Dagestan (Russian: Респу́блика Дагеста́н rees-POOB-lee-kuh dah-gee-STAHN; Avar: Магӏарухъ Жумхӏурият mah-ghar-ookh zhoom-khoo-ree-yaht) is a republic of Russia in the North Caucasus bordering Chechnya and Georgia to the west, Stavropol Krai and Kalmykia to the north, the Caspian Sea to the east, and Azerbaijan to the south.
- 1 Makhachkala — capital and largest city
- 2 Akhty — a majestically set mountain aul with more tourist facilities than any other
- 3 Buynaksk — in central Dagestan in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains
- 4 Derbent — 5,000-year-old walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site on the Caspian in southern Dagestan; one of the most impressive historical sites in Russia
- 5 Gimri — a small mountain village in the eastern (and therefore easiest to get to) section of Dagestan's mountainous region, with more history on view than in most villages.
- 6 Izberbash — an oil town and the largest urban district on the road between Makhachkala and Derbent
- 7 Khasavyurt — a relatively large city (for the region) near the border with Chechnya
- 8 Tindi — a small picturesque aul with a historic minaret in the mountains of southwestern Dagestan, near the Georgian and Chechen borders; probably not a safe area for travel
- 9 Kizlyar — a city near the border with Chechnya and Stavropol krai (region)
- 10 Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk — a city located is northwest Dagestan
- 1 Dagestansky Nature Reserve — comprised of the marshy Kizlyar Bay region (a bird watcher's paradise) and the desert Sarykum Sand Desert region
Dagestan shares with its Caucasian neighbours the towering mountains of the Greater Caucasus, rushing Caucasian rivers, and spectacularly situated stone auls, mountaintop villages. But in an already diverse region, Dagestan is a wonderland of ethnic and cultural diversity. About 35 separate ethnolinguistic groups live in this Scotland-sized republic and the region contains an amazing 12 language families. For all this cultural diversity, Dagestanis are fairly united in their Islamic religion — virtually all non-Russian ethnic groups are Muslim. This is probably true since almost 32,000 people have left in a mass exit from Dagestan since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many of those people were the Mountain Jews, Juhuro, who spoke Persian or one of its dialects.
Marshrutkas are the standard way of getting around the region, and will take you most anywhere you intend to go. The twice-daily train between Makhachkala and Derbent is also a good option.
Driving or hiking the mountainous regions would be a fantastic way to travel between villages and to enjoy Dagestan's striking natural beauty.
Within the seven language families of the Dagestanian language grouping (unrelated except by geography) alone there are about 30 languages, many of them considered among the most difficult in the world to master. Fortunately, everyone, regardless of nationality, understands the lingua franca, Russian. The indigenous Avar language, spoken by the largest single ethnic group, is the second lingua franca of the region. Azeri is also widely used in the southeast Caspian region around Derbent; those who speak Turkish may be able to make themselves understood in this area. However, English is spoken by almost nobody, even in Makhachkala.
The five indigenous literary languages (and therefore the most rewarding to study) are the aforementioned Avar, as well as Lak, Dargwa, Lezgian, and Tabasaran. Avar is the most widespread, and there is an Avar Theater in Makhachkala devoted to performances of works in the language.
Derbent has Dagestan's main attraction in its ancient walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the single most important historical attraction in all of Southern Russia. Makhachkala isn't terribly interesting, and for a tourist, should be considered just a gateway to Derbent.
The mountains of southern and southwestern Dagestan, the high peaks of the Greater Caucasus, should be a principal attraction. Mountains topped with auls, small villages filled with stone houses and home to famed chivalric mountain tribes are as fascinating culturally as they are beautiful.
If you'd like to catch a glimpse of Dagestani culture and beauty, check online for a copy of the late Sergei Bodrov's haunting film, Prisoner of the Mountains (Кавказский пленник), which was shot in a Dagestani mountain aul, hiring the villagers as extras.
Most activities of any interest indoors, mainly cultural performances and sporting events are to be found in Makhachkala.
- Famed Dagestani rugs
- Beluga caviar
- Traditional swords and daggers of the various ethnic groups
- Traditional hats and costumes
Dagestan is renown for its delicious local dishes: hinkal (a tasty pasta/dough-like entity served with garlic sauce and some kind of meat, usually young, boiled lamb), chudu (a quesadilla-like thin dough with special meats, cheeses or vegetables inside), and shashlik (roast shishkabab, usually lamb meat).
There are countless cafes serving Dagestani and Russian foods. A few, newer Chinese and Japanese restaurants have opened, but the food lacks authenticity and flavour. Western foods are likewise a scarcity, and there are no Western food chains anywhere in Dagestan. And don't be fooled by the many advertisements for 'pizza' — even by typical Russian standards, the pizzas lack the most basic ingredients of pizza: sauce, cheeses, etc. The closest you'll come to finding a real steak will be at the new El Gusto Cafe close the centre of Makhachkala, a delightful restaurant where you can find a few other Western dishes satisfactorily prepared.
You will have no problem getting a drink, be it in a house in a mountain aul or a cafe/bar in Derbent.
The best developed facilities (still pretty basic) are in Makhachkala and Derbent, but you should be able to find guesthouse with little difficulty in any town or village. The Dagestani peoples still retain their legendary chivalric hospitality, and will go out of their ways to find you a place to stay.
- Dagestan State University — located in Makhachkala
- Dagestan State Technical University — located in Makhachkala
- Dagestan State Medical Academy, Makhachkala (formerly known as Dagestan State Medical Institute). Caters local and international students, mainly from southeast countries.
The 1999 conflict in neighbouring Chechenia had also very much disturbed peace in Dagestan for some time, fortunately more than 20 years have passed and today the region is again calm and peaceful.
Dagestan is a predominantly conservative Muslim country. Treat the locals with respect and they will warmly welcome you as a guest.
In Dagestan there are four GSM operators (MTS, Beeline, Megafon, Dagestanskaya Sotovaya Svyaz') and two 3G-UMTS operators (Megafon, Beeline), and they often have offers that give you a SIM card for free or at least very cheap. If you are planning to stay a while and to keep in touch with Dagestani and other North-Caucasian peoples, then you should consider buying a local SIM card instead of going on roaming. If you buy a SIM card from a shop you'll need your passport for identification. It only takes five minutes to do the paperwork and it will cost less than US$10.
Embassies and consulates
There are no embassies or consular services in Dagestan. Most embassies and consulates are 1900 km away in Moscow.
Just across the border with Georgia is the breathtakingly gorgeous region of Tusheti, but the border is for all intents and purposes closed, so the route to Georgia becomes extremely long and indirect via plane.
The most obvious next destination would be Chechnya, with its shared culture, proximity, and similarly beautiful mountainous landscapes.