The North Caucasus is a region of the Caucasus in southwestern Russia, bordering Georgia and Azerbaijan to the south and Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, and Kalmykia to the north. This region ranks among the world's most exotic and thrilling destinations to visit, boasting of nearly 50 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups in a space roughly the size of Bulgaria. It is one of the few parts of Russia where ethnic Russians are a minority.
The North Caucasus republics have become safer and welcoming to visitors. Tourism infrastructure remains patchy, so inexperienced travelers should consider engaging a tour operator. However, those who are prepared to rough it out will be rewarded with some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
Other nearby regions, such as Northern Georgia, Northern Azerbaijan or in the south of Krasnodar Krai around Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana, primarily home to poor Muslim territories, provide a reasonable second place to the unique character of the North Caucasus.
A gorgeous and fascinating region, Chechnya should be welcomed onto travelers' lists as the security situation has markedly improved over the last decade. Downtown Grozny is an exceptional site and not to be missed. Inhabited by ethnic Chechens, a conservative Sunni Muslim ethnic group.
An environment utterly exotic and alien to Russians of the steppe and woodlands, Dagestan boasts astounding cultural diversity, breathtaking and austere mountaintop villages, and an ancient history. Physical threats to safety have diminished profoundly.
Home of the Ingush people, who are a conservative Muslim people that are closely related to their Chechen neighbors. One of Russia's poorest regions, it nevertheless has created a striking capital city worth the visit. Seek also the remarkable Ingush towers, but leave time for applying for permits—about a month-long process. With only 1% of the population being ethnic Russians, it is considered to be Russia's "least Russian" region.
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, its security situation has improved dramatically over the past years. Uneasy travelers need only join a reputable tour operation.
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, an Iranic ethnic group related to the Persians and Tajiks, and one of the few Orthodox Christian mountain tribes of the Northern Caucasus.
- 1 Cherkessk — capital of Karachay Cherkessia
- 2 Derbent — this ~5,000 year-old UNESCO World Heritage site city, location of the mythical "Gates of Alexander", justly takes its place as one of Russia's, and the world's, top historical tourist destinations
- 3 Grozny — stunning light-studded capital city of Chechnya, boasting Europe's largest mosque, "The Heart of Chechnya"
- 4 Makhachkala — wild and wonderful capital of Dagestan and the Northern Caucasus' largest city
- 5 Izberbash — quiet beachresort city boasting several diverse beach options and a relaxing atmosphere
- 6 Nalchik — capital of Kabardino-Balkaria and cultural hub of music and arts
- 7 Vladikavkaz — North Ossetia's ancient capital with stunning mountain views and a regional transit hub
- 1 Dombai — beautiful mountain resort in Karachay-Cherkessia
- 2 Mount Elbrus — Europe's highest mountain, also a ski area
- 3 Mount Dychtau — Europe's second highest mountain
- 4 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 in which ethnic Russians outnumber the namesake ethnicity, 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 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. The eastern Caucasus nationalities were mostly deported en masse to Kazakhstan following World War II, 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 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. Russia responded with a military invasion, although it was unsuccessful. For the next few years, Chechnya became an independent nation under the name "Chechen Republic of Ichkeria", although it failed to achieve international recognition. During Chechnya's brief period of independence, human rights abuses were rife, and many ethnic Russians fled from Chechnya.
Following a sequence of several terrorist attacks that took place throughout Russia, culminating in the notorious hostage taking in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004, in which 333 were killed, 186 of them children, a second invasion soon followed, during which the more religiously moderate Chechens, including many who were allied with the Chechen independence movement during the first war, ended up switching sides and allying with the Russians against the Salafist Chechens. Chechens who are still loyal to the Ichkeria cause often denounce these people as "traitors".
Although the second war was successful, it was particularly brutal and the consequences of the conflict can still be felt. The Chechen independence movement soon splintered into several factions, with one faction forming the "Caucasus Emirate", a movement aimed to unite all of the North Caucasian republics under an Islamic state. Chechen rebels have often resorted to guerilla warfare and launching terrorist attacks across Russia.
Thanks to these conflicts, as well as the low-level insurgency that continued thereafter, many consider this region dangerous. However, since the 2010s, the situation has been getting better; large scale war has ended, and most high-ranking rebels, warlords and terrorists have been killed, although political instability and corruption continue to plague many areas. Nevertheless, many areas that were destroyed by the war are now being rebuilt, and Grozny, Chechnya's capital, once one of the most destroyed cities in the world, now sports beautiful tree-lined boulevards flanked by cafes. As part of the peace settlement, the Russian government has allowed Chechnya to implement Sharia law in exchange for giving up their struggle for independence.
The conflict has some very serious anti-Russian elements and overtones, and there is also an ethnic conflict between the Ossetians and Ingush. See Ingushetia for more information.
CaucasTalk is an English-language podcast about culture, history, and tourism in the North Caucasus mountains of Russia. It is produced by two Americans living in the North Caucasus. Begun in 2017, it is the only known publication devoted to exposing English-speakers to the positive aspects of life and travel in the North Caucasus.
The North Caucasus is the most linguistically diverse area in Russia — nearly 50 different languages (35 in Dagestan alone) are spoken here! This is one of the few parts of Russia where native Russian speakers are in the minority, and local languages dominate in everyday life.
Nevertheless, Russian remains the lingua franca, and nearly all locals are able to speak Russian regardless of what their native tongue is.
Little to no English is spoken here; therefore, getting around without any knowledge of Russian is impossible.
- The Ingush Towers — mythical ancient towers in the Ingush border zone
- Derbent - the oldest city in Russia
- Gamsutl, Khahib and Goor - the Dagestani Machu-Picchu
- Sulak canyon
- Hunzah waterfall and fortress
- Salta waterfalls
- Elbrus mountain
- Kezenoy-Am lake
- 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. You should try local cuisine in all the republics, it is great: try osetinian pies, khychiny, chudu, hinkaly, etc.
Heavy military activity, terrorist bombings, kidnappings, and unexploded mines and munitions exist in the region. 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. The authorities may pose an even greater threat to travelers than rebels, bandits, and gangs. All of the region is part of the turf of the infamous terrorist group, the Caucasus Emirate.
In the event of emergencies embassies can do very little, and 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.
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.
Below is a list of what a traveler should do to stay vigilant when travelling to certain regions in the North Caucasus.
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 and Russian citizens going missing or being killed or kidnapped for ransom in Chechnya.
As of 2022, the situation there is stable. Open warfare has ended with victory for the Russian government, which has in turn given the local Chechen government considerable autonomy, including the right to enact Sharia law. There is a strong military and police presence, but tourists can walk and take pictures freely with only the odd glance from locals wondering why a foreigner is visiting. The capital Grozny has been rebuilt since the end of the war, and these days it is as safe as to visit as any other city in Russia.
Ingushetia used to be a very dangerous region, but is now safe to visit, like the other republics. Research the security situation before visiting. If you want to visit Ingushetia or any of the other North Caucasus republics, you should at least have basic Russian language skills unless you hire a guide.
Dagestan is for the most part safe for travel, although the price to pay for that safety is military patrols and security checkpoints. These are particularly common in the rural mountainous regions of Dagestan but rare along the more urbanised coast line. Terrorist attacks are now a rare occurrence in Dagestan, and if they occur they only target police or Russian military, never civilians or tourists. The inaccessible mountainous interior of the republic largely eclipse law enforcement. The border with Chechnya is best avoided when traveling solo, as a precaution. See the stay safe section in the Dagestan article for detailed and up-to-date travel advice.
Khasavyurt 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 movie 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. One 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.
Although a frequent target of Islamist terrorist violence from the neighboring republics in the 2000s, the political situation has stabilized in the 2010s, and it is now safe to visit. People are Orthodox Christian here, not Muslim. 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 2012 this city seemed 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 conservative Sunni Islamic societies, and so you need to behave and act accordingly and properly. In Chechnya and mountainous regions of all republics it is inappropriate to wear shorts, kiss in public and etc. The Ossetes predominantly Orthodox Christian, but even they tend to be more conservative than ethnic Russians.
Tourists from other parts of the world are a rare sight in the North Caucasus. The authorities and the locals might even wonder what someone like you is doing here.
The Northern Caucasus is 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. This road will not bring you far, though, 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.