Nalchik is the capital city of Kabardino-Balkaria, a republic located in the very south of the Russian federation. The city comprises some 300'000 inhabitants and can thus be considered - by Russian standards - a small to medium sized town. Nalchik, like the republic around it, is ethnically mixed. The majority of the population is Kabarda (a sub-group of the Cherkess, also called Circassian people). They speak a dialect of the Adygue language, a Caucasian language with no equivalent elsewhere. Most Kabardas are muslims. Ethnic minorities include Balkars (a turkic speaking muslim population), russian and cosaques (ethnic russian having settled in the Caucasus for generations having thus somehow adapted their ways to the region).
Whereas the region in and around Nalchik was inhabited early on by Kabarda and Balkar population groups, it is only with the creation of a russian fort in 1818 that the development of the present day city really started. For nearly a century, Nalchik remained a backwater military garrison town. In 1921, 4 years after the october revolution, Nalchik was registered a city.
Nalchik is named after the river nalchik on the banks of which it is built. The word nalchik means "small horseshoe" in Kabardian language. It possibly evocates the shape of the mountain range surrounding the city / river.
During Soviet union, Nalchik has developped into a spa town. Numerous sanatorium were built. Compared to many former soviet city, Nalchik is a green, fairly agreeable town. Artificials lakes and parks have been arranged. The main avenue (Lenin Prospekt) is wide, friendly, boarded with bleached white buildings of 5-6 floors. Nalchik has largely escaped - possibly thanks to its touristical vocation - the brezhnev era grey concrete buildings that have uglied most other former soviet cities.
Nalchik has regretably made it to world fame on Oct 13 2005 when a group of fighters took over the city, attacking the police and army headquarters. The city was finally assaulted by the russian special forces. Some 136 people died in the event. Within a few days life returned to normal even though many people mourn a friend or relative who has been killed or injured in the attack
Nalchik has an airport with daily flights to Moscow Vnukovo airport and weekly flights to Istanbul (many charter weekly). Take information from the company Elbrus Avia, the only one to serve Nalchik airport.
An alternative is to fly to Mineralnye Vody (a more important airport about 1h30 driving from Nalchik). Min. Vody has many daily flights to Moscow (incl. with aeroflot company) and even some direct charter flights to West Europe (Germany).
You can also reach Nalchik by train. Get information from the russian railways.
The republic of Kabarino Balkarya offers some of Russia's most dramatic scenery. It sits right in the middle of the Greater Caucasus mountain chain and hosts the mighty Elbrus (Europe's highest mountain with 5600m) as well as 8 other 5000 m peaks. This is mountaineering at its best.
On the other hand, Nalchik city in itself does not have that much to offer. It is a nice and friendly town and a convenient base to explore the region. Safe, green and restful, Nalchik is certainly the town of choice for a stopover if you happen to be in the North Caucasus. In other words, It is worth a detour but, by itself, does not justify a trip from West Europe or from Moscow.
There are four large supermarkets and you will find absolutely any product you need in Nalchik.
Very, very few people speak English or other West European languages in Nalchik. A basic understanding of Russian is highly helpful.
Both winter and summer, go sightseeing in the Elbrus: take the gondolas / cabins to the top (2nd station). Do not take the chairlift but climb on one of the snow-cats waiting for tourists. The snow-cat will take you right to the Elbrus base camp at 4200m. The view from there is awesome. Of course, check the price prior to climbing on the snow-cat, if you find it abusive, you always can take the chairlift. it may be possible to convince some of the snow-cats operators to bring you to the top of the glacier at 4600m.
Many hiking possibility in Elbrus vallley and Cheget but also much closer to Nalchik (1h drive) in Bezengi valley and Chegem valley. The mountains there are not as high (more pre-alps type) but the sceneries and the flora are just as beautiful and you will not a meet any tourist (at least after you pass the chegem waterfalls). A recommendation would be Bezengi.
In any case, don't think you will get nicely marked pathes (like in the alps, the sierra nevada or the rockies). Just get yourself a good map in a bookstor (the best found is a 1:200'000), choose which valley you feel like driving to, in this valley identify a path on the map and go for it. Alternatively simply drive to the valley and choose a path going sideways. The mountains are used for livestock rearing in the summer so that there are always plenty of shepard and cow-boys. You can't really get lost. You will find tracks (made by the animals) and pathes. These may not always lead you to the summits but will get you to the passes (the locals do not climb the summits but do need to pass from one valley to the next with their stocks).
In winter you can do snowboot hiking in any of the a/m places. However it is safer to stick to the Cheget / Elbrus area which is more populated in winter.
In summer / good weather, take a stroll on the main street (lenin prospekt), have a drink on one of the terraces near Vostok cinema. Then proceed to visit the parks in the sanatorium area. If you feel like it, rest by one of the lakes and enjoy a shashlik (grilled brochette of meat) in any of the newly built or recently refurbished cafes. At the last lake, there is a small luna park (very soviet style). From there you can take a chairlift that will bring you to a restaurant on top of the hill opposite the lake. It cost 100 RuR (4 USD) for a round-trip. On a sunny day, it is a good investment as the view is fully worth your pennies. You don't have to consume anything in the restaurant if you don't wish to.
In case of bad Weather, Nalchik offers you even less options: shop (not much choice), play bowling (new, clean bowling allee, food and drinks available), go to the swimming pool (clean, indoor, very strange schedules), visit the marketplace (quite lively all year round), watch a movie in Russian in one of the two cinemas (elbrus and vostok cinemas).
In winter you can ski in either CHEGET or ELBRUS . Lifts are quite old and run down, except one brand new (expensive) gondola in Elbrus. Good news though, there are plans to upgrade all the lifts and build more. Cheget is a more challenging ski resort than Elbrus. But then, Elbrus is Elbrus.... The snow tends to be better on Elbrus side (higher altitude) and the trails are prepared (which is not the case in Cheget). Both ski resorts have only 2-3 lifts. Choose by yourself what suits you best, the two places are less than 10 km apart.
In both places you will find rental equipment in sports shop and hotels but you will have more choice in Cheget as far as equipment goes. In 2006-7, a daily pass in Cheget was going for some 550 RUR (20 USD), a single trip for 80 RuR (3 USD) per lift. Another option is to simply give 50 RUR to the employee at the lift (not a the cashier).
If you intend to spend a night in the area, sleep at Cheget. It is friendlier, hotels and restaurants are better, it has more of a resort-feel than Elbrus. Cheget has a few restaurants, a disco bar under the big ugly hotel Cheget, a small market with traditionnal products and an ice-ring. Hotel Esen which is usually clean and affordable but there are many other options as well (all similar). In the winter 2006-7, a double room was going (double occupancy) for between 1000-1500 RuR (40-60 USD) per night depending on the season. Some private pensions exist as well.
The kabarda (and balkar) are famous horse-riders. They have successfully bred their own type of horse "kabardin", which has achieved a certain fame. It is considered a very resistent, sturdy, hard working, small-sized horse. Locally these horses are used for livestock rearing in the mountains. You will easily find someone ready to rent you a few horses.
If you are a proficient rider, go to the hippodrome in Nalchik and directly rent a horse there (pure-breed competition horses). If you are less proficient or prefer to take a ride in the nature on a somewhat quieter animal, horses can be found in the winter months in the plain immediately around Nalchik in many farms (ask locals for advice). In the summer, the horses are typically brought in the mountains. A good bet is to try in the area past the Chegem waterfalls (Chegem valley). Many of the farms will be willing to rent you a horse for half a day or so. (count about 400-500 RuR per horse).
Don't come too close to the border with Georgia. Relations between Georgia and Russia are not good and there is a no-go security zone enforced for foreigners 10km of the Georgian border. The Russian army is present and will check you. It can easily become an administrative hassle. Evidently this border zone puts the highest summits (Dykh Tau, Koshtan Tau, Katyn Tau, Shkara, etc...) out of reach. Too bad, you will only be able to look at them from a distance.