Travel isn’t always fun and games, but it definitely always leaves you with a story to tell. Here’s one of mine on my own personal trip to the Caucasus mountains.
Written by Joel, YPT’s man in Soviet Europe.
It’s a dark night high in the wilderness of the Greater Caucasus mountains, in the border regions of Georgia and Chechnya. I’m trapped in a grimy, cramped Soviet tractor station as the most formidable thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed rages outside. As I sit on a rotten wooden chair with a cup of local moonshine in one hand and shielding myself from the onslaught of gigantic men taking part in a mass brawl around me, throwing punches, glasses and swinging hatchets and knives at each other, I recollected the strange turn of events that led me to this situation.
I recollected the strange turn of events that led me to this situation.
It started in…
…a lowland village. The Babushka of a typically cheerful and hospitable Georgian household had just cooked me a feast big enough to see me to the end of the week. After helping her clear up, I was called outside by her son, Vakha, who beckoned me to enter his banged-up 4×4. Inside was his hard-bitten friend sporting an inch wide scar from temple to collarbone. We were heading to the heights of the Caucasian peaks, but first Vakha wanted to show me something he knew I would like. He predicted right, walking through the trees I discovered a largely forgotten monument with a dominating statue of Josef Stalin atop.
After the visit to Joe and a couple of poses next to him, we began our ascent. Passing wild horses and shepherds moving their flocks on the roads. Quickly, civilization began to fade away and we were soon on a one lane, death-defying road that clung to the side of the mountain. Every few hundred meters was marked with graves and car parts of those who had veered off the road to their death. Solitary glasses of Chacha were left on the ground, in memory to the dead. With each turn the views increased in beauty, peering down the vast valleys it felt as though we were in the sky. Huge mountains we saw on our approach were now below us. During our three hour drive to the peak, we didn’t see one other person or vehicle.
Our back tire had completely blown and as luck would have it, the spare tire had been traded months ago for a pack of cigarettes.
Passing a tractor station that we assumed was abandoned, we continued up until we saw the first signs of life. There was a team of men at the peak demolishing rocks that had collapsed over winter and blocked the road. These rocks were now being dumped onto the lower roads and rendered our full ascent hopeless. We decided to turn back before nightfall came, but the car suddenly slowed to a stop. Our back tire had completely blown and as luck would have it, the spare tire had been traded months ago for a pack of cigarettes. After an hour, a weak phone signal was achieved and we arranged a spare tire to be brought up, it would only take 7 hours.
Vakha suggested we seek shelter in the tractor station or be at the mercy of the mountains and its wildlife at the car. After walking a few miles back down the road, we quickly discovered that the station was far from abandoned. It was now inhabited by a large number of mountain workers comprised of; runaways, convicts and some of the hardest elements of Russia’s wildest frontier. I was glared at by this motley crew of huge men, many sporting the wounds of a harsh Russian life. They sported a mix of missing eyes, ears, noses and fingers coupled with a multitude of scars and prison tattoos.
Vakha and his friend then ushered me inside the cramped station, where I saw a mass of beds, belongings, and a medieval style eating area with preserved animals in jars and moonshine bottles all around. The men had tastefully decorated one wall with a mass of faded pornographic pictures, in the middle was an Orthodox cross and a portrait of Stalin, a combination I’m still struggling to decipher to this day.
The Start of the Storm
Staring out of the door wondering if it would be safer to take my chances and walk down the mountain, a vicious mountain thunderstorm cut across the sky like a painting, leading the men to cut short their showers of cold water in a suspended beer bottle and flood into the cramped hut. They pushed me down the bench of the dinner table and threw a bowl of offal stew with some stale bread in front of me. I tucked in, kept a low profile and watched the men converse in a mixture of Caucasian languages.
In the middle was an Orthodox cross and a portrait of Stalin, a combination I’m still struggling to decipher to this day.
As the moonshine started flowing, I attempted to converse with some of the men in Russian. Their thick accents made it difficult but the alcohol and sign language helped. However, the atmosphere between the man to my right and the man opposite began shifting. An argument between them was causing an atmosphere that no language barrier could hide. With one aggressive, closing statement from the man next to me, the whole table seemed to cringe. A silence followed, which was quickly shattered by the man opposite throwing his glass against the wall and grabbing a hatchet from the shelf next to him, like lightning, he leaped across the table and attempted to bury the hatchet in the head of the man to my right. Thankfully, he was pulled back and viciously beaten up.
My relief at a brutal murder being averted was soon cut short. The entire hut quickly decided their allegiances and proceeded to attempt to kill each other. Glasses were smashed in faces, knives used to defend each other, fists as big as cinder blocks smashed into each other. Vakha and his friend tried to seek shelter behind the stove in the corner, while I sat on my chair in the middle wondering how good my chances were of escaping this alive when suddenly, the iron door of the hut was kicked open.
Out of the darkness, a man in a combat jacket appeared with a blank stare. He did not seem fazed by the bloodthirsty fight raging through the hut and calmly called Vakha by his name. It was his friend and he had a tire with our name on it. Without a hesitation I downed the last of my moonshine and dived out of the door, leaving smashing sounds, screams and roars behind me. With the tire repaired, we quickly carried out the death-defying drive down the mountains, this time in pitch black darkness.