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The Beginning of the World
According to the Thracian account the country beyond the Danube is infested by bees, which makes further progress impossible; to my mind, however, this is an improbable story, as bees are not creatures which can stand the cold ...
'The Danube snail (theodoxus danubialis) is recognized by its shell with transversal dark zig-zag stripes on lighter, usually yellowish ground. In the east it may also be plain black ... [it] prefers clean streaming water rich in oxygen and with stony ground. Where such waters are dammed, the populations usually disappear.'
The Sturgeon, Radu Suciu tells me, is an armoured fish. Images of long-nosed whiskery crusaders, underwater knights in full armour battling up the bed of the muddy Danube, wild-eyed through their visors, propelled by iron flippers, crowd my mind. What he means is that it doesn't have skin and a long, thin backbone, like most other fish; this is a fish which is all cartilage, a bundle of muscles, a masterpiece of design.
We are sitting in Radu's office at the Danube Delta Research Centre in Tulcea, the main delta town in Romania, surrounded by jars of pickled fish, mountains of papers, computer screens and shelves bursting with books. He hands me a Romanian translation of the Hungarian author Mór Jókai's Golden Man, which tells of the lost island of Ada Kaleh, far up the Danube near the Iron Gates. Those who fall in love with the Danube do so with the whole river, with her entire body, even those parts they have never seen.
On the walls outside his office, curved, wicked-looking hooks are fixed to the wall like clothes hooks, those once used by fishermen to catch sturgeon. This is not a fish to nibble nervously at bait on the end of anglers' lines. This is a fish that can live for a hundred years, can grow to several hundred kilos, and can store a man's weight of caviar in its belly.
There are five kinds of sturgeon in the Danube: the beluga, the ship's sturgeon, the Russian sturgeon, the stellate and the sterlet. The ship's sturgeon, with its curved snout and rounded whiskers is the closest to extinction, but none are exactly flourishing in the wild. This is the oldest fish on earth, once the pride of the river, and the most abundant. Ancient Dacian tribesmen caught them in a fence made up of stakes driven into the bed of the river, with hooks protruding between the wooden bars. The Dacian word for this device, garda, can still be found in modern Serbian. When the Romans conquered the Dacians, in two bloody campaigns from ad 100 to 113, they forced their captives to teach them how to catch sturgeon before they killed them or marched them off to the slave markets. The base of Trajan's Column in Rome shows bearded, trousered men cowering beneath the swords of triumphant legionaries, distinguished by their clean-shaven faces and short tunics. As a piece of war propaganda rather than faithful reportage, there are no images of bearded men teaching the Romans to fish.
Roman engineers adapted the Dacian model into a lobster pot, fixed to the riverbed. The technology has changed little. In the museum at Baja in Hungary, I saw wooden bars arranged like the side of a child's cot, with hooks protruding between them. The hooks get stuck in the fishes' armour, and the more they struggle, the deeper the barbs embed themselves in their sides. These 'fish fences' are then hauled up beside the boats, and the fish extracted.
Radu rattles his visitor's box, a simple shoebox full of fish bones and fish skeletons. The sturgeon, he explains, 'is a great climber and a poor swimmer'. He demonstrates with his arms the way the fish fixes its dorsal fins firmly at its side, and digs them into the riverbed as anchors on its long migrations up the River Danube. He produces two fins from his box, long and yellow and sharp, more like knitting needles than pins. When the fish reached the cataracts which once lined certain sections of the riverbed, they would anchor their bodies with these fins, swim a bit, then anchor again to rest behind a suitable rock. In that way they could climb the steep, swift-flowing uphill gradient.
The oldest fossils of sturgeon are two hundred million years old. These fish have swum beneath the waters of the earth ten times longer than man has run along the surface. In that time they have hardly changed. The fossils show the long-noses of the beluga just as they are today, hunting the ledges of the Black Sea and the Caspian, where once they hunted in the Pannonian Sea. The beluga is the largest, and can reach a length of six metres and a weight of up to a tonne. Filmed underwater, they look like giant space ships, twisting and turning between the galaxies.
'There are people who have lived their whole lives beside the river, and never seen a sturgeon,' says Radu. It insists on staying close to the bottom of the river. In the Black Sea, where three of the five Danube species spend most of their adult life, the fish also rarely surface. Little was known about their movements at sea until a joint Romanian-Norwegian research project was launched in 2009. Small satellite transmitters, each costing as much as a laptop computer, were fixed to five teenage fish, which were returned to the Danube at Hârsova, far upriver.
In the Neptune restaurant that evening in Tulcea, beneath murals of trident-wielding gods, over plates of fried pikeperch washed down with white wine from the Niculi?el region, Radu tells me more about the project. Harald was the most successful so far, a twelve-year-old male named after the King of Norway. A healthy sixty kilos, he headed out to sea as soon as he was released into the Danube. He spent that winter on an underwater ledge, only sixty metres deep, in the north-west corner of the Black Sea, off Odessa. This was the first scientific proof that this was where sturgeon gather in winter, where they are most vulnerable to trawlers – crucial information for conservationists. The small gadget attached to his back was programmed not to broadcast all the time, but simply to store the data, then send it up to the satellite when the fish finally reached the surface. Exactly 164 days after he was released, Harald resurfaced 11 kilometres off the Crimea. During that first night, according to the information beamed to the Argos satellite, he travelled at a steady fifteen kilometres an hour – presumably on the deck of a fishing boat. Harald had been caught. He was still alive, probably, but only just.
Another remarkable feature of the sturgeon is its ability to live for days out of water. A huge beluga caught by Serbian fishermen at Apatin in 2003 was wrapped in a fisherman's blanket on the shore for several hours, then succeeded in unwrapping itself and rolling back down the bank into the water to escape. Before it eluded them, its captors noted the remains of several rusting hooks in its side. That was more than twenty years after the Iron Gates dam on the Romanian–Serbian border cut off the sturgeon from its traditional breeding grounds in the Danube shallows between Hungary and Slovakia. The fish must either have been stranded upriver when the dam was built, or slipped into the locks beside a laden barge, to continue a migration route denied to the rest of its species.
After Harald was caught and brought ashore, the satellite tracked him for two more days. The last signal came from the nearby railroad station, in Saki. Harald was about to start travelling inland by train. One wonders what those who caught him, or bought him, made of his transmitter. The project has revealed much about the migration routes |of sturgeon, but few of the fish have sent back as much information as Harald. Some have still not resurfaced. Others have done so, but the data they sent to the satellite was garbled. The skies above the Black Sea hum with satellite signals between Russian naval ships and the military base at Sevastopol. The Black Sea is Russia's window on the wars and revolutions of the Middle East.
The pride of Radu's shoebox is a small, perfect sturgeon, barely longer than his hand, the gift of his professor, Nicolae Bacalbasa. In the early 1970s, Professor Bacalbasa realised that sturgeon were dying out in the Danube. Over-fishing, pollution, and the construction of the Iron Gates hydroelectric dam devastated sturgeon stocks, just as the building of the Volgograd dam in Russia had in the Volga, a decade earlier. Only a tenth the number of beluga sturgeon were caught in 1980 compared to that in 1930. Bacalbasa dedicated the remaining decades of his long life to try and save them.
His first problem was with the fishermen – they refused to tell him where sturgeon could be caught. This was a closely guarded family secret, taciturn Romanian fishermen explained, handed down from father to son. Undeterred, Nicolae Bacalbasa parked his Trabant near the bridge at Hârsova, where men still stand at the roadside, their arms spread akimbo, to mime the huge catfish of their buckets or their imaginations, and wandered upstream. He was in no hurry. Each evening he pitched his tent, and all day he chatted to anyone he met along the banks of the river. After three days he struck gold. A casual glance into the wooden barrel beside a lone angler revealed his first sturgeon. The angler came from faraway Moldova each year, fished until his barrel was full, salted them, then drove his catch home, to feed his family for the winter and sell off the surplus. Embarrassed to be told by the learned professor that he had caught a rare species, he implored his visitor to take it away. And that was the perfect specimen which Radu now handed me. From the size of the fish and the season, Bacalbasa deduced that sturgeon overwinter in the Danube, rather than returning to the warmer, saltier waters of the Black Sea.
Bacalbasa and his team taught themselves to catch sturgeon from such titbits of information, culled from fishermen and their own observations. Young adult fish enter the Danube every three to five years to spawn, while older fish make the journey only every ten to fifteen years. Hybrid fish – a cross between different varieties of sturgeon – become more attached to the river than others, as though reluctant to return to the sea. The scientists noticed a remarkable fact: sturgeon were most plentiful in exactly those places where the Romans had built their forts. The commanders of Roman border garrisons, with units of a hundred soldiers or more to feed, were no fools. Sturgeon lived and bred in the Danube at that time in such numbers that their succulent pink flesh and black caviar became a staple food for soldiers garrisoned far from home. Civilisations rise and fall, but old sturgeon habits die hard.
As I drive towards the delta from the West I see my first wind turbines, spaced out across the hills like dandelions, or the advance guard of a Roman army. The wind always blows in Dobrogea, keeping the hillsides bare and the grasses short and steppe-like. This is the southernmost, westernmost outcrop of the great grassland steppe regions of southern Russia, across which nomads in prehistory swept on horseback. They had the prevailing, northerly wind, known as crivat in Romanian, at their backs. They must have felt quite at home on these low, worn granite hills. Their kurgans (burial mounds) still dot the landscape.
Dobrogea, the land between the Danube and the Black Sea, is a wild, empty, moody landscape, little known even to most Romanians. The only book I can find on the region in the best bookshops of Bucharest is a massive tome of photographs by Razvan Voiculescu, a man on a motorbike that can take him to places best reached by sea, or on horseback. There are granite cliffs like giant's teeth, with a single mulberry at the foot like the gift of a goddess. 'In the depths of the night ... I still hear the creaking of the boats moored at the foot of Citadel hill. There are roads there that lead nowhere, but which the locals stubbornly insist on roaming ... The bridge with rusted rails between two dry hills, the infinity of sunflowers, the churches clumsily cast among fields of wild wormwood and rocks,' Voiculescu writes in the preface. The beginning of the world, he emphasises, not the end of it. The place to begin my own journey, up the Danube.
The villages I drive through have Turkish-sounding names like Saraiu and Topalu, small mosques, barely bigger than a prayer room, and thin, spiky minarets. Most of Romania's eighty thousand remaining Turks and Tatars live in Dobrogea. Like most invaders over the centuries, they fell in love with the place and stayed. Their great-granddaughters, shy girls with deep brown eyes and smiles to tame wild animals, sell little bunches of purple flowers, flashes of purple in brown hands as we pass.
Sheep wander in flocks at the roadside, through a smudged cloud of smoke, downwind of a man bent over to burn off last year's grass. Threadbare carpets hang to dry on a line, hens peck in a yard beside a wooden shed packed high with corn cobs, and a policeman with a white-topped cap saunters wearily up the side of Razvan Voiculescu's road to nowhere.
The image of dandelions for the wind turbines proves more appropriate than that of soldiers. Four hundred and fifty have sprung up in barely two years. Four thousand are planned for the whole of Dobrogea, many in the path of the millions of birds who migrate to and from the delta.
On a blustery March morning, Daniel Petrescu drives me to Bestepe, which means 'five hills' in Turkish, overlooking Mahmoudia and the Sfântu Gheorghe arm of the river. Daniel is tall, with an easy grin and a massive pair of binoculars slung around his neck. Lake Razim, below Bestepe, is the largest in Romania, and stretches almost to the southern horizon. On the other side of the hills, the southernmost band of the Danube winds the last hundred kilometres to the sea. There's a strong breeze from the north and the skies are grey. A lone hooded crow swoops into the wind, then small clusters of chaffinches and brambling cross the hill northwards, chattering as they fly. 'Not spectacular birds, but they can travel, even in this weather. These hills are like Mecca, a magnet for migrating birds. They approach from these flat and watery areas, and use the ascending, thermal currents of the hill to gain height. And from high above here they glide down the other side of the hills, in autumn towards the south, in spring towards the north.'
The hills are a nature reserve because of the fragile species of moss and plants growing there, rather than the birds. There are wild thyme, tufted grasses called festuca, rosehip bushes and even a small, stunted mulberry tree, sheltering in a gully. In communist times there was a quota in schools to bring silk caterpillars from the mulberries, to revive the Romanian silk industry. 'It's a good tree for birds, because of its long fruiting period,' Daniel says. 'The rose-coloured starlings like them a lot.' The caterpillars feed on the leaves of the white mulberry. Silk was brought from China to Europe from the first century ad. In ad 552, during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great, two monks succeeded in smuggling a bamboo stick full of silkworms back to Constantinople. From then on, the mulberry spread rapidly through Greece and the Balkans as many regions developed their own silk production.
The Danube divides into three branches at Tulcea. The northernmost, Chilia arm arches along the shore of Ukraine to the Black Sea. The city of Izmail guards the entrance and its coat of arms depicts a Christian cross on a red background divided by a sword from the crescent moon of Islam.
Danube's swiftly flowing waters
Are at last in our firm hands;
Caucasus respects our prowess,
Russia rules Crimean lands.
Turkish-Tatar hordes no longer
May disturb our calm domain.
Proud Selim won't be the stronger
evermore, as Crescent wanes.
The poem is by Gavrila Derzhavin and comprised the first Russian national anthem. Selim was the Turkish sultan. It was written to commemorate the capture of the supposedly unassailable Turkish fortress of Izmail by the Russian commander Alexander Suvorov in 1791. The aftermath was not so heroic. Forty thousand Turkish men, women and children were massacred by Russian troops after the siege, as soldiers went from house to house – hence the red background, perhaps, on the crest. When it was all over, Suvorov went to his tent and wept. Today it is a town of nearly ninety thousand people, with a large Chinese community.
The middle, Sulina, branch of the Danube is the busiest route, straightened by an Englishman, Charles Hartley, on his way home from fighting in the Crimean War. He went on to widen the Suez Canal, and participated in the straightening of a route through the meandering Mississippi delta. But he cut his teeth on the Danube, and started a battle between transport engineers keen to get their goods to market as quickly as possible, and environmentalists who love the twisting, turning, changing river, which continues to this day.
Excerpted from THE DANUBE by Nick Thorpe. Copyright © 2013 Nick Thorpe. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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List of Illustrations and Maps.................... viii
Introduction. The Lips of the Danube.................... xiii
1 The Beginning of the World.................... 1
2 The Kneeling Oak.................... 15
3 Mountains of the Fathers.................... 37
4 The Colour of the River.................... 60
5 The Dogs of Giurgiu.................... 76
6 Gypsy River.................... 93
7 River of Dreams.................... 114
8 River of Fire.................... 136
9 The Black Army.................... 157
10 Smoke, Ash and a Tale or Two.................... 173
11 The Wind in the Willows.................... 195
12 Danube Fairytales.................... 221
13 Oh Germany, Pale Mother.................... 245
14 The Tailor of Ulm.................... 263
Afterword. A Kind of Solution.................... 271
Select Bibliography.................... 284