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North Caucasus

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Travel Warning WARNING: The North Caucasus remains extremely dangerous and is emphatically NOT safe for tourists. Certain regions - particularly Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan - are considered war zones. Most governments advise against all travel to these regions. If you must go, please see War zone safety and the "Stay Safe" section below.


The North Caucasus is a region of the Caucasus located in Southern Russia, bordering Georgia to the south and Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, and Kalmykia to the north. Unfortunately, while this should be one of the world's most exotic and thrilling destinations, it is currently very dangerous and inadvisable to visit due to extremely high levels of corruption and criminal and political violence. Potential visitors should consider getting a taste of the North Caucasus in a safer area, such as Northern Georgia, Northern Azerbaijan or in the south of Krasnodar Krai around Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana. These regions are primilarily home to rather poor Muslim territories. Also, North Caucasus is home to Russia's most lawless regions.

Regions

Regions of the North Caucasus
Chechnya
A gorgeous and fascinating region that has been ravaged by the past two decades of conflict, the most recent episode of its centuries old conflict with Russian power. Chechnya should be struck from everyone's travel list until the security situation and the political situation improves. Downtown Grozny is relatively safe now. The people are Chechens, a ethnic group in Russia all of whom are Sunni Islam.
Dagestan
An environment utterly exotic and alien to Russians of the steppe and woodlands, Dagestan boasts astounding cultural diversity, breathtaking and austere mountaintop villages, an ancient history, and a distinct possibility of being kidnapped, and as well as a target for terrorism from Chechen rebels.
Ingushetia
Home of the Ingush people, one of Russia's poorest regions, currently in a conflict that now rages worse than Chechnya, where a small-scale civil war has started since 2007.
Kabardino-Balkaria
Home to Europe's three tallest mountains, and the infamous Nalchik rebel raid. This region is one of Russia's poorest regions, and is home to Kabardians, a people of Circissan ethnicity, and are all Muslims. Subject to significant violence, as well as the fear in rising lawlessness and terrorism.
Karachay-Cherkessia
Most famous for its beautiful mountain resort, Dombai, and is home to the Karachay, a Turkic people, who are all Sunni Islam.
North Ossetia
Home of the Ossetes, a Persian related ethnicity, and one of the few Orthodox Christian mountain tribes of the Northern Caucasus. Subject to significant violence and high crime rate.

Cities

  • Cherkessk — capital of Karachay Cherkessia
  • Derbent — were this ~5,000 year old UNESCO World Heritage site city, location of the mythical "Gates of Alexander," not located in a borderline war zone, it would justly take its place as one of Russia's, and the world's, top historical tourist destinations
  • Grozny — war-torn ruined city
  • Makhachkala — capital of Dagestan and the Northern Caucasus' largest city
  • Nalchik — capital of Kabardino-Balkaria
  • Vladikavkaz — North Ossetia's capital and the regional transit hub

Other destinations

  • Dombai — beautiful mountain resort in Karachay-Cherkessia
  • Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest mountain
  • Mount Dychtau, Europe's second highest mountain
  • Mount Koshtan, Europe's third highest mountain

Understand

The Northern Caucasus is one of Russia's most beautiful regions and is most certainly its most mountainous. Its peaks are Europe's and Russia's highest. In the west, near the Black Sea, the climate is subtropical, while the eastern areas near the Caspian Sea are more arid. The most beautiful natural images of this region are of its rushing mountain rivers running through deep gorges. There are also man-made monuments left behind by the mountain people of the region, particularly their fortress-like stone "auls" (mountaintop villages), as well as by former kingdoms such as Alania, Albania, and most famously the Sassanid Empire's ancient fortress at Derbent.

While there are many autonomous-ethnic regions throughout Russia, ethnic Russians outnumber the namesake ethnicity in nearly all of them. But the Northern Caucasus proves the exception: travelers to the republics of the Northern Caucasus visit wholly different nations, albeit ones strongly influenced by Russia.

In addition to being the only region of Russia in which non-Russian minorities constitute a majority, the Northern Caucasus has been Russia's most rebellious and unstable region since the beginning of the Russian conquest at the start of the 19th century. As result of this long conflict, the ethnic makeup of the region has changed dramatically. The western half of the region has largely been emptied of its former inhabitants, the Turkic people of the Crimean Khanate and the "Circassian" Adyghe, and is consequently more Russified and generally safer to visit. The eastern Caucasus nationalities were mostly deported en masse to Kazakhstan following WWII, when Stalin denounced them as Nazi collaborators. This massive deportation was brutal and large proportions of these ethnicities died from hunger and lack of shelter. Under Malenkov and Khrushchev, however, they were allowed to return to their ancestral lands and have lived side by side with their Slavic compatriots for many years.

The current conflict in the Northern Caucasus is complex and any potential travelers should be aware of its fault lines. The conflict began near the fall of the Soviet Union when Chechnya, a region of the Russian ASSR, declared its independence from Russia and Russia responded with a military invasion. Russia's first attack was largely unsuccessful, but was followed by a second invasion under President Putin following a Chechen invasion of neighboring Ingushetia and a series of terror attacks allegedly carried out by Chechen terrorists. The second war, although this time successful, was particularly brutal, with the Russian military attacking population centers and the Chechen rebels resorting to guerrilla warfare and terroristic attacks against Russian civilians in the Northern Caucasus and further afield in Russia. As throughout the history of the conflict between Russia and the people of the Northern Caucasus, members of other ethnic groups have joined the Chechen rebels under the umbrella of a proclaimed "jihad," in particular, the Ingush, and certain mountain groups in Dagestan. Large scale war has ceased in recent years and most high-ranking rebels, warlords and terrorists have been killed, but small-scale conflict and widespread corruption continue to plague most of the region.

In addition to the anti-Russian axis of the conflict, there is also an intertwined Ossete-Ingush conflict: see Ingushetia for more background.

Talk

This mountainous region is an extraordinary patchwork of peoples and languages (Circassian, Turkic, Persian, Mongolian, and a whole host of smaller groups unrelated to any other)—the relatively small region contains an incredible 8 language families and 46 different languages (35 in Dagestan alone)! Fortunately for the traveler, Russian serves as the region's lingua franca and is spoken by nearly everyone, even by villagers in remote mountain auls.

Get in

The main portal cities to the Northern Caucasus are Stavropol and closer Mineralnye Vody in Stavropol Krai, Sochi in Krasnodar Krai, Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, and Makhachkala in Dagestan.

Get around

See

Itineraries

Do

  • Skiing
  • Mountain climbing
  • Hiking/biking
  • Relaxing at a Soviet resort in the high Caucasus
  • Attend a performance of traditional regional dances (they're raucous!)

Eat

Pelmeni, khachapuri, and blinis are really popular and are as a delicacy

Drink

Stay safe

Heavy military activity, terrorist bombings, kidnappings, and unexploded mines and munitions are widespread. Throughout the region, local criminal gangs routinely kidnap foreigners, including Americans, Canadians, and UK nationals, for ransom. Close contacts with the local population do not guarantee safety. Sadly, the authorities may pose an even greater threat to travelers than rebels, bandits, and gangs.

A traveller should also remember all of the region is part of the turf of the infamous terrorist group, the Caucasus Emirate, therefore adding on a greater fear.

In the event of emergencies embassies can do very little, and/or more likely, will not send any help. All governments assume they will not be able to anything more for its citizens other than deliver messages.

Below is a list of what a traveler should do to stay vigilant when travelling to certain regions in the North Caucasus:

Chechnya

Chechnya is probably one of Russia's most volatile regions, even though the Chechen government has been making some progress in bringing stability to the nation. Violence, terrorism and a high homicide rate continue to plague the nation. As a general rule of thumb, the farther you are from Chechnya, the safer and more plausible your travel experience will be. Downtown Grozny is fairly safe, but you do need to be careful as large parts of the nation are plagued with violence and political turmoil.

Many foreign governments, including the UK, Canadian and US governments, strongly warn their citizens not to travel to Chechnya under any circumstances. They report that there have been many incidents of their citizens as well as Russian citizens going missing or being killed or kidnapped for ransom in Chechnya.

Ingushetia

At present, Ingushetia is the most dangerous region. Political unrest, civil disorders, and heavy military activity best describes current conditions. A civil war is taking place, and travels should be put on hold until the situation drastically improves. The authorities commit the most civil disorders, adding on a greater fear.

Dagestan

Outside Chechnya and Ingushetia (which no one should be visiting at present), Dagestan is one of the least stable and most dangerous destinations. Military activity, high-scale criminality and terrorism are some of the threats to locals and visitors alike. Any potential visitor should consider carefully whether to steer clear of the republic, as terrorists may attack Dagestan at any time. Cities such as Kizlyar, Kizilyurt and the capital Makhachkala are the most dangerous places. It is generally safer in the north compared to the rest of the region. As of 2010, many policemen and soldiers are cracking down on the militant group present in Dagestan.

North Ossetia

Like South Ossetia, the northern part is fairly unsafe, though not as unsafe as its southern counterpart. There have been high-profile crimes, albeit infrequently. The capital Vladikavkaz has recently been the site of some showdowns between law enforcement and separatists, though on a very light scale.

Karachay-Cherkessia

Karachay-Cherkessia is safer than most regions; however, the region has continued to see minor attacks.

Kabardino-Balkaria

The republic's mainly Muslim population has become increasingly radicalised by the region's instability. The region is quite safe, though the security of the country may be occasionally shaken, due to frequent attacks by militants. Nalchik in particular is seeing a very unstable situation.

Respect

The North Caucasus are largely Sunni Islamic societies, and so you need to behave and act accordingly and properly.


Get out

The Northern Caucasus is actually pretty difficult to "get out" of. The border with Georgia (the logical next step on an itinerary) is closed completely (as at summer 2009) and the Azerbaijan - Russian border is closed to all non-CIS nationals. The borders of all the region's republics are also closely controlled by Russian authorities; expect to be interrogated and bothered at border crossings and frequent roadblocks as to your purpose in traveling in the region. Flights leave from many of the subregional capital cities to Moscow, otherwise, it is easiest to leave as you come in: via Sochi or Stavropol/Mineralnye Vody.



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