Coming from: Pyatigorsk, Stavropol Kray, Russian Federation
Passing through: Malka Checkpoint, Kabardino-Balkaria, Russian Federation
Passing through: Chermen Checkpoint, North Ossetia, Russian Federation
Passing through: Nasran Checkpoint, Ingushetia, Russian Federation
Going to: Assinovskaya/Sernovodsk, Chechnya, Russian Federation
Documents required: Passport
Waiting time: 10 min (Kabardino-Balkaria), 25 min (North Ossetia), 0 min (Ingushetia), 0 min (Chechnya)
Distance from Bern: 5.091 km (to Assinovskaya/Sernovodsk)
Crossed on 10/06/2017, 2:45 a.m. until 6:30 a.m.
Chechnya is now a tourist destination. Although travel warnings still apply, several tour operators offer excursions to the former conflict area. I found a tempting program via Instagram by Chetours, a Russian operator from Krasnodar. The trip even included a visit to the mountain areas at the border to Dagestan, around lake Kezenoi-Am. Chetours said it was safe to go, even for foreigners. I double-checked and assessed the security situation through other sources, too. Local contacts in Grozny confirmed it was really safe to go and said that many tourists now did so, including foreigners.
The trip started with an overnight ride in a van from Krasnodar to Grozny. I had assumed that we would go in a proper bus, and I had also assumed that we would avoid the potentially troublesome other North Caucasus republics and enter Chechnya directly from Russia proper. I was wrong: Our route included most of those republics: Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya. That meant lots of passport parties, as well. Although these republics are not independent, they guard their borders with military roadblocks. FSB, the Russian secret service, is all around. After my difficult entry into Russia (see border #9), I was not too keen on more encounters with them.
The trip did not start easily. It was 8 p.m., and after a not so relaxing overnight train ride from Chertkovo to Krasnodar, my travel mate and me urgently needed some sleep. Our tour group, a bunch young women from Krasnodar, some of them accompanied by their husbands, unfortunately did not share our needs. So Sergey, our guide, started with a two hour speech on Chechnya. Dress code, behaviour in public, the role of men and women in society – it felt like the preparation for a very exotic place, although we were just visiting another part of the Russian Federation! Though interesting, Sergey’s speech was also very loud and it was impossible to find sleep. We were relieved when it finally ended. But to entertain the group of youngsters, a movie followed: “Chipmunks”, blaring on full volume. Shrill, high-pitched voices, nervous music – no other movie would have been less suited to the situation. Nobody seemed to like it. Russians, however, never complain in such situations. They are great in taking things as they are. As the only foreigners in the group, we neither dared to intervene.
Eventually, I could take a nap of two or three hours. Then, at 2.45 a.m., the first passport party: Malka Checkpoint, the entry to the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. The Kabardians were gentlemen: Only men had to leave the bus, the women were allowed to stay inside. The check was easy: All passports were scanned, no questions asked. Ten minutes, and we were through.
Next was North Ossetia, at dusk. The Ossetian policemen are infamous for thorough checks and even for harassment of the passers-by. And they own a strategic checkpoint: Chermen. The checkpoint is located at the four entrances to a roundabout. We came from Kabardino-Balkaria. To our left was the only road from Ossetia to Russia proper, straight ahead lay the republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, and to the right the Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz and Georgia, an enemy of Russia. The men left our van, the check was again quick. But Ossetia was not Kabarda, and the women, who had stayed inside, were scolded and had to have their passports checked, too. In the end, we had to wait for a while at Chermen, but nothing bad happened.
The early morning ride through Ingushetia and Chechnya was a reward for the night’s hardships. I had barely slept three hours, but driving through these countries kept me awake. I had longed for many years to visit these places, had read many books about the area and I appreciate Chechen and Ingush music a lot. And here I finally was, to the right the towers of Ingushetia’s capital Magas in the mist, along the road huge and rich-looking villages with new mosques. Seeing roads signs to Nazran, Grozny, Makhachaka and Urus-Martan made me forget the horrible night.
The borders were no more an issue. The Ingush border post was a mere 4 km after Chermen, and the country began with its biggest town and former capital, Näsare (Nazran in Russian). The policemen waved us through. Same for Chechnya, just an hour later: The checkpoint of Assinovskaya/Sernovodsk is located on a highway, and we did not even really need to slow down. In a comment, our guide had hinted that he had arranged that in advance, in order not to scare his tourist group too much. It looked very much like that.
Safely, we arrived to Sölzha-Ghala, the capital of Chechnya, in the early morning hours. The city is better known under its Russian name, Grozny, which means “horrible”. An eponymous name for its fate of the last 25 years, but also an appropriate description of our feelings at the moment: Instead of sleeping off our tiredness, 14 hours of Russian style power sightseeing lay ahead of us…
Roundabout near Magas, the new capital of Ingushetia
Road sign on the Caucasus Magistrale telling the distances to Grozny (Chechnya), Makhachaka (Dagestan) and Baku (Azerbaijan)
Ramzan Kadyrov welcomes to Chechnya – border post at Assinovskaya/Sernovodsk.
Entrance to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya