugural Central Asia Rally (a 5,000 mile car rally from Budapest to Tajikistan) had to take a massive detour around the south side of the Black Sea after we were refused entry to Ukraine.
Being turned away from the Ukrainian border was four days ago, in which time myself and my Hungarian co-drivers, Gabor and Attilla, have managed just 11 hours of sleep in 3,000 km of driving. Now I’m uselessly trying to communicate with this lawman while his comrade takes Gabor into his police car. We've been in Russia for an hour. It’s overcast and the humidity hangs over the city like a wet, sticky duvet. Added to the pollution, it strikes me as a particularly disgusting type of day.
We were waved over by the police because Gabor wasn’t wearing his seatbelt at the wheel. The cop holds out a fat hand and asks for my passport. He could be anywhere between 45 and 60, his skin covered in an unhealthy sheen and his nose ravaged and boozy. He scans my documents with his cold eyes while an endless stream of cars rumble past.
“Inguleesh?” He asks.
“Scottish,” I answer, not knowing the correct Russian word. (I have an English mother and a Scottish father, but I'm yet to visit a country where it’s not advantageous to claim my paternal lineage. Most people in most countries don't realise that Scotland is part of the UK and was/is complicit in the sins of the British Empire. But they do know, and love, Braveheart.)
“Inguleesh?” He asks again, growing impatient.
Fine, close enough. “Da,” I say.
He considers this for a second, frowning, verifying my sweaty, unhappy face with the picture in the passport. Then he looks up, points at himself and says: “Manchester United,” before jabbing a short, hard finger into my chest. “Liverpool,” I say, hoping that, like most Man United fans, he’s little more than a glory hunter.
At this, he leans back and lets out a bellowing, mad laugh. We have communicated. Then: “Leeverpool – Vladikavkaz…” He furrows his brow, unsure of how to proceed. He turns to our Nissan Vanette, the malevolent machine responsible for bringing us here. His hard finger writes "1995" into a thick layer of dirt. He looks at me again: “Leeverpool – Vladikavkaz…”
“Oh, wait! Liverpool came here and played Vladikavkaz in 1995?”
“Da da da,” he says, at least as happy as I am.
Hours later – having paid our bribes and bought supplies – we’re driving north, hoping to eventually end up in the border city of Astrakhan, where we will cross into Kazakhstan. Ahead, a T-junction offers us the devil and the deep blue sea: to the right, Grozny; to the left, Beslan.
If you added together everyone murdered in Dunblane, Columbine, Utoya Island and Sandy Hook, then multiplied it by three, you still wouldn’t have the number that died when the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis at School Number One ended in disaster. After a three-day stand-off between Islamic Chechen separatists and the Russian military, the tanks rolled in. When the dust had settled, 385 were dead. One hundred and eighty-six of them were children.
Instead of Beslan, we must turn right to Grozny, capital of Chechnya, where the dead are measured by the thousand. The main battleground of the first and second Chechen wars, Grozny has known hell for the past 20 years and its very name conjures images of death on an industrial scale. To worry their loved ones back in Hungary, my co-drivers decide to pull over at the city limits for a photo opportunity in front of a massive Cyrillic sign that reads: GROZNY. We’ve barely taken a few steps when Gabor stops and picks something up off the ground – a 9mm bullet casing, one of dozens littered across the earth, alongside spent shotgun cartridges and empty AK-47 rounds.
The next half hour is perhaps the most nervous of my life. As we get downtown, the sat-nav cuts out, forcing us to rely on instinct to get out the other side. But even though I’m slouched down in my seat, nervous that my blonde hair and blue eyes will draw the worst kind of attention, I can’t help think: Grozny isn’t as bad as all that. In fact, when we reach the city centre it looks oddly like Dubai – all luxury apartments and billboards advertising ludicrous developments.
“Hah! They bought them!” says Attila from the driver’s seat. I ask what he means.
“The Chechens are fucking crazy, man – every ten years or so they’re going to rise up, but it looks like someone has paid them off.” Things certainly seem fairly placid, enough so that Attila pulls over next to the gaudy Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. Gabor leaps out and starts taking pictures; Attila slopes off for a cigarette. I stay glued to the seat, but before long some locals come over to inspect the decals that cover the Nissan, advertising the Rally. They ask me to get out. They insist.
I’m met by two men in dishdashas; one stands with his hand on his hip, yellowy green eyes staring at me, his face a mess of acne scars. But it’s his friend that worries me. Around 6’2”, muscular chest puffed out, his powerful jaw hosts a thick, impenetrable beard – a nest for a row of golden teeth. If you tried to punch that jaw, I have no doubt you’d break your wrist. It’s impossible not to imagine this mad motherfucker leaning out of a tower block window, an AK in each hand, gleefully cutting down oncoming Russian troops.
Something tells me these guys might not get my Withnail and I reference, but I do my best to explain that we’re not here on purpose.
Back on the road, we’re almost clear of Grozny when the police stop us again, this time at a make-shift road block. Drivers line up to toss money into a little hut, where a fat man in uniform shovels it into a draw. When we’re stopped, Attila negotiates our bribe down to just 300 rubles – around £6.
As Attila moves to hand over the money, an expensive-looking car with tinted windows comes flying through the checkpoint, sending up great plumes of dust into the air. Most people don’t seem surprised by this, but one cop takes exception, wildly flailing his arms in protest.
The car skids to a halt and a small, furious man in a suit leaps out from the back seat, apoplectic that the police have dared to delay him. His face purples as he screams threats and insults at the policeman. Then his bodyguard gets out of the car, quickly putting himself between this squealing little gangster and the offending officer. My hand fumbles for my camera, but I think better of it – my balls aren’t anywhere near big enough to lift it to the window.
The bodyguard looks like a Roman warrior – a pedigree killer. His hideous, veiny neck strains out of his enormous body like a tree stump out of a hillside. This monster puts one hand out towards the policeman and one in front of his boss. I can’t work out who he’s trying to save. Mercifully, the policeman backs down and, in an instant, the car has sped off down the dusty track, back towards Grozny.
Next up was Dagestan, a god-forsaken republic that hugs the Caspian Sea. The police are no less corrupt here – over the next five hours, we’re stopped another dozen times by cops looking for bribes. We pay around half of them, including one particularly drunk idiot who agrees to let us go in exchange for some foreign currency for his wife, an alleged collector.
As we head north to Astrakhan, the checkpoints thin out and eventually disappear. The moment they do and we relax, our exhaustion comes sliding back. Attila crawls into the backseat, assumes the foetal position and falls asleep. Gabor takes over driving and I ride shotgun, trying to keep him awake. But we’ve been travelling for so long and slept so little that several times I fall asleep mid-sentence, then come-to talking about something else altogether. Finally I give up and let my head bump limply against the window.
I’ve no idea how long I’ve been out when the car leaves the road, but instantly I think Gabor has fallen asleep and we’ve crashed. Attila is thrown from the back seat on the floor of the van. There is a lot of swearing.
Half-conscious and deranged, it takes us a long time to accept our situation: the tarmac has run out and the route to Astrakhan will now continue off-road, cutting our speed in half. When we restart, morale in the van is unbearably low.
After a few hours of this bumping, bruising madness, something in my brain gently cracks and I start to hallucinate. As the lights from the Nissan catch dusty little hillocks of the desert, I see terrifying animals run across our path. Lanky wolves sprint in front of us; a giant snake disappears beneath the wheels. I open my mouth to mention these spectres to Gabor, but he says: “This is a waking nightmare,” then lets his foot off the accelerator, letting the van gently bump into a sandy mound. “I cannot go on,” he says.
I’m tripping with fatigue and in no fit-state to drive, but thankfully Attila volunteers. Over the next three hours, his driving is little short of Herculean – fast and confident, as though the Rally has only just started. Eventually the sun cracks over the horrid horizon and somewhere in the distance we see the smog of Astrakhan.
The city straddles part of the mighty Volga River delta; on the eastern side is the border with Kazakhstan and our exit out of hellish Russia. Even by the most extreme interpretations of its borders, this is the very end of Europe. As though to underline the point, it’s also the home of the last McDonald's between here and Pakistan. We’ve been driving for 21 hours when we pull into its car park, desperate for coffee and the chance to scrape some dust from our eyes.
Standing in the queue, body aching, mind fractured, it feels like I’m on the edge of some catastrophic fall. As I get to the counter, a stern-looking store manager comes to greet me. I say greet, but I mean glower like she wants a fight. Instead of meeting her intimidating gaze, my eye is drawn lower to her shirt, which is on the brink of rupturing under pressure from two iron boobs that alternately reveal themselves as she turns left and right. As she sashays over, one of her teenage employees can’t help but sneak a peek too. He must love those things.
I laugh when I point at a number on the menu behind her, but it's not enough to change my mind: this has been the worst journey of my life.
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @megaheid
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