During the soccer world championships 2018 a good friend of mine and I went on a weird, wondrous, and wonderful trip full of adventure and tragedy from our base in Kalmykia’s capital Elista, where my family and I were staying on holiday with relatives (my wife is Kalmykian; more about Kalmykia here)
My mate had been able to get his hands on a real retro racer from the 80s, a Lada Samara, which made 50km/h feel like 180km/h (a good thing in my book). Even in absence of any aircon, you never got too hot, because wobbling over mountain passes with the abyss right next to you makes your blood chill. Also, the tropical 35C degrees of the valleys went down close to freezing point near the peaks, which came in handy. Those old Soviet boneshakers are indestructible, more robust than any modern 4×4 off-roader. Ours took three Caucasian mountain passes in a stride. Well… there was a lot of smoke rising from the motor in the end, but that’s really just to keep with tradition and nothing to worry about.
The drive to Stavropol region took about seven hours. As soon as the landscape turns lush and green, you know that you have left the arid Kalmykian steppe and entered the fertile neighbouring province. There are giant crop fields all around you and enormous mechanical harvesters are working side by side around the clock, 24×7 during this time of year.
When we arrived at Vladikavkaz, the region’s capital, we stopped for the famous Ossetian Fitchin cake at the Fitchin Cafe. Great, simple place with friendly people. First you eat the top cover of the cake, then you eat the meat and the broth inside. In a final fit of food frenzy, you fold the remaining pastry twice and eat it like a pancake with your hands. This is accompanied with the obligatory sour cream. Highly recommended!
The next day we visited the main street, Prospekt Mira, and the art museum Tuganov, with an exhibition of Soviet artist Mikhail Dsboyev. There were also sophisticated miniature models of local monuments on display. We saw several full-size monuments from other Soviet artists later on our trip that day, as well as a newer one from 1995 showing Saint George (Uastyrdzhi).
Monasteries and a Necropolis
One hour’s drive away, we also visited the picturesque Mukhtarov Mosque. Mosques are rather rare, because North Ossetia is the only Christian Caucasian republic.
Indeed we found two recently built, respectively refurbished, monasteries that were in good shape. One was at the end of the Fiagdon valley. For history buffs like us, the most amazing find was a small ruin village close to that monastery. There was a lower village for the living and an upper village for the dead, which formed a nice ensemble. Further up the hill two imposing but derelict towers were looming over the little settlement.
The necropolis charges an entrance fee and was clearly set up for visitors, but it seemed that it had been in use until not too long ago, as you could look through the houses’ single openings and see well-preserved skeletons lying on the ground.
The next day we visited the beautiful Karmadon valley, when we spotted a burst concrete car tunnel in the wilderness to our right. With the help of my very basic Russian language skills, I started to discover the tragedy, which had happened here. In 2002 a rare natural catastrophe (a rock-ice slide) had taken 125 lives. The ice, stone and mud filled an 18 kilometre-long car tunnel. Among the victims was the youth idol of the wild 90s after perestroika and the greatest hope of Russian cinematic art: Sergei Sergeyevich Bodrov.
That same evening my friend and I watched his breakthrough as an actor in the movie „Brother“. It takes place in St. Petersburg in the context of the 90s chaos and terrifying crime. You find it on youtube and it’s worth watching. Sergei Bodrov has never been retrieved from the scene with his 24-member film team. Thus the car tunnel became his mausoleum and the valley his graveyard. You can virtually feel the tragedy at this place. People put flowers here, coins, sweets and vodka.
I thought I had had my fair share of sadness for the day. And then the German soccer team lost 0:2 against, of all countries, South Korea, and left the world championship.
Kislovodsk’s Thermal Park
We purified ourselves by breathing the cleanest air, by drinking water from the highest mountains and by bathing in water from the deepest earth. To be precise: from a depth of 2,150 metres. I talk about the thermal springs of Kislovodsk’s Thermal Park. The water reaches the surface at a temperature of 60C degrees. It then cools down to 30C degrees in the outside basin. It was the perfect way to relax.
On our way back we passed by Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain at 5,642 metres, dwarfing Mont Blanc by nearly 850 metres. Comment aimez-vous ça, Frenchies, yay! You take three different cable cars to reach an altitude of 3,847 metres.
The bubbles in the lemonade bottle I was carrying become as big as peas, it looked as if the liquid was boiling. And of course the views were out of this world. At 4,741 metres above the valley, this dormant twin-volcano is the world’s 10th most prominent peak (tiny Mont Blanc is ranking a mere 11th, bah) and boasts no less than 22 glaciers.
To me this part of the Caucus is one of the best travel destinations, mostly untouched by tourism (very different from Georgia these days, for example), you will find raw nature, great food, and the friendliest people east of Germany. For more Caucasian adventures feel welcome to check out my guest post here on Grozny.