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Last Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006, 17:33 GMT 18:33 UK
Muddling through in the Caucasus
The BBC's Steve Rosenberg experiences a mud pack and sulphur spring water in Kislovodsk as he journeys across Russia's volatile North Caucasus.

Steve Rosenberg gets a mud pack
Here's the rub: Nearby Chechnya's troubles put off many tourists
If you want to know all about legends of the Caucasus, just ask Tatyana Baitchorova.

Tatyana, a former tour guide, is now assistant manager of a spa hotel in Kislovodsk.

Don't expect many happy endings, though.

"Legend has it," Tatyana told me, "that the biggest mountain in Europe, Elbrus, was stabbed in the head by its son, Mount Beshtau.

"That's why Elbrus has two peaks. They'd been fighting over a woman - Mount Mashuk. She eventually killed herself - the sulphurous mineral springs of our city are her tears."

Then Tatyana took me to see a cliff - the "Rock of Deceit and Love".

"This is where a young shepherd and his girlfriend decided to commit suicide - her father, the local prince, had refused to let them marry. The boy jumped - but she changed her mind and went home."

By the time we had got on to the Greek god Prometheus, who was chained to the Caucasus by Zeus, and whose liver was gnawed at by an eagle, I was beginning to feel rather nauseous and in need of some of that local mineral water.

But then that's the Caucasus for you. Conflict and tragedy have never been far away.

Tatyana Baitchorova
Because of instability in Chechnya and across the Caucasus, foreigners are too scared to come
Tatyana Baitchorova

Tatyana has seen plenty of that in her own lifetime. She is a Karachai - one of dozens of ethnic groups that inhabit the Caucasus.

In 1944, Soviet supreme leader Joseph Stalin accused the Karachai of collaborating with the Nazis.

All the Karachai men, women and children were put onto cattle trucks and deported to Central Asia.

Stalin did the same to the Chechens, the Ingush and the Balkars.

Tens of thousands died in transit and in exile. Only after Stalin's death were the displaced peoples allowed back.

Tatyana was born in Kazakhstan.

"My father had fought for Stalin in World War II," Tatyana said. "He'd won medals for bravery. It made no difference. He was kicked out, too. But he never blamed Stalin. He always said Stalin must have had a good reason for doing what he did."

Tourism slump

Today's conflicts in the Caucasus are affecting Tatyana's business.

"In Soviet times, we used to get 250 German tourists visiting here every week. Now, because of instability in Chechnya and across the Caucasus, foreigners are too scared to come. Although one man from Switzerland man rode through here on his bicycle not so long ago. Oh, and we've had a Scotsman with psoriasis staying here, too."

Russians are clearly made of tougher stuff.

Kislovodsk may be only 160km (100 miles) from Chechnya, but Russian holidaymakers continue to flock here, attracted by the local mineral waters and mud, which are renowned for their healing properties.

Beauty therapy

Drink the water and slap on the mud packs, the locals say, and you will stay young, healthy and beautiful.

Our mud's better than anything you'll find at the Dead Sea
Valentina

Now that was an invitation I just couldn't resist.

I popped down to the Mineral Water Parlour in the town centre. The liquid pouring out of the taps stank of rotten eggs - perhaps it is the smell that gave the town its name (Kislovodsk means "sour water"). But Tatyana assured me it was full of good things and I took a swig.

Then back at the spa hotel, it was time to choose a local treatment. For the equivalent of one pound, I could have signed up for a session of colonic irrigation Kislovodsk-style, with local spring water pumped into my bottom.

I chickened out and went for the mud.

A lady in a white coat called Valentina asked me to lie down on a bed and proceeded to place nine kilograms of hot mud on my back, before wrapping me up in a sheet like an Egyptian mummy.

"Our mud's better than anything you'll find at the Dead Sea," Valentina boasted, and told me about the 20 minerals that were burning my skin and "doing me good".

But I was oblivious to all the detail. Beautifully snug and warm, I could feel myself dozing off. Images of evil princes, eagles and fighting mountains filled my head. I closed my eyes and drifted off into the land of Caucasus legends.





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