Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi: Tips for Crossing the Border from Russia to Georgia
“Adeen, pozhaluysta.“ I mumbled to the attendant in my best Russian as I pointed to a pastry behind the glass counter. This point-and-hope approach to ordering had worked pretty well throughout our travels in Russia but I wasn’t sure it would work out here at the Georgian border.
“Oh, you want one of those? That one has meat inside but this one here is filled with cheese. It’s really good.”
I was completely caught off guard by the young man’s perfect English. I barely detected an accent but could tell he was trying to hide a smile at my attempted Russian. I opted for the cheese-filled khachapuri instead and we both waited for it to warm up. In the awkward silence, I realized I didn’t know a single word in Georgian and saw an opportunity.
“How do you say thank you in Georgian?” It’s the first word I like to learn in every country.
He smiled kindly, “Madloba.”
“Madloba,” I repeated to him as he handed me my change.
I took a bite of the flaky, cheesy goodness and finally relaxed a little bit.
We had made it safely to Georgia.
I was eating khachapuri.
All was well.
Our border crossing from Russia to Georgia was much like my exchange with the attendant at the cafe: not nearly as bad as expected. Enjoyable, even. If you’re here because you’re considering this overland border crossing, I hope your experience is as good as ours was.
For days we had been dreading this border crossing and hesitated even more once we learned of the recent ban on all direct Russia-Georgia flights. Should we go by bus? Should we use BlaBlaCar? Is it even safe to go now?
In this post, I’ll break down exactly how we managed to get from Vladikavkaz, Russia to Tbilisi, Georgia in the hopes that it may shed light on what the experience is actually like for foreigners. A few things to note before continuing:
Wes and I are Canadian citizens and hold Canadian passports.
We travelled throughout Russia with Russian tourist visas and stayed for the full 30 days allowed.
We were planning to spend a month in Georgia where a visa is not required for Canadians.
We speak a little bit of Russian. Enough to understand and answer the questions we were asked at both check-points.
We crossed problem-free on Saturday July 13th, 2019.
The only legal Russia-Georgia border crossing
It is my understanding that the only way foreigners can enter Georgia from Russia overland (or vice-versa) is by way of a border check-point set up for international crossings. At the time of writing (August 2019), there is only one such border at Kazbegi/Dariali. This is sometimes referred to as the Verkhny Lars border or the Vladikavkaz to Kazbegi crossing. Because of rising tensions between Georgia and Russia, there is speculation as to the safety of this particular border region. In fact, the Government of Canada has advised Canadians to avoid all travel here:
We are not in a position to say this isn’t a dangerous border crossing nor are we here to recommend you follow our instructions. A great deal of thought and deliberation went into our decision to cross the border here and we suggest you do your due diligence as well. We’re simply sharing our recent experience in case anyone is looking for updated information and seeking an overland option to travel independently between Vladikavkaz and Tbilisi. Thankfully, our crossing from Russia to Georgia went smoothly and our total travel time was under 9 hours. Both borders were quite busy and we noticed really long lines of freight trucks on either side.
The Bus From Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi
After weighing our options, we decided to book a direct bus from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi. We were hoping this would guarantee a more seamless transfer at the border without having to look for a different taxi or rideshare once we exited Russia. This was also a feasible option for us because we were travelling with two full-sized suitcases and a bus would (presumably) have more storage room. It would also be more comfortable and efficient than taking a local marshrutka.
There is one Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi bus with daily 10:00am departures from the Vladikavkaz No. 1 bus station. The bus station itself is rather dull and not exactly in a tourist-friendly part of town. We arrived to Vladikavkaz on a Friday evening and, with the help of our Booking.com host, purchased our tickets one night before. To secure a seat on this bus, I would advise going the day before if possible or early on the morning of your desired departure.
The attendants at the bus station are far from friendly and do not speak English but “Tbilisi avtobus” should do the trick. Tickets as of July 2019 are 715 RUB per person plus an additional 70 RUB each if you are travelling with more than your usual carry-on baggage. You will need to show your passport and then you’ll be given your ticket printed on receipt paper. Despite the Visa stickers at the ticket counter, credit cards are not accepted and you will need to pay for your fare in cash. If you need an ATM, there’s one around the corner from the bus station (exiting the station to your right).
Our bus was in fact a Mercedes Sprinter van with 16 seats and only 2 seat belts, one for the driver and one for the front passenger. There was limited overhead storage space for baggage and just enough room in the back “trunk” for our suitcases and some other passenger bags. On the day of our crossing, the bus was only about 2/3 full with a total of 10 passengers, including the driver. Our company for the day was mostly comprised of Russians with the exception of 1 Georgian man, 1 French traveller and the two of us.
Crossing from Russia to Georgia with Canadian Passports
It seems the folks at both the Russian and Georgian checkpoints don’t come across many Canadian travellers at all. We weren’t officially interrogated but we did seem to be asked more questions than the other passengers on our bus.
On the Russian side | When Wes approached the passport control booth on the Russian side, the female officer made a phone call from which the only word I could decipher was “Canada”. Naturally we both start getting a bit nervous. She questions Wes in Russian:
”What is your name?”
”Where are you from?”
”What do you do?”
I approached right after him and she brought my passport over to her partner’s booth. He flipped through it, they exchanged words and finally we heard the sound of her rubber stamp on our passports. We had officially made it out of Russia.
On the Georgian side | A few minutes later we get to the Georgian border. This side is far more crowded and, despite being in a brand new building, things seem less organized. This guy doesn’t look like he’s in the best of moods and also starts questioning us in Russian.
“Where are you going?”
“How long will you be there?”
”Where are you going after?”
I had to signal to Wes for help with translating and the officer asked him to come forward. He then paged a colleague and (again) all I could catch was “Canada”. A few minutes later *stamp*. We were finally in Georgia.
A Breakdown of Our Day
I figure the best way to help someone mentally prepare for what lies ahead is by giving you a straightforward play-by-play of the events that took place the day we crossed the border. So many factors come in to play with any border crossing so chances are that, even if you do exactly what we did, your experience won’t be identical to ours. Everything from the day of the week to the weather to your nationality (and that of your fellow passengers) will somehow affect how smoothly the process is for you. Below is an account of how our day went.
VLADIKAVKAZ TO TBILISI IN REAL TIME:
9:00 am | We check out of our apartment in Vladikavkaz and order a Yandex taxi to the bus station. Владикавказ № 1 on Google Maps.
9:20 am | We arrive at the Vladikavkaz bus station and get a coffee from an older lady operating the only booth that’s open. We decide to make use of the basement washrooms since we don’t know when we’ll see the next one. 15 RUB. Squat toilets only.
9:35 am | We head to the bus platforms looking for #12 as stated on our tickets. Our mini-bus to Tbilisi is waiting at platform #10.
9:40 am | We board the mini-bus after the driver grumpily makes room for our large suitcases. There are assigned seats on our tickets but no numbered seats on the bus. It’s a free for all. First come, first serve.
10:00 am | Scheduled departure.
10:07 am | Actual departure.
10:45 am | We pull up to the Russian border. Wait for several minutes on the bus before our driver gives us the green light to exit with only our passports.
10:55 am | The driver ushers us into a small, poorly lit building with 3 booths open. Everyone on our bus (including the driver) waits in the same line together and the attendant is able to distinguish that we’re all in the same group. I’m too nervous and don’t notice any facilities at this side of the border.
11:25 am | We’re stamped out of Russia. Everyone is back on the bus which has now parked over on the far left side of the building. Driver counts us all and a Russian male passenger joins our group. The adventure continues.
11:40 am | We make it to the Georgian border and everyone gets off while our driver stays in the car. We enter a larger, newer and modern-looking glass building. There are washrooms at the entrance but the room is so crowded that we decide to get in line right away. There are 4 booths open and no clear lines, just people crowding close together trying to get to the front of the line. The Georgian way.
12:15 pm | We’re stamped into Georgia and wait on the other side of the building for our driver. This building must be brand new and is well-facilitated. There is a small cafe, ATM and even a money exchange booth on the other side of the immigration booths.
I’m fairly confident there was a one hour time change at this point.
1:30 pm (12:30 pm Vladikavkaz time) | Our driver pulls through and we all board. He does a head count and we’re off again. The best is yet to come.
We drive south along the Georgian Military Highway for the next couple of hours. The road is windy and worthy of a Gravol if you’re particularly prone to motion sickness but the sights of the Caucasus Mountains along the way do help make up for it. As far as introductions to Georgia go, this incredibly scenic drive, on a clear summer day, was the best first impression we could have had.
3:10 pm | Our driver pulls over to a small roadside restaurant in Chabarukhi for a bathroom break. We’re greeted by a family of wandering pigs before making use of the free restaurant washroom. Wes and I share an espresso for 1.50 GEL. They must have been expecting our driver because his Megruli Khachapuri comes out hot and ready. Our 10 minute break turns into 20.
3:30 pm | We hop back on the bus for the final stretch of our drive.
4:45 pm | The closer we get to Tbilisi, the more traffic we’re faced with. Our driver makes a couple of stops along the way to let people off but then we finally arrive at the Central Bus Station. It’s about 10 minutes from the city centre, on Dimitri Gulia St.
General Tips for Crossing the Border from Russia to Georgia
As with any border crossing, it’s best to have your things in order to avoid any delays or confusion. It goes without saying that you should act calmly, respectfully and obey the laws.
Make sure you have your passport and Russian exit card ready as well as any other documentation you may need based on your visa requirements.
Be ready to answer key questions on the spot: Where are you from? What do you do? Where did you go before? Where are you going next?
Ensure you and your travel partner (if any) are on the same page with answers to the questions above.
Snap a picture of your bus and make note of the license plate so that you can easily find your way back to the right car at each checkpoint.
We weren’t asked for this but it’s always a good idea to have either a print out or mobile confirmation of your travel plans such as your accommodations in Georgia and your flight/train out (if you’ve already arranged them).
Be patient with the attendants at the border as any language barriers can be equally frustrating for them.
Other ways to get from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi
While we opted to take the bus in Vladikavkaz, there are a few other ways you can cross the border from Russia to Georgia. Vladikavkaz is the largest city on the Russian side of the border and a popular hub for those looking to get across. Taxis are gathered outside of the Vladikavkaz No. 1 station and charge a flat rate of 1,500 RUB per person. Ride shares with BlaBlaCar are popular as well. You can also opt to split up your crossing with a stop in Stepatsminda, a charming town nestled in the mountains of Kazbegi. There is regular taxi service between Stepatsminda and both Vladikavkaz and Tbilisi.
Over the course of five years, Wes and I have gone on countless adventures, many of which have caused others to raise an eyebrow.
“You quit your jobs to backpack across Mexico for six months?”
“You’re going to a small town in Poland to stay with a family you’ve never met?”
“What do you mean you made the headlines in Hungary?”
After a relatively pleasant journey, we can now add this memorable border crossing to our archives of questionable adventures. I don’t take for granted that this positive experience is in large part due to our ability to travel with Canadian passports. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before direct flights resume so that others can travel more safely and easily between these two countries. Until then, at least you know what it was like for a couple of Canadians to cross overland from Russia to Georgia.