The towers of Ingushetia, Russia’s best kept secret

The towers of Ingushetia, Russia’s best kept secret

Better than Svaneti in Georgia, here is the Republic of Ingushetia! The mountains of Russia’s smallest republic in the heart of the Great Caucasus hide a huge cultural treasure : the Vainakh towers. These defensive and residential towers have resisted quite well to invaders and destruction over the centuries. The people of the towers as they are referred to in Russia are some of the kindest I had the chance to meet in my travels. This little known republic cannot disappoint in any way.

Very well off the beaten tracks, Ingushetia is a paradise for mountain lovers and travellers curious about a unique culture and history.

Unfortunately there are very little informations about Ingushetia online and travel guides warn you not to go because “war zone!” – “extremely unsafe!” – “impossible to get there on your own!”. Let me be honest, it’s bullshit. As a solo female foreigner and independant traveller, I’ve been there on my own, without any travel agency and I had an amazing time !

This travel guide contains everything you need to know for travelling to the mountains of Ingushetia, including tips regarding the border zone, transportation, safety and the best places to visit !

Last updated : 06/11/2022

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Brief history

The Ingush form with the Chechens and the Kists of Georgia the Vainakh people. They are also part of the Nakh peoples which include the Vainakh and the Bat people of Georgia.

During the Mongol invasion of the Caucasus in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Ingush who then lived in the lowlands took refuge high in the mountains, building their defensive towers for this purpose and there there were born : the people of the towers.

From there, famous Vanaikh master builders travelled across the Caucasus, spreading their knowledge of stones towers building. Some of them up to 30 meters high and had multiple floors !

They were integrated into the Russian Empire by force in the 19th century during the conquest of the Caucasus. In 1917 they welcomed the Bolsheviks positively, then suffered Staline’s repression and deportation in 1944 along with the Chechens. On their return from exile in 1957, half of their land was not given back by their Ossetian neighbors.

From then followed a violent conflict between Ingush and Ossetians after the collapse of the USSR, still unresolved to this day, followed by a wave of refugees from neighboring Chechnya kindly welcomed, though against the Russian central government’s approval during the two Chechen wars.

In 2018 an agreement between the Chechen and Ingush presidents supported by Moscow granted a piece of Ingush territory to the republic of Chechnya. It was seen as one more injustice the less than half a million Ingush people.

the Ingush diaspora is scattered all over the West, in the Russian Far East, Turkey, up to the Middle East, and has been since the 19th century.

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Painting by Ingush artist Aishat Daurbekova

Erzi Nature Reserve

Igushetia has a Nature Reserve named Erzi after the Erzi complex towers, probably the most popular tower village among tourists. Erzi was (is?) the name of a local Teip (also spelled Taip), the traditionnal clan structure of Ingush and Chechen peoples.

The Nature Reserve covers basically most of the mountainous parts of Ingushetia. There are hundreads of Vainakh towers scattered in Ingushetia’s mountains. These medieval stones towers and necropolis are unique to the Caucasus.

The Erzi Nature Reserve created in the year 2000, covers 35 000 hectares in the Dzheyrakhsky district. One third of the Reserve is covered of forests and above 3000 metres you find meadows, glaciers and high snowy peaks.

The mountains of Ingushetia, which includes the Erzi Nature Reserve, where all of the Vainakh towers are located in, are very close to the border of Georgia and therefore require a special border zone permit to visit. There are no entrance fees but without a border zone permit, you won’t go pass the military posts coming either from Magas nor from Vladikavkaz.

Ingushetia travel guide

The border zone

The area called “border zone” is a strip of five to ten kilometers depending on the region all around the borders of the Russian Federation. In the North Caucasus it depends on each republic but know that the border along Georgia is sensitive with rough terrain, making it quite difficult to guard. Meaning high alert for soldiers working there. You do not want to be mistaken for anyone else than a random tourist.

The entire mountainous parts of the Republic of Ingushetia are within the border zone.

It would be absolutely pointless to travel to Ingushetia without a border zone permit. You will not be able to see any tower without this golden ticket.

For your own sake, do not try to sneak in from either Chechnya, Ossetia or who knows where. Get a proper permit, it’s free and quick to get in my experience, go through either of the military posts, the soldiers are friendly and enjoy these unique towers !

The district you need to mention on your boder zone permit application is : Dzheyrakhsky -Джейрахский.

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There are two checkposts to enter the border zone in Ingushetia (pinned in red on the map below), one is literally less than 20 minutes drive from the Verkhny Lars pass aka the border crossing to Georgia. Unfortunetly you have to pick up the permit in person at the Magas FSB office, so don’t expect to quickly pop in from Kazbegi for the day, it won’t be possible.

You wonder what will happen if you get caught without a border zone permit ?
Simple : detention, judgment, deportation at your own expenses and most probably ban from Russia for a while.

Best places to visit

As I said previously, there are plenty of tower complexes scaterred across Ingushetia, making it difficult to know which ones are worth visiting and easily accessible. To be honest, I am no expert and I did truly struggled when planning my trip to Ingushetia. I had to manage with Russian websites, Instagram, Maps.me and Google maps to find out where were the interesting and worth-to-see towers, because all travel guides simply suggest “Don’t go. Period.”

Here are the top 8 places to visit in Ingushetia

I highly recommend the use of Maps.me to find the exact location and routes to these places. You can easily find the hiking route and the distances on the app.

Egikal

Egikal – Эгикал, the largest tower complex in Ingushetia. The inhabitants of Egikal village were deported in February 1944, it has been abandoned ever since. It includes defensive towers, residential ones, a necropolise and temple. The Ingush writer Idris Bazorkin is buried there.

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Targim

Targim – Таргим, another complex of defensive and residential towers, as well as a necropolise and temple. According to the legend, Targim the son of an inhabitant of Egikal built the village. Other auls (fortified villages in the Caucasus) were built by the children of this same man, and named after them.

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Erzi

Erzi – Эрзи is dating from the 17th century according to some historians, a few towers would even date to the 14th century. They were restored some years ago. The village gave its name to the Erzi Nature Reserve

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Beyni

Beyni – Бейни an abandoned village on the way to “Stolovaya Gora”, the table-mountain.

Stolovaya Gora

Stolovaya Gora – Столовая Гора so-called Table Mountain, i.e. a plateau where the Pagan temple of the God Myat Seli – Мят Сели is located. Myat Seli was built in the12th century and still used by Ingush people of the valley at the beginning of the 20th century.

You can get there by hiking about 7 kilometers from Beyni village. It’s located at some 2600 meters high though. The Ingush name of the Table Mountain is Myat-Loam.

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Source : megalithica.ru

Falkhan

Falkhan – Фалхан village was abandonned after the deportation of its inhabitant in February 1944.

Vovnushky

The Vovnushky – Вовнушки towers are a unique medieval tower complex, they served only for defense and according to historians were connected by a bridge. The complex was finalist of the project “7 wonders of Russia” in 2008, but did not win.

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Tkhaba-Yerdy church

The Tkhaba Yerdy church – Храм Тхаба Ерды was built in the 8th century on the ruins of a pagan temple. It is one of the oldest Christian churches in Russia.

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How to get there

Travelling to Ingushetia is very easy and there are plenty of way to do so :

  • By train from Moscow to Nazran, runs a couple of times a week.

  • By marshrutka (public mini bus) from the neighboring republics and the cities of Grozny, Vladikavkaz, Nalchik, Pyatigorsk.

  • You can easily travel from Georgia to Ingushetia. There are daily marshrutka from Didube station to Vladikavkaz, then you have to get another one to Magas.

Travelling to the Ingushetia’s mountains is less easy. I was hitchhiking my way accross the North Caucasus and also manage to hitchhiking aroung Ingushetia but I’m a solo female backpacker so it might not be relevant to you. However, know that is it absolutely doable if you are patient. The population in the Ingush mountains is pretty scarce, you won’t see hundreds of cars per day, but most probably all of them with stop when they see you.

Apart from hitchhiking, here are few other options to make it to the montains :

  • From Magas or Nazran you can easily find a taxi driver for the day if you offer a fair price. People are trustworthy in Ingushetia, they won’t overcharge you nor rip you off.

  • I have not heard about marshrutka going to the mountain villages, there probably are but not frequent. Know that you will get dropped off along the road and it’s unlikely to see another one passing the same day.

  • Nazir, from Beyni Guesthouse in Nazran runs small tours for Russian tourists. Last time I met him he spoke no english but he is super kind and will figure something out for you !

    You can contact him on his Instagram here or there, just google translate your message to Russian.

Where to sleep

There are little accomodation in Nazran and Magas. Most of the tourists choose to stay in Vladikavkaz, only 30 kilometers drive from there.

In Nazran, I stayed at Beyni Guesthouse, runned by Nazir and his lovely mom. I can only recommend it especially if you’re a solo female traveller, Nazir’s mom will make you feel most welcome.

In the border zone there are very little sleeping options. You can camp but make sure to ask if you are nearby a village or someone’s home. If you’re lucky some locals will offer to host you.

Or you can stay at either Armkhi Hotel, a resort about 30 minutes drive from the checkpoint coming from the North Ossetian side or the more budget friendly Legendi Gor however the location is quite remote.

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Safety

It might seems like I repeat myself but Ingushetia is not a war zone.

Yes the ethnic Osseto-Ingush conflict between Ossetia and Ingushetia has been going on for decades and still has not ceased, but it is no longer violent like it was in the 1990s. There is still sometimes civil unrest, due to political decisions to reduce the territory of Ingushetia to the benefit its neighbors in the cities for example. However the mountains where you should spend most of your time are perfectly peaceful.

Must know : there are still landmines in some places, so if you end up hiking to some super remote areas and see signs saying “мины” (= mines), watch your steps. The tourist sites listed previously are all clear.

Extra tips

A few extra tips to travel around the mountains of Ingushetia :

  • The best time to travel around the Caucasus mountains, Ingushetia or the neighbouring republics is late spring and summer. Everything is lush green, rivers & waterfalls are flowing, flowers blossoming.

  • Avoid friday if you wish to hitchhike and meet locals. Ingush people are muslims and friday is prayer day, they are busy.

  • Cover yourself. Guys don’t wear shorts above the knee, ladies you don’t need to wear a headscarf (no one will mind, they will obviously see that you aren’t muslim) but it’s always best to respect the local culture so avoid showing too much skin. I personally was wearing my regular jeans and an oversized button shirt – just like I do in any muslim region.
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There you have it all to discover the amazing and unique towers of Ingushetia’s mountains !

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