At the Crossroads of Europe & Asia

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.

Real housewives of Derbent, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Real housewives of Derbent, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar

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.

What makes it so special?

It’s a surprisingly welcoming region boasting unbelievable beauty and majesty (think waterfalls, steep gorges, and 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.

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

A surprising place

In 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. 

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

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.

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

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 shashka, the original Circassian saber – light, flexible, and very effective.

A Circassian man demonstrates his skill with the shashka in Kabardino-Balkharia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
A Circassian man demonstrates his skill with the shashka in Kabardino-Balkharia. Photo credit: 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.  And hospitality is ingrained in the culture here.

Restored Fiagdon Monastery in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
A hospitable North Ossetian grandmother shows how to make woodfired Ossetian pies. Photo credit: Michel Behar
A small town in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Travelers agree: these cheesy, meaty pies are delicious. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Relics of Soviet times in the mining town of Mizur, North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Restored Fiagdon Monastery in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar Restored Fiagdon Monastery in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • A hospitable North Ossetian grandmother shows how to make woodfired Ossetian pies. Photo credit: Michel Behar A hospitable North Ossetian grandmother shows how to make woodfired Ossetian pies. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • A small town in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar A small town in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Travelers agree: these cheesy, meaty pies are delicious. Photo credit: Michel Behar Travelers agree: these cheesy, meaty pies are delicious. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Relics of Soviet times in the mining town of Mizur, North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar Relics of Soviet times in the mining town of Mizur, North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar

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

North Caucasus traffic jam. Photo credit: Michel Behar
A North Ossetian picnic. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Mountain home in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
The old Ossetian god Uastyrdzhi bursts from a cliff; he is sometimes conflated with Saint George. Photo credit: Michel Behar
The pagan shrine of Rekom, dedicated to Uastyrdzhi. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • North Caucasus traffic jam. Photo credit: Michel Behar North Caucasus traffic jam. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • A North Ossetian picnic. Photo credit: Michel Behar A North Ossetian picnic. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Mountain home in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar Mountain home in North Ossetia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • The old Ossetian god Uastyrdzhi bursts from a cliff; he is sometimes conflated with Saint George. Photo credit: Michel Behar The old Ossetian god Uastyrdzhi bursts from a cliff; he is sometimes conflated with Saint George. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • The pagan shrine of Rekom, dedicated to Uastyrdzhi. Photo credit: Michel Behar The pagan shrine of Rekom, dedicated to Uastyrdzhi. Photo credit: Michel Behar

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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.”

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

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.

Handsome Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. Photo: Michel Behar
Handsome Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. 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.

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

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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.

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

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

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.

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

Medieval watchtowers of Ingushetia, North Caucasus. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Medieval watchtowers of Ingushetia, North Caucasus. Photo credit: Michel Behar

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

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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.

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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

Mountain village, called an aul, in Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Photo ops at every turn in Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Just one of the waterfalls in Dagestan, North Caucasus. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Village on the edge, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Hiking trail in Karakdakh Gorge, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Mountain village, called an aul, in Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar Mountain village, called an aul, in Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Photo ops at every turn in Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar Photo ops at every turn in Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Just one of the waterfalls in Dagestan, North Caucasus. Photo credit: Michel Behar Just one of the waterfalls in Dagestan, North Caucasus. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Village on the edge, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar Village on the edge, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Hiking trail in Karakdakh Gorge, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar Hiking trail in Karakdakh Gorge, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar

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

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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.

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Majalis


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

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.

Tea and sweets in Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Tea and sweets in Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar

Derbent


A city of some 120,000, Derbent in 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.

Visiting a kindergarten in Derbent, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
City by the sea, Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Cobbled streets of old Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Derbent style. Photo credit: Michel Behar
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Dolmas in Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Visiting a kindergarten in Derbent, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar Visiting a kindergarten in Derbent, Dagestan. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • City by the sea, Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar City by the sea, Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Cobbled streets of old Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar Cobbled streets of old Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Derbent style. Photo credit: Michel Behar Derbent style. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Dolmas in Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar Dolmas in Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Muslim graves in a sacred cemetery in Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar Muslim graves in a sacred cemetery in Derbent. Photo credit: Michel Behar

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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.

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

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. 

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

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.

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.

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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.

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 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 beginning in Sochi, visiting with local people in tiny Mezmay Village, and admiring 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.

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