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A Hitchhiker's Guide To The North Caucasus


Tomas Polacek at 2,620 meters in the mountains of Daghestan - Tomas Polacek, a reporter for the Czech newspaper “Mlada Fronta Dnes," hitchhiked through the North Caucasus this summer. His journey came a year after the Russia-Georgia conflict and amid growing local insurgencies. He wanted to see what life was like on the ground.
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Tomas Polacek at 2,620 meters in the mountains of Daghestan - Tomas Polacek, a reporter for the Czech newspaper “Mlada Fronta Dnes," hitchhiked through the North Caucasus this summer. His journey came a year after the Russia-Georgia conflict and amid growing local insurgencies. He wanted to see what life was like on the ground.

One of the more memorable routes through the mountains of Daghestan - "The mountains of Daghestan made the biggest impression on me, because they were fantastic. And I don't understand why the place isn't full of tourists. I have never seen anything as beautiful. I've traveled a good chunk of the world. I know the Georgian Caucasus. I know the desert. I know China well. But this made an unbelievable impression because the Caspian Sea is beautiful and you ride half an hour away and you are in these wild mountains, where each valley is completely different. Some valleys are green, some are black. Some are gorges. Just beautiful."
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One of the more memorable routes through the mountains of Daghestan - "The mountains of Daghestan made the biggest impression on me, because they were fantastic. And I don't understand why the place isn't full of tourists. I have never seen anything as beautiful. I've traveled a good chunk of the world. I know the Georgian Caucasus. I know the desert. I know China well. But this made an unbelievable impression because the Caspian Sea is beautiful and you ride half an hour away and you are in these wild mountains, where each valley is completely different. Some valleys are green, some are black. Some are gorges. Just beautiful."

A map traces Polacek's route though the North Caucausus in July and August 2009 - It took the Czech journalist three weeks and 105 cars to complete his 5,000-kilometer journey.
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A map traces Polacek's route though the North Caucausus in July and August 2009 - It took the Czech journalist three weeks and 105 cars to complete his 5,000-kilometer journey.

A woman walks past a destroyed building in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. - "I arrived in South Ossetia and sat down in the first cafe I saw. And three Ossetians invited me over for some food and drink and they asked who I was. And I replied that I was a Czech journalist. And they said: 'Look, we don't want to tell you how to do your job. We don't want to influence you. But we want to tell you one thing. In this place, you won't run into anyone who'll say a bad word against the Russians and who would say a good word about the Georgians. I didn't believe it. But then I spent three days in Tskhinvali. And it was true."
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A woman walks past a destroyed building in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. - "I arrived in South Ossetia and sat down in the first cafe I saw. And three Ossetians invited me over for some food and drink and they asked who I was. And I replied that I was a Czech journalist. And they said: 'Look, we don't want to tell you how to do your job. We don't want to influence you. But we want to tell you one thing. In this place, you won't run into anyone who'll say a bad word against the Russians and who would say a good word about the Georgians. I didn't believe it. But then I spent three days in Tskhinvali. And it was true."

“Saakashvili is a murderer” -- graffiti scrawled on a destroyed house in Tskhinvali - "The people there honestly love the Russians. ... It's more like they dread the Georgians rather than just fear them. When you say the word Saakashvili or the word Georgian, people start shaking. They are terrified of the Georgians. So I was in a sort of state of shock. I saw hundreds of demolished houses. And every family I spoke to recounted horrifying stories about...the Georgians..."
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“Saakashvili is a murderer” -- graffiti scrawled on a destroyed house in Tskhinvali - "The people there honestly love the Russians. ... It's more like they dread the Georgians rather than just fear them. When you say the word Saakashvili or the word Georgian, people start shaking. They are terrified of the Georgians. So I was in a sort of state of shock. I saw hundreds of demolished houses. And every family I spoke to recounted horrifying stories about...the Georgians..."

A "car cemetery" near Tskhinvali in South Ossetia - "They told me how a Georgian soldier who knew how to speak Ossetian shouted: 'Come out of your shelters! The Georgians are gone!' Everyone crawled out. And they gunned them all down. They showed me the 'car cemeteries,' as they called them. Along the roads are tens, or perhaps hundreds, of burned out cars. People were trying to flee north to Vladikavkaz and the Georgians shot them up."
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A "car cemetery" near Tskhinvali in South Ossetia - "They told me how a Georgian soldier who knew how to speak Ossetian shouted: 'Come out of your shelters! The Georgians are gone!' Everyone crawled out. And they gunned them all down. They showed me the 'car cemeteries,' as they called them. Along the roads are tens, or perhaps hundreds, of burned out cars. People were trying to flee north to Vladikavkaz and the Georgians shot them up."

Eteri, a poor but generous woman in Tskhinvali - "The people are incredibly hospitable. They have come through a war but will share everything they have. I was talking to a lady, about 80. She was by coincidence Georgian, who married an Ossetian a long time ago, in a village near Tskhinvali. And a year ago, the Georgians destroyed her house and blew up her only cow, and her pigs. But they let grandma live. So this Georgian grandmother lives in a tent. I asked her why she didn't get another cow and she said she didn't have the money. She still lives in a tent, a year after the war. But that's not the point. The point is that when I was about to leave, she said: 'Wait! Wait!' And she brought out wine and some fruit...She had nothing and I'd come to bother her with my questions. And she brought out her bag with three liters of wine and two kilos of fruit."
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Eteri, a poor but generous woman in Tskhinvali - "The people are incredibly hospitable. They have come through a war but will share everything they have. I was talking to a lady, about 80. She was by coincidence Georgian, who married an Ossetian a long time ago, in a village near Tskhinvali. And a year ago, the Georgians destroyed her house and blew up her only cow, and her pigs. But they let grandma live. So this Georgian grandmother lives in a tent. I asked her why she didn't get another cow and she said she didn't have the money. She still lives in a tent, a year after the war. But that's not the point. The point is that when I was about to leave, she said: 'Wait! Wait!' And she brought out wine and some fruit...She had nothing and I'd come to bother her with my questions. And she brought out her bag with three liters of wine and two kilos of fruit."

The site of a June assassination attempt against President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov of Ingushetia, near Nazran - "Ingushetia made the most tragic impression because you can see that the war continues there. It's a tiny place and everywhere there are traces of violence, of explosions. You can cross Ingushetia in half an hour by car, but it gives you the biggest shock, if you're not used to war. Because you can see that the war continues."
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The site of a June assassination attempt against President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov of Ingushetia, near Nazran - "Ingushetia made the most tragic impression because you can see that the war continues there. It's a tiny place and everywhere there are traces of violence, of explosions. You can cross Ingushetia in half an hour by car, but it gives you the biggest shock, if you're not used to war. Because you can see that the war continues."

The family of one of Polacek's Chechen drivers: Yusup Shavluhanov (left), his mother, his son, and brother - "I was stunned by today's Chechnya. Before I got there, I was on the road for some 4,000 kilometers and for most of that time people would tell me: 'We know what it'll be like there. You'll be kidnapped and held for ransom or murdered or you won't be able to get in.' Then I arrived in Chechnya and it was...nice. In Grozny, everyone told me it was unbelievable. Six years ago Chechnya was a bombed-out city. And now I think it's the prettiest, most modern city in the whole region."
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The family of one of Polacek's Chechen drivers: Yusup Shavluhanov (left), his mother, his son, and brother - "I was stunned by today's Chechnya. Before I got there, I was on the road for some 4,000 kilometers and for most of that time people would tell me: 'We know what it'll be like there. You'll be kidnapped and held for ransom or murdered or you won't be able to get in.' Then I arrived in Chechnya and it was...nice. In Grozny, everyone told me it was unbelievable. Six years ago Chechnya was a bombed-out city. And now I think it's the prettiest, most modern city in the whole region."

Ibrahim Shamayev, another of Polacek’s Chechen drivers, who claims to have been tortured by Russian soldiers - "I ran into one person [in Chechnya], for example, who was a nervous wreck. He was a Chechen, and he was shaking. He'd gone prematurely gray. ... You could tell he wasn't eating much and only smoking. He told me that the week before, Russian soldiers had given him electroshocks for two days running. He said he'd been detained three times and he was constantly talking about emigrating. ... He said they suspected him of helping Muslim fighters in the mountains. If he was or not, I don't know. I liked him because he was my driver."
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Ibrahim Shamayev, another of Polacek’s Chechen drivers, who claims to have been tortured by Russian soldiers - "I ran into one person [in Chechnya], for example, who was a nervous wreck. He was a Chechen, and he was shaking. He'd gone prematurely gray. ... You could tell he wasn't eating much and only smoking. He told me that the week before, Russian soldiers had given him electroshocks for two days running. He said he'd been detained three times and he was constantly talking about emigrating. ... He said they suspected him of helping Muslim fighters in the mountains. If he was or not, I don't know. I liked him because he was my driver."

Soldiers at one of the many military checkpoints in Daghestan - Many would ask for a bribe, Polacek says, but there were some who shared their fruit with him or stopped cars for him.
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Soldiers at one of the many military checkpoints in Daghestan - Many would ask for a bribe, Polacek says, but there were some who shared their fruit with him or stopped cars for him.

A shrine to Imam Shamil in west Daghestan. Everyone who passes by is supposed to leave a scarf in remembrance. - "Some 150 years ago, Imam Shamil fought [in Daghestan], so there are monuments to him and everyone remembers the brave Shamil, who battled the tsar's forces. It made a big impression on me, and I’d love to return someday because I felt safe. The landscape and the people were amazing. In four days in Daghestan, I didn’t have to spend a single ruble because people wouldn’t allow it. They passed me around like a relay baton and took care of me for four days."
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A shrine to Imam Shamil in west Daghestan. Everyone who passes by is supposed to leave a scarf in remembrance. - "Some 150 years ago, Imam Shamil fought [in Daghestan], so there are monuments to him and everyone remembers the brave Shamil, who battled the tsar's forces. It made a big impression on me, and I’d love to return someday because I felt safe. The landscape and the people were amazing. In four days in Daghestan, I didn’t have to spend a single ruble because people wouldn’t allow it. They passed me around like a relay baton and took care of me for four days."

Mogamed was moving into a new house in Daghestan and slaughtered three sheep for a house-warming party. - "People [in Daghestan] have retained their ancient traditions. I immediately ran into a beautiful traditional wedding. In the morning, when I woke up, three rams had been slaughtered and were being prepared in the courtyard for a feast. For a Czech, it's unusual."
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Mogamed was moving into a new house in Daghestan and slaughtered three sheep for a house-warming party. - "People [in Daghestan] have retained their ancient traditions. I immediately ran into a beautiful traditional wedding. In the morning, when I woke up, three rams had been slaughtered and were being prepared in the courtyard for a feast. For a Czech, it's unusual."

A wedding in the southern Daghestani city of Derbent - It’s local tradition for the bride and groom to visit the Sassanian fortress in Derbent.
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A wedding in the southern Daghestani city of Derbent - It’s local tradition for the bride and groom to visit the Sassanian fortress in Derbent.

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