Living in any country, you will hear news reports about, meet people from, and just generally hear info regarding all the different parts of it that are off the international radar. I don’t expect foreign people to know much about my hometown of Cleveland, but if you were raised in America or have been there for ten or so years, you will have at least some knowledge of this “fly-over” city. So, over time, the longer I lived in Russia, I just kept hearing more and more about this Dagestan place in the media and from friends. And I have to say that Dagestani hard liquor and jackboots have often given my digestive system and feet great joy, respectively, further deepening my curiosity.
Despite it being far away and lacking an international mega city like Moscow, this republic is one region that you hear about the most living in Russia. As a curious person, I told myself “well, one day I’ll go there, I’m sure it’ll be neat” and, well, that day came a lot sooner than I thought. So let the adventure begin!
Map: All the roads in Dagestan are windy and distances between locations are huge time wise. Seeing one or two things in one day is a major accomplishment!
The key to understanding Dagestan’s geography is simple. You have the Caspian Sea with a few miles of flat lowlands to the East and then titanic mountains to the West. So you get sort of two separate realities, this coastal, almost Israeli or Egyptian looking, terrain that is flat and easy to travel over. But, after just a short drive to the west… things get really different real quick! All of a sudden, every road is a windy mess with zero signage. Distances that would take you 30 minutes to drive in the flat parts of Russia will take 3 hours. If you do not speak Russian at a fairly high level, you should really invest in a tour guide to drive you around. They know where the great sites are and even when they don’t they are not afraid or unable to ask.
The big city of the region, which is one of the most pleasant words on Earth to say - Makhachkala (ma-khach-ka-LA) really defines the flatter coastal environment of Dagestan. Although the language and architecture of the city were familiar, there were very few if any Slavs wandering about. Visually, Makhachkala stood out as being very different right from the get go because of this.
I’ve been to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and you see Slavs squatting about everywhere as a very noticeable ethnic minority. But the people in Makhachkala were very much the sons and daughters of the Caucasus Mountains with very dark hair and a fashion sense somewhere halfway between Moscow and Istanbul. Sadly, we didn’t have that much time to really chat with any locals, because the natural beauty of Dagestan is really something and it is really far away, meaning we had to move our butts in order to film it all. If you want to go see anything that I talk about in this article for yourselves, get ready for a bumpy multiple-hour drive between sites!
After quite an uphill drive, we approached the Sarykum Sand Dune. This monster of a sand dune sits all by itself surrounded by grassy plains and hills, making it a truly unique phenomenon. As you get closer to this isolated desert mountain, you’ll be surprised as to just how tall it is and just how many tourists are trying to climb to the top. It was a real travel “hot spot”, in more ways than one. Until you get to the top, and despite it not being summer, the sun really beat down on us as we made our way up the official trail. If you really can’t take sunshine, this might not be the best option for you, but when you do get to the top, the breeze is something you cannot imagine. All of a sudden, the temperature returns to a sane level and you can take in all the breathtaking views.
Note from Tim: Coming down from the sand dune, we thought it would be a great idea to mount a GoPro camera on our van to show some of the more crazy beat up bumpy roads. Well, let’s just say the camera will never be the same again. Although, dealing with that crisis gave us time to pet goats and chit chat with their shepherd.
Even more popular than the big sand dune is the Sulak Canyon, which is Russia’s answer to the Grand Canyon. There is a cliche expression that goes something like: “I couldn’t believe my eyes”, which is really the only thing that you can say about the Sulak Canyon. The canyon was so deep and massive that my brain simply could not believe the views it was getting. No camera could capture the reality but we tried our best!
Note from Tim: But the icing on the cake was the food they had for sale at the top of the canyon. It was shockingly good. Normally, food from a metal shack in the middle of nowhere would not deserve a Michelin star, but this stuff was really on point. In fact, I would generally advise foreign tourists to not eat at roadside cafes in Russia. They tend to be pretty dismal and not exactly hygienic, but, in Dagestan, the opposite was true. The whole region was filled with tiny “mom and pop” places by the side of the road that served great food.
The Iraganai Dam region, which, like everything else, was a far drive, offered us some great vistas to shoot. Its azure blue waters required no color correction to reveal their beauty on film. I’m sorry New Zealand, but the Lord of the Rings films should have been filmed here, it is a truly epic location.
I am not sure why I adore abandoned old places, but I have to say that getting the chance to see an old time Russian fort in Khunzhakh village sitting on top of a breathtaking waterfall was “pretty sweet”, in my opinion. Furthermore, the town around it, on the top of a plateau was pretty full of life, despite being absolutely isolated from the rest of the world.
Note from Tim: I couldn’t help but notice that a waterfall/cliff front property was for sale, so I asked some locals what plots of land like this cost. Let me put it this way, for less than the price of a house in the gulliest of bad neighborhoods in Cleveland next to a gas station that gets robbed every Thursday night, you could get a house next to an ancient waterfall in a peaceful town. The choice is yours.
Pretty much everything in Dagestan could work for a Hollywood fantasy movie location, but the most unique of all was the great Stone Bowl. Stopping at an unmarked location by the highway and making our way down into the cold darkness of what looked like an ancient tomb, we walked into this sort of naturally made cathedral of massive stone cliffs rising to the heavens. It was basically a boss fight room from Dark Souls and a location that everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
Another thing Dagestan is famous for is its jewelry makers. Kubachi is the home to many of the region’s silversmiths and has a restored watch tower that is countless centuries old which today serves as a museum at the center of town. Alibeg, one of the city’s great metal workers, let me into his home workshop to ruin some of his silver and show us what he does for a living. He is a 7th generation silversmith, which is a profession that takes an insane amount of patience and the hand strength and stamina of an elite esports star. He says that cheap online gifts are really threatening the livelihoods of craftsmen in Dagestan. “Why pay more and wait for weeks when you can order jewelry online?” is the logic that is killing the region.
Note from Tim: You can help keep the Kubachi craftsmen online by ordering something from Alibeg via his Instagram. Yes, a dynasty of ancient silversmiths in an isolated mountain top village has an active instagram. What a time to be alive!
Another truly unique location that we hit was Mayak Mountain, which gives the Sulak Canyon a run for its money. I can’t tell how far I could see from the top, but it was like looking all the way to Heaven. In every direction there were views like those found in still-life paintings of old.
Nearby was Gamsutl, the regions biggest and most famous (ironically) abandoned village. Well, unofficially, two people occupy the fairly large town where the population was forced to go elsewhere for work, due to the chaos at the end of the Soviet period. I wonder what those two do all day? They certainly have plenty of space and dozens of houses each.
Nearer to the end of the journey, we left the mountains to go back to the seaside city of Derbent. This city is so old and has so much history that it is a place best left to Wikipedia to describe. Naturally we went up to the famous fortress that sits on top of the city. Obviously, any sort of ancient castle is going to make for a neat vacation! That’s just obvious, but be forewarned, it was sure windy up there! The fortress was built with Turkish baths in mind and I bet they were built a great way to warm up after a cold night of guard duty, because it felt like standing in a wind tunnel. This fortress is very iconic and is featured on many local products as well as images you find throughout Russia. It is one of the prides of the nation and a definite must see.
So if you want to see just what I am talking about watch our video.
And if you’d like to quickly check out all the great views without my jolly commentary, then please watch our 4k drone footage of the region. You’ll love it for sure.
Moscow has some internationally renowned fine dining experiences, as well as great affordable cafes to have lunch at, but there are also plenty of shady food stands that will surely destroy your foreign stomach. But Dagestan was completely different! Every place we ate at, be it at a big building with a nice sign or in some unmarked location by the side of the road the food was perfect. Perhaps, this is because, in Moscow, everything is anonymous when there are countless millions of people going here and there, but in Dagestan, if you give someone food poisoning, they’ll come back in a week with all their cousins and set you straight. But, as of now, this is hands down the best region for food in Russia that I have visited.
When I was in Makhachkala, I visited their famous Second Market, where people from all over the region and neighbouring former Soviet Republics come to sell their farm fresh goods. It was really like taking a few steps back in time to the days before Amazon and Walmart, when there were a lot less steps between your food and your stomach. The nice part about these places for foreign tourists is that they will generally let you try a bit of anything for free. Which is great, because taking a small chunk of huge hanging piece of dried sheep is way better than having to pay for the whole thing to settle your curiosity. One thing that I had never tried before was urbech, which is a creamy peanut butter that can be made from all sorts of different seeds and nuts with different flavours added. It is a bit pricey, but certainly worth it.
Note from Tim: What was really cheap was getting a glass of freshly made pomegranate juice crushed right before my eyes and the prices for spices down south were a lot more reasonable than in Moscow. In fact, they had little plastic bowls filled with various spices specifically for tourists from the north, so they could grab a bit of everything to take back home with them.
Now, the opposite of the Second Market experience was definitely the Restaurant-Museum on Lermontov Street. It offered a very serious culinary take on local cuisine in some very swanky surroundings. I actually had to bring a blazer and dress shirt with me on this trip, but it was worth it. The real standout dish was the ‘Khinkal’, which was sort of like a deconstruction of the famous Khinkali that you’d order at a Georgian restaurant. The meat and broth were separate and amazing with the dough being served as squarish dumplings. It is always different how an idea can spread between cultures and I kind of now prefer the Dagestani Khinkal to the Khinkali you get in the big city.
One of the key foods of the Republic of Dagestan are Chudu, which are hard to describe. Imagine a sort of pan fried (in the oven) crepe, oily on the outside and filled with all sorts of things on the inside. Long story short, you get an extremely soft doughy outside and a meaty or cheesy filling. Sometimes, they stuff them with various greens, but that is vastly too healthy of an option for this man. Although, it may be a bit hard to find the Chudu that we randomly bought from the “INT” cafe in Makhachkala were absolutely perfect. We sure picked the right place for lunch.
Before we tell you about the drinks that are available Dagestan, why not check out our video about the foods described above and much more.
One thing I was not expecting was how much of a rich tradition of various drinks there are in Dagestan, besides the previously mentioned freshly made pomegranate juice that seemed like a real hit, tea houses have been a tradition in the region for generations.
Pubs in England, for instance, have been a place for men to have some nice conversation after a hard day of work and the Dagestani tea houses serve a similar function. These men-only establishments allow guys to talk over tea with some sweets for hours at a time. Interestingly, the staff of most of these places seems to be made up of women, who probably get a lot of attention from the clients, to say the least.
Note from Tim: Since my ancestors came from Eastern Europe, I generally look like most people in the former USSR if I keep my mouth shut, but at the tea houses I felt very much the foreigner. Of all the places to get food and drink in Dagestan, this was the only location that had a “you ain’t from around these parts, boy” kind of feel to it. So, I would say that if you are a guy you should check out these tea houses, but keep things cool and make sure your foreign language chatter does not annoy the locals.
In short, the tea was great, the candies that came with them were supposedly made by hand based on old Azerbaijani traditions just over the border. (Azerbaijan is not far away at all). I can neither confirm nor deny this, but they were unique and I would buy a bag of them right now if I could. The tea house had an open upper floor allowing me to take in the sites of Derbent as I sipped by tea from the specially designed local glasses that are in theory ideal for tea consumption.
Note from Tim: Part of the history of these tea houses is that since most of the ethnicities in Dagestan are Muslim, a non-alcoholic alternative to pubs/bars was naturally going to evolve at some point. But, Russia is a land of contrasts and one of the nation’s most notably Islamic regions is also famous for its amazing hard liquor. Many people in the comments under our video could not fathom this, but if you live it would all make perfect sense.
So, after many years of needing help to go to sleep early enough to wake up at 5:00 am for the radio I felt like the Derbent Cognac Factory was somehow very familiar. Like an old friend that I had never met before. Bottles of alcohol especially, but not limited to cognac featuring the word “Derbent” with pictures of the local fortress are not hard to find at all and are, in fact, a bit iconic.
So, the factory tour for me was quite an experience. The men who work there were very passionate about their job and loved telling tales of the olden days and what they are up to. One cool service they offer for the extremely rich is making a big barrel’s worth of custom alcohol and aging it for the buyer. Many of the names on the barrels lining the halls were of top Russian celebrities and sports figures whom I promised not to reveal.
At the end of my fun times in Dagestan, I sat down in the offices of the cognac factory and they let me do a taste test of many products some of which you can really only get directly. As I sat looking at all those bottles I could hear Garry Glitter’s ‘Rock n’ Roll Part 2’ begin slowly amp up in my brain. Let’s just say that I was even more glad that we had a driver to take us around.
Check out even more about the great drinks of Dagestan in our video.
One of the key features of Russia is its massiveness and the fact that since its very arrival on the stage of history it has included other peoples and other religions as part of the fold. Going to Moscow is great, seeing the Golden Ring is even better, but to get the true Russian experience you need to try out some of the regions where things feel very different and yet still have that great Russian character.
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