'He turned his back on his native borders
And flew off to a far-away land,
Alongside the merry ghost of freedom.'
- 'Captive of the Caucasus' (1822), by Alexander Pushkin
When I first started toying with the idea of crossing the North Caucasus, my Georgian colleague was keen to remind me that it is a region of violence, inhabited by the gortsy (the Russian word for 'highlanders' - but usually with a pejorative sting of the uncivilised and barbaric mountain natives). Since then I have been reading the various travelogues written on the region throughout the centuries.
One aspect was consistent in these accounts: travellers were always surprised to find how little have changed since the time of their predecessors. An 18th century traveller in the Caucasus once wrote that 'the mountains are much in the same state as they were in the time of Herodotus or Strabo'. Similarly, journalists covering the 1990s Chechen War were surprised by how easily they could make connections with the past.
But I understood what my Georgian colleague meant.
In fact, to most people, the Transcaucasus to the south of the Great Caucasian Range (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) is both civilised and tamed. Cities like Tbilisi or Baku have been well-known trading hubs along the Silk Road for centuries; and regions like Abkhazia in western Georgia was once the 'Soviet Riviera': it was the favourite holiday destination for the Soviet premiers and the social elites. Every year it used to receive hundreds of thousands of Soviet workers, escaping from the fumes and the backbreaking work of the industrial empire.
By contrast, to many the North Caucasus' only stirs up images from the brutal Chechen wars of the 90s and 00s. As the South Caucasus prospered from the silk road trade, the North Caucasus had only existed as some kind of a blank space on most maps for a long period of time. Maps prior to the 19th century Russian conquest showed almost nothing there.
'It may be said without exaggeration that the mountains made the men;
and the men in return fought with passionate, courage and energy in defence of
their beloved mountains, in whose fastnesses, indeed, they were well-nigh unconquerable.
- The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (1908), by John F. Baddeley
But it was exactly this 'wilderness' nature of the North Caucasus that had preserved the livelihood of the natives there. The mountains and forests on the northern slopes had provided the perfect refuge for its warlike inhabitants against the nomadic invaders from the steppes and the Near East. This had allowed them to remain largely unaffected by foreign interferences for centuries.
Historically, the image of a mysterious people living in a mountainous region few heard about had led to the North Caucasians being perceived as barbarians and in some cases, demons. Medieval writers attributed the legendary gates built by Alexander the Great to be at the two major passes of the Caucasus. Like the Great Wall of China, the Caucasian mountain range with Alexander's Gates would protect humanity and civilisation to the south against the demons that inhabited the north. Supposedly the Gogs and Magogs, the allies of Satan, enemy of God's people, inhabited the north Caucasus. In biblical and Islamic tradition, they will bend on the destruction of humanity at the time of the apocalypse.
When you have a look at the travel advice maps by different governments today and you might find that nothing has really changed: most of the North Caucasus is usually being coloured red, meaning 'Do not travel' or 'Advised against all travels'. You will be forgiven to think that perhaps the Gog and Magog still roam freely in this part of the world.
Fascinated by stories and legends, for my journey I decided that I will take inspiration from the legend of Alexander's Gates. I would begin at one gate and finish at the other. I would cross into the North Caucasus via the Darial Gorge, and finish at Derbent - the fortified city that guarded the Caucasian pass on the shore of the Caspian Sea.
Legend has it that when God created the world he sprinkled nations across the globe but clumsily dropped his shaker in the Caucasus, creating this great mosaic of distinct ethnic groups inhabiting a relatively small region. Pliny wrote that the Greeks needed 300 interpreters to conduct business here and 'we Romans conducted our affairs there with the aid of 130 interpreters.' In proportion to the size of the region, the Caucasus is the most ethnically diverse area on the planet.
In Dagestan alone, a republic the size of Scotland with only 2 million inhabitants, an incredible 40 different languages are being spoken there. The Arab historian al-Zizi called this region jabal al-alsun, 'the mountain of languages'. In this isolated landscape, a unique culture and tradition was born out of the shared history of the various different people. For centuries they fought, but also traded and mingled with each other, creating a sophisticated and distinctive social structure shared only by the many different ethnic groups inhabiting the area. It is therefore of no surprise that for generations the region has remain the femme fatale for ethnographers, historians and travellers alike.
And they are not the only ones either. The North Caucasus and its mountains have inspired generations of Russian writers. Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy were all once young officers serving there. We are grateful to the mountains of Chechnya and Dagestan which provided the setting for some of their most famous works. I suppose what makes the North Caucasus so intriguing is just that stark contrasts: on one side the beauty and romance of the mountains - on the other the brutality and barbarity of the conflicts that still plague the area today.
My journey began with a drive north from Tbilisi along the Georgian Military Highway, a major pass in the central Caucasus and the only official land border crossing between Georgia and Russia. On the way it passed by the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, built in 1983 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk (1783) that effectively placed Georgia under Russian protection. And the monument itself, slowly rotting away, certainly reflects the post-USSR relationship between Russia and Georgia: the breakup of the USSR, alongside with the 2008 Russo-Georgian war had meant their relationship stays sour.
The only official land crossing between Russia and Georgia is at the Darial Gorge, surrounded by jagged mountains all around. A concrete bunker still sits idly on the road side. For centuries traders and invaders had used the same pass to travel between the north and the south Caucasus. The famous Russian writer Lermontov set his romanic epic here about a demon that fell in love with a Georgian princess. His fatal kiss would eventually kill her. Today the gorge is a bit less inspiring: queue of cars packed with Russian holidaymakers and migrant workers from the Transcaucasus stretched the whole 2 miles long no-man's land.
The crossing is relatively quick if you are entering Georgia; but for those going to Russia it's a seriously long wait. The supposedly 5 mins drive between the two checkpoint takes hours on end. As we were waiting fights broke out between drivers jumping the queue. An angry Russian woman was using her body to stop other cars from jumping the queue. In the anarchy young Russian border guards tried to intervene but only half heartedly so. The angry woman only got angrier. With practically everyone there above the age of 40 having served in the Soviet army, there was little the young conscripts could do anyway since no one really gave them much respect. In the old Soviet world, military service was the rite de passage for every man.
Back in my shared taxi, fellow Russian passengers were alerted by my travel plan. One of them who had recently been to Chechnya and Dagestan warned: 'Go to Chechnya,' and he continued, 'but Dagestan, thats where no one will help you if you run into any trouble - and surely you will!' The Russian newly-weds from Novorossiysk said they never want to go to the North Caucasus 'because it is THE Caucasus'. They were just trying to transit through as quickly as possible from their honeymoon in Georgia. They suggested I should too. As far as they were concerned, the blank space on the old maps is still a blank space, and you should not go there.
The most colourful characters at the border were undoubtedly the taxi drivers. 'You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' was the unwritten rule as fellow taxi drivers aided each other in jumping that dreadfully long queue. They did it so skilfully that they would first scout out where the border soldiers stood then discreetly sped past them; when caught they knew exactly how to talk themselves out of it.
Sometimes it involved a few jokes; sometimes it was the whole 'we had served in the [Soviet] army too' and an empathetic pad on the shoulder. They would point at me at times: the foreigner at the backseat got a plane to catch. But the crooks got their own code of honour too: they would always insist the car they cut in front of to go in front of them once the queue started moving again; my driver was picking up a number of people for free as he sped his way to Vladikavkaz; he was offering his home for me to stay for the night. The scoundrels could also be chivalrous, extremely generous - and hospitable. And these are the many contradictions of the nature of Caucasian people that leave many in perplexity.
'These Circassians have got thieving in their blood.
They’ll steal anything, given the chance.
Even things they don’t want,
they’ll take them just the same!'
- A Hero of Our Time (1840), by Mikhail Lermontov
Caucasians are often stereotyped as a thieving people who worships banditry. There is certain truth in there. A popular local story goes that God forgot about the Caucasus when he was dishing out riches in the world, so he compensated the Caucasians by allowing them to go to their neighbours and take what they need. In 19th century Caucasus, nabegs (full-blown raids) were frequent in the area. Livestocks and hostages were often being taken from the Russian and rival villages and at the time it was considered that the more daring the exploit, the more honour one would acquire.
'A thousand of his enemies stopped him, he didn’t hesitated. Zelimkhan!
For years, he had resisted, he had never conformed. Zelimkhan!
In a dark night, dressed in dark wool, on a dark horse. Zelimkhan!
He is heroic, he is agile, he is a strapping young man. Zelimkhan!'
- Part of a Chechen folk song about Zelimkhan (1872-1913)
And this in turn gave birth to the legends of the abregs who were essentially outlaw horsemen having left their villages in to seek shelter in the mountains. Most of them were fleeing from the raging blood feuds which was common at the time, and there were others escaping from persecution by the Russian or Soviet authorities. But it was not their violence or notoriety that made these desperate men popular; it was their defiance against the occupation and their compassion to protect the weak that earned these men respect.
The most famous of them all was a Chechen called Zelimkhan who died in 1913 whilst resisting the arrest by the Imperial authority. He was famous for raiding the Cossack occupiers' settlements and robbing banks in order to distribute the wealth back to the poor. The abregs were the Caucasus' own Robin Hoods. Exiled but loved by the local people.
And it is true that banditry was and is still admired by many Caucasians. Violence is still widespread. But judging a people solely on these you risk missing out on the most important aspects of Caucasian values and traditions; most of the North Caucasians I met later on my journey (no matter which ethnic group they belong to) would still uphold that almost medieval sense of honour - while honesty and hospitality are still sacred to most. I have always thought it's exactly this kind of paradox that made the Caucasus ever so fascinating.
During much of the Soviet period, this stigma of the Caucasians as a thieving people stayed. Rumours were being spread around that widespread poverty in the USSR was a result of most of the state resources being allocated to the Caucasians instead of being fairly distributed under the socialist system.
Back to the journey - when my shared taxi finally arrived at the Russian checkpoint, trouble stroke. I was detained and the driver had to leave me at the border. With a Hong Kong passport supposedly I am allowed to enter Russia visa-free and stay for 2 weeks, the problem is just that probably no known Hong Kong tourists had attempted this before. This is as far away from the tourist track as possible in Russia. With the popular Trans-Siberian railway the chances is that you will be much more likely to find a lost Hong Kong tourist in Siberia than even here. Since in Russia all tourists are guilty unless they can prove themselves otherwise, I would have to explain why am I in this part of Russia - where not even the Russians want to go.
I thought I was well-prepared. I presented my email exchanges with the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong, the visa-free agreement signed between Russia and Hong Kong, and random print-outs on some tourist sites in the area that I have no intention to visit. None of that helped so I was taken to the office block and had my backpack searched, then I was put in a conference room where I was to wait for a couple of hours. And finally, the long awaited question: 'Why are you here?'
Amongst many other things, I wanted to see the holy places of Sufi Islam's Naqshbandi branch in Chechnya; and school No.1 in Beslan where the 2004 Chechen terrorist siege took place. I want to try to locate the first oil well being dug in Chechnya. I wanted to see how did Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, not turned out to be the 'Hong kong of Russia' as intended. I wanted to see Gimry in Dagestan, 'Home of the 12 Imams' and their centuries old resistance against Russia.
And I am not a journalist.
And as if the Soviet totalitarian regime was gone when the USSR ceased to exist, I as a tourist had to ironically make sure it didn't just vanished. So I made up the model answer they wanted. I told the officer about how I wanted to see that place in Pyatigorsk where Lermontov died in a duel. This in turn led to me talking about Tolstoy and Pushkin which he soon started to grow bored of. I also talked about the famous mineral water in the Caucasus and therefore I wanted to visit this town called... well, Mineral Water in Stavropol Krai.
As I would have to come back to this border post in 2 weeks time to extend my stay once more I cannot just blatantly lie about places I have absolutely no intention of going. Eventually I had to jam in the fact that I am going to Chechnya to watch football (which I actually ended up doing). That raised some suspicions, but if a Hong Kong tourist crossing this border is weird enough itself, why not a Hong Kong tourist going to Chechnya to watch some football? Either way, I felt he was fed up with my attempt in explaining 19th century Russian Romanticism and so my detention was over. I was free to go.
But the harassment didn't end here. An Ossetian policeman promptly took me into the police station nearby as I was dropped off at the outskirt of the city I hitched on at the border. I was told that I was not ‘allowed’ to roam freely as it’s not safe in the evening. In the post Soviet world, I suppose this translates directly as bribes. I feigned incomprehension, and so the officer gave up and led me back onto the street.
But some of his colleagues just wouldn’t let me slipped and insisted that I should be taken back to the station. As a last resort they threatened me by showing me the cell (which I found surprisingly bright and clean). With things slipping out of control and wanting to be clear of responsibility, the officer who took me in appealed to a higher ranking officer who then demanded that I should be on my way.
With it's wide roads and dim street lamps, Vladikavkaz at night is hauntingly empty. It was getting rather late so I settled at the Hotel Vladikavkaz, a typical Soviet concrete premium next to the river Terek. I could never really figure out how safe the city was as I had been receiving mixed opinions along the way. I didn’t feel particularly unsafe at night; but I was intrigued by the amount of submachine guns (instead of pistols) I saw. I only discovered the guard in the front of the hotel was not the driver when I realised he was holding a submachine gun wrapped in a raincoat.
Things might have changed now but back in the 90s when the conflict in nearby Chechnya was in full force the city was notorious for it’s lawlessness. The chilling ordeal of Vincent Colchet, a UNHCR official kidnapped in Vladikavkaz in 1998 serves as a reminder of those turbulent times. The strangest story, however, was that 38 Liverpool football fans made this gruelling journey through bandit country in 1995 just to come and watch their team played. There was some comfort in knowing they stayed in the same hotel as I was.
I was exhausted. The first day of the trip demonstrates the frustration and challenges I should be prepared to encounter on the way: hours of questioning and detention would be a recurrence. I guess I was prepared for it all, but I just wasn’t expecting everything to happen so sudden and quick. But at this point there is no turning back, nor do I want to turn back either.
This had been the journey I had been waiting for: I had spent the past year self-learning Russian and caught up with piles of news and articles about the region. I was trying to read everything about the North Caucasus I could possibly lay my hands on. In fact, I am suspicious I have come to live and work in Georgia just so that I can catch a glimpse of what lies north of the Caucasian range.
It had taken me 16 hours to travel the short 200 km between Tbilisi and Vladikavkaz, but I was certainly feeling more grateful than unsatisfied. After all I had made it through bureaucrats' harassment and I had just about crossed the border right before it shuts. In fact it almost felt a bit like a small miracle.
I can handle the frustration over corruption and harassment and I was not particularly worried about the authorities. Past travels had taught me one important thing: as long as the locals are being protective you are mostly safe no matter how volatile the situation is. But would the locals be hostile or would they be welcoming? That was my concern.
'A man who would slay a chance-met traveller without pity or remorse for the sake of trifling gain - would lay down his life for the very same individual were he to cross his threshold as even an unbidden guest.'
- The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (1908), by John F. Baddeley
Caucasians are famous for their hospitality and generosity, but one must not forget that this is also a land of cruelty. Kidnapping is less of a problem today but still not unheard of: after Chechnya won the war in the 1990s, kidnapping made up the major source of income for the newly independent republic. Men has continued to disappear today in the filtration camps across Chechnya set up by the government and militias. In neighbouring Dagestan, there are still slave labour performed by kidnapped men. The vagabond John F. Baddeley wrote that whether a Caucasian native is going to be your enemy and kidnapper - or a host and protector was only separated by a fine line.
But as my journey had only started, the exhilaration and excitement had far outweighed the apprehension. Perhaps just as Colin Thubron once said, a traveller fears most not about what happens – but that nothing happens on his journey. I am already looking forward to whatever that were about to happen along the way.
[Continue to the next article 'Ossetians: The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus']
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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