30,000 feet above the Kuban Steppe, en route to Moscow
And so ends my journey, as it began, with a whirlwind swing through Moscow. I'll stay in Moscow tonight, but my job is complete as I leave the Northern Caucasus, which might as well be in a different country given both its physical and emotional distance from Moscow. In light of the troubles I had in Rostov and the Black Sea - areas that seem more Russian than Caucasian - the warm embrace of the region's mountainous center was especially sweet. That the Caucasus mountains would be beautiful was a given. They are among the highest in the world, and their ruthless physiogamy recalls the Alps' most splendid peaks. What I was less prepared for were the intriguing cultures I was to encounter - the cowboys of Karachay, the peaceable Circassian Muslims, the outdoorsy Balkars and even the gruff and hearty Ossetians. What I learned about their customs, their food, their language, and their heritage only scratched the surface of what they are about, but I enjoyed it all the same.
Of course it wasn't all fun and games. If things had continued going as they did my first week, the entire trip would have qualified as an unmitigated disaster. I might have refused to submit my manuscript and donated my pages to another chapter. But with the good in travel comes the bad. It's just that, on this particular trip, all of the bad seemed to happen in rapid succession at the outset. It depressed me and made me homesick. But as misfortune tends to, it made for good story-telling. As I head back to Moscow, it seems like just yesterday that I was dealing with the shock of a stolen Canon, an almost-cancelled flight, a midnight arrival in Rostov, and a cathartic hello-you're-back-in-Russia late-night vodka session with a pair of airplane-maintenance workers at the Rostov airport hotel. Two days later I was flying through the air in the lobby of a hotel and almost losing the tip of my little finger, before enduring three days of hotel rejections and public transport misery in towns that wouldn't have had much tourist appeal even had they rolled out the red carpet for me. Then there was Sochi, a transition period of sorts, where I got my first taste of the mighty Caucasus mountains - but to the tune of $70 a night (by far the most I paid for a hotel anywhere; second highest was the $50 I paid the last two nights in Vladikavkaz). Ten days into my trip, I turned eastward toward the center of the Russian Caucasus, and my fortunes improved immeasurably.
In one last surprising twist, North Ossetia served up some gems on this, my final day. Along with my loyal cabbie Alan, I ventured into the (illicit for foreigners?) Kurtatinsky Valley to the "City of the Dead" in Dargavs. Later in the day, I went to Beslan. For the power of neither was I even remotely prepared.
First, the city of the dead. The photos give you some idea of what it's like, but I'd seen photos before and it's one of those things you really have to see yourself to feel its emotional pull. Far from an ordinary bunch of mausoleums, these are architecturally unusual (notice the odd pleated roofs which resemble medieval battle helmets), structurally impressive (they are over 400 years old and remain in perfect condition), and relate a horrific yet fascinating tale. These huts were the last refuge of plague victims in the 17th century. The victims voluntarily quarantined themselves within their walls and patiently awaited their fate. For days, weeks or sometimes months, they suffered in silence, subsisting only on meager rations of bread brought in by sympathetic locals. Then they died. Their corpses were left to rot inside these huts, and in those huts their corpses remain, untouched for centuries by anyone save the occasional looter. Some of the bodies, visible through small entrances, are half-mummified. It's eerie.
There are several such “cities” scattered across Ossetia, but Dargavs is the most impressive because of the large number of mausoleums and the absolutely stunning scenery. One has to think such a beautiful spot was not chosen by coincidence. Overlooking the verdant Fiagdon River valley, with several cliffs and 4000m peaks looming above, they are a sight to behold. I'd guess only a few foreigners a year visit this place these days, as foreigners tend to be scared off by the conflict in neighbouring Chechnya. In Soviet times Intourist sent tourists here by the busload, and it even had a ticket booth manned by an Ossetian babushka. Now even Russian tourists are few and far between. I was alone when I visited, save for Alan and a 13-year-old local boy who acted as my guide. The lack of other souls certainly added to the power of the place. It will likely remain little-known and little-visited by foreigners for many years to come, regardless of whether I mention it in Lonely Planet. North Ossetia is not really a dangerous place, but, like Mindanao in the Philippines, the miniscule chance of getting kidnapped or caught up in the cross-fire of an extremist event keeps the masses at bay - which makes it all the more appealing for the type of intrepid traveller who makes it to places like this.
After that, Beslan, where another horrific tale unfolded, this one a mere three-and-a-half years ago. Again I was unprepared. But the power of Beslan works differently, more emotionally. Dargavs' plague happened centuries ago and has long been forgotten. You sympathize with the victims' cruel fate, but you feel no attachment to it. Dargavs is basically fucking cool. Beslan is another story. We all watched Beslan unfold, and, though most of us had not heard of Beslan or had any idea where it was, we were all touched in some way by the school siege. As the heinous events unfolded before our eyes, we shared a small part of the town's grief.
Since the siege, the school has been scarcely touched. A glass cover has been put over the gymnasium where the roof used to be. The roof, of coursed, caught fire and collapsed, killing dozens, mostly school kids. Photos of the victims and poems dedicated to their memory line the walls in a poignant, spontaneous shrine. The other school rooms appear completely untouched, save for a few bouquets of flowers lying around. The elements have taken over and rubble is everywhere. A coat hangs in one room, and in another the day’s math lesson remains preserved in chalk on the blackboard.
The crumbling school reminded me of a typical building in Prypyat, the abandoned ghost town near Chernobyl. Only I found Beslan more affecting than Chernobyl, probably because, unlike Chernobyl, I watched it all unfold. And because I'm a father. It's the most powerful memorial I've ever seen, precisely because there is no actual memorial, just a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and grief in the form of photos, poems, flowers and a single cross.
I didn't want to leave. I felt attached to it. At the same time I felt like a voyeur. I felt guilty for taking photos. This wasn't a tourist attraction. What was I doing here? I took some anyway. Part of the job. But I won't need the photos to remember Beslan.
And thus my trip to the Caucasus ended, at Beslan - an emotional yet oddly rewarding and,I reckon, fitting end.
North Ossetia had one more surprise up its sleeve: Stalin statues. A travel book I'm reading, written in 1980, says all the Stalin statues in the Soviet Union were torn down in the Khrushchev era, save for the one in Stalin's hometown of Gori, Georgia. Not so! I saw two today: one in Fiagdon and another in Beslan. These are the first two I've seen outside a museum. The one in the photo I’ve posted is located in Fiagdon, about 12km from Dargavs.
I asked people in Vladikavkaz what they thought of Vitaly Kaloyev (the guy who lost his entire family – wife and two children - in that plane crash and stabbed the Danish air traffic controller to death in Switzerland). I plan to use these interviews as a box in Lonely Planet, but the following sample is indicative of the general sentiment in both North Ossetia and in Russia, where he was welcomed back as a sort of perverse hero.
Eduard Kozirev, Penioner and former railroad engineer:
“People here view him with respect. What he did of course wasn’t right, but his heart had been ripped out. Imagine how you would feel If you lost your family. If the [Swiss air-traffic control company] had take responsibility, apologized, and paid the families promptly, the murder never would have happened. They had three years between the plane crash and the murder to apologize and pay the families. But they didn’t pay anybody a single kopek until Kaloyev was already in jail. And you know what Kaloyev said when they offered him money too? He told them to give it to the family of the dispatcher he killed. He said, ‘What do I need the money for, I don’t have a family.’ I don’t think any of the families would have been paid if the murder hadn’t occurred.”