19 May Our short trip to Elbrus in the North Caucasus
We flew into Mineraly Vody (‘Mineral Waters’ – but don’t expect any actual mineral waters there) ready for a short trip to Elbrus in the North Caucasus. But we weren’t worried about terrorists: most of the North Caucasus area, and particularly the area around Mt Elbrus, is more concerned with improving its agriculture and developing its tiny tourism industry than anything else.
First stop of our trip to North Caucasus.
At our first stop we had a chance to look at Caucasian souvenirs. There were colorful rows of honey jars flavored with pine sprigs, thyme and lemon, or nuts. We drank herbal mountain tea with a bewildering variety of berries and leaves, including sage, mint and thyme as well as sweet-clover, hips, raspberry leaves and something called loosestrife. There were even suspicious-looking home-packed bags of mountain rhododendron – a diuretic – presumably for those whose digestion is blocked with too many khichiny. And of course Georgian and Dagestani ‘cognac’ vied for attention with amateurish plastic bottles (unsealed lids, naturally) of chacha (fiery Caucasian grape-based homebrew).
Then we left the long flatlands behind us and entered the North Caucasus mountains proper: open expanses gave way to a valley, at first wide but then narrower and narrower, limited by taller and taller mountains, like Alice walking down an ever-shrinking corridor in a natural Wonderland. Likewise, the expressionless pre-harvest fields and gaudy post-soviet shopfronts of the plains gradually gave way to tortuous winding yellow gas-pipes and prouder, plainer houses with scraggly gardens and chickens staring morosely through haphazard fencing.
By the time we arrived at our (lovely, comfortable, internet-connected 3-star) hotel, the valley was only about 100m wide, with a gorgeous little mountain stream running down the middle. Elbrus was about 15 minutes further up the valley.
Mountains in snow
When we woke up the next morning there was a foot of snow on the ground and all the mountain passes were closed, as were the cable cars up Elbrus itself. So we drove for several hours, out of our glacial valley and round the feet of three others, to the utterly remote town of Verkhny Baksan. So remote is it that when the invading German army marched up the valley from Georgia, just 15km away, the Bashkar inhabitants didn’t know there was a war on, and welcomed them with open arms. Stalin later deported the Bashkars for this and razed to the ground their beautifully-crafted stone houses, whose ruins now line the terraced slopes on either side of the valley.
As we walked up the mountain, the clouds ebbed and flowed along the valley, clinging to ravines and wafting back and forth around the peaks, so that at times we could see clear across the valley, while at others the thick cloud swallowed us whole.
Diving into North Caucasus traditions
The next morning, another night’s snowfall meant that Elbrus was too much of avalanche risk, so instead (naturally) we went to visit a mountain shepherd. The wiry Hamzad and his ample wife Irina live in a small house a little way up the mountain, with two friendly German shepherds, some horses and chickens, and a luxury outhouse that boasts a padded seat and an impressive view over the valley.
When we arrived, Irina was already busy making more Caucasian khichiny – Caucasian stuffed flatbread – by wrapping balls of a potato-and-cheese mixture into a dough parcel, rolling them flat and dry-frying them in a saucepan.
Once we had devoured these alongside large quantities of tea, Hamzad asked her to bring out some of the thick woollen socks she knits for sale in the local market. Half-begrudgingly, she laid them out on the table. Once we had bought a pair each (at our insistence not hers), she wordlessly retreated to the next-door room, according to Caucasian Muslim tradition. Hamzad, though, was no shrinking mountain violet, and proudly showed us his long wolfhead-handled knife, hand-forged in Georgia and essential for anyone out in the mountains alone – although whether for use against bandits, wolves, or stubborn packs of biscuits, he wouldn’t say. Still, he did wear it on a special belt when he came out with us.
To the mountains on horses
Hamzad invited us to ride his two horses up the mountain Elbrus. ‘But be careful,’ he warned: ‘they more or less do what they feel like, especially one of them.’ And in fact neither horse felt like being ridden that day, so we set off on foot, with Hamzad promising to talk some sense into one of them and join us later. After twenty minutes we saw him battling with this reluctant steed along the narrow path, riding almost sideways as he kicked and cursed at it to keep going. When he reached us, one of our group did eventually manage to get on it, and made it most of the way up before the animal categorically refused to go further. Needless to say, nobody objected when Hamzad tied it to a fence and continued with us on foot.
Break in the clouds
On our final day there was a break in the clouds, and we decided to see if we could get up Mt Elbrus. We rose slowly through the clouds at the base of the slope in a cable car, watching snowboarders and skiers weave down the piste below us. We got to 2700m, and then joined a higher cable car to 3700m. As we approached the top we came suddenly out of the cloud encircling the mountain into brilliant sunshine and a magnificent, Himalaya-like vista of snowy summits in a vast arc around us, rising fiercely out of the clouds filling the valleys between them: the awesome peaks of the Greater Caucasus mountain range.
While there, we noticed some people digging out snowmobiles from 1.5m-deep snowdrifts, and got some of them to take us up even further, to around 4000m. Our driver was a little reluctant, which at first we thought was a ploy to get a higher fee, until he started moving and we realised that the ‘path’ was steep, as much as 45 degrees in places, and for much of the way we were leaning heavily to the slope side, away from the cliff edge not two feet from our runners. So we were only too happy when we walked 2-3 times through the most dangerous parts, even though that meant wading through deep snow, slipping, and gasping for breath.
Cluster of springs
We rounded off this uplifting experience with some yak-meat kebabs (juicy and very tasty) and local wine (for a rough approximation, add vodka to grape syrup), and set off for our final on the way back to Mineral Waters: the iron springs of Narzan. This remarkable cluster of springs stood out bright orange against the white snow surrounding them due to their high iron concentration turning to rust on the exposed rocks. The water itself tasted almost sparkling with all the ferrous particles in them.
Around the springs there is a small market, where we expressed our appreciation for everything we had seen and done over the last few days by buying enormous raw-wool hats: a Caucasian specialty, smelling strongly of sheep and trailing woolly dreadlocks in every direction, that made us look like wild woodsmen and women. We bought four, and danced in them in the bus home, while singing loudly and enthusiastically to a local pop ballad.
A guest post by Andrew Grenfell, Co-Founder at Impact Hub Moscow