Dagestan (Russian: Респу́блика Дагеста́н rees-POOB-lee-kuh dah-gee-STAHN) is a region of Russia in the North Caucasus bordering Chechnya and Georgia to the west, Stavropol Krai and Kalmykia to the north, the Caspian Sea to the east, and Azerbaijan to the South.
Dagestan shares with its Caucasian neighbours the towering mountains of the Greater Caucasus, rushing Caucasian rivers, and spectacularly situated stone auls (mountaintop villages). But in an already diverse region, Dagestan is a wonderland of ethnic and cultural diversity. About 35 separate ethnolinguistic groups live in this Scotland-sized republic and the region contains an amazing 12 language families! For all this cultural diversity, Dagestanis are fairly united in their Islamic religion — virtually all non-Russian ethnic groups are Muslim. This is probably true since almost 32,000 people have left in a mass exit from Dagestan since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many of those people were the Mountain Jews--Juhuro--who spoke Persian or one of its dialects.
Given its ongoing instability and relatively underdeveloped tourist infrastructure, Dagestan is certainly not a 'traditional' tourist destination and is better suited for the more adventurous traveller. With that said, coming here is definitely feasible and those who do so will be greatly rewarded by the very friendly and hospitable people, incredible natural beauty and impressive historical sites.
If you'd like to catch a glimpse of Dagestani culture and beauty, check online for a copy of the late Sergei Bodrov's haunting film, Prisoner of the Mountains (Кавказский пленник), which was shot in a Dagestani mountain aul, hiring the villagers as extras.
Makhachkala will almost certainly be your first destination, whether by plane from Moscow, or by train via Rostov-on-Don through Mineralnye Vody. Note that security is very tight at the Makhachkala airport.
Within the 7 language families of the Dagestanian language grouping alone there are about 30 languages, many of them considered among the most difficult in the world to master. Fortunately, everyone, regardless of nationality, understands the lingua franca, Russian. Azeri is also widely used in the southeast Caspian region around Derbent; those who speak Turkish may be able to make themselves understood in this area.
Dagestan is famous for its local dishes of: hinkal (a tasty pasta/dough-like entity served with garlic sauce and some kind of meat, usually young, boiled lamb), chudu (a quesadilla-like thin dough with special meats, cheeses or vegetables inside), and shashlik (roast shishkabab, usually lamb meat). There are countless cafes serving Dagestani and Russian foods. A handful of newer Asian (Chinese/Japanese) restaurants have sprung up, but woefully lack in authenticity and flavour. Western foods are likewise a scarcity. There are NO Western food chains to be found anywhere in Dagestan. And don't be fooled by the many advertisements for 'pizza' - even by typical Russian standards, the pizzas here lack the most basic ingredients of pizza sauce, cheeses, pepperoni, etc. The closest you'll come to finding a 'real' steak will be at the new 'El Gusto' cafe close the centre of Makhachkala, a delightful new restaurant where you can find a few other Western dishes satisfactorily prepared (e.g., Chicken Schnitzel). On the whole, unless you like traditional Dagestani dishes, you will not be impressed. Like other former Soviet Union contexts, customer service is completely lacking, and Dagestani culture adds to the experience the guarantee of waiting a very, very long time for your order!
Note that as most locals are Muslims, so they do not eat pork. So dishes made with pork elsewhere are substituted here with beef or lamb. So take note when visiting locals' homes.
Like other areas of the North Caucasus, Dagestan has experienced much instability due to fighting between the government and a radical Islamic insurgency. However, the worst of the violence happened many years ago and the situation has greatly improved. At present, the armed conflict is at a very low-intensity and consists mostly of small-scale, isolated incidents such as shootouts and police raids of houses with suspected militants. Bomb attacks against various government targets have also occurred, but are now a rarity. Aside from this and some heightened security presence in certain areas, life is completely calm and normal in Dagestan. The sporadic violence does not pose a great threat to tourists because the chance of being caught in a terrorist attack is very low, and the militants are mainly focused on targeting the authorities, not tourists or foreigners.
In general, people coming to Dagestan are safe as long as they observe common sense and basic safety considerations such as trying to stay away from checkpoints, police stations, etc. Travellers should also exercise caution in Dagestan's southern mountainous regions, and solo trekking there is not encouraged.
Significantly greater risks than terrorism in Dagestan include unsafe and careless driving, which is widespread, and corruption, which is above average compared to the rest of Russia, perhaps even more so than Chechnya.
Dagestan is a predominantly conservative Muslim region with very strong chivalric mountaineer traditions. Be careful not to insert yourself into local politics or to insult locals' sense of honour, or you might find yourself estranged (eg shot) in a strange land.
In Dagestan there are four GSM/3G-UMTS operators (MTS,Beeline,Megafon) and they often have offers that give you a SIM card for free or at least very cheap. If you are planning to stay a while and to keep in touch with Dagestanian and other North-Caucasus people, then you should consider buying a local SIM card instead of going on roaming. If you buy a SIM card from a shop you'll need your passport for identification. It only takes five minutes to do the paperwork and it will cost less than USD10.
Embassies and Consulates
Visitors should know that there is no real embassy or consulate in Dagestan. Your best bet would be Moscow in Russia, Tbilisi in Georgia, Baku in Azerbaijan, or Yerevan in Armenia. Good luck!
Uytash Airport between Makhachkala and Kaspijsk.