National Geographic : 1942 Jul
Roaming Russia's Caucasus Rugged Mountains and Hardy Fighters Guard the Soviet Union's Caucasian Treasury of Manganese and Oil BY ROLF SINGER Research Associate, Farlow Herbarium, Harvard University DOOR to Russia's Caucasus is Rostov on the Don. Not far southeast of that gateway city the country and the people begin to change. Through dense clouds of dust whirled up by the train, we caught our first glimpse of Circassian or Tatar horsemen in the Caucasian national costume. They wore long coats with a cartridge band sewn across the chest, and carried the long, thin, straight Caucasian dagger, often in a magnificent silver-inlaid scabbard. Despite the intense heat, they sported black lambskin caps perched at a jaunty angle. They call themselves "Adygei," and "the Autonomous Territory of Adygei," a small settlement of Circassians, is all that remains of the once great Circassian nation, conquered and colonized by the Russians in the 19th century. Circassians are excellent horsemen and proudly exhibit their skill, especially on na tional holidays. Their chief industry is more prosaic-vegetable canning. As the train rolled onward, camels appeared. The shapes of the distant hills grew more distinct and weird. The air became drier, more transparent. The shadows took on a violet hue. White Phantom at Asia's Door Just as the Westerner realizes he is ap proaching the threshold of Asia, he sees ris ing in the south, like a glittering white phantom floating above the monotonous chains of hills, the rounded twin peaks of Elbrus (Elborus), highest mountain in the Caucasus and in Europe (see "Theater of War in Eu rope, Africa, and Western Asia," 262 by 31 inch Map Supplement with this issue). Suddenly the train left the loneliness of the steppe and rolled into a cultivated district of resort hotels, parks, well-kept stations, and roads. This is the Kavminvody, the region of Caucasian mineral baths. Pyatigorsk is known for its sulphur baths, and others for treatment of gastric ulcers. Most famous is Kislovodsk, chiefly for allevia tion of heart disease (pages 90, 95). Mineral waters of the various resorts are also popular table beverages in the Soviet Union. Narzan, the Kislovodsk water, was exported in large quantities before the pres ent war. Warm springs of this region owe their existence to the once volcanic nature of near-by Elbrus. Locally, Elbrus is called "Mingitau," mean ing "White Mountain." It was ascended and adequately mapped before any of the other high Caucasian peaks. When I made my first trip to Elbrus in 1928 with a group of scientists, we approached our destination from the northeast by the only route which then existed, an old road from Kislovodsk. It consisted of irregular wheel tracks visible only to our Russian drivers. Shepherds Friendly, But Not Their Dogs At the end of the road, near a small vil lage, mountaineers gathered to look us over and sell us horses. We bargained for several days in true oriental fashion. They asked twice as much as they hoped to receive, and we offered half as much as we expected to pay. In the evening, Said, Achmed, and the others would break off negotiations "for good" -only to turn up next morning in the best of humor, demanding ten rubles less. Before we obtained horses, I took a num ber of trips on foot into the surrounding val leys and the mountains flanking them. On one of these trips I came to an upland shepherd's hut, and a pack of vicious white Caucasian sheep dogs attacked me. I warded them off with the end of my ice ax and angry cries of "Rrrr," learned from the Circassians, until Dadau, a Balkar shepherd, came along brandishing a rifle and rescued me. Two other shepherds and a boy, the entire popula tion of the settlement, came running up. I had been commissioned by my friends to buy a sheep, but unfortunately I knew no Balkar at the time, and Dadau knew no Rus sian. I pointed to the mountain, where, like moving spots, thousands of black sheep were grazing over the slope. The shepherds looked at me in uncomprehending silence. I bleated like a sheep. They looked sym pathetic and giggled. I defined a sheep in my best Russian. They mumbled approval but produced no sheep.