Episode #4 – Mineral waters of the Caucuses
This is my fourth episode and the first episode that is about travel! Yay! It’s called Mineral waters of the Caucuses or Caucasian Mineral waters, that’s the same thing. So what the heck are Caucasian Mineral waters? That’s not mineral waters for white people. Rather it’s the most famous and popular Russian group of spa resort towns. It’s in the south of Russia in Ставропольский край (That’s Stavropol state) and parts of neighboring states – Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria republics. Basically it’s on the northern slopes of Caucasus mountains with Georgia (the country, not the state obviously) very close just south of the border. If you want to find it on google maps you should look between the Black and Caspian seas, and you will see the most famous and popular towns that make up the Mineral water resorts. They are Кисловодск, Пятигорск, Ессентуки, Железноводск and the town that is actually called Mineral waters – Минеральные воды.
Transcript and links are below
But when you think about spa resort, you probably think about… or at least I think about facials, massages and aroma therapy or something. And I’m sure they do that stuff too but a lot of people come there not just to relax but for actual treatment. Like my mom does. Because mineral waters of Caucuses are actually medicinal. And drinking the water itself is completely free. You just come to the special place that is called a watering gallery (or бювет, if it’s small) during the time it’s open (a schedule will be posted on their doors). You can bring your own cup or you can buy a plastic glass there for 2 rubles which is 0.032 US dollars and drink as much as you want.
There are more than 300 mineral springs concentrated in this area. The funny thing is that you can’t drink mineral water all the time because, as with all medicine, too much of it is actually BAD for your health. That’s why drinking water in the houses there is actually brought through the pipes from Stavropol.
Anyway for those who want some serious treatment there are more than a hundred resorts that we call sanatoriums in all those towns and several dozens of thousands of people can stay there simultaneously. Each of the resorts has its own treatment speciality. I’ll talk about it later.
Because I didn’t go there for any of that, although I tried all the different kinds of water I could get my hands on. Just because I could)) But for me the main attraction there was and is nature.
Gorgeous nature and the highest mountain in Europe
And nature there is incredibly beautiful. The Caucuses are some really picturesque mountains! By the way, the word “caucasian” is totally derived from their name and um… I’ll save the racial issues for another time.
So this region of Russia is a specially protected natural area and there’s tons of stuff to protect. Gorgeous forests, rivers, waterfalls, lakes (some of them are famous for medicinal mud), the mineral water springs themselves and, of course, all sorts of mountains for every taste. You can do some proper climbing there or in nearby regions. Or there are smaller mountains which you can climb by yourself without any equipment.
The highest mountain in Russia and at 5642 (five thousand six hundred and forty two) metres also in Europe__ is Elbrus. And it is about 200 km away from the resort towns, so on a sunny days you can see its two peaks clearly from a lot of places!
And I saw Elbrus on my last day from my window! Which was a bit mind-blowing for me. Like… you get up in the morning, stretch, look out the window and see the highest mountain in Europe, before you had your morning coffee. How cool is that?
There are tons of excursions from any resort town to Elbrus and all kinds of cool places like Dombay – that’s a smaller mountain range in Карачаево-Черкессия with some epic mountain views and ski-resorts. Or Чегем waterfalls, or Blue lakes. Normally the guides speak Russian but I think you could check stuff out and find an English-speaking one. And you don’t have to climb Elbrus or Dombay – there are cable cars there. But not to the top of course. That would be cheating 🙂
Unfortunately I couldn’t get there this March during my trip because there was an avalanche on Elbrus (not a major one, no one got hurt, it just happens there in spring, I guess) and then the wind was too strong so cable cars were not working.
But I wasn’t disappointed much because there still was so much stuff to see!
I stayed in Kislovodsk. The name of the city literally translates as acidic waters. Which I really didn’t notice, by the way. You can find three types of mineral waters in watering galleries in Kislovodsk: sulfate, dolomite and sort of… basic one. Don’t really know how to translate it better. They are all offered in hot and cold varieties. (Except for the last one. It’s just cold). And I felt the effects of drinking that stuff after two days. Nothing bad but… be careful with it, I guess. Check in with a doctor before, maybe.
And if you feel like visiting doctors, Kislovodsk specialises in treatment of blood circulation problems and treatment of respiratory and nervous systems. You’d need to go to a sanatorium for that. But you don’t have to stay in one if you don’t want to, there are plenty of places for rent and all manner of hotels.
Kislovodsk is situated a bit higher than the rest of the nearby towns and also it’s the cleanest and the best maintained, in my opinion. It’s clean, quiet, charming and it’s got a park to die for. And I know what I’m talking about because I’m a park tourist. I visit parks and/or forests everywhere I go.
Кисловодский курортный парк – that’s its full name in Russian was founded in 1823. And different types of evergreens were planted there so that park looks good in any season (and tourists go to Mineral water resorts all year round, by the way). And the air among the pine trees is… well, if you’ve ever been to a pine forest, you know what I mean.
It’s also very big, 968,5 hectare (nine hundred sixty eight) which is 2 386, 534 (thousand three hundred eighty six) acres of land with 24 kilometres of terrencurs. That’s trails created with certain elevation levels specifically for the maximum health benefits from exercising to people who undergo treatment in the town. But of course, everybody can walk them. And everybody does. Some people even run. (Which is harder than it sounds because all the trails constantly go up and down the various slopes). When I was there in March there were probably hundreds of athletes running everywhere in the park. Because a lot of different sport competitions are held in Kislovodsk and places nearby.
There also are a lot of very beautiful tourist sites there too. It’s kinda hard to describe all the fun places there. Because… How do people even do this on audio? Well, let’s try… The main watering gallery which is right at the entrance to the park is called Нарзанная. From narsan – that’s the name of those mineral waters. In almost the opposite corner of the park there’s a cable car from the ridge of one mountain to another. They don’t feel very high because you are already on the ridge. So they feel like heels. There are interesting red and grey rock formations. And the views from those rocks are so beautiful! You should climb all of them. Especially because it’s very easy. There is a small pond called Mirror pond, the grotto with the statue of a demon. There’s a story behind that, but I will either tell it some other time or you’ll just have to go there, find a guide and make them tell you! Now who’s evil? Mwahahaha. Oh, fine! I’ll leave some links in show notes!
Anyway, my favourite picturesque spot is the top of Сосновая гора – the Pine mountain, You can get to the top if you climb 400 steps. I did climb them but I can’t confirm that there are actually 400 of them. I lost count around two hundred and thirty, I’m afraid.
But here’s a lifehack for you: you don’t necessarily have to climb them, there’s another way to the top through gently sloping walking trails. You just have to take a photo of a park map at the entrance of the park and look for the tea-house. That tea house is basically at the top of the ridge that ends with the Pine mountain. And after you’ve enjoyed the view you can descend the 400 steep steps which also gives you quite a view and exercise.
After you’ve had enough of the park (which I can’t imagine but I am like that about the parks) you can explore the town. All the touristy things are close to the park entrance anyway. The main street has some really interesting architecture, shops and cafes. Also public baths and musical conservatory are worth checking out. And you should try a ride on a Ferris wheel. It is on the top of one of the hills so the view is great.
The legend about an eagle
Lots of rich and famous Russian people have been coming to Kislovodsk and other local resorts since probably the late 18th century. So there’s a lot of history there. And also legends. Since tourists are the basis of local economy, and guides must make the show go on, there is a story and a legend about every freaking stone and old building. But I wanted to concentrate on my travel and not on the history, so this stuff will have to wait till some other time.
Well, maybe I’ll tell you one legend now. But just one! It’s about an eagle that’s the symbol of the Mineral waters of Caucuses.
Many many centuries ago in a galaxy far far away… sorry, wrong legend. Still I’m guessing for some of you Russia is as good as in a galaxy far far away, so… let’s continue. The proud eagle was cruising the sky like a powerful and mighty bird of prey… that he is. And he got tired and decided to sit on a rock for a little while. But he didn’t see the evil poisonous snake that was hiding between the rocks. The legend says that the snake hated the eagle because he (in Russian the eagle is a he, because we have gendered pronouns. Never mind, moving on) he was free and could fly in the sky. So when the eagle sat down on the rock she (and the snake is a she in Russian. Yeah…) she bit him right in the centre of his chest. Frankly, I don’t think the snake was evil or jealous. That flying dick probably just landed on her tail.
In any case, the eagle knew he was a dead bird after that, but he used all his remaining strength to kill the unlucky bitch with his claws and then – probably very dramatically and with a long dying speech that would make Deadpool proud – fell down the mountain. But it was his lucky day, since he landed in the pool of mineral water and his wounds healed just because he had laid in it for some time. Why didn’t he drown, I’ve no idea. But soon the proud and mighty bird sprung up from the pool and into the sky and thus he became the symbols of Mineral water of Caucuses and you can find an eagle statue in every town there. And also on all sorts of merchandise. And that’s the end of the legend!
They tell that this shit happened here, right here in every town, but the one with the most claims is Пятигорск. Which is 50 minutes by train from Kislovodsk. As if it didn’t have enough of the lore surrounding it already.
You see, a very famous Russian poet, whose work we still read at school, Михаил Лермонтов got himself exiled to this place. You thought people were sent to Siberia in the olden Russian Empire days? Well, only if you were pour or did something very-very bad. If you were a rich boy and/or well-connected they sent you to the south of the country. Which is like… How the fuck is that a punishment? Half the country wouldn’t mind to be exiled there.
And if that wasn’t enough he got killed in a duel in Пятигорск! Over some petty nonsense, as it happened. He was 27, and it was a great pity for Russian literature. They say. I don’t like his work ‘cause I’m not into romanticism much and he seems like a spoiled brat to me and a jerk to women most of the time. But he could’ve grown-up and written something that I might actually enjoy. Who knows? Anyway, at least it gave the town a bunch of tourist attractions and also boy, was that guy lucky when it came to places! The estate of his grandma is not far from where I live (and would you just check out this awesomest shit!!!) and it’s so wonderful it’s no wonder that guy wrote some poetry. He chose a place to die really well too.
Пятигорск/Pyatigorsk means “five mountains”. But the main mountain in that town is Mashuk. And that’s where Lermontov met his end. And there’s a forest, a view, a lovely monument and everything. And it’s not even too high up the mountain.
I didn’t go there on principle though. And maybe because I did something quite stupid that day.
You see, I planned to go to another town. But my legs were hurting from all the exploring so I decided to go to Пятигорск. There’s a cable car to the top of mountain Mashuk, I told myself. It’ll be no problem. And I indeed took that cable car to the top, and the view is stunning, and you absolutely should go there if you are ever around. But I didn’t take the cable car down because why would you take a cable car down? – I told myself. You’ll just have a nice walk and see some great views. It’ll be no problem. I ended up walking more than 10 kilometers and if I thought my legs hurt before, in the end I knew I was WRONG
So another lifehack: take the cable car both ways. Go to the top, check out all the views with tourist signs, look at the Elbrus if you’re lucky and it’s sunny so it’s visible. Go along the road in the opposite direction of the cable car for a bit, take a small trail up to the side of the top, follow it. Enjoy more views of a different mountain, go back and go down by a cable car. Because the road down is not just long, it’s all among the high trees and you don’t see anything apart from them. So unless it’s doctors orders, no point in going that way. It doesn’t even save you much money, it’s like 6 USD if you take the return ticket. And there’s loads of pretty things to see at the foot of the mountain.
If you like those things, there’s a really old and beautiful necropolis at the foot of Mashuk mountain.
There’s the Aeolian harp. That’s the stone pavilion in the classical style and it… sings. There used to be a musical instrument with strings, the wind would blow, strings would react and you could hear those beautiful sounds coming from the pavilion. But a real aeolian harp was taken out some years ago. And now it’s just recorded audio. It’s still hauntingly beautiful though. And the pavilion itself is on top of the cliff with a stunning view. So it’s the best place to take photos in my opinion.
So close that you can see it from that place is a park called Цветник – Flower garden. There’s a bunch of interesting things to see there. And also if you walk strait by the road that leads from the place where Lermontov died you will find yourself on Gagarin Boulevard that leads to one of the most interesting touristy spot in Пятигорск – lake Proval.
The boulevard itself is also interesting. But when I was there it was mostly in terms of contrast. The boulevard itself looked freshly renovated, and there were lots of fairly new ordinarily looking sanatoriums. But really beautiful old ones all along the boulevard were… Well, they hadn’t been renovated for quite some time it seemed. There were broken windows and crumbling pieces. I hope it was just the timing on my part though, and they’ll fix it. Otherwise it’s really sad.
Anyway, lake Proval. It’s name is translated as a sinkhole or a drop. And it’s a lake that is inside a cave. The ceiling of the cave fell in probably centuries ago. So it’s a cave with a round hole at the top and there’s daylight inside and an incredible blue water instead of the floor. There’s hydrogen sulfide in the water so it smells, but the color of the water is amazing! It’s sort of white blue. But it’s not translucent. It looks as is it was painted on the white paper using pastels. The lake is 15 meters in diameter and 11 metres deep. The way to it was made through the side of the mountain. So you it’s very easy to reach. There’s an icon on the other side of the lake which is supposed to add mysteriousness to the place, I’m guessing. For me the effect is spoiled by the bars that enclose the bit of a cliff you’re standing on when you’re near the lake. But considering how deep it is, I guess it makes sense.
There’s a statue to a famous Russian literary character Остап Бендер at the entrance of the cave because he is connected to the place. To find out how you might read the book called “The 12 chairs” by Ильф and Петров. (It’s very funny) or watch any of the movies with the same title. And also there are some hot springs and the water flows down the side of the mountain right opposite the entrance to the cave that leads to the lake. And the water there is warm. Some people even bathe right there.
Visiting all that stuff I told you about is completely free by the way. Except for the cable car.
There’s also a cafe there and you can get on a bus that will get you to the railway station. Or to the centre of the city which mostly consists of century architecture and is very pretty. My legs and I however decided to spend the rest of our day in a cafe. And I only checked out several main streets.
But keep in mind that the best cafes, restaurants and nightlife is in Пятигорск because it’s the biggest of the resort towns. And since the Caucuses are home to many nations apart from Russians there are plenty of restaurants that serve Georgian, Armenian and other cuisines. And they all are amazing. The cuisines, I mean, I didn’t have time or energy to check out many restaurants.
Oh! And the sanatoriums in that place specialize on problems with nervous system, digestion, skin and gynecology.
But the most famous mineral water in Russia that you can buy in the shops in literally any town or city is bottled in another pretty little place. It’s called Ессентуки and it’s 20 minutes by train from Kislovodsk.
The name of that place doesn’t really translate from Russian because the word itself is not Russian. Some say it’s the name of the khan who lived in this place, others say it’s bs. Anyway, for most Russians the name Ессентуки is firmly associated with the numbers 4 and 17. Those are the serial numbers of the most famous mineral springs. The water from those springs is good for your digestive system, especially liver and pancreas, and if you have problems with your metabolism. And sanatoriums in this resort specialize in precisely that.
I drank №4 in the watering gallery there. So basically fresh from under the ground. Well, as fresh as it gets. And it truly is very similar in taste to what you get from a bottle.
What can you see in a town itself? Well, as usual there’s interesting 19 century architecture, a Victory park, a huge watering hall called Пятитысячник – 5 000 because five thousand people can be there simultaneously, and my favourite – Курортный park. It’s three-minute walk away from the railway station. It’s smaller than others I talked about but it has fountains, interesting old buildings, fake ancient pavilions and all kind of stuff that a park created in the 19th century has. And a public bathhouse that you can visit and bathe in some mineral water because it’s good for your health or just for fun.
Suvorov hot springs
Talking about immersing yourself in mineral waters. There’s a supercool place twenty-thirty minutes away from Ессентуки by bus. It’s called Суворовские горячие источники – Suvorov hot springs. It’s… well, exactly what it sounds like. Pools (artificial, not natural) with hot mineral water in them that you can immerse yourself in. You can swim there but you really shouldn’t. The water is too hot for that, it will be extra-stress for your blood vessels and heart.
There are two public bathhouses there – the one with the blue roof is smaller but it’s cosier, the one with the brown roof is more modern and amenities are better, but there’s always a crowd there. You have to pay an entrance fee, it’s slightly less than 6 USD in both places. You can bring your own stuff like a towel, flip-flop and, of course, a swim-suit. Or you can buy stuff there. Pro-tip: bring a hat to wear after you leave the place. You hair will be damp even if you don’t wash it afterwards, so without it you might catch a cold.
I was in the blue roof one, they have 3 pools with hot water and a kiddie pool. Water in the indoor pool is about 43-45 degrees Celsius (around 113 Fahrenheit), in the first outdoor pool – forty (104 Fahrenheit), and in the second outdoor pool – about 37 degrees. So basically your body temperature. When you pay an entrance fee, it’s kinda implied that you have about an hour for everything, including shower and dressing. It doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, it’s enough! That hot mineral water is heady stuff, you can’t stay in it for too long. And frankly, it felt like time slowed down while I was there, because I felt so relaxed as if I suddenly reached nirvana or something! If you feel like you can’t take it anymore, you can go buy yourself some herbal tea and pastries that they sell in the bathhouse.
I’ve got several tips about that the hot springs. First: you can and should go there in cool and even cold weather, it feels much better in the pools if you can always cool off just by getting out. Second: there are many excursions to that place but I think it’s better to go there on your own. It’s cheaper and you can go in the morning and beat the crowds. Oh! Consider it another tip – don’t go there in the afternoon, there will be way too many people there. How do you get there by yourself? You take a train (short distance commuter one called электричка/electrichka because it uses electrical power. That’s the train you will always use when travelling between Mineral water resorts) to the Ессентуки railway station, get off, cross the road and you will see the bus stop. Find a small bus that says Суворовские источники, half an hour and less that a US dollar and you’re there. And of you go by yourself you can stay more that an hour if you feel like it.
The last town I wanted to tell you about is Железноводск. The name is translated as “iron water”. Actually I can’t say much about the town, because I’ve seen very little of it. As usual I went straight to the park and the day was so cold and the park is so high on the mountains, that I froze my butt off and decided to leave the town for some other time. But I can tell you it’s nestled in the mountain valley and it’s very picturesque.
Железноводск is hardest to reach, because you can’t just go there by the commuter train. It’s on a different line. So you take a train to Бештау/Beshtau station. That’s the name of the nearby mountain, which is worth a climb, by the way. There you will either see or have to wait for the bus which will take you into the city. It takes 10 minutes tops, but save your walking powers for the park.
It’s about 70 hectare (or 173 acres) and it’s the only one that wasn’t planted, it was just a forest on the sides of two mountains. And in the beginning of the 19th century when the park was created the alleys were just cut through that forest. And it shows! The trees are higher, and it looks a bit more wild. I loved it! Competitions in sports orienteering are usually held there.
There are fountains, very pretty Pushkin gallery and the palace of Emir of Buhara (for real. It was built for Emir in the beginning of the XX century, I think. But he died before it was finished, so his son offered it to the town as a gift). Also there are plenty of walking trails and – of course – mineral springs! My two favourite types of mineral water can actually be found in this place. They are Славяновская/Slavyanovskaya and Смирновская/Smirnovskaya. They are good for digestive system and metabolism (and that’s what they treat most in this place). Also you don’t smell any hydrogen sulfide on them which is always a plus, as far as I’m concerned. Although it could be that they are my favourite because they are both hot. And since I was there on a really cold day, it felt like drinking hot tea. And I love hot tea on cold days.
I think that’s it about the resort towns. I really will post pictures of all this stuff on my instagram! ‘Cause I think it’s easier to see it once than to hear a thousand times, yeah.
How to get there and a “but”
Those places are gorgeous and often stunning. But there’s a “but”. They are very much for inner tourists not because someone will stop you from coming but because these are Russian provincial towns. So there are very few signs in English. And not that many people speak or understand it. So… plan ahead, download some maps and upload Russian into your google translator. And practice pantomime.
How do you get there? There is a big airport in Минеральные воды/Mineral waters. Flying from Moscow and St. Petersburg should be if not cheap, than not super expensive because there are a lot of flights. Flying from other cities would be more expensive. My favourite option is sleeper trains. And I will tell you all (or a lot) about them in the next episode.
And now it’s time for the segment: How do you say it in Russian?
This time I’ll go with some simple stuff: Hello and Hi! Hello sounds like здравствуйте/zdravstvuite. A lot of consonants in that one. So you could try a less formal sounding but still recognizable Здрасьте/zdraste. That’s not an official short form, that’s just how a lot of Russian-speaking people pronounce it.
Hi is a bit easier. It’s Привет/privet! But it’s informal. So you would use it to greet friends, people you know and someone close to you in age or younger. Maybe personnel in a hostel or in a hipster cafe or McDonald’s. It wouldn’t sound good in some formal situations or places. It will look as if you’re acting overly familiar or flippant.
You can avoid it by using Good morning – Доброе утро/Dobroye utro, Good afternoon – Добрый день/dobriy den (notice that the ending of the word добрЫй has changed) and Good evening – Добрый вечер/dobriy vecher.
If you like my podcast, subscribe on itunes, stitcher, anchor.fm or wherever you get your podcast fix! And please, leave reviews. Cause they make me very happy in my frozen tundra with only bears and vodka for company.
Till next time!
Yours, Gigi, from Russia with love.
- You can read about “The demon” by Lermontov here
- An article from the Washington post where the author tried to see the Caucasus the way Lermontov saw them
Info about the resort towns in English: