Adventure in the North Caucasus

By Nancy Weber
This item appears on page 39 of the June 2019 issue.

In the mid-’90s, Russian friends invited me to Moscow to see some of their old slides from travels in southwestern Russia. On the wall of their living room, they showed slides of parts of the North Caucasus, specifically, Chechnya and Dagestan.

Their photos revealed beautiful, forbidding, majestic landscapes, and I was enthralled. I was working in Moscow at the time and didn’t think I would ever see these places, as a war had engulfed the area (and would again in the early 2000s).

Fast-forward 20 years. In September 2017, I took a tour from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, visiting Abkhazia and the Russian autonomous republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. I got to see the breathtaking scenery of my friends’ photos with my own eyes. And I met the diverse people of these mountainous areas and learned some of their history.

I loved that adventure so much that I took another tour to the North Caucasus in September 2018.

Traveling in the North Caucasus is not for everyone. I know of several friends of mine who would not do well with rustic bathroom stops and bouncing around in 4x4 off-road vehicles on steep mountain dirt roads with unending switchbacks and no guardrails.

I understand that having faith in your drivers and their vehicles can be a stretch for some. After living in the Middle East for eight years, however, I learned to trust the local drivers with my life. It’s their lives, too, and their vehicles.

If you do consider traveling from sea to sea (i.e., from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea), be sure to include the following North Caucasus highlights.

Abkhazia — Mingle with Russian tourists while visiting the subtropical cities of Sukhumi and Gagra. Visit Stalin’s dacha at Lake Ritsa.

Sochi — Thanks to the 2014 Olympics and the World Cup in 2018, what used to be a worn-out Soviet “sanatorium” city (when I visited in 1996) now has a vibrant pedestrian area with high-end stores and trendy restaurants.

Mt. Elbrus — On a clear day, Europe’s highest peak is magnificent at 18,510 feet.

North Ossetia-Alania — Walk around hillside burial crypts and stop in Vladikavkaz, the provincial capital and home of Ossetian pies (better than pizza!).

Ingushetia — Photograph the spectacular medieval towers without hordes of tourists.

Grozny — The capital of Chechnya had been almost flattened, or so I’d heard from reporters who covered the war in Chechnya in the mid-’90s. Grozny is recovering, and to observe the changes that took place in just one year (from 2017 to 2018) — including new hip coffeehouses and small start-up businesses — was very encouraging.

Chechnya and Dagestan — At last, the dramatic scenery I had seen in slides decades ago in Moscow! Only 1 million people live in Chechnya, and 3 million live in Dagestan, so towns are few and far between. To spend hours in a 4x4 off-road vehicle on dirt tracks is to experience the overwhelming beauty of the mountains. One can also visit excellent museums in small towns, drink tea with locals if invited and, on some tours, experience homestays.

Derbent — Visit the Citadel! Observe the cordial interaction between Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Gaze at the Caspian Sea. There were many local and Russian tourists in this Dagestan city, but you might be the only Western visitor.

Makhachkala — Wander through the colorful food market in Dagestan’s capital and taste urbech (the Dagestani variant of Nutella). There is definitely a cool vibe with artists and literati in the coffeehouses.

If you love traveling where others haven’t been and meeting the people who live there, I highly recommend visiting the North Caucasus. The towns are small enough that you can interact with curious locals (who won’t believe you’re from America). They’re friendly enough that, even in the cities, you’ll be able to stop and chat. You’ll experience diversity of language, culture and nature.

Be prepared to travel long distances through spectacular mountains to meet the inhabitants and “peek” into their lives. It’s a fabulous experience.

Ferrisburgh, VT