Ok Aussies, we know that old Tim Tam TV advert actually referred to Vladivostok (which is on the opposite side of Russia) but it’s a phrase that escaped our lips a couple of times on our race to get out of Russia.
When boarding the 00:25 bus from Elista to Nalchik, we had grand visions of reaching Tbilisi, Georgia by that afternoon. Little did we know…
Having spent eight hours stretched out across several seats while the old Russian guy behind us smoked cigarettes in the back stairwell while his empty beer bottles rolled around the floor, we arrived in Nalchik as it was snowing at 08:20. So far so good. Easily locating a marshutka heading to our destination (check out the names in Russian on the dashboard) we threw our bags in and at 08:45 we departed for Vladikavkaz, arriving around midday.
With limited public transport between Vladikavkaz and Kazbegi, the closest town on the Georgian side, we were dropped at a random intersection at 10:40 where we bargained an overpriced private taxi (RUB2,000 or USD$20) to take us the final 20km to the border keen to get into Georgia at all costs. Again little did we know…
Our friend Anton from Wings Hostel back in Kazan had planted the seed when he advised us that the border is occasionally closed due to heavy snowfalls, sometimes for up to three days. Pushing those thoughts to the back of our minds we concentrate instead on the lovely snowy drive up the Terek River, passing a wedding party embracing the weather for some dramatic photos.
Arriving at the border our hopes are shattered as our taxi driver shakes his head and we pass banked up traffic who seem to have settled in for the long wait. Several inches of snow atop each vehicle gives away how long some of them have been waiting. With our visas due to expire the following day Matt approaches the border guard to explain our situation. In broken English he explains it’s not problem, we can get a 10 day extension at the immigration office back in Vladikavkaz.
Approached by an English speaking man from MIR24.ru TV and his cameraman, Matt gives an impromptu interview as our taxi driver deftly maneuvers his car so he and Sarah are clearly visible waving in the background. Turns out we made the news (though with the interview a little skewed from what Matt actually said…can’t trust the media!). You can check it out (in Russian) here. He was also kind enough to advise us that high avalanche risks would most likely close the road for between five and seven days. Great.
Back in Vladikavkaz we get the taxi to drop us at Diakris Hotel where Sarah handed over our Aussie passports in exchange for a full apartment for the low cost of USD$15 while Matt had his photo taken by some military guys staying in a room a few doors down. Upon noticing our nationality the lovely owner told us she had two sons living in Canberra, small world. Hoping to drown some sorrows we headed out in the snow for a couple of beers, ending up at Notre Villa Belgium beer bar where the owners take us in and even provide us with free waffles when we ordered dinner. When our food arrives we agree we were perhaps a little keen but with football on the TV and heavy snow outside we managed to get through most of the cheese, fried bread, raw garlic, pate and Ukrainian bacon (aka )lard as well as the waffles.
Outside locals drag their kids home on sleds rather than push them on prams and as we make our way home a bit of Sunday night fever is going on in town with local youths parking their cars together along ul.Kirova cranking out terrible tunes. Stopping in to pick up some snacks and a small bottle of vodka we find ourselves being ripped off by the young shop assistant who blatantly overcharges us. Back on the street two English speaking local youths who’d helped us choose the vodka chase us down, run back to their car and present us with a large version of the same vodka we just purchased, for the grand sum of
‘Welcome to the Republic of North Ossetia!’
With all our focus on getting to Georgia we’d forgotten we were passing through yet another one of Russia’s many breakaway Republics.The people here are proud of their identity and everybody is happy to welcome you to the Republic of North Ossetia, as we found out over the next few days. Yes that’s right, the next few days.
In the morning we headed to the immigration office as advised for 11:00. The helpful security guard, after being presented with our ready to expire visas, informed us to return at 14:00, which we did. Escorted straight past a large queue of locals we’re deposited into the immigration office where not a word of English is spoken. Luckily we’d smartly translated our problem on google translate earlier in the day and presented this smilingly to the woman in charge. Negative. Either unable or unwilling to help us, after 30 minutes of feet stamping, hand waving, frustrated attempts we succeeded in them making a half dozen phone calls before waving us away with no extension to our visa.
Left with no other option other than overstaying, something you absolutely do not want to do in Russia, we dashed back to the hotel, packed our bags and booked the last Pobeda Air flight out of town at 20:10 back to Moscow Vnukovo Airport. Sadly we also had to leave our free bottle of vodka behind.
Arriving in Moscow at 23:25 we were aware there was an immigration/Consulate office who could help us and as our visas were yet to expire we were confident we could resolve the issue without penalty. Wrong again! After knocking on the door of immigration the security guards helped us contact them by phone. Not happy to hear from us they advised they’d send somebody to help us. When nobody had arrived by 00:30 we wrapped ourselves up and bunkered in for a night on the Terminal B benches. With the temperature dipping below -16 outside it made for a pretty unpleasant evening indeed.
With immigration due to open at 09:00 the next morning, we roused ourselves, grabbed a hot coffee from the vending machine and knocked on the door. No answer. Again making a phone call somebody from the immigration office finally comes to see us. Understanding our problem immediately, which we’d cleverly transcribed in Russian while we waited, he escorts Sarah to the immigration office, puts her on the phone to the Consulate who are the most helpful people we felt like we’d dealt with in days. Advising us to book our flights to Tbilisi for that afternoon then return to the Terminal A information desk, we’re greeted by a helpful chap who leads us to the bank, sees us pay our RUB1,500 fine each, takes our documents and agrees to meet us at a bar or restaurant of our choosing 20 minutes late. Legend!
Finally having our visa extensions and tickets to Georgia in hand we head straight to the Fosters Bar where, being the 26th January, we have a much deserved celebratory Australia Day beer. The race was finally over. Or it was when they finally got the cargo door of our plane closed and we took off over an hour after takeoff.
So long Russia, thanks for the memories!
Thanks for reading guys. This was actually a fairly easy border crossing to do, weather permitting. Despite what you might hear at no point did the border guards tell us it was not possible for foreigners to cross. We were only denied, like everybody else, due to the weather.
If the border is open your taxi driver will wait for you to complete your border formalities before crossing into Georgia with you and dropping you in Kazbegi. Apparently it’s also quite easy to hitch as there’s plenty of through traffic every day. If you have any questions feel free to get in touch, we’re happy to help!
Tips for Vladikavkaz
- Unsure if we were going to make the border in one day, we researched cheap accommodation and found Diakris the best value on Booking.com. Rooms where cheap (from USD$15) and equipped with at minimum a kitchen with kettle, private bathroom and large double bedroom with lounge seating included.
- It is possible to cross the LARS border from Elista in one day, if it’s open. Check the weather and be prepared to wait if crossing in winter.
- Immigration will NOT extend a tourist visa in Vladikavkaz. Trust us, we tried. But by all means check them out at this address – ul. Kirova, 23. If you speak Russian you may have better luck.
Extending your Russian visa at Moscow Vnukovo airport
- If you overstay your visa by 1-3 days don’t fret. You can easily extend it at the nearest Consulate office (note, NOT immigration office) for a fee. For us this was RUB1,500 each for one day overstay at Moscow Vnukovo airport Terminal A. Go sraighht to the Information desk in Terminal A and ask them to contact the Consulate for you. They speak English and were incredibly friendly and helpful.
- If you’ve overstayed by your own stupidity we have no idea what the reaction will be. If you’ve overstayed, like us, due to extreme weather conditions, the Consulate will most likely be courteous, helpful and might even have a laugh with you like they did with us!
- If booking flights with Georgian Airways you can only pay cash, a pain in the arse when you can only withdraw a maximum of RUB10,000 at a time and your flights cost RUB18,000. If you’re lucky you’ll run into the same duty manager as we did, an amazingly helpful guy who helped us out from booking our tickets to boarding the flight. Absolute champion, we can’t recommend Georgian Airways highly enough.
- Be warned! If you overstay your visa over the Orthodox Christmas holiday period, you’re most likely screwed. An American girl we met spent over two weeks stranded in Russia with a threat of deportation as the Consulate was closed for 10 days during the holiday period. Don’t risk it!