This fascinating account of an extended trip by Charlie and his wife Peg, (her nickname changes several times during their lives !) detailing their travels in the Caucasus mountains one summer in the late 1930’s was a real tour de force.
SOMEWHERE IN CAUCASUS
by Charlie Chadwick
I am writing perched on a slab of rock that commands a breath-taking view down a tremendous gorge that must be a quarter of a mile deep. We are nine thousand feet by the altimeter, sheltered by a cliff from the sun, and we command a view across a ravine of great waves or rock and earth rising to profiled peaks of snow. The scene is quite common to travellers in the higher Caucasus, but of a beauty and spaciousness unimaginable to people whose misfortune is permanent imprisonment in England. They cannot possibly comprehend the startling brilliance of these tapering spires of snow against the blue of a sky utterly unlike the blue of English skies any more than they can visualise the wild ruthlessness of these regions when swept by storm fiends. In the Caucasus you live like that and mould your fancies to the fanciful caprices of the Alps. They are tender sometimes and sometimes they are terrible; they give shelter and a precarious existence to a host of little human races that reflect their surroundings in their many moods. We are in love with the Caucasus, but sometimes I feel our love is not reciprocated, and then I wonder why we love them, but love them still.
Peggy (his wife’s other nickname is Jo) is just now engaged in patient barter with a leather skinned old Lesghian for a trinket which he is unwilling to lose. She will get it, and my pack will be the heavier for it. Fully a fifth of the hard-pressed rucksack is taken up by the kind of ornamental souvenir dear to the feminine heart, and if we travel these ranges much longer they will become a problem in transport. I have repeated many times that I do not mind how many times she tries her wiles on the natives, but I do mind carrying cargo of this description up and down about twenty thousand feet a day for weeks on end, until we reach a ‘postie’. There is a small ebony box exquisitely carved which she wrested from a filthy old brigand in the Kutai country. She says she would not part with that box for all the world, as she considers she risked her life for it. She risked mine too, for his cronies set envious eyes on our packs all the time she was wrangling, and I was glad to get away.
Life is very hard here, and is lived to the limit sometimes. For three weeks now the weather has been gorgeous, the day temperature on the exposed ranges often exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and for three weeks we have not pitched our tent at night, being too tired. Without supper we have just rolled up in our sleeping bags and slept like logs till the sun has scorched our faces, or the morning dew, falling like heavy rain, has roused us. Often we have the opportunity to sleep in the huts of the village or mountain people, or in the occasional rude farm shelters, but we rarely do so for very good reasons. Though usually hospitable to their last crumb, these people don’t seem to know the meaning of cleanliness. Godliness is not a strong trait with them, but if cleanliness comes next it lags a long way behind. The places crawl with insects to which they appear marvellously invulnerable, but we are, on the other hand, marvellously vulnerable, and a night spent thus takes days to get us back to our original comparative comfort. Coupled with this plague is usually a stench which is only exceeded by the next door neighbour !
Sometimes the food we are able to obtain is hardly enough for one, let alone two healthy travellers, but we share it out and if we are short we simply have to go without until we strike kindly peasants or can gather fruit for ourselves. Hospitality in this poverty-stricken country is a matter of common courtesy, and scarcity, even famine, is not new to these people. More than once the inhabitants of remote regions have waxed ecstatic at our arrival, and for Peggy (who is always treated with great respect and often with deference) the very best is only good enough. The very best used to seem very bad, but now the common black bread we used to abhor, the awful treacly liquid they call coffee, and a greenish abomination known as cheese go down quite well. Indeed it is a treat to get this cheese and black bread at the same time, and if we are on the European side, we may even get a nasty kind of vodka instead of coffee. The peasants seem very sorry when we leave them, especially the children, for Peggy is always a favourite among the kiddies. We called at one hamlet stuck on a ledge half-way down a precipice, and when we asked for food the place was ransacked, each house contributing some small item. At another place an escort volunteered to take us through several versts of forests which were infested with unpleasant things such as bears, bandits and wolves, though wolves are hardly dangerous in August, and bears prefer more rocky regions. Ghouls and spirits seemed to be denizens of these particular parts according to the headman of the hamlet, so we submitted to the escort. Two mules were brought along for us to ride, but two versts sufficed for us to decide that mules were never intended to give bodily comfort to English people, and after that we walked.
Each day our way has been up mountain sides for thousands of feet or down precipitous slopes along tracks often painfully steep and dangerous, often as faint as the tiny wisps of cloud across a Caucasus sunset. Once we traversed through a bed of cactus-like plants that differed from its American prototypes only by its superior prickliness. These grow in little patches of desert land in low places such as plateau’s in the foothills, where the sun beats down on the dust called earth till it literally burns through the shoes. It is better in the gorges, though at the bottom the heat produces a heavy, deadening atmosphere and travel is much more laborious through bog, marsh, or amongst great masses of boulders thrown down by the towering crags above.
Peggy surprises me. She has the endurance of two men and ten times the enthusiasm. It is she who makes the trail along this wilderness – she who faces up to natural barriers as bravely as one would do if no dangers exist – who faces terrifying passes as though she were merely crossing the little Larig Ghru of Scotland ! And when trifling dangers are present she shrinks to me with little shudders that are admirably well acted !
Last Tuesday we reached a spur of the ridge east of Elbrus (Elbrus is the highest peak of the Caucasus, 18,526 ft ) from where, at 7,500 ft we obtained a magnificent prospect of the ‘foothills’. These foothills are about the general height of the Scottish Highlands, and as wild as Inverness-shire. Amongst them was the town of Tabu nestling in a green fold, and besides a population of 25,000 boasts some fair-sized buildings and a railway termini, a branch of the Baku Railway of Cis-Caucasus (European Caucasus). Civilisation – a bath, a change of clothing and a square meal of white bread and real butter was within two days walk, but Peg was unmoved, unyielding to persuasion, and led the way back into the brutishly inhuman regions of the Elbrus system. After five months wandering between peaks and gorges, from glaciers to sweltering forests where you can get the icy blast of winds from the snows and breezes as hot as the breath from a furnace-tuyer in the same day, this turning away from a spell of comfort and plenty required some strength of will !
But we will have to make contact with civilisation soon. Our packs contain a pile of MSS we have not had the remotest chance to post for six weeks, a growing pile of ornaments belonging to Peg (to which I have referred) a dozen rolls of exposed films and only two rolls unused, and some fine species of the flora of this latitude carefully pressed in a linguistic book on Russian that is as much use in this cosmopolitan land as a guide book to Abyssinia in the Antarctic. Our boots, repaired time after time in a cruder way each time, have broken, letting water in like a sieve, our clothing is patched in places and in places beyond patching, our rucksacks have at last bursted [sic] here and there where the bumps they have received have been too much for the Manchester spun yarn they are made of; our camera has had far rougher use than it was made for, and is patched up, and my razor has gone past the sharpening stage. It is a week since I shaved. Yesterday I caught Peg cutting a notch in her stick with it to celebrate seeing a grizzly bear. Five notches represent five bears. It is a great joke when we see a bear. Peg flies in one direction and grizzly ambles off in the other ! Although harmless enough in summer if they are left alone, the brown bears of the Caucasus are an abiding terror to Peg. Snakes, toads, and bears are her bogeys. She would go miles to avoid seeing a snake although they are not common and usually sneak away on our approach. The same with toads or frogs. Once the sight of two of these harmless creatures made such an impression on her that she lay awake all night and had breakfast ready just after dawn, the sooner to get away.
The most important reason for our evacuation of these provinces is the approach of winter. Although the sun shines so strongly now, by the end of the month the autumn storms will close the passes and all the heights over four thousand feet in deep drifts of snow for the next seven months. The gorges will be flooded with torrents, and the upland farmers will have come down to the more kindly lowland country with their flocks and cattle. We shall perhaps return then to civilisation, to that bath, to a change of clothing, to a square meal – and to cigarettes. I haven’t had a smoke for ten days ! It will feel great to roll in luxury in a railway carriage along the hot coasts of the Caspian Sea, across to the Mediterranean – to sail for home – unless Peg gets it into her head to drag me off in search of the sun and the warmth that she loves as much as travel itself – to some other outlandish country in the Tropics.
Peg has won the trinket; the leather-faced old Lesghian has tucked a knife into the recesses of his clothing. That penknife looks like mine.
Yes, it was my knife. She says we can manage with the razor………
We are to cross the Zakatel Pass onto the Asiatic side before the snows come down. Peg says so. Fourteen thousand feet up, across the Neo glacier, and as rough a track as she can find. That means another week before I can post these notes. Never again will I entrust Peg to make the route. Weird and wonderful are the workings of a woman’s mind, though I have ceased to trouble. She will have her way.
The sun is going down and twilight is unknown here. We must go lower yet – the night winds are cold at nine thousand feet. Au revoir !