Wednesday, 29 October 2014

To one of the Dead Cities

    There are still areas in Russia that are forbidden to tourists. But then those areas are pretty much forbidden to locals too. Some areas need special permission permits and paperwork to insure you don’t get lost, hurt, or preyed upon by the wildlife. This is not so different than Canada. We too have areas like this and while the locals at home are pretty much unaware of these restrictions, the people here are not.

So venturing into the mountains close to the disputed border of Georgia along the main roads is fine but taking the path less traveled is a little riskier. Having made the trip into Georgia, and seeing these gorgeous mountains had me doing research into the types and composition. Along the way, I found out that this area was kind of part of the Silk Road in ancient times. The Ossetian leopard and other local furs where coveted the world over by Kings and other royals alike. Access to the Black Sea gave this pass a great deal of traffic along the lowland and much gentler slopes than the ones directly south.

But ancients and armies both adore easy rolling hills and so this specific pass was one of those areas if not forbidden to tourists then to use a Russian saying “not easy."  Yet, I really wanted to see it. Dargavs is one of the most famous or well known but our chances of being questioned and detained was high. The locals shunned the area based on superstitions held as real today as then. However, grave robbers did frequent the area and disturbed the dead and locals alike. Ossetians placed coins; some of them gold, in wells outside of these crypts and so some would be drawn to steal from these dead. Some later crypts contained mothers still with babies in cribs both going into quarantine to protect the village and so you can imagine the locals outrage at the discovery of these being disturbed.

We decided to go to a different area that contained these Nakh towers and crypts. One of our local friends had friends of his own in this village and knew the area well. It is in the same mountain range as Dargavs about three hours from Vladikavkaz. The day was cold and overcast in city and we drove through the mist and fog through small towns and smaller villages. We took an unmarked side road that followed the river and as we drove through the trees silvered with ice, I noticed the outside temperature was rising. It had showed –5 in the city and was now hovering around 0. As the car climbed higher, the rivers path became more spectacular, cutting deep twists and creating tall pillars in the mountainside. Asland our friend and driver pointed out interesting formations with increased frequency and when we turned a corner into the shining sun, I looked at the temperature and saw it was +5 degrees. The man’s name and connection to the famous book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe only added to my increasing sense of amazement.

Like so much of history in Russia, it is difficult to get a “searchable” three-source answer to things.  Some say these Nakh towers date back to the 16th Century and others 12th. Some maintain the Nakh people built them all and others claim that the Alania-Ossetian people of the time simply copied the design. What is certain is that they were used as burial chambers and as quarantine structures. What had caused many villagers to get sick was also in question but from talking with locals and research the most frequent use was from an outbreak of cholera.

There had been a cholera outbreak and entire families had been moved from the river floor and village site and walled up in sick houses and towers on the surrounding hills. Left to die in quarantine, or survive, as the gods they worshiped dictated. Their friends and family brought food and delivered it via long poles and small windows.  Perhaps a dour reason to wish to see a place on the face of it but let me continue, part of survival as a society and species are making hard choices. This concept is used very well in the popular TV drama The Walking Dead. Our modern society has gotten used to the easy life it has provided us and so these life and death hard choices create massive tension between humanity and societal continuance.

Just like in the TV Drama these early Russians were faced with extinction as they had no idea how to deal or control this event. Cholera today is easily treated yet it still kills in Africa and I have personally witnessed a cholera outbreak and the effects on the village. So I can only imagine what these early people would have thought as they watched their loved ones bowels let go and they starting wasting away. It is easy to draw a connection to the Zombie fiction or the Ebola nonfiction. Families want to care for the sick, and the sick wished to be cared for. If quarantined and gripped with fever and fear they long for comfort and connection returning to homes and villages if they can. Spreading the infection and death as they do. 

The ancient people knew, or learned, this and took steps to survive. Hard steps and harder choices, none were spared, the sick to a person where exiled or went on their own to protect loved ones. Many mothers took their babies in cribs into these stone buildings.

Despite their age, the structures survive in relatively good repair. The site is a sacred one, remembered by the locals. The church and monastery are located on the valley floor and symbols and icons stare in remembrance toward the location of the sick towers. The towers themselves still stand and while certainly in dangerous states of decay they’re a somber sentinel to a strong people.

The towers are four stories high and  stretch in a line up the mountainside with newer stone single story buildings assembled at their base. Cows and sheep now graze peacefully amongst the ruins and the overall place has feeling of serenity.  The view up to the jagged peaks to the south or rolling peaks to the east and west contrast magnificently with the slope to the valley floor and the “village” that is quickly becoming a city.

The temperature inversion that I noticed on the cars dash a common occurrence here and the place is acquiring a name for itself as a healing town. A large Sanatorium is currently being built, with money as no object from the looks of the construction for just this purpose. Locals and visitors alike claim miraculous curative powers in the air and water. Asthma suffers with the ability to move here have done so for years.

It was with one of these new residents that Asland had arranged to host us for lunch. We arrived at a low-slung building with a large gated entrance. Our hosts were waiting for us and quickly ushered us inside and allowed us to look around. The owner had built the entire place by hand and it was truly incredible. In fact, just looking at the property walls made me wonder how many people had labored. Large natural, uncut stones were folded into a wall supported by these same stones broken into perfect halves. The building itself was similarly built and held a red tile roof. Inside the house had a small kitchen to the right of the entrance room and a common room off to the left. A bathroom was directly ahead of the main entrance and it contained a large eight person Russian sauna. This sauna formed the core of the building and actually heated the entire house. Wood was placed into a large enclosed brick fireplace and heated the stones within the sauna and the rest of the building too.

Albert, our host, and his two friends set about getting roasted wild duck and boar ready for us while we did a quick run to purchase three of the local stuffed bread. A tradition this bread comes plain or stuffed three ways. One is stuffed with cheese and potato, another with beets, and the third with ground meat. The table also contained salads and cheese made by locals, and of course three bottles of vodka.  Wine and beer where also offered and a bottle of water placed in front of Asland, our driver.  Drinking and driving have fallen as much out of favour here in the wilds of Russia as it has at home in Vancouver.

Toast were made following the traditional practices and stories told. A meal was shared and new friendships kindled as is also traditional and cultural. The people are very stern and conservative in ways and very welcoming and friendly in others. It is a rich mix of old and new and follows the script of sorts that makes you feel as welcome as family and yet toasted like a king.

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