Two cuban cigars, some Norwegian coins and a sami-postcard

"My brother was too lazy to become anything else than a police man" Maxim tells me when we are visiting his home in Petrozavodsk in Russia when I notice a police jacket hanging in the hall way. If you don't know what to do in life after the military service, he tells me, you can always just become a policeman: your future is safe as you don't need any education except from the two years military service, you have a secure, but small income, and you can of course always get more money if you are just a tiny bit creative.

This is Russia, where you have a good reason to fear the police, where the police torture half of all suspects according to an article in the Independent and where corruption is more the rule than the exception. Drive through Russia in your own bus, and you can't but notice the police presence. Outside every city or town there are check points, and on top of that, they like standing along the road, stopping cars - and of course - us. They have even made fake police cars in wood and card board along the roads to make sure you never feel safe and to keep up the paranoia.

In Russia we were stopped five times a day quite often. This meant almost every hour, or maybe twice in a row within half an hour. We never knew what to expect, every time they wanted to see something new or different from the last check point which would give the police checkpoints a certain nerve; what could we expect this time?

On the road between UFA and Chelyabinsk the 29th of August we wrote in our bus blog:
Check 1. Vehicle documents, drivers licence, where are you going?
Check 2. They opened the back door, drivers licence, passports, vehicle documents, bus owner's documents
Check 3. Tachograph check (a system where the bus kilometres and pauses are recorded), everything is okay, smile, some Norwegian kroner as souvenir
Check 4. Vehicle documents and driver's licence
Check 5. Vehicle documents and driver's licence

Sometimes a "good day" and "we are only Norwegian tourist" in Russian would be enough, and they would let us go, other times, they would like a Norwegian souvenir, preferable a Norwegian coin, one even wanted our dictionary. Martin was gone for a long time and we started to get a bit nervous in the bus - what did they want this time?, but then he comes back to the bus with a big smile telling us that the policeman wants our dictionary as a present. We gave him a post card with an old sami man instead. But then we also had the police officers wanting our money. That was a bit more tricky.

On our way to the Kyrgyz border we stopped at a big truck station specialising in selling eels in every thinkable way. We were in a good mood and some of us had been drinking a couple of beers in the bus before checking out this big truck stop in the middle of nowhere. After a short while some of us hooked up with a man selling smoked pig in a small house. The man was in his fifties and was a former officer in the army. Now his bony arms were shuffling coal into the fire and his big grin revealed a couple of golden teeth along with some missing teeth. Soon we were all to become best friends in the way alcohol blur the human brain's conception of the world.

The next day some of us woke up with a hang over, except Anders who was the one to start today's driving. After a couple of kilometres we were stopped as usual. Anders went in to talk with the policemen and came soon back out again rather shaky. "They took an alcotest and it shows that I have been drinking. I don't understand. I only had to beers last night and it shows 0.8%. They will take my driver's licence unless we pay $2000." Quite a good try - some one had told the policemen about our truck stop party. If the policemen had been smart, they would have asked for less money and we would probably have paid to avoid any further hassle, but $2000 was just a too big amount. We told Anders to refuse to pay any money and that he should demand to be taken to the nearest hospital for a blood test. The policeman played with his gun for a little while until he said "okay, just drive". We won. They lost.

If one is persistent and patient, one can drive through Russia and Central-Asia without paying any bribes, but being patient doesn't help if the policemen are being too creative and actually destroys your formal papers. This happened in Kazakhstan:

Another routine stop and Martin has to go into the office. Soon he comes back out again telling us that some insurance papers are missing according to the police. Guro who was the one fixing the papers in Astana tells him that they are all there. Martin goes back in again with Guro. We are all searching in the bus, in the garbage, everywhere for the so-called missing insurance paper without any luck. Inside the police check point there is another story taking place as Guro understands what has happened. They have replaced the new insurance paper with the old one and thrown the new one away while Martin had to go back to the bus to search for the "missing" papers. Now they want money. But without our paper we can't continue driving - then it will be missing in the next check point, and it will be hard to pay our way out through the rest of Kazakhstan. "Fy faen" Guro shouts really loud and tells exactly what kind of policeman she thinks he is. They are not used to see angry Norwegians in a big, grey bus. We don't pay anything, but we have to stay overnight close by and drive back to Astana to get new insurance papers the following day.

The further we get away from the remains of the what once was a strong empire, the police tends to stop us less, but they still try every trick in the book to get some money from us. After two weeks in Russia and another two weeks in Kazakhstan, we never pay any bribe. What is going to be our first bribe on the trip actually happens in Kyrgyzstan as we are driving on the road for small vehicles instead of the new road for trucks when we are stopped by a policeman. If we give a small contribution in alcohol he will of course forget that we are driving on the wrong road. Being fond of alcohol we can all understand his urgent need, but unfortunately we are out of alcohol and try to figure out what to give him as a bribe. Morten remembers that he has brought some Cuban cigars and we hope the policeman will know the value of two Cuban cigars as we hand them over. He understands.

Somewhere in the Russian no-where a sami-postcard is hanging on a dirty police station wall and somewhere in Kyrgyzstan's rural mountains a policeofficer is smoking away on his Cuban cigars while taking a sip of the Vodka bottle he got from another lost driver.