The cliff-top village of Khunzakh is just three hours drive from Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, which lies between the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea. With dramatic scenery, sandy beaches, great food, literary connections and a thriving cultural scene, there is plenty to tempt visitors. So where are all the tourists?
Decades of brutal war in neighbouring Chechnya have left a legacy of violence in this region. There is an on-going, low level war between radical Islamist groups and local security forces. On current UK Foreign Office maps, the area is coloured an uncompromising red, meaning they “advise against all travel” to this part of Russia. Other sites spell out the possible dangers of kidnap and terrorism.
The most scenic areas are sometimes the most dangerous; on the mountain roads, a police escort accompanied our group, which was invited and organised by a charitable fund promoting Dagestani culture. Regular armed checkpoints are a disturbing sight, but flying round hairpin bends above ravines full of wrecks is a good distraction.
Past ear-popping heights and heart-stopping views, the minibus winds up through autumn woods and misty crags to lonely Matlas. A strange, half-ruined castle is a relic from a 40 billion-rouble plan to build a ski resort here. A treacherous flight of steps climbs down the cliff face through mist and dripping ferns; a monument to Leo Tolstoy is perched at the top near a stone chapel. The outlines of mountains and the roaring of another waterfall are shadowy presences in a bottomless valley full of cloud.
White cranes in the mist
The Tolstoy memorial is decorated with a bronze book and sword and gold inscriptions in Russian and Avar; it celebrates both the writer and the Avar commander he immortalised in his novel “Hadji Murad”. War in the Caucasus is nothing new.
Hadji Murad fought under the legendary resistance leader, Imam Shamil, whose warrior history also echoes through the mountains. The Avar people are the largest of many groups in Russia’s most ethnically diverse area. Dagestan has more than thirty languages besides Russian, including Dargin, Kumyk, Lezgin and Lak.
In the village of Tsada, 1700 metres above sea level, a concrete pillar rises out of the fields, commemorating a famous poem by Rasul Gamzatov. The writer imagines dead soldiers transformed into white cranes, flying through the evening mists.
Gamzatov was born in this village ninety years ago; visitors can still see the cottage, with its reconstructed study and banya, which belonged to his priest-peasant-poet father, Gamzat Tsadasa. The house museum also has a traditional sheepskin burka (cape) and papakha (wool hat), images that Gamzatov borrows to describe the scenery. He promises to dedicate his poetry to “you, Dagestan, my epic”, in return for “a burka of forests and a papakha of snowy peaks”
Urban culture vultures
Makhachkala, with its battered Soviet architecture, sprawls along the coastline, like an unkempt sunbather. A feast in one of the restaurants there is the perfect end to a day in the mountains.
Regional specialities include several kinds of dumplings, from round kurze filled with nettles or doughy khinkal served with boiled lamb and garlic sauce to the wonderful chudu, stuffed with pumpkin or melted cheese. Alongside, there are plates piled with huge tomatoes and salty brinza, with fresh coriander, purple basil, spring onions, dill and peppery mustard leaves.
You can try all of this and more at the “Teremok” restaurant, near the Museum of Fine Arts on Gorky Street ( http://www.dmii.ru ). The renovated ground floor of the museum hosts exhibitions, while upstairs are local crafts, including a panel from a millennia-old, carved wooden cradle.
Individual Caucasian villages are dedicated to making particular kinds of ceramics, carpets, metalwork or ceremonial weaponry. One room showcases Dagestani jewellery, decorated with filigree and turquoise, amber, coral and carnelian.
For more applied art, head to the Centre for Ethnic Culture, on Peter I Prospct, with its shop, and fine display of kaytag embroidery in the upstairs gallery. Visitors can even dress up in traditional costumes.
A large exhibition space, over the bridge on Rasul Gamzatov Prospect, includes work by young artists. It is currently filled with mesmerising video installations by Taus Makhacheva, winner of the 2012 Innovation Prize for the “new generation” in contemporary art. Exploring many aspects of identity, by turns playful and profound, Makhacheva is a local artist with an international reputation. She is also Gamzatov’s granddaughter and her aunt runs the Fine Arts’ Museum.
Seagulls and Breeze
On the shore of seagull-haunted Lake Ak-gel, a recent monument (dedicated to a generic “Russian teacher”) stands guard over the City Museum. This circular, marble vault is used for displays and documentaries.
There’s no excuse for being bored in the evenings in Makhachkala. There are theatres dedicated to plays in Russian, Avar, Kumyk or Lak and, more accessibly, to puppet shows. There are also plenty of bars and cafes, where you can sample the smooth local cognac.
For dancing, head down the coast to the neighbouring town of Kaspiysk, with its impressive “First Gallery”, whose huge windows overlook the Caspian Sea. The nearby waterside “Breeze” Restaurant (http://www.krc-briz.ru/) hilariously combines a maritime theme with disco lights, and a luminous night sky hangs above the dance floor. Men leave guns at the door and throw themselves into complicated, regional dances. The tables are loaded with local wine, grilled meat and spiced aubergines.
Hospitality is a sacred tradition in the Caucasus; the lavish meals and warm people make it an extraordinary place to be a guest. If you don’t have Dagestani friends when you arrive, you will when you leave. There is another hidden risk in visiting this beautiful country: you might have such a good time there that you won’t want to go home.
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