Car and driver replaced on Caucasus tour

By Albert Podell
This item appears on page 26 of the March 2019 issue.

I took a unique new tour from Spiekermann Travel, "Wild Frontiers of North Caucasus," May 5-22, 2018.

It covered the remote Caucasus republics of southernmost Russia — Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia-Alania and Kabardino-Balkaria — from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea across the entire chain of the northern Caucasus Mountains. It also went to the self-proclaimed country of Abkhazia, which is still internationally considered part of Georgia.

The tour price of $7,995 plus a single supplement of $500 included round-trip air from New York to Sochi, Russia, via Istanbul, returning out of Moscow; an internal flight from Makhachkala to Moscow; all meals, and all gratuities.

At the airport in Makhachkala, the capital of the Republic of Dagestan, the three tour members in our group were met with a 16-year-old Mitsubishi 4x4 that had 580,000 kilometers on its odometer and whose suspension had been ridden hard, providing a very uncomfortable ride.

Far worse was that, even though people drive on the right-hand side of the road in every republic in the Caucasus, the steering wheel was on the right-hand side of the car. The vehicle had apparently been unearthed in some former British colony.

This meant that whenever following a truck, the driver could see nothing of the road ahead before pulling out to the left to pass, while I, who was in the passenger seat for most of the journey, would have to scream to warn him to pull back to avoid smashing into an approaching car.

It was totally terrifying, but, far from fazing our driver, he would follow each truck ahead of us by just a few feet on the narrow 2-lane highways.

Our route included many miles of the most dangerous mountain roads I had ever seen — narrow dirt or rock roads replete with dozens of breathtakingly sharp and steep turns on each ascent and descent, with drops of more than a thousand feet into the valley and no guardrails of any sort.

I spent four or five hours of each day in fear, telling the driver (who spoke no English) or signaling him with my hands to drive more slowly, to not drive too close to the car ahead, etc.

Our guide would repeat some of my instructions in Russian, after which the driver would drive in a safe manner for a few minutes before reverting to his wild style. He even refused to adjust his speed for dense fog, which, in the high mountains, often limited visibility to 20 or 30 feet.

The guide, most of the time, was occupied with trying to keep us on the correct road.

The driver also ignored the strange sounds emanating from under the car. When I finally prevailed upon our guide to take the car to a repair shop, they found that a thick cable from the dashboard was poking through into the wheel well and scraping against the front left tire on all hard right-hand turns. In addition, the metal step on the driver's side was almost ready to fall off, requiring a half hour of welding.

A woman in our group got carsick on the second day and that night emailed a complaint to Ihab Zaki, the president of Spiekermann Travel. By the third night, I was so upset that even I sent an email to Ihab complaining about the superannuated car and its daredevil driver, something I had never done during a tour before.

To their credit, Spiekermann, on the eighth day of the tour when we arrived in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia-Alania, fired the driver.

For the eight days after that, we had seven different drivers and seven different vehicles. Two of the drivers were excellent, as was a relatively new Russian 4x4 UTZ Patriot and a Nissan Patrol.

The rest of the drivers, in my opinion, ranged from fair to awful, and many of the vans we used were poorly sprung and, I felt, not suited for rough roads.

Our itinerary called for us to enter Prielbrusye National Park and drive for several hours up to a pass at about 10,000 feet to get a view of Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.

The tour brochure did state that we would see Elbrus only "if we will be lucky with the weather." What it did not make clear was that the road might be blocked on its northern (sunless) slopes by snow drifts.

In a discussion on May 18, our two experienced drivers reported that they had gotten through the pass on May 6 the year before, so our guide decided to give it a go.

The next morning in Nalchik (in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic) dawned bright and clear, so we headed up the mountain. Two hours later, at about 9,000 feet, we encountered small patches of snow. After another 15 minutes, our way was blocked by two large snow drifts.

We shoveled our way through in three hours but were blocked by an immense drift another mile farther on, forcing us to return and continue to our next destination of Pyati gorsk, not by this mountain shortcut but by a different highway, losing half a day.

A sure-fire solution to this would be to start the tour a month or so later, but Spiekermann wanted us to — earlier in the tour — experience a parade on May 9, Russia's Victory Day. It's one of the biggest holidays of the year, commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War. The parade in Derbent was really worth seeing, particularly for its displayed veneration of the former dictator Joseph Stalin.

One other problem I had with the trip — which others might not consider a problem — is that because there are so few truly special or interesting places or activities in that region, travelers will, each day, often have to drive two hours to see, for example, an ethnography museum, a potter at work, a jewelry craftsman at work, a painter in his studio, a village market, a mosque, a cemetery for the victims of a terrorist attack, a water mill where apricot pits and almonds are roasted and ground to make a popular condiment, an abandoned village where only one person remains, the home of a very friendly hermit (once an electrical engineer, now a subsistence farmer), a vineyard, a monastery, an unusual outdoor museum displaying the lifelong collection of one man, the home of a local family for a dinner and sleepover, impressive medieval towers in the countryside, a martial arts demonstration, a hot spring, a lakeside resort, the city of Sochi, a Caucasian dance troupe and ancient hamams (baths) from a thousand years ago.

Towering above it all is the awe-inspiring sheer beauty of the Caucasus Mountains.

Taken together with the city visits, these will give the visitor a fair flavor of the region, and the overall tour will enable the traveler to learn about and explore what is probably the least-visited area in Europe. The question one has to ask is 'Is it worth 15 days of difficult driving?'

I had toured with Spiekermann twice before (to Saudi Arabia and to Yemen and Lebanon) and was impressed with the quality of their local guides and drivers and the thoroughness and creativity with which they prepared their itineraries and carefully checked everything out, but something went wrong on this Caucasus trip.


New York, NY

ITN sent a copy of Mr. Podell's account to Spiekermann Travel ( and received the following reply.

I totally understand the sort of issue that Mr. Podell experienced in the tour of North Caucasus last May. His email to us after the third night reached us (with the time difference) by the tour's fourth day.

Once this tour starts, on the mountainous roads of those republics, it is not as easy to make an immediate shift and replace a car/driver that fast. However, we took the matter very seriously, monitoring the situation and calling our guide on a daily basis to remind him to try to control this inexperienced driver until the stop in a place where we could have a replacement vehicle come over and continue the tour.

This is exactly what happened by the eighth day, when, as soon as they reached the metropolis of Vladikavkaz, the driver and his vehicle were replaced.

As a rule of thumb, on all our tours that go to off-the-beaten-track destinations, we habitually do inspections, and we test the ground services. I personally went on that tour/route in September 2017, just to ensure that we are using the best-available services. My drivers at that time were beyond superb (not only from my point of view but by the statements of the 10 travelers on that tour).

The organization that supplies the Jeeps and drivers for this tour is the Automobile Touring Club of Chechnya. They have a limited number of members, and they all are independent drivers who own their own vehicles.

On Mr. Podell's tour, the one driver who was originally contracted had to decline at the last minute for personal reasons. This forced our local agent, Dmitry, to seek a quick replacement.

Dmitry was expecting to get a driver who was as good as the other three or four who had been supplied to him by this outfit over the years, but, lo and behold, they sent him this beat-up 4x4 and an irresponsible driver who surely made multiple unprofessional, risky and unacceptable decisions.

For our tour in September 2018, which had 10 participants, we reiterated intensely that we wanted the best-possible drivers and cars, and we even opted to retain a small part of the payment that was due to our supplier so that we had a recourse to withhold some of the payment if our clients faced a similar ordeal.

The result was that group members this time reported they were well satisfied with the cars and drivers.

As for the excursion to view Mt. Elbrus, our trip in 2019 is actually in September, so there won't be any issues with snow drifts blocking the road.

We surely hope that Mr. Podell will still always put his trust in us as he has in the past and that he travels with us again to other corners of the world.


President, Spiekermann Travel

18421 E. Nine Mile Rd., Eastpointe, MI 48021