Saturday, 17 May 2014

Black Sea Circuit: Road Trip Through the Caucasus (Part 2)

In the shadow of rising tension in Ukraine, Chris Raven and Simon Raven fire up their twenty year old Volvo and head for the Black Sea. Follow their three-part adventure as they embark on a quest to drive full circle around this ancient body of water at the birthplace of civilisation.

Memorial to those who lost their lives in the 2004 School Hostage Crisis in Beslan
North Ossetia (Russia) © Chris Raven

The Black Sea has been the inspiration for endless myths and legends. It was here Jason and the Argonauts were thought to have sailed from Greece to Georgia in search of the Golden Fleece. It is home to stories of a tribe of fierce female warriors known as the Amazons, who were said to have captured men and used them as sex slaves in what is now modern day Turkey. Tribes of nomadic horsemen wielding swords once ruled the grasslands of the Pontic steppe, and Huns, Goths, Turks and Russians strove for mastery along these colourful shores.

Would it be possible to make a complete loop around the Black Sea? We had heard rumours the Verkhny Lars-Darial Gorge border crossing in the Caucasus Mountains between Beslan, Vladikavkaz and the Georgian Military Highway was now open to foreigners, but the Russian Embassy advised us not to travel this route. Undeterred, we both agreed that at the worst case scenario we would have to backtrack to OdeSsa in the east of the Ukraine and travel by ferry to Batumi in Georgia. The plan was set. The second stage of our journey traversing this mighty sea was about to begin.

Simon: Leaving behind the wild and mountainous coastline of the Crimean Peninsula, we embark on stage two of our journey driving full circle around the Black Sea. I slept uneasily during the night, fearing a region of Southern Russia with a notorious reputation for terrorism and violence. Our road trip will take us past Chechnya and through a complex multi-ethnic region. With the Sochi Winter Olympics in the spotlight, our mission is to explore the Caucasus Mountains, meet its people and cross this remote frontier into Georgia.

We cross the border from the Ukraine to Russia at first light. The Russian customs officials treat us with efficiency and great kindness and, within less than an hour, we have purchased car insurance from a small kiosk and are drinking coffee with two Moldovan truck drivers who speak impeccable English. Marian worked as a truck driver in the UK for five years, and has recently returned to the Moldovan region of Romania to be closer to his family. He regularly travels this route transporting goods from Romania to Moscow. He warns us to keep an eye out for gypsies and the traffic police, and advises us that if we stick to the rules and stay out of trouble our passage will be trouble free. Travelling in opposite directions, we shake hands and wish each other luck. We head east on a long straight highway that runs parallel with the Sea of Azov. The ploughed soil is jet black, and enormous Soviet size fields of corn and sunflowers reach to the horizon. Cattle graze and buzzards perched on fence posts watch our metal monster speed by. Catching a glimpse of the turquoise green water of the Sea of Azov, a small body of water that sits in the top right hand corner of the Black Sea, we cross over a long narrow lagoon (a liman) and approach the port city of Taganrog. 

A boy catches fish from a boat on the Sea of Azov in Taganrog (Russia) © Simon Raven, Chris Raven
For the past few weeks I have been reading short stories by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov. Born in the port city of Taganrog, Chekhov had drawn much inspiration from this region. Weaving through the quiet suburban streets of town, we go in search of the house where he spent his childhood years. Passing many traditional one storey houses, we park close to the large scruffy central market and head on foot through the hot sticky streets. With an air of faded grandeur, the buildings either side of the road along Chekhov Street look worn out and in a state of disrepair. Two hard working kids sell watermelons from the back of a truck, and an elderly woman wearing a brown dress sits outside her humble home and listens to classical music on a small radio. We arrive at the gates of a traditional single story house, set back in a well kept tranquil garden. The tiny little house has a green roof and matching window shutters. We buy a ticket and meet a woman working at the museum named Nina, who tells us her daughter had studied law in London and now lives in Paris. Walking around the miniature house, we learn Chekhov’s father, Pavel, had been raised in extreme poverty in central Russia and lived as a serf, the lowest social class. He had moved to Taganrog and worked for a merchant, renting this outbuilding for his wife and two children in 1859. Anton Chekhov was born here in 1860. Our enthusiastic guide points out Pavel on a family portrait hung on the wall. He is a tall man with a long beard and staring eyes. Pavel ruled his household with an iron fist, and would regularly beat Anton and his brothers and sisters. He worked for a wealthy merchant, but so desperately wanted to be free. It tormented him that he had to rely on other people for his survival. In the 1870’s Pavel went bankrupt and was forced to flee with his wife to Moscow, where he lived with his two sons, Alexander and Nikolay, who were studying at university. Anton was left behind at the age of sixteen to sell the family possessions and finish his education. He boarded with a man called Selivanov who, like Lopakhin in, The Cherry Orchard, had bailed out the family for the price of their house. Chekhov had to pay for his own education, which he managed by private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches and selling short sketches to the newspapers. He sent every ruble he could spare to Moscow, along with humorous letters to cheer up the family. During this time, he read widely and he wrote a full-length comedy drama, Fatherless, which his brother Alexander dismissed as "an inexcusable though innocent fabrication." Chekhov also enjoyed a series of love affairs, one with the wife of a teacher.
Keen to be a good ambassador to her much loved town, Nina recommends we visit the harbour where Chekhov used to watch the merchant ships arrive and set sail. Anton loved to travel and would have travelled more if it was not for his bad health that prevented him from doing so. We drop by a small urban park on top of the cliffs and look down over the bustling port. A woman sits on a bench in her pink dressing gown and gazes dreamily out to sea, and loving couples hold hands and embrace. We weave down a steep coastal road and stumble across a small beach. A family play on the sand and people cook meat on barbecues, while enjoying a relaxing Sunday by the sea. Two old men wade through the shallow green water of the Sea of Azov in their underpants and enjoy an evening swim.

* * *

Men play chess in the entrance to Gorky Park in Rostov-on-Don (Russia) © Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Chris: Cruising along a smooth freshly tarmaced highway, we head for the port city of Rostov-on-Don that lies 30km upriver from the Sea of Azov. Si flicks through the pages of his notebook, and reminds me that at the delta of this mighty river lie the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Tanais. This once great trading centre had been sacked by the Germanic Goths in the 3rd century AD and was later destroyed by the savage Huns in the 4th century AD. The Golden Horde claimed most of the coast in the 13th and 14th centuries, but the Venetian and Genoese merchants were granted permission to settle on the site of modern-day Azov on the opposite side of the delta and founded there a colony which they called Tana. The modern administrative centre of Rostov-on-Don flourished much later under the Russian Empire and, with a population today over one million strong, we battle through the speeding city traffic. In the uncomfortable midday heat cars sound their horns and a man with road rage shouts angrily out of his window at a taxi cab. I study the faces of the people walking the streets. Predominantly European in looks, the genes here are a mishmash of the many immigrants who migrated here over the centuries to the Black Sea; Greeks, Italians, Germans, Armenians and Turks. A man with olive skin and thick black stubble walks by the car, and two women with fair skin and blonde hair disappear inside a fashionable cafe. Close now to neighbouring Kazakhstan, in a region of the world that has witnessed countless invasions, migrations, colonisations and assimilations, I’m surprised there doesn’t appear to be many people who look of central Asian descent. Si reminds me that during Stalin’s regime in the 1930’s and 1940s, millions of immigrants were deported from the Black Sea, despite having lived here for hundreds (and certainly in the case of the Greeks) for thousands of years. The region today was considered to be the home of the Don Cossack, an independent or an autonomous democratic republic in the present day Southern Russia and the Donbas region of the Ukraine, which existed around the end of the 16th until the early 20th century. Don Cossacks had a rich military tradition, playing an important role in the historical development of the Russian Empire and participating in all of its major wars.

Slipping the Volvo into a free parking space outside an Italian restaurant, we ask a young African guy, who has a strong French accent, if he knows where we can find a mid-range hotel or hostel in the city. With luck we discover we’re parked right outside one. We learn the guy is from Benin, and is living in Rostov-on-Don for six months as part of a Russian studies program. Wishing him luck, we enter the dimly lit hallway of a grand mansion building with a stone staircase, and walk up four flights of stairs to the hostel. A tall blonde guy painting over graffiti in the corridor welcomes us inside. We’re invited to take off our shoes in the hallway, and enter a large room with a towering ceiling and ornate wooden floor. A desk with a thrown-like chair is positioned at the head of the room with a computer and a telephone. We introduce ourselves, and quickly discover Vladimir is one of the owners of the hostel. He proudly reveals that it is only the second week the hostel has been open. We are invited to sit down, and soon learn that Vladimir is a Cossack from the southern Ukraine. His father was in the military and was posted to East Germany during the Soviet years. Vladimir looks Tsar-like behind the desk as he strokes his soft blonde stubble. Kindly offering to register our Russian tourist visas for a small fee, he shows us around the hostel with its newly decorated rooms and brand new communal kitchen. Despite having only been open for a couple of weeks, they have already had people staying from across the globe; including China and Japan. The first guest was a girl from Finland, who had been studying Russian here in Rostov-on-Don. Unfolding a world map out on the desk, Vladimir explains that a guy had turned up one day on a bicycle that he had ridden from Germany. With a big smile he reveals the man was cycling to India. He had bought Vladimir a world map as a gift and suggested he should ask everyone who stays to mark on it where they are from. Circling central England, Si scribbles on it, “Raven brothers 2013”.
  ‘Rostov-on-Don is a hidden secret,’ Vladimir grins. ‘It is much warmer here in the winter compared to Moscow, and is often plus ten degrees centigrade even during the coldest months.’
  Recommending a number of tourist sites to visit around the city, Vladimir encourages us to walk down to the River Don.
  ‘When I was a student at University I lived on the Asian side of the Don, but I worked on the European side. Everyday I would cross from Asia into Europe.’

* * *

Simon: Arranging to return and collect our passports the following day, we head out into the bright sunshine and explore the city. We pause for coffee at a small kiosk in the street and fall into conversation with the woman behind the counter. She too is incredibly friendly, and tells us that her daughter lives in Stevenage in the UK. She offers us to try sweet sticky bread topped with cheese and pineapple, and shows us photographs of her daughter’s husband, who is originally from Wales. We learn the woman had flown to the UK only last year and had visited Stonehenge. Waving our new Russian aunty goodbye, we stroll through the wide bustling streets of the grand city with its tall whitewashed buildings. We pass an enormous modern shopping mall, before turning down a boulevard towards the park. Colourfully dressed Peruvian musicians perform to a crowd outside the gates to Gorky Park. They stand out in stark contrast to the local people, with shoulder length black hair and deeply tanned faces. Bouncing energetically on the spot in multi-coloured robes, the sounds of Andean flutes drift through the congested streets. A line of stalls sell jewellery and souvenirs carved from wood and a group of old men play chess nearby. We pass the recently whitewashed town hall and a huge old hotel that is under renovation, and stumble across an affluent area of the city along a tree lined street with Cartier and Hugo Boss. We cross the tramlines and wander through a bustling open air market, the spectacular five gold domed Cathedral of Virgin's Nativity towering above. There are stalls selling mountains of fresh fish and fruit, including strawberries, pomegranates, tangerines and watermelons and, scanning the Caucasian faces with a curious mix of blonde and jet black hair, I notice a woman who looks of Asian descent. I wonder if she is from neighbouring Kazakhstan. We drink a refreshing glass of Kvass, a fermented beverage made from rye bread, and exit the market through an ancient archway that leads back to the busy main boulevard. We walk to the banks of the mighty River Don and watch cargo boats cutting through the water. From our elevated view, we identify a number of industrial cranes and construction sites and get the sense that Rostov-on-Don is a city on the up.

* * *

Still from video footage of eight Russian Orthodox priests and a Cossack man in uniform in the Old Don
Cossack Capital of Starocherkassk (Russia) © Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Chris: Collecting our newly registered visas from Vladimir, we head 30km upriver to the old Don Cossack Capital of Starocherkassk. Driving through the beautiful rural countryside, we begin to see the domes of the towering Resurrection Cathedral that dates back to the 18th Century. Visited by Peter the Great, little remains of this once thriving centre of Don Cossack life with the exception of a number of small village communities. Passing the small ferry station that transports cars and foot passengers backwards and forwards across the Don, we park the Volvo close to a large playing field with a staging area for folk festivals. For nearly two centuries Starocherkassk had been the centre of Don Cossack culture and politics, until regular spring flooding had caused them to move it to higher ground at Novocherkassk in 1805. We wander around the tiny village, with chickens running around in the gardens of blue and green wooden houses. People sell woollen rugs and souvenirs, and an old lady dressed in black sits outside the entrance to a church. At sunset we step inside a large cathedral with a magnificent gold alter, and witness a ceremony by a group of eight Orthodox priests dressed in black robes. I smile when the priest elder, with a long white beard, scolds one of the younger priests for not removing his hat. As the priest’s baritone voices echo throughout the cathedral, a Cossack man with a neatly trimmed white beard, dressed in traditional military uniform, a navy blue suit with a red stripe down the trousers and black leather boots, walks around the holy men and lights candles. Women wearing headscarves bow their heads and cross their chest.

In the fading light we drive along a narrow unpaved dirt track to a tranquil picnic spot. As night falls we’re disturbed by the sound of a motorbike approaching us. Two kids who have clearly been drinking collapse off the bike laughing. A second bike covered with neon lights appears and skids to a halt. All four teenagers smile and shake our hands excitedly as they fire questions at us. We try to guess what they are asking and reply with “London” and “England”, and point at the Volvo and mime driving here. We spend the next hour larking around with these slightly boisterous youths beneath a starlit sky. They appear to make little distinction between the UK and USA, and we discover they learn German in school not English. They screech and chat loudly and annoyingly do Michael Jackson impersonations. One of the kids has olive skin and looks central Asian. The eldest, who is nineteen, is big and clumsy and reminds me of an American high school jock. He talks about Chevrolet, BMW and Chinese motorcycles, James Bond and Justin Bieber. He suddenly reaches inside his bag and pulls out a revolver. He points it at us. Stunned, we stare wide-eyed into the barrel of the gun. He bursts out laughing and begins shooting at the ground beside his friend’s feet. Much to our relief the gun appears to be gas propelled. Our night of teenage revelry eventually comes to an abrupt end, when the mobile phone belonging to the tall Cossack village kid with the gas gun starts to play Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. We hear the angry voice of a woman on the other end of the line and, embracing us excitedly, the kids quickly shake our hands before leaping on their bikes and racing home.

The following morning we buy a large watermelon from a friendly farmer, and head south towards the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. We join the nightmare traffic on the congested M4 highway, with miles and miles of road works, and drive in the slow lane all the way to Krasnodar 300km south. We nod a hello to a Muslim guy in a white Renault van, who plays loud Turkish sounding pop music on his car stereo. Overtaking a Russian truck, we get caught up in a long traffic jam caused by a fatal accident. We crawl past three Russian ambulances and see a blue van has crashed into the back of a truck. The cab has been destroyed in the impact. Blood covers the side of the twisted wreckage. Reaching a major road junction, we decide to avoid the city traffic and spend the night on the Kuban Sea. Approaching a beat up green BMW with its hood up, a smartly dressed guy with a dark complexion and thick stubble waves his arms vigorously in the air. He clearly wants us to stop and help him. We had escaped a similar setup by gypsies in Siberia ten years ago and, wise to the breakdown scam, we weave our way past.

Crossing the Kuban River, we begin to see a twenty metre high bank and realise that beyond this must lie the Krasnodar reservoir, or Kuban Sea. 40km in length, the man made reservoir was created in 1973 and built to ensure seasonal control of the water flow and, although its levels should never exceed eight metres, there was a terrible flood here only one year ago. Claiming the lives of 171 people in the Krasnodar krai, the state had been heavily criticised for its systemic failure to prepare for recurrent flood disasters in this region. Passing rows of stalls selling inflatable rubber rings, beach balls and boats, we drive for 20km without seeing water, so we resort to turning off the main highway and head down a narrow track. Driving through remote villages in the rural countryside, we become lost and stop outside a house to ask for directions. An old rural gentleman, wearing a moth-eaten grey suit and flat cap, furrows his brow when I politely greet him and point to the map. He looks confused and shakes his head. He points back to the main road. His babushka wife, with a headscarf and shapeless blue patterned dress, stands in the doorway to a wooden house. A young girl wearing a pretty yellow floral print dress looks vacantly out of the window. She has short hair and appears to have Down syndrome. Politely thanking them, we spin the car around and wave goodbye to a party of blank faces.

With black clouds looming overhead, we quickly seek out a place to park for the night and stumble across a narrow trail leading deep into a forest. We reverse the Volvo between two trees and quickly cook before it rains. Just as I’m about to pour tea into a cup, Si leaps out of his foldaway chair in surprise at the sight of two large dogs scurrying towards us. The dogs hesitate and sniff the air before running away. As the pasta begins to boil, a stocky guy wearing black tracksuit trousers and a white t-shirt suddenly appears. He looks angry as he marches into the clearing. Spotting us, he walks over. I glance nervously in his direction. He mutters something in Russian, and I wonder if the dogs we had seen belong to him. I stand out of my chair and point up the path that leads into the forest. The guy seems confident and fearless, with a gold chain that hangs over his t-shirt. Shaking our hands and, glancing at our pan of food, he appears to say something like, enjoy your meal. We watch him march away. As it grows dark we retire to the relative safety of the Volvo and fall asleep to the sound of the rain pattering on the roof of the car.

* * *

Simon: Keen to get the car back on firm ground we skid out of the forest in a torrential downpour. Lighting flashes overhead, closely followed by the boom of thunder. Looping around Krasnodar, we rejoin the E115 and head west for the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. We get pulled over by the police for switching lanes, but the officer thankfully slaps our wrists for the manoeuvre and waves us on. At the roadside, we buy fresh fruit and vegetables from a tall dark guy with a bristly moustache. I hand over a wad of rubles, and wonder if this giant of a man stood in front of me could be of Assyrian descent. I had read that people belonging to this ethnic group had migrated to this region of the Caucasus over the past century, following the mass slaughter of the Assyrian population of the Ottoman Empire during the 1890’s and the First World War. Originating from ancient Mesopotamia, the Assyrians trace their ancestry back to the Sumero-Akkadian civilisation that emerged an astounding 6,000 years ago, circa 4000–3500 BC. On either side of the highway, huge fields of sunflowers begin to appear with pump jacks (nodding donkeys) dotted across the landscape. Reaching the town of Krymsk, home to a community of approximately 2,000 Assyrian decedents, it was also here where flash flooding the previous summer had claimed the lives of 140 inhabitants, and destroyed thousands of homes across the region. According to reports, massive rainfall of eleven inches, five times the monthly average, had caused water to pour down the steep-sided valley, rapidly swelling a river which overflowed and swept away homes and vehicles in its path. 

Returning to the main highway, we continue to head west and steadily return to the Black Sea coast. As we inch closer we begin to see locals selling jars of sprats, strips of sturgeon and salted Azov herrings at the roadside. We’re a short distance from Kerch on the Crimean Peninsula, having made a complete loop around the Sea of Azov. It feels good to be back on the Black Sea, and we look out across the Kerch Straits that often freezes over in the winter, causing sturgeon the size of dolphins to be become caught in the ice. Joining the M27 coastal highway, we pull over for the night a few kilometres outside of Novorossiysk atop a cliff that towers over the Black Sea. With the Volvo pointing up hill, I suffer vivid dreams that I’m strapped into a rocket that is about to be fired into outer space. I awake sometime during the night, and squint through half closed eyes at a café covered in flashing neon lights. I close my eyes and bury my head under my sleeping bag. Tossing and turning, I moan feverishly, as I’m disturbed at regular intervals by the sound of a revving engine, roaring trucks, excited laughter and the thumping bass of a car stereo. In the morning we try to buy coffee from the café, but the place doesn’t appear to sell anything. Instead, we set up kitchen on the edge of the cliff and watch the colour of the water change from black to navy blue. Huge cargo ships and oil tankers cling to the horizon, waiting for their slot into the port. We cook eggs and fried bread for breakfast, and boil a flask of water for coffee. Behind us a storm begins to roll down from the mountains. Thunder booms warlike, explosively, a flash of white lightening followed by a low rumble.

* * *

Fisherman with the Mikhail Kutuzov Warship, Black Sea Fleet, Novorossiysk,
(Russia) © Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Chris: Reaching the suburbs of Novorossiysk, we push through the city traffic and pass beneath the ‘Defence Line Memorial’, a huge stone sculpture across the road with four boulder size stone fists each clenched around a rifle. Grabbing our cameras, we walk along the harbour wall and look out over the enormous Tsemes bay. The bustling port and the dozens of towering cranes work non-stop to load and unload the thousands of shipping containers that arrive and depart here everyday. An enormous container ship from China slowly drifts into the docks, and three tiny tug boats help manoeuvre the giant vessel into position. Close to the shore, a guy is stripped to his underpants and wades through the shallow water and begins to check his fishing nets or crab cages. Towering behind him is the enormous Mikhail Kutuzov, a warship that was once the former flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. Now a museum, the Mikhail Kutuzov is 210m in length and 23m wide and once had a crew of 1,200. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been operating in the Black Sea since the late 18th century, and had managed to persuade the Ukraine to extend the lease of its naval base in Sevastopol in return for the supply of cheaper gas. Historically the Black Sea Fleet had defeated the Turks in 1790, fought the Ottomans during World War I, the Romanians during World War II, and Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetia war. A bronze statue of a woman with her child, dressed in 1940’s style, waves a hanky in memory of the many ships that have set sail from this harbour. In the 1950’s, our uncle was the radio officer aboard a Greek merchant ship that was based in Novorossiysk for five weeks. He had told us stories of how they would trade cigarettes and alcohol with the Russian sailors, and spoke about how well they had been treated by the Russians. Eight years before most of Novorossiysk had been occupied by the German Army. A small unit of Soviet sailors heroically defended one part of the town, known as Malaya Zemlya, for 225 days, allowing the Soviets to retain possession of the city's bay and preventing the Germans from using the port for supply shipments. Excited children zip around the promenade in small electric cars, while two navy sailors in uniform sit on a wall and smoke a cigarette. We walk along the pleasant tree-lined streets and through a delightful park with little Shetland ponies. Buying a coffee from a machine, we chat to a small gentleman in his fifties who wears a crisp white shirt and flip flops. He has small oriental features and round metal framed glasses.
  ‘So you’re not afraid of the Russian bear?’ he smiles.
  We explain to him that we’d had reservations about whether it would be safe exploring this particular region of Russia, but had until now had a fantastically pleasant experience. He laughs, and seems pleased we’re enjoying our time here. I ask him if he is from Novorossiysk, and he explains that his family originate from Lake Baikal, home to Genghis Khan, but for many years he lived in Moscow. He has since moved to the warmer climate of the south here in Novorossiysk, and works for a Russian shipping company in the port that deals mainly with the export of grain. Welcoming us to Novorossiysk, he asks us what we are doing in Russia and seems intrigued we are on our way to Sochi. With concern, he tells us that there has been much controversy over the astronomical sums of money invested in hosting the Winter Olympics. According to the Guardian newspaper in the UK, approximately $51 billion has been spent on the games, although; around half of that is alleged to have disappeared in corrupt building contracts. Back on the road, we head south and join a long line of trucks heavily loaded with goods imported across the Black Sea. On the M27, we pass through a number of popular up-market Black Sea resorts with newly constructed hotels, flashy restaurants and bars and re-vamped waterfronts. Money it appears has been pouring into the south of Russia over the past decade, and with the holiday season in full swing and the young and fashionable parading the promenades, there is a feeling here that Russia is on the move.

* * *

Simon: The road becomes increasingly narrow as we wind through the forested hills at night fall. Skimming the coast, we hit a string of small tacky seaside towns with amusement arcades, fast food restaurants and bars brightly lit in flashing neon. Babushkas and men in baseball caps shake keys and signal to the Russian holidaymakers that they have rooms available for rent. The following morning we find a police car parked up next to us. An officer is stood at the back of the Volvo with a speed radar gun. His colleague flags down cars that have been caught by the trap and sets to work at writing out a ticket. Preoccupied with their ‘speeding game’, they seem completely unconcerned by the presence of our foreign vehicle with two scruffy travel writers asleep inside. Not wanting to hang around, we continue on our journey to the southern-most border of Russia and the infamous North Caucasus city of Sochi. Before long we reach a large police checkpoint and, with passports at the ready, we prepare to be stopped and searched, but the officer wearing shades ignores us and we drive straight through. 

Approaching the once prestigious resort of Dagomys, we pass willow trees and a tranquil forest cemetery and signs for a “Sanatoria”. Tsar Nicholas II and Joseph Stalin both had a dacha, or country home nearby, and both Dagomys and Sochi were popular with famous Russian artists and performers, including the legendary opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and writer Isaac Babel. An eccentric pensioner with a handlebar moustache cycles past wearing shorts, a bright red Hawaiian shirt and a straw hat, and we look in wonder at a banana tree growing outside a house. There is a hint of the Mediterranean in the air, with a humid subtropical climate and an average summer temperature of 24°C. To host the Winter Olympics in this humid zone was most certainly a big concern when they won the votes in 2007. But for Putin to host the Olympics here in Sochi may seem pure vanity on his part. Is it really all about the efforts to show Russia is safe and a modern state, and capable of glamour and sport? During the soviet era, Sochi earned a reputation as a playground for criminals, gambling and mafia protection rackets for tourist hotels. “V gorodye sochi, tyomnye nochi”, is a rhyming phrase familiar to many Russians and roughly translates “In the city of Sochi, the nights are dark.” Following the diversion signs, we weave around diggers and a major new bridge and walkway that are under construction. We hit mass congestion with traffic jams and road works. The city of Sochi appears to be in chaos. Dust fills the air and the sound of drilling is deafening. The driver of a black BMW with “ABH” on the number plate leaps out and runs over to my open window. He has southern European features with a bronze complexion and a distinctive thin face and large nose. He points up the road and talks to us with some urgency. I assume he is late and wants to know a quick way out of here. We apologise and try to explain to him that we are from England. His serious face breaks into a smile and he puts up his thumb and says, “England, good!” We begin to spot more cars with “ABH” on the number plate and realise they are from nearby Abkhazia; a still-disputed territory of Georgia that saw clashes in 2008, which is now recognised by Russia as an independent state. I also begin to notice other guys with similar distinctive features. Before this region was conquered by Cimmerian, Scythian and Sarmatian invaders, the Zygii people lived in Smaller Abkhazia under the Kingdom of Pontus. From the 6th to the 11th centuries, the area successively belonged to the kingdom of Lazica and kingdom of Abkhazia and from the 11th to the middle of the 19th century it was a part of the Georgian Kingdom. The Christian settlements along the coast were later destroyed by the invading Göktürks, Khazars, Mongol Empire and other nomadic empires. In the 14th–19th centuries, the region was dominated by the Abkhaz, Ubykh and Adyghe tribes, and the current location of the city of Sochi known as Ubykhia was part of historical Circassia, and was controlled by the native people of the local mountain clans of the north-west Caucasus under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, which was their principal trading partner in the Muslim world. The coastline was only ceded to Russia in 1829 as a result of a Caucasian War and Russo-Turkish War. 

Alder Arena & Fisht Olympic Stadiums under construction, Sochi Olympic Park (Russia)
© Chris Raven, Simon Raven

When the traffic begins to move again we pass fifties style mansion blocks and the unusual looking grand railway station, with a striking clock tower which sports a black clock face with Zodiac signs around it. Turning down Kurortny prospekt, the main street, we head towards the sea and turn right and then left before stumbling across a shaded residential street. We park behind a burgundy Chevrolet saloon from Uzbekistan and walk towards the harbour. Cutting through the large modern central shopping centre, to avoid the major construction taking place in the road outside, we peer through the windows of designer shops selling expensive international fashion labels and luxury brands of perfume and jewellery. Crossing the busy street, we pause in the entrance to a small park and read a tourist information sign that’s translated into English. We are surprised to learn that despite the area of the current city of Sochi formally being absorbed into the Russian Empire after the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-29, the local population, the Adyghe, a Sunni Muslim people in what was then the historical country of Circassia, fiercely resisted the Tsar's troop, and it was only after 1864 (in connection with the end of the Caucasian War) that the area of the city became a part of the Russian Empire. In Sochi today, there are thought to be a minority population of around 20,000, who migrated here from the Republic of Adygea, located a few hundred kilometres inland northeast of Sochi. Strolling through a small park brimming with palm trees, we stand and watch tourists taking turns having their picture taken in front of the official Omega Olympic Countdown Clock. I watch the red numbers on the digital display descend; only 191 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes and 6 seconds to go until the games begin. We walk underneath palm trees, and around the impressive Maritime Passenger Terminal of the Naval Station building that was built in 1955 with its distinctive 71-metre-high steeple tower. Much of the seafront appears to be screened off with construction workers shunting diggers and using power tools in the heat of the day. Looping around the harbour rammed full of luxury yachts and sailboats, we catch a glimpse of the pebbled beach that is teeming with holidaymakers. Confused as to where the main Olympic events will be held, we cross a brand new bridge and look up river at the view towards the mountains. A brand new green city bus with Wi-Fi whizzes past with Sochi Paralympics 2014 written across it. Spotting a tourist information kiosk adjacent to a large modern art mural of Lenin, the friendly woman behind the counter explains to us that the Olympic Park is 17km south near to the town of Adler and currently closed to the public. She offers us the option to join a tour in two days time, but warns us that we will not be permitted to access many areas due to the construction work that is taking place.

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Chris: Undeterred by the news of limited access to the Olympic Park, we fire up the Volvo, which is now covered in a thick layer of dust, and hit the highway to Adler near to the border with Abkhazia. We weave around yet another road under construction and pass through the southern suburb of Matsesta, where we join a major two lane highway that runs along the coast. Reaching the frontier town of Adler, we begin to see signs for the airport and the ski resort town of Krasnaya Polyana high up in the mountains. Alongside the highway, giant Olympic rings with the names of the different countries participating in the games flash by the window. Seeing a sign for the Olympic Park, we exit the highway and follow a brand new road which quickly becomes an empty dust track. Large luxury apartment buildings stand vacant and, seeing the white dome of the enormous Bolshoy Ice Dome in the distance, we screech to a halt and scramble on top of an earth mound to get a better look. Over the top of a blue corrugated metal fence we see the Sochi Olympic Park rise into view. A dumper truck roars past, so we quickly cover our faces from the dust cloud. We park the car next to a silver Honda driven by one of the workers from Syria. Peering through the bars of the tall mesh security fence, we admire the Alder Arena up close and study the white skeletal frame of the Fisht Olympic Stadium that looks a long way from completion. Racing across dry waste ground to the security building, with two Russian police jeeps parked outside, we join the hundreds of workers waiting for the start of their shift in the golden sunlight. A beat up old bus exits the heavily guarded entrance gate, as the hundreds of construction workers wearing hard hats, high visibility vests and work boots form a line outside. Most of the workers are Middle Eastern and from Abkhazia or Central Asia, and I imagine that the job opportunities here will have attracted people from across the region. I smile at the slogan printed across a guy’s T-Shirt, ‘The Future Just happened’. The enormous Bolshoy Ice Dome looms in the distance, and we can see hundreds of men the size of ants, hanging from ropes from the roof of the dome. In the midday heat the temperature up there must be unbearable. We stand by the fence on the edge of the proposed Sochi Formula One race track, and take photographs of ourselves with the stadiums under construction in the background. A guy in blue combat trousers and a black vest top with bulging muscles grins over at us behind a pair of shades. Seeing a second official marching purposefully towards us, we decide to return to the car for fear of attracting any unwanted attention, particularly, as we had heard that due to the threat of terrorism security at the Olympic Park was soon to be on high alert. 

Keen to head into the mountains before it gets dark, we leave the Sochi Olympic workers to get the job finished. Trucks kick up dust and workers are silhouetted against the setting sun. We speed onto the newly constructed Adler- Krasnaya Polyana highway. A symbol of the huge costs of the Olympic budget, this 48km stretch of road had spiralled to a reported $8.6 billion. Passing the brand new Adler Power Plant, we drive along a wide empty highway into the mountains. We see newly constructed bridges, and catch sight of the railway line under construction which runs alongside it. When completed this combined rail and motor road from Adler to the mountain resort of Alpika-Service, will be the main passenger artery of the 2014 Olympic Games. After approximately twelve kilometres, we are diverted off the highway and wind our way through the mountains on a two-way road that skims alongside the Mzymta River. Across the deep rocky canyon, we catch glimpses of the enormous construction that is taking place in this wild mountain location surrounded by jagged peaks. This is where the Caucasus mountain range begins; where it rises out of the sea in a towering fortress of rock. A planned twelve tunnels with the total length of 30km and 46 bridges must be completed ready for the Olympic opening ceremony in five months time. The new trains that will operate on this line called ‘Lastochki’ or swallows in English, will be able to drive at a maximum speed of 160km an hour. In 2014 Sochi will have thirty eight Lastochki each containing five wagons driving with intervals of five minutes. The railroad will thereby be able to transport 86,000 passengers per day. The road that is being built alongside the railroad will be able to transport 10,000 passengers per hour.

Approaching the Akhtsu Tunnel we see a police checkpoint. A soldier flags us down, dressed in full military combat uniform and clutching a machine gun. With a stern face the solider asks for our documents. Checking our passports and visas, he asks where we are going. We reply we are tourists and want to visit Krasnaya Polyana. He then asks if we have a hotel. I lie and say we have one already booked in Krasnaya. I’m told to open the boot. He peers inside and signals for me to close it. He hands back our passports and waves us on. We enter the mouth of the 2.6km tunnel that was opened in 2005, and emerge on the other side in order to climb the last few kilometres up the mountain to Krasnaya Polyana. It was here in these mountains where after a century of conflict the Circassians were defeated by the Russian Empire in 1864. It seems ironic that the Games fall during the 150th anniversary year of the defeat, and bizarre the coming-together of contemporary politics, geography, and history in this one place. We begin to see dozens of trucks that roar past us on the highway. Reaching a gas station on the edge of town, we crawl through the dimly-lit streets that are busy with immigrant workers and stray dogs. Even through its night we can see the large quantities of dust that fills the air in our car headlights. There are ski resorts and hotels under construction. The whole town at night looks like a giant building site. It makes me think about the concerns of not enough snow up here. Surely, the Russians have a back up plan; like snow machines and snow that has been stored away from the previous year. We return to the petrol station on the edge of town and refuel. We toy with the idea of exploring this region of the Caucasus by foot, but being so close to the troubled Georgia-Abkhazia border, at a time when the Russian military are on high alert due to the threat of terrorism and kidnapping from the Islamist militants from Chechnya and Dagestan, we decide against it. We decide to make a loop around the Caucasus Mountains instead, and explore the hiking trails around the famous Dombay region.
We embark on a stage of our journey that will lead us close to the troubled war torn region of the Caucasus. Our circuit of the Black Sea has so far led us through dramatic scenery and allowed us to glimpse at the lives of the people living in this intriguing and less visited part of Europe. Inching closer to the frontier of our journey, the fear of not knowing if we will be able to cross the Kazbegi border into Georgia weighs heavily on our minds. Before we left, the Russian embassy replied to my email stating that they could not advise us to travel to this part of Russia, and all but necessary travel to North Ossetia was advised by the British Foreign Office. Our mission to make a circuit around the Black Sea was forcing us into the unknown.

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Simon: We drive in the dead of night back along the winding coastal road north of Sochi, and arrive in the tourist town of Tuapse in the early hours. Grabbing a coffee at a small roadside café, the woman serves us Nescafe Algeria from a small cappuccino machine. I ask if she speaks English. 
  ‘No, Armenia and Turkish,’ she smiles. 
  I ask how you say thank you in Armenian, and she sweeps her hand elegantly from left to right, as if presenting herself and utters the word, “shnorhakalutyun”. I repeat the word and her face lights up, and she laughs. In her late thirties, the woman has jet black hair, small features and pale skin. Approximately 20% of the population of Sochi and the surrounding area are Armenian. I ask her if she is looking forward to the Winter Olympics. She shrugs her shoulders. Like a lot of people, she doesn’t care. Sipping our coffees, Chris points out on the map a short cut that we can take to the spa towns, so turning inland at Trance we escape the speeding holiday traffic and drive on a quiet country road. We reach a village called Hhaok and wash in a small river. Passing through the beautiful rustic villages of Yaableck and Nabnhck, with wooden houses painted blue and green, old ladies sit at the side of the road and display colourful buckets piled high with peaches, apples, blackberries and cherries. We cautiously negotiate railway crossings without barriers, and swerve to avoid suicidal cows, potholes and old drunk men wearing flat caps stumbling in the road.

On the outskirts of the small town of Maykop, we pass a large military complex housing the 131st Motor Rifle Brigade of the North Caucasus Military District, who took part in the First Chechen War. The discovery of extensive underground oil reserves has made this region a major centre for oil extraction, and at regular 20km intervals we pass military checkpoints. Forced to slow down to a near halt, we creep over speed bumps and sand bags and drive through a yellow chemical under the watchful eyes of a soldier. In between checkpoints, we are intrigued to see a group of women at a bus stop wearing Muslim headscarves. We pass an Old Russian UAZ army van parked under a tree, and observe three guys in tracksuits with shaved heads praying on their knees in the direction of Mecca. These are the Adyghe people (or Circassian), an ethnic group of 439,996 Sunni Muslims, who inhabit the Republic of Adygea. This region was once part of the much larger region and historical country of Circassia, which stretched across the North Caucasus and along the northeast shore of the Black Sea to Sochi. Accounting for only 16% of the population of Maykop today, this fierce people, who had resisted Russian rule after the Russian-Turkish War in the 19th Century, had eventually been displaced after the Russians defeated them in the Circassian War of 1862. The majority now live in Turkey, Syria and Jordan having been exiled by Russia to lands of the Ottoman Empire.

Driving through the rural countryside on a sweltering hot summer’s evening, we begin to see tobacco drying on racks outside people’s houses. The village of Mockobckon is blissfully quiet, as we glide by a house with a family sitting on the front porch. A man with a black moustache and bulging muscles stands outside a petrol station in camouflage trousers and green vest top. The military checkpoints appear to have come to an end, and we cruise on a long straight highway across a vast flat landscape. Reaching Mcegan, we can see the foothills of the pale blue Caucasus Mountain range on the horizon; a spectacular 1000km long ethnic barrier dividing Europe with Asia. Spotting a sharp turnoff into a field, we hide the Volvo behind a hedgerow. We eat Black Sea Anchovy and watch the sky turn purple. Two Russian cowboys silhouetted on horseback pass close by, followed by a young foal. They turn up the track in the direction of a village or cattle ranch and dissolve into the darkness.

At sunrise we drive for 50km before breakfast. It’s cold, so we flick on the Volvo’s heated seats and enjoy the warmth that soothes our aching backs. A morning mist hangs low in the valley, and the sun rises steadily illuminating the mountains in golden orange sunlight. In the small rural communities, we weave around horses stood in the road and they waft their tails and shake their manes in a futile bid to keep the flies and mosquitoes away. Large rolling hills are wrapped in a blanket of green velvet, with orange jagged sandstone peaks jutting up above their shoulders. Noisy Jay’s soar across vast meadows that are bursting with lilac wildflowers, and we slow down to let a Russian cowboy on horseback, wearing a tar brown leather jacket and a cowboy hat, herd his cattle across the road.

Three Babushkas in the Muslim Turko-Tatar town of Karachayevsk on the Kuban River (Russia)
© Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Arriving in the Muslim Turko-Tatar town of Karachayevsk on the Kuban River, we grab a few supplies from a nearby shop, and are confronted by the view of an enormous white mosque that looms over this vibrant community with a population of approximately 22,000 people. The gold tipped dome and turrets each topped by a crescent moon (the symbol of Islam) dwarf all other buildings around it. 78% of the population of Karachayevsk are Karachay, who are the second biggest ethnic group in the 500,000 population of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic. Similar in size to the Republic of Adygea, this region, too, was once part of the historical country of Circassia. I see a group of young Muslim women, fashionably dressed in colourful traditional headscarves and colourful long skirts, clutching folders. A group of babushkas wearing paisley patterned print dresses with cardigans over their shoulders and flat sandals with thick woollen socks, gossip in the street by a market stall. A strong dark faced man marches down the street with a big bunch of keys in his hand, and slides behind the wheel of a Toyota saloon. An old couple in an ancient machine green UAZ pickup truck with red curtains in the window, load crates of vegetables onto the sidewalk outside a grocery shop. It is like watching a scene from the 1950’s. Entering a small store, my heart skips a beat when I see the woman behind the counter. She glances at me with large black feline eyes. She is not wearing a headscarf, and her silky black hair is tied above her head revealing the soft nape of her neck and dangly gold earrings. Unable to communicate very well, I buy soft cheese, tomatoes, and two loaves of fresh bread, before leaving the store with her face imprinted on my mind. I meet Chris by the Volvo. He’s clutching an enormous honey melon, and explains how it rolled off a wheel barrow when he passed a market stall in the street. The impact had split the fruit down the side, so in a moment of generosity the woman had given it to him. 

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Chris: Following the Teberda River, we munch on the sweet honey melon as we continue our gradual ascent of the Caucasus Mountains. From the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west, we begin to see snow on top of the towering mountain peaks. We drive past huge cattle ranches and fields of grazing horses at the foot of rolling green hills covered by alpine forest. Stopping to fill our water bottles from a raging waterfall that thunders down from the snow capped mountains, we eventually reach the pretty village and ski resort of Dombay, located at 1600m in the west Caucasus valley. We park up on a bridge over the Teberda River and take a stroll around the town. A cable car glides overhead, and I scan the steep slanted roofs of the luxury Austrian style hotels. We wander around the quiet streets and check out a line of stalls selling handcrafted souvenirs. I photograph a table filled with little boots knitted from brightly coloured wool, and smile at a woman pegging a patterned jumper to her stand that also sells bobble hats and matching mittens. Drinking a weak coffee in a small café, we head off on a short trek into the hills. At the heart of the Teberdinsky Nature Reserve, there are a herd of European Bison that were reintroduced after being wiped out in the 1920s. Other wildlife includes lynx, bear, deer and a unique flora and bird life such as the black griffin. We choose to walk the Amanauz Valley trail that leads to Devil’s Mill and a viewpoint. Walking north of the river, we examine a small stuffed bear on display outside a restaurant before mounting a vehicle track that leads us to the entrance. We pay a friendly ranger a few rubles and set off through the alpine forest. Along the trail guys on quad bikes zoom by with nervous looking girls hanging onto the back, and we pause at a waterfall and examine a collapsed rope bridge. Approaching Devil’s Mill at the far end of the Amanauz Valley, we pass a couple of scruffy faced kids playing in a stream. We can hear Russian rock music, and I see a group of local guys drinking beer outside a small bar. They look like hardy woodsmen. In the corner of the garden is a cage with a breed of domesticated wolf and its puppy inside. It snarls in our direction and begins to bark savagely at the bars. The guys look over and laugh. Feeling rather unwelcome at Devil’s Mill, we are about to return back down the trail when a woman wearing a yellow bandana approaches us. She encourages us to follow her around the side of the mill, and kindly shows us to a path that leads up a steep hill beneath a rusty old abandoned chair lift. Out of breath, we look out over a view of snow-capped mountains and glance down into the angry glacier fed river that carries a torrent of water through the Amanauz valley. That evening we eat fresh peppers, red onion and delicious smoked pork on picnic benches at the waterfall outside of Dombay, and chat to a local family who are completely amazed that we have driven here all the way from the UK in our twenty year old Volvo 440. Shaking hands, they wish us luck on our journey around the Black Sea and sound their horn as their silver Lada hatchback disappears down the road. In the fading light we retire to the car with a bottle of beer. It’s freezing cold at this altitude, and we sleep uneasily in the pitch black forest that is home to bears and wolves. In the early hours, we descend the mountain and return to the warmer altitude of the wide open plains in the river valley below. We drive south of the small rural settlement of Torbeda, and grab a morning siesta close to a cattle ranch. We park the car in a huge tarmac area at the roadside with an emergency helicopter landing pad at its centre. Leaning against the window with the warm sun on my face, I instantly begin to imagine I’m sat in a comfortable armchair in a cosy conservatory overlooking a neatly mowed lawn. I suddenly flick open my eyes, and look in surprise at the sight of a huge face peering at me through the window. At first glance, it looks like a bear. It sniffs the air and I quickly wind up my window and turn to Si, who also looks equally confused and absolutely terrified. The enormous animal with dirty white fur circles the car, and we’re both relieved when we realise it’s a Caucasian Shepherd dog. They use them out here for guarding livestock and to kill wolves and hunt bears. A young guy speeds across the field in front of us on a quad bike and, the enormous beast with its bear-sized head, glances over its shoulder at us one last time before sprinting off across the field.

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Bee Hives in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, Dombay (Russia) © Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Simon: Crossing the Kuban River, we head east out of Karachayevsk towards the historic spa town of Kislovodsk and Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe. We see jars of golden honey on display at the roadside, and pull over to photograph the dozens of brightly painted wooden bee hives stacked on the back of a rusty flat bed trailer. A guy offers a free taste of the delicious sweet nectar, and warns us not to get too close to the bees buzzing around the hives. He informs us that the bees collect pollen from the many wildflowers typical to this region. The honey is incredible, and I ask him how much it costs to buy a kilo jar. He fishes inside his wallet and pulls out a wad of notes. He shows me 350 rubles, which is approximately ten US dollars for a small kilo pot. I spot his driving license amongst the massive amount of money in his hand and, whipping mine out of my wallet, we compare the pink plastic cards that look incredibly similar. The guy laughs and we agree to buy the jar of honey. 

Mounting a steep hill, we pass through a number of tiny settlements with traditionally dressed farming folk tending to their vegetable plots. An old drunk man with a grey beard stumbles down the hillside, and revving the engine we weave steeply towards the rocky mountain peaks. Spinning the car into a meadow, we sit on the hood and admire the view of the white snow-capped Caucasus Mountain range. It’s truly breathtaking. We can see the dormant volcano of Mount Elbrus, which at 5,642 metres tall, towers above the rest. Rolling down the far side of the mountain on an empty road, we spot dozens of birds of prey perched on telephone wires, kids with bows and arrows, mosques and jagged hills. Passing through a checkpoint, we stop in the town of Axata and grab a coffee from a machine. The coffee tastes disgusting and a tall Muslim man in a red shirt laughs when he sees us drinking it. He shakes our hands and welcomes us to the state of Stavropol Krai. Glancing up and down the bustling ram shackled and dusty commercial main road, with wholesalers, auto parts stores and grocery shops cramming the streets, it feels a bit like we have arrived in the Middle East. A car pulls up next to us and three attractive Muslim girls jump out. They glance over and smile.

After about an hour of driving we reach the spa town of Kislovodsk (Sour Waters). It reminds me of Bath or Stratford Apon Avon in England. Founded in 1803 as a military station, Kislovodsk became a fashionable spa town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which attracted many musicians, artists, and members of the Russian aristocracy, and several of the events in Mikhail Lermontov's novel ‘A Hero Of Our Time’ are set here. Scanning the faces of the people wandering around the tranquil park, we can see no obvious evidence that the people living here are of multi-ethnic origin, as smiling families and couples walk hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm in modern summer clothing. We have crossed into the southern Russian state of Stavropol Krai, home to approximately three million people, and which borders the troubled Republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. 80% of the population of Stavropol Krai are Russians, but with thirty-three ethnic groups of more than 2,000 persons each counted in the 2010 Census, this federal district is considered to be one of the most multiethnic in Russia and includes; Kuban Cossacks (who are now generally considered to be ethnic Russians), Christian Hamsheni Armenians and Greeks who have been resettling here since at least the 18th century.

We walk beside a row of white columns at the main entrance to Kislovodskiy Park and wander around market stalls with dozens of paintings for sale, including;  a mountain landscape, a portrait of an elegant woman by a lake and a watercolour of Venice’s San Marco Square. Groups of old men play chess and draughts at picnic benches in the shade. We cross over a small bridge and walk alongside the picturesque river that cuts through the park. I smile at a young couple huddled together on a bench beneath an umbrella as it begins to drizzle. As the rain falls harder, people dive for shelter beneath trees. Everyone dotted around looks strangely frozen, and it appears like time itself may have come to an abrupt standstill. As the sky darkens the rain begins to power down overhead. A lightening flash is closely followed by the low rumble of thunder. Fearful of being struck by lightening, we push on into the rain and continue to follow the river past a row of large mansion houses and circle around a group of stalls at the far entrance to the park. Babushkas wrestle with plastic sheets to keep their knit wear and souvenirs dry, and we zip past a large Orthodox Church before seeking shelter inside a supermarket. Standing in the doorway, we watch a scene of chaos unfold outside, as hailstones the size of marbles fall from the heavens. There is a feeling of panic and urgency in the air, as people dive for cover to the sound of car alarms. Within a matter of seconds the road is covered in a blanket of white ice. Pushed further into the supermarket, we stand with a crowd of anxious locals and watch water pouring under the door to the roaring sound of millions of giant hailstones banging on the roof. An old lady glances up at me and flashes her gold teeth in a smile. I smile back, and notice her feet in sandals are semi-submerged in the puddle of ice cold water. She doesn’t appear to be worried, but I make space for her on the narrow ledge that runs along the length of the window. After thirty minutes the freak storm begins to subside. We exit the supermarket and paddle through enormous puddles, with the water continuing to flow at speed down the steep main street. Every car is covered in green leaves and the gutter is full of ice marbles. We cut back through the park and notice that the once slow flowing river is now a raging torrent of muddy brown water. A thick mist rises like steam from its surface and hangs eerily beneath its many foot bridges. Reaching the Volvo we discover it too is covered in leaves and balls of ice. We glance over the roofs of the buildings in the direction of Mount Elbrus, and agree that it’s time we paid the tallest mountain in Europe a visit.

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View of Mount Elbrus (Russia). The tallest peak of the Caucasus Mountains © Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Chris: We chase a rainbow south to Bakham and Mount Elbus on the M29. It’s a busy stretch of highway with trucks from Moldova, Ukraine, and cars from Azerbaijan, ROS (Republic of South Ossetia) and Armenia. We pass enormous apple plantations and road signs flash by for Vladikavkaz, a city in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania; once described as a hotbed for terrorism and the base for the Black Widows. We slip on some “happy tunes” as we continue south. The landscape is extremely flat, which makes it difficult to imagine that the highest mountain in Europe is only 60km away. At a roundabout 20km before Vladivavkaz, we turn right off the M29 and follow a small road that cuts across the Baxan Valley. We hit a military checkpoint around eight o’clock in the evening. A soldier stood beside a large camouflage tank (of the kind you see on the news thundering across the desert in Iraq or Afghanistan) peers through my window. Realising pretty quickly that we are tourists, he waves us on without even checking our passports. It’s getting dark now, and proving difficult to make out cows and people walking and cycling at the roadside. We stick to the speed limit through Tyrnyauz, a town that was devastated in 2001 by a massive flood and a mudslide. Apartment blocks were buried in mud up to the fourth floor. We see a military policeman wearing full body armour and carrying a large machine gun running hurriedly through a long thin strip of park close to the road. He appears to be looking for someone. A police car with blue and red flashing lights waits nearby with the passenger door flung wide open. Flagged down at a second checkpoint on the way out of town, the soldier checks our passports and car documents before waving us on. The region we are in now falls under the jurisdiction of the Kabarda-Balkar Republic, with 400,000 of the republics 900,000 people belonging to the Muslim Kabarda ethnic group. The minority ethnic group, the Balkar, number around 70,000 plus people, and live predominantly up here in the mountains. The presence of soldiers with machine guns makes us feel slightly uneasy. It seems apparent there is tension of some kind here and, not wishing to hang around, we drive quickly away from the town and push deeper into the mountains. Leaving signs of civilization behind, we find a scenic parking spot in the wilderness close to a fast flowing river. Gazing up into the incredibly clear night sky, we see dozens of shooting stars and look in awe at the Milky Way.

Rising early, we cook breakfast and write up our notes in the early morning light. The mountain river roars in the background, and the snow-capped peak of Mt Elbrus makes a brief appearance before the cloud rolls in. A number of cars begin to appear around 10am, including a mini bus full of excited day trippers. They claim a nearby picnic bench, and we chat briefly to a guy from Nalchik, the capital of the Kabarda-Balkar Republic. I discover he is Kabarda. Our conversation is limited, and he is more curious to know where we are from. He shakes my hand firmly, before returning to his friends. Driving around the mountain roads we pass numerous ski lodges that have been recently constructed. In the mid afternoon the rain begins to pour down and we return to the Volvo soaking wet through after walking for three hours along a trail that, in the right conditions, promised to afford stunning views of Mt Elbrus. Cold and damp, we flick on the heated seats and dry off a little before going in search of coffee. Close to the river, a short distance from the small ski village of Terskol, local Balkar people sell souvenirs, food and refreshments to the tourists. We browse around the stalls selling animal fur, sheep skin and a stuffed goat. Buying coffee from a small kiosk, we shelter from the rain beneath a covered picnic bench. A young woman with black hair tied back in a ponytail, who is working with her grandparents behind the counter speaks English, and we learn that her favourite TV show is the American vampire series ‘Twilight’, set in an Alpine region of North America. I ask if her family are Balkar, and she nods her head and explains that many of the people in this region are Balkar, but the young people just consider themselves to be Russians. Fascinated by the face of the grandfather, who has the look of an ancient mountain people, I feel privileged to look into the eyes of these Caucasian people in this remote frontier of Europe.

With the mountains still covered in a veil of thick cloud, we drop by the 7Summit tour office in the hope of finding out some information. In the entrance we meet a friendly chap from Moscow. He’s smartly dressed in full trekking gear, and shows us the weather report pinned to the wall. They hope they will be able to climb to the summit of Elbrus in two, or three days time. He introduces his friends, and informs us he has travelled to London and Berlin on business twice. Intrigued by our journey around the Black Sea, I get the distinct impression they feel European and have more of an affinity with us than the people who live in this region. He takes us both into the climbing shop and we meet the manager of the 7Summit office, an assertive woman named Anya. She immediately offers us free coffee and the opportunity to use their wi-fi. We sit in the warmth of this modern lodge and watch a party of climbers, including a woman from Norway and two guys from the Ukraine, try on boots and climbing equipment. The Norwegian woman is a semi-professional climber, who is part of her way through scaling all of the largest seven summits of the world. Retiring to the car as night falls, we joke around outside the shop with one of the local mountain guides. The animated guy appears to be a little drunk, and chats to his wife and new born baby on Skype. He entertains us with comical anecdotes about various situations he has found himself in as a mountain guide on Elbrus. Bidding the guide goodnight we crash out in the car outside the office, but then Anya appears with her chocolate Labrador and invites us to sleep inside the shop. ‘It is very cold tonight,’ she smiles. Anya pours us a glass of wine, Chilean Malbec, a present from a tourist, and explains how tourism has decreased in recent years as Russians are able to travel abroad more easily now. I suggest that the publicity around the Sochi Winter Olympics may attract more international tourists here, but she seems doubtful. With a fourteen year old daughter at school in Kislovodsk, Anya lives part of the year on Elbrus and the winter months in Kislovodsk. With a yawn Anya locks up the shop and hands me the keys. ‘If you want the toilet, no problem, just remember to lock the door.’ She smiles and disappears into her adjoining apartment. We’re both stunned by her trust and kindness, and I find myself questioning if our own people would behave in such a hospitable manner to strangers from a foreign country. Curling up on the floor in my sleeping bag, I lie very still and glance around the room. An outside lamp floods the modern climbing shop in dim orange light, illuminating crampons, ice axes and climbing helmets hung on the walls. Expensive brand name walking boots and winter jackets crowd the shelves. Hearing tapping at the window, I glance over and see a huge moth flapping madly around the light outside. It casts eerie shadows around the shop. Closing my eyes, I cover my head with my sleeping bag and drift into a deep sleep.

In the morning Anya fixes us a strong coffee and feeds us croissants. The view outside is of a towering white snow-capped mountain. I ask Anya if they will climb today, but she warns that by midday it will be low visibility again and her climbers will have to wait for one or two more days before they make the climb. Fascinated by the prospect of our journey to Georgia, she sits behind reception and shows us an internet video clip of a group of Georgian men dancing and singing. The lead guy has incredible posture, oozes confidence and has a fine singing voice. I ask Anya about the road ahead, and if she thinks it is safe to pass through the Republic of North Ossetia. She ponders my question, seeming unsure what to say, but then she shakes her head and tells me all is fine there. Humbled by Anya’s amazing hospitality and good nature, we leave Elbrus with the people of the Caucasus region of Southern Russia firmly in our hearts.

* * *

Rolling green hills towards Kislovodsk and North Ossetia (Russia) © Chris Raven, Simon Raven

Simon: We rejoin the M29 to North Ossetia and arrive at a border control post. Waiting behind a long queue of cars, we buy sweet corn from a kid stood in front of a bunker covered in camouflage netting. It feels like we are about to enter a war zone. Maybe we should have listened to the Russian embassy’s advice after all. We hand over our passports and car documents at a control booth, and the officer asks where we are going. I tell him we go to Vladikavkaz, (the nearest city to the Georgian border and the capital city of the Republic). He seems pleased with my answer and hands back our documents, before welcoming us to North Ossetia. The forested hills into North Ossetia soon disappear, and we are presented with a landscape of beautiful meadows occupied by grazing cows. We begin to see views of the mighty Caucasus again, as we head for the town of Beslan. Looking towards the peak of Mount Elbrus, I imagine the guy from Moscow and the woman from Norway with their trusty mountain guide and ice axes climbing to the top of this towering fortress of rock and ice. In a small village multi-coloured bunting stretches across the road, left over from a recent festival or celebration of some kind. A babushka in a purple floral print dress sweeps her porch with a broom made of twigs. Cautiously overtaking an old guy in a wooden cart that’s powered by a donkey, I notice he’s wearing a floppy hat with a wide brim to protect him from the sun. His arms look strong as he confidently pulls on the reins. 

Approaching the suburbs of Beslan, I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. To drive into this small settlement with its local shops, cute houses and a community going about their daily lives, it is hard to imagine the horror that happened here only ten years ago. In 2004 School Number One at the heart of the town had become the victim of the bloodiest incident by far in the spill over of fighting from the war in neighbouring Chechnya. Heavily publicised in the news, Chechen insurgents attributed to Shamil Basayev seized control of this school and, in the fire fight between the terrorists and Russian forces that ended the crisis, 335 civilians were killed, the majority of them children. We pass a brand new school and see a woman nearby lifting her baby out of its pram (possibly a survivor of the siege who now has a child of her own). Driving around in circles, we are unable to find the school, so I decide to ask someone for directions. We pull up close to a stall selling fruit and vegetables, and I approach a women dressed in black with a shawl draped over her shoulders. She has a tooth missing, and her thick black hair is tied back in a ponytail. The woman sat next to her selling Kvass looks completely different with pale skin, round glasses and shortly cropped hair. Fearing these women may have been affected by what happened here, we cautiously ask them for directions to School Number One. She looks unsure what we mean, and then replies “Skool infants” and draws a finger across her throat. I nod my head gravely. She points ahead and then left. Seeming curious why we would want to go there, I put a hand to my heart in an effort to communicate that we would like to pay our respects. Thanking her, we follow a railway track along a bumpy unpaved road and turn down a suburban street, before passing an old rusty sign warning of children crossing. Chris asks a man with salt and pepper hair for directions, and he nods his head and vigorously points down a small road leading to some garages.

Approaching a modern towering copper structure that covers a building in ruins, we park the car and walk over to the monument. A brand new church is under construction feet away from the school, and I find myself questioning if this is in bad taste when you consider it was religion that had been the cause of so much death. We enter the structure that houses the memorial to those who lost their lives. Inside we find the derelict sports hall where the majority of the students and teachers were killed. All around the edges of the hall are children’s teddy bears and bottles of holy water with the lids removed. There is a large reef of plastic flowers, and a wooden crucifix that has been placed in the centre of the sports hall. Photographs cover the walls of the children and the teachers who died here. The roof of the building is black and charred, and there are holes in the wooden floor beneath the basketball nets, which the terrorists secured explosives to. Bullet marks and shrapnel holes cover the walls and floor. It’s horrifying to imagine what happened right here in front of us, and how scared the little children must have been during the three day siege. It’s difficult to imagine how angry someone must be to commit such an act of terrible violence. Edging around the sports hall we walk to the adjacent building that is now completely derelict. Through broken windows and missing walls, we can see that here, too, bullet holes cover every inch of the light green walls. I recall watching video footage on the news in 2004 of a small girl climbing out of one of these windows. There can be no limit to the grief that the families of these innocent victims must feel.

* * *

Chris: In a reflective mood after our visit to Beslan, we continue south on the M29. Skimming past the border of Chechnya we head for the city of Vladikavkaz; the frontier of our journey and the gateway to the Georgian Military Highway. For many years the Republic of North Ossetia–Alania had experienced terror and atrocities within its state boundaries. With a predominantly Ossetian Christian population, clashes in the state had been sparked following the collapse of communism in 1990 and the resettling of some 70,000 South Ossetian refugees in North Ossetia. Much of the troubles were caused by clashes with the predominantly Muslim Ingush population in the Prigorodny District, and which ultimately led to the Ossetian–Ingush conflict. According to Helsinki Human Rights Watch, Ossetian militia orchestrated a campaign of ethnic cleansing during October and November 1992, resulting in the death of more than 600 Ingush civilians and expulsion of approximately 60,000 Ingush inhabitants from Prigorodny district.

As we pull up to a set of traffic lights, I sneak a peek at my fellow drivers either side of me. What am I expecting to see…Islamic militants from the Imarat kavkaz group wearing balaclavas and clutching machine guns? Of course not, instead it’s a young family to my left and a businessman in his fifties to my right. Driving through this charming, friendly city, all I see are people getting on with their lives; rushing to work or going to the shops. An attractive girl wearing jeans crosses the road in front of the car, and two children eat ice creams outside the gates to the city park. We stop and grab a coffee in a café. The large woman with short blonde hair behind the counter smiles and offers us both a table in the sunshine. She prepares us freshly ground coffee on a stove, and stirs each cup vigorously with her huge arms. Communicating with her using the phrasebook, I ask her what it is like to live in Vladikavkaz. She stops what she is doing and her smile drops. ‘The Major is stupid alcoholic!’ she snaps, her face bulging with anger. She complains that the streets are dirty with chewing gum on the floor, and that people today have no respect. Surprised by her answer, having expecting her to be more concerned with the terrible fighting, assassins and the continuing acts of terrorism and violence; she appears to be more upset about the social decay after the collapse of communism. She serves our coffee in white china cups with saucers and accompanies it with a slice of fruit cake. While we drink our coffee, the best we have had in weeks, we watch a news report from Moscow on the small TV mounted on the wall about a famous Russian wrestler arrested for drugs. Buzzing from the caffeine, we discover Olga is Ossetian and has two daughters. One is married, but the second is twenty-seven years old and still doesn’t have a husband. She seems sad and angry about this in the way a Greek or Jewish mother might behave. She uses the word “cho-cho” to mean if we would like a ‘little more’ coffee, we accept her offer. I ask her about the border crossing, but she shrugs her shoulders and tells us she hasn’t been to Georgia since she was a child. I get the impression she hates the place and maybe sees it as the reason for all their trouble. Approaching the counter to pay for the delicious coffee and cake, she waves us away and refuses to accept any money. I argue with her that this is her business and that she must feed her family, but she looks so angry and insistent that we feel it would be insulting to push her any further. I had heard of hospitality like this from travellers who have been to Iran, Turkey and Armenia and, curious to witness this in North Ossetia, we exchange hugs and leave her café with admiration for yet another proud people in this complex multi-ethnic region of southern Russia.
With our bodies pumped full of caffeine, we dodge the old trams and continue on our way through the pleasant city of Vladikavkaz. Seeing brand new road signs for the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, we try not to get too excited for fear that the Kazbegi border may be closed to foreigners. Heading through a rocky mountain valley, we begin to see trucks from Azerbaijan and Armenia and, within no time at all, we see the border in the distance and cautiously approach this remote frontier at the end of the line. Taking a deep breath, we join a long queue of cars at passport control. Each vehicle and truck is slowly filtered through a barrier, and smartly dressed customs officials in green uniforms and big hats run backwards and forwards and shout orders at the drivers of the vehicles. It’s chaotic. Approaching the Russian customs checkpoint, there seems to be a slight communication breakdown with the woman behind the counter. A smart young guy with his hair gelled and wearing a shirt and tie is called over to translate. Much to our relief, we discover all she wants to see is the visa registration documents we obtained at the hostel in Rostov-on-Don. We leave Russian soil and drive up to the brand new Georgian border crossing. Workmen weld metal pipes alongside a brand new customs building in the sweltering heat, Serbond stickers have yet to be removed from the white plastic veneer paneling that covers pillars, and unfinished wiring and cables hang loosely from ceilings and walls. There is an air of excitement, a buzz around the place. We too are buzzing. From what we can see the new Kazbegi border crossing, due to be officially opened by the president in a few weeks time, is literally being unwrapped in front of our very eyes. We approach a tall strong Georgian police officer, with a shaved head and hairy forearms, who plonks himself behind the desk at the border post. He’s wearing a tight black uniform, and at first sight looks intimidating. We whip out our passports and slide them over the counter. The police officer asks us for our visas? Trying to remain calm, I explain to him that according to the Georgian Embassy in London, British Citizens no longer require one. He looks unimpressed and shakes his head. ‘This could be big problem, guys.’ Si shoots me a look of concern. To not be allowed to cross this border would mean a diversion of thousands of kilometres back to Odessa in the Ukraine, where we would have to catch an expensive car ferry to the port of Batumi in Georgia. The officer calls over his colleague and they have a quick chat. He then turns to us with a smile, and winks. “Welcome to Georgia!” We watch with absolute delight as he whacks a big juicy stamp in our passports. 

Pointing the car in the direction of Tbilisi, we embark on the next stage of our journey driving full circle around the Black Sea. The road ahead will present us with many more challenges over the coming weeks, but after crossing this difficult frontier we now feel ready for anything. Ahead of us lies the rough Georgian terrain in a country where Jason and the Argonauts were thought to have sailed from Greece to the port of Poti, and beyond Georgia the tea hills of the Turkish Black Sea coast that is home to a tribe of people who speak an ancient European tongue. Every inch of the road around this ancient sea promises surprises beyond our comprehension. Soaring like an eagle across the lush green mountains at sunset on the winding Georgian Military Highway, the purpose for our journey seems suddenly crystal clear; this was the greatest adventure of our lives.

By Simon Raven, Chris Raven © 2014. All Rights Reserved.

PART 3: Turkish Black Sea to the Danube Delta (Coming soon!)

BLACK SEA CIRCUIT by Chris Raven & Simon Raven.

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

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