The stunning towers of Ingushetia and the Georgian Military Highway
After an astounding breakfast buffet – astounding both in its profusion of choices, but also in the uniformity of taste of the food (like the detergent the plates were washed in), we headed out for a long back track to Vladikavkaz to visit the Georgian military highway and the famous towers of Ingushetia. The Caucasus are like the alps and the road was cut in a river valley for much of the way with steep peaks on either side. Turning off the road to Georgia to run along the side of the mountains we were held for an hour while the FSB quadruple checked our permits. I understand why people rebel here, it’s suffocating to live under constant intervention.
In pictures of the region you tend to see the same two groups of towers at egikal, but what I didn’t know in advance is that there were hundreds of towers in various states of repair along the road. We stopped at all the big ones and they were quite lovely. A couple, our guide had never seen up close as none of his tourists had wanted to climb up the hill to get to them. The best was probably Egikal and the two towers at Bashenny near the army base.
The landscape and towers were really wonderful and I spent a lot of the day dreaming about hiking from tower to tower along the route of the Caucasus mountains, but I suspect that won’t be feasible while putin and the FSB have a hold on the territory.
A long drive to Kezenoy Am – the highest lake in the Caucas
It was a long drive back through the mountains to get to the border of Dagestan where we spent the night at Kezenoyam- the highest lake in the Caucasus – it used to be where the Russian rowing team trained A late dinner of shashlik and salad and to bed.
Waking up to a stunning day, I managed a half hearted 20 minute jog along the lakeside…. stunning. And then we had a very ottoman breakfast of tomatoes cheese and cucumber before heading to republic no. 5 – Dagestan
Dagestan – the wild west
A quick trip to neighbouring Makazhoy – an abandoned village perched on a river gorge. The village was emptied when Stalin deported the Chechens in 1944. 15 years later the returnees where not allowed to resettle here. Now people are allowed to live here but few want to as they worry that the Russians are more likely to commit war crimes in remote places with no witnesses.
Entering Dagestan the roads became gravel and were winding up and down sheer mountains. We stopped often, partly because of the FSB checkpoints, but also because of the frequent cow roadblocks. The whole family would be out herding the cows. Mums and grandmas in skirts and headscarfs, the men in baseball caps and rip-off Armani t shirts. The drive was stunning – sheer dusty red cliffs on either side of narrow river valleys which are lush green with fruit trees. It isn’t all lovely though, environmental issues don’t appear to be front of mind here – the outdoor toilets in riverside villages are effectively long drops perched above the river with human waste going straight into the river. Rubbish is burnt, but plastic is chucked off the side of the mountain. The rivers were frequently damned, no doubt for electricity, creating some quite lovely lakes – like at Irganay. The mountains were phenomenal – a mix of Utah, Arizona, NZ and Morocco – with thick slabs of rock thrust out of the ground with the lines running vertically. The roads were winding and mad men in ladas would come hurtling around the corner on the wrong side of the road. Cows used the road for perambulation and more than once we almost hit a mad kid riding a horse on the median strip. It was a bit like being in the Russian wild west.
The abandoned village and towers of Kakhib
Our goal for the day was Kakhib – an abandoned village about 2 hours from Gunib. It is a stunning abandoned village that appears to be utterly disguised in the cliffside. The rock houses and watch towers are well camouflaged and my photos don’t do it justice. Our guide had never actually walked through the ruins as none of his tourists to this point were willing to do the walk – it was only 15 minutes strolling. Tourists do make me laugh. To fly to a country, drive for hours off road to get somewhere and then not be willing to actually walk a few minutes to see it properly. We saw lower Kakhib, and then the neighbouring higher Kakhib – which was stunning in the afternoon light, though you did have to watch your feet to avoid all the cow poop.
After weaving our way back down the mountain on a track made for 4wd Ladas, we also stopped by the Karadakhskaya Tesnina – a nice hour round trip walk to see the narrow gorge. And then to Gunib. We were invited to Iftar half way to Gunib, but decided to keep going. We made it 20 minutes after Iftar and went to a restaurant with world class crap service. We asked for a menu and were told we didn’t need one. We eventually got one, and we asked for a few dishes, and then the waiters told us we could have pizza or nothing. Hilarious! The pizza wasn’t bad, but it did take 40 minutes. Stephane and I were fine, but poor Abdylla had been fasting since 3am
Gamsutl – the Macchu Picchu of Dagestan
Another day, another abandoned village at the top of a mountain. Gamsutl is probably the most famous of the abandoned vilalges in the region and is a gentle stroll up through the forest. It was actually pretty popular and we met quite a few Russian tourists hiking up. I had assumed Russians were not that welcome in this part of the country, but as Abdylla rightly pointed out, he was much happier to see Russian tourists than Russian soldiers. It was a lovely hike, and I got my morning jog in on the way back down.
Local sports competition
When we reached the bottom there were crowds of locals and it turns out they were having a sports competition between local schools. Things are pretty basic here, so there wasn’t much in the way of equipment! The long jump was actually a standing jump – the longest about 2.5 metres. There was no shotput, so they threw a 16kg kettle bell instead, swinging from the legs. The girls could do the jump but not the weighted throw, so instead they did dancing. And this was all done on a patch of field covered with rocks and cowpats. We were like local celebraties, and a few of the ladies took photos with us, and the local English teacher came and had a long chat to practice her English – which was remarkably good.
We had a restful afternoon and another huge dinner. Some locals were eating cake at the next table and I mentioned it looked good, so they gave me some (weirdly they had bought the cake from elsewhere). The next morning, we farewelled the lovely old lady who owned the rest house and headed to Derbent.
Dodgy Derbent – Derbent is an interesting town. On the edge of the Caspian Sea its an absolute no go on the FCO list, avoid visits at all costs, but we had a lovely time. The fortress is amazing and with the old town formed a narrow wedge between the sea and the Caucasus range.
We wandered around the edge of the Fortress, avoiding most of the Russian tourists as none of them were willing to walk around the steep walls. After a stonkingly good lunch we then wandered around the old town and the Shia Mosque. It is the oldest mosque in the country. It was interesting with our guide who was a Sunni, who told us all the differences between Sunni and Shia….., but stopped when I asked if they were sufficient reasons for them wanting to kill each other.
We then went down to the Armenian church, which has bullet holes and shrapnel in the walls. It is no longer a consecrated church, it is now a carpet museum, as the christians were run out of town years ago.
After checking out the Lenin statue, we found the public gym….. and amused the local girls by practising our pull ups and leg lifts. I don’t think most old ladies swing around on the playground equipment.
Next up, the synagogue, which was closed for shabbat. But the cafe next door was a thriving hub of jews and muslims drinking tea (those not fasting) and playing aggressive dominos. We were like local celebrities so were forced to stop for tea!!!
We went to check out the town cemeteries – they were quite extraordinary. We then had a wander to the beach, which ended the journey from sea to sea (black to the Caspian)
Iftar was an amazing half a side of lamb cooked in a tandoor, with exceptional seabuckthorn tea, The food has been surprisingly good. We are heading home from Makhachkala tomorrow, but we are already planning our next trip back
Makhachkhala, May 12, 2019
Books recommended to me on the region – Let our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough; Caucasus – Mountain Men and Holy Wars by Nicholas Griffin; Cry Wolf by Vanora Bennett; The shoemaker and his daughter by Conor o’Clery
We booked through a UK agent, who outsourced to Caucasus Explorer, who outsourced to Caucasus Odyssey for the non Abkhazia portion. I am sure this meant there was a lot of extra margin in there. You can book direct with Abdylla through his Instagram, or with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer