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Home » Dagestan Road Trip Guide: A Week’s Journey Through the Caucasus Mountains

Dagestan Road Trip Guide: A Week’s Journey Through the Caucasus Mountains

An Unforgettable Road Trip Across Dagestan: Deserted Hamlets, a Sandy Oasis, and Europe’s Deepest Canyon

More and more travelers are heading to Dagestan to witness its majestic mountains and the Sulak Canyon, visit deserted hamlets, discover the work of local artisans, and dispel all stereotypes except two: the food here is exceptionally delicious, and guests are warmly welcomed.

To some extent, Dagestan is a state within a state, surrounded by numerous stereotypes. On one hand, there are strict religious laws, underestimated dangers, stories of ‘brick factories’, bride kidnapping, and periodically imposed Counter-Terrorism Operations, even in the republic’s capital, Makhachkala. On the other, there’s splendid nature, local hospitality, and delicious food.

In our extensive article, we talk about the most popular attractions in Dagestan, debunk myths, and explain how khinkal differs from khinkali, besides just one letter at the end of the word.

Dagestan: The Land of Mountains and Russia’s Most Multinational Region

Geographical Location

Dagestan is the largest in area and the most populous republic of the North Caucasus. The region stretches 400 kilometers from north to south and about 200 kilometers from west to east. Dagestan borders Chechnya and the Stavropol Territory to the west, and Kalmykia to the north. The eastern part of the republic is washed by the Caspian Sea, while to the south, along the Caucasian ridge, runs the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan. The southernmost point of Russia, Mount Bazarduzu, is located in Dagestan.

The Caucasian ridge gradually descends towards the Caspian Sea. The mountains here are not as high as in Kabardino-Balkaria or North Ossetia, but they are no less picturesque. There are no five-thousand-meter peaks, not so many glaciers (and almost all of them are away from the main tourist routes), more alpine meadows, terraces with vineyards, and reservoirs.

The Caucasian Ridge gradually lowers towards the Caspian Sea. The mountains in Dagestan are not as high as in Kabardino-Balkaria or North Ossetia, but they are no less picturesque. Photo: Olga Nayda / Unsplash.com
The Caucasian Ridge gradually lowers towards the Caspian Sea. The mountains in Dagestan are not as high as in Kabardino-Balkaria or North Ossetia, but they are no less picturesque. Photo: Olga Nayda / Unsplash.com

Population

Dagestan has a population of about 3,150,000 people. The republic leads Russia in natural population growth. According to various estimates, between 14 and 30 different nationalities live here, making it Russia’s most multinational region. The large variance in these figures is due to differences in classification: officially, 14 nationalities are recognized as indigenous small-numbered peoples of the republic. Another 14 are distinguished as ethnic groups. Some ethnicities (for example, the Kaitags or Kubachins) are identified as separate nationalities by some scholars, while others classify them as part of the Dargins. It’s unlikely that these debates will ever have a clear winner, but every small nation wants to be considered separate from the others, rather than a subgroup of another.

14 languages are recognized as state languages in the republic.

Interestingly, there is no nationality as ‘Dagestani’ — it’s simply a unifying term for all the peoples inhabiting the republic, including Russians. The peoples of Dagestan have diverse origins and, consequently, different languages, so they mostly communicate with each other in Russian. The largest nationalities in Dagestan are the Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, and Lezgins. By the way, mixed martial arts fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov, the most popular person in the region, is an Avar.

Rules of Conduct and Local Customs

The main rule in Dagestan is to respect local traditions, and you’ll become the most welcome guest. In fact, it’s not that difficult: as in many other Muslim republics, it’s advisable not to wear overly short or provocative clothing (even in coastal cities), not to speak ill of the religion or the peoples of the republic. In rural areas, it’s preferable for women to wear a headscarf and try not to smoke in public.

In rural areas of Dagestan, it's advisable for women to wear a headscarf and try not to smoke in public. Photo: Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr.com
In rural areas of Dagestan, it’s advisable for women to wear a headscarf and try not to smoke in public. Photo: Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr.com

At first, the stern bearded men might cause some unease, especially if you happen to fly on the same plane as the Dagestani wrestling team. But once you land, call a taxi, and get into the arriving lowered, tinted Priora (other models are almost not seen in the economy class) and start talking to the driver (who usually initiates conversation within seconds), all fears evaporate.

It’s hard to find a more friendly and hospitable region than Dagestan. Tourists are welcomed in every shop and cafe, even if you just buy a bottle of water. Don’t hesitate to ask drivers any questions you have: taxi drivers often know where to find a 24-hour cafe or store, or where the tastiest khinkal is made (more on that later). And almost every taxi driver will tell you that they went to the same school as Khabib Nurmagomedov. If it wasn’t the driver himself, then it was definitely his brother (nephew, best friend).

How to ger there

By plane. Located 20 kilometers from the center of Makhachkala is the Uytash Airport. However, traveling to Dagestan from Europe and the UK involves a few steps, typically including connecting flights through countries like Turkey or Armenia, given that there are no direct flights to Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, from most European cities or the UK as of 2023.

From the UK and major European cities, one popular route is flying to Istanbul, Turkey. Airlines such as Turkish Airlines, British Airways, and Lufthansa offer flights to Istanbul from various European cities and London. From Istanbul, you can take a connecting flight to Moscow or Saint Peterburg.

Another option is traveling via Armenia. You can fly to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, using airlines like Air France, Ryanair, or Wizz Air, depending on your departure city in Europe. This route might be less frequent but can be a good alternative for those looking for different scheduling options. From another international destinations, there are also flights from Dubai, Antalya, Tashkent, Bukhara, Urgench, Bishkek and Aktau.

Flights to Uytash Airport come from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Ufa, Surgut, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Sochi, Mineralnye Vody, Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Norilsk, Kazan, Rostov-on-Don, and Samara. Unfortunately, from many provincial cities, flights are available only once or twice a week. From Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Sochi, you can fly for 2000–4000 rubles (56.90 – 113.81 euros).

Train. Direct trains to Makhachkala run from Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Tyumen, and another train from Moscow goes to Derbent (near the border with Azerbaijan). Not all trains operate daily. The journey from Moscow takes about one and a half days, and a ticket costs from 3200 rubles (91.04 euros) for a place in a compartment. From Saint Petersburg, it’s more than two days and from 4400 rubles (125.19 euros) for a ticket.

Bus. For nearby regions and the Caucasus, you will have to travel by minibus. There are no suburban trains from Makhachkala to neighboring cities, and on most routes, instead of large buses, ‘Gazelle’ minibuses operate.

Car. It’s 1800 kilometers from Moscow to Makhachkala. One route goes through Tambov, Volgograd, and Elista. Alternatively, you can take the toll road M4 through Voronezh, Rostov-on-Don, and the ‘Caucasus’ highway through all the regions of Southern Russia.

The distance from Moscow to Makhachkala is 1800 kilometers. You can travel via the toll road M4 through Voronezh, Rostov-on-Don, and the 'Caucasus' highway through all the regions of Southern Russia. Photo: Fedor Shlyapnikov / Unsplash.com
The distance from Moscow to Makhachkala is 1800 kilometers. You can travel via the toll road M4 through Voronezh, Rostov-on-Don, and the ‘Caucasus’ highway through all the regions of Southern Russia. Photo: Fedor Shlyapnikov / Unsplash.com

Transport in the Region

The most convenient way to travel around Dagestan is by car, preferably an SUV. Only locals can skillfully climb mountains in a Priora. If you drive on the highway along the sea and in the flat parts of the region, there should be no problems. Difficulties may arise if you decide to go into the mountains. The roads in the mountainous areas of Dagestan are not always good (to put it mildly). At the same time, locals tend to drive aggressively even on dangerous sections – exceeding speed limits, overtaking on blind turns.

Natural disasters such as landslides, heavy rain, and avalanches can occur. Then the road is closed until the emergency services arrive and clear it. The main advice on Dagestani roads is not to rush, drive carefully, and keep away from local drivers who race along the serpentine roads at 120 kilometers per hour.

In Dagestan, you often come across checkpoints with armed police, but you get used to them quite quickly.

The most convenient way to travel around Dagestan is by car, preferably an SUV. Only locals can skillfully climb mountains in a Priora. Photo: George Kashcheev / Unsplash.com
The most convenient way to travel around Dagestan is by car, preferably an SUV. Only locals can skillfully climb mountains in a Priora. Photo: George Kashcheev / Unsplash.com

Car Rental. In Dagestan, it’s possible to rent a car: from individuals on Avito (Lada Granta — 1800 rubles (51.21 euros), Hyundai Creta — 5000 rubles (142.26 euros), cheaper off-season), through the Get Rent a Car aggregator (sedan — from 2400 rubles (68.28 euros) per day, minivan/SUVs — from 5500 rubles (156.48 euros)) or via a local agency, for example, ‘Avtorent 05’ (Lada Granta/Kalina — from 1500 rubles (42.68 euros) per day, Renault Sandero — 2500 rubles (71.13 euros), Ford Explorer — 6000 rubles (170.71 euros)). Renting from a company or aggregator is more reliable: they offer online booking, a contract, transparent conditions, insurance, and card payment. On Avito, it will be cheaper, but this comes with all the drawbacks that can occur in such cases – unreliability, unpunctuality, and potential scams.

Before returning the car, it’s advisable to take photographs of it from all sides, preferably showing the date and time. If a week later someone calls from an unknown number saying, “Oh brother, we found a scratch after you, didn’t notice it right away, let’s settle the matter amicably for 5000 rubles (142.26 euros) and part ways”, you can simply send your photos of the car, and the calls will stop immediately.

Gas Stations. Interestingly, the usual Russian chain gas stations are not present in Dagestan. There are imitations of well-known brands such as “Lukkoyl” or “Rosneft,” but they are not affiliated with the originals. Although since 2022, many of these stations have changed their misleading names but kept the corporate style of major brands. The most reliable option is to refuel at local ‘authentic’ brands’ stations, such as “Sapar” or Nafta 24. Alternatively, you can rely on reviews in Yandex.Maps. Payment at gas stations is typically by cash or card transfer.

Taxis. There is the option to negotiate with a local driver and rent their services along with a car for the entire day. You can find such guides on Avito, social networks, or among taxi drivers working with aggregators — many are happy to accompany travelers for a day or two, as it is more profitable for them than cruising around Makhachkala in search of orders.

The cost for this service ranges from 4000–6000 rubles (113.81 – 170.71 euros), depending on your bargaining skills. The advantages of this type of travel include not getting lost in the mountains, avoiding the stress and fatigue of driving, and local drivers may know unique attractions and unpopular establishments that are difficult to reach on your own and many are unaware of. Ultimately, any trip with a local resident adds a hundred points to the experience. The downside is that it’s more expensive than using your own or a rented car.

In Dagestan, you can arrange with a local driver to rent their services along with a car for the entire day. The cost is 4000–6000 rubles. Photo: Alexey Turenkov / Unsplash.com
In Dagestan, you can arrange with a local driver to rent their services along with a car for the entire day. The cost is 4000–6000 rubles. Photo: Alexey Turenkov / Unsplash.com

Public Transport. Between cities and villages, you can travel by minibus. This is cheap, striking, and immerses you deeply in local life, but it takes more time, and the schedule is not always punctual. Usually, minibuses depart from the main bus station of the city (or from the main square of the village if there is no bus station) several times a day. The schedule available online is not always current. It’s most reliable to call the bus station and inquire about the departure times and prices for your desired destination. Hitchhiking often turns out to be faster and more comfortable than traveling by minibus.

A train runs four times a day from Makhachkala to Derbent. It’s convenient for reaching all the main points along the Caspian Sea coast – Izberbash, Dagestani Lights, and others.

Accommodation

The booking mechanics in major cities like Makhachkala or Derbent are not much different from those in places like Kislovodsk or Voronezh. “Ostrovok,” “Bronevik,” or Yandex.Travel for hotels, “Avito Nedvizhimost” or “Sutochno.ru” for apartment rentals.

Prices for accommodation vary from 1000 rubles (28.45 euros) for a modest room with a bed and nightstand to 10,000–15,000 rubles (284.52 – 426.77 euros) for something more substantial with a balcony, city panorama, or located on the frontline of the Caspian Sea. Keep in mind: aesthetic concepts of beauty and comfort in Dagestani hotels differ significantly from what many are used to in Europe. Therefore, do not be surprised by carpets everywhere, leopard-print bedspreads, gold on the wallpapers, decorative moldings, and wrought-iron bed headboards. Stylish, minimalist rooms in Scandinavian style are only beginning to appear in this region.

In the mountainous areas, there are fewer hotels, but guesthouses are well-developed. Owners either rent out several rooms in their dwelling or build separate rooms on the property while living nearby. Typically, a common area is set up on the property with benches, a gazebo, and a barbecue, where in the evening, you can chat with the guesthouse owner, discuss impressions of the trip, or ask for advice. Guesthouses can be found on “Ostrovok” or “Avito,” as well as on social networks.

In the mountainous areas of Dagestan, guesthouses are well-developed. Owners either rent out several rooms in their dwelling or build separate rooms on the property while living nearby. Photo: Alexey Turenkov / Unsplash.com
In the mountainous areas of Dagestan, guesthouses are well-developed. Owners either rent out several rooms in their dwelling or build separate rooms on the property while living nearby. Photo: Alexey Turenkov / Unsplash.com

Once again, it’s worth remembering: Dagestan is an extremely friendly region. If a traveler suddenly finds themselves in an unknown village and there are no hotels or guesthouses nearby (or no internet to find them), there is no need to despair. The locals will certainly offer food, a place to stay, help with transportation, and refuse to take any money for it. It’s almost impossible to be left without a roof over your head here.

Just in case, it’s better to have cash on hand: it is preferred over cards in Dagestan, especially in the mountainous areas.

Local Cuisine

The biggest danger that awaits you in Dagestan is gaining a few extra kilograms. The republic can be a destination for separate gastronomic tours. Food in Dagestan is incredibly tasty and hearty. Common traits include many dishes made from meat, dough, dairy products, and delicious vegetables and fruits. Meat here is very fresh: herds of sheep and cows are a common sight throughout the republic. Due to the large number of different peoples living here, the cuisine is extremely diverse. Even the same dishes are prepared differently by each ethnicity.

  • Chudu – a thin flatbread, fried in a dry pan, with a filling inside. There are many fillings: from cheese or meat to more exotic ones like pumpkin or sorrel.
  • Khinkal – despite its similarity in name to the Georgian dish, Dagestani khinkal is more reminiscent of Ukrainian dumplings. Lamb or beef is boiled and then small diamond-shaped pieces of dough are cooked in the same broth. The dish is served separately in three bowls: meat, broth, boiled dough. All this is topped with sour cream-garlic or tomato sauce.
  • Kurze – similar to dumplings but slightly different in shape.
  • Shurpa – a rich soup with beans and homemade noodles.
  • Kurch – a porridge made from apricot juice and flour. It’s important that the juice is real village-made, not canned. Kurch is usually seasoned with urbech.
  • Urbech – a sweet nut or seed paste. Served on its own or as a topping for apricot porridge. Urbech is an excellent tasty souvenir from Dagestan.
Khinkal is served in three bowls: meat, broth, and boiled dough, each separately. All this is topped with sour cream-garlic or tomato sauce
Khinkal is served in three bowls: meat, broth, and boiled dough, each separately. All this is topped with sour cream-garlic or tomato sauce

Traditional dishes of Caucasian cuisine are also abundant here: shashlik, lula-kebab, lagman, and even pilaf (which is also considered a local dish in the Caucasus).

Where to try all this? In Dagestan, it is hard to find a place with bad food. Not everywhere may have restaurant presentation or a stylish interior, but almost every cafe is guaranteed to be tasty. Reviews of gastronomic places in Dagestan can be read, for example, in the media “Eto Kavkaz.”

Makhachkala – market, sea, hustle and bustle

Due to logistics, an introduction to Dagestan almost always begins with Makhachkala. It’s a noisy, crowded, and in places, untidy city. As the locals like to say: “Hustle and bustle.” It’s home to over 600,000 people. One day is enough to get acquainted with the capital of the republic.

The atmosphere of the city and the republic is best felt at Market №2: it is large and located in the city center. It’s best to come early: all the tastiest items are picked up in the morning. As in any Eastern bazaar, the variety of goods here is dazzling – you’ll want to try and buy everything. The market is divided into sections: meat, dairy, vegetable, fish, etc. There are cheese, churchkhela, and first-class fruits. Here you can and should bargain, talk to the sellers, and (just in case) keep an eye on your pockets.

It's better to visit Market №2 early in the morning: all the tastiest items are picked up early
It’s better to visit Market №2 early in the morning: all the tastiest items are picked up early

Not far from Market №2 is the central Lenin Square. Formally, it’s the very center of the city, where the city administration building is located, but apart from that and the paving stones laid in the form of national ornaments, the square is quite empty. From there, via several alleys and boulevards, one can reach the shore of the Caspian Sea. If you didn’t know it’s a lake, not a sea, you wouldn’t notice a difference from, say, the Black Sea. However, it’s not advisable to swim in the city center: even though the beach is equipped with changing rooms and sun loungers, the sand here is not the cleanest. It’s better to travel a bit further from Makhachkala – for example, to Kaspiysk, Izberbash, or the village of Turali. The leadership of the republic has plans to build a resort – an analogue of Sochi.

It is also worth visiting the central Juma Mosque – the largest mosque in Russia. It was opened in 1997 and expanded in 2007. Today, it can accommodate up to 15,000 people simultaneously. It is not recommended to enter during prayer time, but at any other time, guests in the mosque are only welcome. Surely, one of the locals will invite tourists into the mosque and show them around.

The Juma Mosque in Makhachkala is the largest mosque in Russia. It can accommodate up to 15,000 people
The Juma Mosque in Makhachkala is the largest mosque in Russia. It can accommodate up to 15,000 people

To appreciate the size of Makhachkala, you can ascend to the observation deck on Tarki-Tau Mountain. The climb is quite long and not easy: it’s about three kilometers with an elevation gain of around 200 meters, so taking a taxi is a good alternative. It’s worth saving your legs: they’ll be needed in the mountains. From the observation deck, you can see that the city is squeezed between the Caspian Sea on one side and Tarki-Tau Mountain on the other.

If you didn't know that the Caspian Sea is actually a lake, the differences from, say, the Black Sea are not noticeable. Photo: Anton Rybakov / Unsplash.com
If you didn’t know that the Caspian Sea is actually a lake, the differences from, say, the Black Sea are not noticeable. Photo: Anton Rybakov / Unsplash.com

Makhachkala has many coffee shops, and many places brew delicious coffee. A good review can be found on the Coffee Project portal.

Derbent – the oldest fortress in Russia, graffiti festival, and ekranoplan

The introduction to Dagestan continues in Derbent, located 125 kilometers from Makhachkala. Another 55 kilometers away is the border with Azerbaijan, and from there, it’s only 200 kilometers to Baku.

Derbent is the southernmost city in Russia and one of the oldest. At least, that’s what historians claim: the first mentions date back to the 6th century BCE. The city has an important strategic location: it is squeezed by the Caspian Sea on one side and the Caucasus ridge rises on the other. Through a narrow strip of the plain, only three kilometers wide, in ancient times, all the trade routes between Eastern Europe and the Middle East passed.

The Naryn-Kala Fortress is the main attraction of Derbent. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list
The Naryn-Kala Fortress is the main attraction of Derbent. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list

The most important structure in such a place is a defensive building. The Naryn-Kala Fortress is the main attraction of Derbent. The first mentions of the fortress date back to the 6th century. It is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The fortress was recently restored, and visitors can walk along its walls and enjoy panoramic views of Derbent from the observation points. Within the fortress grounds, the ruins of a palace, a hammam, and remnants of an ancient Christian church have been preserved. Entrance costs 200 rubles (5.69 euros) for adults and 100 for children, and guided tours are available for 600 rubles (17.07 euros).

After descending from Naryn-Kala, it’s worth walking around the Magal district. This is the territory of the old city, surrounded by walls on two sides that descend from the fortress. The southern wall is partially preserved, while the northern one continues to the Caspian Sea, even where nothing of the old city remains. The area somewhat remotely resembles the districts of either Tbilisi or Istanbul – a similar labyrinth of narrow streets where it’s easy to get lost. Fortunately, it’s also easy to find your way out: the area of the district is not that large. Through the intricate paths, you can reach the Juma Mosque, which is the oldest mosque in Russia.

In the center, some streets have been well renovated, for example, Mirza Kazem-Bek Lane – with cobblestones, benches, and illumination. It’s worth checking out the graffiti with national motifs, left on the city’s multi-story buildings since the street art festival held here in 2019.

In Derbent, it's worth looking at the graffiti with national themes, which remain on the city's multi-story buildings from the street art festival held here in 2019
In Derbent, it’s worth looking at the graffiti with national themes, which remain on the city’s multi-story buildings from the street art festival held here in 2019

Ekranoplan “Lun”

20 kilometers south of Derbent, in the village of Arablyar, on the shore of the Caspian Sea (41.935946, 48.387068), lies another unusual artifact that can be found only in Dagestan – the missile ship ekranoplan “Lun”. The ekranoplan is a Soviet development of the 1980s, a hybrid of a ship and an airplane, a vehicle on an air dynamic cushion. It moves a few meters above the water surface due to the interaction with the air reflected from the water’s surface. The “Lun” could reach speeds of up to 500 kilometers per hour. It was armed with missiles to strike enemy aircraft carriers. Due to the collapse of the USSR, the project was discontinued, and only one of the eight planned ekranoplans was built. Later, the use of ekranoplans in the military was completely abandoned. In the future, the “Lun” will become the central exhibit of the “Patriot” park being built here. For now, it can be seen in its “natural environment”.

Ekranoplan - a Soviet development of the 1980s, a hybrid of a ship and an airplane, a vehicle on an air dynamic cushion
Ekranoplan – a Soviet development of the 1980s, a hybrid of a ship and an airplane, a vehicle on an air dynamic cushion

Heading to the mountains. Jewelers and abandoned villages

If the previous route followed along the Caspian Sea, the next attractions in Dagestan are located in the mountains.

Kubachi

From Derbent, several roads lead to the mountains. One of them reaches the village of Kubachi. The settlement is located at an altitude of 1650 meters above sea level. Often, clouds can be found even below the houses. If lucky enough to witness, the spectacle is fantastic. However, Kubachi is famous for being one of the largest centers in the Caucasus for artistic metalworking. The village produces cold weapons, jewelry, dishes, and other household items. Kubachi products are characterized by blackening on silver, covering the item and combined with such jewelry techniques and elements as carving, engraved ornamentation, gilding, filigree, scan’, embossing, gold notching, carved bone, colored enamel, semi-precious stone inlays, and inlays of bone plates.

Kubachi is located at an altitude of 1650 meters above sea level. Often, the clouds are even below the houses
Kubachi is located at an altitude of 1650 meters above sea level. Often, the clouds are even below the houses

As archaeologists assert, the traditions of local craftsmen are known almost from the beginning of our era. Today, works by Kubachi masters adorn the collections of major world museums, such as the Hermitage, the Louvre, or the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the village, there is an art school, a museum, workshops, and stores: you can see how masterpieces are created, try to arrange a master class, and buy gifts for yourself and loved ones.

The Kubachi people, by the way, are an example of a small separate nationality that can only be found in this village. Other scholars classify the Kubachi people as an ethnic group of the Dargins, although the local residents themselves like this version less. They also have their own language, Kubachi, which is different from the languages of other peoples of Dagestan.

Kubachi is famous for being one of the largest centers in the Caucasus for artistic metalworking. In the village, they produce cold weapons, jewelry, dishes, and other household items
Kubachi is famous for being one of the largest centers in the Caucasus for artistic metalworking. In the village, they produce cold weapons, jewelry, dishes, and other household items

Gunib

The mountain village of Gunib combines picturesque views and historical landmarks. The history of Dagestan is inextricably linked with weapons and wars. Its geographical position is crucial for connecting the Middle East and Europe. One such war was the Caucasian War of 1817–1864, aimed at annexing the North Caucasus to the Russian Empire and establishing dominance over the region. The war lasted almost 50 years, and a key event that ultimately influenced the outcome of the campaign occurred precisely in Gunib.

It's worth climbing to the top of the Gunib fortress, which has been preserved in a ruined state, for spectacular views of the surroundings. Photo: Mysanctuar / Wikimedia.org
It’s worth climbing to the top of the Gunib fortress, which has been preserved in a ruined state, for spectacular views of the surroundings. Photo: Mysanctuar / Wikimedia.org

In 1859, the fortress was besieged, resulting in the capture of the highlander leader Imam Shamil. At the site of this event, a rotunda, also known as Shamil’s Gazebo, was built in 1893. In 1995, the monument was blown up by unknown persons, and in the early 2000s, the gazebo was restored. Now, this place is revered by many as an Islamic shrine, attracting locals and tourists. Especially since the rotunda is located in the scenic natural park Upper Gunib.

In addition to the gazebo and the fortress, which has been preserved in a ruined state (and is worth climbing for fantastic views of the Gunib Reservoir surroundings), Gunib is famous for its good weather. There are more than 300 sunny days a year here. The local mountain landscape is so picturesque that the famous artist Aivazovsky, who mainly painted the sea, dedicated one of his paintings to this place – “Aul Gunib in Dagestan.”

Gamsutl

Despite the fact that the population of Dagestan is growing at one of the fastest rates in the country, the number of abandoned settlements in the republic is increasing every year. More and more people do not want to live in the mountains, leave their villages, and move closer to civilization, to the cities. The most famous of the abandoned villages is Gamsutl.

As recently as the mid-20th century, several hundred people lived in Gamsutl. A densely populated village had a car road, shops operated in the settlement, and there was even a hospital. But at the end of the last century, people began to leave for the cities. For a long time, only one person lived in the village — Abduljalil Abduljalilov, but he passed away in 2015. Since then, the houses have been slowly crumbling due to winds, rains, and time. It’s a sad story against which one can take breathtaking photos. Especially if you go up to the village at sunset. You can reach the very top either on foot or on horseback. Such an ascent costs about 1000 rubles, and you can arrange it at the parking lot below. The houses of the village cling to the hill like nests. In colors, shapes, and with the mountains in the background, the local landscape resembles Peter Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel.”

As recently as the mid-20th century, several hundred people lived in Gamsutl. A densely populated village had a car road, shops operated in the settlement, and there was even a hospital. But at the end of the last century, people began to leave for the cities
As recently as the mid-20th century, several hundred people lived in Gamsutl. A densely populated village had a car road, shops operated in the settlement, and there was even a hospital. But at the end of the last century, people began to leave for the cities

Nature: waterfalls, sand dunes, canyons

Khunzakh — waterfall and steep cliffs

People come to the village of Khunzakh to admire the magnificent panorama and the steep cliff. Above, on the plateau, are the houses of the village, and below, in the gorge, falls the Tobot waterfall. According to some researchers, it is the highest waterfall in the region, although the criteria for assessment in such matters are always blurred. The waterfall and its surroundings can be seen from the official viewpoint or, for example, from the gas station platform. If desired, you can even descend to the base of the waterfall and assess its scale from another perspective. But the path is not equipped, so you should be careful and ask the locals for directions. In general, it’s important to be cautious here: there are no barriers at the edges of the cliffs. In July 2022, a family in Khunzakh didn’t notice the edge of the cliff, and their car plunged down the gorge from almost a hundred meters high.

People come to the village of Khunzakh to admire the magnificent panorama and the steep cliff. At the top, on the plateau, are the houses of the village, and below, in the gorge, falls the Tobot waterfall
People come to the village of Khunzakh to admire the magnificent panorama and the steep cliff. At the top, on the plateau, are the houses of the village, and below, in the gorge, falls the Tobot waterfall

In the village guest house, they serve delicious homemade food. The hosts are always happy to welcome tourists, but it’s better to write to them on socials before visiting to make sure they are home. There you can also find out about the current menu and prices.

Matlas – panoramas and the Leo Tolstoy Memorial

A few years ago, there were plans to build a full-fledged ski resort in the village of Matlas. With hotels, ski lifts, trails, and almost an airport. They found a location for it, built several mansions, but that’s where the construction ended. Although the project was not completed, it’s worth visiting Matlas for the impressive panoramic view. At the edge of the cliff, a mosque is picturesquely situated, and nearby is the memorial to Leo Tolstoy and naib Hadji Murad.

A few years ago, there were plans to build a full-fledged ski resort in the village of Matlas, complete with hotels, ski lifts, trails, and almost an airport. A location was found, several mansions were constructed, but the construction stopped there
A few years ago, there were plans to build a full-fledged ski resort in the village of Matlas, complete with hotels, ski lifts, trails, and almost an airport. A location was found, several mansions were constructed, but the construction stopped there

Hadji Murad – a real historical figure, an Avar, who was an assistant to Imam Shamil. Initially, he fought against the Russians during the Caucasian War but then switched sides to the emperor in hopes that he would help free his family, held hostage by Shamil. Not waiting for help from the Russians, the hero decided to flee from them too. As a result, Hadji Murad was killed, and one of the soldiers brought his head to the fortress. Hadji Murad’s severed head was long displayed in the villages to instill fear. Leo Tolstoy, who served in the Caucasus, was so impressed by this story that he wrote a novella with the same name.

A couple of kilometers from Matlas is hidden the narrow pass called the Stone Bowl. It’s a nice place for a half-hour walk amidst the stones and boulders.

Karadakh Gorge

This gloomy gorge near the village of Chalda was formed by water eroding the limestone rocks over time. The gorge stretches for several hundred meters, narrowing down to three to five meters in places. Boulders hang overhead, and inside, it’s always cool and dim. The Avars call this place Betskvareli – “dark, blind gorge.”

The Karadakh Gorge stretches for several hundred meters, sometimes narrowing to three to five meters
The Karadakh Gorge stretches for several hundred meters, sometimes narrowing to three to five meters

You can walk through the gorge (about 30 minutes one way), but people with claustrophobia may feel uncomfortable. During heavy rains, the river flowing here sometimes floods the entrance to the gorge, so visiting it during the spring floods is unlikely. And in other months, it’s better to check the forecast before the trip. By the way, hiking enthusiasts can reach the gorge on foot from Gunib via the ten-kilometer “Tsar’s Road” route, which was used back in the 19th century.

Saltinsky Waterfall

The only underground waterfall in the region is located in a cave in the village of Salta. Actually, it’s not even in the cave, but at the narrowest point of the canyon, but the walls around are so narrow and high that it feels like it is indeed underground. The waterfall is not visible year-round: by the end of the summer, it dries up. But in other months, the flow of water against the narrow cave vaults is an impressive sight. Especially at the end of spring, when the snow in the mountains melts and the flow is most powerful.

Фото: Timirbegova / Wikimedia.org
Photo: Timirbegova / Wikimedia.org

To approach the waterfall, you will need to walk about 500 meters through the narrow Saltinsky Gorge from the parking lot in Salta (there is a sign to the trail). The path is not difficult but passes through the bed of the Saltinka river, so during the flood season, the trail can be slippery. In this case, it’s better to have rubber footwear with you. If you don’t have any, enterprising locals will rent them out for a nominal fee. You can swim in the bowl of the waterfall, so a swimsuit will also come in handy. As well as something warm: it’s cool in the cave.

Sulak Canyon

The dimensions of the Sulak Canyon are 50 kilometers in length and 1920 meters in depth (which is 63 meters deeper than the Grand Canyon in the USA). Without exaggeration, it is the most popular tourist spot in Dagestan. The upper observation decks are located in the village of Dubki. The cliff here is not as steep as in Khunzakh, but safety precautions should still not be forgotten.

The Sulak River flows through the bottom of the canyon. If you look at the canyon from above, you can see boats floating on it. To take a boat ride, you need to get to the other side of the canyon, to the village of Zubutli: all the piers are located there. Although it seems that the village is just a stone’s throw away: it’s clearly visible, you’ll have to drive around the entire length of the canyon to get there.

The dimensions of the Sulak Canyon are 50 kilometers in length and 1920 meters in depth. It is the most popular tourist spot in Dagestan
The dimensions of the Sulak Canyon are 50 kilometers in length and 1920 meters in depth. It is the most popular tourist spot in Dagestan

There are several options to reach Zubutli. The first one is to drive to the Miatlinskaya Hydroelectric Power Station and try to cross to the other side of the canyon through its territory. The power station is a restricted area, a passport is needed for access, and taking photographs is strictly prohibited, as it can lead to complications later.

If traveling with an organized tour, there will be no problems. However, independent tourists traveling in their own or rented vehicles might not be so lucky. Due to constant conflicts between authorities, businessmen, locals, and power station employees, access through the station’s territory for independent travelers is periodically closed.

But don’t be discouraged. You’ll just have to slightly complicate the route: drive to the village of Novo-Zubutli, cross the Sulak river via the bridge there, and then reach the piers in the village of Zubutli through the settlement of Khubar. It may sound daunting, but the Yandex navigator suggests that this 48-kilometer journey can be completed in an hour and a half.

The effort spent on the journey is more than compensated by the pleasure of boating on the Sulak. The blue water, fantastic canyon views, small waterfalls, and grottoes are unlikely to leave anyone indifferent. Renting a boat for eight to ten people will cost about 3000 rubles (85.35 euros).

The blue water, fantastic canyon views, small waterfalls, and grottoes are reasons enough to take a boat ride on the Sulak
The blue water, fantastic canyon views, small waterfalls, and grottoes are reasons enough to take a boat ride on the Sulak

In addition to this, in Novo-Zubutli, there are several trout farms where you can see how fish are bred and try fresh trout cooked over coals.

It’s only 55 kilometers from the canyon to Makhachkala. You can return to the regional capital through the north of the republic. There are fewer mountains here, and on the signs, names familiar to many from the sad news chronicles of the Chechen wars appear: directions to the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt or the Chechen city of Gudermes, which experienced assaults in both campaigns.

Sarykum Sand Dune

However, there is another place worth visiting before returning to Makhachkala. The Sarykum Sand Dune — almost three kilometers of sand in length and 200 meters in height. No one really knows how it appeared here, but the place is unique, especially considering that it is surrounded by mountains. The dune is a magnet for numerous photographers and photoshoots. Some scenes of the movie “White Sun of the Desert” were also shot here. Just 20 kilometers from the dune, and travelers are again greeted by the bustling and noisy Makhachkala.

The Sarykum Sand Dune is almost three kilometers long and 200 meters high. No one really knows how it appeared here, but the place is unique, especially considering that it is surrounded by mountains
The Sarykum Sand Dune is almost three kilometers long and 200 meters high. No one really knows how it appeared here, but the place is unique, especially considering that it is surrounded by mountains

Reservoirs and Hydroelectric Power Stations – The Unobvious Attractions of Dagestan

Apart from the mighty mountains, waterfalls, mysterious gorges, and plateaus with magnificent views, the natural picture of Dagestan would be incomplete without its numerous reservoirs. Thanks to the branched network of mountain rivers, the republic has a powerful hydroelectric potential.

Chirkey Reservoir

The largest reservoir in Dagestan (consequently, the Chirkey Hydroelectric Power Station is the largest in the region). The dam of the reservoir was constructed in 1974 and is the largest arch dam in Russia. To ensure the stability of such dams, it’s not the weight of the structure itself but the arch construction that transfers the load from the reservoir to the banks. The arch type of dam is more resistant to earthquakes and soil fluctuations and is often used in mountainous areas.

Chirkey Reservoir is the largest reservoir in Dagestan
Chirkey Reservoir is the largest reservoir in Dagestan

You can visit the Chirkey Hydroelectric Power Station by pre-booking a tour: enjoy the crazy views from the crest of the dam, understand how electricity is generated, visit the engine room, and see the technical equipment. Two-hour group tours are conducted on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:00 and 14:00 (duration – 2 hours, cost – 650 rubles (18.49 euros)). If you can’t make it to the tour, don’t despair: you can appreciate the beauty and scale of the reservoir from any of the observation points scattered along the shore, and if you wish, even swim at one of the spontaneous beaches where locals like to relax.

Irganai Reservoir

The second largest in Dagestan. The construction of the Irganai Hydroelectric Power Station began in Soviet times but turned into a long-term project. The reservoir was only launched in 2008. The water was released in a hurry, which made it impossible to carry out sanitary treatment of the flooding area. As a result, several villages along with houses, plots, fences, and cemeteries went underwater.

On the way to the reservoir, you will have to pass through the Gimrinsky Tunnel. It was built during the construction of the power station and is the longest road tunnel in Russia (4303 meters).

There are several observation decks equipped around the reservoir with stunning views. There are also several cafes and recreation bases. You can ride on paddleboards and boats on the reservoir.

Several observation decks with stunning views are equipped around the Irganai Reservoir
Several observation decks with stunning views are equipped around the Irganai Reservoir

There are about ten hydroelectric power stations in Dagestan, each beautiful in its own way. Here, one does not want to rush anywhere; high mountains are reflected in the cool smoothness of the water, and along the jagged shores, observation decks are equipped here and there. For example, there are excellent observation platforms with views of the Gotsatlinskoye or Gergebilskoye reservoirs.

On almost any of the reservoirs, you can enjoy stand-up paddleboarding, by arranging with organizers (for example, with companies like “Gortsy na Volne” or Dagsupboard). Some companies that organize tours in Dagestan also include paddleboarding in their programs. Besides trendy SUPs, there are also more traditional forms of tourism, such as boats or boats.

We have listed the main must-sees for a week-long road trip in Dagestan. A circular route would look something like this: Makhachkala – Derbent – Kubachi – Gunib – Gamsutl – Khunzakh – Matlas – reservoirs – Sulak Canyon – Sarykum – Makhachkala. If desired, you can go the other way – start with the dune and Sulak Canyon, and end your acquaintance with Dagestan in Derbent.

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