PART 2. ESTO-SADOK
Episode 5. A Mid-Afternoon in the Mountains, Esto-Sadok, 2.55pm, April 17
I am sitting here in my cozy apartment watching the Western Caucasus mountains working magic of their own. My building looks somewhat like a Swiss mountain chalet offering awe-inspiring views of the Aibga Ridge from each of the apartments. Trying to take it in from mine, even after two days up here, I still can’t articulate how I feel about this natural landscape I have never been properly exposed to before except while travelling on the other side of the Atlantic or flying over the Swiss Alps. I think I need to let the mountains just work their magic on my feelings and sensations. In the meantime all I can do is admire the view and breathe this air.
I am in Esto-Sadok («Estonian garden» in English), a village lying around 50 km away from Adler, with the population of around 1,000. It was founded in 1866 by settlers from Estonia which was part of the Russian Empire at the time. This place was left deserted following the Caucasian War (also known as the Russian Conquest of the Caucasus). After wandering around for some time, a bunch of Estonians started a new life here along with some Greeks residing in the neighboring area. Estonian influence is somewhat present to this day as a short walk from my «chalet» is a house of Anton Hansen Tammsaare, a famous Estonian writer who found this place therapeutic for his tuberculosis. So, the topics of wandering around and writing are also poignant up in Esto-Sadok, which is now a mountain resort situated around 700m above the sea level.
Yesterday I was able to meet the mountains up close and personal when I took a cable car to get to the Rosa Peak (2320 m above the sea level). It was quite an adjustment for my body as I felt a bit quizzy going up. But those jaw-dropping and breathtaking views were totally worth it. It seems like I have reached some intimacy with the Caucasus mountains. Being up there felt like stepping back in time as the mountains were entirely covered with snow making me feel a bit awkward wearing my pink sneakers trying to keep my balance on the slippery surface. I was scared of stepping too close to the edge which almost felt like one into eternity. It was thanks to a nice female skier who asked me to take a picture of her that I now have one of me posing against a one-million dollar view of the raw natural beauty. Skiing is such a mystery to me. «How do you do that?» I asked looking at this woman with all that impressive glamorous ski gear, gracefully gliding along the snow on her pink board. «Well, I’ve been skiing since childhood», she said shrugging her shoulders. There are multiple ways to spend your childhood I guess. I wonder if that child throwing tantrums in the cable car on my way up here begging his parents to take him back to the hotel is going to learn to ski one day as well… I, for one, knew close to nothing about skiing and hotels growing up in the post-Soviet Russia… It is really amazing how much our childhoods shape our later lives…
I was happy though I was here contemplating that frightening eternity safely far from the edge and the slippery surface. It felt as if I was taking a peek at the place I wasn’t even meant to see if it wasn’t for that cable car that brought me all the way up here. I wish I had known I would experience all these magical feelings being up here back at high school in Geography classes that were taught by one of the craziest teachers I had ever known. I am so happy that physical maps showing endless mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, oceans, etc. (or to me simply meaningless dots) that she made me hate didn’t put me off travelling and yearning to explore those places for real later in life.
On my way back down I visited the cozy Mountain Olympic village (around 1500 m above the sea level also referred to as Rosa Plateau). It had a distinct European feel lined up with multiple international flags in the centre (which seemed a bit ironic with overseas travelling hardly possible). Of course, I couldn’t help taking a moment to contemplate the majestic mountain views while getting a steaming cup of the famous tea from Krasnaya Polyana («Red Glade» in English). That was the original name of this settlement (Kbaade in Adygean) that the place had before the Caucasian war meant. According to another version, it was named so by the Greek settlers who saw the ground in the area colored with reddish leaves in fall.
As I am sipping on another cup of Krasnaya Polyana tea I got back in Adler, I am witnessing a mix of fog and snow circulating around the mountain tops making them hardly visible at times. It looks as if there is a big sauna up there with smoke uncontrollably moving in different directions. I wish I was more knowledgeable about physical processes unravelling in front of me — was I even taught about them back at school? Compared to the sea, that is another type of a landscape which projects a sense of magical transcendence. It might have to do with mountains as if hanging right above us, making them seem so close and approachable and yet so far away. Unlike on the coast where all the colors can be clearly seen merging and intersecting, it is harder to play a painter up here because mountains are about momentum, unreachable grandeur…
I have just opened my window to let some mountain air in. I don’t know much about the science behind it, but I was explained that due to a more significant level of diffusion at high altitudes, the air up here feels different from what we are used to living in congested cities. As a result, you become more sensitive to a whole variety of smells (quite the opposite from the major COVID symptom reported by a great number of infected individuals). You feel as if your nose has been awakened making smells feel more acute: alluring aftershave, gasoline, barbecue grilled by a Caucasean cook… Such a vibrant smellscape! The sounds somehow get muffled and less distinct, but these multiple smells hit your nose really hard. Of course, cars in my area might offset the medicinal properties of this air because just as everywhere in the country, there are way too many of them. Ah, I can’t even register rapid movements of fog above the mountains. How much do we willingly miss in an instant second by choosing to look down at our phones/computers rather than up there..?
This whole area is an idyllic retreat that makes me brood over the famous Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov and other less famous ones who contemplated the bizarre magic of the Caucasus. I learned about some of them from exhibition stands at My Russia Ethnographic Park in Rosa Khutor, a famous resort that hosted the alpine skiing events during the 2014 Olympics. There as well as here in Esto-Sadok it is hard to say where exactly you are — in a village, a town, a resort? The place certainly owes a chunk of its identity to the mountains. All these acute smell sensations also bring out a variety of thoughts and reflections on bigger things such as who we are and why we were brought to this planet; our natural instincts are experiencing a sort of awakening as well. Or is it just the feeling of being on holiday solo when you are often confined to your own inner thoughts that pop up in your mind? As I was typing this, I must have missed another big circular movement as one of the three mountains is only visible now and who knows if it will still be there before I finish this sentence… No, nothing much has changed — as if I have been able to get it under control. Even though my feet are touching the warmth on my kitchen floor, it is hard not to feel cold looking at that all that snow up there.
Just as with the sea, I wonder how much of this area will be tamed and taken over by humans just to be devoured by a money-making machine in the attempt to generate revenues? When it comes to architecture, as I said, I see a distinctchalet-style here with a certain Russian twist. There must be a degree of consistency to this disorganized chaos of buildings as they all make sense together working for the common goal of generating a mountain vacation vibe. The whole place also serves as a recharge from the main action happening up in the mountains. I feel like a cheat as I am only safely observing instead of sweating in the mountains.
The highest mountain on the left is totally gone leaving only a vague image of a smaller one in front of me. The smokemerges seamlessly into the sky as if it was the sky itself. When will it choose to open up all of the mountains to our view? It is like a girl having trouble making up her mind about what to wear tossing all the clothes on top of her bed after trying them on. Next thing you know she will be trying on another item just to toss it just like she did all the previous ones… Or is it a cover that the mountains feel like putting on today to protect themselves from my intrusive vision as if they were an innocent girl?
I can see a patch of what looks like a forest — I wonder how many ecosystems are covered in layers and layers of outfits up there? On the left it might seem there were never any mountains at all — just some grey space — what a master of disguise! The right one which seems well visible and exposed to the view gives it all away. So does a tiny fragment on the left, which looks like like that toe sticking out stopping you feeling all cozy and comfy tucked in your blanket. The cloud above matches the dark cement grey of the mountains with its subtle grey and black.
There are more patches of snow with more smoke coming out. Who chose the shape — was that a random natural chisel? Watching this, I am being transported into the Borghese Gallery in Rome where I was absolutely flabbergastedby how sculptures were capable of making me feel… Two waves of smoke are coming out from both sides like a dragon with a huge mouth threatening to devour whatever is in its path. Is there a perfect skiing path on top? I guess it will not be possible but it looks like a perfectly designed route for skiing down to me. Easy for me to say, isn’t it?
For skiiers it might seem I am talking total nonsense but I am just an observer, probably a bit out of place, just like in Las Vegas where I did no gambling (except betting and instantly losing $5). According to the notices in my building there is no walking around in your skiing equipment. Well, I haven’t brought any… Smoke is coming out again as if the show is about to begin and the crowds are about to explode into a roar as the star of the night comes onto the stage.
Another thing reminding me of my time in Las Vegas is a casino right across the road. There is a tacky billboard flashing right on the left. There is a much bigger one I can only see from outside showing Dima Bilan, a famous Russian singer coming from the Caucasus. I am not a fan but knowing he will be performing in a few days just across the road makes me remember his show, the last one I attended before freedom became something we need to reclaim. Seeing him live, I thought he was a definition of a crazy creative spirit (I am not sure if this is down to his Caucasean roots). I played some of his songs yesterday evening. I love listening to tracks which are old enough to take me back in time — they are not always the best ones and nor are some of those memories they bring back, but this transportive magic is indisputable. Anyway, there is no problem with music in the mountains … Ah, there is a very thick layer of snow on the highest moutain — is it being distributed on top like hairspray? There is almost no smoke on the right — has it evaporated?
After I finish this session, even though I am not here to ski, I would love to indulge in an après-ski activity and check out a sauna or we call it баня (banya) in Russian. I love how the sound of après meaning «after» in French takes me back to France or the multilingual Switzerland as well as the time when I was eager to continue learning this language of romance. Have I deserved some relaxation despite not skiing? I have been working and it is Saturday so soaking in a steam room should help me to focus on releasing the tension. Even though banyas are a huge part of the Russian cultural identity, I have only had this private and intimate experience once before. Is it going to have any impact on my senses and make my sensations more acute? I have finally noticed some construction happening — is the identity of the place still in the making? The wind is moving the branches of some remote trees. A bold tree on the left is motionless only with its branch tops making slight movements…. Anyway, let the show go on – I need to pack my swimming suit and go let the banya steam work its magic on my mind and body.
Episode 6. A Morning in the Mountains, 9.10am, Esto-Sadok, April 18
Accompanied by the magnificent view of the Aibga Ridge, I have just enjoyed a lovely sweet breakfast of Sochi-style pakhlava and another cup of Matsesta tea. There are a few variations in the way this honey dessert dating back to the Ottoman Empire is made and pronounced in different nations. In Russia we call it in the exact same way as they do in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Uzbekistan. If you find yourself in Turkey, where it is called baklava, your world will never be the same. As I am still quite far from the famous Hafiz Mustafa shop in Istanbul where I had the most delicious variation of this dessert, I had pretty low expectations of the one I have just eaten. But it was its name that caught my attention. Was that a good marketing tool? I later found out that what is referred to as «Sochi-style» pakhlava is a traditional Azerbaijani type of this dessert that might have been called after the city. The bottom line is that this pakhlava didn’t rock my world the way that Turkish baklava did and nor did the one I had in Cyprus, which is the closest to Greece that together with Turkey claims baklava. But it certainly got me thinking that it is in the border region like this that we get to reflect on culinary identities of nations. What really amazes me is how much the one of this country seems to have been shaped by the neighbors in the East rather than the West.
As it is my day off work, I can take time to contemplate and reflect on the scene around me. Compared to yesterdaymid-afternoon, the mountains look a lot more peaceful and serene against the cloudy sky. But they still project a sense of grandeur. There is no smoke show this morning as there seems to be hardly any motion, except for a couple of workers laying the roof of a building on my left. It makes you wonder about the prospects the future holds for the real-estate market in the area. If I ever come again (don’t we always want to revisit places while we are still there?), I might see a couple of new buildings amidst these mountains.
The highest one never fails to win a battle for your attention. There are no words to even describe its shape that makes it look superior compared to the other three ones visible from my window. Its top looks as if it has got inflated. I wish I was more knowledgeable about the geological processes which might have contributed to shaping these natural structures that now leave us in absolute awe. I guess more needs to be known in order for us to fully appreciate this natural wonder. The snow-white of the mountains now seems to be blended in with the black of the ground as if some patches of mud have been splashed randomly all over the mountains. The sun has just tried to struggle through the clouds, but now we are back to the grey landscape which, by the looks of it, is sure to persist throughout this Sunday.
Actually, I am contemplating my honey dessert yet again because I can see a bee creeping on my window sill. It might have flown from the country’s largest apiaries in Krasnaya Polyana where Caucasian bees are busy making mountain honey. This organic product must have been a substantial part of the diet of those wandering Estonians who came here in the late 19th century. Knowing how much the identity of the area is shaped by these buzzing creatures, I choose not to close my my window because I want to examine this one at a safe distance. Just look at how dignified and notthreatening at all it is! I will never grow to love honey (except in desserts) but I definitely have a new appreciation for it now.
There is a pool in front of one of the houses on my left. It must be wonderful to swim here in the nicer weather contemplating, reflecting and peering at the mountains. My yesteday’s interaction with water had an amazing revitalizing effect on my body. This act of self-care left me with a light carefree feeling circling throughout my whole body. It is funny how we tend to become less self-conscious walking around in our swimming suits once we are totally engaged with whatever makes us put them on: either on a beach or here in a banya. In fact, I had the entire place all to myself at the price of a public visit. Even though I wouldn’t have been scared to have to share this experience with others, I still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting myself the way I am and embracing the whole body positivity philosophy, which might have its extremes. Ironically, growing up in a nation where due to the lingering effect of what we call the Great Patriotic War, women significantly outnumber men, we often have females that we love the most teaching us to hate ourselves. As we grow older, we have to become more self-sufficient in order to be able to tell ourselves we are enough. Why strive for perfection in the world with so many tasty pakhlavas/baklavas to try…? I am still uncertain about how much the feminist movement is shaping my identity as a woman. I am still not sure even how to embrace my gender identity without compromising my personal and professional ones… I am happy to see that as women we are learning to stand our ground and live life on our terms. I only have one and only sister and I don’t think I can call any other woman one, but as females we need to be supportive instead of bringing each other down in a fight for men who might not be even worth our time. I think that female solo travellers (including myself) are sending a strong message to the world or at least to our country, which still has a long way to go in promoting gender equality. At least some people (hopefully including men) start to realize that misogyny and patriarchy have to be done away with. After my banya session, I shamelessly treated myself to a nutritious suvlaki, which is a nod to the Greek influence in the area. It was different from the one I had in Cyprus, but again, I would never allow myself to miss out on a culinary delight and I don’t hate myself for that.
Unfortunately, as it was intensely cloudy and even drizzling, during my private banya experience I had no view of the mountains but I could still feel their imposing presence. Even when they seem «stolen» by the darkness of the night, you can smell their effect in the air. Yesterday I was tempted by alluring smells of mulled wine which got accentuated by the moisture caused by a recent rain in Gorki Gorod. This is another ski resort whose promenade looks so much like Nikolskaya Street adjacent to Red Square in Moscow. It has been ages since I went to the capital so I walked it up and down a dozen times to enjoy the lights and some people-watching. Now I feel like coming to try some of this wine on my last night here tomorrow despite mostly trying teas and juices during my time here. It didn’t have to do with me as a solo female traveller having to be extra aware of my surroundings – I just didn’t feel like it. But the friendly vibe of the area strangely took me back to a Christmas market in Ghent (Belgium) where people were congregating to enjoy each other’s company instead of drinking recklessly and starting fights. Of course, this type of a vibe is not typical outside Russian ski resorts , but I enjoyed it nonetheless.There is still a tiny bit of hope for some sunshine today as some white spots are lining up in the sky. The green of the forest down below is yellowish but with a promising spring-like brightness. The white tree on the right must smell fabulous. As it is in a private land plot, I don’t think I can get a chance to see if I am right. In Gorki Gorod I smelled some pink magnolias which are still in bloom but felt nothing. Obviously, nothing beats those alluring men’s perfumes and mulled wine…
The birds are singing — I can distinctely hear their songs in the early hours of each morning. Actually waking up at 6 or 7 has become not a big deal here but wait till I return home… I’ve just had a glimpse of a train at a distance some minutes ago — that reminds me I will be reuniting with the sea in central Sochi tomorrow. Some men are still hard at work laying the roof. As tedious and demanding as this job is, in this growingly insecure world they can be sure there will be jobs for them here in the foreseeable future. But job market trends are so unpredictable, because just a couple of years ago, being a freelance teacher working and travelling in my own country was something I’d never thought I would be doing, but here I am… Writing and journaling my days here in English is less surprising but it is even more important for my language skills given that I am in Russia and there is no other way of using this international languageanywhere except for work.
A bird has just flown by — perhaps it is in a rush to get some breakfast. I have already had mine, but it would be great to complete my morning ritual by washing it down with a steaming cup of coffee somewhere on my way to Krasnaya Polyana which I have yet to explore on my last full day here in the mountains. Despite its poetic name («Red Glade» in English) for Russians this premium resort is associated with rather ostentatious homes owned by the government members. But all I know is that I will be heading in the opposite direction from the one I have been taking in the last three days. May all of us (regardless of our social status) have a beautiful Sunday enjoying the air with a high concentration of multiple smelling particles and an unobstructed view of the mountains – who knows how long it will last before they get «stolen» or hidden by swirling twists of smoke again…
Episode 7. My Last Morning in the Mountains, 8.05am, Esto-Sadok, April 19
On this grey Monday morning I am sitting in my kitchen watching the spectacle up on the mountain tops for one last time. Just about ten minutes ago, the visibility was much better giving me some fresh vivid ideas for this entry. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to last as a thick fog is covering the mountains as if the curtain is about to fall marking the official end of the mountain part of my adventure. Honestly, I think I’ve had my fair share of the mountains over the last four days and made a proper acquitance with them – now I am all ready to head back down to the sea.
Reflecting on my visit to Krasnaya Polyana yesterday, I should say it was somewhat disappointing. On my way there I found myself in the middle of a highway looking for a pedestrian path. It is at these points of solo trips that you might wish you were not alone. But getting through these little awkward moments gives you extra something to smile about back home. Being a pedestrian in this country might make you feel alienated and lonely at times as more and more people are choosing to get a car, which for a lot of them seems more about showing off their wealth or pretending to be rich rather than just getting around more easily. After what felt like an eternity of walking with cars zipping by, I was so happy to see a jogger who was brave enough to jump over the railing to get to that pedestrian path. Watching him do that so easily gave me the courage to do exactly the same. Well, before even reaching the centre, I decided I was not walking back to Esto-Sadok from here…
Except for one of the central streets commemorating the Defenders of the Caucasus, Krasnaya Polyana seemed absolutely not pedestrian-friendly. Trying to find my way around while looking at all these cottages felt like trespassing on a private territory. I thought I have seen the mountains from various angles, but there is something about the position of Krasnaya Polyana that made them look even more breathtaking than ever. Looking between all those private buildings I didn’t even expect the view I got to be so amazing. It is great those rich home owners can’t block the mountains from our vision. Even though this landscape obviously still had something to surprise me with, I wouldn’t opt for staying any longer knowing that about 50 km away there is the Black Sea waiting for me to rest my eyes of its shimmering palette of colors again.
Getting to my lunch spot in one of Russia’s 100 top restaurants was quite an adventure as well. I didn’t mind a slightly steep walk up but at some point I found myself literally having to jump over a small but menacingly flowing creek to get there. A few Caucasean men reassured me that I was on the right track. Well, I was already cursing the notoriously bad Russian service wondering why on Earth someone would build a fancy restaurant in such a location. After walking along the edge of the creek for a bit, I didn’t muster the courage to walk any further and thought I would just cancel my reservation. But a moment later I changed my mind and decided to take a detour despite my map telling me that I would be walking in the opposite direction. In spite of my passionate love for travelling, I am not an adventurous spirit, but I couldn’t reconcile with the thought of walking all this way here just to return to where I started. A few minutes later I was so amazed to see that I had made it. I walked into the restaurant sweating and panting but feeling happy I had made a reservation because a few people without one were being put on the waiting list. I ended up getting seated in a corner table inside the restaurant instead of the terrace. I hope in the future restaurants (especially of this calibre) would be more accommodating of solo visitors’ needs because more and more people these days are choosing to eat out alone. Watching the majestic familiar view of the mountains through the glass window during my lunch I heard a song which went like this «I am the mountains, I am the sea». I thought it perfectly captured my time here trying to navigate between two natural wonders getting an equal taste of both… After enjoying the mountains from a few more unexpected angles, I got a taxi back to Esto-Sadok.
From there I walked the much more pedestrian-friendly path to Rosa Khutor in the rain. Do I need to say that being here almost on my own (except for a few random passers-by) added a dramatic touch to my last evening here in the mountains…? I took a while to take in the postcard view of the Rosa Khutor City Hall Building. I have seen the view a lot of times on TV and in those cards I have sent to fellow postcrossers around the world. After sending and receiving more than a thousand cards, I don’t find this card-exchanging hobby as exciting as a few years ago, but I am probably one of the last generations who grew up without the Internet so we are still sentimental about cards, physical books, audio cassettes as tokens of the past… This square might look a bit tacky and touristy but at that moment it reminded me of Venice and St.Petersburg at the same time. The Mzymta River flowing across the area reminded me of canals and dark mysteries these two waterfront cities with incredibly complex histories hold… It wouldn’t stop raining on my way back to Esto-Sadok and I had to look for a shelter at a shopping centre in Gorki Gorod where the smell of mulled wine wasn’t as distinct as the night before as if blocked by the moisture of the rain…
It is drizzling this morning as well and this might not be a perfect day to spend either in the sea or the mountains. But I think I love the former in the rain better. I can now see only the highest peak and another blurry one at a distance, the other two tops are completely hidden. I am convinced that the view will look different in the days to come for anyone taking the time to look up. It seems as if there were mountains on top of one another. An intense smoke below is covering the dark yellow and emerald green of the trees.
I might return one day but I guess it might have to require me trying to learn how to ski in order to take my relationship with the mountains up to the next level – or would that be too early..? Again, I might have not gotten 100% out of my four days here by not skiing. But at least I have gotten to breathe and contemplate the incredible physical properties of this air – that was what I originally intended to come here for. Walking the streets yesterday, I realized how the presence of the mountains is visible even when the evening darkness has already settled in and the rain is dripping. They are certainly felt in the air! So will breathing back down by the sea feel different..?
The birds are singing their customary song just as on each of my mornings here. Instead of skiing today, holidaymakersmight have to indulge in less mountain-centered activities such as drinking at bars, shopping, soaking in banyas, gambling, etc. I can assume everyone finds their own way of keeping busy even while not skiing. Surely, I am not the only one taking it easy with the mountains not sweating it out up in the slopes…
The view of the mountains hasn’t changed much since I started. So probably it’s time to let the them be and prepare for the performance of the day. I can now safely say I have seen and breathed the mountains here in the Western Caucasus. From now on, I will secretly smile to myself whenever I hear any reference to the place and the artwork it has inspired. Spending time here solo has been truly soul-enriching. How could it have been any different when it is only you and your thoughts and reflections circled by the mountains..?
Thank you very much, the Caucasus mountains – I will never forget you. But I am in need of the sea to be able to process you more profoundly. Goodbye, all the four mountains (only two are now visible), the mystic fog, the yellow and green trees as well as the blooming white tree on the right! Rest assured you will be perpetuated on this computer screen and imprinted in my mind for years to come. Thanks and goodbye for now, Esto-Sadok!