A blur of exotic dancing


Ann Blagdon at WI

Ann Blagdon at WI

When I saw that the prompt for the weekly photo challenge was the word ‘blur’, I was instantly transported back to a dance festival I attended in Russia some years ago.  It was the most amazing experience and included traditional dance from various ethnic groups which have settled in Russia over the centuries.  There was Greek dancing as well as Armenian, and both were wonderful.  But the most memorable was the cossak dancing.  With their boots, blousy shirts and billowing trousers, the dashing cossaks perform a truly acrobatic dance full of jumps, kicks and bends.  They really are a blur and photos are hard to take.  However, I have some super photos of a dancer that I watched closer to home.  Her name is Ann, and she gave up her day job to pursue the art of Egyptian Belly Dancing.

Ann came to our WI and gave a fascinating talk about the history, myths, legends and meanings associated with this type of dance.  She also told us about the costumes and how “Belly Dancing” got its name.  Her fascination with the dance started when her Lebanese friends in London inspired her to find a teacher.  She was learning classical Indian dance at the time. Over the last twenty years Ann has perfected her craft and she is now a very talented dancer as well as an inspirational teacher.  When Ann dances it is spellbinding, beautiful, graceful and charming. Every movement is significant and tells a story.

Her costumes were ravishing, colourful and exotic.  To cover up she wears the traditional Egyptian Galabeya.  She buys her costumes when she attends the Soukh or market at the Egyptian Hafla or party.  Most of her costumes are made in Thailand or Turkey.  According to Ann, Egypt is considered the birthplace of belly dancing, but there are variations in different regions.  She certainly takes her dance seriously.  In order to get to know and feel the spirit of the dance, she spent time living in a Bedouin tent in the Sinai desert!

She is an amazing woman and a beautiful dancer so I have picked her to illustrate this week’s post.


The Winter Olympics in Sochi and Krasnayapolyana

The Winter Olympics in Sochi and Krasnayapolyana

As the Winter Olympics in our twin town of Sochi gets underway, I am totally glued to the TV to see how much this beautiful area has changed. I remember the many exciting journeys I made to Sochi, and Krasnayapolyana in particular almost 20 years ago. Russia was a totally different place the first time I visited. It was not long after Perestroika and there was still a gloomy rather austere atmosphere reminiscent of Stalinist times. I have written many blogs about my visits to Russia and if you would like to read them you can click on the links below. But I really feel driven to write about one particularly magical place again. This is Krasnayapolyana which is where many of the Olympic events will be held. If you went there today you could never imagine that only 20 years ago it was officially recognised as a totally unspoilt area of outstanding natural beauty. I was lucky enough to spend some time there with my Russian friends and a work colleague, Liz.
Liz and I got up very early one morning at the Hotel Moscow in Sochi. We were being taken on a trip to the Caucasus Mountains for the day. We skipped breakfast and went out to meet Igor, his young daughter Anna, the 2 Natalya’s, both Headteachers, Irena, our interpreter, and another couple. We were driven out of Sochi along the airport road in two Ladas. We followed the Black Sea coastline until we reached the ‘new’ airport which was being built by construction workers from Yugoslavia, as it was then. Apparently they never have enough money for materials so the job is taking years to complete. However, what they have built looked very modern, even futuristic, and very impressive.
At this point we turned inland towards the mountains. We could not go straight on as this was the road to Georgia and there were still Russian tanks along the border to stop refugees from the Abkhazia/Georgia conflict from coming into Russia.
From here on, the journey took two or three hours, passing some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. It reminded me of the best of the Pyrenees with shades of Canada. The colours of the ancient forests of broadleaf trees were indescribably beautiful: Reds, yellows, oranges and all shades of green glinted in the glorious early morning sunshine. Above these trees were the alpine forests of evergreen trees, and beyond those, the everlasting snows. This was the home of the Russian bear, the mountain cat, the black Ousel, the wolf and much more.
All the time we were driving along the course of the Mzymta or ‘wild river’, as its name translates. This river is icy cold, deep and treacherous, coming straight from the snow-capped mountains. I was told that there are 1 metre long red fish (presumably salmon) in this river. The road got steeper, and narrower, and more winding as it climbed higher into the mountains. There were many interesting stops; the Men’s Tears Waterfall, the Ladies’ Tears Waterfall, the ancient cave where Neolithic tools have been found, the memorial to the Red Army soldiers from Krasnapolyana who were butchered and thrown into the ravine in 1927 during the civil war, to name just a few. The road was so dangerous that we could not get out and take many photographs unfortunately.
Eventually we arrived at the village of Krasnapolyana where Igor was born. It was like going back to medieval times in England. There were very few cars, and ours had to drive dead slow to avoid the pigs, hens, cows and dogs wandering at will through the main (and only) street of the village. There were very few people around but one or two slowly plodded by. The pace of life in this village is so slow that it seems as if at some point time stopped, stood still, and then started to go slowly backwards. All around there were little Hansel and Gretel cottages with tiny barns packed to the rafters with the harvest produce. Not a shop or a pub to be seen ~ just little old people living on whatever they could grow or rear, in little houses with little gardens.
We were told that the air and water is so pure here that people have been known to live to 130 or even 140 years old. Some years ago the world’s top biologists got together to stop a bid to hold the winter Olympics in the area.

They considered Krasnapolyana to have the purest and cleanest environment in the whole world.

I can believe it and I am so thrilled that I got to see it in this unspoilt state. It looked and smelled like Paradise to me.
At last we drove the last few bumpy metres through the forest to a clearing by the river. Here we stooped and got out of the cars. The sun was very hot by now and the air was soft, warm, and full of sweet perfume. It was explained to me that much of the greenery growing in the forest could be used for herbal remedies. Every bit of ‘grass’ I picked seemed to have an exotic smell and curative properties according to Natalya. As Liz and I wandered round in raptures at the scenery, the women in our group set about laying out a picnic area.
They emptied the two Ladas and laid out blankets, mattresses, sheets of cardboard, dishes, bowls, cups and saucepans. Then, out came flasks of tea and coffee, bottles of Russian Vodka and an amazing array of green salad, huge tomatoes, freshly made Georgian Lava bread and homemade cheese. Meanwhile the men returned from the forest with twigs, sticks and small branches. They set about building a fire with great precision. Apparently building a fire for cooking food is an exact science, and Russian men take great pride in it. Once the fire was lit, it was fussed over like a new baby until it was ready to put the meat over. Igor skewered three whole chickens which had travelled with us in a huge pan marinating in a batter flavoured with herbs and spices. The men collected water from the river and splashed the fire and the chickens regularly. They told me that this helps stop the chicken’s skin from burning and keeps it moist as it cooks right through. The smell coming from this outdoor barbecue was mouth-watering and I couldn’t wait to eat the food. Liz, being vegetarian, had been horrified by the whole process, but was glad to see a vegetarian selection cooking on a skewer at the edge of the fire.
As the men cooked, animals wandered by to take a look: a family of wild pigs complete with babies, cows of all sizes and shades, dogs and butterflies. It really was quite primitive and biblical and I was totally relaxed just watching and anticipating. When we did sit down on the ground to eat, the meal was superb. Every sense was alive with the sight, the feel, the smell and the taste of the food was complemented by the sounds of the fire spitting and the river rushing by. It was an amazing experience. At the end of the meal we wandered round with 10 year old Anna, writing our names on stones with stones, and drawing the animals we could see, rather as Neolithic man must have done in those caves we had seen. Finishing up, we cleared everything away and set off again to go further along the mountain track.
Liz and I were told that we were going to touch the everlasting snows. I had a dreadful feeling that we were going up the mountain on horseback. But then to our amazement we saw an old ski lift! Before we had time to panic we were sitting on this thing which climbed as far as the eye could see up into the snow-capped mountains.
I was not in the slightest bit bothered by it. I thought this totally untypical relaxed state might have been due to the environment, but Liz reckoned it was due to all the vodkas I had consumed at lunchtime! Either way I loved the splendid views from the top of the ski lift.
After this we set off on the homeward journey. We took detours to give messages to grandmothers, to buy curative honey from the bee farm, to drink coffee, and to see the hydro-electric station and reservoir that supplies these remote and fortunate people with their power. They seem to have everything they need in abundance and all naturally produced. It was a most unusual, thought provoking, pleasurable, and satisfying day. I was very sad to leave Krasnapolyana.
The views on the way down the mountain were even more spectacular than on the way up. The setting sun gave the already beautifully coloured autumn leaves a shimmering golden glow. The only hiccup occurred when I dropped my jar of medicinal honey from this wonderful place. The beekeeper had gone to so much trouble to find me a small jar and filled it for me to take home. But, it smashed to bits right outside our hotel. It seemed almost as if I was not supposed to take anything away from Krasnapolyana.
I have been back to Krasnapolyana several times since then and it has changed out of all recognition. There are new roads, helicopter pads, tourist hotels, new ski lifts and lots of palatial new houses. Mr Putin has a beautiful summer home there and skis regularly on the mountain. And, I am afraid that the 2014 Winter Olympics will bring masses of people and vehicles to this fragile but still beautiful area. I have mixed feelings about the mountain events in Krasnayapolyana, as my daughter is joint owner of USElite Ski camps which has helped train some outstanding skiers. However, I fear that the environment will be ruined. But I feel privileged to have seen it when it was still in pristine condition.

Russian Odyssey part 1
Russian Odyssey Part 2
Russian Odyssey Part 3
The Tree of Friendship

Ravine at the side of the road from Sochi to Krasnayapolyana

Ravine at the side of the road from Sochi to Krasnayapolyana

Everlasting snows at Krasnayapolyana

Everlasting snows at Krasnayapolyana

Colleagues and friends in Krasnayapolyana in 1995

Colleagues and friends in Krasnayapolyana in 1995

Wild pigs wandered by as we prepared our picnic

Wild pigs wandered by as we prepared our picnic

A fresh picnic in the beautiful and still unspoilt Krasnayapolyana 1995

A fresh picnic in the beautiful and still unspoilt Krasnayapolyana 1995

A Haiku inspired by The 33 Waterfalls

33 Waterfalls in Dzhegosh gorge, Sochi 33 Waterfalls in Dzhegosh Gorge near Sochi

On one of my many trips to Russia, I was taken to an area of outstanding natural beauty in the  Shakhe river valley.  We travelled by coach through rustic villages, stopping along the way at small wineries and family businesses selling home made crafts and furniture. The river flows through the Dzhegosh Gorge, where the 33 waterfalls are to be found, as well as rapids, 13 cascades and countless streams!  In order to get to the gorge you have to walk through a dense forest of ancient Oak, Maple, Alder and Hornbeam trees. There are also some exotic plants as well as mosses and tiny box trees growing wild there.

Once you arrive at the 33 waterfalls there is a steep and rather treacherous climb up a slippery wooden walkway to the top. From there the views are truly breathtaking. It really is a magical place.  Once you have braved the rapids and been soaked by the waterfalls on the way down, you can buy the most amazing pastie type food which is prepared by a local Babushka who cooks them expertly in an old oil drum in the forest.  It looked, and was, rough and ready and I did not see a Food Hygiene certificate, but her food tasted wonderful!

Cascading river

Fragments and falls, crashing through

Walkways of wonder

Small Stones ~ The stones cry out. . .

Painted pebbles from Russia and beach pebbles from Spain

Painted pebbles from Russia and beach pebbles from Spain

A small stone is a short piece of writing (prose or poetry) that precisely captures a fully-engaged (mindful) moment. The process of finding small stones is as important as the finished product – searching for them will encourage you to keep your eyes, heart and mind open.



Cтарик on the streets

Scrapes a living by painting

And the stones cry out

When I first went to Southern Russia in 1995 it was a very different place to what you see today.  The area around the border with Georgia was very tense.  There were Russian tanks along the main road to the Caucasus mountains to protect the border and to stop refugees from the Abkhazia/Georgia conflict from coming into Russia.  But many were seen walking into Sochi with all the worldly goods that they could carry.  When they needed money for food they would set up little stalls along the roadside and sell their china, clothes or any household goods they could spare.  It was very sad to watch.

In the town these refugees were not the only people struggling for survival.  The value of the ruble had been fluctuating wildly for years.  In Soviet times, the value of the currency could change overnight as a result of government edict as was the case in 1947 and 1961, when citizens woke to find that new rubles would replace old at a rate of 1 to 10, effective immediately! During the last days of Soviet rule and immediately after, the ruble suffered from severe inflation and people’s life savings and pensions were now almost worthless.  In 1988, hundred-ruble notes were a rare sight. But by the mid-1990s, they were only worth a few pennies and the Kopek disappeared from circulation for a while. In 1996, the ruble began to stabilize, and in 1997, the Russian government unveiled a four-year-long switchover to the new deflated currency.    New Ruble notes were introduced in January 1998.  They looked like the old ones, but with three zeroes gone! Five-thousand ruble notes became five-ruble notes. One-thousand ruble notes were replaced by ruble coins and smaller denominations were issued as kopeck coins.  By 2002 the fifty ruble note shown here was worth just £1.

50 rubles, about £1 in 2002

50 rubles, about £1 in 2002

In the absence of a welfare state this hit the older generation hardest.  Those with families could survive, but those without were often destitute and reduced to selling all they owned.  When all their possessions were gone they lived on their wits.

I met an old man in one of Sochi’s beautiful parks.  He had gathered stones around him and was painting scenes on them.  They were exquisite.  He was obviously a very talented artist.  He was selling his painted stones for a few Kopeks.  I would have given him a lot more but he was a proud man so I just bought 3 for what he asked.  I have treasured these stones ever since.  старик means ‘old man’ in Russian and is pronounced (stah-REEK)

Cтарик on the streets

Scrapes a living by painting

And the stones cry out

I keep these painted stones in my glass cabinet with some very treasured small pebbles from a beach in Spain. On a whim I gathered up these pebbles from the spot where my dad had stood gazing out to sea.  I took a photo of him too as he was so lost in his own thoughts that I wondered what he was dreaming of.  Unbeknown to me, this was to be his last holiday, so those pebbles hold wonderful memories.  I literally treasure the ground he walked on.

I gathered the stones

From the beach where you walked, to

The back of beyond



Today’s haiku is inspired by carpe Diem prompt word “tears”.  It reminded me of the magnificent waterfalls in the Caucasus mountains where hundreds of prisoners lost their lives hacking a way through the mountain to build a road.  One of the waterfalls is called “Lady’s Tears”

From steep mountainside

The Lady’s tears waterfall

Weeps for past sorrows


Russian Odyssey ~ Part 1 ~ October 1995

My first Russian Trip ~ October 1995

Gloucestershire has always had strong links with Russia thanks to a very active Twinning Committee on the County and Borough Councils.  So after Perestroika, when Russia’s Education Departments wanted to link with those in other countries, it was natural for them to contact the GCC.  At this time I was a Headteacher in a Gloucestershire Primary school and I was very keen to travel.  I was also fascinated by different schools and their pedagogy.  I had already linked with a school in Kenya and found that experience life enhancing.  So, when the opportunity was offered to go to Moscow and link with schools in Sochi, I signed up straight away.

We had a crash course in Russian with a wonderful lady called Sheila who had previously worked at GCHQ.  She assured us that this would help us to ‘get by’ once we went into schools.  Fortunately she was coming with us and would be our guide for the first part of the visit, and she made all the travel arrangements.

So it was that I finished school on the Friday afternoon and headed straight for Heathrow for a very early flight to Moscow on the Saturday morning of half term.  After a delay the plane took off, flying over Denmark and the Baltic Sea.  I sat next to a Mongolian man who was very quiet for the whole 41/2 hour journey!

When we finally arrived in Moscow’s rather dismal airport, it was desperately cold.  Fortunately we were met by a guide with a nice warm car and we were whisked into the city.  The route between the airport and the city in 1995 was very drab with grey trees (silver birch), grey blocks of flats (hardly any private houses then), trolley buses grey with grime, and a few old Ladas.  Very few Russian people could afford cars at that time so the roads were very quiet.  Trolley buses were the main form of transport along with the fabulous Metro system.  We did see some quaint old dachas along the airport road.  Like wooden summer houses, or grand garden sheds, these all had a piece of land around them.  A left over from Soviet times, the dacha was where the Russian people could grow their own fruit and vegetables, and keep chickens to supplement their diet.

We were staying at the infamous Hotel Russia (Россия ) which was situated in what must be one of the world’s most exclusive building plots – overlooking Red Square.  The hotel was huge, built in the 60’s, indeed at the time it was the largest hotel in the world according to the Guiness Book of Records!  The hotel had 21-storeys, 3,200 rooms, 245 half suites, a post office, a health club, a nightclub, a movie theater and a barber shop as well as the 2500-seat State Central Concert Hall.  It held a maximum 6000 people!  It was almost the only hotel that foreigners were allowed to stay in then.  The hotel was still run on Soviet principals in that there was a corridor attendant (дежурная) on every floor.  These were terrifying, large ladies with no sense of humour and no social skills.  They made us feel very uncomfortable as they demanded our passports and travel papers every time we left our room.  They kept them under lock and key until we returned and always wanted to know where we were going and when we would be back.  Inside, the hotel was a strange mixture of austere, tatty corridors and very basic rooms, complete with bed bugs and whole families of cockroaches; but the dining room was totally over the top with flashing lights and lots of gold paint, like a 1950’s ballroom.  The dining room was huge but almost deserted except for a small group of very inebriated ‘businessmen’ with a ‘lady’.  The hotel was demolished in 2007 to be replaced by an entertainment complex.  Overseen by British architect, Sir Norman Foster, the new plans include a new, two thousand room hotel with apartments and secure parking.[

Our evening meal reminded me of a convent I used to go to.  There was no choice or menu, just a salad starter then rissoles with cabbage.  This was followed by tea without milk.  Afterwards we congregated in the room with the most spectacular view over Moscow’s old onion domed churches, and drank lovely Russian Champagne, which at £2 a bottle was half the price of a bottle of water!  I shared a room with a colleague and being very tired we slept really well hardly noticing the cockroaches.

We woke early to see snow falling lightly on Red Square.  I will never forget that sight.  It was truly magical.  On one side there was the Kremlin, opposite that there was the Main Universal Store (Государственный универсальный магазин), abbreviated to Gum (ГУМ), at one end there was the world famous , St Basil’s Cathedral, and at the opposite end the state historical museum.  So after a breakfast of Salami, cucumber and rye bread we set off to see as much of the city as we could in one day.

The best way to get around Moscow was, and still is, by Metro.  It is very fast and very efficient.  The stations are very deep under the city and the old escalators are incredibly long and steep, and move very quickly.  They seemed to be made of walnut and formica and were lit by gas light which emitted a dim glow and a distinctive smell, reminding me of the lighting in my childhood home.  Each station is different and they are all very beautiful.  We got on at the Kremlin station which is decorated with sculptures and frescoes depicting characters from the Bolshoi Ballets.  The ceiling was white porcelain with gold decorations; the walls, white and grey marble.  The station was absolutely spotless with no adverts, no graffiti, not a speck of litter ~ just beautiful.  A token to go anywhere on the Metro at that time cost 1000 roubles which was about 15p at that time.

We travelled around the city stopping at various stations just to see them.  One was a 1920’s art deco style.  The walls were made of Onyx and there were alcoves with fabulous standard lamps made of bronze.  Chandeliers hung from beautiful ceilings.  The Metro stations were used as air raid shelters during the war as were our own in London.  One of the Moscow stations has scenes from the war painted in huge cameos on the ceiling like modern day icons, in deep rich colours and sparkling gold.  Eventually we returned via the Bolshoi station and walked to the Kremlin.

The word Kremlin means fortress and it is actually a walled city.  There are 20 watchtowers on the walls, one with a famous clock.  The Kremlin dates back to the 14th century, and the walls to the 16th; it was home to the Czars.  On the way we passed the monument to the Unknown Soldier.  This is a very beautiful and moving tribute sculpted in bronze.  There is a cloak, sword and helmet, and an everlasting flame.

Once inside the Kremlin we were in awe.  At that time we were not allowed to take photos so those that I have of the spectacular buildings are from a later visit.  There are so many churches all topped with gold domes and icon painted walls inside and out.  We went into the Church of the Assumption, which, like most of the churches had been turned into a museum, but services were held 5 or 6 times a year.  Every inch of the walls, ceiling and pillars was covered in exquisite icons.  The old icons were painted on prepared wood using paints made from natural materials including crushed gemstones.  The finished icons were covered in olive oil to preserve it.  Unfortunately, over the centuries, the olive oil darkens and the icons get very dull.  Many have been restored.  Centuries ago, icons were the only Russian art and they all had a religious theme.

Leaving the Kremlin we walked back into Red Square and visited Lenin’s tomb.  Lenin died in 1954 and for a long time he was revered.  However the cost of keeping his body in good enough condition to be on display to the public is enormous and, while we were there, people in Moscow were questioning whether it should continue.  The body was almost luminous and we were rushed through by the guards.

After a fleeting visit to the fabulously luxurious department store that is GUM, we were rushed to Sheremetova 1 airport for our domestic flights to Sochi by the infamous Aeroflot airline!

I will write about that tomorrow.

Travel was free on buses in Moscow for Russians in 1995

Church of the Assumption in the Kremlin

Churches in the Kremlin

Statues of workers in the underground in Moscow

Metro station in Moscow 1995

Steep and fast moving gas lit escalator in Moscow underground 1995

Memorial to the Unknown Soldier behind the Kremlin. Moscow’s Brides leave their wedding bouquets there as a mark of respect

A typical dacha

Cathedral Square in the Kremlin

Cathedral inside Kremlin

Gate at the end of Red Square

St Basil’s Cathedral

Red Square by Kremlin Walls. Lenin’s mausoleum in the background

Inside the Kremlin