I picked up a volume from a little bookshop in Beaumaris, and have reached the end after a long and slow read. It’s not a long book, but a careful one. At the end is the bibliography. I like these lists of sources useful for the author. This is one of those I scroll down, mentally ticking off those that have crossed the bedside table. In this case we find, amongst others, Alexandre Dumas; Negley Farson; Gurdjieff; Fitzroy Maclean; Phillip Marsden; Tolstoy too, all with some superb writing on the same area which I’m pleased to have gracing The Bookshelf. And then it produces another list, the ones I should be looking for. Neal Ascherson is there, John Baddeley, Laurence Kelly, John Steinbeck and many others. The Ascherson volume I’ve picked up so many times, but never taken it to the checkout, yet. It’s hard to believe that nearly 20 years have passed since it was first published.
What all of these authors have in common is an interest in The Caucasus. And few would seem to have a deeper interest than Tony Anderson, whose Bread and Ashes – A Walk Through The Mountains Of Georgia, is the volume that has been keeping my attention for some time.
Anderson visited the area in 1991, just after various Soviet Republics gained independence from Moscow and borders began to open, though the main trip on which this volume is based took place in 1998, when travel was, supposedly, easier. There is much more to this work than people and place, though it is rich in both. Tony Anderson travelled, in some part, with Chris Willoughby, and it was his great-great-uncle, John Baddeley who was their literal guide, having published The Russian Conquest of the Caucausus ninety years earlier.
But it is much more than a walk in the hills. We are taking high passes through the peaks, to lands whose names have been appearing before us in recent years, after forgotten decades. South Ossetia, Dagestan, Chechnya to name but a few, and peoples of past times, Circassians, Albanians, Khazars, might be some of those that are familiar; others may be unheard of. Anderson was interested in the tribes from different areas; in their histories and their troubles.
Using local guides, far from what we may call civilisation, we enter a different world. And we learn some of the history of the people and the places of those worlds, the evolution of their journey to the here and now. But history is one thing and there are times you want to set it aside and get back to spending time, in the here and now, and in the homes, of Mindi and all those others we meet on the way. This is much more than a book on travel, just as Ascheron’s Black Sea is, (which may be why I’ve put it off for all those years, though times and tastes change and I’ll read it soon, at last).
So together we progress slowly through the Dzhuta Pass, along the Arkhotis Pass, and to many places beyond, on horseback and on foot. The accompanying maps are filled with names resonant of dangers, and sacked cities, lost empires. We are in the badlands, between the Black Sea and the Caspian, rugged peaks and hard men, bandits and mountain hospitality, historic times and hard times.
Anderson clearly has a keen interest in the area and this comes out in his writing of the people who share various parts of his travels. His work is superbly researched, and that enhances the experience for the reader.
At first glance it looks as though I may have trouble tracking down a copy of Moses Dasxuranci’s History of the Caucasian Albanians. But I’m glad Anderson has put it on my list.