Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Kings of the Wild Frontier.

Levison Wood is an affable and curious mid-thirties ex-forces guy who's been bitten, pretty seriously, by both the travel and the walking bug. I'd enjoyed his Channel 4 programmes in which he walked the entire length of the Nile and from Mexico, across Central America, to Colombia so I was pleased to see he was back on another adventure. This time he was going From Russia To Iran:Crossing Wild Frontiers and even though I was becoming familiar with him, views (of which he witnesses many) are always 'phenomenal', 'mind-blowing', 'stunning', or 'insane', that familiarity was yet to breed anything even close to contempt.

Jealousy maybe. I'd love for someone to pay me to go on a lengthy expedition and make a television series, or write a book, about it as I go. The gout's pretty much cleared up now so if anyone wants to start a Kickstarter page for me feel free. It'll get me out of the country for a bit! Although there are certain situations Levison (let's call him Lev like his friends do) gets himself into I wouldn't fancy quite so much. Mainly the ones involving angry guard dogs, terrifying chasms, and men with massive guns.

The fact he started this trek in a Russian military helicopter suggested there'd be plenty of the latter in his Caucusus constitutional. The Caucusus is where East meets West, where democracies meet dictatorships, and, in the Russian part, where the presence of one Vladimir Putin looms very large indeed.

Lev's helicopter can't land until it's cleared Putin's holiday home but when it finally does he hops in a cab with a taxi driver whose adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church is so strict he doesn't like cameras, cars (despite driving one), or even civilization. He does like the local lezginka music though and blasts it out for the entirety of their journey.

Lev's first walking buddy, the first of many, Rashid is, fortunately, not so extreme in his outlook although he does introduce Lev to a banya, a traditional Russian bath that's taken in the buff and involves getting smacked around your naked body with a load of oak leaves. If that's not painful enough banyas can reach ninety degrees centigrade (194F).

Suitably 'refreshed' Lev and Rashid depart the town of Mezmay and head into the mountains. A 94 year old man tells the British visitor he prefers goats to women before our explorers hitch a lift (is this cheating? I thought this was supposed to be a walk?) with Valeri who takes them to a gorgeous, deserted lake to go, unsuccessfully, fishing for trout.

They meet up with Andrey, decked out in his finest Cossack uniform, who invites them in for a noisy, 70% vodka fuelled, Sunday lunch. Tradition states guests cannot turn down a drink so as endless toasts are made, Cossack songs are heartily sung, spoons are played. and women get up to dance Lev gets a bit pissed. What was I saying about wanting his job?

Although it might not be that much fun to approach Ingushetia, one of Russia's wildest frontiers, with a stinking hangover. Islamist bombs have gone off in the area recently and it's unlikely the majority Muslim population would appreciate the smell of booze anyway.

After an hour of questioning they're let in on the condition that they are chaperoned by a government official whose teeth are all gold. He drives them past amazing five hundred year old towers in the hills and they visit ancient tombs full of the bones of old warriors as Ingush mountain men pass by in their traditional garb.

Next it's a sacred Sufi ceremony, a Zikr, in the town of Nazran. It's being held in the memory of a recently deceased boy and the aim is to dance and chant until one's soul is subsumed by, and in, Allah. It certainly seems a preferable way to express your religious beliefs than driving a car into a random group of people and killing them.

The next day they're offered a lift from the mayor of Nazran and it's one of those lifts that appears to be non-optional. They're driven to the edge of town from where they'll set off for the even more daunting, and infamous, republic of Chechnya. Chechnya's capital Grozny was once known as 'the most destroyed city on Earth' but in the last decade or so Putin has invested millions in rebuilding it and he's personally installed, as leader,  the 'hard man' Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kadyrov won a highly suspicious 98% of the vote in the most recent elections and he's even been accused of murdering his opponents. There's been rumours of gay people being rounded up and even taken to death camps. Kadyrov's terrifying response when questioned about this was that it hadn't happened and it wouldn't be possible because homosexuals simply don't exist in Chechnya.

Kadyrov is also the owner of local football team FC Akhmat Grozny (formerly Terek Grozny FC) and he seems to have an absolute iron grip on the republic. Locals sing his praises but we can never be sure how much they mean it or how much they have to. Certainly his brand of macho behaviour, in truth something hardly specific to this part of the world, has trickled down. There may be a seemingly innocent kebab festival going on in Grozny's central square but it's not long before the locals are driving their cars around dangerously, firing semi-automatics into the air, and staging mock kidnappings for old time's sake.

Across the border from Chechnya is the equally notorious Dagestan, a place the British Foreign Office warns people not to visit under any circumstances whatsoever. The fact that the border guy is wearing a balaclava doesn't bode well and neither do the tales of rebel/terrorist (depending on your point of view) hideouts in the mountains they're passing through. The first town Lev and Rashid reach is the rather forlorn looking Andi. There's nowhere to stay so they head on to the marginally more promising Gagatli where they're stopped by police.

Fears for the worst are, fortunately, unfounded as the local cops give Lev and Rashid a room for the night and a plate of nettle dumplings to fill their empty stomachs. Hopefully the meal will have warmed them up a bit too as it's -5 and snowy as they head deeper into Dagestan to an army base from where the Russians fight the Islamist insurgency.

Imam Shamil was a leader of anti-Russian resistance in the 19th century Caucasian war that resulted in the annexation of much of this region and a visit to the site of his surrender finds it unchanged for over half a century. There are 1950s bars of soap, a newspaper from Stalin's time, ink bottles, and some local spirits still waiting to be drunk.

Horses are taken over the steppe, and into the valley, with a bear hunter following for protection. After Andi, Gagatli, and Balkhar the city of Derbent, Russia's southernmost, looks huge. It's one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth and it's been an Islamic city since the eighth century but that doesn't seem to be stopping the locals spending their Saturday morning getting smashed on home made Cognac.

Crossing from Dagestan (and Russia) into Azerbaijan, Lev has to say goodbye to Rashid before meeting up with a new guide, Namin. Namin is an ex-soldier who seems to lack any fear whatsoever. He hangs from tall buildings, unsupported, by just his hands and then repeats the trick from an already dicey looking rope bridge using just one hand. So it's quite a surprise when he engages Lev in conversation about Azerbaijan's recent performances in Eurovision as they make the one hundred mile walk from Quba to the capital city, Baku.

Along they way they look in at Khinalug where locals say, to Turkish disagreement, that Noah's Ark came to rest. Khinalug is so high up in the mountains supplies are difficult so they fuel the place using bricks of shit. It's quite a contrast to booming Baku, a city dripping with oil money and oil itself. So much oil, in fact, that Lev, bollock naked again, takes a bath in it. If you like looking at ex-soldier's bums this is the show for you.

Marco Polo, as far back as the 13th century, had written about Azeri oil baths and they're said to cure all manner of ills including skin conditions and impotence. They certainly look pretty odd but as Lev says, trying to convince himself, "if it smells bad, tastes bad, and looks bad then it's probably good for you".

From the oil baths of Baku to the mud volcanoes, hundreds of 'em, of the Gobustan desert, an area known as the burning mountains. They say the mud keeps the sun off so Lev and Namin apply it, fairly liberally, to their bodies. But it turns out to be none too comfy and they soon wash it off again.

It can't be that comfortable, either, sleeping in the desert being circled by wild dogs with horses also at large. In Lahic, Lev sees coins that predate the life of Christ and there's a mummified 150 year old cat nailed to a wall in one shop. Apparently, the owners loved it so much they couldn't bear to part with it. At Shaki market there's a decapitated cow's head stuck on a tree.

If that's grisly it's as nothing to the war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabkh. Azerbaijan's been fighting with Armenia over the mountainous and densely forested area since 1988 and over 30,000 people have been killed.

If a trip to a 'fairy castle', Parigala, where once, legend has it, a princess fled to so she wouldn't have to marry Genghis Khan, sounds less daunting it proves not to be so. The view, of course, is stunning but the three hour haul by rope to the top it takes to get there makes it debatable if it was worth the effort. I was glad I got to watch it on telly instead. The Castle of the Beautiful Woman could equally be called The Castle of the Knackered Men.

As we leave Azerbaijan for Georgia, Lev says goodbye to crazy Namin and catches up with new guide, but old friend, Lasha. The ancient Greeks thought Georgia so beautiful they described it as a paradise on Earth. Lev and Lasha soon join a group of  Georgian shepherds migrating to higher pastures. The Georgians claim they invented wine eight thousand years ago and they still export up to 50,000,000 bottles of it a year. But, judging by the state of one of the shepherds they keep some for themselves. He's so twatted that when attempting to kiss one of his own sheep it pisses all over him. He doesn't seem to mind.

Georgia proves to still be as beautiful as those ancient Greeks said. Compared to a lot of that part of the world it's mostly peaceful too but the Pankisi Gorge has become a recruiting ground for ISIS. We meet women who are speaking out against radicalisation. Including Laila whose two sons went to Syria to fight for ISIS. She went there and, remarkably, was allowed to meet with one son. She tried to persuade him to return to Georgia with his brother. He refused and, soon after, predictably, both he and his brother were dead.

For all their horrific intentions ISIS have yet to chalk up a death rate comparable to that of Ioseb Jughashvili. Or Stalin as he became much better known. The man who's estimated to be responsible for the deaths of 26,000,000 was born in Gori, eastern Georgia, where there's still a memorial to him.

A less gruesome, but equally bewildering, Georgian sight can be found in the village of Katshki. There, atop a limestone pillar, sits the ruins of a 1,200 year old church which has, for the last two decades, been home to the hermit monk Maxim Qavtaradze. Lev and Lasha hope to visit both the monk and his home but rumour has it the last visitor had to pray for four days before being allowed entry.

Maxim's in a good mood when they arrive though so, once he's finished his mobile phone call (!), he lets them clamber up the ladder to see his humble abode. It's not as humble as when he first moved in, back in 1995, and had to sleep in a fridge but it's still pretty basic and hasn't got a bathroom. Maxim the monk's not bothered though. He firmly attests that 'pure' people don't smell so he has no need for washing.

Nearby Chiatura once provided 60% of the world's manganese (an element essential to iron and steel production) but now 50% of the city are unemployed and in Georgia you don't get a penny out of the government if you're not working. It says something of the generosity, and perhaps the propensity towards alcoholism, that a penniless local miner offers to share his homebrew with Lev and Lasha.

Khertvisi is a place Lev has visited before. He remembers being asleep on a bench before being woken by a man called Gotcha and taken for a three day bender on the local cha-cha (a kind of Georgian grappa). Gotcha's still in Khertvisi so Lev enjoys an emotional reunion in which Gotcha tells him "if I knew you were coming I'd have slaughtered a sheep" - surely a title Eileen Barton's songwriters must've at least toyed with?

As usual, at the border, it's time to say goodbye to one guide and hello to the next. Lasha hands over to photojournalist Anush as Lev reaches Armenia. It's quiet, windswept, full of mountains, and seen as a place where the persecuted Yazidis enjoy freedom of religion and non-interference in their culture. Many of them work herding sheep but the twelve hour days are tough, repetitive, and boring. It's one thing to be passing through enjoying phenomenal scenery but it's quite another to have to put those sort of shifts in day after day after day.

The reason Lev's taken such a circuitous route, through Georgia, from Azerbaijan to Armenia is that he can't cross between the two disputatious nations directly. Nagorno-Karabakh, despite a supposed ceasefire, is still officially off limits too but Lev and Anush decide to have a look anyway. Of course they do.

Despite the Nagorno-Karabakh war supposedly ending in 1994 with a decisive Armenian victory there are clearly still huge, unresolved, issues in the region and the clashes in 2016 were the worst since '94. Lev and Anush find remains of military vehicles, burnt out buildings, and other simply reduced to ruins. A small child leads them to the top of the hill from where they can look down at the Azeri trenches and positions. The calm is necessarily eerie.

The edge of the conflict zone is also the edge of the Caucusus itself and from here we drop into the Iranian plateau. As a guide Anush is replaced by Reza and this seems to be far easier than the hassle Lev had obtaining a visa to visit Iran. It's not an easy country to visit but, by all accounts, it's a worthwhile one. A 'captivating' one as we hear Lev say on the slightly overlong recaps that introduce each of the four shows in this series.

Reza, like Lev, is an explorer and the Iranian government don't seem to like the idea of the two of them doing too much unsanctioned exploring so they're provided with a camera shy guide who shadows, from a short distance, their every move in the Islamic Republic.

Lake Urmia isn't the lake it used to be. The damming that has been necessary to make post-revolution Iran self-sufficient foodwise) has seen the lake shrink to a tenth of its original size. It's now more of an endless salt plain and, as with India's Little Rann of Kutch, locals are there farming and collecting, essentially, that salt.

Tabriz was one of the largest trading centres on the Silk Road and, unlike Lake Urmia, it's still a pretty impressive sight. It has a huge covered market with seven kilometres worth of shops inside but, after Lev's blown a fortune on some rugs (how much are the BBC paying him?), it's time to head on through the plateau and up in to the Alborz mountains, and even further up a very wet, and massively dangerous looking, gorge to Alamut, or Assassin's, Castle. A four hour climb, the former mountain fortress of the 12c Nizari Ismaila state stands in ruins but is being redeveloped by the Iranian government as a tourist attraction.

Its proximity to Tehran has, no doubt, been a factor in this decision. Tehran, with a population of 15,000,000 is vast, and it's a difficult place to get one's head around it seems. On one hand murals denounce US imperialism on what seems to be half of the city's available walls. On the other the large black market trades only in US dollars as the local rial is too unstable. The renowned hospitality too, belies their animosity towards a nation they probably know very little about. It's instructive to see that some Iranians hate the Americans in exactly the same way that some Americans hate Iranians. Because they've been told to. This is the sad state of world affairs and with Trump in Washington and Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader of Iran it seems unlikely that much will change for the better soon.

With all the stresses of the world the best we can do is try and look after ourselves (and those we love) so it's off to do some zurkhaneh. Zurkhaneh is a martial art that dates back to the times of the Persian warriors and Lev calls it a mix of yoga, cross-fit, power lifting, and zumba all in one. He's pretty much completed a walk of several thousand miles but it still looks like the zurkhaneh session has taken something out of him, so it might be a while (or never) before I build up to that.

The last bit of exercise, at least on this trip, for him is a walk, in 35 degree heat, to the Caspian Sea where he, and Reza, of course, jump in. I love the idea of finishing a long walk by wading into the water as if to cleanse off all the blisters and aches and to become rejuvenated. The blisters will heal but the memories will remain. Watching Levison Wood walk these ridiculously long distances, meet these fascinating people, and dabble, somewhat amateurishly but enthusiastically and curiously, into the history and politics of the places he passes through gives me itchy feet to match my intrigued mind. Good on him for doing it. Looking forward to the next one and if he needs a mate he can let me know and I'll start training!

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