Saturday, January 28, 2012

The North Caucasus (Epic Travel Blog Part One)

As the legend goes, in ancient times, before the Nart heroes dwelled in Greater Circassia, there stood one giant mountain named Otshelnik. One day, the Devil decided to pay him a visit, and Otshelnik became worried and asked God to help him. Together, they did something very painful to the Devil's nose, and he was so tortured that he tore his own bones out and threw them from (what eventually became) Anapa to Baku. And so became the Caucasus Mountains.

Fast forward to 2012, and the place is still a painful mess.

So, what was I doing here?

A long story short... three years ago, an English teacher named Madina from Adyghe State University came to Oberlin to give a presentation about her home, Adyghe Republic... basically explaining, that even though it's in the North Caucasus, it is completely safe... and beautiful. Two years ago, when I was studying abroad in Moscow, I decided to visit. Madina and her family showed me hospitality I would never forget, and her students became lasting friends.
...And from then on, Lezginka music has blasted relentlessly out of my iPod, laptop, car windows, etc...and I became increasingly fascinated with the region.
Good thing, because considering that I double-majored in Russian/East European Studies and Politics, focusing on the Post-Soviet era, my undergraduate life sometimes played out like a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, except only with 3 degrees, and Kevin Bacon is Dzhokhar Dudayev.

The friends I had made at Adyghe State University were in my same graduating class and had now become English teachers (with the exception of Ruzana, a Kabardian Bollywood enthusiast who now works as a chef in a Korean restaurant), making us colleagues. So of course, I went to visit for New Years!

The adventure begins actually on the train from Chelyabinsk to Krasnodar, a two-and-a-half day trip that I shared with an Armenian jokester and a religious Babushka. The Babushka read her Bible every night before going to sleep and would complain about how today's youth is losing their Orthodox faith. Goga, the Armenian, got the phone number of every girl on that wagon (he's happily married) and consumed nothing but beer and copious cigarettes. By the end of the trip we were all as good as friends. The running joke was the story (repeated 100 times) by Goga about how my friend was going to take me up to the mountains, where I would be bridenapped like Kavkazskaya Plennitsa (Prisoner of the Caucasus.... there are two movies with this title, both worth watching).

I arrived in Krasnodar and stayed for a few nights with my friend Igor, who also went to Adyghe State and is now a professional weightlifter. On the third night in Krasnodar, another Fulbrighter, Alex, joined me on the trip. (We had met at the October orientation, where he expressed interest in going to the Caucasus and I invited him along). Two others were going to join us, but didn't for various reasons.

We took the bus the next morning to Maykop, the capital of Adyghe Republic. The bus ride isn't very interesting, but it was quite nostalgic. Upon arrival to Maykop, we settled into the daily-rental apartment. That night, we met up with a local friend named Idris "Eddie" Khwazhev.
Eddie is Adyghe, 23, born in Syria, grew up and went to school in New Jersey, and now lives in Adygeya and owns a car wash. He is an unforgettable character.... he has a habit of speaking in a succession of contradictory sentences, his best friend is a gay Chechen rapper named Maga, he has apparently lived in five different countries and out of the blue wants to move to China, he has friends who live in Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria) from Ohio. He also says he hates Kabardians for no apparent reason.
His Russian isn't very good, he speaks English and Arabic and Adyghe... including Adyghe swear words, which are apparently strongly offensive.
That night, we went to Idris/Eddie's house for kalyan, and his Adyghe/Syrian roommate drove us all back late at night (Everyone knows that I love Adygeya and would never speak bad about anyone there... but to be completely honest, I HAVE NEVER SEEN WORSE DRIVERS IN MY LIFE. If there is a mountain and ice on the road, the logical thing to do is drive slowly. Why do Adyghe drivers feel that these are the best conditions to race each other on the road??) This car ride also stopped spontaneously to blast the music louder and dance Lezginka on the street.
The next day, Alex and I get lost in an aul near Xadzhox Gorge, eat bananas on a random hill, and get driven around by the apartment owner's hyper-caffeinated friend.

The day after that was New Years Eve. We all reunited first in Ruzana's cafe, then went to celebrate at Ruzana's apartment with an elaborate feast, champagne, and Azamat Bishtov (very famous/overplayed Adyghe singer). Outside, 2012 was met with a magnificent fireworks displayed (people like to set fireworks randomly in the streets, even in the daytime, which Alex originally thought were North Caucasus-terrorist bomb explosions).

The New Years Eve Soundtrack:

New Years Day 2012 was spent wandering around town with Idris, with random Lezginka on the street (regardless of whether we were allowed to use the stage on the main square), annoying the grocery store owner, and other sorts of mischief. That day it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the next day was a snowstorm. Because of the snowstorm, Katya' (another Adyghe State friend)s friend could not drive us to Lagonaki, so we went to Gwamka instead.
Gwamka is a river/gorge in between mountains in the south of Adygeya/Krasnodar. After the snow the scenery was especially breathtaking, I will post pictures later.

For some reason, the Caucasus Mountains always have techno music blasting somewhere at random. Following this trip was another epic car ride down the mountain, through a village that happened to be called Grozny (which prompted an unfairly terrifying text message to my parents) and over to Katya's house for more hospitality, and rather stimulated Russian political discussion.

The next day, Alex and I set off on the bus to Pyatigorsk. This bus ride was surprisingly uninteresting, the route entirely skipped over the republic of Karachai-Cherkessia.
We were originally going to rent another daily apartment in Pyatigorsk, but when I called the xozyaika, she said that the current occupants had decided to stay longer and it wouldn't be available.
In the end, after a series of messy phone calls, we ended up forking over the 1600 rubles a night to stay at a tourist hotel. It was actually quite a nice hotel, we got our money's worth.

Pyatigorsk was a surprising gem of a city. I had not known much about it before. Located in the south of Stavropol Krai, Pyatigorsk is the (politically safe) center to stay for those who plan to visit Karachai or Kabarda. Unlike the bizarre nearby city of Mineralnye Vody (literally, Mineral Water... although from the looks of it, it is the last place I would want to drink the water from), Pyatigorsk is gorgeous, with both scenery and architecture. The city has a curious mix of European, South European/Mediterranean, Caucasian, and Russian style. It is full of beautiful views and mountainside Orthodox churches.... the name "Pyatigorsk" literally means "Five Mountains"... I am not really sure which five they were referring to when they named the city. There are two very big mountains and then a lot of smaller ones.
That evening, I climbed Mount Moshuk while Alex went back to the bus station in futile attempt to retrieve his new boots which he left on the bus. They ended up in Nalchik.
I definitely took the hardest path up the mountain. At the top was a beautiful view of the sunset over the city, but I had then realized that it was soon going to be dark and I sort of forgot where the path I came up started.  On the way down I wiped out several times because of the dangerous mistake of thinking that under a pile of leaves is just solid ground and not a slippery rock. I still have one of my bruises, almost a month later.

The next morning we left for an excursion to Chegem Waterfalls in Kabardino-Balkaria. (Kabardino-Balkaria is another North Caucasian ethnic republic.... there are seven republics in the North Caucasus, from West to East...Adygeya, Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan).  That bus ride was also interesting, because
a) We passed what I decided was The Sketchiest Car Ever. A beat-up white Lada with opaque blacked out windows, with barbed wire across the back windshield, and a Chechen license plate (Region 95).
b) We also passed through a closed village... meaning, normal cars (our tour bus had privileges) can not enter it. It is the only village where Kabardins and Balkars live together. (Kabardino-Balkaria is a Republic named for the Kabardin people, who are related to the Adyghe, and the Balkar people, who are Turkic and just the same as Karachai.... and they hate each other. Nice job, Stalin.) The entrance to such towns is guarded by militisya-i-mean-politsiya, who look heavily armed but heavily bored.

Chegem's waterfalls were frozen solid, and absolutely gorgeous. The whole excursion seemed very touristy, like we were almost hand-held by the guide-Babushka, as to protect us from the truly Wild Caucasus... but then again, we probably couldn't have made it that far without the tour bus anyways.
As part of the tour we ate traditional Shashlik at a restaurant (this is real shashlik, not the gross meat you get on street corners in other cities) Alex at this time was worried about returning to the bus on time, but I was distracted.... they were playing Chechen music (calm down, we were still just in Kabardino-Balkaria, nowhere near Chechnya), not just playing it, BLASTING it.

The Chechens are in general a very attractive, well-built people.... with two notable exceptions. One of them was dancing lezginka on a table near us in the shashlik restaurant. This 400-pound Chechen actually had impressive dance moves for his size, but he apparently has had one too many glasses of wine (or something) or about 100 too many shashliki.
I didn't make it back onto the bus before a loud group of Kabardians blasted more Circassian music from their car and broke out into another spontaneous Lezginka, which I was promptly invited to join.
Incidentally, the next day, we ate at a Chechen restaurant (in Pyatigorsk) called Cafe Bezam. I knew immediately it was Chechen, because bezam means "love", and is a required word in any of Makka Sagaipova's songs. And now I know what nourishes the people of the mountains during hard times... Fried lamb fat soaked in butter... and some other thing that looked like pel'meni except much heavier.

Finally, the day after that... the Queen of Mountains, the highest mountain of all Europe (yes, pretty much pwning Mount Blanc).... Mount Elbrus.
First of all, there is a clear view of Mt. Elbrus all the way from Pyatigorsk. If you look at a map, Pyatigorsk is pretty far away, and Mt. Elbrus is almost on the border with Georgia. You can see the part of the Main Caucasus Range that is close to Pyatigorsk, then a wide space, and the Mt. Elbrus standing alone. It's that big.

On the way, we passed through another bizarre closed city called Tyrnyauz. It used to be a prosperous city due to some mineral mining, but after the mineral was depleted, half of the people deserted the city making it look like a complete ghost town, and the other half lives in multicolored high-rise buildings on Elbrus Avenue.

Mount Elbrus is... tall. It is an epic giant. Even so, you cannot see very far from the top as you would think, because the other mountains around it are also giants...all around 5000 meters. Yes, we actually went to the top. Not climbing, obviously, but on a very terrifying, sketchy, Soviet chairlift. It was seriously just a wooden plank hanging from a pole by a chain with one thin rope to guard your life. It's basically just that wooden plank between you and oblivion...the tortured Devil's bones.
Surprisingly enough, I never felt any of the high-altitude weirdness about which the tour-guide-Babushkas warned us constantly.
A Balkar Babushka on the ground also coaxed us into paying 250 rubles for a pair of sunglasses "because the glare of the sun on the snow will make your eyes bleed."
Also impressive were the skiiers we saw down the mighty Mountain's treacherous slopes... although we did see someone wipe out quite dramatically.

Anyways, the rest of this trip cannot be described in words, only pictures... which will come soon, really.

The next day Alex flew back to Petersburg (out of the bizarre Mineral Water City Airport) and I went by bus back to Adygeya and stayed in the same low-budget hotel I stayed in on my first visit two years ago (hello nostalgia!) It had been impressively remodeled, however.
I decided to go back to Xadzhox during the following day, now that I knew my way around. I had not planned on climbing another mountain, but spontaneously decided to, even though I was wearing heels. I got kind of lost, but didn't care. Nobody was around, so I didn't need to resist the temptation to sing Tamara Nekhai songs at the top of my lungs and pretend I was in an Adyghe music video.
My high-heel boots were in pretty rough shape by the end of the day.
At the base of the mountain, there was a small grocery store where I bought some bread, and then I stopped by a stand to buy some honey for the bread from the Babushkas. These Babushkas also insisted I taste some of their wine... so one Babushka gave me about a shotglass worth of wine, which was quite delicious... then another Babushka gave me a similar glass of the kind of wine she was selling and asked me compare the two. I preferred the second, but then a third Babushka said "If you like that one, then you will like mine EVEN BETTER!" By the time I left, the three Adyghe Babushkas had taken enough turns giving me tastes of their wines that I may have felt slightly tipsy. I would have bought at least one, but I didn't bring enough money with me.

My last night in the Caucasus was very.... Caucasian. I had decided to meet my friend Nafset for dinner (she was sick during New Years so I didn't see much of her). She took me, of course, to an Adyghe restaurant, called Ta Tyi which I think means "our home." She ordered me schips, a dish of soup with a soft bread in it. She then called Idris and another friend of hers named Aidamir to join us.
Aidamir insisted on buying us all cake, then insisted that we all go to another restaurant with live music located just outside of town. Thankfully, Nafset drove; I had my fill of Adyghe men and their driving abilities or lack thereof.
I had intended to just have a glass of wine or something as I was not hungry... but Adyghe hospitality will just not accept this. Aidamir bought us all salads, more shashlik, and vodka.
I blame him for my hangover the next day... I normally know my drinking limits, but when someone makes toasts to "за адыгейский народ" and "за Северный Кавказ".... you can't refuse.
The "live music" was not so impressive, until they played lezginka music. Needless to say, Idris and I stole the floor =)

And so... there it was. The North Caucasus, and I, reunited again. The following day, I departed for Part Two of the Epic Travel Adventure: Kyrgyzstan. (This blog will come later).

Anyways... what is this place? With such a reputation that made my friends and family worry so much about my travels here, and with two conflicting images.... one of war and hopeless instability and imminent danger, the other, a fairy-tale land of handsome dzhigity who dance lezginka and cook shashlik and play on accordions riding on horseback through snow-capped mountains. It's hard to say... it can be one, it can be both, it's usually neither.
There's no denying the danger and lawlessness in some regions, or the fact that one should never consider traveling here alone and clueless of the surrounding culture and political situation. That said, the Caucasus is also a place of adventure, beauty, inspiration, and even romance.

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