Travels in the Caucasus

As if by divine geographical decree, the Caucasus mountains separate Europe from Asia, ancient Christendom from Islam, dividing the steppelands of the north from the higher plateaux of Iran and Turkey to the south.

The Caucasus ("Kavkaz" in Russian) range runs for only 1,210 km (750 miles) from the Black Sea to the Caspian, but its history delves deep. Prometheus, who made men of clay and stole fire from heaven to animate them, was chained by Zeus to Mount Caucasus, where an eagle gnawed on his liver daily, while Jason and his Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece at Colchis on the Black Sea.

Persians, Khazars, Arabs, Huns, Turko-Mongols and Russians have invaded and migrated into the Caucasus (the Romans called it a day when they reached it), endowing the region with its unfathomable ethnic and linguistic complexity. Even today in our globalized, CNN world, more than 40 languages are still spoken by the ethnic groups of the Caucasus. The Arabs wisely named it the "Mountain of Languages."

This diversity, and persistence, of languages is best explained by geography, but also by societies whose loyalties are to clan and family as much as to nation or region. The mountainous region of the Caucasus (known as Transcaucasia) form a series of chains that cut northwest to southeast. These include the highest mountain in Europe Mount Elbrus (5,633 m or 18,481 ft — it’s on the Russian side so therefore in Europe, no matter what the French would have you believe about Mont Blanc), and a host of other peaks over 5,000-metres high. The dips and depressions of the chain created near-isolated communities, with relatively little contact between them even in the twentieth century. It’s said that the blond tribes of the Black Agavi people, who claim to be descendants of the Crusaders, were still wandering the mountains in chain mail tunics in the 1930s.

Due to continued unrest in the Caucasus, caused by the Chechen rebels’ attempts to breakaway from the Russian Federation, but also owing to tensions with Georgia, travel is discouraged by the embassy advisories. But I was keen to see the mountains for myself, and wanted to include them in the guide in the hope that the troubles would wane in its lifetime.

I flew to the town of Nalchik direct from Moscow. I had failed to communicate which airport I was flying from in Moscow to my friend’s kindly chauffeur, and unfortunately spent the beginning of the journey biting my nails raw in the back of his car while we sped round the Moscow ringroad at breakneck speed. I failed to check in my rucksack, and scrabbled onto the plane with it still on my back. No-one seemed to mind.

At Nalchik I was met by Oleg, the director of the company who’d agreed to show me the region at a discounted price. Oleg’s face was puffy and round, his eyes heavy-lidded, with a pugilist’s nose ending in a prominent grey-black, tobacco-tinged moustache. He had a sleepy right eye, which only just peeked out from beneath his lids. It would have been unnerving had he not been such a warm-hearted man. His top teeth were chipped, and the bottom ones non-existent, his cheap Russian cigarette smoke funnelling conveniently through the gap. He had a squinting laugh, and a trusting, diffident manner.

We drove towards Mount Elbrus in a small car, the fading light quickly turning to night, the peaks dissolving into blackness. Up the Baksan Valley we wove, crossing and re-crossing the river as it rumbled beneath us. At one town, recently flooded, we stopped to buy tomatoes, bread and vodka (supper), and about an hour later wound into an ever-tighter valleyhead until we reached the town of Terskol. The mountain air was freezing, but bracing — and anything was better than Moscow’s fetid air.

We found my room in the hotel, Oleg sourced some knives, plates and glasses, and we settled down amid the flock wallpaper. We joked that I was the only guest. Later, when the management refused to turn the hot water or heating on since they couldn’t justify the expense, this wasn’t so funny.

After travelling, there are always a few moments that stick to the quicksand of one’s memories. There they cling, to be pocketed, before they merge into the melee of the past. The next morning was one of those.

Since I’d arrived at night, I had no idea what to expect of Terskol. I woke early, and before my solo breakfast (which was more like a three-course meal), I escaped the hotel compound. Along the road, a herd of cows filed by, nonchalantly grazing at the grassy fringes. A few locals stared at me. The air was so delicious and crisp. I wandered over to the milky river, and sat on a boulder at what felt like the heart of the valley. The slopes rose in shades of tilled fields, before giving way to pine and Nordmann fir (a beautiful tree which can reach 60 metres). Deciduous and evergreen species danced in polychromatic juxtaposition. Above the forested slopes, the cliffs were a stark, lunar grey, riven by scouring rivers and etched with the occasional waterfall. Yet higher loured snow-capped peaks. To the west loomed the behemoth Mount Donguzarun, an impossibly large glacier teetering on its top lip, its near-vertical sides a fretwork of dark volcanic stone and suspended snow.

Oleg came to fetch me, and we began our research of the area.

For one of our lunches, we visited a restaurant run by a woman called Auntie Vala. We ate in a room washed a sickly green, sitting on tatty, brownish sofas at a table draped with a lacy throw. Posters of Korean or Japanese girls incongruously smiled from the walls. A pathos-seeped mother-and-child poster adorned the fridge.

Vala had a dew-drop nose and a high, quite mobile brow that sat on her wiry, inky eyebrows. A faint moustache skulked beneath the shadow of her nose, while her eyes were quick and sable black. She wore pendulous gold earrings. Wisps of grey hair feathered out from beneath her headscarf. Looking at her figure, swathed in layer upon layer of moth-eaten clothes, it was impossible to distinguish the end of her breasts and the beginning of her belly.

She served up plate upon plate of local fare: shashlyk (kebab), lamb soup called shchorpa, bliny pancakes, and a floury, fatty bread called pichin. The dish she was most proud of though, was ayran, a yoghurt. That’s how her people had survived the deportations she said. They had made ayran and lived, while many others had perished.

The Russians didn’t wrestle control of the Caucasus until the nineteenth century, following a series of wars with Persia and Turkey. Many peoples, among them the Georgians and Armenians, were keen to free themselves from Turkish persecution and put up little resistance. In Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and the historic region of Circassia (the western area roughly between Mount Elbrus and the Black Sea), the story was different. The people were largely Muslim and fought the Russians bitterly, with various uprisings — the 1850s rebellions led by Imam Shamyl being the largest and bloodiest. The Russians, in turn, were ruthless in their suppression of the wild, mountain enclaves.

Come the Second World War, many of these peoples sided with the invading German forces desperate to seize the vast oil resources of the Caucasus. Following Soviet counterattacks, the Germans retreated. Stalin, himself a Georgian (the son of shoe-maker from Tiblisi, his real name was Dzhugashvili), took revenge on the people of the entire Caucasus for the disloyalty of a few. He deported en masse to Siberia and Central Asia whole tribal nations— the Kalmys, the Balkars (who live in the Mount Elbrus area), the Chechens and the Ingush among them, more than half-a-million in all. Few of them survived to return in the 1950s. Auntie Vala must have been among the few that did.

I took a photo of her on the doorstep of her restaurant.

"Bring me tourists," she chided Oleg, with a sigh of resignation that spoke volumes.

We took the cable car up as far as we could towards Mount Elbrus. It took a while, but finally, we emerged from the last station into snow. Above us, the twin-horned white mass of Elbrus shone, the wind whipping across its higher, westerly peak, casting a diaphanous veil across the brilliant lapis sky.

The Caucasus have inspired the likes of Pushkin (he was exiled here in 1820, where he wrote his famous poems Prisoner of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisarai), Mikhail Lermontov (whose early romantic poetry was stirred by the beauty of the mountains, before he too died young from a bullet in a duel) as well as Tolstoy’s novels The Cossacks and Hadji Murad. Today’s travellers and would-be poets are just as spellbound.

The mountains harbour abundant wildlife, among them the hoofed maral, chamois, wild boar, roe deer and a reintroduced subspecies of the European bison, which in turn are hunted by large carnivores such as the brown bear, wolf and lynx. Nearly two hundred species of birds are found there, including the griffon vulture and the majestic golden eagle.

The only wildlife I witnessed was a cable car-full of schoolkids who rampaged about the snows at the station. I was sitting admiring the view when one of the teachers/supervisors came over to talk. We managed to exchange some words ("I’m English" - "Beautiful, yes?" - "ooh, look Elbrus!"). I asked where the kids were from. Chechnya, he said. "All terroristi," he laughed. That’s Russian black humour for you.

On another day, we took the chairlift up the mountainside which faces Elbrus. The multi-coloured green, yellow and red chairs trailed up the hillside like sweet wrappers on a washing line. We got up to 3,000 metres, and continued hiking in short, puffy breaths up towards a ruined house. This had been Oleg’s scientific station in the 1980s. Oleg was a physicist you see, not a tour leader at all. He had had a research project here, studying and measuring cosmic rays. This was before perestroika and the death of government funding: "In before times," as Oleg put it.

The station, cramponed to the mountainside, was a wreck. Parts of the roof has fallen in. Walls had been stripped. The floors were a mass of debris — pipes, radiators, cement, plaster, furniture, light fittings. In one room lay the remnants of the scientific equipment, long tubes and big metallic boxes emblazoned with dented dials and rusting switches. Here was Oleg’s bedroom (we couldn’t get in). This is where the kitchen was (a bare pipe or two). We emerged from the house, and sat on its rock foundations, smoking.

It was easy to pity Oleg. But I know he doesn’t want my pity. Nearly all his students and colleagues have left the Elbrus area, and some Russia altogether. Many of them are computer programers in the States, he said. He’d left too, to begin a business distributing computer parts. He did very well. Too well. The mafia and the government took an interest in his ‘development’ and he got out before he got in too deep. His wife had "gone crazy" with the money, he told me. She decided to stay in Moscow, and make her life there with their children. But he’d returned to his mountain, to Elbrus his faithful friend.

Some of his tale was nostalgic. His days in the research station were, after all, his halcyon twenties. He was happy, and young, and could sun bathe on the roof naked and nobody cared. But this was also the tale of so many people of his era, brought up, schooled and employed by the Soviet system. Led to believe that their research was of vital importance, and that they their jobs were for life — only for the carpet to be stripped away from beneath them, to land on the cold, hard floor of capitalism.

When we got drunk on vodka toasting each other during our last lunch, I asked him if he’d rather the old system. No, he said, it’s better now. But neither was it black and white. They had freedom now, he explained, but that meant porn and crap TV also. You could travel now, but who can afford that luxury? You could, at least, predict things in the old system. Now it was just chaos.

We toasted friendship in the bright afternoon sun. We had grown to like each other during our time together. Despite his troubles — he has a baby son with an estranged girlfriend, two sons in Moscow, few tourists, and failing health — Oleg was in the mountains, where he was happiest. He’d understood, as I did then, that you don’t need to be a physicist with your charts and diagrams, switches and dials to explain the universe. The force of these mountains is as intangible as love itself. Its source will never be known. Living close to them, prisoner of their beauty, is enough.


Needless to say,
all text and photos are
Dominic Hamilton

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