Friday, May 12, 2017

Dagestan: Day 5

Sarykum and the Sulak Canyon

Eldar saved the best for last! On our final full day in Dagestan our driver Makhach took us up into the mountains to view the Sulak River Canyon. We had heard about this canyon several times already - how it's just a little bit deeper than the celebrated Grand Canyon of the United States. Though I've never visited the Grand Canyon, Ted did when he was much younger. He says that all he remembers from that trip is his oldest brother making him touch a nasty moth! Hahahahaha...

So, although we don't have adequate experience with the Grand Canyon to make a comparison, we can attest that the Sulak Canyon is truly a sight to behold. But first, we made a stop at another interesting Dagestan natural area:  the Sarykum sand dune in the Dagestan Nature Reserve, not far from Makhachkala.

Like the wild tulips in Kalmykia, red poppies were in bloom everywhere in Dagestan!

Sarykum is the highest sand dune in Europe. We could see it from the main road as we approached the nature reserve. It took us a few tries to get the correct dirt track off the main road to lead us to the dune, but after a couple do-overs we finally found the right path and arrived at the base of the dune.

At the base of the dune there are a couple crumbling buildings that were fun to explore, including the original train depot for this area. 

Inside the old depot

In addition to the old buildings, there are some newer buildings that make up a small retreat where school groups and camps can come to be in and learn about nature (I presume). 

There was a group of kids there at the same time as us, one of whom showed me a bat he had caught under the old train depot. Eek!

Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

In addition to the bat, the camp also housed several birds and other animals, including a domesticated deer, a cat, a goat, several peacocks, an owl, an eagle, and a vulture. 

A boardwalk has been built up to the base of the dune, where there is a small nature center installed to teach visitors about the geology, ecosystems, and animals of the surrounding area. Here we are posing with a scale model of the sand dune and with the cousin of our University of Arkansas razorback hog.

Photo shared by Eldar Eldarov

Woo Pig Sooie!

After checking out the nature center, we walked up to the viewing tower at the end of the boardwalk. It looks like the boardwalk is under construction to extend further up the sand dune, so maybe we'll get to walk up further on a future visit!

Lower viewing deck

Upper viewing tower

This sand dune reminded Ted and me of a trip we took years ago to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-western Colorado. If you can't make it to Sarykum in Dagestan, we highly recommend the dunes in Colorado! There's even a hot springs with a water slide nearby...

Photo credit: Bela Eldarova

New boardwalk being constructed

View from the base of the dune looking back toward the nature center and the foothills of the Caucuses

Despite the chilly weather, we had a nice time exploring the natural area and buildings around the sand dune. This was just a quick stopover on our main excursion to the Sulak River, however, so after about an hour we got back in the car and continued on our way!

Our approach to the Sulak Canyon was quite impressive, as you can see from the photos. As we made our way up the mountain, we stopped at a hydro-electric power plant for our first view of the Sulak River. The river is an amazing cloudy turquoise color - a result of the minerals in the mountains.

You can see the power lines stretching from the plant below to the towers above us.

That stop was just an appetizer, though. We got back in the car and followed the road until it ended, at which point we followed a dirt path until that ended, at which point our driver took us right up to the edge of the canyon, which made our hearts pound pretty heavily! Our driver, Makhach [ma-HOTCH], realized how nervous us Americans were in the car, and he got a real kick out of scaring us half to death with his driving antics.

Our first view of the canyon; the hillside doesn't rise up on either side as it appears in the photo - that's just a result of the panorama distortion.

Makhach, beckoning us to come closer to the edge

I made Ted nervous by accepting Makhach's invitation to the edge!

And then Makhach went even further...

Isn't the water amazing? And the canyon itself, too! After this first glimpse of the canyon, we hopped back in our cars (Eldar's friend had joined us at the base of the mountains to act as our tour guide) and drover further up the hillside to another viewpoint.

We were almost higher than the clouds at this point.

A geographic marker at our second stop

A slightly different viewpoint - still beautiful!

At our second stop, Makhach picked me some wild flowers,
I think to make up for scaring me with his driving!

After we'd taken our fill of photos - scenery, selfies, group shots, etc - we drove to a small Soviet-era mountain village to eat lunch. Dubki ("Little Oaks") was built in the 1960s to house workers at the nearby Chirkey dam. It had all the feeling of a Soviet-era town, with standardized apartment buildings and a Lenin statue - supposedly one of the few in the former USSR with Lenin wearing a karakul

It was COLD in this village, high up in the April mountain air, but the villagers didn't seem bothered by it. I'm sure they must be used to it. We were let into an unheated school building to use the restrooms, then we spent a few minutes in the town square, looking around and taking photos. 

There was a small group of children hanging out, playing the Russian version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, competing to win each others' pogs. POGS! I haven't seen pogs since the 1990s. In Russian Rock, Paper, Scissors, the children use the syllables "oo-ee-fa" as they pound their fists. There's a rhythmic quality to it as the children did rapid-fire rounds while chanting "OO, EE, FA! OO, EE, FA! OO, EE, FA!"

As a funny side note... I couldn't remember the syllables the children were chanting as I was writing this, so I tried to search online for "Russian rock paper scissors." All the videos that popped up were some version of this: 

LOL! I ended up asking Eldar's daughter, Bela, to remind me of the chant - which she did - and I told her about the YouTube videos I found. Her response was priceless: "It's harsh Russian games, like winters..." Haha! Anyway, back to the mountain top village...

The Lenin statue in Dubki

For lunch, we entered a small shop where the table had been set with hot tea, pilmeni (dumplings), and blini-style pancakes filled with meat. The shop seemed to be a little-bit-of-everything store, with small home goods like bed sheets and glassware for sale alongside homemade sweets. I'm unclear about whether this shop usually serves meals like the one we ate, or if it was prepared specially for us. 

The 3 varieties of pilmeni were filled with spinach, meat, and cheese curds.
There are no serving utensils - you just grab what you want with your fork, finishing one dumpling before you take another.

The meringues were perfectly done; the taste reminded me of Lucky Charms cereal.

After our lunch and bathroom break, we drove to one more canyon viewpoint. This one seemed more official than our other stops in that there was a platform built for looking down into the canyon.

You'd better believe that Makhach drove us right up to that edge!!
He's like a mountain goat.

Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

Again, the "hills" on the far left and right of the photo are just the distortion caused by the panoramic lens - there aren't actually hills there, just the hillside I'm standing on.

This was my favorite view.

Closer view of the village and the tiered hillsides on the other side of the canyon.

After this stop, we drove over to that reservoir in the distance.

This was our Sulak Canyon crew, from left to right: Eldar's friend, Makhach (our driver), Bela and Eldar, Ted and Mackenzie

The water level of the reservoir was very low at the time of our visit.

On our way out of the mountains we stopped for an early dinner at a roadside cafe. The surrounding hillsides, setting sun, and cool temperatures made for a delightful and relaxing time.

We ate in that small gazebo on the left. The city of Makhachkala is visible in the distance.

Another view of Makhachkala

Our waitress

We ordered shashlik (grilled meat and onions), which was served alongside a large plate of herbs and sliced vegetables - always a welcome site here in Russia!

Green gold!

We ended up ordering more shashlik than we could eat, which was good news for the folded-ear cafe cat!

We slept well that night, after a day of fresh mountain air and full bellies. The next morning Eldar accompanied us as his friend drove us the 4-5 hours to the Dagestan border, where we were met by our Kalmyk taxi driver who took us the rest of the way to Elista.

Mohammed is one of Eldar's fishing buddies, and he was quite a character. He served in the Russian army in Afghanistan, and he has a love of music and singing. 

At right, our Dagestani driver, Mohammed, dropping us off at the Dagestan/Kalmykia border.
The wind was blowing dirt right into our faces during this photo!
Photo shared by Eldar Eldarov
Our Kalmyk taxi driver picking us up at the border of Dagestan and Kalmykia.
Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

Our time in Dagestan was an experience we will not soon forget! Thanks again to our gracious host, Eldar Eldarov, and all those who made our visit to the Land of Mountains a memorable one. 


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! I'm not sure they do justice to the incredible scenery, but they give you an idea.

  2. I love the picture looking back at the nature center and the "Grand Canyon". Great pictures!

  3. Mackenzie with a bouquet of spring flowers is a priceless picture!

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  5. Historic footnote: both David and I tricked Ted into touching the moth on a screen door by telling him it wasn't real when he asked. I told him afterward it was an Arizona Deathstinger Moth. It built character; now look at him.