The Mysterious and Magnificent North Caucasus: Chechnya, Ossetia, Dagestan and Beyond

The Mysterious and Magnificent North Caucasus: Chechnya, Ossetia, Dagestan and Beyond

Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the resulting unrest, travelers relished exploring the entire Caucasus region, even the remote locales that later became no-go zones, such as the Russian republics of Chechnya, Ossetia, and Dagestan.

Though people may be more familiar with some of these Russian republics from news articles rather than travel magazines, the scales are tipping in favor of the travel magazines. It’s about time that intrepid travelers head back to Russia’s North Caucasus.

North Ossetia. Photo: Michel Behar

A toast to the North Caucasus in North Ossetia
Photo: Michel Behar

What makes it so special?It’s a surprisingly welcoming region, boasting unbelievable beauty and majesty (think waterfalls, steep gorges, mountain trails), incredible diversity (40-50 different ethnic groups), overwhelming hospitality (“Every meal was a feast,” says a friend), herds of sheep spilling onto the roads (a North Caucasus traffic jam), sophisticated cities (Vladikavkaz is said to be the Caucasian equivalent of St. Petersburg), and secluded little mountain villages where the old customs persist.

In the North Caucasus, you can…
  • Visit historic Russian sanitarium resort towns such as Pyatigorsk and Essentuki.
  • Get acquainted with the Circassian culture and the art of wielding the shashka in Kabardino-Balkaria (more info).
  • Admire the craggy landscapes of North Ossetia, dotted with watchtowers and pagan shrines (more info).
  • Take a cooking class at a Vladikavkaz restaurant, where you may learn to make Ossetian pies – like Georgian kachapouri, only better, according to Ossetians (more info).
  • Visit Magas, the brand-new capital of Ingushetia, the smallest of the Caucasian republics (more info).
  • Explore rebuilt Grozny, in Chechnya, its elegant avenues lined with high-end stores and galleries (more info).
  • See beautiful Lake Kezenoy-am, the deepest lake in the Caucasus, shared between Chechnya and Dagestan (more info).
  • Wander cordial little villages known for their jewelers and potters in mountainous Dagestan (more info).
  • Hold your breath as skilled tightrope artists walk the wire in Majalis (more info).
  • Stroll the ancient Caspian town of Derbent, home of the UNESCO-listed Sassanian Naryn-Kala Fortress (more info).
  • Browse the open market in Makhachkala, the most diverse in the region (more info).

A surprising placeIn spite of its history of instability, the North Caucasus is a region that holds great promise. It’s one of the world’s most gorgeous, mysterious, and rewarding “undiscovered” places. You may surprise your family and friends by traveling to this rarely-visited place, but just imagine their faces when you return with fabulous photos, unparalleled stories, and new-found understanding of this little-traveled area. 

Travel to the North Caucasus…on MIR’s new for 2018 small group tour:

Return to the North Caucasus

Contact Joanna to discuss the details.

Here are some of the surprising and intriguing things you can see and do in the North Caucasus:

Kabardino-Balkharia. Photo: Michel Behar

A Circassian man demonstrates his skill with the shashka in Kabardino-Balkharia
Photo: Michel Behar

The Republic of Kabardino-Balkharia

Kabardino-Balkharia is the original home of ethnic people called Circassians, many of whom were exiled to the lands of the Ottoman Empire by the Russians in the 19th century. Although they have been Sunni Muslims since the 16th century, the remains of early Circassian pagan shrines dot the  Caucasus slopes in their region.

The Kabardino-Balkharia National Museum in Nalchik, the capital, displays the natural and cultural history of the region. You might even run into a Circassian in full costume wielding a shashkathe original Circassian saber, light, flexible and very effective.

Kabardino-Balkharia. Photo: Michel Behar

Traditionally-dressed Circassian man talks about the customs of his culture at the museum
Photo: Michel Behar

North Ossetia. Photo: Michel Behar

Restored Fiagdon Monastery in North Ossetia
Photo: Michel Behar

The Republic of North Ossetia

North Ossetia is one of the smallest Russian republics, with a population of just over 700,000. The Ossetes, who make up some 65% of the population, are descendants of a medieval Persian-speaking kingdom called Alania. The majority are Orthodox Christian, though there is a Muslim minority as well. 

Hospitality is ingrained in the culture here.

North Ossetia. Photo: Michel Behar

A hospitable North Ossetian grandmother shows how to make woodfired Ossetian pies
Photo: Michel Behar

North Ossetia. Photo: Michel Behar

Travelers agree: these cheesy, meaty pies are delicious
Photo: Michel Behar

The rugged mountain republic sits just above Georgia, and is rich in beauty – and natural resources, including untapped reserves of oil and gas.



North Ossetia. Photo: Michel Behar

North Caucasus traffic jam
Photo: Michel Behar

While traveling through North Ossetia, you’ll come upon a slope overlooking the Fiagdon River, dotted with nearly 100 medieval tombs and crypts built of stone with stepped slate roofs, some of which are two to four stories high. This is the necropolis of Dargavs, sometimes called the “City of the Dead.”

The bodies were inserted through window-like openings, and extended families were interred together. Some of the tombs are missing roofs or walls, and a visitor can see the bones of humans scattered within.

North Ossetia. Photo: Michel Behar

Walking through wildflowers to the tombs of Dargavs, North Ossetia
Photo: Michel Behar


Vladikavkaz, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Handsome Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia
Photo: Michel Behar

Vladikavkaz, Capital of North Ossetia

Located in the foothills of the North Caucasus, Vladikavkaz is the capital of North Ossetia. A city of approximately 330,000, Vladikavkaz is an industrial center and the terminus of the Georgian Military Highway.

Vladikavkaz, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

It says “I love Vladikavkaz” in Ossetian
Photo: Michel Behar

This region of the North Caucasus is watered with many mineral and freshwater springs. Founded in 1784, Vladikavkaz was given its name, which means “Ruler of the Caucasus,” by the Russian military leader, Prince Grigory Potemkin. The attractive city is surrounded by mountains.

Stroll pedestrianized Prospekt Mira, mingling with students and locals, and admiring the pre-revolutionary and Soviet architecture.

Vladikavkaz, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

A performance by a folk music group in their workshop/studio in Vladikavkaz
Photo: Michel Behar

Vladikavkaz, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Handmade North Ossetian sheep cheeses at the market in Vladikavkaz
Photo: Michel Behar

Vladikavkaz, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Travelers learn to make Ossetian pies in Vladikavkaz
Photo: Michel Behar


The original fortress of Vladikavkaz, built in 1784, guarded the nearly vertical Darial Gorge, one of the only ways through the Caucasus Mountains. This is where the Silk Road crossed the region, and where the Georgian Military Highway crosses into Georgia.

Vladikavkaz, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Ossetian hero Dzaug Bugulov stands before a part of the fortress wall
Photo: Michel Behar

Ingushetia, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Medieval watchtowers of Ingushetia, North Caucasus
Photo: Michel Behar

The Republic of Ingushetia

The Russian Federal Republic of Ingushetia is a gorgeous mountain region populated mainly by the indigenous Ingush people, who have close ties to the Chechens. It is the smallest of the Russian republics, and its people are Sunni Muslim.

The Ingush were deported to Central Asia, along with the Chechens and other North Caucasus people, after Stalin accused them of collaborating with the Nazis during WWII. They weren’t allowed to return until Khrushchev took office.

Ingushetia has been less resistant than Chechnya to Russian rule, choosing to remain with Russia when Chechnya declared independence in 1991.


Ingushetia, like Georgia’s Svaneti and Tusheti mountain regions, is known for its medieval watchtowers. Ingushetia’s towers are a little different, however, their architecture harking back to Urartian times. Built of huge dressed stones with tapering walls mortared with clay-lime, the towers were of two different types.

The shorter, wider residential towers were two to four stories high, with flat shale roofs, and held an extended family and their livestock. The tall watchtowers, or battle-towers, were more slender, with embrasures for archers, and stepped roofs.

Ingushetia, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Travelers pose in front of stone watchtowers in Ingushetia
Photo: Michel Behar


Chechnya, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

“Mother’s Heart” mosque in Argun, Chechnya, built in honor of Haja Aymani Kadyrova
Photo: Michel Behar

The Chechen Republic (Chechnya)

The Chechen Republic, or Chechnya as it is commonly referred to, is sandwiched between Ingushetia in the west and Dagestan to the east. An incredibly beautiful region, with craggy mountains and steep-sided gorges cut by glacier-fed rivers, its mountain culture is chivalric, hospitable and fiercely protective.

Alpine Lake Kezenoy-am, just one of the region’s treasures, is set at 6,000 feet, and shared by Chechnya and Dagestan. Reflecting the surrounding mountains when the sky is clear, the lake is sometimes enveloped in fog. It is the largest lake in the North Caucasus.

 

Chechnya, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Wildflowers line the shore of Lake Kezenoy-am in Chechnya
Photo: Michel Behar


Chechnya’s people have historically been drawn towards the relatively moderate Sufi Islam, with its mystical component, and this has been reinforced by Chechnya’s Russian-appointed president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Grozny, capital of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, has had a short and brutal life, but today it’s looking stable and prosperous. The bright, rebuilt city features a handsome mosque, a renovated church and a pleasant downtown filled with shops and restaurants. Schools and cultural organizations teach Chechen traditions to the next generation.


Chechnya, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

It’s the grownups’ turn to dance, at a Chechen wedding
Photo: Michel Behar

Dagestan, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Locals and traveler in Dagestan, North Caucasus
Photo: Michel Behar

The Republic of Dagestan

Dagestan is the biggest by far of the North Caucasus republics, and the most diverse, with more than 30 languages spoken. Spread along the Caspian coast above Azerbaijan, it has a population of nearly three million. Most of Dagestan is mountainous;  little stone villages, called auls, dot the hilltops, and waterfalls tumble from the heights.

Dagestan is a hub of North Caucasus craftsmanship. In the mountain towns and villages jewelry makers, potters, woodworkers, and felt makers create elegant and functional pieces, and little markets sell them alongside their homegrown vegetables.

"Mountain

Mountain village, called an aul, in Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar


Dagestan, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Corn and carrots in a village, Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar


Dagestan, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Preparing to make felt out of sheep’s wool in Rakhata village, Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar


Dagestan, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Old-fashioned village mill grinding nuts and seeds for urbech in Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar

Urbech is a favored Dagestani concoction often made of ground sesame, pumpkin, and flax seeds. Other nuts and seeds, such as hemp, apricot kernels, and sunflower seeds can be ground to make this high-protein paste. Sold in markets all over Dagestan, urbech can be used like peanut butter, on bread, in baked goods, or by itself. It’s also thought to have medicinal properties.



Dagestan, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Time for lunch in a village in Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar

Majalis, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Daring young men on a tightrope in Majalis, North Caucasus
Photo: Michel Behar

Majalis

The town of Majalis on the way to Derbent is the modern center of the Kaytag district of Dagestan, where Islam first made its way into the Caucasus. Majalis boasts famed pehlevans (athletes) who practice tightrope walking, performing at home and far afield.

Derbent, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Tea and sweets in Derbent
Photo: Michel Behar

Derbent

A city of some 120,000, Derbent, Dagestan, is the southernmost city in Russia. Set on a narrow and scenic lowland along the Caspian Sea with the Caucasus Mountains barely two miles away, Derbent has been a strategic spot for thousand of years.


Derbent, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Visiting a kindergarten in Derbent, Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar

Its ancient name was the “Caspian Gates,” because it guarded the easiest route for the Silk Road to pass though into Europe. The city changed hands among the Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols and finally the Russian Empire.


The massive Naryn-Kala Fortress dominates the old city, and remnants of its two city walls, running from the mountains to the sea, can still be seen today. 

One of Russia’s least-visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the “Citadel, Ancient City and Fortress Buildings of Derbent” are awe-inspiring. Built by the Sasanian Persians in the 5th century, the immense Naryn-Kala Fortress was in continuous use until the 19th century when the Russians occupied the region. With walls of dressed stone six to 13 feet wide and 30-40 feet high, the fortress encompasses an 18th century khan’s palace, cisterns, baths and guardrooms.

Derbent, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Gates to the citadel in Derbent, Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar

Derbent, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Awe-inspiring 5th century Naryn-Kala Fortress in Derbent
Photo: Michel Behar

Makhachkala

The capital of the Republic of Dagestan, Makhachkala has a population near 600,000. It was founded by the Russians as a fortress in 1844.

Makhachkala, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Pink lady sells red raspberries in blue buckets at the market in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar

A modern city on the Caspian, Makhachkala is a cultural hub, and has a lively beach scene, with resorts, health centers, and nightlife. It has the most diverse open-air market in the region, and a great Ethnic Culture Center, where you can buy jewelry and traditional costumes.

Makhachkala, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Herbs and spices at Vtoroy Rynok market in Makhachkala, Dagestan
Photo: Michel Behar

Makhachkala, North Caucasus. Photo: Michel Behar

Say, “Cheese!” at the market in Makhachkala
Photo: Michel Behar

Travel to the North Caucasus with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years of unmatched destination expertise and travel planning experience, hand-crafting tours to Russia since 1986.

Sample the food, culture, and mountain scenery of the
North Caucasus on MIR’s new small group tour:
Return to the North Caucasus

Make your “Return to the North Caucasus” stretch from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea by adding an eight-day pre-tour: Begin in Sochi, visit with local people in tiny Mezmay Village, and admire the world’s largest radio-telescope as well as fantastic views of the tallest mountain in Europe, Mt. Elbrus.

Or, experience local village life in the South Caucasus countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia on Village Traditions of the South Caucasus.

Chat with our Director of Sales, Joanna Millick, by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your 2018 travels now.

 

Top photo: Real housewives of Derbent, Dagestan. Photo: Michel Behar

PUBLISHED: October 31, 2017

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