A travel guide to Dagestan, Russian Caucasus

A travel guide to Dagestan, Russian Caucasus

Dagestan travel guide

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 !

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General informations

  • Capital : Makhachkala (Махачкала)
  • Population : About 3 millions inhabitants
  • Languages : The lingua franca is Russian but there are more than forty languages spoken across Dagestan
  • Religions : 80% Muslims and the majority of them are Sunnis. They are also small communities of Shias, Orthodox Christians and Jews
  • Alcohol : You will easily find beer and cognac (Derbent made) and even bars.
  • Dress code : None, but keep in mind that Dagestan is predomidantly Muslim, even though nothing and no one will seem very strict. Guys, no above knee shorts and ladies leave the mini skirts in Moscow. You’ll be able to visit the mosques and hang around smalls villages without offending anyone.
  • Visa : Dagestan is part of the Russian Federation so you’ll need a Russian visa if necessary depending your nationality.
  • Borders : During the Soviet Union, there were dozens of crossing points all along the border with Azerbaijan. Today there are only three border crossing points with Azerbaijan, the main one being the « Yarag-Kazmalyar » (Яраг-Казмаляр).
  • There is no legal border crossing with Georgia.

    Note : Unless you have a border zone permit to cross the No man’s land between the borders of Dagestan (aka Russia) and Azerbaijan, you will need a mode of tranportation
  • If you are in a marshrutka directly on the way to Baku or from Azerbaijan on your way to Derbent/Makhachkala you will cross the border with it, but if you are hitchhiking or only took a transport until the border, you will either have to get a ride in a random truck/car or wait for a young armed soldier to excort you the few meters. No one is allowed to walk through.

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).

  • In Kaspysk you can change at Magomed Taguir’s exchange curriences office (+7 986 982 11 11). Located roughly here, it’s a little street on the right when coming from the bus station.
  • In Derbent it’s right in the middle of the crossroads. Some men in there 50’s – 60’s are waiting here on both sides of the road with a bunch of cash in their hands. You can’t miss them. Everyone knows them, it’s illegal but they have been doing this for years, they won’t rip you off and you will get a much better exchange rate than in the banks.

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

  • Avars :
    Andis
    Bolikhs
    Godoberdins
    Tchamalals
    Bagulays
    Tindals
    Karatins
    Akhvakhs
    Didoys
    Khvazchins
    Bejtins
    Guynuks
    Aztchins
  • Darguins :
    Kaytags
    Kubatchins
  • Others :
    Laks
    Tabassarans
    Lezgins
    Aguls
    Rutuls
    Tsakhurs

The Iranian group

  • Mountain Jews
  • Tats

The Turkic group

  • Kumyks
  • Nogays
  • Turkmens
  • Azeris

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 !

Transport

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.

Safety

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.

  • Caucasus : Mountain men & holy wars by Nicholas Griffin
  • Hadji Murat by Leon Tolstoy
  • Avdentures in the Caucasus by Alexandre Dumas to have an idea of the XIXth century travels during the colonial times of the Russian Empire.
  • Veiled and unveiled in Chechnya & Dagestan by Iwona Kaliszewska & Maciej Falkowski.
  • The books of Alisa Ganieva, an Avar woman who received litterature prices and the first Dagestani writter ever translated into English : The moutain & the wall & Bride and groom
  • “Walking the Caucasus” by Levison Wood if you enjoy thrilling but over exaregated TV shows. That’s not reality.
  • The youtube videos of Bald and bankrupt, a British middle aged man travelling to random places. Much more down to earth than the previous once.
  • The British photographer Luke Duggleby has also been there, check it out here.

There are many other books, movies, documentaries out there, if you know any great ones, please feel free to share in the comments !

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