Kabardino-Balkaria: A First Venture into the Caucasus.
My visit to Russia in 1990 had been totally unexpected. I was not in any way a specialist on that part of the world. In fact my special area is the tropics, and nothing could be further from that than Moscow. As far as I knew, my summer travel plans consisted solely of a trip to Paris in late May to coordinate one of the overseas programs for which I was responsible.
Indiana University had many overseas interests, and one of these was a long-standing link with Moscow State University (MSU), the premier institution of higher learning in the then-USSR. This exchange link provided a useful base for linguists, literature specialists, historians, and others. However, in 1990 it seems there was some problem finding anyone to fill the American end of the exchange. I had hosted, on behalf of my employer—the School of Public and Environmental Affairs—three very bright Russian women students in earlier years, and so there was some tenuous link in the institutional memory of the university between Russia and me. I was also planning to co-host a major international conference that summer on environmental destruction in Soviet Central Asia.
One afternoon that spring I received a call from the university's office of international programs.
"Can't be done I'm afraid, I have to go to Paris."
"Well, once you're in Paris, you're halfway there."
So with that I was corralled into a three-week period of lectures at MSU's Department of Geography, where I already knew some faculty members. I must admit that the major attraction for me was the extraordinary political situation in Central and Eastern Europe. It seemed that almost everyone I knew was sending me photographs or sizable chunks of the Berlin Wall, or was getting involved by attempting to burn down the Communist Party headquarters in Sofia, Bulgaria. I felt that I was missing out on sweeping historical dramas as well as an ongoing social megaevent. I would, after all, have the whole of July to get ready for my wedding in Bloomington.
My business completed, and my camera already stolen, I left Paris on the Air France flight to Moscow. For most of the journey I slept, but I awoke in time to watch us descend from a low, total cloud cover and emerge over miles of dark birch forest being swept by driving rain. This did little to lift my spirits, since all the way I had been wondering what on earth I was going to do in Moscow for three weeks, and now it was raining cats and dogs. My spirits did lift to see my old friends and colleagues from the university at the airport. Battling the weather, they drove me to my accommodations in the Stalinesque tower block of Moscow State University, which dominates the capital from its perch on the Lenin Hills. Here, in the total absence of hot water, I prepared my lectures, met my former students, and held soirees. Furtively, while I was out, my faculty colleagues would come into my room and restock my refrigerator, for at this time only people with Moscow residence cards were able to buy food in the city. Most of the stores I saw were empty, and most of my colleagues left work early to begin the process of searching and bartering.
Fascinating though it was, my period of teaching in Moscow had little bearing on this story. However, one day, my friend Alex Gennadiyev, vice dean of the geography department, asked me apropos of nothing,
I was not given to vigorous exercise, and admit to having been somewhat alarmed as to the underlying purpose of this question.
Alex then went on to explain that they thought that the university had been working me somewhat relentlessly over the previous two weeks, plus there was no hot water anywhere in this part of Moscow. So, the dean and he had agreed that they should send me for some rest and recreation at one of Moscow University's field research stations. I had visions of the frozen wastes of Siberia, but he told a different story.
I raced my brain trying to recall which area we were talking about. Then I remembered that most Europeans think that Mont Blanc (15,771 feet) is the highest peak in Europe, but it is beaten quite considerably by Russia's Mount Elbrus (18,481 feet), which is on the border with Georgia. I really had no mental image of what the region had to offer, but I readily agreed to go to see Europe's premier peak.
Since Alex was not free to accompany me, he had delegated a tall, spare, bearded graduate student called Misha to accompany me and to serve as translator. Misha had worked extensively in Mongolia but had never been to Elbrus, so this was going to be an adventure for both of us.
On June 14, 1990, a gloriously sunny day, Misha arrived at my door in Block B of the MSU tower. He was hot and bothered because his friend's car had had a flat on the way over, so Misha was panicking about missing the plane. As it was, we arrived at the airport with an hour to spare before departure. I told Misha that I still had no clear idea where we were going, so he informed me that we were flying to the town of Mineral Waters (Mineralnye Vody) in the heart of the Kabardino-Balkarian Autonomous Republic. Now more confused than ever, I thanked him for the information.
This was the sort of detailed answer I would have expected from a geographer (which Misha is). To kill time we ordered coffee, but were kept in line for an eternity by the extraordinary catering system whereby the same lady took the orders, cooked the food, and made change.
We flew down in a cavernous Aeroflot jumbo that looked astonishingly spartan inside. We had to enter from below, up through the luggage bay where we offloaded our cases, and then up a spiral staircase to the main cabin. Despite the three-hour duration of the flight, no food or drink was served. The only attention we received was when something resembling a domestic food cart was wheeled around by people selling tacky toys, white shirts, and plastic shoes. The vibration made by this plane during takeoff was a truly terrifying experience, but we made it to our destination eventually.
Upon landing at Mineral Waters, we found no one on hand to meet us. We were in the middle of open, green country surrounded by low hills. The landscape reminded me a lot of the Welsh borderlands near where I had grown up. But, we did not have too much time to enjoy the glorious sunshine and bucolic surroundings because we were agitated at the fact there was nobody around we could recognize. Our hearts sank, but our spirits picked up when Misha recognized the insignia of MSU crudely painted on the side of an ancient, small bus parked in the lot in front of the terminal. After a call had been put out several times over the public-address system, we were approached by a short, jolly, Kazakh man with a beaming smile and a large black mustache.
but he had little spoken English beyond that. He grabbed my case and we entered the bus, where there were already several other research students also on their way to the field center.
As we drove along, Nuris kept up a relentless commentary on the landscape, geology, geography, ethnology, and all other aspects of the regions through which we passed, all of which Misha had to translate. We had landed in an area of lush green fields and rolling hills, but as we drove south we rapidly moved out of that environment into ever wilder and more mountainous terrain. We paused along the way at a village, somewhat inappropriately named "Progress," where we found fruit and vegetables in abundance at the roadside stalls. This contrasted starkly with the barrenness of most Moscow foodstores that I had seen in the previous two weeks. Misha bought four pounds of fresh strawberries when he saw my eyes light up upon noticing them. After two hours we entered the world of the Kabardino people immortalized by Leo Tolstoy, and drove through villages where the streets were lined with wooden palisades that enclosed each house. There was a sense of timelessness about everything—so different from the world of workers' apartments and concrete slabs that socialism had produced in all the other parts of Russia I had visited. Into each fence was set a huge gate, and beside each gate was set a bench, upon which members of the family sat each evening and watched the world go languorously by. Each house—and the houses were enormous—had distinctively painted corners: a wonderful and welcome assertion of individualism in this land of uniformity. The whole thing looked like the stage set for a nineteenth century operetta set in Ruritania.
The further we went the more dramatic it became. Vegetation yielded to rocks, and the flanking mountains became taller and steeper with every mile. Soon we were hugging the sides of gorges through which wild rivers crashed; the water being that strange gray-green that tells you it was awfully cold. The light was fading and we were not able to appreciate just how dramatic the landscape would become, for we had to complete the trip in the dark. Eventually we came, quite literally, to the end of the road. It just stopped, and there in front of us was a complex that looked as though it had been transported from Switzerland. At the center was a great chalet, and I was shown into a huge room with several beds, a table, and a television on the chalet's second floor. This was to be my home for the next week.
Nuris invited me to join him, and some of the resident faculty, at dinner. We sat around a long table in his room toasting each other and the world in general and devouring a truly wonderful meal served by a smiling lady named Olga, who seemed to fill the role of general housekeeper at the chalet. The main specialty consisted of a cheese and potato dish of Georgian extraction. The table was covered with side dishes of vegetables and huge hunks of bread. I was, at this time, only dimly conscious of the presence at a small table in the corner of the room, of a small, slender youth with a round face, big eyes, and a crown of thick blue-black hair cut in the inverted-bowl manner of Henry V. I was briefly introduced to him by his father.
"This is Eldar. He is my son." He smiled.
The evening ended in my room with the entire party following, in deepening misery, the progress of the World Cup soccer match (Argentina 2, USSR 0).
The following morning I woke and noticed, before anything else, the remarkable quality of the air I was breathing. It had a live, stimulating quality quite unlike the neutral nature of air with which I was familiar. Taking great drafts of it, I walked over to the window and drew back the curtains. Somehow I was not prepared for what I saw. The most astounding range of snow-capped peaks marched away in the distance. Around us stood tall, dark stands of ancient huge pines. Through all this thundered the icy Baksan River, and over everything was an azure and totally cloudless sky. I could not move. The beauty of it all stunned the senses. For the next few days I became aware that the only way I could conduct any conversation with anyone was to sit with my back to the window, otherwise it was hopeless. Nothing could compete with what nature had wrought across our vision in every direction.
The terrible news that shatters my reverie was that there was no hot water here either. It had previously come from a system based at a hotel across the road, but the attendant forgot to check the furnace and the boiler exploded. Right now it was sitting in the street. The field station had its own backup system connected with its sauna, but that burned to the ground two days ago, along with the sauna. So we were back to Moscow conditions here, except for the fact that the cold water here was cold in a way I had never experienced in my life. It was not so much cold as frigid.
Olga made us a huge breakfast and we devoured our strawberries. Misha and I were to walk up the Baksan valley to the source of the river. We set off through the pine woods, and very soon I had the distinct impression that I would die. My heart was pounding and every muscle was screaming.
He was right. Soon we were marching up past sheer-sided columns of basalt, jumping only when an eight-foot boulder dropped 200 feet to land about 20 feet from us.
He didn't tell us what we were supposed to do about them. At our feet bright yellow alpine flowers nestled among the inhospitable gravel; while, to our sides, large stones perched atop earth plinths that they had shadowed, and thus protected, from erosion. It was all encompassed by a great and glorious silence, except for the steady surge of the powerful river. Eventually we traced the river to the point where it emerged from below the Azau glacier, which itself was like a living thing as rocks moved down its face, waterfalls cascaded over it, and the river tumbled out from its throat.
The following day Nuris tested my mettle and said that we should go for a walk. He outfitted me in waterproof gear and stout boots.
"Where are we going, Nuris?" I asked with some trepidation.
"I thought we would go up there," he replied.
My gaze followed his until it stopped in disbelief. First of all the mountain at which he was looking appeared to rise vertically for several hundred feet. I could tell exactly how far because the top of this terrifying phenomenon was high into the clouds.
Accompanied by Misha, we set off past the exploded boiler and up a rocky slope. This slope, Nuris told me, was composed of a recent rock avalanche, which he called a sail, and as he was telling me this the silence of the afternoon was broken by a crashing roar as another rock slide took place somewhere off to our left. Before we could begin the serious ascent, we had to cross to the other side of the steep valley, and that presented us—or more precisely me—with a problem. It was necessary to get across a fast-flowing river of icy water, yet there was no bridge. There were, however, two flexible plastic pipes that afforded the only prospect of getting to the other side. One of these pipes was already partly under the water, and both of them dipped alarmingly in the middle. The diameter of these pipes could not have been more than three inches, and they looked as though they would bend easily! Nuris skipped across with the grace of a ballet dancer. Misha looked doubtful, and I was absolutely convinced that I had come to a defining moment in my life—maybe the end? I could not bring myself to do it.
Nuris skipped back across the pipes with the same effortless ease and fished around in the water. From there he dredged a 10-foot metal water pipe and motioned to me to use it as a balance bar. Now, poised like Blondin for his attempt to cross Niagara, I gingerly stepped forth. The counterbalance was extraordinarily effective, and with Nuris watching anxiously from the other bank, I fixed my focus on the middle distance and made the crossing: not even wet socks. I was so absurdly proud of this, having believed it totally impossible just minutes ago, that I performed like a gold-medal athlete giving high fives to the entire Caucasus range of mountains.
As we plodded steadily up we saw across the Baksan valley the damage done in recent years by some mighty avalanches. Great swathes of trees were laid flat and shattered, while huge mounds of snow lay across the valley bottom where they came to rest last winter. Nuris observed that these avalanches seemed to be getting more frequent, and certainly more damaging. He told me how he helped dig nine dead people out of the snow right on the edge of the town of Terskol directly below us six months ago. Pausing to take in the view, my Kazakh host started to reminisce about his work and life. He was the protégé of a great alpinist and glaciologist who was killed some years back in the Pamirs, the highest peaks in the USSR. Nuris had developed a specialty in avalanche warning and detection, and he spent some years with the Russian military as a civilian adviser on this subject in Afghanistan.
His fascinating life story quite masked the hardship of the climb, and soon we were looking down on the research station hundreds of feet below, having ascended, almost without noticing, to the cloud base. Now we were in heavy rain and the going was tough because the ground afforded very poor purchase when it was this wet. We paused on the edge of a dizzying vertical wall, and Nuris pointed to a plaque set into the stone marking the demise of someone who fell from exactly where I was standing now. I hastily backed off. The weather had really closed in, so we started to descend, eventually reaching that same stream and the pipes. This time I was ready for it, grasped the pipe, and strolled over with confidence—or at least the appearance of confidence, I hope. Nuris told me that someone fell in during the winter while wearing skis, and very quickly started to drown, having become trapped by the skis. Nuris plunged in after the hapless skier and pulled him out. In the short time it took to revive the skier, Nuris said he realized that his own clothes had frozen solid.
As we trudged back in the pouring rain, I realized that we had talked all afternoon, even though Nuris spoke little English and I no Russian. Misha, our man-in-the-middle, had allowed two people who shared no common language to begin to construct a true friendship.