24 hours in Chechnya: Part I, the Chechen hospitality

I have visited Chechnya during a trip in North Caucasus early September 2017. I arrived in Grozny from Vladikavkaz with my travel mate Igor, and left back to the West to Pyatigorsk whilst Igor was pushing further East.

This old map, found in the bus station of Vladikavkaz, shows you where Chechnya is within North Caucasus. Grozny, the capital, is the orange dot below the vertical line.

Why just 24 hours? Serendipity more than strategy. I was on a schedule, keen to keep enough time for my next stop Pyatigorsk, and Igor was keen to reach Dagestan as soon as possible. And possibly, my mum would be happy if I didn’t stay too long.

For Chechnya has acquired quite a reputation in the media through the years. But forget about the media and let me tell you my totally different impression.

Grozny city centre

In Grozny, we were hosted by Alik, friendly and curious father of 2 kids, who turned very instrumental in helping us make the most out of our short time. We found him on Couchsurfing after sending dozens of requests.

Somewhere in a park of Grozny. I don’t know what the bears were all about.

The Chechen hospitality reminded me a lot of Uzbekistan or Iran; we were definitely in that part of the world. Hosts love taking care of guests, and feel in charge of them.

Alik and his friendly Chechen biker friends

Alik fed us, gave us a roof and a bed, a Wifi access, and made sure we were comfortable. He introduced us to his family, drove us around, and told us many things about Grozny, including what happened to his family’s house during the war: it was occupied by Russian soldiers, who during winter burnt the family’s piano to keep warm.

We arrived just two days after Eid al-Adha, and there were a lot of meat leftovers which our host’s brother prepared as shashlyk.
The only weapons we found during our 24 hours in Chechnya were our host’s dad’s, exposed in his personal room.

Alik knows someone who knows someone, and that’s how we managed to access the rooftop of the highest building in Grozny, a 40-storey tall skyscraper with 360 views on the Chechen capital. The side of the rooftop that offers views to the Presidential palace is off limits though: none is allowed to stand there, for it wouldn’t be too hard from there to aim and cause trouble to the dictator-president.

Grozny city centre seen from the roof of the tallest skyscraper

It was very amusing how, on the morning of departure, Alik found me a ride and ‘handed me over’ to a bus driver who then fell in charge of me. When our bus reached Pyatigorsk, the driver (who was further driving to Cherkessk) wished me good luck and to meet in Chechnya again.

In 24 hours in Chechnya I have met nothing but friendly people and a relaxed atmosphere!

Stay tuned for the next part of my impressions of Chechnya: Islam, patriotism and propaganda.

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Moscow’s exciting transformation! Part II: What I’ve always loved about Moscow

(Second part)

Moscow is undergoing a major transformation, and it is great. The city is now so pleasant to be in, and walking around its streets you feel safer, freer, happier.

So much that I’ve had to remind myself: what is it that I actually enjoyed about Moscow 5-10 years ago?

This is the first picture I’ve ever taken of Moscow, when arriving by air for the first time 8 years ago. I was stunned by the monochrome, geometric patterns of the Moscow suburbs in winter.

Moscow was wild and crazy; really wild, and really crazy.

It’s a giant city with so many people. It can get so crowded. I’ve always been impressed by the hordes of beautiful girls from the entire Federation who invade Moscow looking for a job and a decent boyfriend.

Moscow is a city that never sleeps, with coffeeshops and sushi bars open 24 hours everywhere (and they all do serve alcohol in Russia).

At the time, everything looked like this in Moscow: roadworks, inconvenient passage for pedestrians, messy streets. Today, all of this has disappeared and given room for a livable urban space.At the time, you couldn’t see more than 2 meters away in Moscow, because there was always something in the way: a kiosk, a wasteland or building site that had been there forever, or any other, abandoned-looking mess.

And whilst I like much better the new airy Moscow, I did enjoy the sense of mystery and discovery that old Moscow provided. Nothing was every acquired there, you had to go and look for it.

Everywhere in Moscow there is still old metal stuff that none knows if it’s still in use, like this one by the river at Kotelnicheskaya.

Wandering around Moscow was somewhat a challenge, and challenges excite me. Navigation was difficult, everything was in Cyrillic, you would struggle finding things, you would get lost and constantly have to figure things out.

I enjoyed the process of figuring out, and I enjoyed creating my workarounds, and I enjoyed feeling initiated. Sometimes I was showing international travellers around, and I enjoyed sharing my experience and initiating others to Moscow’s wildness.

I also enjoyed that I didn’t always figure out. For example I’ve never known where and how to buy a tram ticket. Every time I’ve used a tram in old Moscow, I’ve crawled under the gate and travelled without paying. (In new, transformed Moscow, there’s a unified system for public transportation which you can use with a digital card called Troika. I finally can pay for my tram rides!)

In old Moscow, everything was a fight or a struggle, and I admit I kind of like that; at least when I travel…

There’s always something surprising to see or experience in Moscow’s streets.

And what I liked most in old Moscow, which luckily so far has been untouched by the transformation, is the sensorial exoticism.

Exoticism of the language. More and more people speak English in Moscow, but Russian will remain the dominant language for a long time.

Exoticism of the dresses in winter. I have spent hours sitting in the metro just to observe the parade of Russians in their winter costumes, with the furs, and the assorted hats; it is priceless.

The smoothness of the untouched snow in winter…

Exoticism of the materials. Sensorially, Moscow is extreme, full of contrasts, and rich of sensations that one doesn’t often have the opportunity to experience so intensely. All Russia is like this, but Moscow is a concentration of these sensations.

The intricate business of skies full of cables for the tramways and trolleybuses, and somewhere in the background an old Soviet star…

The fur of a coat;

the rusty metal of a door and the polished one of a gas pipe;

the sturdy stone of the Stalin-era skyscrapers and the delicate glass of the new capitalistic ones;

the shiny golden dome of a church;

the pastel colour of an old house;

the grey of the Brejnevkas and the little irritating music that plays when you open their front doors;

the whisper of a feminine voice that says hello in a hiss;

the sensorial pleasures of Russian banya;

the sweet sensation of Soviet ice cream melting on the tongue;

the shivers when visiting the Gulag museum;

the extreme temperatures of course;

and how I’ve never understood how Russian girls keep beautiful straight hair in winter whilst mine is all electrical and untidy.

Everywhere visual contrasts
Everywhere temporal contrasts
Everywhere colourful contrasts

The imaginativeness of the snow-removing machines in winter. The parade of the water-spraying trucks in summer.

In winter, everywhere men and machines constantly working on removing snow
In summer, trucks spray water to cool down the city and remove the dust

Finally, wandering around Moscow is like a treasure hunt, with Soviet symbols hidden and scattered throughout the city. Hammers and sickles, Lenin heads, Soviet statues, can be found everywhere and add a surrealistic touch to the overall urban landscape.

Finding hammers and sickles is like a constant scavenger hunt in the streets of Moscow

Oh, I loved these things 8 years ago; they’ve made Moscow so intriguing to me and an endless discovery. And luckily, most of them stay true even in transformed Moscow, making it such a wonderful place to visit today.

The Moscova river flows timelessly through the ages. Around it, Moscow changes and transforms itself. The Kremlin is the old, the Moscow City skyscrapers are the new.

Do me a favour: if you’ve visited Moscow in the past 15 years and hated it, do reconsider and give it a new chance.

 

 

 

Moscow’s exciting transformation! Part I: What is changing, and why it’s great

Moscow is undergoing a major transformation, partly under the impulse of the current mayor Sobyanin. If you’ve been in Moscow in the past 15 years and hated it, maybe it’s time to reconsider and visit the new Moscow.

It is becoming so great that it fills me with joy just to think about it.

Gorki Park has everything a family needs to spend a great day, and indeed in summer it feels like all Moscow is here.

Sure, in a sense, a lot of what is new about Moscow is quite normal: there is space for pedestrians to walk, the bus stops have information about bus lines, important navigation signs are written in English.

Yes, in a sense, Moscow is just catching up and becoming a normal city that’s nice to be in. Under the mayor’s motto to make the city “for the people”, Moscow is becoming more livable.

During the transformation, many buildings being renovated were bearing a painted cover, making the city still relatively pleasant despite the heavy works everywhere.

From a hostile, crazy urban environment developed too fast in a new capitalistic world where the rights belong to the rich, Moscow is slowly transforming into a pleasant, welcoming urban space with more opportunity for respect and equality.

The horrible and dirty kiosks that had invaded the public spaces when capitalism boomed, arguably made it very easy to find somewhere to repair your shoes or eat a quick snack, but left no space to walk for people; they have all been removed.

The disgusting asphalt of the streets, full of potholes and covered with stains, have been replaced by new, clean one, and sometimes even stone or other prettier materials.

The whole area around Tretyakovskaya has been fully renovated with many pleasant, green places for pedestrians.

The authorities are encouraging Moscow people to drive less and walk more. People now have to pay for parking (yes only that’s very recent), and the city has reduced the width of big avenues to create more space for the pedestrians.

Tverskaya, at the very heart of Moscow, also underwent recent transformation: less space for cars, more for pedestrians and cyclists.

The bus stops now have information about bus lines and times, which makes it easier for anyone to use public transportation.

A clean bus stop with (digital) information like this may look absolutely normal, but it was unimaginable 5 years ago. This transformation has made Moscow so much more easy and pleasant to navigate.

The parks have been renovated, including a sparkly new one that just opened close to Red Square, and include imaginative new features such as the super cool obstacle ride of the Crimea Embankment (Krymskaya Naberezhnaya) that’s so much fun on a hot summer evening. And you can now rent city bikes like in every other big city in the world.

Squares have been renovated too, with more space to hang out and enjoy life, like on the big swings on Triumfalnaya Square.

Triumfalnaya Square has been completely transformed and is now a very green and pleasant square

And all of that great transformation culminates with a smoking ban finally in place everywhere, ultimate sign of modernity.

There are street photo exhibitions very regularly, reminding Muscovites of the beauty of Russia, making Moscow not just a huge megalopolis but a true capital to an attractive country, and adding to the pleasure one has to walk around its embellished streets.

One of the many street photo exhibitions, here in front of Kazansky Vokzal (railway station), that show the beauty of Russia.

Moscow is crowded, and remains crowded, but at least the people now have somewhere to go and enjoy life, even for free.

This all went actually quite fast, with the mayor instilling a tempo to ensure the city would be ready for its 870th anniversary celebrations in September 2017.

Moscow’s 870th birthday celebrations in September 2017 were the deadline mayor Sobyanin had set for Moscow’s transformation

There’s some criticism of course, and in particular about when and where this transformation will stop. The authorities’ have decided to next tackle housing, and destroy up to 70% of the so-called Brejnevka building – pre-fabricated apartment blocks from Brejnev’s time. Not all agree, and quite a few wonder if the mayor is doing this just to give contracts to his friends, a very common practice in Russia; and many fear that this will only increase rents, already very high in Moscow.

The metro is still the metro, but you can now pay your tickets by credit card (when it works), and there are even designated areas for musicians!

But at least, Moscow has caught up with other megalopoles and is becoming pleasant. So pleasant, that when I look back to how things were 5 years ago, I am starting to wonder: what exactly did I like about it?

I had breakfast on this sunny terrace in September 2017 and it took me a while to recognise this as what I’d known as urban wasteland since 2010. By the wasteland was a cut-throat alley that led to the entrance of my favourite Moscow club, Krisis Zhanra. The club has gone alas, replaced by this restaurant, but so happy to see the square now renovated and very pleasant to hang out on.

(Second part tomorrow)

What is it like to enter and exit Abkhazia?

I haven’t aimed to make this blog a source of practical advice, but I’ve had several comments and requests about this border crossing; and when I travelled to Abkhazia, I would have found this useful, hence this blog.

I visited Abkhazia at the end of August 2017 on a round trip from Russia.

Me on the beach of Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia.

The first step, which needs to be done a few days before departure, is to apply for a visa. There’s nothing tricky about this procedure, it just needs to be done, you need to fill in this online application form. For the dates you plan to travel, aim a bit larger, you’ll see later why.

You will receive within a few days a letter via email from midraconsul@mail.ru. Note the email address which is hosted in Russia; funny isn’t it for a country that claims to be independent?

The document I received via email and had to present once in Abkhazia, bilingual Abkhaz and Russian.

You must print the email’s attachment before visiting Abkhazia. It is not a visa, just an authorization to get a visa which you must get, once in Abkhazia.

I travelled by train from Adler in Russia to Gagra in Abkhazia, because I like travelling by train and it seemed easy enough. It was just a simple train ticket to get at the Adler train station from the regular Russian railways RZD.

Note that there was only one train a day, so best is to visit the station the day before and check the timetable; our train was early morning and we had to check-in in a separate area of the brand new and shiny Adler train station.

The Adler-Gagra train is a standard old kupe Russian train with only Russian staff on board.

When the train reaches the border, everyone has to get out for the exiting procedure of the Russian Federation. Here it becomes interesting, as the Russian authorities inspect your passport just like any other exit, but they won’t stamp it.

Interesting; because despite not having stamped your passport, you are actually marked in the systems as having left Russia, and you will need a new visa entry to be able to come back (so make sure you have a double or multiple entry Russian visa).

There are no entry border checks for Abkhazia; in fact, only the Russian border is marked.

The train stops in Gagra, from where it is very easy to reach Sukhumi, unlike taxi drivers tell you. Just leave the station and reach the main road (you may want to walk a little further into town) and stop any van (marshrutka) you find.

In our first Abkhaz marshrutka that took us from Gagra to Sukhumi.

When you arrive in Sukhumi, you must go visit the administration at Sakharova 33 to turn your printed email into a proper visa. Note that this procedure does not apply to Russian citizens, only to foreign visitors (in case you were still convinced that Abkhazia is really independent from Russia).

You don’t need to do this immediately on arrival, you just need to make sure you do it before you intent to leave Abkhazia. But this can be the trickiest part.

When we arrived in Sukhumi, we decided to go immediately. This way the hassle would be out of the way and we could enjoy the rest of our stay.

Unfortunately the office was closed. It was a Monday; but people told us it was a holiday. When we returned the next day, it was apparently a holiday too. None was sure which holiday or why, but the office remained surely closed.

We met two Canadian travelers who had arrived in Abkhazia the Friday before; and after now 5 days in, were desperately to get their visa to be able to leave. So be aware that this procedure might be causing delays in your travels; and if you’re on a schedule it is best (but not guaranteed) to arrive on weekdays.

Finally the Wednesday morning at 9 am, the office was opened. There was a queue for Abkhaz citizens, one for Georgian citizens, and one for ‘foreigners’. Albeit, these 3 nationalities were reporting to a different person, and the queue itself was rather disorganized and chaotic, but in the end everyone got through it.

When it was my turn, I just handed over the printed email and the equivalent of 5 dollars in Russian rubles. Someone had not printed his email and this created all sorts of problems, so do make sure you print yours.

In exchange for the email and the 5 dollars, I received a loose visa (not applied in the passport) and a smile. Welcome in Abkhazia!

Leaving the country was as easy as entering, especially since there is no border control indeed at the Abkhazian side (in case by that time you were still convinced that Abkhazia is independent from Russia).

The Gagra train station. It has the feel of an exotically old Soviet-times Black Sea resort (like Yalta or Sochi), but rather abandoned.

I took the Gagra-Adler train again, which this time leaves late afternoon from Gagra, and stops at the Russian border for the standard entry procedure.

Here again, my passport was not stamped; so it all looks like I had not left Russia at all. But the computer system does know that I’ve been a few days in Abkhazia…

So, you see: easy and not much to worry about; probably much less hassle than entering from Georgia although I haven’t done it so can’t comment on it. Enjoy Abkhazia!

5 things to know about North Caucasus

With over 50 ethnic groups, languages and several religions, Caucasus is a land of diversity. Uneasy therefore to summarise it in 5 key points, but describing all the details of Caucasus in its greater complexity would certainly require a PhD programme, so let’s start with a few basics!

I’d like you to know a little more about this beautiful region and its beautiful people; and certainly more than what you’ve probably heard about it in the news in the few past decades.

  1. Massacres, massacres, massacres

At the crossroads of many great empires, the Caucasus has historically always indeed been the theatre of massacres; and the list of those who invaded and destroyed it is endless (Mongols, Persians, Ottomans…).

In the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire settled in the region and stabilised it, using the help and protection of Cossacks to massacre a large amount of the Muslim population.

When Russia turned red and fought to impose a new Socialist ideal to the region, the Cossacks were in turned massacred.

Many North Caucasian people were deported in mass by paranoid Stalin in 1944. Here a memorial to Balkar villages that used to populate this mountain and have all disappeared.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, instability regained the region and a series of massacres and wars took place, with the wars in Chechnya mostly infamous in foreign media.

There are many memorials everywhere, and plans to build more. This stone in Kislovodsk marks where will be a monument to remember the “genocide” (word used) of the Karachaev people.

And it is true that the beautiful lands of Caucasus are scattered with sinister memorials. And if it weren’t for a few of the recent wars and massacres that made big headlines in the news, many people wouldn’t have ever heard about Caucasus.

Most of you will remember the traumatic school siege of Beslan in 2004 that ended in a massacre of over 800 kids and families. The gymnasium where they were held hostages is now a memorial.
  1. Where are the mountains?

When travelling to Caucasus, I expected Balkan-style geography, with hills everywhere, and walking in towns the equivalent of a good cardio work out.

But the towns, roads, and railways in Caucasus were all created at a little distance of the foothills of the mountains, as a means for the Russian Empire to maintain control not just over the mountains but also the valleys.

This map of Kabardino-Balkaria shows clearly how the infrastructure is situated at a distance from the mountains in the North, in flat land.

So most towns are flat; even Grozny, the capital of the Chechens, known to be mountains people. Mountains are not always visible from towns, you may have to drive quite a bit southwards to encounter them.

The statue of Ossetian WWII hero General Pliyev in Vladikavkaz; the Caucasian mountains can be seen in the background!

The mountains however, once you reach them, are well and truly there.

A donkey in the Pyatigorsk hills. Perhaps more an image I was expecting for Caucasus, than these endless Soviet towns on flat land…
Mount Elbrus can be seen from afar and seems so big, it is indeed the highest mountain of Europe. Here on a road somewhere in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic.
  1. Love of their land

I’ve travelled a fair bit in Russia and always been surprised how much Russians tend to forget the beauty of their land: everywhere people seem utterly astonished to see a tourist and I always have to justify my presence. Once reminded though, people can pour their heart out about the beauty of Russia in such romantic way that only Russians can do.

Somewhere in Balkaria.

In Caucasus, there is no need to remind locals of the beauty of their land. They know it, and seeing foreign travellers going a great length to visit their land is no surprise to them. It does make them very proud!

In Caucasus many house roofs are decorated with iron artwork in shapes of stars, flowers, or crescents. Here in Balkaria.

And they will all tell you that their part of Caucasus is the best, of course. Locals in Pyatigorsk insisted I learned this little rhyme:

Кто в Домбае не бывал, тот Кавказа не видал

Who didn’t experience Dombay, hasn’t seen Caucasus!

“Who did not experience Dombay, didn’t see Caucasus”

So I did jump on a bus to Dombay.

In Dombay, over 3000 meter high.
  1. Are we in Russia?

The territories of Caucasus have been dominated by Russians for such a long time that it is only logical that it feels Russian. The streets layouts, the transportation systems, the commercial spaces, everything is organized according to Russian codes. So if you’ve been anywhere in Russia, you can navigate easily in Caucasus.

You’ll see the same sort of stuff as everywhere in Russia, and that includes of course all the Soviet propaganda that’s still standing. Here for example in Vladikavkaz.

Everything is written in two languages (Russian and the local one) but when they meet, strangers address each other in Russian language, making it the language by default. It’s only once they realise that they belong to the same group that they switch to a common language; Chechen, Ossetian, Abkhaz, Balkarian, etc.

Pyatigorsk. A “normal Russian” town, but with Mount Elbrus in the background.
There is a lot of diversity in Caucasus, but occasionally you cross Muslim-dominating areas, and with the mountainous landscape around, it doesn’t feel as Russian anymore. Here in Balkaria.

The only exception perhaps is Chechnya and sometimes in the mountains, where Islam is so dominant and the population not really mixed, so it did feel a little different. When I left Chechnya to go back West, I heard myself say “I’m going back to Russia”.

  1. Political dominance and propaganda

The only way that has been found yet to stabilise such explosive region is strength. And strength, Putin has.

The most obvious evidence of central power is the Soviet propaganda, including Lenin statues. Less common, there is even a statue of Dzerzhinsky, the founder of KGB, in Kislovodsk; you could rarely think of a stronger display of the central power’s domination.

This requires strong evidence of power, as well as propaganda. And propaganda, I have seen a lot. Everywhere posters and slogans, monuments and events, to remind people that they belong to the Russian Federation and this is for their best. (Do check this blog post about the bromance between Kadyrov and Putin for more evidence).

Everywhere in the streets of Kabardino-Balkaria, posters and other propaganda celebrating the 460th anniversary of the “bounds with Russia”. Interesting how the Russian Federation is named “Russia” in perfect continuity with the Empire and with the Soviet State in this case!
60 years ago, a monument was even erected in Nalchik to celebrate what was then the 400th anniversary of the “union” with “Russia”.

I do hope that you once get the chance to experience the region!

Stalin’s Seven Sisters

Unmistakably Soviet symbols of Stalin’s megalomania… Visible proof of Stalin propaganda’s shift to nationalistic patriotism after the Second World War… And maybe even phallic metaphors of Stalin’s quest for recognition…

The Seven Sisters are seven skyscrapers that were built just after the war (when the Soviet Union in ruins had nothing better to do…) as a response to Stalin’s concern that foreign visitors would not be too impressed when visiting the Soviet capital.

They are still standing there, glorious and pompous. More tall buildings have grown around them including the super modern towers of Moscow City, but they are still a key part of Moscow’s urban landscape.

KOTELNICHESKAYA EMBANKMENT BUILDING (halfway between Kitay Gorod and Taganskaya)

This is my favourite Stalin Sister, perhaps because it’s so central and clear. It’s an appartment building and I’m dreaming of living on one of the top floors!

Photo September 2017

MOSCOW UNIVERSITY (metro Universitet)

This one is iconic, with its giant star at the top. Non less stereotypical is that gulag labourers were involved in its construction…

Picture February 2010

UKRAINA HOTEL (metro Kievskaya)

Now a Radisson hotel, this one is open to visitors and the entrance hall is really impressive, with a fabulous Revolution painting on the ceiling. Radisson has a ship that sails the Moskva river which can be a great way to see more of Moscow.

Photo July 2016
Ceiling painting inside the hall. Photo July 2016

LENINGRADSKAYA HOTEL (metro Komsomolskaya)

Another hotel, a Hilton this time but the Soviet name is still written on its top, this one has a distinguished, more feminine look because of its pinkish colours.

Photo July 2016

KUNDRINSKAYA SQUARE (metro Barrikadnaya)

What I love about this one is the grace of its decorations and spires. Unlike all other Sisters, it also has a little garden with a fontain at its foot, which makes it a pleasant place to stop for ice cream.

 

Photo July 2016

KRASNYE VOROTA BUILDING (metro Krasnye Vorota)

White and inmaculate like the Soviet regime, this one has a beautiful hammer and sickle sign at the top of its base.

Photo July 2016
Photo July 2016

MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (metro Smolenskaya)

And last but not least, this wonderful building inspired by the big American skyscrapers of the 20th century is not so delicately decorated, but so massive that it makes the Empire State Building look quite skinny. That’s Soviet generosity…

Photo September 2017