Stage 20 – Russia & South Ossetia: The North Caucasus [2/2]
This final leg of my 2010 journey through the Caucasus would take me through the republics of North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan; places almost unknown to the outside world, and places where most Russian citizens would fear to visit, being synonymous with terrorism, war, lawlessness and corruption. While I would witness first hand these negative aspects of the region, they would be minor frustrations in comparison to the fascinating cultural richness of this seldom-visited corner of Russia.
It’s the 19th May 2010 as I emerge from the Roka Tunnel, re-entering Russia and plunging headlong into an ordeal which would recur throughout the republics I am passing through on my way to the Caspian Sea, namely suspicion from the authorities. After winding down ten kilometres past stationary artillery pieces left at the road side, I enter the border compound of Nizhny Zarmag. Instead of passing through with minimal fuss, as I had done four days earlier when I had left Russia, I am the focus of intense suspicion and repeated questioning regarding being a journalist, spy or terrorist. The truck is searched in great detail; a business card in Dari from a Kabul motor factor arouses suspicions, as do my large collection of photos on CDs which are viewed on my laptop. I am made to stay at the border from around 10:00 until closing time at 18:00, when I am instructed to follow a member of the intelligence services all the way down to Vladikavkaz, where I am interviewed by the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti or FSB, the successor of the Soviet KGB. I am asked cleverly sequenced questions designed to expose contradictory or false statements, asked why I am visiting North Ossetia, and upon mentioning some sites in the mountains, I am told that I may not leave any Federal Highway without a special permit. I am ultimately advised that “It is better that you leave our republic”.
The ordeal ends sometime after 22:00 when suspicions are finally allayed, and I am free to go. It is now more than two days since my last meal, the shops are closed, and my intended host Alan has had to leave town at the last minute, all of which make for a less than pleasant introduction. I drive a little way out of town and bed down in the truck in a damp lay-by as rain lashes down outside, thinking that I might just take the advice of the FSB and head east, out of Ossetia. It is curiously reminiscent to my first entry into Russia three years earlier, at the very beginning of the journey.
In the morning, as often happens, circumstances unfold to turn my luck around. I have a stroll in the morning through streets of Tsarist-era architecture, seeing relatively little of the ugly modern development which typifies many provincial Russian cities. Set on a gentle slope astride the rushing grey waters of the Terek River, Vladikavkaz is leafy and green, but shows few signs of being distinclty Ossetian as opposed to Russian. I break my unplanned two-day fast at a small street kiosk next to a bus stop, where I consume a very memorable slice of lemon curd cake, then peruse the bazaar briefly before returning to the car. Here I receive a message from Alan that his trip is cancelled, and I am invited to stay with him and his father Ruslan in their comfortable apartment.
Alan and his father are Ossetians, living descendants of the Alans, a western branch of the Scythians, who as well as being Alan’s namesake, lend their name to the full title of the republic as North Ossetia-Alania. To look at, the Ossetians have Mediterranean features, but are highly integrated into modern Russia. Indeed, the predominantly Orthodox Ossetians have long been Russian allies, something which has helped foment poor relations with their predominantly Muslim neighbours, most notably the Ingush.
Perhaps the only time that North Ossetia has come to world attention was for the appalling hostage crisis and siege of School No.1 in the town of Beslan, 30 kilometres north of Vladikavkaz, in September 2004. Whilst the motives, number and identity of the attackers, the number of victims, and the exact sequence of events are lost in the murkiness of Russian politics, the incident was unequivocally horrific. Alan drives me first to the new graveyard of all the victims of the school siege, which sits alone out in grassy fields close to the airport. Row upon row of fresh red graves show images of children, often with several coming from the same family.
In Beslan itself, the remains of the school are truly chilling, with boarded-up classrooms strewn with debris; furniture, books and children’s toys are visible through gaps between the boards which partially obscure the smashed windows. In the remains of the central gymnasium, which has been given new roof beams in order to preserve it as a memorial, a cross has been erected and pictures of the more than 300 victims are hung on the walls. The gymnasium bears many scars from the siege; holes in the thick wooden floor, bullet holes, ballistic damage and blackening from the explosives of the hostage-takers and the weapons of the Russian Army who stormed the school despite ongoing negotiations. It seems that many of the hostage-takers were Ingush, rather than Chechen as initially assumed, and that the crisis is one more recent orgy of inter-ethnic hatred in the Caucasus between neighbouring nations. Perhaps because the ruins are so fresh, or perhaps because so many of the victims were children, I find the place deeply unsettling, more so than for example Auschwitz, where so many more perished.
Alan’s father Ruslan is a travel agent, and runs tours for Russians into the mountains of North Ossetia, incorporating a touch of new-age spiritualism which has become quite popular in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet religious vacuum, and meshes somewhat with the faintly perceptible shamanism and paganism of the region, which might have its roots in the times of nomadic horse-herding on the Eurasian Steppe. Ruslan is leaving tomorrow for the mountains with a small group and invites me to join, dismissing the warnings I’ve had from the FSB. I gratefully accept, and am also invited to join them in the evening for dinner at his friend Yuri’s apartment. It’s a wonderful evening of good spirits, home cooked food, vodka, music and dancing. Outside a storm gathers and the apartment roof is struck by lightning. What a wonderful turnaround today has been.
We all meet the following morning, and leave town in a convoy of three cars, heading initially west back to Alagir, then south, travelling back up the Ardon Valley from where I had just returned from South Ossetia. After a little more than twenty kilometres, we turn left, crossing the river and leaving the Trans-Caucasian Highway, winding up unpaved switchbacks, then over a forested ridge and come down to the hamlet of Dagom. Ruslan has chosen to strike camp at this site for its great natural energy, and the setting is undeniably magnificent. Located on a small outcrop, Dagom is backed by a large amphitheatre of lush green grass, high above the yawning Ardon Valley. Across the valley, the broad Tsey Valley opens up, running south-west beneath a ridge of jagged snowcapped peaks to the crest line of the Greater Caucasus. All around, bright limestone walls emerge from virgin pine forest, glowing warmly in the evening light. I can’t imagine many finer settings in which to camp.
In the morning, the air is perfectly clear, and I go to explore the hillside behind Dagom, which is dotted with ruined examples of the distinctly Caucasian Nakh style of architecture. While much has been reduced to rubble, Dagom must once have been a sizeable village, and its ruined watchtowers sit like broken teeth amongst rocky outcrops. Just as intriguing are the low crypts, which like the towers are built from large limestone blocks and lime mortar. Inside these crypts lie uncovered skeletons and bones, a tradition which suggests either that it was Nakh people (Ingush and Chechens) who inhabited these ruined settlements, or that the Ossetians inherited the burial customs of their neighbours.
After lunch and a short walk into the forest, Yuri, and Ossetian friends Georgiy and Sasha need to collect some supplies from the nearby town of Verkhny Fiagdon, and invite me to join them. We head east, over the 2200 m Arkhon Pass, and down into the town. While Yuri and Georgiy attend to business, Sasha and I head for the hillside behind town, on which lies another abandoned settlement named Tsimity. As we walk up the hillside, Sasha starts to tell me something of Ossetian history. The Alans mostly moved west into Central and Western Europe, and North Africa, contemporaneously with peoples such as the Goths, Huns and Vandals, around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Sasha tells me that the Alans even figure in British history, claiming that the legend of King Arthur is based on Alanian myths from the Caucasus. Certainly, there is considerable evidence that Caucasian and Celtic legends may have intertwined to create the story of King Arthur. As we approach the uppermost of the ruins in Tsimity, Sasha tells me that one of the towers was built by his family, several generations ago. Low grey clouds broil over the ridge-line above us, and a team of dark horses graze on the grassy meadow below. It’s intriguingly similar to the conjured images of Medieval England, and more interesting still to think that the Ossetians may represent a remnant culture of a race of peoples who are surely very widely disseminated into modern day Western Europeans.
The evening is spent around a large campfire on which dinner is cooked, and the Ossetians (principally Georgiy) are passing round spirt, which turns out to be neat alcohol. Against better judgement I take a shot. The stuff makes Georgian chacha at 60% taste rather watery; the spirt burns all the way down and sets off an internal ache which lasts for less than a minute but is sufficient to deter me from taking any more.
In the morning, I leave the group, who will stay on here for a week or so, and head east, over the pass and through Verkhny Fiagdon further east to what initially drew my interests to the North Ossetian mountains; the necropolis of Dargavs, colloquially known as the ‘City of the Dead’. To my surprise, when I arrive there are a bus-load of Russian tourists from Stavropol touring the site, but once they have departed I have the necropolis to myself. Consisting of 99 low crypts in the Nakh style, many with curved, ridged roofs reminiscent of the sikharas of classical Hindu temples, Dargavs is alleged to have been decimated by a plague, which explains the number of corpses still lying uncovered in the crypts, in various states of decomposition. It is even said that people who were the last of their families, would enter the crypts voluntarily and await their death. Whatever the story behind it, Dargavs is strangely fascinating in a macabre sense, and along with Dagom, Tsimity, and dozens of other abandoned settlements in the region seems to be evidence of great social changes in this region of the Caucasus.
As I drive back down towards the Federal Highway, in order to return to Vladikavkaz, I have a very narrow escape with trouble. A police car drives past me in the opposite direction, which in my rear view mirror I see swiftly turn around and close in behind me with lights on. The North Ossetian traffic police have been perhaps the most corrupt I have encountered on my entire journey, but instead of inventing some petty infraction and demanding a pay-off as usual, they simply demand my passport, then get in their car and start to make a phone call. I know exactly who they are likely to be calling; the FSB in Vladikavkaz, perhaps the very people who had advised me to leave North Ossetia. Although I am presently unaware of the fact, the penalty for being caught in this region without a permit is a stiff fine, deportation from Russia and a ban on re-entering the country for five years. With plans to be in and out of Russia for the next eleven months, deportation would be a disaster for the Odyssey. By sheer chance, the police are unable to get a signal to Vladikavkaz, whereas I am able to call Alan and hand the phone to the police. To this day I have no idea what Alan said, but after talking for five minutes or so, the police hand me back my passport and drive off. Almost shaking, I speed down to the main road, pull out and put my foot down to blend in with the traffic. Moments later I hear a police siren behind me, and see another police car in my mirror. Thankfully, it overtakes me and I reach Alan’s home without further incident.
The Ingush Republic is my next destination and I say goodbye to Alan the day after returning from the mountains, and head east. The border is just twenty kilometres by road from Vladikavkaz, and is heavily militarised. I leave North Ossetia without a problem, but am immediately stopped at the police checkpoint of the Ingush authorities. A thuggish looking policeman with gold teeth leans out of the window, asks for my passport, then without even trumping-up any charge, demands a payment of two hundred roubles. I refuse, and am summoned into his office. Here the officer has a quick scan in my bag, then with a grin on his face points his pistol at me and demands money again. I refuse once more, and the officer makes further requests for me to take my trousers off, and then for me to pay him in order to shoot his machine gun from the back of his check post. I refuse each request, until he finally dismisses me, with a line of traffic forming behind my truck. I realise he is joking, but all the same it is a slightly shocking entry to his republic.
Once past the police, I am in the outskirts of the largest city of the tiny Ingush Republic, Nazran. The contrast with neighbouring North Ossetia is stark; one of the most abrupt changes in atmosphere I have come across without crossing an international border. Whilst Vladikavkaz is a calm, clean Russian city, hardly distinguishable from any other, Nazran is a wild and shambolic place more reminiscent of Pakistan. The Ingush speed along the streets wildly in battered Russian cars with blacked-out windows and blaring music, in flagrant disregard of any speed limit, then might half pull off the road and onto the verge to meet another car load of Ingush, shake hands and start business. Nazran looks recently built but often rather shabby, though the odd large luxury house hints at some distribution of wealth. It’s hard to believe that I am just twenty five kilometres from the tranquillity of Vladikavkaz, but I immediately warm to the place.
Just to the south of the main highway, on the edge of Nazran stands a large modern structure in the Nakh style of the Ingush, consisting of a fusion of multiple siege towers constructed on a broad, shallow hill. Around the towers is wrapped a stylised band of barbed wire, and the perimeter of the grassy hill is surrounded by Ingush gravestones which had evidently been uprooted during Soviet times. The complex is a monument to the oppression of Stalin, who on the 23rd February 1943 accused the Ingush of collaborating with the Nazis, and deported the entire population to Central Asia and Siberia. More than half were though to have perished, in what many label as genocide. Upon returning from exile, surviving Ingush returned to find Russians and Ossetians living in parts of what the Ingush regarded as their land, deepening tensions between the two, which in 1992 erupted into yet another regional war shortly after the dissolution of the USSR, which was fought over the eastern environs of Vladikavkaz. With open Russian support, the Ossetians were victorious, but the conflict was most likely the root cause of the Beslan School hostage crisis, which is thought to have been perpetrated by largely Ingush hostage-takers.
From Nazran I continue east along the main highway which passes through a string of villages and residential districts, mostly consisting of low, modern houses on the grassy belt of undulating farmland which marks the transition from mountains to plains. I soon arrive in the town of Karabulak, where I am met by my Ingush host Yahya. Yahya brings me back to his home, where he lives with his extended family who are extremely welcoming. His wife and mother cook and prepare tea for us as we sit around the large kitchen table which seems to be the centre of the household. The Ingush (along with the Chechens) are a very ancient Caucasian nation, thought to have migrated from the Fertile Crescent around the dawn of civilisation. Once Christian, the Ingush were converted to Islam peacefully in the late eighteenth century and have a reputation as fierce mountain warriors. While I feel nothing but warmth and hospitality from my Ingush hosts, I am clearly in a far more traditional household than I have been in anywhere else in Russia.
Yahya also introduces me to his cousin Amir, whom I warm to immediately. His pleasant, smiling demeanour however betrays a rather tragic family history, and as I get to know Amir better, I learn of the struggles his family have had to endure which while shocking, are probably not particularly atypical for the region. Born a son of exiles in Kazakhstan in the 1950s, Amir’s father was returned to Russia like most Ingush in 1957, fourteen years after the initial deportation, and settled in Vladikavkaz. In 1992, when Amir was a child, his family lost their home in the conflict with Ossetia. Moving to Grozny, it was just two years before the same fate befell the family again; this time in the First Chechen War of 1994 when their house was levelled by the Russian Army. Today the family lives in small wooden house in Karabulak, though even this sleepy town is witness to a very active and ongoing insurgency, with almost weekly attacks and bombings targeting soldiers and officers, and kidnappings and murders by government security forces. A huge poster not far from Yahya’s house shows a sobering head-count of dead soldiers, with no such depiction of the number of Ingush – one of Amir’s cousins included – who have simply vanished. Despite the pleasant appearances, Ingushetia seems very much to continue the tradition of being a wild and untamed, yet beautiful and hospitable place.
Sadly much of this tiny ethnic republic lies in a restricted border zone and whilst waiting (ultimately fruitlessly) for a permit to visit the beautiful mountain villages of Dzheirakhsky District, I make a trip to Chechnya. I am picked up by a car full of Chechens on the main highway outside Karabulak, the driver of which, Zelim, is a friend of a friend of Karolina, whom I had met the previous month in Georgia. We are soon speeding along the highway at 160 km/h, through fields of poppies and lush green grass, blaring Chechen pop music and heading straight to the undemarcated border with Chechnya. Aside from a Russian Army post just inside the Republic, there are no signs of conflict, and the outskirts of Grozny are clean and pleasant-looking, with even the odd surviving Tsarist-era house.
Despite some bullet-marks on older buildings, and the odd vacant lot, the impression Grozny gives is very much one of prosperity and modernity, with older Soviet-era apartment buildings smartened with cream-coloured siding and crimson rooftops, and a clutch of new luxury apartment complexes. On almost every street one sees posters of the Kadyrovs; late father Akhmad, swarthy and wearing a lambskin hat, and son Ramzan, the squat, boorish, red-haired current President of Chechnya. The seeming prosperity is of course largely the result of huge investment from Moscow, and in many of the street posters Kadyrov can be seen shaking hands with, embracing or even kissing President Putin. These touches of a personality cult, together with the smart (if rather sterile) air mean the city feels far more like one of the Central Asian capitals than anywhere else in Russia.
Zelim lives with his wife and small son in a modest detached house towards the edge of Grozny which has a more authentically Chechen village atmosphere compared with the modernity of the centre. After dark he takes me into town to what is without doubt the centrepiece of Grozny’s resurrection and rehabilitation from more than a decade of brutal civil war. The Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque is a huge, graceful and of course modern structure built in 2009 in the style of the finest Ottoman mosques, complete with a large landscaped park of fountains and walking paths. Even at 22:00 the area is still lively with groups of roaming Chechens in colourful, smart clothes and skullcaps lending it the feel of a mini-Mecca for North Caucasian Muslims; a good impression that the city’s restoration is more than simply aesthetic.
In the morning Zelim drives me up into the mountains on a winding road through the foothills which for so long were the battleground between Chechen guerillas and the Russian Army. As in Grozny, the signs of war are few, and we wind ever higher into a magnificent landscape of sleepy villages and rolling, verdant beech forest. Out of this vernal woodland sprouts the occasional ancient Chechen siege tower, and upon reaching the town of Itum Kale we find a particularly fine example and climb up its internal stairways to survey the surrounding area; to the south lies a wide ridge still covered in snow, marking the Georgian border, whilst following the valley upstream for 30 km would lead to Dagestan. The owner of the tower finds us in its top room, and is pleasantly surprised to have a foreign visitor in his family’s ancient tower, which he has just finished restoring. The kind and good natured Chechens, the smart and tranquil city of Grozny, and the strikingly beautiful Chechen countryside are all a world away from the popular image of the Republic, and are testament perhaps to an effective peace process helped with huge investment and Kadyrov’s iron fist.
Returning to Grozny I bid farewell to Zelim and take a taxi back to Karabulak. Sadly my permit application has not progressed and so the following day I leave Ingushetia, saying goodbye to Yahya and his family, and to Amir, and drive myself back into Chechnya, past Grozny and on into the final, and perhaps most alluring of all the Caucasus Republics: the mountainous land of Dagestan. Crossing the Aksay River, I enter Dagestan, heading east towards the Caspian Sea. Wildflowers fill the grassy hillsides to the south of the road, and families are camped by the roadside in ancient Ikarus buses, selling honey to passing motorists. Huge, battered old trucks haul loads along this arterial road, bringing goods from the South Caucasus, Iran, Turkey and beyond into seething market towns such as Khasavyurt. Immediately Dagestan feels wilder and less organised than Chechnya with crowds thronging down litter-strewn market streets far more Asian than Russian in feel. Further east, the land becomes drier, even supporting a small field of wind-blown sand dunes as I approach the capital, Makhachkala.
I have a brief run-in with the traffic police and FSB at a checkpoint on the city’s edge, but soon enough I meet my host Bagdat, a local journalist and museum employee who accompanies me back to his home. Dagestan consists of a patchwork of remote mountain valleys at the far eastern end of the North Caucasus, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Unlike Chechnya or Ingushetia, Dagestan is ethnically very heterogeneous, with no nation forming a majority. Locals tell of 33 nations co-existing in this small republic, with Avars, Dargins, Kumyks and Lezgians making up the largest groups. Makhachkala has a slightly raffish and Soviet atmosphere with Russian being used as the lingua franca between the city’s many nations, and is far removed from the slightly soulless modernity of Grozny, but it is not a particularly interesting place. My host, Bagdat, is a member of the Lak Nation, and we have arranged the following day to visit the Lak District up in the mountains, far from the slightly muggy Caspian Coast.
The two of us leave the following morning and drive for a short distance along the coastal plains, then turn inland at Manas and wind up through rambling villages with fantastic names – Karabudakhkent, Gubden, Levashi, Khadzhalmakhi, Tashkapur, many of which have Turkic origins. Rather surprisingly, the polyglot valleys of the interior of Dagestan are largely very peaceful, but it is in these lower areas where a Salafist insurgency is gaining momentum, often targeting the Russian authorities in Makhachkala and other coastal cities. The villages which I pass through are charming, with a timeless air, and are subtly different from any others in the region; despite the relatively good road links, the area feels splendidly isolated.
Our first stop is the historical aul (village) of Gunib, where Bagdat and I sample the local variety of khinkal, which varies in form across the region. Whilst Georgian khinkali are meat-filled dumplings rather like Central Asian manty, Gunib’s khinkal are served as lumps of steamed dough which are eaten with a large piece of meat in a rich sauce. We then visit the museum, a charmingly faded Soviet collection of folk items from around the region, including the decorated spoonboxes for which Dagestan is famous. Gunib also has a spectacular location, with the village perched on a small, flat shelf on the edge of a towering cliff, high above the muddy waters of the Karakoysu River. It made a natural choice for a fortress, the remains of which we drive through as we wind up the switchbacks behind the village, and it was here in 1859 that Imam Shamil, the last leader of the independent Caucasian Imamate of Avaristan was captured by the Russians, leading to total Russian domination of the North Caucasus in 1864. Before leaving Gunib, Bagdat and I visit a sanatorium where he spent a summer as a child in the dying, halcyon days of the USSR. This spectacularly beautiful, and historically and ethnically interesting region, once a magnet for tourists and hikers within the USSR now has something of a pariah status within Russia, and sees virtually no visitors.
Dropping back down into the valley, we return to Khadzhalmakhi, then turn south towards Bagdat’s native Laksky Rayon (Lak District), past dry, stony hillsides grazed by sheep, cliffs of white limestone and then deeply green valleys dotted with timeless stone auls and the odd minaret. In the district capital of Kumukh we visit an elegant stone mosque with small, coloured relief details around its sturdy stone windows, before arriving in the aul of Showkra, and the house of Bagdat’s grandmother’s uncle. Despite the remote location, driving on muddy tracks through stone villages, the house is modern and comfortable inside, and I am impressed by a large and full bookcase. After tea, Bagdat and I walk around the village, him fondly recalling childhood summers spent here and myself revelling in being in deepest Dagestan. I am warmly received by a group of older men who are sitting in a godekhan, a male-only half-open structure for sitting and chatting, like a very simple Turkish Coffeehouse. There is nothing like a coffee service here, though one or two of the men have clearly been enjoying some vodka. These are not the fierce, devoutly Muslim warriors who inhabit the hills of Chechnya and Ingushetia.
In the morning, after a wonderful sleep in the peace of the mountains, Bagdat and I continue south-east, climbing ever higher into the damp, grassy mountains, occasionally eroded into black slate scree slopes. We pass the impressive stone auls of Vachi, Kuli and Khosrekh, leaving behind any other traffic and climbing into the boiling cloud of the 2600 m Kokma Pass. From here the muddy track begins its steady descent back towards the coast, passing another swathe of traditional auls. First of the villages is Chirag, partly abandoned but with a vast, ancient graveyard spreading far up a sodden green hillside, its mostly rough-hewn megaliths reposing at various crooked angles. There are peculiar roadside monuments consisting of finely carved and painted gravestones housed in small stone altars. Most striking by far however, is a triple-tiered, three metre high whitewashed mausoleum, tied with colourful votive prayer rags and even a small female figurine, made entirely out of strips of material, which I assume to be some kind of fertility idol.
Next is the aul of Richa, which is larger and more lively than Chirag. Flocks of sheep are being grazed by shepherds on the green hills around the village, from which torrents of runoff are pouring into the muddy river which the road parallels. Many of Richa’s overlapping, dark stone houses are built above vaulted passageways and tunnels, sometimes closed off by magnificent carved walnut doors, creating a maze of winding, muddy and deeply charming lanes whose walls are stacked with dung patties, used as fuel in this tree-less landscape. Towering above the village houses is the striking eleventh century stone minaret of a mosque built into the hillside, making this one of the most distinctive of Dagestan’s many auls. The locals whom I meet; men out grazing sheep and women out collecting water are surprised to see an outsider, but are immediately welcoming and hospitable. All these aspects make Richa a truly compelling place – one of the most enchanting in all of the Caucasus – and I am momentarily regretful not to have more time to stay here.
We wind down past more stone auls, past more megalithic graves and whitewashed roadside shrines, the land slowly changing, losing is harshness as we get closer to the warmth of the lowlands. We pass Tpig and stop in Khiv, populated by the Tabassaran Nation, famed for their extremely complex grammar. Here I see elaborately carved, rather phallic gravestones in walnut forests, overgrown with hemlock and other familiar weeds. Beyond Khiv the villages become more modern and less charming, though the scenery remains very pleasant as we drop onto the lightly-farmed plains around Kasumkent. It’s then just a short drive to the coast, to Derbent, the second city of Dagestan, where Bagdat takes an onward bus back to Makhachkala and I meet my Azerbaijani host Rishat.
Derbent has long been a strategic entrepôt to the North Caucasus region, is said to be Russia’s oldest city, and is one which I very quickly fall in love with. With a cosmopolitan mix of Eurasian faces – dark skinned Lezgins and Azerbaijanis, Turkic-looking Nogays and pale skinned Russians, the sound of the midday azan (call to prayer), the buzzing of motorcycle rickshaws, pot-holed streets and piles of rubbish, colourful bazaars, muggy climate and air of neglect, all give it strong touches of the Middle East or Central Asia, and it feels very far removed from the cities of Russia ‘proper’. Dominating the city is the beautiful Naryn Kala, a Sassanian-era (Persian) fortress executed in warm yellow sandstone, overlooking the narrow coastal strip which it has guarded and controlled for more than 1500 years, connecting the Eurasian Steppe with Persia and the Middle East,
From the fortress, Derbent sprawls down to the coastline in a swathe of irregular sandstone homes, once bounded by the towering city walls, whose fortified gates are now minor traffic bottlenecks rather than staging points on the north-south trade routes. In amongst the roofs are signs of Derbent’s great ethnic diversity; a large Azerbaijani Mosque set in a courtyard of ancient chinar (plane) trees, an elegant Armenian Church, even a recently restored synagogue belonging to the tiny relict community of Mountain Jews. Immediately below the fortress, either side of the modern road linking Makhachkala and Baku, is a rambling medieval graveyard of magnificently carved sandstone gravestones, many two metres high or more, leaning at awkward angles or sometimes totally collapsed, testament to many centuries of inhabitation. The city gates have portals supported by Persian-style columns with fine muqarnas (corbels), now half buried, and there is even a very early Soviet building still sporting stucco mouldings of Marx and Engels. Long market streets run downhill towards the beaches of the Caspian where fishermen congregate on small rocky spits and cast their lines into the sea.
Even a brief run-in with the FSB, whom I am taken to by some good-natured crooked traffic cops after walking past their checkpost, is unthreatening, with the officers explaining that they are doing this as much for my own safety as for their intelligence. For the first time since Afghanistan perhaps, I feel as if I have ‘discovered’ a wonderful place for myself, having had no prior knowledge that the city would be quite as alluring as it is.
One afternoon, Rishat takes me to spend a night in his native village of Darvag, a few kilometres inland from the road to Makhachkala, set amongst rolling walnut forests overlooking the coastal plains where the mountains peter-out in grassy hills strung with ‘cognac’ producing vineyards, populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis and very different from the imposing stone auls of the interior. I am sadly too late to try the grilled hedgehog which his uncle has just finished eating, but at one of his neighbours’ houses, I do get to try some freshly made chudu, a baked pastry filled with minced beef and tripe.
Returning, I spend a final morning walking around Derbent before reluctantly parting with Rishat and this magnificent coastal city which has made for such a fine conclusion to my trip eastwards across the region. The road to Makhachkala passes towns such as Izberbash and Kaspiysk which are frequently targeted by insurgents, though the standard of local driving on the road strikes me as presenting more of a hazard. I stay in Makhachkala for a night with Bagdat, though his rather musty house sets off my allergies and I retire to the truck, parked in his driveway, at around 04:30.
At 05:00 I hear the first volleys of machine-gun fire. The police are blocking off the entrance to a nearby road in a UAZ, standing around nonchalantly, so I somehow dismiss the shooting as coming from an army barracks or other training facility. Before long however I hear exchanges of fire, and a bullet comes whistling over my position. Loud explosions can be heard, and people are running past the still-relaxed police at the end of the road. I hunker down in the cab and try to get a few hours of rest, but as dawn breaks there is no let-up. Bagdat emerges from the house and finds me in my car, and I ask him what’s going on. ‘They are shooting terrorists. Come in and have breakfast’ he says calmly. The shooting is still going on at 08:30, with plumes of smoke rising in the air, when I say a very grateful farewell to Bagdat – who has shown me the spectacular and rarely-visited interior of Dagestan.
I drive back towards the market town of Khasavyurt, then strike off north towards the vast Eurasian Steppe which occupies so much of this continent. Behind me the Caucasus, with all their beautiful scenery, fascinating ethnic diversity, convoluted history and troubled, sometimes warring nations very quickly recede and disappear into the summer haze. It would take far longer however for them to leave my thoughts.