Captivated by the Caucasus
By Sarah Fishburn Roberts
The Caucasus have fascinated Russia’s greatest writers for centuries. In 1822, Pushkin wrote The Prisoner of the Caucasus, a poem about a Russian aristocrat who finds himself unexpectedly exalting in the freedom and energy of the Caucasus. Between 1851 and 1853, when he was stationed in Starogladovskaya in the company of Tsarist troops, Tolstoy wrote his first book, Childhood, and later, inspired by all he had experienced in the region, penned Hadji Murad and his 1863 tale, The Cossacks. Yet it is Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of our Time that resonates most strongly, invoking spectacular landscapes characterised by “inaccessible mountains on all sides… yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow.” This dramatic backdrop is peopled by swashbuckling, devil-may-care young men, who gallop furiously across the steppe and wear their military uniform with a swagger. Perhaps it was nature’s grandeur that so attracted those Russian writers.
Perhaps it was the bloody history of the Caucasus, the tribal feuding and ancient grudges. Maybe it was the unique geographical location of East meeting West, Europe colliding with Asia, Islam with Christianity. Yet the question now is: what can you find today in the Caucasus? Why mention Lermontov at all? The answer is that you can find all the ingredients of A Hero of our Time, all the turbulent history and breathtaking beauty you want, coupled with diverse and friendly local populations, fantastic skiing, walking, hiking and exploring, good food and enough health and water treatments to send you back to Moscow feeling refreshed and revitalised. For poets and dreamers, it’s inspiration enough just to gaze at the mighty splendour of Mount Elbrus; everyone else can get their skis or their hiking boots on and scramble to the summit. On a more practical note, access to the Caucasus is straightforward, equipment hire, excursions and trips are readily available, and accommodation is reasonably priced.
The Don Express – bubblegum-pink curtains, frilly table covers and staffed by an unusually pleasant attendant – leaves from Moscow’s Kazan Station, and takes twenty hours to make the journey to Rostov-on-Don, the ‘Gateway to the Caucasus.’ From Rostov, we would travel across the Kuban steppe, through the spa towns sited at the foothills of the central Caucasus, then on to the skiing and hiking havens of Dombay and Elbrus. Our trip took three weeks, but anything from a week to a month in the region would be time well spent.
Camp 11, Mount Elbrus
Rostov is, of course, situated along the banks of the Don, a brown, sluggish river that flows from the south of Moscow all the way to the Sea of Azov. (If you’re looking for further literary accompaniment, there’s always Mikhail Sholokov’s heavyweight novel about the Civil War, And Quiet Flows the Don). The town is prosperous and attractive, with its very own Gorky Park, tree-lined boulevards and busy main shopping streets. The Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral is an elegant landmark in the centre of town and is surrounded by a colourful local market, where you can bargain for bags of delicious fruits grown in the warmer climates of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Our hosts in Rostov were Katya and Igor, a young couple who, like us, had registered on a new website, www.hospitalityclub.org. If you want to stay with Russians, rather than live in a hotel, you register your details on the site and offer your own home as an informal guesthouse to other members of the ‘club.’ In return, you can peruse those people listed on the site who live in those towns across Russia which you intend to visit, contact them, and arrange your own homestay with them. The service is free, as is the homestay.
Our weekend with Katya and Igor was a great success. A few days of unadulterated Russian hospitality leaves you enchanted and more hung-over than you want to admit, as you are escorted to local places of interest during the day and liberally fed and watered by night. Our evenings spent around Katya and Igor’s kitchen table, piled high with zakuski and vodka, surrounded by their friends, made for some of the funniest and most valuable memories of the trip. As the nights wore on, the conversations became franker, the insights into Russian life more noteworthy, and the toasts even longer.
Igor generously drove us to Starocherkassk, a small and picturesque village on the river, forty kilometres from Rostov. In July and August, it’s a tourist trap with its beautiful, ancient kremlin and other historic churches. The small wooden houses, some of them dachas, with their carefully cultivated vegetable plots and flower-bedecked windowsills, tell of a pre-revolutionary age. At other times of the year the village is peaceful and serene. We spent an hour with Ivan and Zina, a couple in their seventies living in their impeccably maintained house, with chickens running across the swept yard and their dog yapping under the trees. Ivan was ploughing his modest field by hand, laboriously pulling his handmade cart across the mud, its metal teeth churning up the rich, black earth that the region is famous for. It was as if life had not changed in over a hundred and fifty years.
I hoped the same might be true of the spa towns. “I have magnificent views on three sides,” wrote Pechorin in his diary, “to the west lies Beshtau with its five blue peaks, like the last cloud from the dying north; to the north Mashuk towers like a shaggy Persian cap, filling the whole horizon; to the east the view is gayer – below me, in a splash of colour, lies the little town, all neat and new, with the babbling of medicinal springs and the clamour of the multi-lingual throng.” Unfortunately, these days Pyatigorsk is neither new nor neat; but the mountains haven’t changed. Mount Beshtau is now accessible by cable car and it is also possible to see Elbrus on a clear day.
There are five spa towns in all: Pyatigorsk, Yessentuki, Zhelenovodsk, Kislovodsk and Mineralye Vody; but Pyatigorsk and Kislovodsk are the most attractive and most popular. They are all within easy distance of one another, and marshrutki (minivans) or electrichka trains carry passengers between them. This area of the Caucasus, dotted with the remnants of inactive volcanoes, is famed for its mineral water springs believed to have curative powers. The water is be imbibed and bathed in, or alternatively you can visit one of the many sanatoria or vanny (bathhouses) for a restorative mud bath.
Visiting a sanatorium is a serious business, so it seemed only right that we visit Pyatigorsk’s premier sanatorium, Rodnik, meaning ‘spring.’ Unfortunately, we did not have the time for the full twentyone days that the Russians usually devote to a sanatorium stay, and had to settle for a guided tour with Irina, one of the head nurses. It costs around a thousand roubles a day to stay at Rodnik, a sum that includes accommodation, all meals and all treatments. Upon arrival at the sanatorium, guests are booked in for a consultation with one of the doctors; their doctor then devises an appropriate treatment regime for the patient. Certainly, Rodnik is well maintained, with every facility you could imagine: a swimming pool, tennis courts, restaurants, bar and a cinema. The treatments are extensive, although to my untutored eye, appeared still to have a rather Soviet, spartan quality about them. A most accommodating lady allowed Simon to photograph her while she lay in a specially prepared ‘foam liquorice’ bath, designed to aid a faltering immune system, but to me it looked more like rolling around in dirty dishwater. The oxygen therapy capsules seemed very state of the art, all gleaming white and polished glass. We watched as Grigory emerged from his hour’s treatment inside. “Very good,” he pronounced, “My head feels clearer.” You can be treated for just about anything: bone and muscle diseases, diseases of the nervous system, the skin, digestion organs, circulation of blood systems, of the ears, the nose, the throat and, finally, of the urinogenital systems.
You don’t have to look too closely at the streets of Pytiagorsk to find landmarks of the nineteenth century. A walk along Prospect Kirova and you can almost imagine the great and the good taking the air, gossiping and flirting. At the end of the prospect, there are steps leading to the Academic Gallery and from there you can walk to the Aeolian Harp, a popular spot with the locals, which is simply a small, domed pavilion with a view of the town. Higher up in the hills is the Proval, a small cave open to the sky with an electric blue, sulphur pond at its base. Just outside town there’s a monument that marks the site of Lermontov’s fateful duel; and there’s a museum to the writer just off Prospect Kirova housing copies of his poems and paintings. It’s a pleasant, tranquil town, slightly frayed about the edges, but an easy forty minute train ride away from Kislovodsk, which is also well worth a visit.
Kislovodsk is a town with a delightfully fresh and unfettered ambience, the feeling of open spaces no doubt created by the wide boulevards and expanse of Kurortny Park right in the town’s centre. The park is large and rambling, popular with the locals and full of diversions for tourists. Street musicians, vendors and artists set up their stalls in the square and along shady alleys, and groups of old men sit under the trees and play rapid games of chess, watched by their friends who have staked a modest sum on the outcome. Beware these seemingly harmless, kindly pensioners! They will politely challenge you to a game of chess and if you are as useless as I am, thrash you in an embarrassing but laughable three moves, an ignoble defeat for which you pay fifty roubles. A stroll to the Narzan Baths and Springs might help clear your head; in a graceful gallery there are numerous taps that pour forth the famous Narzan water. The water has a slightly brownish tinge and tastes flat and sulphuric, but contains minerals guaranteed to benefit body and mind.
The promise of even fresher mountain air and invigorating walks lured us away from the calm sophistication of the spa towns. We travelled from Pyatigorsk to Dombay, a trip of some five hours, surrounded by views that became more enthralling as the bus climbed higher into the mountains. Dombay is a small resort situated in the heart of the Teberdinsky Nature Reserve. The scenery is fantastic, with hotels lying in a forested valley surrounded by massive, snow-capped mountains. From December to April the resort is populated by enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders, most of them Russians, who have made the trip from Moscow and who consider the region to offer the best skiing in Russia. In the summer months, snow on the lower levels of the mountains melts, leaving a network of hiking and climbing paths that are alive with the dazzling colours of wild, alpine flowers. Serious climbers can tackle several peaks from Dombay, including Sofrudzhu (3780m) and Dombay-Yolgen (4046m). There are lots of outposts offering equipment rental and advice on routes and it is certainly advisable to employ a guide, since many of the trails are unmarked, there is a local bear population, and you don’t want to wander too close to the border with Abkhazia and run into problems with the Russian border guards.
Elbrus and the surrounding region are similarly geared up for expeditions into the great outdoors. The tallest mountain in Europe, the name Elbrus derives from the Persian and means ‘two heads,’ an appropriate appellation since the mountain is formed of two volcanic cones that rear up into an impressive 5,642 metre western peak and a 5,621 metre eastern summit. The mountain is both intimidatingly imposing – from afar – and pleasingly accessible close up. The Azau cable car climbs the mountainside in two stages and then a chair lift will carry you up to 3,800 metres. Fifty roubles and a friendly driver will transport you in a snow mobile to above the 4,000-metre mark. In winter this makes for a fantastically long ski down, in summer hikers can make their way further, even staying at Camp 11, a modest dwelling near the top of the mountain which requires advance booking and an experienced guide to get you there.
At the foot of the cable car, a year round market plies a roaring trade in local goods, mainly knitted, mohair sweaters, gloves, hats and scarves. Outdoor cafes sell shashlik, salads and soups and the Russians gather together after a not-so-strenuous ski or walk, and salute the surrounding beauty with cognac and beers. The atmosphere is one of good-natured holiday-making and warm hospitality.
Strange to say, but despite the mountains, the skiing and the scenery – all of which could have come straight from the Alps – in Elbrus and Dombay you are nonetheless unmistakeably in Russia. There’s a certain lack of consistency, an architectural disaster, for example, in the shape of a never-completed Soviet-era hotel in Dombay; or a rough and readiness about the ski lift queues, where an aggressive push and shove does you no harm at all, that occasionally reminds you that this is not Klosters or Kitsbuel. This, however, does not stop a large number of Europeans, mainly Germans, from abandoning their native countries and flying to the Caucasus to enjoy the year-round attractions of skiing, hiking and climbing. Not only is it some of the most unspoilt countryside in the world, it also represents good value, since prices are lower than in the major European resorts and the slopes and trails significantly less crowded.
But that’s the pragmatist’s reasoning. Even Lermontov’s Pechorin, usually so disaffected and cynical, waxes lyrical in the face of Caucasian beauty: “It is a delight to live in a place like this,” he writes, “Every fibre of my body tingles with joy. The air is pure and fresh, as the kiss of the child; the sun is bright, the sky is blue – what more can one want?” After a long Russian winter and an uncertain spring, the Caucasus might well provide you with that elusive sense of renewed energy and childlike appreciation that occasionally deserts you when you’re battling through the streets of Moscow.