Sunday, 26 October 2014

Elbrus - Tolstoy

Reading anything by Count Leo Tolstoy had never been on my literary horizon. Dostoevsky and Gorki crossed my path early on but the sheer and frightening weight of titles such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenia” kept me well away from Tolstoy and I fell instead towards the beguiling heavy Teutonic Hermann Hesse – which perhaps better fulfilled post adolescent angst. Tolstoy has been left unread and unacknowledged ever since until a generous friend gave me (yes, gave and not lent) a volume of three Tolstoy novellas – one of which was entitled The Cossacks – because he felt I would be interested in this having just returned from the Caucasus Region. This was in itself a revelation because I had not linked the Cossack people to the region of Kabardino-Balkaria that I had just returned from.

A little bit of research uncovered that during the latter part of WWII Stalin accused the Balkar residents of the region of collaborating with the enemy and banished the whole lot of them and they were only allowed back to their homeland a decade and a half later. This would seem to be a minor upset for the region when seen against historical dominance from the Mongols (1200’s), the Georgians (1200’s to 1500’s) the Persian Empire (1500’s), the Ottoman Empire (also the 1500’s), and then fractiously under the Russian Empire in the 1700’s. There was a brief period of independence in the 1700’s before the region was annexed by Russia, and then after various alliances and mis-alliances it was incorporated into the glorious Soviet Union where it was saddled with ever increasingly heavy and bombastic names – “Kabardin Autonomous Oblast”, “Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Oblast”, and then “Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic”.

Latterly of course it has been at the geographical heart of the mad-geopolitics that seems to have gripped the region with fighting in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ossetia – none of which makes any sense to anyone who has little or no knowledge of this dark and mysterious region. All this in a confined area with a declining population of less than 1m people, five majority ethnic groups among many others; where 55% of the population are Muslim, and there are at least three different languages spoken.  “Complex” and “fundamentally ungovernable” are phrases that spring to mind, not just of Kabardino-Balkaria, but the neighbouring territories.

So back to Tolstoy and his novella “The Cossacks” which describes in human terms this region in the 1860’s. Beautifully written it to me captures a time and circumstance that I suspect has changed in essence very little in the intervening 150 or so years. The geo-politics is still tinged with madness, people still live with it and make do as best they can, but over it all the magisterial landscape is solid and uncompromising.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Elbrus - Roast the Potatoes for a Rural

We are sitting outside a restaurant/cafe/bar on the edge of the village square of Cheget.

I say square but it is more “square” by function than “square” by shape, insofar that it is an un-surfaced, dusty, potholed open space around which various commercial buildings in varied states of repair sit. These buildings are almost exclusively hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. We are luxuriating in cool Russian beers which we are drinking in isolation and in deference to our Muslim companions. I think we are drinking Terek, which is OK, but is really no different from any other average cold lager beer encountered anywhere else in the world.

As we are mulling over our recent summit success, a black expensive looking car pulls up in front of the terrace that we are sitting on and out steps what can only be the local Mr Big. A middle aged Mr. Big accompanied by two brutal looking henchmen. I can’t remember what they were wearing but in my minds eye they were “casually” dressed and while they might have sported gold chains they certainly had gold teeth. These are archetypal “baddies” straight out of any Hollywood C movie. As they saunter towards and past us in a swaggeringly sort of way I mutter “don’t look them in the eye”, and we feign studious interest in the menu.

As the danger passes we remain gripped by the menu, which is cheerfully presented and unusually written in English. For breakfast you can have “Rise Porridge”, which (in the guise of rice porridge) I can attest to as actually being very nice and wholesome.  On the salad menu is among others “salad fondness”, and for a first course you can dine on “Ear of Salmon”. I yearn for “Toe of Trout”, “Breast of Bream” or “Tongue of Tilapia” but regrettably these choices do not appear. Both Salmon and Trout do however figure in the section entitled “Dishes on the Grill (Kebabs)” as does “The liver in fat.” However under the section marked “Garnishes”, together with boiled potatoes, rice, and buckwheat is the intriguing dish “Roast the potatoes for a rural.” Perhaps it is the beer kicking in but we cannot fathom what this may mean.


That evening we ask Vladimir what he thinks the true translation of this dish may be. What, we ask, would be his translation of whatever Russian description was at the root of this strange mistranslation? He misunderstands the question and describes the dish, which (as I remember) is fried slices of potato. But I am still intrigued as to what the correct translation of “Roast the potatoes for a rural” ought to be.

Later, much later, using a translation program I enter “Roast the potatoes for a rural” and get “Жареный  картофель  по  деревенски” which I then re-enter  for an English translation and get “Fried potato wedges”. So Vladimir’s description of the dish holds up, but I am still intrigued by the etymology that has led to such a bizarre translation.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Elbrus - Snow Baskets

Lavern needed to buy snow baskets for her walking poles. Inexplicably instead of taking one of her poles to make sure that they would fit, I took one of my snow baskets, tried it on one of her poles (it fitted) and took that with us to the climbing equipment shop as an illustration of an exemplary snow basket. Quite how this extraordinary example of diagonal thinking came about I still cannot fathom. 

The gear shop was by far the most attractive in the village, serving as it did the most delicious (and free) espresso coffee. The walk there was arboreal and pleasant enhanced by the imagined smell of espresso leading and enticing us through the heady calming scent of pine trees. Wreathed giddily in the scent of coffee we explained our quest to the proprietor, one of the few incidentally in the village who spoke good English. He tried my shoe basket on one of his hire poles to check the size – and broke it. The screwed grommet broke away from the basket as he screwed it on to the pole. “It’s broken,” he said redundantly as the three of us gazed at the offending, and now useless device.

Secure in the knowledge that my (now broken) snow basket was indeed compatible with any other snow baskets Lavern decided to buy the two she needed. The shop proprietor handed the two pieces of my ex-snow basket to me and suggested that we needed to buy a third one. “Hang on,” I said “You've just broken mine. You should replace it.” With a great show of reluctance he gave me an old and battered ex-hire snow basket, and so we left the shop, with two brand new snow baskets and one well used one, and without a cup of coffee, feeling as we did that our continued presence quaffing free coffee would not have been welcomed nor conducive to good Afro-Russian relations; BRICS notwithstanding.

“I would have paid for a new one,” said Lavern, always generous. Fired by a sense of self righteous justice I pointed out that it was he who had broken the damned thing and was rightly forced to replace it, but I did so with sinking heart because we (or rather I) had just closed the door on a potentially endless stream of excellent espresso  . . . . 

As a post script to this - we are on one of our acclimatisation walks and I become aware that my trekking pole has suddenly become very short. This it transpires is not because it has become short but because the snow basket has detached from the screwed grommet that fits on the trekking pole leaving me with no purchase against the soft snow. I have a fleeting sense of déjà vu, or more accurately a lasting sense of ‘bloody hell’ and realize that I have a moral obligation to buy the equipment shop proprietor a cup of his own wonderful espresso, because he broke my snow basket not by being heavy handed, but because he was trying to screw a piece of crap South African equipment onto (I hate to admit it) far superior American manufactured equipment.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Elbrus - Adyl Sul


There is a place known as the Green Hotel. There are no buildings there, except for a couple of sheds used by Moscow University to monitor the health of the glacier that lies at the head of valley. Lying here among tufts of grass surrounded by snow topped mountains and ridges, sloping pastures, steep screes and vertical rock and ice faces, time fades away.

The river is fed by glacial melt-water with its characteristic peppermint coloured milky turbidity. At this point it is youthful and excited, clattering between pebbles and rocks that have come from the recently deposited moraine material scattered around the area. Although still in its infant stages the river’s gradient here is quite flat as it chatters its way across the flat glaciated bedrock between the lush green grass mounds before descending more aggressively through the deeply water incised Anul-Sul valley.

We are in that zone above the tree line and below the summer snow line that has an odd quietness – a serenity that is populated by small alpine flowers 
nestled under rocks or crowded between grass tufts and only the occasional and ubiquitous white necked Raven or some similar dog-collared Crow. The valley is ringed by high snow clad mountains and steep alpine steppe and vertical rock faces that beg to be explored and climbed. The serenity seeps deeply into the souls of the six of us who have walked the 2-3 hours up the valley to get here.

Giving the place a special poignancy is the sight of Mount Elbrus framed behind us by the cleft of the Anul-Sul valley. Two days ago we were up there, at the top, and it now looks benignly down on us. For a spit of time we were part of Elbrus and there is a strange intangible sense of belonging.