Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Dagestan: Day 1

Travel to Dagestan

Over the past decade, Ted has written and published three academic articles with a colleague who lives in the Republic of Dagestan - a colleague he has never met in person! While here in Kalmykia, we had to take advantage of our proximity to Dagestan and visit him.

Last Tuesday we set off on our long journey to Makhachkala, a large city on the Caspian Sea. Dagestan is a little different than Kalmykia when it comes to travel; there are police checkpoints along the roads and in the cities, so we had to make sure all our documents were in order as foreigners traveling through the republic.

We first took a taxi from Elista to the southern border of Kalmykia. Once outside of Elista, it was steppe as far as the eye could see... for 3 hours. Luckily, we had a terrific taxi driver who had a great balance of conversation and playing music, which made the time pass quickly.

At one point we stopped at a cafe outside a small village to use the restroom. There were cows in the road anyway, so it was a good time to stop.

When we got out of the car I headed toward the cafe, only to realize that our driver was headed toward the bathroom, in a very different direction....

If you've never done a road trip outside the U.S., you may not realize this, but most roadside stops don't have toilets, just a hole for squatting over! Maybe this is where the term "pit stop" comes from...

Our driver got a kick out of us taking this photo. 

To be honest, it feels much cleaner than many of the U.S. gas station bathrooms I've been in.

At the border between Kalmykia and Dagestan we had to stop at our first checkpoint. There, after all our documents were scrutinized and approved, we were picked up by two employees of the Dagestan Geographical Society who drove us the rest of the way to Makhachkala.

"Border patrol" :)

The first 10-15 minutes of the Dagestan looked similar to the Kalmyk steppe, but the scenery soon changed, growing hillier and more lush with plant life.

There was also a change in the religious landscape, with roadside khuruls (Kalmyk Buddhist temples) being replaced by roadside mosques:

There was a small mosque attached to almost every gas station in Dagestan.

Another difference from Kalmykia were the police checkpoints along the road in Dagestan. We were stopped once (waved over by policemen standing in the road) to have our documents checked. This particular checkpoint was right alongside the border with Chechnya, and the police kept our passports for quite a while, which made us nervous. But in the end, they gave our passports back and we were allowed to continue. For this reason, it was essential that we have a Dagestani escort - someone who knew the system and could vouch for us. Not many Americans travel around Dagestan!

Here we are, stopped at the police checkpoint near the Chechen border.

As we finally entered the city of Makhachkala, it seemed to be not very different in appearance from Elista. However, as we got closer to the city center, the buildings got bigger and newer-looking, the roads got more congested, and it no longer looked anything like Elista!

Our Dagestani drivers in front of the central mosque in Makhachkala

All in all, the journey spanned about 550 km and took about 8 hours. Ted's colleague, Eldar Eldarov (the one we came to meet!), had arranged a hotel room for us at the Sport Hotel, right next to a stadium. We were so grateful to be able to go directly to our room after such a long time in the car.

After we unpacked our bags and rested for a bit, Eldar picked us up in a taxi and took us to his home (He doesn't drive, and after a few days of riding in a car around Dagestan, we understand why!).

View from our hotel balcony

Another view from our hotel balcony

Eldar's home, a very nice apartment in the city, was lavishly decorated and very comfortable. His wife and daughter had prepared a feast for us, and we were so happy to see all the vegetables! The tomatoes in Dagestan are out of this world - I could have eaten only tomatoes for dinner and been very, very happy.

Clockwise from top: Russian potato salad; salted fish and boiled potatoes with dill; chicken and roasted potatoes; a plateful of delicious tomatoes and sliced cucumber sprinkled with parsley; and pink pickled cabbage

The traditional dish of Dagestan is called khinkal [hing-KAL]. It consists of braised meat and thick doughy noodles - almost like undercooked biscuits - usually served with a bowl of bouillon. The red tomato sauce and white sour cream sauce are loaded with garlic and are served alongside khinkal.

Photo credit: Bela Eldarova, Eldar's daughter

Of course there was incredibly smooth Dagestan cognac, too!
Photo credit: Bela Eldarova
After dinner treats included chocolates, cookies, and a nutty bun similar to a cinnamon roll, but not as sweet

Dinner was so delicious and so relaxing - a great way to be welcomed to Dagestan. And I must say, Dagestani hospitality cannot be beat. We were not allowed to lift a finger the entire time we were there, and our hosts supplied everything we needed and/or wanted. 

After dinner, we sat around and chatted, and Eldar's daughter let their house pet run around and greet everyone:

The rabbit's name means something like "jewel" in Russian, but I can't remember the exact word...

It was so great to finally meet Eldar in person, after so many years of email correspondence. We went to sleep that night looking forward to exploring Makhachkala and learning more about Dagestan, which we will write about over the next few blog posts!

Ted and Eldar, together at last


  1. How sweet. I'm so glad you got some good veggies! They must have been so excited to host you and Ted - looks like they got out the good china? Love the rabbit too. :)

  2. Yummy cookies! Ted must have been in heaven.

    1. I was, too, actually! The cookies here are just the way I like them - not too sweet. The "logs" coated in powdered sugar are filled with crushed walnuts; those were my favorite.

    2. We might have to make tea and cookies a regular thing in our house once we return to the U.S.!