Thursday, October 11, 2007


I must say thank you to Welshcakes for an invitation to guest post while she is away; I feel privileged, not to mention relieved that I have finally found time to do so just before she gets back. She has asked for posts themed loosely about travel or life abroad, so I hope it is not too much of a stretch for me to return to what was meant to be a series in another place about my adopted country. I mentioned that Russia had many stereotypes attached to it, despite Churchill's famous phrase about enigmas, riddles and the rest, which I hoped to try and unpick a little. The series was curtailed by, er, a trip to Russia, but now seems like a good opportunity to restart it.

One such stereotype revolves excess: no-one was really surprised to see Boris Nikolaevich conducting orchestras, now, were they? If we're talking about travel, have you thought about spending your next vacation in Chechnya? The Caucasus undeniably has some spectacular scenery, but you don't necessarily have to risk bullets to see it. One of the things that doubtless swung the 2014 Winter Olympics Sochi's way was the fact that the mountains run right down to the Black Sea. For those who still think that Putin's Russia has moved away from Soviet ideals, someone close to me was forced to stay at work until 2 in the morning "to support the bid". To be fair, she was allowed to quit, afterwards.

Over the summer, I was invited to Guamka, home to a famous gorge. The gorge itself is about 3km long, but its sides are up to 400m high. As we had driven south-west from Krasnodar, we came to a town called Apsheronsk, and noticed a narrow gauge railway running parallel to the main-line. You can read a railway enthusiasts' account of the line here (you may find the .pdf more easily laid out, if you can bear the download time and the risk of your system hanging. Get a proper operating system to help avoid the latter!) In fact, the line continues up the gorge, alongside the river. Our train-spotter is laconic:
Later, in thousands years, people hollowed this long ledge in the cliff, on which they laid steel rails and ran trains.
Well, that's strictly accurate, but I can't help feeling that the fact the line was laid by the manual labour of camp inmates is more than a little relevant. When we were there, the temperature was 40 degrees; it was an uncomfortable stroll until we reached the shade. My imagination falters to think what it must have been like to be breaking rocks in that heat. 40 plus in Krasnodarskii Krai, or 40 minus with Ivan Denisovich somewhere in Siberia. Russia has not been prone to treat its ordinary people well. Why was the line built at all? Past the gorge was a forest of oak trees some 700 or 800 years old, with height and girth to match - the previous evening our host Zhenya had described it as a kind of primeval, legendary, even magical place. The local Bolsheviks were delighted at this resource of timber, and determined to exploit it in the building of Communism. The whole exercise proved incredibly wasteful of human life and natural wealth - nobody can remember now where the wood from these unique trees actually went.

When not taken to such excess, this tendency to throw people back on their own resources is refreshing to one used to the increasingly nanny-ish fussing in Western countries. Zhenya casually remarked that we may prefer to walk on the side of the track closest to the cliff-face. That way, we were less likely to be struck by the rocks that occasionally come away from the gorge sides, and plummet down. In direct contrast to Hull, this is no empty threat, but there were no offical warning signs, just occasional mute memorial plaques.
In memoriam Vladimir Rebrov
In St. Petersburg, at the posher end of Nevskii Prospekt, there remains a sign from the time of the German blockade, saying "Citizens! During artillery bombardments, this side of the street is more dangerous". I always felt that this was an odd way of phrasing the danger: imagine you were on the other side of the street, caught sight of the sign, and crossed over to get a closer look. In Guamka, you don't even get this hint as to the trajectory of incoming projectiles.

If you can manage to avoid falling boulders, however, the gorge today belies its destructive past; it is a beautiful and tranquil spot. Twelve sips from a particular waterfall that flows down the valley side are reputed to prolong life by twelve years - I took my dozen. Zhenya asserts that, no matter how much vodka vanished on the prveious evening, you can always make it to the end of the gorge and back, and feel uplifted for doing so. Again, I can vouch for this. Approximately halfway along is a little building now given over to the sale of beer, ice-cream, and that sweet peach "nectar" which is so inexplicably popular in Russia. Yet again, we approach mythic status, for, apparently, the restorative properties of the canyon meant it was one of several locations dotted around the former Soviet Union chosen for Yuri Gagarin to recuperate in after his historic flight, and this building was put up specially for him. He never came. Of course, the conspiracy theorists would have you believe he was not the first man in space, he was merely the first one to return. Given what I have already described in this piece, not to mention what else you know about the Soviet Union, is that so very hard to believe?


Ellee Seymour said...

The gorge looks stunning, I love visiting places off the beaten track. You have done Welshcakes proud.

Welcome back Welshcakes, sorry we didn't manage to have another chat before you left. Hope you had a safe flight home.

Love to Simi.

annechung said...

I'm actually looking to find out what the weather's going to be like, I shall be in Sicily onOct 15 for 10 days, I don't know how to pack, is it cold and wet like in March my last trip, umbrellas are useless because of the wind, a raincoat?

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I agree with Ellee, Ian . You have done me proud and thank you for this fascinating post. We are both back safe and sound - thanks, Ellee.
Annechung - I've only just, about an hour ago, got back from the UK but felt I had to reply to your query: dress lightly but bring layers of jumpers or cardigans plus some tights / socks as it can still be as hot as the best summer's day in Britain in October but you can get very cold at night! Usually it is fine but if we get a storm it can really last -Sicilians, of course, don't go out during them! - but if you can, bring a rain jacket / light mac with hood. Personally I find umbrellas pretty useless here as when there is rain, there is wind! Please comment again if there is anything else I can help you with.

jmb said...

Great post Ian. What a beautiful place and well worth going to, despite the dangers. Those memorials must have been a bit sobering however.
Ben tornata Welshcakes. I'm sure the two of you are glad that you are home safe and sound.

Anonymous said...

A strange and terrifying place if you ask me...

Ellee Seymour said...

I am off to Bristol soon, I just wanted to wish you a lovely weekend.

Unknown said...

Thanks for all the compliments, I'm happy I managed not to lower the tone. Mutley, Russia can be a strange and terrifying place; whilst there was an other-worldly feel to the gorge, I'm not sure I would classify it as terrifying if you exclude the rickety timber bridge towards the end... Speaking of rickety bridges, I hope you had a good time in Bristol, Ellee.


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