A Travel Adventure in the Mountains of Dagestan

 

Paul Knott

 

 

The Republic of Dagestan lies between the Caucasus mountains and the Caspian Sea.  Despite being part of Russia for many years, it has retained a distinct identity and an impressive diversity of language and ethnicity.  Bordering Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan, it sits on the turbulent fringe of Europe yet has maintained its unity and mostly avoided modern conflict.

 

 

In 1992, I seized the opportunity presented by the recent demise of the Soviet Union to visit the remote western edge of the country and attempt to climb its mysterious high mountains.  I could find no record of climbing visits by non-Russians since Gottfried Merzbacher’s exploration in 1892 and that of Moriz von Déchy five years later.  A group of us from Britain and Ukraine set off on our adventure with little prior knowledge and no local connections.  We were delighted to find a traditional mountain lifestyle, apparently little changed by the reforms of the Soviet era.

 

This brief illustrated narrative describes some of our encounters and impressions.

 

 

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After a two-day train journey from Kiev to the capital, Makhachkala, we hired a bus to take us across the foothills into the mountains. Only a few miles from the city the tarmac ended  and we were plunged into the darkness of an unlined, dimly lit  tunnel. We seemed to have entered an underground world as we weaved about to avoid rocks, floods, and oncoming vehicles.

 

 

 

 

 

We emerged in the setting sun to a moonscape of rock debris. The road wound its way down a steep sided valley to the village of Gimri, birthplace of the nineteenth century fighting hero Imam Shamyl.  The buildings were roughly built from shale, and terraced upon one another’s flat roofs.

 

 

 

 

We continued through most of the night along unmade roads with diversions and many hairpins to the junction of the Andiyskoe Koysu (river) and the Gakko river.  Here too we were in a deep-cut, barren valley of crumbling rock. Some people walked past us, their only luggage a petrol can filled with contraband Georgian Vodka which, naturally, we were pursuaded to sample.

 

 

 

 

 

We made our way up the track to the mountain village of Gakko.  It stood on an isolated hillside high above a river junction and was built in the rustic flat-roofed style we had come to expect.  All the villages were perched precariously on hills – there was in any case virtually no flat solid ground.  We pitched the tents a discreet distance from the village, but still found ourselves watched by up to 30 people.  It was clear that we were something of a novelty for adults and children alike.

 

 

 

 

 

From Gakko we continued on foot through green pastures to the base of Diklos (4285m), one of the mountains we hoped to climb.  A shepherd and his rather reluctant donkey helped us carry our heavy packs.  Further up another, minding a huge flock of sheep, approached us with an interest the imagined comforts of our mountaineering boots.  We climbed Diklos by what turned out to be a long, nerve-shattering series of crumbling shale pinnacles.  From the top we were careful, in the mist, to descent to Dagestan rather than to Chechnya or Georgia.

 

 

 

 

 

On returning from our high camp, we were shocked to find our supplies in Gakko had been raided.  With hindsight, we probably had not made the right connections in the village and our chocolate and other luxuries had proven too great a temptation.  Tension was high as we guarded our remaining possessions while the probable perpetrators prowled round playing with their hunting guns.  Lacking transport, we escaped by making a desperate six-mile tramp with our still-heavy luggage.

 

The next day we caught the bus up to the village of Tindi, on the opposite side of the main valley from Gakko.  Tindi was similarly a labyrinth of traditional buildings, but here we began to feel more comfortable.  We were greeted by old men wanting their photos taken, instead of crowds eyeing up our equipment.  The picture looking along the main street is almost identical to that appearing in the book of Merzbacher’s visit in 1892.

 

 

 

 

 

After much persuasion, and at what seemed a high price, we hired donkeys to take our overweight gear within reach of the mountains. Most of the donkeys (and the women) were fully occupied with collecting hay.  Here one of the villagers, Magamet, is loading a donkey helped by Mikhail from Kiev.

 

 

 

 

 

After a few miles we stopped at a farm to ask the way.  We were invited in for food and found it hard to refuse the hospitality.  The woman spoke Russian even more poorly than me; it is often the second language in Dagestan after one of forty or so local languages.  The food was beautifully prepared despite the distinctly dingy surroundings.

 

 

 

 

 

After climbing two more mountains, camping by a remote farm and staying at a high weather station, it was time for us to start the week-long journey home.  By donkey and truck we made our way down to the small town of Agvali.  This was as distinctive as the mountain villages and, to our eyes, still very basic in appearance.  The picture shows the main central street.

 

 

 

 

 

Travelling through the night again, and crossing a half-dismantled wooden bridge, we returned through the Gimri tunnel, back to a more familiar world.  Our adventures had been exhausting but had given us an unforgettable experience of this wild, untamed region and of the character and hospitality of its people.

 

 

In this brief narrative I have left many stories untold and many photos unshown, but I hope to have given a flavour of this remote corner of Dagestan.

 

 

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A full account of our climbing activity can be found in The Alpine Journal 1993.

Merzbacher’s visit is described in his 1901 book, Aus den Hochregion des Kaukasus.

 

Updated March 2006