This morning I found that what should have been standing up, pointing skywards, was sadly limp, dangling even. Now, now children, I’m talking mirrors here, for The Grasshopper took to the roads and the replacement for the one that smashed in that icy skid all those months ago is proving to be of little use. What I did have though was a book rest, for as I laid back for my views I noticed that there were several festive puddings and one stuffed turkey stretching the lycra beyond safe limits. There were parts needing oiled and greased, parts that had seized, and yes before you say it the bike needed some too. Cranking the pedals the chain did a good impersonation of a rod, and so slowly it was that I anciently measured my way round the route, the short one. I set off in thick fog, red lights flashing though I think that was just the heart monitor. My peak flow had struggled to reach a miserable 400 and still I ventured out into the damp and fetid air. At least there was neither wind nor rain. But I survived and have just about enough energy yet to bash away on these keys.
I did take Halliburton with me though, for there was little to see, and I turned my mind to the pages I had turned as dawn broke. He escaped from Russia, after a fashion and I left him where both Willie Dalrymple and Robert Byron also trod. Mount Athos is clearly a magnet for writers. It is a place that remains untrodden by the female foot; in fact the poultry are all roosters, the cattle bulls, and the sheep tups. It has been thus for over a thousand years. Monks, 4,000 of them, bearded and robed. What a life, not one for me.
But before he got there, forced onto a ship from Butan to the Golden Horn, he had an adventure or two. You might be interested. I’ll spare you the hotel in Butan, the one with two toilets for forty rooms and sanitation even the bold Richard wouldn’t put into print, a bed colonized by beasties about which he grew quite fond; his stay there extended by bronchitis and pneumonia so bad the ship’s captain refused to endanger his crew. He caught those infections in and around the Caucasus, with some pretty interesting people.
First up was Zapara Kiut who claimed a birth in 1782 and a memory of Napoleonic Wars. That made him no less than 153 when Halliburton carried him to hospital. When war broke out in 1914 he wanted to march beside his great-great-grandsons. He smoked constantly, ate meat and hadn’t bathed for fifty or sixty years. The world’s favourite search engine reveals a debate on this unproven claim of longevity a decade ago. It will also take you to the world’s favourite online auction, where you can buy a print of Halliburton’s picture of Kiut, on sale by the Baltimore Sun.
The same resource also gives us information on the Khevsurs. After coming across a family of negroes, looking straight from the deep south plantations of his homeland – descendants of a shipwreck in the Bosporos around 1700 and dressed in ‘exactly the the sort of shabby Western clothes that any American country darky might wear’ – how times have changed, thankfully.
Back to the Khevsoors. They still had, and wore, the chainmail that came with the Crusaders 700 years earlier. Some of it was a little rusty, but worn it still was, sometimes in anger as blood feuds were settled. The sword was always worn, the shield, carved with the Crusdaers’ Ave Mater Dei, carried only in those times of anger. Wheeled transport was unknown. Expectant mothers had a real confinement, banished as they were to the goatshed, alone, for the final ten days, and left to her own devices.
Borders were still raided, especially into Dagestan from whence cattle were driven to settle payments due. The two tribes remained bitter enemies for hundreds of years. Waking in a frozen attic and warmed only by barley-brandy Halliburton’s dreams had been disturbed by suits of chain mail hanging on the walls. Try as he might he could find neither Godfrey de Bouillon nor Richard Couer de Lion, when scouring the village the morning after.
But Halliburton’s ventures were cut short for, on retrurning to Tiflis, in Georgia, he found the authorities waiting for him. His letters home, with his notes from his meetings in Sverdlosk, Ekaterinburg as we know it, with Ermakov, he of the execution squad, had been opened at the border. They didn’t like it and he was ordered to leave.
But this was Russia in the 30s and we got to read all that and can do so yet. I can but hope that the re-publication of two of Halliburton’s works by Tauris Parke sparks interest in the others. If you get the chance dip in. For we know that little else was allowed out of Russia in the following five decades, and that those tribes of Georgia may be little changed today.