Quarantine Escape!




Sorry, Caucasians Only


 Eighteen months into “Two Weeks to Flatten the Curve,” I am finally going somewhere!  Russia has re-opened to tourists, and I am not one to tarry.


I had booked a tour of the North Causcasus last year, but that obviously didn’t happen.  The tour company optimistically set a new date for August of this year.  That fizzled, but I already had air tickets so I decided to do it on my own an a private tour.  There are six ethnic "republics"arrayed along the north side of the Caucasus.  They are part of the Russian Federation and nominally autonomous but in reality completely controlled by Moscow.  (On the south side of the Caucasus are Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, formerly part of the Soviet Union but now fully independent.)  

My routing is Miami-Lisbon-Frankfurt-Moscow-Mineralye Vody in one LONG day. Happily, I am riding up front so the journey is not too taxing.


There are no mineral waters in Mineralye Vody, just flat land for an airport.  The two owners of the tour company (a plug here for Adventure Dream Team), were so thrilled to have their first foreign guest since the borders were unsealed that they both showed up to at three AM to greet me and drive me the 45 minutes to Pyatigorsk, the starting point of my tour.


The airport sign notwithstanding, I am not issued a weapon upon arrival.  The U.S. State Department has a “Do Not Travel” caution for all of Russia.  In addition, they have a special warning: “Do Not travel to: The North Caucasus, including Chechnya and Mount Elbrus, due to terrorism, kidnapping, and risk of civil unrest [emphasis in original].  Of course, I am going to be visiting all these places and more.   

Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, hotels in Russia are cheap so I have booked a suite at the Intourist Hotel.  (In the Soviet Union, Intourist was the state agency that hosted foreign visitors.  Many of its hotels were simply called “Intourist.”; others carried solely the name of the city.)  Sprawling and centrally located, it features a vast lobby a huge dining/ballroom and tiny elevators; service, however, is entirely lacking. My windows overlook the now-lonely statute of Lenin.


The city is located in the foothills of the Caucasus and is in the extreme south of Russia proper.  Russians have been coming to Pyatigorsk since Czarist days to bathe in its hot springs and imbibe its many varieties of foul-tasting mineral waters.  

The first day is resting up followed by a tour of the city.  It’s quite pretty: gardens, and a number of restored pre-Revolutionary building   Somehow it escaped being designated a  Soviet “workers’ retreat” and concomitant architectural piles.


On a hill overlooking the city visitors have left helpful directional signs.  Not being forewarned, I was unable to add “Jacksonville” to the collection.


The next day we enter the Karachay-Cherkess Republic (in English, “Circassia.”).  We first stop at the partially-restored ruins of a 1000+ year old hilltop shrine.  It is known as a Xram, which translates as “temple”; when you pronounce it in Russian you will find that is the exact word Borat uses to refer to his most precious organ.


We drive to the Dombay resort area.  A big ski destination; in the summer hiking and mountain air.  Nice views and a parked UFO. 

A late Soviet-era hotel is a carbuncle on the landscape: it was abandoned midway before completion due to engineering failure; apparently, architechural vision was deemed more important than structural integrity.


On the way back to Pytigorsk a trout farm where your dinner is what you catch.  I land a whopper, which they grill up nicely.


The next day a trip to the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria and Mt Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.  A series of ski-lifts takes us up past 12,000 ft, where there is still plenty of snow.  I make a snowball, then have lunch in the warm café.


At the Youth Palace in Nalchik, capital of the republic, I get a ride to Vladikavkaz, capital of the Republic of North Ossetia.


Founded as a military outpost, the name translates to “Ruler of the Caucasus” (alternatively, “I own the Caucasus”), a bombastic moniker bestowed by the Czarist conquerors.  A good place for giant statutes.



I stay at the Imperial Hotel, built in 1895 and restored to its former glory.  There are two categories of rooms: suites for the nobility and cells for their servants; I opt for the former.  The theme of the decor is red velvet and gold brocade.


The city has a few sights, most notably the mosque, which, due to its historic character, was one of the few allowed to remain open during Soviet times.


The next day I meet Abdullah, who will show me the three republics of North Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.  We drive out of the city and into the countryside on unpaved roads and tracks.  En route, in the middle of nowhere, is a rude surprise: a flash flood has washed out a bridge, requiring a lengthy backtrack and reroute.


Our destination is the Dargavs tombs, a medieval necropolis.  There are no records to date them: estimates of the oldest range from the 12th to the 16th centuries.  They are family tombs used until modern times – they just kept adding bones.


Also in the area are towers, a building form found throughout the Caucasus. They served as family fortifications and refuges during multigenerational feuds.


A rare sight outside museums these days are the once ubiquitous busts of Stalin.  A Caucasian from Georgia, he is still admired here.


We return to Vladikavkaz for the night.  The next day the program is the Republic of Ingushetia.  The very best towers are located in what is considered a sensitive border region for which foreigners need a permit to access.  One is supposed to apply a month in advance, and this trip was put together on two-weeks notice.  Despite assurances from the local authorities that I would get the permit, everything must be approved in Moscow which operates on its own timeline.  No dice. The consolation prize is some crummier towers and some very nice scenery.



We end up in the capital, Magas, a compact new city.  Nothing understated here: my hotel has a décor straight out of Las Vegas complete with gold-plated plumbing fixtures. 


The principal attraction is the "Tower of Agreement", a new structure that bills itself at the world’s tallest ethnographic museum.  I vote it as the world’s tallest building without an elevator: an inclined ramp circles all the way to the top from which you have an excellent view of the empty plain surrounding.



A couple a miles away is the Museum of Memory and Glory, a memorial complex to Ingushetian national heroes.  It is an assemblage of heroic statues and a memorial to many travails endured over history.


A symbolic tower wrapped in barbed wire represents the several nationalities deported by Stalin in the 1940’s.  Entire populations were loaded onto freight cars and moved to central Asia; those that survived were only permitted to return after his death.


On to Chechnya!  The borders between the republics exist primarily on a map, although an extreme sense of ethnic identity keeps everyone acutely aware of them.  (The area between the Black and Caspian Seas contain at least thirty distinct languages and many more dialects.) We head back into the mountains and explore some tower ruins.  We end the day at Grozny, the capital.


It is safe to say that there is no love lost between the Chechens and the Russians.  Over a million Chechens were deported by Stalin and many of those unable to make the journey were simply massacred.  After the breakup of the Soviet Union they rebelled.  The first Chechen War (1994-96), during the regime of Boris Yeltsin, ended in am uneasy truce.  By the time of the Second Chechen War in 1999, a new czar was in Moscow and he was not about to accept an equivocal outcome: Grozny was flattened, and the rebels either killed or converted to Putinism. There is little support for the regime among the populace, who tend to keep their heads down and try to go about their lives.

 “Welcome to the land of heroes” is the greeting on a brochure in my hotel room.  “We have shown the world we know how to fight; now we must show the world we know how to live” is the inspiring quote of the Akhmet Kadyrov, the first president of the puppet government installed by Moscow.  Unfortunately, he got blown up after less than a year in office. 


He was succeeded by his son.  Everywhere their portraits are displayed along with Putin’s, or, as the locals wryly called them, “The Father, The Son, and the Holy Ghost.”


The monument and museum devoted to Kadyrov contain some of the best kitsch this side of Pyongyang.  Apart from the supervised flower-laying I witnessed outside, I am the only visitor.



The city has been entirely rebuilt. The new high street is Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin Prospect. A showpiece is The Heart of Chechnya Mosque, a/k/a the Kadyrov Mosque.   



To convince the populace that the overlords are not hostile to Islam, there are new mosques aplenty. The one in Argun is pleasingly modernistic and in Shali is the largest mosque in Europe.




I am dropped off at Lake Kezanoyam, an Alpine lake that straddles the border between Chechnya and Dagestan.  In keeping with the setting, there is a chalet-style hotel in which I overnight.



Close by is a abandoned village now restored as a museum.



The next day I am picked up by my new guide.  He doesn’t speak English so the gal from Pyatigorsk has come along as a translator.  In addition to knowing the roads and back country, he has an off road SUV that will prove very useful.


We take off across the dirt road into Dagestan.  Nice scenery and a picnic lunch. 



We stop in a village to see a centuries-old water-powered mill in action.



Then, a local factory that produces Urbech, a local speciality made from roasted, ground nuts.



The night is spent in a homestay where the scenery is good and the food even better.  I also get a great present: a papakha, the traditional Caucasus hat that looks like an albino fright wig.  Also, a lovely T-shirt. 



A day exploring Dagestan.


The mountaintop fortress of Akhoulgo, stronghold of Imam Shamil who led the fight against the invading Russians in the mid-nineteenth century.


Nearby a vantage point and below that a dam. 



Lunch at the mountainside village of Chokh.  The mother of the Boston Marathon bombers is from here, which is about the only reason anyone has heard of Dagestan. 



We end the day in Gunib, a historic village where Imam Shamil finally surrendered, ending the Caucasian War.  In 1871 Tsar Alexander II journeyed here for a victory banquet. (And where Lenin is a hobbit.) 




In the morning we trek to the ghost village of Gamsutl, the Machu Picchu of Dagestan.  Dating back 1500 years or more, it was thriving right up to modern times.  People started to move away in the 1950s, and the last resident left in the 70’s.  Our all-terrain vehicle’s ability negotiate the former road saves us many hours of hiking from the valley below.


On to Derbent, the oldest and southernmost city in the Russian Federation.  Strategically located on the narrow coastal strip between the Caucuses mountains and the Caspian sea, it has been inhabited since at least the 8th century B.C. Historically the northern outpost of the Persian Empire, it was ceded to the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century. 


A hilltop Persian fortress dominates the city. 

The Jumil Mosque was built in the year 736.


That’s it for the tour.  The next day I am at the airport at Malachkaya, the capital of Dagestan and largest city a bit further up the coast.  I have a few days on my own before my flight(s) home. There not being a lot of destinations to choose from; I have opted for Stavropol, less than a hour distant.

This is the Russia I like: a mid-size city that is interesting, not expensive, and untouristed.  It has shaken off the Soviet patina of grimness without rejecting its past.  Thus, a very nice hotel in the center is within walking distance of a number of sights old and new.  Lenin still stands as does Kalinin, and street names include Karl Marx, and October Revolution. 


Added to them are the Angel Monument and the rebuilt Cathedral (original destroyed by Stalin).


The final few days are along the Black Sea at Sochi, the Miami Beach of Russia.  As the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics, visitor infrastructure is quite well-developed.  It’s balmy and even downright hot on the coast, but the western Caucasus reach almost to the sea, putting cold weather and snow close at hand.

I have reserved an upscale apartment in the center. Unfortunately, I had failed to secure a registration form for my last hotel and the sticklers-for-detail at reception will not let me check-in.  I need to fly under the radar: the only place I can find willing to overlook this omission is a block of Soviet-era holiday flats a bit further out.  Somewhat depressing, but not too bad once you get used to the ironing board at the foot of the bed and the washing machine under the bathroom sink.

Sochi has been part of Russia since 1829 but really came into its own as a fashionable resort under Stalin.  The entire coastline became dotted with health spas under the aegis of various government, military, and worker organizations.  Outside the historic center, modern Sochi is marked by glitzy high-rises.



At the top of my Sochi hit parade is Stalin’s Dacha, now open to the public.  What a gloomy place!  Lots of cool Stalin kitsch and a great souvenir shop.



Out front is a look-alike and a late-era Chaika limosine.


Hidden in the hills is the opulent, neoclassical Ordzhonkidze Sanatorium.  It is closed and off-limits: to see it one has to trespass the fence and dodge the guys with bullhorns ordering interlopers away.  A magnificent ruin.


Further down the coast near Sukhumi in the breakaway, unrecognized “Republic of Abkhazia” are even better Soviet ruins.  Unfortunately, “due to CoVID”, the border is closed to foreigners.  Maybe someday I’ll get there.

From Sochi there are frequent flights to Moscow where I catch my connections back home.  Dosvidanya!


 Trip date: August, 2021