A few years ago Russia made a rule that with regular tourist visas you could no longer visit most of the regions close to borders (except while provably on the way somewhere else)-since then for example Vyborg next to the Finnish border was off-limits to holders of foreign passports, but also all of the northern Caucasus range except Sochi. Just in the nick of time before these new regulations I embarked on a trip that took me from Mt. Elbrus to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia.
It just so happens that the last thing I heard from there was "things are quiet as usual, except from the boom of warplanes coming from the South".
The first town in the Northern Caucasus that I visited was Kislovodsk which with its steep hills, leafy town-centre and pretty bridges over a lazy river was the one place in the world that reminded me most closely of my hometown, Baden-Baden. Needless to say I stayed only a few hours.
In that town however I got the first taste of a region that is a preferred Russian holiday destination. Superficially instantly endearing with its handsome towns and natural surroundings ranging from soft rolling hills to dramatic snowy mountainscapes, it seems quiet and relaxing, sometimes deceivingly. When my Norwegian friend Ivar had visited Kislovodsk a couple of years before me he had taken up the rack railway to a view point above the town -only to arrive at the top and hear that in the next carriage after them a bomb planted by Chechen rebels had killed some 15 people. And especially the next town I visited, Nalchik, capital of the republic Kabardia-Balkaria, should make cameo appearances on international news because of Chechen raids and other unrest in the years following my visit there. These were the symptoms of a low-key war that had been simmering -and continues to simmer- in the region for over a decade now and that hardly ever makes it into international spotlight. The biggest tragical incident, one that didn't confine itself to a "cameo" on foreign news channels, but one that positively shook the world, was to happen as I was still down there in the Northern Caucasus, although already a few hundreds of kilometres away from the location.
In Nalchik I stayed in a not far from the town centre. The room alloted to me was so dirty that my dust allergy obliged me to spend the night uncomfortably rolled up in the bathtub. Taking the extremely creaky and shaky hotel's lift for the first time had proved such a stirring experience that I didn't care to repeat it and henceforth took to sprinting up the stairs when I came back from a walk and wanted to lounge in my room on the 14th floor. The only detail of interest might be the hotels name, 'Nard', an allusion to a mythological race of giants whose adventures are related in the legends and sagas of the many Caucasian peoples, such as the Balkars the mountain people that live in villages on the foothills and in the deep-cut gorges of this region .
From Nalchik's towncentre the mountains are barely visible, reduced to ducking dark green shapes on the horizon. They are only a short ride away though, and as you approach them, delve into them on roads first dug, then dynamited into their flanks you are quickly transported into a world of towering rock inebriating any mountaineer by their sheer sight. Like many of their Caucasian brother peoples the Balkars are Muslims, and so on the way from your car-window you can see mosques with half-moon-topped onion-domed minarets; that is to say mosques with the physique usually attributed to orthodox churches, to all appearances buildings not converted but constructed that way.
As for me, I took public transportation to the village Dombay, a serious tourist trap where you can buy pairs of thick woolen socks from one of the plentiful souvenir vendors and then take two scarily shaky gondola rides up a to watch Mt. Elbrus, Europe's highest summit, sit perfectly stoically under an unbroken table-cloth of snow as thick white rags of clouds condense around it and veil and unveil the sight of it in a rhythm dictated by the wind.
On my way back I hitched a lift with a group of youths who were astonished I was hitchhiking, telling me 'It is so dangerous!', all the while making it a point of not putting their seat-belts on as we were curving down the winding mountain street at a serious break-neck speed... with a two-litre plastic bottle of beer being passed from mouth to mouth -including the driver's.
The next day I was on the road again, hitching out of Nalchik. Again a woman approached me telling me I shouldn't hitchhike here, since it was dangerous. She asked me where I was from and on my answer she gratified me with a lovely smile embellished by an entire front row of gold-teeth. Then a dark spasm flashed across her face: “I am from Chechnya. But you know, we had to leave. ”- “Are you Chechen?”, I asked - “No, Russian”; and she hung her head in sorrow.
With time I learnt that the tragically bruised are often quick to impart their grief this way.
It was a bad idea to hitch that day and I finally gave up and hopped on of the ramshackle buses coming my way.
Somewhere along that boring, pot-holed highway that leads in a straight line from Nalchik to Grozny, then a war zone, my bus made a stop-over in a lightless, non-descript town called Beslan. I remember watching a lady struggling to stuff the large plastic sacks she had by way of baggage into the luggage space before boarding; then the bus jerked back into motion and off we were.
About an hour later we took a right turn off the main road. Appearantly the road led off into the plain, but soon the electrocardiogramme-like irregularity of the horizon began to fledge out into proper mountains whose silhouettes were scragging the sky. We were approaching Vladikavkaz ,the city whose name translates as 'Ruler of the Caucasus'. The famous Georgia military highway starts here, connecting the capital of North Ossetia with Kazbegi and finally Tbilisi to the south. Many a famous explorer and poet have taken it before.
Since it has been long closed to foreigners though I had to content myself with strolling about the city itself. I wandered the pleasant leafy avenues along the riverside, engaging in the Russian summer pass-times of drinking slightly fermented Kvas sold out of rusty yellow tanks on the street, and sucking the salt off the husks of sunflower-seeds before cracking them open with my teeth. Thus entertaining myself I gaze into the snowcapped world that dominates all the open spaces of the city like parks and boulevards.
Hanging out on a bench somewhere, I started to talk to a group of youth. They couldn't believe it that I had just come all the way from Estonia via Pskov, Moscow and Volgograd. It had taken me just over two weeks, but a trip of such scope was beyond their imaginations. We chatted and as the evening moved on they invited me to dinner in a simple restaurant down the road and finally proposed I could come and stay at one of their houses. To celebrate the occasion we were going to stop by the shop and take home a few of bottles of vodka. In the perfect Caucasian pretense that drinking is only auxiliary to eating large chunks of cheese and bread were also bought along with the spirit, even though our bellies had been filled to more than satiety at dinner. Needless to say once at the apartment the foodstuff was heaped onto a plate in the middle of the table not to be touched once during the evening. We talked about everything and nothing in particular and at some point during the evening one of the boys said to me: 'You should come back in winter, then we could go snowboarding!'.
A day later, I took an overnight bus to Sochi, the spa town and tourist resort on the Black Sea coast which at the moment has its surrounding nature resorts destroyed because in the not too distant future will be in the spotlight for the Olympic wintergames. I spent a short few days lounging on its pebbled beaches, drinking ice-cool Kvas and making friends with two teenage girls who had come ten days on a train from somewhere in Siberia to stay for two weeks, enjoy the sun and get as much of a tan as possible so it could still be seen when they'd debark in their home town after another ten days' train ride home.
Then, one evening we watched the news together and I was shaken awake from my perception of the region I had just travelled through as only pretty and relaxing. The Khrushchevka-dominated hole of a town that my bus had stopped in that day before it dropped me off in Vladikavkaz had become instant famous. It's name would connote tragedy for many years, if not decades, to come.
It's name, of course, was Beslan.