Last updated : 23/11/2022
The Republic of Dagestan (Дагестан in Russian) is located on the east side of the Caucasus mountains range by the Caspian sea, bordering Azerbaijan & Georgia.
The mountains of Dagestan are hidding an incredible ethnic diversity. As it is often called, the most heterogeneous republic of Russia has more than 30 ethnic groups and subgroups in a terrority as big as Slovakia. Muslims, Christians, Jews, all speaking different languages.
Even though it is part of Russia, people there will tell you “here it’s the Caucasus”, a very different world. One of the most off the beaten track destination in Europe and certainly some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet !
Police posts on the roads : There is a check post on the main highway at the border of Chechnya. You aren’t meant to register at this post, but if they ask you to do so, there might be security problems in the area so ask them.
They stop vehicules for regular documents and car checks, but they can also shut the road between the republics for security purpose.
Money : If you have Euros or US Dollars to change, just so you know in Dagestan like in the rest of the North Caucasus you change your currencies at the local market (рынок).
Ethnic groups : The Republic of Dagestan is the most diverse of all the Republics (+ Oblasts and Krais) of Russia. There are some forty offical languages and as many ethnic groups and subgroups. They can be divided in 3 linguistic families (non exhaustive list).
The Dagestani group
The Iranian group
The Turkic group
There are also Chechen Akkins, Tsez, Archis, Slavs and more. Now you understand the complexity and diversity of Dagestan.
Russian only became the common language in the 1950’s. Before that, there were many common languages; for example Avars and Dargins used Kumyk language to communicate between each other.
Where to sleep
In Makhachkala and Derbent you will easily find any sort of accomodation : hostels (only in summer time), hotels, short rent flats, everything is available. Ostrovok.ru is the best alternative to Booking.com in Russia.
In Buinaksk, Gunib and other big towns there are some small hotels but for the rest you will have to count on the local hospitality and ask to people in villages, unless they offer you before you make the move. Caucasian hospitality at its best !
Makhachakala is about 1800 kilometers away from Moscow. Roughly 37 hours by train (book on the official website (might not work without a VPN from a western country and due to the sanctions it is not possible to pay with a Visa or Mastercard for now), and daily 2 hours 45 minutes fligths.
You can travel around Dagestan by « marshrutka » (local mini bus) between cities, towns and quite big villages. For the small ones deep into the mountains, you will have to rely on shared taxis.
Be carefull, sometimes there is only one per day and none during the week end, you should ask the locals on the spot. Hitchhiking also works really good.
Marshrutkas and buses are available from Makhachkala and Derbent to go to Grozny, Volgograd, Baku and even Moscow.
There are no ferry/cargo taking passengers from Dagestan to Kazakhstan nor Turkmenistan. If you wish to cross the Caspian sea you must go through Baku in Azerbaijan. Caravanistan.com wrote a guide with all the options available.
In Moscow everyone will tell you that “Dagestan is super unsafe, you should not go, it’s crazy down there”! No, it’s not. Caucasians in general are super hospitable, and wether they are Avars or Rutuls, Dagestanis are probably the friendliest people you will meet in the whole of Russia.
Yes it’s a bit of a lawlesness place, you will see guns (even in kid’s hands because it’s so much fun to shoot with Daddy’s gun for New Year!), terrorists attacked happened in the past, there are also radical groups, Salafists and other against the Russian Goverment.
You will notice a lot of police and guys in uniforms around Makhchkala and near bigger towns as well as on the way Chechnya (army base/check post). If guns and men in uniforms scare you then maybe Dagestan isn’t really a place you should visit but honeslty, you quickly get used to it !
From my point of view of solo female foreign tourist, I have never felt unsafe. Neither have I heard of terrorrists in mountain villages and my border zone permits have always been granted without any issues.
The North Caucasus is usually discribed as unstable. Moscow doesn’t have full controle of it, because of the ethnical and geopolitical complexity of the region. I cannot guaranty you full safety obviously, exactly like in the West.
However I don’t think it is as dangerous as the Lonely planet and other Wikitravel are portraying it. If it was, the Russian authorities wouldn’t let foreigners access the region like it used to be early 2000’s.
« Here bears are as kind as the people » told me an old Lezgin man once.
I’d worry more about these bears, chacals and wolves than a nut dude with long beard and an explosive belt.
LGBT community, the North Caucasian Republics and many other regions of Russia aren’t LGBT friendly destinations. You probably heard of that already. I know it sucks, but avoid telling people around you and public display of affection with your partner.
These areas are conservatives and religious. Even for heterosexual couples, avoid public display of affections. They just don’t do that overthere.
Must read & watch to learn more
To learn more about Dagestan, here’s a list of few interesting books I enjoyed, and a travel related videos to watch.
There are many other books, movies, documentaries out there, if you know any great ones, please feel free to share in the comments !