This blog is a bit boring and technical, but we found it difficult to find up to date information on the internet about this route, as it goes via the relatively new border crossing between Russia and Georgia at Verkhniy Lars / Kazbegi.
We stayed in Krasnodar at the Forum Hotel (see bookings.com) and in Nal’chik at the Korona Hotel (also on bookings.com) as both had good parking for the car. NOTE: ignore the location pointer for the Hotel Korona which is given in bookings.com and Expedia. It is on the other side of town – we went to the main square in the end and followed a taxi who took us there. GPS location for all of our campsites / hotels / homestays is here.
We are traveling in a Dubai license plate (UAE registered) Ford F150 pickup, but have German passports, and no UAE visa in our passport anymore (visa cancelled and new passport since). This in itself can cause some confusion at border crossings. We haven’t quite worked out the charade for “I used to work in Dubai, which is why my car is registered there, but I have German nationality”.
Border crossing Port Kerch (Ukraine) to Port Kavkaz (Russia):
There is a very good description of the exit procedure out of Ukraine at Port Kerch on the Mongol Rally participants website Transcontinental Express: http://www.transcontinental.ie/2012/07/22/ukraine-russia-ferry/ . It is a painfully slow process, so use the toilets at Port Kerch in the large round building to the right, which are probably the best public toilets in Ukraine! They cost UAH 2. The ones on the Russian side are awful.
Entry to Russia from the Kerch ferry at Port Kavkaz:
You will be provided with an entry form for Russia on the ferry, which you have to fill in with your passport details etc.
Once you leave the ferry, you will be asked to pull over into a parking bay. You will have to fill out two copies of a customs declaration, if you are travelling with your vehicle. Likely you will get it wrong a few times. If you are lucky, one of the border guards may speak English, or more likely German. Our form was in German and Russian. We got it right on the third attempt. You have to keep one of the two final stamped forms for when you leave Russia again.
Any passengers in the car have to join the passport control and security check queue inside the building on the left. Just follow the queues! Your passport will be stamped and also the little form you filled out. They will keep one side, and make sure you keep the other side really safe! You will need it to leave Russia again.
Once out on the other side of the passport bit, there is another building before the final barrier (a big gate). Park in front of the building and go to the window on the right side to get insurance. Somehow there was a misunderstanding and the insurance lady did some typing and then passed our paperwork through the back door, along with R200 to the final customs lady, without issuing us any insurance. Anyway, we just went with the flow and you have to double back on yourself and go to a waist high window around the corner.
Here you have to show your car registration documents again, passport and hand over the customs declaration forms. She then creates a sticker with a bar code on it with your cars details (VIN, number of seats, make, model etc) and you are given back one of the forms. Keep this safe!
At this point we realized we didn’t have any insurance and went to see the insurance lady, who then realized that we had been to see her about insurance!
We paid R1,800 for two weeks, but we do have a big engine. A Russian couple with a German registered Mercedes in front of us paid R1,200.
Driving through Russia:
We have been stopped a total of four times in Russia, all of them after Nal’chik heading southwards, so basically in heavily policed areas: 1x on entering Nal’chik, 1 x big police post crossing into North Ossetia, 1 x traffic police trailing us, 1 x at Chmi just before the border to Georgia.
There is a large police checkpoint on entering / exiting North Ossetia. It is likely that you will be pulled over and asked to show passports. In our case, only one of the guards seemed interested in us, and he had a bit of a Dell boy look to him – not exactly corrupt and evil looking, but the cheeky type who was out to get something. He got out a horrid thin ladylike cigarette towards the end of our discussion, which meant in our eyes he just became a tubby little man smoking a girly cigarette.
One of the first things we always get out is our local insurance papers as these have enough information in Russian to distract most guards. In this case we also had to show our passports, and he checked the visa and the exit date which we had written on the tourist form you have to fill out on entering Russia. He pointed out that we would have to leave the same day, as that is what we had entered on the form. It seems to be a good idea therefore to give yourself some extra time, or just enter the expiry date of your visa on the form.
He then asked for driving licenses, but we made a point of saying that only David was driving, since the car is registered in his name, and we are not sure if the insurance covers me. We had heard of others having issues, where someone was driving who was not the registered owner. We therefore only got out David’s international driving license which also has a big stamp next to the mid size truck picture, so no problems there (we are driving a largish pickup truck). We wanted to give the guy zero chance to find any problems.
The next thing he seemed to be asking about was whether we had been quarantined! We laughed and made woofing noises. I tried to indicate that we had had vaccinations, whilst at the same time hoping he wasn’t going to interpret this as “I have a heroin addiction”.
Next came much pointing at our car insurance papers and then at us. Eventually we worked out that he was asking about our medical insurance, but by this time we were trying not to lose our patience. Once we finally realized what he wanted, I gave him a longish lecture on how difficult it is to get a Russian visa and that you first have to get health insurance etc. Lots of repetition of the words “medika” and “visa” with hand stamping actions.
By this time we had managed to get back all of our paperwork, and the guard mumbled something about money and going to the booth. He certainly wasn’t going to get anything out of us, so we ambled up to a booth and grinned at the guy on the other side of the window, without offering passports or papers of any sort. He started to chat about football and when he realized we where German he very proudly told us that his grandfather had been in the SS. After a few more minutes of football chat, we said goodbye and climbed into the car, ignoring the tubby bully.
So the best tactic of all is not to attempt to speak any Russian, and repeat the fact that you are just passing through, in our case from Ukraine to Georgia. If you start off relatively light hearted, it seems ok to get a bit tougher when you are certain that you are in the right and, as in this case, it was getting obvious that he was just trying to make something up. It was also clear to us that his colleagues were not really interested in us.
Within the hour we were being trailed by police car. Best tactic is to just drive steadily, under the speed limit until they get bored. Unfortunately we came up behind a truck doing about 20 kmph and so David pulled into the overtaking lane. All perfectly legal and legitimate, except that they then pulled us over claiming our tires had touched the solid central dividing line. He then showed David a video on the impossibly small screen of his Sony camcorder, where no one could have told for sure whether we touched the line or not.
We handed over the insurance papers, and got out the photocopies of our passports, but left the originals in the car. We always have the original insurance and colour photocopies of important documents in a separate folder, ready to show, and hide the passports and originals in the center console out of sight. The international driving licenses are on the dashboard, hidden under a cap. Our original German and UAE licenses are also in the center console and we try never to hand them over. A replacement international license is far easier to get hold of.
The best tactic seems to be for everyone to get out and visit the policeman, leaving the car locked. Safety in numbers etc. The more of you there are shaking your heads and saying you don’t understand, the better.
At this stage, the one policeman just sat slumped and bored in his seat as his camcorder duties were done. His sidekick had originally got out a wad of official looking forms, but then just used the back of the booklet to draw a diagram of our supposed offense. He put the forms back in the car pretty soon after our discussions began, but after we had shown him our insurance paper and copies of our passports, so theoretically he would have had all the info to fill out an official form, had that actually been his intention.
He finally asked for the “Original” of David’s passport, but we pretended not to understand and went for the digression tactic: asking how far it was still to Vladikavkaz, if the border was still open, showed him a map of the world where we had been, made jokes about the fact that David should hand over the keys to me etc… and generally made a bit of a charade of the whole thing. At heart he seemed a good natured guy and so he eventually sent us on our way when he realized we weren’t the easy targets for the day.
Border crossing Verkhiny Lars (Russia) to Kazbegi (Georgia):
The border between Russia and Georgia at Verkhiny Lars / Kazbegi is now open for non CIS passport holders.
NOTE: we came through on 12th September, ten days after a bit of a scuffle on the border between Georgian security forces and Islamic militants from Dagestan. The border is nevertheless still open. We didn’t know this at the time, and just read about it in our hotel in Tblisi. It turns out we were camping up in the mountains towards the Chechen / Russian border where it seems to have happened (reports are pretty unclear about location) but we didn’t see anything unusual.
As described above, there are a few checkpoints, and many police en route once you get into North Ossetia.
When you get to the Russian border exit you show your passports and are waved through the barrier. You will then be pulled over by Russian customs, who are very thorough. This seemed odd to us, but given the recent incidents, I am sure they are trying to show the Georgians that they are not letting arms through the border.
We had to hand in our customs declaration (stamped on entry into Russia) at the silver booth. At the same time you have to fill out an almost identical exit form.
The Russians then made a big song and dance about our Jerry cans, which had 40 liters of petrol in them. Apparently you are only allowed to import 10 liters into Georgia. Luckily we hadn’t filled our tank, so we emptied the Jerry cans into the car tank. After that we entered the customs queue properly, and they had a quick look into the car. Once you get to the front of the customs queue you hand your passport in to the other booth and you will be stamped out.
At the Georgian end, customs and passport control is the same guy, and they didn’t actually look in our car. The Georgian border process was our most pleasant and simple of the non-EU crossings. We forgot to ask about third party insurance and no one asked us. We looked in Kazbegi, but it wasn’t available.
There is also no cash machine in Kazbegi, but the bank changes euros and dollars. The bank is called the Liberty Bank and is a ramshackle building about three streets up the hill from the main square. Not easy to find, so ask around!