Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Dagestan: Day 4

In hindsight, we should have made Day 4 in Dagestan into two separate blog posts because SO MUCH happened on this day. Instead, we've divided the post into two sections: Derbent and Kubachi. You can read it all at once, but I'd recommend brewing yourself some tea or coffee before starting - it's a long one!


Besides connecting with his long-time Dagestani colleague, perhaps the thing Ted looked forward to the most about this trip was visiting Naryn-Kala, the old fortress in Derbent, Dagestan, so he will write most of this post.

Derbent has long been a key point along the Caspian Sea coast for north-south travelers. The main Caucasus chain extends in a ridge approaching the sea here, and the passageway along the coast for travelers on foot is at its narrowest. Because of its strategic location, Derbent has a long history of human habitation; it claims--not without some controversy--to be the oldest city in Russia. During the Soviet period the city was said to be 5,000 years old, and this figure is still accepted by many residents. 

Another UNESCO World Heritage site, checked off the list.

The fortress, its walls, and the old town of Derbent are inscribed together on the UNESCO World Heritage list. We only had time to see the fortress, since today was jam-packed with activities. That meant that we missed the 8th century mosque and the city's synagogue, the oldest in Russia. We also did not see what remains of the walls that extend from the fort into the waters of the Caspian Sea.

Our guide, Alik, shows us the tombs on display in the fortress (out of the picture)
Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

An elaborate scale model of the town of Derbent, on display inside the fortress
Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

The old town, located between the Caspian Sea and the fort on the hill, was not laid out in a grid. The buildings instead create a labyrinth that would confuse invaders trying to storm the fort. Once lost in the streets of old town, inhabitants could slay them before they ever got near the fort itself.

The walls from the fortress extended down to the Caspian Sea into the sea itself, forming a port and also enhancing the city's protection in the case of fluctuating sea levels. Only the north wall remains fully intact today. 

Ancient stone ship anchors 

The water cistern inside the fort's walls; it held enough water for a siege lasting two years.
(Now it seems to be used for storage.) 

Pictured below is the fort's dungeon:  a 3x3 meter chamber where a new prisoner was put after the previous one died (the body, though, wasn't removed). In the Soviet period the cell was excavated, and the remains of more than 1,500 bodies were recovered... Rather than a grate--as pictured--the cell would have been covered by the stone lid beyond, with only a small hole to let in light and air. Our guide told us that people begged for execution rather than imprisonment - small wonder.

Alik (our guide) was nervous about me (Mackenzie) taking this photo; he said he had seen a tourist drop her iPhone into the dungeon while trying to take the same photo!

There used to be a church within the walls of the fort, however it was covered by dirt at some point. It lies under this grassy knoll, with an opening for looking down into the church where the white dome is. 

During our tour, we climbed down into a high church window that has been excavated to get a look at the cavernous cathedral below. It was quite an amazing view from where we stood, probably 50 feet or more above the church floor.

This is said to be the oldest church in Russia (this claim is also not without dispute). As we understood it, Christianity had to be practiced in secret after the Muslim's conquest of Derbent in the 7th century and the church was relocated to the fortress from the city proper. Vladimir Putin previously expressed an interest in restoring the church during his visit to Derbent in 2005, but nothing has yet come of it.

Another view of the underground church, from the dome at its apex

The sultan's baths. In the city there was a strict regime for separating genders in the bathhouses--women and men switched off on the days that they could bathe. If a men was caught near the bathhouse on the women's day, he lost one eye (since men were soldiers they needed at least one eye to fight); if a woman was caught on the men's day, she lost both eyes. 

The walls to the west, with the view of the Caucasus foothills

The western gate, which Alik said is not always open. We were lucky to get to tour the backside of the fort on this day. 

The walkway around the back side of the fort dropped off into a steep ravine before the foothills of the Caucuses rose to the west.

A farm in the valley across from the western gate.

Our guide, Alik Abbasov. His English was very good after spending five years as a tour guide in Thailand.
Photo credit: Alik Abbasov

"I love Derbent," pronounced /Ya liubliu Derbent/


After saying goodbye to our guide in Derbent, we set off on a drive into the mountains for a visit to the old town of Kubachi.

Along the way we saw more cows in the road; this has become a normal site for us in southern Russia. People are so used to it here that they hardly even slow down - they just swerve around the cows - which frightened me to no end. In Kalmykia, we actually watched a car hit a horse because it didn't stop! Luckily, the car was not traveling fast. The horse righted itself and galloped away, but the car's windshield was completely shattered. Anyway, I digress...

We were invited to eat lunch in Urkarakh, a town high in the mountains. The town is ethnically Dargin, the second-largest of the many national groups in Dagestan. We were welcomed warmly and had a lunch of meatball and noodle soup. Our host was an electrician in the town and also made sure that we weren't without lunchtime aperitifs. He insisted that if we meet someone from the Caucasus elsewhere in Russia or America, we use the term "derkap" (der-KAPh, though this is an approximation) as a word of welcome. 

The roads were of varying quality on the drive into and through the mountains. This is one of the better roads.

The hillside village of Ukarakh

Once inside the village of Urkarakh, the roads were mostly hard-packed dirt.

We had an expert driver, Makhach, for our final excursions through Dagestan. For two days he drove a manual stick shift up and down mountains, along heavily rutted, hard-packed dirt roads, over large rocks and unpaved hillsides, and he never stalled out once.

This woman is filling her water jugs from a public tap behind the town's administrative building.

A lunchtime toast at the home of a local, where we were warmly welcomed.
Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

After a lunch of good food and toasts, we were back in the car and drove further along to Kubachi. The town is known for its silver-making--the work is done by hand and is of exquisite detail. The road to Kubachi is a winding, unpaved hard-used road of switchbacks and cows. It was quite bumpy for the 45-minute to 1-hour drive, but as I mentioned in the caption above, our driver Makhach handled it like a champ. 

(The video actually shows our descent from Kubachi.)

The drive out of the town of Urkarakh and up to the town of Kubachi afforded some gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains, so we had to stop to take some photos along the way. 

Our drive ended at the town's silver factory. During the Soviet period, the factory employed hundreds; today, it employs around 80 people, nonetheless an important source of livelihood for the town's residents. Kubachi was quite prosperous, with new housing construction in evidence; it also had a gas line that wound down through the valley and up the mountain to provide heat in the winter. 

The yellow gas pipes could be seen snaking up the mountain and around Kubachi.

Silver factory exterior and front gate

With our backs to the silver factory, a view of the street and hillside beyond

When we arrived, the factory was closed up--Friday is a non-working day in Muslim Dagestan. So instead we drove to a local school where children begin to learn the craft of silver work (alongside the usual grade school studies). 

We were given a tour by the school's headmaster, whose father was headmaster before him. The traditions of the people in this area are strongly preserved through this school and the efforts of the teachers here. The most talented students are hired on at the factory and build a career on the technical skills that they develop in school. 

The sign above the main entrance reads: "Welcome to the world of knowledge!"

The school hallways display student work, just like American schools.

The school's headmaster shows us displays of student work.

Students begin in 1st grade by drawing traditional designs in silver and gold ink on glass (left).
Older students then learn to etch the designs on copper (middle).
The most talented students advance to actual silver work, the best of which is sold by the school to raise funds (right). 

The top caption says: "Every resident of Kubachi has their own home museum. Souvenirs of the museum are passed from generation to generation." The bottom caption says: "Students in the preparatory class of A. Akhemdov, B. Abdurazakov."

In another small museum within the school, we saw traditional clothes and tools of the mountain people of Dagestan. I was even dressed in traditional dress and given a couple water jugs to test out!

I think my blonde hair might give me away...

From left to right: Kubachi school headmaster, Ted & me, our guide from the town of Urkarakh, faculty member of the Kubachi school, Bela and her father Eldar

The school faculty and administration seemed thrilled to show us around and tell us about their students and their town history. We thank them for their hospitality!

It seems like this has been a long day, but it's not over yet! After visiting the school, we walked into the old, historic part of Kubachi where a tower still stands from pre-Russian times. These towers of stone are ubiquitous throughout the Caucasus and used for both defense and communication.  

The graveyard in the town of Kubachi

These tombstones are much taller than those we are used to seeing in the U.S.
The flat stone on top is supposedly to protect the intricate carvings from weathering by rain and snow.

Women knitting in the old town of Kubachi
Photo credit: Bela Eldarova

We stopped to say hello to some locals and pet the cat

The stone tower is now a museum, though the exhibits aren't yet fully finished. It used to be a private residence.

The door to the tower.

The view of the old part of Kubachi from one of the tower's windows. Settlements in Dagestan were often built on the ridge line in order to protect against enemies. 

The view back to the newer part of Kubachi from the tower's top.

We climbed four sets of stairs like this in order to reach the top.

Doing my best Ned Stark...

After our tour of the school and tower, we returned to the factory, which had been opened for us as out-of-town tourists. 

It was surprisingly cold inside, with the thick brick and cement walls insulating the interior against the intense mountain sun. Plus, the heat has probably not been turned on in this building for awhile, given the declining number of silver workers here.

Inside the factory, we visited a museum displaying the variety of silver work produced over the decades, including some pieces of historical importance, including a vase from Stalin's desk. 

Stalin's vase, on display front left

Before leaving the factory, we purchased a couple of silver cups for sipping our Dagestani cognac once we return to the U.S. Well worth the price for hand-worked silver from the mountains of Dagestan. Additionally, Eldar and his daughter very generously gifted Mackenzie with a delicate silver bracelet, also handmade at the factory. A gift to cherish forever!

The day ended with a long drive back to Makhachkala, and another good meal at a roadside cafe called "Smack." This gas station cafe had private rooms out back where we our party of 6 settled in for a super delicious bowl of thick noodles, cooked vegetables, and meat. It was our driver Makhach's birthday--he said he was thrilled to be spending it with American guests--so we serenaded him with a stirring rendition of "Happy Birthday."  

Private dining rooms behind Cafe Smack

Our private room was quite cozy and warm - it felt like being in
someone's private dining room!


  1. I'm tired just reading all that - you must have been exhausted.
    Hmmm. I wonder how many men lost an eye vs women losing two eyes? :)
    That ride down looked so harrowing. I would have been a nervous wreck by the time I got to the bottom.
    Exciting but can't wait until you return. Love you both

  2. How many UNESCO sites is that for Ted? Has anyone in the world visited them all?

    1. Not sure if anyone has visited them all. There are many people, no doubt, who have been to more than me; I think that I've been to around 75 of the 1000 or so sites. The real challenge is that they add new ones every year, so you have to be a committed world traveler to add to your list. Red Bay in Labrador was added since we visited, so I count it: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1412.