A travel guide to Kabardino – Balkaria, Russian Caucasus

A travel guide to Kabardino – Balkaria, Russian Caucasus

View of mont Elbrus from the Djili Su road Kabardino - Balkaria

Last updated : 22/11/2022

The Republic of Kabardino – Balkaria (Кабардино-Балкария in Russian) is named after its two main ethnic groups, Kabards and Balkars, ethnically and politically divided.

Kabards are Circassians and form the majority, whereas Balkars are Turkic who wish to have their own republic.

Often discribed unstable, Kabardino – Balkaria had attacks linked to the Chechen war in 2000’s, violences toward the local government in 2010.

Today, even though there are still rivalries betweens ethnic groups, the situation is stable and as a tourist you are unlikely to experience any troubles there.

On the bright side, Kabardino – Balkaria is home to the highest mountain in Europe : Mount Elbrus. There are breathtaking mountain views all around with plenty of glaciers and waterfalls.

A fascinating corner of Russia where tourism is growing fast, so hurry up !

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General informations

  • Capital : Nalchik (Нальчик)
  • Population : Between 850 000 and 900 000 inhabitants depending on sources
  • Languages : Kabard, Balkar and Russian
  • Religions : Islam Sunni and Orthodox Christianity
  • Money : If you want to change Euros and US Dollars, just head to the market (Рынок). At the corner of the streets Ulitsa Pacheva and Ulitsa Tolstovo in front of the park right here you will find few men in their 50’s who change money. Technically it is illegal but don’t worry, everyone knows them, they won’t rip you off and you will get a much better rate than at the bank.
  • Dress code : None, but avoid wearing mini skirts and above knee shorts.
  • Visa : The Republic of Kabardino – Balkaria is part of the Russian Federation so you will need a Russian visa if necessary depending your nationality.
  • Border : There is no legal border crossing point to Georgia from Kabardino – Balkaria, you will have to cross from North Ossetia at the Verkhny Lars border.

Hiking the Elbrus

Mont Elbrus is the highest peak in Europe and because of its location at the sensitive border with Georgia, there are strong regulations to hike it. A guide is mandatory. He/she will get the permit for you. Don’t try to get it yourself, you will get denied for sure.

Mount Elbrus, Kabardino - Balkaria

Police posts on the roads : There is a big check post between North Ossetia and Kabardino – Balkaria where everyone seems to register. Both ways. Coming from Pyatigorsk you are basically entering the “unstable” part of the North Caucasus. Just register like everyone else. They can also shut the roads between the republics for security purpose.

I was sort of “questionned” by an annoying young police officier who probably wanted a bribe. If it happens to you, speak louder english and someone else should rush to push the bad cop away.

Deportation : The entire Balkar population has been deported in 1944 by the orders of Stalin. They have been accused of collaboration with the Nazis and were sent to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyztan. The name of the Kabardino – Balkarian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was changed into the Kabardin Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, as if Balkar people never existed.

They were allowed to come back to their homeland in 1957 during the Khruchtchev’s De-Stalinisation of the USSR.

Where to sleep

There are plenty of accomodation in Nalchik and near the Elbrus. During the high hiking and skying seasons, prices rise up the closest you get to the Elbrus.

I really don’t recommend you the Teplichny hostel in Nalchik (dirty, no kitchen nor real bathroom, zero comfort and super far from the city center), but the little hotel “Alpinist” (гостиница Альпинист) is right in the center. A throwback to the Soviet times guarantied but very clean and the Balkar ladies working there are lovely.

Kabardino – Balkaria is a popular-ish destination for Russian tourists, but a favourite among mountainering enthusiats, you can easily find most hotels on Ostrovok, the best alternative to Booking.com in Russia.

Transport

Kabardino – Balkaria is about 1400 kilometers far from Moscow. It can be reach by daily flights from Moscow, about 2 hours 20 minutes to Mineralnye Vody and by train between 20 to 30 hours journey.

Marshrutka (mini local bus) are available a bit everywhere and you can also get to Tcherkesk and Vladikavkaz in the neighboring Republics from Nalchik.

Safety

Western governements advice against travelleing to most of the North Caucasian republics including this one. However the local governement of Kabardino – Balkaria is working hard for the safety of tourists.

I personaly met an FSB officer working in Elbrus (the village). You should also know that the tensions and attacks have reduiced consequently the last years.

There’s a police check post (passports and cars) at the border with North Ossetia – Alania, and so coming from Ingushetia and Chehnya at the same time.

As a foreign tourist traveling solo around the Republic, I have never felt in any danger, neither in Nalchik nor when hiking around the mountains by myself, people have always been super nice to me.

Must read & watch

To learn more about Kabardino – Balkaria, its people and history, here is a list a must read and watch resources :

  • The Circassian genocide” by Walter Richmond
  • Let our fame be great” by Oliver Bullough
  • The circassians : A handbook by Amjad Jaimoukha
  • If by any chance you end up in Israel/Palestine, I recommend you to visit The Circassian Heritage Center in Kvar Kama and discover the little Circassian diaspora of the country.
  • The movie Cherkess. The story covers the arrival of Circassians immigrant Circassians to Ottoman Transjordan in at the end of the XIXth century.
  • 21” is a documentary by NART TV about the history of Circassians
  • The call is a short film about the Circassian genocide
  • The Punished people, by Alexandr Nekrich about the deportation of Caucasian people and Kabards included during World War II
  • The documentary movie ” The horse rider monk” by Joel Farges is the story of a French monk who wanted to establish a community to help children.
  • he Nart Sagas, a book about the local mythology – Satanaya is coming from there !

There are probably many other books, movies, documentaries out there, if you know any great ones, especially about Balkar people, please feel free to share in the comment section !

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