Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Mount Elbrus - Part Ten

A day at the Spa – joining the locals

A day at the Spa – joining the localsI wander out into the thickest fog on the way to the loo, desperately trying to locate it amongst the cattle and the moody yak. On the way across the field I encounter two of the local “cowboys”. The shortest a hugely stocky man in an animal skin cloak engages me in conversation. We haven’t a clue as to each others language, until the second guy throws in an English translated word here or there. It turns out that No.1 wants me to go drinking with him. I explain that we’ve just come off of Elbrus and need to sleep, we shake hands, wish each other and trade words of best wishes and go on our separate ways. I didn’t fancy being the prize in a Chechen drinking game.                  
After a surprisingly cold night, that brought a thick fog through the valley, but allowed us to fully enjoy being burrowed down in the sleeping bags, we’re woken by the rapidly rising temperature and Sergei asking what we want to eat. After a fine breakfast of cheese spread, bread, rivita, muesli, canned peaches and tea we kit up for our spa day. We walk casually back down to the “Bridge of Death” where we started the real adventure. Instead of crossing we wind our way up through the rocks up to a plateau that gives views back to Base Camp and out to the crossing valley we saw on our way in with the White Hotel, but this time scattered around the “grounds” are all sorts of tents, tarps and vehicles. It looks like a vagabond community has just invaded. We dip down and cross the thundering river that cuts through the deep gorge far beneath us. The path turns, weaves and heads steeply up. BJ takes it at great speed, I’m feeling the effects of altitude as I huff and puff my way up only to find BJ at the top close to throwing up, again even at this low altitude we’re suffering. Sergei again points out what looks like marsh mallow and tells us to be careful as “This plant burns and you’re in short pants”, I don’t even notice I’ve come in contact with it at all until I feel a severe stinging on my shin, a blistered area of about 10mm diameter, I lick a finger and dab at the spot with which a layer of skin comes away! Vicious vegetation around here. We descend on to the valley’s edge, the gorge to the left with the White Hotel reminiscent of a Romanian horror scene. To the right is a mixture of portacabin/static caravans, tarps and tents, it looks not too dissimilar to a refugee camp. Quite squalid, the permanent buildings are decrepit and look at first glance derelict. We follow down the dirt road past a collapsed bridge and around the river’s edge to the right, across a bubbling spring to the base of a colossal waterfall. Retracing our steps back to the bridge where we cross to the spa pools. Some of the concrete structures have been washed away by landslip, not surprising when you look at the valley walls of soft loose powder fine scree. Further along are four similar concrete "pools" filled near to the top with this loose strata. During the time before Glasnost the army would have been sent down here to dig these pools out and generally maintain the facilities, something that we wouldn't have expected from our Western perception of the former USSR. Luckily for us it's now the male time to use the tiny pool, which when we arrive is already quite crowded, a similar smaller pool to the front has two small boys splashing about in it. I turn round to find BJ stripping down to his boxers, he's going in, "to join in with the locals", I pull off my clothes and tip toe across the sharp stones to join him. As BJ steps down the re-bar ladder in to the group he discovers what 22o feels like, the manic giggling tells me it's quite cool. the locals, all cross armed, stand crowded together glaring out of the pool as these two tan striped white guys clamber in. Outside and over to one side guys stand in their shorts rubbing joints or whole limbs with the damp Iron Oxide rocks, leaving ocre coloured paste on the skin, left to dry and then washed off prior to sitting in the pool. I try to blend in with our counterparts and wash the cold water over my head and face, cleaning the dust and muck off, BJ trying not to raise interest of our neighbours says "Don't! That’s the quickest way to pick up all sorts of bad bugs" "really?" "oh yeah, how hygenic do you think this water is? anything could be in this water they could be peeing in it and you know how rough our bog is!" "Ahhh!" I could be doomed, great. One of the locals amongst us calls over to Sergei and on his answer start to file back out of the pool, we tuck into the line and exit too. I stagger about attempting to dry myself while trying not to continously hit my head on the low roof of the clothes rack, I'm chuckling to myself as I wobble about drying my feet and trying not to contaminate my dry shorts with these small sharp stones that cling to the soles of my feet.

Once dry and composed we wander off to the small cafe and shop to buy freshly baked bread. I notice that my ankle has a strange heat inside of it, it feels surprisingly good on the way back. It's only once we're back at base camp EK tells me that it's a holy spa and that the people down there go as a pilgrimage to take the medicinal waters. Complete bunkum! But the ankle is feeling strangely better. We walk past a small pipe, stretching across the river from the opposite side, spilling water onto the bank. Sergei suggests that we try the water, I cup my hand and take a sip, eeek that's metallic!  We search the shop and cafe for a coke for BJ and draw a blank, we did however buy 3 round breads, fresh and warm. Which we start ripping at and devouring, delicious! Heading back and back at the pipe we encourage BJ to try the water, which he decides tastes like Alka Seltzer, I try again and see what he means by the effervescence. Back at the pools it's peak time as we follow back down to the bridge. Returning up and over the hill it's warm and steep, wandering across the hill we look across the valley floor and out towards our base camp. To get there we have to cross the "bridge of doom", this time though the water is considerably lower. Sergei leads across, BJ camera in hand snaps away, and I follow turning to photograph BJ, who as he gets midway starts to rock and bounce the bridge. Sergei looks back to see where we are and seeing BJ goes crazy, "I'm only joking around, no harm" "Many peoples each year die by this little joking!" BJ looks suitably admonished. When we arrive back at camp the two Norwegians are busily drinking cognac, it's about 3pm and they are well on their way to being completely trashed. When we arrive back at our enclosure the Adventure Consultants’ staff have tethered their Yak/Dzo right at the entrance. BJ holds his fist out for the animal to smell until the owner says it's really not friendly, we three tactfully skirt around it. "If it's a moody git then why park it right by our entrance?" A little later after some tea BJ goes over to the loo, except the Yak/Dzo doesn't want anyone near and drops its head. I hear him call over to me, I look out of the mess tent to see the owner trying to pull it out of the way.

I'm in tears. The owner tells me "Mafia" and gestures that it wants money or food as a toll. Vladimir says "everyone here says 'mafia' to get what they want". In any case it's a dumb place to park your Yak. We go over to our tent and hunker down trying not to get involved in the increasing levels of drinking as the soldiers come round and join in, the noise levels from the mess tent tells its own story. After it's calmed down I catch up with Una (the big Norwegian, who looks like Ross put on a bodybuilding course). He tells me a story of climbing the highest mountain in Norway where he and the guys set out without a guide. They're given directions but they are sent off in the opposite direction. An epic ensues, following just behind them are a group of Russians who are under the impression that locals should know the way. But with closing clouds the route isn't obvious, they take a longer route and eventually meet up much later at the summit. EK hooks out of his pack a bottle of cognac and shares it with the bedraggled Russians. He tells me he has just shared this story with the soldiers, who enjoy this tale, one of them says he has also climbed this mountain. Una pulls out his laptop and shows the photos of the adventure. He scrolls through and when he reaches the summit pictures one of the Russians recognises himself, the mess tent errupts. The small world just gets a little smaller. As I return to our little tent to hide from this craziness I find BJ is craving red wine. He crawls out and heads down to the weird shop/cafe to satisfy this need. A little later he comes back clutching a bottle of Merlot but it's a cork not screw top and I get lumbered with going back to the mess tent to get mugs. I try to slip in - slip out but I'm held captive by the massively drunk Norwegians for an hour, but the guys are endearing and honest. I escape with the mugs and on my return find that BJ all this while has been unable to remove the cork, I'm up and out so it falls to me to return to the shop where they've already agreed to pull it for us. The reason that BJ gives for pulling the cork and for not driving it into the bottle is that we can finish it tomorrow, we settle in and finish the bottle as I read this journal back to him. EK pitches up outside of the tent and has one of the worlds most random conversations through the flysheet, is it his or our consumption of alcohol that's making it so strange? A short while later Sergei brings over half of a bread and a tube of cream cheese, which is rapidly and eagerly consumed. BJ settles back reading his Kindle and I lay back listening to my Walkman, waking up much later with my headphones still in an BJ snoring, oh yes he does snore despite his protestations. I look out of the tent, all the lights are out across base camp and I have no idea of the time, all I do know is it is cold and I need to hunker down in my bag.

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