The North Caucasus evokes 2 basic reactions from the average non-Russian:
A Blank Stare
— «Where is that? What is that?» Most people have never heard of this part of the world and therefore have nothing to say about it, and no context in which to understand it.
Fear & Uncertainty
— «Isn’t it dangerous to go there?» Others remember something about a war in the 1990s and have already made up their minds that it’s a dangerous place.
Unfortunately, around the world, the North Caucasus is riddled with outdated, unfair, and untrue stereotypes. Can you indulge us to paint a fuller, more accurate picture of this fascinating region? We present to you, a beginner’s guide to the North Caucasus Mountains of Russia.
WHERE IS THE NORTH CAUCASUS
The Caucasus Mountain range is in the far southwestern corner of Russia, stretching west to east from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. The southern border connects to the «South Caucasus» or «Trans-Caucasus»: Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. For most of the 20th century, it was one «Caucasus» region within the Soviet Union.
The North Caucasus Mountains cover nine territories of Russia’s far South. You may have heard of several of them. From West to East, they are:
1. The Black Sea region
The North Caucasus Mountains literally start at the shore of the Black Sea, most notably around Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics and a 2018 World Cup host city. Sochi’s ski slopes and accommodations are comparable to what you would find in the Swiss Alps.
Although not «officially» considered a part of the North Caucasus, the southern part of Adygea covers the mountains and is the historic homeland of the Circassians, one of many Caucasus nations.
Home to two of the North Caucasus’ destination ski resorts, Dombay and Arkhyz. It’s here where the cultural diversity of the North Caucasus starts taking shape: over 40 distinct nationalities and languages spoken!
4. Mineral Waters Region
Part of the Stavropol region, this cluster of resort towns is famous for its natural mineral water springs and health spas.
A stunning republic made up of 5 parallel mountain gorges, each full of waterfalls, giant rock faces, and plentiful trekking opportunities. Kabardino-Balkaria is home to Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. Elbrus is one of the world’s 7 summits, making it a must-visit destination for serious mountain climbers.
6. North Ossetia
Right in the center of the Caucasus Mountain range, capital city Vladikavkaz has breathtaking views of the surrounding Caucasus Mountains on a clear day. Like Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia has incredible mountain gorges full of beautiful historic sites.
The smallest republic in the North Caucasus, Ingushetia is also called «the land of towers». Its inhabitants lived in tower complexes in the mountains for centuries, and to see the towers now is like journeying back in time to another world.
Although most people know Chechnya as the home to wars in the 1990s, it is a beautiful place with very hospitable people. The capital city Grozny has been completely rebuilt since the 1990s and is home to the Heart of Chechnya mosque, one of the largest mosques in Europe.
Dagestan is a fascinating republic, with more than 30 distinct languages spoken there. Dagestan is home to one of Russia’s oldest cities, Derbent, and borders the Caspian Sea. You may have heard of 2018 UFC/MMA champion of the world Khabib Nurmagomedov, who proudly hails from Dagestan.
So now you know where to find the North Caucasus on the map and generally understand the local geography.
WHAT IS THERE TO DO IN THE NORTH CAUCASUS
HIKE AND ENJOY THE SPLENDID NATURE
The first thing you notice traveling through the North Caucasus are the majestic mountains. They connect each republic physically, but also form a large part of the local people’s identity.
If you are a lover of nature, you will be delighted with the views of the North Caucasus waterfalls and lakes. Because of the large number of glaciers in the highest parts of the mountain range, each spring, summer, and fall, the Caucasus landscape is replete with flowing waterfalls and beautiful lakes.
CHALLENGE YOURSELF WITH ADVENTURE SPORTS ALL YEAR ROUND
The North Caucasus is without a doubt Russia’s hub for both winter and summer adventure sports.
During winter and spring skiing and snowboarding opportunities abound in every North Caucasus republic. Beginners will enjoy the gentler slopes at Arkhyz, while advanced skiers should explore the majestic slopes of Elbrus and Dombay. The most extreme risk-takers can tickle their nerves as well with heli-skiing and backcountry skiing.
Once the weather warms up, take your pick of beautiful locations to go 4-wheeling, trekking, camping, rock climbing, or mountain biking. Mt. Elbrus is a must for mountain climbers from around the world. The Chegem Valley in Kabardino-Balkaria is home to breathtaking paragliding opportunities. For the most extreme, there are base-jumping opportunities in Ingushetia. Horse-riding tours are available for any number of hours or even days, on the famous local breeds of Kabardian and Karachai horses.
GET ACQUAINTED WITH THE HISTORY, CULTURE AND TRADITIONS OF LOCAL ETHNIC GROUPS
The North Caucasus region is rich in unique cultural experiences and history that most foreigners are unaware of.
Ancient history — For most of the North Caucasus’ history, the land and local peoples were not a part of Russia proper. This means you’ll encounter different religions in the North Caucasus from Islam, to Christianity, to even the pagan beliefs of the Ossetian people. The Caucasus peoples have fought off attempts at invasion throughout history, from the Mongols, Ottoman Empire, and others, and so towers, fortresses, and the like still exist today as a result. You may never have seen as many 500–1,500 year old buildings in your life as you’ll see in the North Caucasus!
Languages – There are conservatively over 40 different languages spoken in the North Caucasus. Although Russian is the primary language spoken in schools and society, many Caucasus families speak their native language at home: Chechen, Avar, Kabardin, Balkar, etc. While several of the local languages have ties to larger language families such as Turkic or Indo-European, many of the languages are native to the Caucasus region, such as the Vainakh (Chechen & Ingush) and Dagestani family of languages (over 30 unique languages!). Dagestan is referred to by some a «linguist’s paradise.»
Food – While there is overlap in some of the food dishes with traditional Russian cuisine, Caucasus food is very distinct in its presentation: the famous «shashlik» (meat shish kabobs), dumpling dishes, and many variations of stuffed breads abound all throughout the North Caucasus. More than one traveler has said: «The only danger traveling there is over-eating!»
Dance – The North Caucasus is also home to one of the world’s most unique, but overlooked, national dances, the Lezginka. You will be mesmerized as you watch this type of «courting» or «battle» dance take place, with men strutting around the dance floor on tips of their toes confidently like eagles, and the women gliding gracefully among them like swans.
EXPERIENCE HOSPITALITY ON A LEVEL YOU NEVER KNEW EXISTED
As if all of the above wasn’t enough, yet still the most impressive experience in the North Caucasus is the hospitality of local people. Caucasus natives are famous for their warmth and care towards outsiders, whom they believe whole-heartedly are «sent from God as guests.» It is not uncommon in a more remote part of the mountains to come across a local person who without hesitation (or asking your opinion!) will usher you into his/her home for tea.
Caucasus people consider it an honor to have guests in their home, which is why many of them have huge courtyards to make room for 30,40,50+ guests for celebrations and gatherings. Expect to eat at least 3 full plates of food and still not have made a dent in the meal set before you.
Many Caucasus families will tell you of a common hospitality tradition, that if a stranger knocks on your door, you are obliged to take care of them with your very best for three days without ever asking where they came from or what they need. Then, after 3 days, the host can ask their guest if there is something they need help with. In ancient times, Caucasus families were required to abide by this tradition even if their enemy showed up at their door.
We believe this is the most important and unique experience the North Caucasus offers to a 21st century traveller. Because when you are a guest in someone else’s home, all stereotypes and preconceived notions melt away, and people are able to connect on a heartfelt level across the table from one another. It’s at the dinner table that one can truly experience the North Caucasus.
IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO THE NORTH CAUCASUS?
It’s important to think about the safety of the North Caucasus in present tense, 2018, not in past tense, such as the 1990s during the Chechen Wars. If we do that, then yes, we can make a resounding case for its safety as a travel destination.
The North Caucasus tourism infrastructure is being heavily invested in at the Russian federal level, as the nation’s top ski resorts are in the North Caucasus, with more planned to be operational by 2025. Mt. Elbrus is Europe’s highest mountain peak and is summited by thousands of foreigners every year. What many foreigners are unaware of is how popular the North Caucasus region has been historically with Russian tourists, dating back to the 19th century, when many traveled here for month-long health treatments from the local mineral waters.
One thing you will notice driving from one beautiful Caucasus destination to another, is there are regular security«checkpoints» along the main roads. While these could be viewed as an annoyance, they are actually a sign of Russia’s desire to ensure the North Caucasus is secure.
Another thing to remember is that the North Caucasus is a part of Russia, a traditionally Christian nation. While the majority of North Caucasus inhabitants are of Muslim background, most Russian Christians and Caucasus Muslims have lived peacefully as neighbors for many years now.
So, are you ready to come yet? 🙂 We hope this was a helpful start to your understanding more about the beautiful and mysterious North Caucasus Mountains.
Start packing your bags now, because the mountains, and the people, are waiting for you!
About the Author: Andrew Slate is from the state of North Carolina in the USA, and has lived in the North Caucasus for 4 years. He directs a tour company for English-speakers called Beyond Red Square, introducing foreigners both to Russia and the North Caucasus region. He also co-hosts the podcast «CaucasTalk», to help foreigners better understand the culture, history, and tourism opportunities in this beautiful land.
For more info visit https://www.beyondredsquare.com/