Trip Review of Wild Frontiers of the North Caucasus Tour with Spiekermann Travel
By Nancy W.
When I was working in Moscow in the mid-90s, some of my older Russian friends invited me over to see their slides of Abkhazia, Chechnya and Dagestan. I thought I would never visit these spectacular sites which were experiencing devastating wars at the time. I remember thinking that I was simply born too late; I would not ever be able to see these magical places that my friends described in such glowing terms.
But I was wrong.
In September 2017, I traveled with Spiekermann Travel on their Exploratory Tour from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea in the North Caucasus. I saw the breathtaking scenery of my friends' photos with my own eyes. Plus I met the diverse people of these mountainous areas. And I returned in September 2018 to experience it again.
From the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. It sounds lovely, and it is.
Traveling near and in the mountains of the North Caucasus by small bus, by train, by 4x4 off-road vehicles was a joy. Abkhazia plus the Republics of Karbardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan presented an amazing array of ethnic people and varied scenery and intriguing cultures . Lovely seaside hotels, small boutique hotels, a hotel on a lake, a hotel at a ski area, a hotel on the third level of the town of Gunib, a village hotel, the best hotels in Vladikavkaz and Grozny, and a homestay with locals. Restaurants with the very best of local cuisine and fun master cooking classes.
Starting in Sochi, which has dramatically changed in 20 years - host of the 2014 Olympics and a 2018 World Cup venue was a good plan. Followed by Abkhazia, which is a subtropical beach destination for Russians from the north, and an independent country since the 1990’s. A visit to Stalin's dacha on Lake Ritsa - for a Russian history buff, truly fascinating. A delicious picnic with a front-row breathtaking view of Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe at 18,442 feet.
Sleeping on the overnight train from Sochi to Mineralniye Vody was great fun. Watching a martial arts master demonstrate how a shashka (long sword) is used. A sobering stop in Beslan, now a heartbreaking memorial to a tragic terrorist attack on a school in 2004, was very moving. Lovely walks around the charming provincial city of Vladikavkaz which has a beautiful imperial Russian flavor. Traditional dance lessons in a local dance studio. Unbelievably intact burial crypts in North Ossetia filled with skeletons and bones of people who inhabited this place for hundreds and hundreds of years and stunning historic defensive towers in Ingushetia - a photographer's dream come true.
Visiting the enormous and gorgeous new mosque in the center of Grozny during a walking tour was captivating during the day (and even at night when we went to see it illuminated). An interesting homestay with locals in a Dagestani village was so heart-warming as they open up their houses and arms to their guests! Spectacular scenery while driving in 4x4 vehicles on dirt tracks high in the North Caucasus Mountains. Revisiting history at the citadel and the old town in Derbent; checking out the latest jazz music scene in Makhachkala. And enjoying mouthwatering meals/local specialties every day.
Special bonus: NO foreign tourists except Russians from Moscow and St. Petersburg in the seaside towns and a few Russians at the burial crypts and defensive towers plus a few hikers in the mountains. Seeing the old traditions of pottery making, ropewalking, wood carving/decoration, jewelry making, traditional singing and dancing combined with the emergence of hip coffeehouses in Dagestan. Excellent small museums highlighting the history and culture of local nations, Russian invasions and wars. Genuine local hospitality (drinking tea at a village house or at a tiny teahouse in town) and vibrant food markets (sampling local cheese, urbech, and honey from the women selling them) showcasing the vibrancy and diversity of the North Caucasus.
A small group (10 max) making it easy to meet locals; traveling with excellent guides, experienced drivers and exceptional fellow travelers. Making new friends with our Dagestani homestay hosts and our Chechen drivers. Witnessing Christians, Muslims, Jews living together peacefully in Derbent. Visiting schools in Chechnya and Dagestan - elementary, high school, and a boys' madrassa - chatting with the kids and their teachers and principals. Taking a bazillion fabulous photos of places and people that no one you know has ever seen until you show them to your friends.
I am already planning my return to the "Kavkaz." The combination of the history of the North Caucasus republics which currently belong to the Russian Federation and the influence of Islam on the region, plus the spectacular scenery and the fascinating people are simply irresistible. In this age of non-stop travel and tourist crowds seemingly everywhere, it is positively refreshing to travel to a place where travelers are genuinely welcomed and treated with the authentic hospitality of the Caucasus.
Spiekermann works with guides who love the North Caucasus; their enthusiasm for the area and its people is contagious. The drivers are trustworthy and outstanding representatives of their nations/republics. And the diversity of the local people and the majestic scenery make this sea-to-sea adventure in the mountains one of the best ever.