I arrived in Nalchik late in the evening and was picked up at the airport by one of the staff at the Bezengi Mountaineering Camp. He took me to the Alpinist Hotel, old and gloomy, smelling of the Soviet past. In the hot night – it was +27C – the shabby room felt oppressive and, realizing that sleep would never come to me in such a place, I left the bed for the terrace. As I was looking down at the quiet, seemingly peaceful street of small two-storey buildings, I was finding it hard to believe that Nalchik and the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria were as politically-troubled and unsafe as the media would have the world think. I wasn’t feeling any danger in the air nor noticing much aggression in the few faces I’d seen thus far; I was glad I’d ignored the warnings from my friends and family against travelling to Caucasus.
The morning brought a little cool air from the mountains around Nalchik and, thus, I was able to get a couple of hours’ sleep. Waking up at 8 am, I waited till 10 before leaving the hotel, guessing that not many places would open before then. Since I would not have more than three hours before a mini-bus would take me to the camp in the mountains, I decided to go for a stroll without making any particular sightseeing plans. The town of Nalchik struck me as very green, alive and spacious. The streets in the centre are straight and wide, the architecture – unassuming and pleasant. A good morning coffee was hard to find but the people were happy to help me with advice as to where to try next. After four or five less-than-great cups of coffee, I gave up and headed back to the hotel, followed by the locals’ curious gazes. It never ceases to amaze me how often I am mistaken for a foreigner in my home country and how surprised people look when I open my mouth and speak their language. Upon hearing me, they usually get even more suspicious, while I begin to feel like a strange creature, fallen from the sky, which doesn’t have a home on Earth. I left Russia to study abroad – in the UK, The Netherlands, then, Spain – when I was seventeen and now, seven years later, I no longer know where home is. For the next month or so, it’s Caucasus.
‘Where are all the climbers?’ wondered one of the women.
‘There’s one,’ said her son, pointing at me.
‘Isn’t your backpack too small?’ another woman inquired, looking at my 46-litre Osprey. ‘When my husband goes to the mountains he usually carries a backpack almost as big and heavy as himself…’
A little annoyed, – at myself rather than the woman – I said my little Exos should do for a mountaineering course in Caucasus – it served me perfectly on climbs in the Himalayas. I knew I was wrong, however, to have brought a pack this small. With no porters to help carry food, tents, ropes and other gear, the load is usually evenly divided among the climbers in the group. For instance, when I was climbing in Tian Shan, with a non-commercial expedition, I was carrying about 70 pounds of weight, and my pack was the lightest. Now my injured spine simply couldn’t support that heavy a load so I brought a smaller pack to avoid the temptation of playing the tomboy and hurting myself again.
The mini-bus smelled of fresh bread, and gasoline, and ice-cream the locals were eating. The driver stopped often to buy more food and other necessities for the camp or to show us one picturesque place after another. At about 5 pm we crossed the border and entered the restricted area, with the road leading up to the camp so bumpy it took us an hour and a half to drive 18 kilometres.
The Bezengi Gorge looked stunning in the evening. Threads of fog, thickening as we ascended higher and higher, were spreading down the mountain river, running fast, boiling with white foam. The mountains were tall and green, their peaks in the clouds. The camp, too, was hidden from sight completely inside a cloud of mist. We drove right into it and soon discovered a small town at 2200 metres above sea level: cottages, tents, a tiny cafe and couple of shops – all full of climbers and Russian military undergoing training in the mountains.
I was welcomed by the accountant and the chief house-keeper of the camp as the director was not around at the time. I wanted to discuss my training with regards to the upcoming expedition with him but was too tempted by the prospect of a hot shower and a clean bed to wait. The house-keeper, exceedingly friendly, allowed me to stay in a single room instead of a six-person one I’d booked, and gifted me with a towel and clean linen. The room has a great private bathroom, hot shower and looks new and tidy; it is getting cold now that the sun has set.
Tomorrow’s the first training day for me and I can’t wait: I’m curious, excited, worried. There’s a phrase I read in Peter Mathiessen’s ‘The Snow Leopard’ today that I keep repeating to myself now that I’m about to go to sleep: ‘expect nothing.’