For the past four years I’ve been travelling through Eastern Europe and living off and on in different places across the former USSR. Last year I decided to move out here as a full-time expat. After providing my top tips for living in this wild part of the world [link to last article], it’s time for me to detail the five craziest things I’ve seen whilst living here.
Joyriding a Tank
At 4am in a bar in Kiev, when someone promises to take you to drive a tank at 9am the next day, you tend to politely agree then forget about it. Which I did, until I received a knock at my apartment at 9am the next day. After an exchange of money, I soon found myself being driven at high speed down the Ukrainian motorway to a military base where a waiting tank was ready. The commander of the base had apparently been paid off and had headed to the nearest brothel, so the tank was ours for the day. I don’t own a driver’s license, but here I was driving a tank down an empty highway and through the woods, stopping for vodka, bread and pork fat with the soldiers which resulted in some wobbly driving on the way back.
Whilst travelling through Chechnya, I was lucky enough to be invited to a local wedding and expected a pretty standard affair of a service then a party afterwards, but in a country where hardly anybody drinks I didn’t expect much fun. How wrong I was. As I parked up at the wedding, the sound of machine gun fire was tearing through the air. It’s a Chechen custom to release a volley of gunfire into the air at weddings.
We boarded a convoy of luxury hired cars and took off through the suburbs of Grozny. The cars hit each other, did donuts and aggressively sought for a place at the front of the convoy taking out any other cars that got in their way. In the middle of the chaos, a suited Chechen threw a handful of banknotes out of the car window causing an influx of death defying women and children to storm in amongst the traffic to try and pick it up.
Rugby Tackling an Escaped Bear:
Boredom can be a dangerous thing. When in Chechnya, my local friend recieved a phone call that a bear had escaped Grozny zoo and was running wild through the city centre, a manhunt was on to catch it. Instead of locking his doors, he grabbed his car keys and we were soon speeding towards Grozny to see what was going on. It didn’t take long to see a formidable black bear walking down the street, which local militia had blocked off on either end. We kept a distance. The police couldn’t use a tranquilizer gun so a needle had to be administered by hand. One brave Chechen police officer distracted the bear up close while another officer clumsily rugby tackled it to tranquilize it. Luckily, he was succesful and wasn’t mauled to death. With the bear safely transported back to the zoo, ‘’normal life’’ resumed in Grozny.
Death-Defying Cable Cars Still in Use:
There is, a two-hour drive from the tourist-riddled Georgian capital of Tbilisi, a town called Chiatura. A city once a proud mining city of the USSR which was a privilege to live in. Today, it’s a depressing, black, smoggy industrial city where many of the inhabitants have left for a better life. Those who remain mostly work in the coal mines in the mountains, but getting up there is no easy task.
Luckily, Josef Stalin and his industrialisation meant that the city was fitted with an array of cable cars in the 1950’s to transport workers into the mountains. Whilst any sane person would agree that the cable cars should have been decommissioned in the 1990’s, they still run today. As the rusting hulks appear through the undergrowith into the station with a crumbling mosaic of Lenin and Stalin, I was reminded of a scene from Silent Hill. Inside the car is like a time warp with a 1950’s control system and an elderly conductor who is paid $80 a month to do the job and makes the sign of the cross repeatedly. On the way back down, the ancient rusting coffin was contrasted by a glamorous local Georgian woman in her finest clothes, makeup and smartphone which gave a sense of a timewarp overlap.
Gruesome, long-forgotten sights
In Eastern Europe, it’s common to find sights and places whose existence would be unthinkable in the West. On a recent trip through Serbia, I discovered ‘’Skull Tower’’. Expecting a tacky horror attraction, I headed to check it out and was surprised as a result. The tower holds a four-sided wall of human skulls that once belonged to a Serbian rebel army. Whilst in battle with the Ottoman Empire, the Serbs committed suicide by blowing up a gunpowder reserve and taking out the advancing Ottoman troops with them. The Ottoman Sultan ordered their heads be stripped of flesh and be displayed for eternity to instill terror into the local Serbs.
During my first trip to Nagorno Karabakh, a breakaway state in the South Caucasus, I was so distracted by the mind-blowing mountainous scenery that I almost missed a destroyed tank lying on the side of the road. Once a Russian-produced battle tank, its doors were now creaking eerily in the mountain wind and its crew long dead. The sole remaining occupants were snakes who slithered around a rusting Russian army helmet.
This is far from a comprehensive list of all the strange things I’ve seen in Eastern Europe, but the above goes to show just how utterly alien and fantastic the region can be compared to the West. If you’re interested in seeing any of this for yourself, you should head over to YPT’s Eastern Europe tours and take a look!