Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Balkars Cling to Alpine Lifestyle

A North Caucasian mountain village defies the modern age, getting by on subsistence farming and knitting.
By Fatima Tlisova

The road from Nalchik to Verkhnaya Balkaria, a village high up in the mountains of Kabardino-Balkaria, is not for the faint-hearted. To the left tower cliffs with huge overhanging rocks that threaten to come crashing down at any moment, and to the right, a three-hundred-metre drop into the gorge of the roaring Cherek river.


On the approach to the village the road goes through a kilometre-long tunnel drilled into the rock four years ago. Until it was built, Verkhnaya (or Upper) Balkaria was cut off from the world from mid-autumn till spring—only daredevils braved the trip over the pass, and the villagers came down to the valley solely in case of dire need.


Even now, with the tunnel built, this is a dangerous and remote place. Nine people died in a bus crash here a month ago, in an accident caused by the poor roads. In early July, the bodies of four people, all ethnic Russians, were found in the gorge.


Despite all the hardships, people in this part of the North Caucasus seem determined to stay where they are.


Verkhnaya Balkaria, more than 1,300 metres above sea level, is just 25 kilometers from the border with Georgia – a third of the distance to the regional capital Nalchik. Summers are hot here, with average temperatures above 30 degrees. The winters are cold, with the thermometer dropping to minus 25.


A new mosque, built on donations, is the only luxury the village can afford. But Islam here coexists with pagan vestiges. In the ruins of an ancient village on the left bank of the river lies a yellowed human skeleton. There are no signs, inscriptions or fences, and it is only when you fall into a grave that you realise you are in an ancient burial ground. Villagers avoid the place, saying, “one mustn’t anger the gods”.


In the middle ages, the village lay on a caravan route between Russia and the Georgian province of Imereti. In Soviet times, the path was a hikers’ trail, but there are no tourists here any more, just border guards.


The population of the village is less than 6,000. The village administration, two schools, a hospital, and a state-run farm employ fewer than three hundred of them, while the rest have to scrape a living from subsistence farming.


A tall man in a sheepskin hat, Alim Chotchayev has an enviable position in the village: he is one of 15 lucky men selected to build a new school. The work is temporary, but the pay high by local standards.


Alim says it is hard to feed a family here. Each family has a small plot of land and keeps cattle. The beef is very high quality, but the buyer names the price.“You are left with pennies. But what can you do? That’s life,” he said.


He offered to take us to the village’s oldest resident, and we found Dolkhat Guzoyev working his vegetable plot with his son and grandchildren.


Up here it is hard to find a level plot and often they are reachable only on foot or horseback. All the work is done by hand. Dolkhan’s son told us that first one has to clear the land of rocks. “If you collect all the rocks I removed from this patch of land on my wheelbarrow, you’d have no less than eight heavy truckloads!”


They plant only potatoes and cabbages here; other vegetables will not ripen in this climate. In addition, the sandy and rocky soil requires daily irrigation. Water is carried from the river by donkey. In the autumn, after a year of hard work, a family can sell its harvest for no more than 15,000 roubles, about 500 US dollars.


Dolkhat speaks no Russian. He does not know how old he is, but he was already a grown man when Stalin deported the entire Balkar ethnic group to Kazakhstan in 1944, although he not want to talk about those dark days. The Balkars were allowed to return home in the late 1950s by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.


Like many people here, Dolkhat is stoical, saying, “Of course it is difficult to live in the mountains—they have it much easier on the plains. We must work a lot and have a lot of patience. But we like to work, so we survive.”


An old shop with a signboard from the Soviet era stocks just the basic goods. Friendly Zukhra Mamayeva has been saleswoman here for 27 years. She says Balkar women start their day at 5 am—she has to milk the cows and send them out to pasture. She then has to feed the men before they set off for the mountains and pack their food for the day; after that, feed the children, and take care of the house, yard, and garden. After working in the shop, she has a second round of house work in the evening, going on till midnight.


Knitting is one of the few ways of earning an income in Verkhnaya Balkaria. Zukhra says that children start knitting at the age of about five or six. Only those families where everyone knits are able to make a profit.


The other thing that makes the Balkars inordinately proud is their food. They claim that Balkar food has twice broken world records – for a hundred-metre-long kebab - the longest in the world - and a “khychin” pancake one metre in diameter, the largest ever made.


Hardiness seems to be the secret to this extraordinary alpine lifestyle. Having lived through the tragedy of Stalinist deportation and the economic shocks of the modern era, the locals here are amazingly uncomplaining. As Dolkhat’s son said, “I’ve heard that in other countries they have special support for those who live in the mountains — they understand how hard it is. But we’re not asking for anything. We’ll survive on our own, we just want to be left alone.”


Fatima Tlisova is a freelance journalist based in Nalchik.


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