The North Caucasus is a region of the Caucasus located in Southern Russia, bordering Georgia to the south and Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, and Kalmykia to the north. Unfortunately, while this should be one of the world's most exotic and thrilling destinations, it is currently very dangerous and inadvisable to visit due to extremely high levels of corruption and criminal and political violence. Potential visitors should consider getting a taste of the North Caucasus in a safer area, such as Northern Georgia, Northern Azerbaijan or in the south of Krasnodar Krai around Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana. These regions are primilarily home to rather poor Muslim territories. Also, North Caucasus is home to Russia's most lawless regions.
| Chechnya |
A gorgeous and fascinating region that has been ravaged by the past two decades of conflict, the most recent episode of its centuries old conflict with Russian power. Chechnya should be struck from everyone's travel list until the security situation improves, downtown Grozny being the only exception. The people are Chechens, a Caucasian Muslim ethnic group.
| Dagestan |
An environment utterly exotic and alien to Russians of the steppe and woodlands, Dagestan boasts astounding cultural diversity, breathtaking and austere mountaintop villages, an ancient history, and a distinct possibility of being kidnapped, as well as a constant threat of terrorism by the rebels.
| Ingushetia |
Home of the Ingush people, who are closely related to their Chechen neighbors. One of Russia's poorest regions, it has been mired in a low-scale civil war since 2007.
| Kabardino-Balkaria |
Home to Europe's three tallest mountains, this region is mainly inhabited by two Muslim ethnic groups: the Kabardians, a people of Circassian ethnicity, and the Balkars, who are Turkic. Much like its neighbors, it has been affected by widespread violence and lawlessness.
| Karachay-Cherkessia |
Most famous for its beautiful mountain resort, Dombai; it is home to the Karachay, a Sunni Muslim Turkic people.
| North Ossetia |
Home of the Ossetes, a Persian-related ethnicity, and one of the few Orthodox Christian mountain tribes of the Northern Caucasus. Subject to significant violence and a high crime rate.
- Cherkessk — capital of Karachay Cherkessia
- Derbent — were this ~5,000 year old UNESCO World Heritage site city, location of the mythical "Gates of Alexander," not located in a borderline war zone, it would justly take its place as one of Russia's, and the world's, top historical tourist destinations
- Grozny — developing city
- Makhachkala — capital of Dagestan and the Northern Caucasus' largest city
- Nalchik — capital of Kabardino-Balkaria
- Vladikavkaz — North Ossetia's capital and the regional transit hub
- Dombai — beautiful mountain resort in Karachay-Cherkessia
- Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest mountain
- Mount Dychtau, Europe's second highest mountain
- Mount Koshtan, Europe's third highest mountain
The Northern Caucasus is one of Russia's most beautiful regions and is most certainly its most mountainous. Its peaks are Europe's and Russia's highest. In the west, near the Black Sea, the climate is subtropical, while the eastern areas near the Caspian Sea are more arid. The most beautiful natural images of this region are of its rushing mountain rivers running through deep gorges. There are also man-made monuments left behind by the mountain people of the region, particularly their fortress-like stone "auls" (mountaintop villages), as well as by former kingdoms such as Alania, Albania, and most famously the Sassanid Empire's ancient fortress at Derbent.
While there are many autonomous-ethnic regions throughout Russia, ethnic Russians outnumber the namesake ethnicity in nearly all of them. But the Northern Caucasus proves the exception: travelers to the republics of the Northern Caucasus visit wholly different nations, albeit ones strongly influenced by Russia.
In addition to being the only region of Russia in which non-Russian minorities constitute a majority, the Northern Caucasus has been Russia's most rebellious and unstable region since the beginning of the Russian conquest at the start of the 19th century. As result of this long conflict, the ethnic makeup of the region has changed dramatically. The western half of the region has largely been emptied of its former inhabitants, the Turkic people of the Crimean Khanate and the "Circassian" Adyghe, and is consequently more Russified and generally safer to visit. The eastern Caucasus nationalities were mostly deported en masse to Kazakhstan following WWII, when Stalin denounced them as Nazi collaborators. This massive deportation was brutal and large proportions of these ethnicities died from hunger and lack of shelter. Under Malenkov and Khrushchev, however, they were allowed to return to their ancestral lands and have lived side by side with their Slavic compatriots for many years.
The current conflict in the Northern Caucasus is complex and any potential travelers should be aware of its fault lines. The conflict began near the fall of the Soviet Union when Chechnya, a region of the Russian ASSR, declared its independence from Russia and Russia responded with a military invasion. Russia's first attack was largely unsuccessful, but was followed by a second invasion under President Putin following a Chechen invasion of neighboring Ingushetia and a series of terror attacks allegedly carried out by Chechen terrorists. The second war, although this time successful, was particularly brutal, with the Russian military attacking population centers and the Chechen rebels resorting to guerrilla warfare and terroristic attacks against Russian civilians in the Northern Caucasus and further afield in Russia. As throughout the history of the conflict between Russia and the people of the Northern Caucasus, members of other ethnic groups have joined the Chechen rebels under the umbrella of a proclaimed "jihad," in particular, the Ingush, and certain mountain groups in Dagestan. Large scale war has ceased in recent years and most high-ranking rebels, warlords and terrorists have been killed, but small-scale conflict and widespread corruption continue to plague most of the region.
This mountainous region is an extraordinary patchwork of peoples and languages (Circassian, Turkic, Persian, and a whole host of smaller groups unrelated to any other)—the relatively small region contains an incredible 8 language families and 46 different languages (35 in Dagestan alone)! Fortunately for the traveler, Russian serves as the region's lingua franca and is spoken by nearly everyone, even by villagers in remote mountain auls.
- Mountain climbing
- Relaxing at a Soviet resort in the high Caucasus
- Attend a performance of traditional regional dances (they're raucous!)
Pelmeni, khachapuri, and blinis are really popular and are regarded as delicacies.
Heavy military activity, terrorist bombings, kidnappings, and unexploded mines and munitions are widespread. Throughout the region, local criminal gangs routinely kidnap foreigners, including Americans, Canadians, and UK nationals, for ransom. Close contacts with the local population do not guarantee safety. Sadly, the authorities may pose an even greater threat to travelers than rebels, bandits, and gangs.
A traveller should also remember all of the region is part of the turf of the infamous terrorist group, the Caucasus Emirate, therefore adding on a greater fear.
In the event of emergencies embassies can do very little, and/or more likely, will not send any help. All governments assume they will not be able to do anything for their citizens except to deliver messages.
It is true that foreign governments can do little if you get into trouble in the North Caucasus. So only travel in the eastern republics if you are experienced in travelling to active war zones and have Russian language skills. The terrorist threat in December 2012 is minimal. Kidnapping of foreigners have not occurred for a few years so this should not put you off.
Below is a list of what a traveler should do to stay vigilant when travelling to certain regions in the North Caucasus:
Chechnya is probably one of Russia's most volatile regions, even though the Chechen government has been making some progress in bringing stability to the nation. Violence, terrorism and a high homicide rate continue to plague the nation. As a general rule of thumb, the farther you are from Chechnya, the safer and more plausible your travel experience will be. Downtown Grozny is fairly safe, but you do need to be careful as large parts of the nation are plagued with violence and political turmoil.
Many foreign governments, including the UK, Canadian and US governments, strongly warn their citizens not to travel to Chechnya under any circumstances. They report that there have been many incidents of their citizens as well as Russian citizens going missing or being killed or kidnapped for ransom in Chechnya.
As of November and December 2012, the situation there is stable. Many police around but tourists can walk and take pictures freely with only the odd glance from locals wondering why a Westerner is visiting. If you want to enter the massive central mosque, you can. Don't take pictures and take your shoes off before hand. It is magnificent. You won't have trouble finding a hotel. Expect to pay at least 2500 Rubles a night. A luxurious room in the Grozny City Hotel will only cost about 9000 Rubles ($300 US) a night, quite a bargain considering the Hollywood stars who have stayed in these rooms like Jean Claude van Damme and Kiera Knightly.
There is a lot to see in Grozny. You will need 2 days to see everything, like the Kadyrov monument, the parliament building, the museum of Chechnya, and a few other things. Tourists are still "very rare" in Grozny according to locals as of December 2012.
At present, Ingushetia is the most dangerous region. Political unrest, civil disorders, and heavy military activity best describes current conditions. A civil war is taking place, and travels should be put on hold until the situation drastically improves. The authorities commit the most civil disorders, adding on a greater fear. While travelling there in December 2012 it was completely safe, though not for the average tourist. If you want to visit Ingushetia or any of the other North Caucasus republics you should at least have basic Russian language skills.
Dagestan is one of the least stable and most dangerous destinations. Military activity, high-scale criminality and terrorism are some of the threats to locals and visitors alike. Any potential visitor should consider carefully whether to steer clear of the republic, as terrorists may attack Dagestan at any time. Cities such as Kizlyar, Kizilyurt and the capital Makhachkala are the most dangerous places. It is generally safer in the north compared to the rest of the region. As of 2010, many policemen and soldiers are cracking down on the militant group present in Dagestan. Khasvyurt is an interesting city. Almost like walking onto a Star Wars movie set. Very desert-like conditions. Garbage is literally everywhere. Cows, dogs, and cats scramble around garbage piles for food because there is hardly any food to eat. Makhachkala is pretty nice. Decent hotels according to Russian standards, with a large move theatre (great place to watch Russian movies), parks, and the Caspian sea front. Undercover secret police and military patrol the streets around the government buildings. If you take pictures there you may be interrogated for about 90 minutes and have every part of your life questioned by authorities. Derbent is a nice but small city. The only thing to see there is the fortress and the large market. 1 day is definitely sufficient for travel to this city. The people in this republic are very nice and welcoming. They are not used to seeing tourists at all and wonder what you are doing there. Attacks in these cities are quite common but kidnappings no longer occur. Only travel to Dagestan if you are an experienced war-zone traveller who has Russian language skills.
Like South Ossetia, the northern part is fairly unsafe, though not as unsafe as its southern counterpart. There have been high-profile crimes, albeit infrequently. The capital Vladikavkaz has recently been the site of some showdowns between law enforcement and separatists, though on a very light scale. A very safe republic to visit if you are an experience war-zone traveller. People are Orthodox Christian here, not Muslim. However, in the small Muslim population there are many assassinations, mainly against moderate Sufi imams by extremist salafists. The city of Beslan, 15 km north of Vladikavkaz is worth a visit to see the school that terrorists attacked in 2004. The gymnasium is now a shrine to the innocent dead. It is also free entry and a 5 minute walk west of the Beslan bus station.
Karachay-Cherkessia is safer than most regions; however, the region has continued to see minor attacks.
The republic's mainly Muslim population has become increasingly radicalised by the region's instability. The region is quite safe, though the security of the country may be occasionally shaken, due to frequent attacks by militants. Nalchik in particular has seen a very unstable situation. But as of November and December 2012 this city seems quite safe. Yes, people do get killed here but tourists will be fine. There are nice hotels and everything is within walking distance. There is not much to see and do in Nalchik but the people are very nice.
The North Caucasus are largely Sunni Islamic societies, and so you need to behave and act accordingly and properly.
The Northern Caucasus is actually pretty difficult to "get out" of. The borders of all the region's republics are also closely controlled by Russian authorities; expect to be interrogated and bothered at border crossings and frequent roadblocks as to your purpose in traveling in the region. Nevertheless, it is possible to leave for Azerbaijan through one of the two international border crossings in the south of Dagestan (both trains and buses cross the border). You can also enjoy breathtaking mountain vistas on the Georgian Military Road (the name is purely historical and does not imply any current military activity on this route) that runs from Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to Tbilisi in Georgia and climbs to nearly 2400 m above sea level. Although frequently used nowadays, this road remains a very special experience. The section adjacent to the Russian-Georgian border is in poor condition and may be blocked by avalanches.
Another way of crossing the Greater Caucasus is the Transcaucasian Highway that connects North Ossetia to South Ossetia through the famous Roki Tunnel, one of the biggest tunnels constructed in USSR. Unfortunately, this road will not bring you far, because the border between South Ossetia and Georgia is closed for political reasons, so you simply get stuck there and eventually return to North Ossetia.
Otherwise, your way lies back to northern Russian regions. Flights leave from many of the subregional capital cities to Moscow, otherwise, it is easiest to leave as you come in: via Sochi or Stavropol/Mineralnye Vody. From Sochi, you can also travel to Abkhazia along the sea coast. Crossing the Abkhazian border from Kabardino-Balkaria directly through the mountains is not possible and will be physically quite difficult anyway.