Before we embarked on this trip we were often warned of Russian xenophobia and endless red tape. All as a result of the Soviet legacy. This was ” after all” historically a closed country in which people could not leave or come freely. Suspicion of people from abroad, coming to Russia and doing something in Russia would supposedly be the norm.
Our experience to date has been anything but. Wherever we go people have been friendly, cheerful, giving and genuinely interested, regardless of the language barrier.
There is however always the exception and this is it:
We start heading east after Lake Baikal and pass through a small, non-descript town dominated by huge chimney stacks. We have encountered these chimney stacks often on the trip and feel they are like ‘cathedrals to soviet industry’. Often stealing the skyline and slap bang in the middle of a town or scenic area. It is as if in soviet times industry took precedence over everything.
The road through the town is under construction. Our GPS takes us on a detour into a supposedly “secret area” with high chimneys painted in concentric white and red circles.
Linda stops to take some pictures of these chimneys belching out smoke. All we wanted were some pictures of these ‘soviet cathedrals’ and their pollution.
From nowhere a group of guards appear. For me they resemble Ninja turtles, all dressed in black, bullet proof vests and heavily armed. We are bundled into a panel van which has a remotely controlled side door. One can only imagine this is to prevent escapees while on the move. Why would we want to jump out anyway?
We are taken to the local “commander” who we hope will decide our fate in our favour. It would seem however that the nature of our transgression is such that it is out of his jurisdiction and it has to be escalated to a higher level.
We plead them to delete the 2 pictures and allow us to go. ‘Nyet’ (no) is their monosyllabic reply.
Bundled back into the van, with the interesting door, we are taken back to our bikes. Great we think, they are going to let us go. No such luck. How often do you get tourists on motorcycles, white and from Africa? Probably never. Now is the time to flex muscle for the whole town to see.
Instead of allowing us to go we are told to get onto our bikes and follow the van in front!
A van also follows from behind.
10 goons in 2 vans escorting 2 bikes in further into the middle of nowhere.
We end up at a drab soviet style building that turns out to be the local holding cell.
There we sit and are told to wait, which we do for 4 hours. What else are we supposed to do? All the time a ceiling camera watches us.
The station commander (who wears a SA 2010 world cup soccer t-shirt – so we compare flags) advises that this is now a matter for the Russian equivalent of the FBI as we are ‘foreign nationals’. They are trying to find an English translator.
While we wait more Ninja turtles (these ones with balaclavas so you cant see their faces) arrive with “suspected” criminals, handcuffed and bent over double. They disappear into rooms with big steel doors and we cannot hear them after this. This does not look good.
“He was sentenced to three years, served five, then fortunately was released ahead of time .” (This hints to a common practice, described by Solzhenitsyn, of arbitrary extending the sentence term or adding new accusations). Why I think of things like this, at times like this, worries me as to my sanity.
Linda and I are separated and we give statements via the translator. These are hand typed in Russian and we have to sign them. We refuse as we cannot sign something we do not understand . Perhaps rather naive on our part given the situation.
We relent(what other option was there?) and write in English that we are signing the statement as translated to us by the translator, but that we do not know what we are actually signing as it is not in English and we cannot therefore read it. I wonder what type of legal recourse, if any, would exist if this was challenged? Luckily however they could not understand what we wrote.
Again we request them to delete the pictures but they do not seem interested to do this.
We wait and wait for the “FBI”. Nothing except for some huge fellow in a suit who arrives and goes into one of the steel-door rooms with the station commander . He leaves 5 minutes later.
Suddenly the station commander tells us quick , quick , you must go . We grab our stuff and are escorted out of town with not a Ninja turtle in sight. It is as if they have disappeared in tandem with our diminishing novelty value.
A “normal policeman” escorts us out in his own Lada!
Linda’s camera is returned and not a single picture is deleted.
A strange town this. But we are happy to leave and ride +- 450km to get as far away as possible.