May 05, 2006

Russian Spas

The mineral springs of Stavropolsky krai, known as the Russian Baden-Baden, have opened their 2006 season. Four major resorts there - Kislovodsk, Pyatigorsk, Essentuki and Zheleznovodsk - are filling up fast, despite their proximity to Chechnya and the other less-troubled, but still somewhat "rugged" republics in Russia's Caucasus region. Holiday-travelers come here for three weeks of bliss in 1980s-era resort centers, to repair their health with mineral baths and drinks, and to stroll around the four cities' magnificent parks.

It's hard to scare Russians away, when they set their minds on taking a holiday. Package tours to Egypt kept selling well even after the July 23, 2005 explosions in Sharm el-Sheikh (and there was not even a slight price decrease). Even the December 26, 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia only slightly shrank the number of Russians traveling to the region for a beach vacation. Here, at the Caucasus' back door, Russians have a long history of vacationing next to war.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, three powers - Turkey, Persia and Russia - sought control over Central Asia in what was referred to as "The Great Game." Russia finally took over in the course of Caucasus war (1817-1864). During this time, the area was populated by a mix of local peoples, Cossacks, Russian frontier warriors, and regular Russian army. Military garrisons of Russian fortresses discovered the first mineral springs, which later gained wide medical use.

Areas around Pyatigorsk became known for their springs earlier, in the 1780s. The first holiday-makers lived in Konstantinovskaya Fortress. In 1813-1814, Russians founded a settlement at Goryachvodsk ("city of hot waters"), which was later renamed Pyatigorsk - the city of five mountains - after the five-peaked mount Beshtau, which is nearby. On the site of today's Kislovodsk, the first thousand ailing patients arrived for treatment in 1798, led by General-Lieutenant I. Markov. Fortifications were build several years later.

In 1803, Emperor Alexander I officially endorsed the resorts around mineral springs of the Caucasus, boosting both local construction and visitation by members of high society. The original tent villages - protected from enemy raids by military patrols - were replaced by nicely planned streets surrounded by well-kept parks. Permanent buildings were built to cover the springs, instead of simple tents. Of course, the price per bath jumped: to four rubles. This was an enormous amount at the time (a cow cost three rubles). Nonetheless, virtually every prominent 19th century Russian visited the area, including Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Dachas of the rich sprouted around the hills, as the area was gradually becoming safer (i.e. "subjugated to Imperial control").

Today, these resorts are on the Russian frontier once again. Despite memories of several explosions in Pyatigorsk, or on the train in Essentuki in late 2003, Russians brave the risks. They must have their mineral baths.

But it is not as if the threat of disorder looms large over these places. Walking around the four cities today, one does occassionally catch a glimpse of grey police uniforms - there are multiple patrols of central areas and parks. But there seems to be an attempt to keep the police presence noticeable but discrete. Tourism, after all, is the main source of income here. It is important that visitors feel safe but not under seige. Surely street vendors offering knitted goods or local souvenirs are much more ubiquitous, as are as travel agents offering excursions.

There are just 135,000 residents in the four Russian spa cities... but they are visited by some 440 thousand tourists each year. The people opting for such a long stay in a single place (with a highly structured schedule), fall into four major groups, most of them middle-aged, upper middle-class Russians.

First, there are many couples, with wives accompanying husbands recovering from a cardiac attack - quite common among Russian men get in their early fifties. Such couples are especially common in Kislovodsk, which specializes in treatment of heart diseases. These people are usually overly serious about the medical part of the stay, ardently following their prescriptions, devotedly lining up for mineral baths, and taking regular walks of recommended length and difficulty. They then make repeated yearly visits, to keep the husband's heart in good shape.

A second group consists of middle-aged women, either alone or accompanied by a friend, who come to get their annual holiday from the family and the cooking. They prefer the massages, swimming pools, mineral baths and sitting in the park with a good book.

Third, there are overworked 30-somethings, mainly female, who come to get away from the stresses of their everyday life. They would rather either sleep or roam the hilly parks, perhaps opting for a massage, or sitting down with a book. But overall, treatment is not their priority.

Lastly, there is a much smaller group of younger couples, lured in by curiosity or on someone's recommendation. They often end up bored in a few days, and kill time going on day-long excursions to neighboring areas.

All the visitors reside in resort centers built in the 1980s (or earlier), and which are still run by the same rules: "No one is accountable." The interiors are distinctly Soviet, with surveillance cameras and automatic doors in the hallways the only sign of modern life.

Upon arrival, everyone submits to a round of medical visits and gets prescriptions. And then, during their three-week stay, everyone in the resort center leads an amazingly organized life, structured around meals and mineral waters, be it drinking them or bathing in them.

Ideally, visitors wake up around seven in the morning, just in time for a quick shower before the ritual walk to buvette, the pump-room where the mineral springs spurt out. (The word is a hold over from the times of the French-speaking aristocracy.) About an hour before mealtime, the pump-rooms get crowded, as everyone is supposed to have a glass of fresh narzan - local mineral water - before breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then they are off for the meal, which is only administered for an hour, so it's important not to be late.

Mornings are usually spent between mineral baths, massages, inhalations, and other treatments. Afterwards, there is another glass of mineral water and lunch, followed by a siesta. Walks in the parks or tours to neighboring towns take up the rest of the afternoon, with only the street names reminding one of the times of unrest: Porokhovaya (Gunpowder Street), Artelliriyskaya (Artillery Street), Krepostnaya (Fortress Street). And if there is no concert by a touring Russian celebrity in the evening, people curl up with a book and fall asleep around 10 p.m.

In three week's time, they all head home, recovered and rested, if a trifle bored.

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