We crossed from Georgia into Russia in the middle of summer, when the border was at it’s busiest, with Russian tourists heading in both directions, on their way to or from vacations in Batumi, and other beach towns on Georgia’s black sea coast.
Online reports estimate waits of well over 6 hours on some days in summer months. We’ve heard of much shorter waits in spring and autumn, and it’s probably not a wise idea to attempt to cross the border here in winter without a 4WD with chains on the tyres.
We found several groups on VK, and even a dedicated forum in Russian where travellers post updates on wait times and at the border crossing every summer. Travellers also post complaints of disorder and corruption on the Russian side, as impatient drivers attempt to push into the line, and local police escort cars paying large bribes directly to the front of the queue
Crossing in mid-July 2016, our situation was made far worse by a landslide that completely wiped out a 1km section of road right before the border checkpoint just two weeks before we were planning to cross, creating a huge backlog of cars and trucks wanting to pass the border.
We decided to spend the night at Gudauri, a Georgian ski village about 45km from the border.
Expecting the border crossing to open early in the morning, we set off from our hotel towards the border at around 3:45 am, before hitting the back of a first queue just past Ukhati village, where we spent 2 hours waiting before local police started letting cars through at 6:00am.
Traffic was chaotic, as impatient drivers raced up the mountain road towards the border, driving and overtaking dangerously, trying to get as many cars ahead as possible. The situation wasn’t helped by the narrow roads, and the 30km long line of trucks waiting to cross the border, backed up for days, possibly weeks, along the side of the road.
Police stopped cars again at a checkpoint about 5km from the border crossing, before the worst stretch of road, a partially collapsed bridge along a mountain cliff-side, and the recently repaired road from the landslide two weeks earlier.
Exiting Georgia at Verkhniy Lars Border Crossing
Passing the Georgian checkpoint was fast and simple, compared to the wait to come. Passengers were told to leave their cars, and pass through immigration inside the checkpoint building, while cars were directed through three checkpoint lanes.
The georgian border guard took a glance at my passport, and asked if I understood Russian. “Not very well”, I replied, in Russian. That was good enough for her. She thoroughly inspected my passport, Russian visa, car documents, and international driving permit, before wishing me well, and stamping me through into no man’s land between Georgia and Russia.
Exiting Georgia took a little longer for passengers. There is some room for cars to wait after the checkpoint. The checkpoint building has toilets on both sides.
We exited Georgia around 8am, 4 hours after joining the first queue of cars.
No Man’s Land – Between Georgia And Russia
In no man’s land, we joined a queue of around 80 cars waiting to enter Russia.
After moving slowly along the queue for 4 hours, a Russian border guard approached each of the cars in line. Russian cars, and cars that had already obtained a “Вокс” (“Vox” – temporary import customs clearance) were permitted to proceed ahead to the checkpoint. Cars that were entering Russia for the first time (mostly from Azerbaijan and Armenia), with no previous paperwork, like us, had to wait.
At this point, the line slowed considerably. We moved forward roughly 4 car lengths per hour, the rate that vehicles were exiting the checkpoint, 20 cars ahead.
As we finally reached the checkpoint, cars without paperwork were ushered through two inspection lanes to pass immigration customs, each around 5 cars long.
Here, the whole border crossing is bottlenecked. None of the cars in each lane can move forward until the very front car has completed their customs paperwork and exited the checkpoint. This multiplies delays back through the queue, since cars further back in checkpoint with their documents in order can’t exit the checkpoint before the cars in front. The situation is ridiculous at best.
We passed Russian immigration at the first window, at the back of the checkpoint
queue. The border guard asked us a few questions about why an Australian was entering Russia in a Georgian car with a Ukrainian, and held our passports until another immigration officer came to question us some more (in Russian).
Where are you from?
Where did you meet?
Where are you going?
Where do you work?
Our responses were far from standard. I don’t imagine many digital nomads pass through the Georgia-Russia border crossing with their Georgian car, but once the immigration officer understood what was going on, he was happy to return our passports. Amongst the confusion, the border guards completely forgot to inspect our car and baggage.
We proceeded to the second window to obtain a customs permit for our car. The customs officer here was even more confused than the immigration officer. Alisa handled the situation, in Russian.
Border guard, “How did he drive here from Australia?”
Alisa, “No, the car is from Georgia.”
Border guard, “What do you mean the car is from Georgia?” He was growing frustrated and clearly not understanding how an Australian could own a Georgian car.
Alisa, “We bought the car in Georgia”.
Unable to comprehend the situation, the border guard looked like his head was about to explode, “What do you mean you bought a car in Georgia!?”
Alisa, “I don’t know what else to tell you, it’s easy to buy a car in Georgia.”
This response failed to satisfy the border guard.
“Go to the other window!”
At the next window, we entered what I’ve come to call a Russian queue.
In a Russian queue, everyone stands as close to the front of the line as possible, attempting to block anyone else from getting further ahead. When you reach the front of a Russian queue, it’s your turn.
The window was operating at around 4 cars per hour, mostly because drivers had failed to correctly complete their paperwork. When we finally made it to the front of the queue, our (correctly filled) paperwork was stamped and approved in about 10 minutes. We were free to enter Russia.
We finally exited the border checkpoint at 4pm, 12 hours after entering the first line.
The highway on the Russian side is a dream, compared to the winding mountain roads in Georgia.
Tips For Crossing Verkhniy Lars Border From Georgia To Russia
In the busy summer months, I’d recommend staying as close as the border as possible, in Stepansminda village, to avoid the first queue of cars that was released at 6am.
Know what to do with your paperwork, and fill it out in advance. A copy of the Customs Declaration Form is available from the Russian Federal Customs Service in English. Only the vehicle owner needs to fill out the customs form.
Insurance for driving in Russia is available a small cluster of cafes on the right, shortly after the border crossing.