Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Exploring a Quieter Side of the Caucasus

Multi-ethnic Dagestan, nestled next to Chechnya in the Caucasus Mountains, might not seem to be a likely vacation spot: In recent months it has been the scene of kidnappings, shootings and civil unrest. Violence has erupted both in the capital city, Makhachkala, and in other areas of the republic. Civilians, Russian patrols and local police officers recently have been attacked, abducted and sometimes killed. Two Swedish missionaries abducted in January were released only in June.

Understandably, such unrest has deterred many from visiting the region. To date, Dagestan remains open, but visitors considering a trip to the area are strongly urged to check with their local embassies for travel advisories.

Despite reports of violence and theories that Dagestan is "the next Chechnya," a trip to the republic in late May showed another side of life in the Caucasus.

Dagestan sits on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. From Moscow, you travel south-southeast, until you meet the sea.

It's dawn. The overnight train from Astrakhan moves south at a steady speed. Outside the compartment window, cows roam freely in village streets, and wildflowers flash purple and red in the early sunlight. Two hours later, we catch sight of the mountains, and at 8 a.m. we enter the Makhachkala station.

In Dagestan ("mountain kingdom"), Russia as we Muscovites know it is a distant memory. The Cyrillic writing is familiar, but there are also signs in Arabic. The local language, Avarsky -- named for the Avar people who speak it -- fills the air. The railroad platform teems with shopkeepers pushing heavily laden trolleys; the dark-skinned men load and unload their large boxes in preparation for a day of market trade.

Makhachkala, a seaport, is the capital of Dagestan. I've lived in various capital cities and seaports for most of my life, and this is the quietest I've ever experienced. On the morning of our arrival, the only cause of unease is the dank, one-ruble toilet at the north end of the station platform. I stand and watch a woman slowly washing herself at the concrete basin: hands, arms, face, neck, left foot, right foot. I wash only my hands, anticipating a shower at the hotel.

From the railroad station, the budget hotels are within easy walking distance (5 minutes to the south) along streets lined with trees and old buildings skirted by verandas. Glances up side streets reveal cobbles reappearing from beneath worn asphalt, dry stone walls, small gardens attached to homes and ubiquitous cats. Everything feels very Mediterranean -- only the olive trees are missing.

The street opens out to reveal the hotels Dagestan and Kaspi, both faded blue and reminiscent of past glory. The U-shaped Dagestan is more impressive architecturally, but the Kaspi -- fronting the sea and offering rooms with views -- wins hands down for location.

For me, the attractions of traveling to Dagestan are the sea and the stunning mountainous terrain. There is a good swimming beach to the south of the city, accessible by a short bus trip. Or you can join locals at the city beach across the railroad tracks, although there is a small sign warning bathers about the poor water quality.

Other local attractions include a concert hall, the Dagestan History and Architecture Museum on Lenin Square and an art museum featuring exhibits of Dagestani crafts at the corner of Ulitsa Gorkogo and Ulitsa Markova.

Farther to the south, Derbent is of historical interest. Founded in the sixth century around the Naryn Fort, whose walls still stand, Derbent can be reached by local train or bus; schedules are available at the respective stations. The Makhachkala Intourist office may offer additional ideas for expeditions, although we found the best -- and possibly more reliable -- method is to canvas the locals for ideas. Trains to and from the north arrive and depart only every other day, so a returntrip to the capital should be booked in advance.

The beach is all I expect, and more. Ships set out to sea; people brave the cold surf; a group of young men drift together in paddle-boats; a man attempts to windsurf. During lunchtime, the highlight on the beach is a seal that basks in the shallows, diving away from a group of small boys who try to hit it with stones.

Crossing back over the railroad bridge into town, we discover the Makhachkala Concert Hall. We hear musicians rehearsing for an upcoming concert. The man sitting by the door lets us in, so we join a few other listeners in the dimly lit auditorium.

We spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the streets. The city alleys are full of children playing games: girls with a jump rope who run away when I raise my camera; a group playing soccer on the hill near the lighthouse; a boy smashing his tricycle against the wall. On an investigative trip out to the bus station, our mini-bus rounds a corner and loads up with several excited high school graduates, their white aprons covered in the signatures of fellow grads.

After dinner, we consider heading down to the discotheque in the basement of the Kaspi, but the music stops at 10:30 p.m. So we go to bed and wake up at 5:30 a.m. to eat breakfast, write postcards and enjoy the sunrise over the Caspian.

At the recommendation of the concierge, today we will travel to the mountain village of Gunib, which is cradled by some of Dagestan's most beautiful scenery. The mini-bus leaves when it is full, only to stop again at a market where one of the passengers loads up the vehicle with supplies -- soft drinks, yogurt and beer -- all stuffed into every conceivable cranny.

So much for leg room.

We travel along a flat highway for half an hour, until a turn-off reveals the mountains before us. We begin to climb. Green pastures and wildflowers line both sides of the road, but farther off an aerial haze whitewashes the land. Pale blue and gray mountains jut upward in every direction, beige settlements nestling at their ankles. A scarlet stretch of poppies provides the only bright color in the distance.

We zip through several villages and one larger town, where we get stuck in a traffic jam on a narrow street. Moslem men wearing embroidered skullcaps stand in the bright sunshine with hands on hips, observing the slow procession. We exit the town, and the climb begins in earnest.

At every hairpin turn, the driver blows his horn. Eventually the engine overheats and we stop on a river terrace planted with an apricot orchard. The driver fills the radiator with stream water, and we resume our ascent.

The river cuts through the valley below, and large power lines march across the mountains. The man in front of me, a native of the valley, says, "Gergebilskaya was the second hydroelectric station in the entire Soviet Union."

I ask him about the local economy. "They built this road two years ago," he says, "so there were a lot of jobs. There's no work now."

When the hairpin bends become increasingly alarming and the mini-bus has stopped to empty half of its passengers, I realize we're approaching Gunib. We pass a cemetery on a cliff and a cascading waterfall, then arrive at the village square. People crowd around the bus, vying for places on the outbound trip. We maneuver several hairpin turns higher, past a rock painted with a green and white mural of 19th-century freedom fighter Imam Shamil. From 1845 to 1859, he led Dagestan against imperialist Russia, which had annexed the area in 1813. He remains a folk hero throughout Dagestan, and his presence is particularly strong in Gunib.

Our journey ends high above the main village. The man who had loaded the mini-bus at the market gives us directions to the hostel. "If you don't like it up there, I have friends you can stay with," he says. We shoulder our day-packs and start walking up the road beside the river, up the valley to the hostel.

At the base of this valley sits an empty tourist park, boasting a sign that proclaims, "Turizm -- zanyatie millionov" (Tourism is the activity of millions). A popular tourist area before World War II, Gunib's fortunes have since declined markedly. But the region's attractions remain the same: It is relatively untouched, undiscovered and uncommercial. You can buy mass-produced soft drinks, but billboards don't scream at you from every corner to remind you to do so.

We reach the hostel only to find a closed gate, but there are signs of life within, so we hop over the fence to search for the concierge. It is the week before June 1 (the official start of the summer vacation season). We find no concierge. Instead, we meet Gadjimusa Momedveliev, an Azerbaijani renovator. He and two other men are preparing the hostel for the coming week. We've arrived during lunch, and they welcome us to their table to share their food in a sunny room overlooking the valley and mountain ranges. They offer us chicken and potato stew, slabs of crusty bread, fresh cheeses and tea with sugar. We can stay the night at no charge.

We hike to the head of the valley to lie on the hillside among pink alpine asters, purple irises and several anthills. When the sun dips below the birches, we descend in time to enjoy the golden light remaining on the surrounding mountains. This landscape, ridged and stark, is spiritual in its beauty. The night is chilly, the stars bright.

After spending a lazy morning writing and painting, we bid our hosts goodbye and wander back down the valley to Gunib to wait for a mini-bus back to Makhachkala. We wait by an impressive stone fortification that hugs the ridges around the village, a miniature Great Wall of China.

We travel away from Gunib to the vibrant accompaniment of taped Arabic music on the mini-bus. It is hard to leave the mountains: the multicolored scree slopes, people conversing under trees on the village square, and the colorful scarves attached to trees and monuments in memory of the freedom fighters.

Although I've taken many precious photographs, I later find my film has slipped from the spool. But with pleasure I find the photographs in my mind, and know I will return.

Where to Stay

In Makhachkala:

Hotel Turist, on the corner of Kalinina and Komsomolskaya Ulitsas, is not centrally located and was not recommended to us. The following are two hotels recommended for budget travelers:

Hotel Kaspi, on Ulitsa Buynaksnogo, is a five-minute walk from the railroad station. Some rooms overlook the sea and the promenade. A very helpful, friendly woman runs the main office. Costs run from 84 rubles for a basic room to 132 rubles for a large double room, bathroom and living area with a view of the sea. Prices may be higher during the summer vacation season. Foreigners may have to pay higher prices than Russian citizens.

The Hotel Dagestan is located across the road from the Kaspi. Costs range from 60 to 90 rubles per night. Some rooms have balconies, but no view of the sea.

In Gunib:

There is a small hotel on the village square, but I recommend the hostel where we stayed, the Dagneftsky Pansionat. To contact the hostel, ask the intercity operator to patch you through to Gunibsky Rayon, Dagestan, Dagneftsky Pansionat. No rates had been set before the start of the summer, although prices in Gunib are less than those in Makhachkala.

Another option is to find accommodation in the homes of the local people, who offered us two places to stay. This option is more likely to be available if you or one of your traveling companions speaks Russian.

Where to Eat

In Makhachkala:

Next to the Hotel Dagestan is the Letnee Cafe, which sells the best shashlyk I have ever eaten. You can eat in the booths adjacent to the courtyard, but we chose to take our shashlyk, wrapped in brown paper, down to the beach. You get huge pieces of tender meat, with scallions and coriander, for 30 rubles. Big chunks of crusty bread cost an extra 2 rubles. We bought mineral water and cherries from street vendors.

There are numerous small restaurants and plenty of other cafes that sell shashlyk. Close to the Kaspi we found one restaurant where two of us had bread, fish, salad and a bottle of wine for a total of 80 rubles. Watch out for early closings; some restaurants shut their doors as early as 9:30 p.m.

Fruits and vegetables are readily available from vendors, as well as from several open-air markets around town.

In Gunib:

There are cafes in Gunib, but it is a good idea to carry some of your own food. There is a tiny market on the village square and a popular bread shop opposite; look for the children clutching loaves. Local produce is fresh and flavorful.

Getting There

To Makhachkala:

For the three-hour flight from Moscow, round-trip tickets range in cost from $322 to $380.

For the 42-hour train journey, the least expensive, or platskartny, fare is $120 round-trip. A kupeiny berth, or four-person compartment, costs $188. If you decide to travel by platskart, try to avoid being placed in the compartment or aisle next to the toilet door.

To Gunib:

From the Makhachkala train station, board an 18 or 19 bus to the main bus station. Walk toward the station building through the market. On your left are the mini-buses. Look for a sign reading "GUNIB" (in Cyrillic) inside the windshield of one of the buses. Each vehicle seats about 12 people and leaves when it is full, starting as early as 6 a.m. The journey takes four hours and costs 30 rubles. Avoid carrying a large amount of luggage, or be prepared to pay extra for it. Negotiate the price in advance.