This year’s expedition to Elbrus was expected to be a big challenge for us since it was the first expedition that was organized exclusively by us. For the first time we faced so many different kinds of problems that you will never meet when you travel with a tourist/expedition agency like booking tickets, finding transportation, accommodation, planning the route on the mountain and all the rest of small details.
Despite the difficulties, Kostas, Marousa, Antonis, Dimitris and I decided to go on our first self-organised high mountain expedition during that summer. While we were still at Greece, we discovered that Russia wasn’t that easy to travel as many bureaucratic procedures existed like visas, hotel registration, vouchers and more.
Friday 1/8/08 Athens – Moscow
Antonis and I were flying from Athens to Moscow as the rest had already left one day earlier for Moscow via Latvia. During our flight we noticed that during our stay in Russia we would face communication problems as few people talked English
We reached Moscow and went to passport control. There we waited for more than one and a half hour for checking. We surely missed the Schengen agreement! We also discovered another thing about the temperament of Russian people: at queues they always try to go in front of you something that makes Greek people look civilized.
At the airport many taxi drivers awaited to take you to the center. We took a taxi for our hotel with Antonis after we negotiated the price. Driving in Russia is a crazy thing to do! Youtube videos from Russia while driving weren’t that popular then! The taxi driver performed a lot of scary turns or overpasses without ever using direction lights.
Finally we arrived safe and sound at the hotel. The hotel was a very simple one (although not cheap) that looked more than a hospital than a hotel. Of course they didn’t speak English at the reception and they told us that they couldn’t do hotel registration for us. Hotel registration is a procedure that the hotel has to do for you if you stay more than 3 days at a place in order to prove when you leave from the country where you stayed and that you weren’t some sort of spy. After a lot of failed communication tries using only body language, the receptionist decided to do the registration for us the next morning
After leaving our stuff at the hotel room we decided to go for a sightseeing tour of the center. Moscow is a very green city filled with the characteristic soviet blocks of apartments, symbols of USSR. As we didn’t have a lot of time our first priority was to see the red square. We took the metro and when we got off at one station in order to change line, we faced our second shock, which was that the metro map that we had from our guide was in English characters, while the instructions inside the metro were in Russian of course. Finding the line and the station was impossible. With the help of a Russian young guy after some time we were given instructions on how to reach the red square
We finally arrived at the red square and in front of us were all the symbols of socialism/communism: the Kremlin, the red square, Lenin’s tomb, Saint Basil’s Cathedral and many more. After taking the necessary photos and enjoying a meal with a nice cold Russian beer we decide to go back to our hotel. Our journey with the metro was more successful than our previous one but exiting the station from a different exit (which later we found out that was 200 meters apart) made us loose our way back to the hotel for more than ten minutes.
While going to back to the hotel we visited a mobile phone shop in order to check if it was better for us to buy a Russian prepaid card for our mobile phone. The only guy that speaked English was a young guy around 30 with his girlfriend that tried to help. After half an hour of trying to understand the many different kinds of prepaid cards, we decided that it wasn’t worth it so we decided to return to the hotel. The guy that was introduced to us as Dima and his girlfriend Helena suggested to return together to the hotel since their way was the same. Dima is from Ukraine and he had his own company that made documentaries and Helena worked as PR for a company. During our walk back they bought us beers and we talked about everyday life in Moscow and Russia in general. At the end they suggested us to go to their flat in order to watch Dima’s work but since we were tired and a bit concerned about our safety, we declined politely their offer. We returned to our hotel, finished our beers and went to sleep.
Saturday 2/8/08 Moscow – Mineralnye Vody
Woke up and had Russian style breakfast (forget the European/American buffets). Since we have some time we decided to visit the botanical garden which was next to the hotel. When we returned to the hotel, we checked the weather at Elbrus and our emails and got ready to leave.
A taxi which for sure was unlicensed took us to the airport. On the road there was a lot of traffic as there were a lot of car collisions – very logical with the way they are driving. There were times that not only did we see cars driving on the emergency lane but also on sidewalk or off-road in order to bypass the traffic.
We arrived at Sheremetyevo 2, which is the airport for the domestic flights, something that you understand immediately. Nothing fancy like the international one (Sheremetyevo 1) but something that you could expect for a country as huge as Russia and serving so many different cultures as Russia does. At the airport we noticed also the first groups of climbers. We started talking with some Spanish climbers that were also climbing Elbrus.
The flight to Mineralnye Vody was the worst I had been ever. So many years as a student in England I had many flights but never was I so scared like that one. At one point when one lighting fell close to us and we started losing altitude I said to myself “Hmm, maybe one of the engines was off”. With Antonis we didn’t talk so much – what could you tell when a lot of thoughts went through your mind, and started to talk only after the pilot had regained altitude and the plane was flying smoothly? It is worthy to note that one plane from Aeroflot had one of its planes crashed during that time because of bad technical service!
We arrived that the small airport of Mineralnye Vody (or Minvody). After we took our baggage we went through the security control. The police officers there asked us in the beginning for the hotel vouchers but unfortunately we didn’t have because we hadn’t booked a hotel beforehand and we were supposed to find one when we would have arrived there. The police officers didn’t speak English and a local tourist guide who had come to pick up some climbers came to do some translation for us but only for a short time since he had to leave. At some point booking with a tourist agency seemed a good idea especially when you were left alone in the airport hall with the policemen. A taxi driver that knew some English introduced himself as Rafael and came to help us. After a lot of trying to explain them the situation they changed their initial claim about the hotel voucher and told us that they didn’t also like the stamp from Russian immigration office on Antonis’passport, which had a small corner not visible. We understood that they wanted money. Finally the officers asked for it. They started with 50 euro but after negotiating we gave them 10 euro and let us to pass
We left the airport and Rafael asked us if we needed a hotel. We replied affirmatively as it was getting dark and it wouldn’t have been good to look around in a strange town for a hotel with all our stuff. The rest of the group was arriving the next day by train.
We entered his Lada with tinted windows and started driving to the hotel. He told us that after 10 years of picking up climbers from the airport, we were the first Greek ones that he took. We arrived at the hotel which was ok and after having a small rest he took us for a small drive around the town, showing the places for eating, etc. Proving that a taxi driver knows the local do’s and dont’s, he even offered us prostitutes and told us that if we got lost he could come and pick us up from anywhere. We only told him that we needed a morning pickup from the hotel to the train station and then maybe a mini-bus for Cheget, which is the town at the foothills of Elbrus.
We walked around with Antonis, found some junk food to eat and bought our morning breakfast and some beers. We return to the hotel and we drink the nice Russian beers – Russian beers are great because the water that they use is one of the clearest. We fell asleep after we canceled the night shower as the room’s water supply was stopped.
Sunday 3/8/08 Minvody – Cheget
As we had some time before the rest of the team arrived at the train station, we decided to go for a walk around the town. The town was very green with many parks and there was also an open market. We bought some stuff from the super market and then went back to the hotel in order to go to the train station. Rafael came to pick us up and he took us on the long way to the station (we knew that he was doing circles) in order to ask for more money. Russians are cunning but Greeks are also because we are used to this kind of behavior back at our country. At the train station we discussed about the political situation with him and told us that he had studied management but wages from companies were very low. He also told us that he could earn a lot more as a taxi driver/guide (or pimp we thought).
At noon the rest of the team arrived by train and we were ready to depart for Cheget. Rafael had found us a minibus that would take us there for 4000 rubles (around 110 euros). We loaded the minibus with our stuff and were ready to depart. To our big surprise instead of taking the way to Cheget, we ended up at an auto car service station as the driver wanted to change tires. After wasting 2 hours there with a lot of quarrelling using only body language, we finally left for Cheget.
Again the driving was scary and maybe the most dangerous part of the whole trip. On the road we met a lot of cows sitting in the middle of the road and the driver instead of slowing down, he was speeding when passing them, telling us also jokes that he is Schumacher! On the road we passed also many blocks from the police.
When we entered the Baksan valley the scenery became alpine. The valley was transformed by the Baksan river flow that starts from Elbrus. The houses at the valley have a Caucasian style and give a very nice tone next to the big blocks of apartments
After two and a half hours we arrived at Cheget. We found a very nice and cheap hotel and after tidying up our bags, we left for the town’s center in order to buy the food supplies and some gas canisters for the mountain.
Finally we went to a restaurant with their traditional local food like saslik and kebab. After a lot of beers we discussed all those crazy things that had happened to us during these 2 days. We also decided to walk all the way up and not to take the lifts as this would help with acclimatization.
At 21:30 we finally went to the hotel for a good night rest
The story continues here