Alpine Russia: The Caucasus

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Everyone knows about Russia. It’s a massive country with the kind of climate that would freeze fire, if that were possible. You probably know Jenia originally hails from Russia. When I, Shon, was offered a teaching job there in 2015, I took it, thinking it would be an interesting experience that would help with the level of Russian language in the house, as well as provide us with an entirely new teaching adventure. While there, we got to explore places we’d never been before. We’d already seen the major tourist stuff around Moscow and Saint Petersburg, so when the chance came, we opted to explore somewhere less well known. In fact, outside of Russia, not many people know about a region that might best be described as “Alpine Russia.”  It may come as news then that since the early 1800’s, Kislovodsk, a small city situated in the Caucasus, has been a thriving tourist destination. People from across the country go there to stay in a sanitarium and enjoy the medicinal properties of the various hot springs in the area. We made Kislovodsk, and Alpine Russia, our destination.

Wait, the Caucasus? You’ve got to be kidding!


The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. What with separatists and gunfire, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid. But no, I’m not kidding; the Caucasus was where we happily chose to go. And unlike us foreigners, Russians aren’t afraid of going there.

Alpine Russia
Yep, this is Russia.

How to get to Kislovodsk from Moscow

By Plane

There are 14 or so flights every day, all about 2 hours long, departing from Domodedovo (DMV), Vnukovo (VKO), and Sheremetyevo (SVO). The airport that serves the region is situated in the town of Mineralnye Vody (MRV), about an hour away from Kislovodsk. One can get to Kislovodsk proper by taxi (can be arranged by the hotel/BnB) or by train (about 90 minutes, leaves every half an hour or so).

By Train

There are 3 trains from Moscow to Kislovodsk. 2 depart daily (morning and afternoon) Kazansky train station, 1 is weekday-only and leaves from Kursky train station. The train ride is 24-28 hours.

The Caucasus is Big and Kislovodsk is Cool

The Caucasus is a pretty big region. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Spa City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town.

kislovodsk parkA gazebo at Kurortny park

gondola in kislovodsk It was a rickety ride!

kurortny parkWe saw lots of people working out at the park!

 

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. One of the highlights was a superb little bakery barely a stone’s throw from our apartment. We all enjoyed the rickety gondola ride up to the top of the mountain the park (200RUB per adult, operates from 10am until 5pm with a lunch break from 1 to 2pm), and also liked sampling the various spring waters for the price of a paper cup.

Pyatigorsk family selfie
This was our first family-of-four selfie. Now Our Traveling Zoo gets one like this everywhere we go!

We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk (also spelled Pyatigorsk) is less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit. Plus, if your kids are like ours, a train ride is a fun adventure in itself.

A Tour with Caucasus Voyage Club

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club (they do tours in English, too!) for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed Baycharov, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus. So Russia is diverse ethnically, right? It’s also diverse geographically. The tour we booked was to Dombay, a beautiful ski resort town overlooked by the kind of mountain you associate with Switzerland’s Alpine range. We chose this particular tour because we thought it best to take a relatively short day trip with our little ones.

on the road
Looks like it could be in the American West, doesn’t it?

Learning Russian History in a Toyota Land Cruiser

Our day began with us being picked up at our door. We piled into Rasheed’s black Toyota Land Cruiser, which Turtle was just thrilled with. “A monster truck!” he exclaimed, excited by the rig’s big tires and jacked up suspension.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities.

“How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 12 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

eagle pyatigorsk Eagle is the symbol of the region and one can spot eagle statues everywhere.

eagle statue

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed during our trip, as well, as he detailed the spread of Communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the Communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to Communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

The Caucasus Ridge: Dombay

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Senty Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay.  We rode the cable car up Mount Mussa Achitara from there. Brilliant sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky.

mountains in the Caucasus
Just look at all that snow!

What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like those in the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looked as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (Want a photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles).

yaks in dombay
We opted for a photo without ourselves in it 🙂

There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale.

dombay market Check out the pine cone jelly!

Market in Dombay It’s fun to stroll through

The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some scrumptious fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

family in Dombay mountains
We stupidly left our sunglasses at home and our lovely guide let us borrow his. We needed them!!

A View of Elbrus and the Scenic Ridge

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time the clouds were gone, and Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too. What a beautiful and impressive region, y’all.

Elbrus
The highest peak in Europe

Conclusions about the Caucasus

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. There was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

family selfie dombay
Turtle didn’t want to leave

Bonus!

If you enjoy reading about the places you go, do check out Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time set in 1830’s (we prefer Nabokov’s translation) or Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad and The Prisoner of the Caucasus (both set in 1850’s). Among non-fiction pieces about Chechnya, Anna Politkovskaya’s The Dirty War (a series of dispatches from 1999-2001) and Guy Delisle‘s The Hostage (a graphic memoir about a MSF-worker taken hostage in the region) are definitely worth a read.

RELATED POST: Visiting Kazan, Russia’s Third City

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24 thoughts on “Alpine Russia: The Caucasus”

  • I been to Russia loads of times but this part has not been touched by my feet. I prefer mountains etc but for some reason haven’t been to Caucasus regions and now after reading this post, I want to go. My number place to visit would be Mt. Elbrus as I want to visit the highest mountain in all of Europe. I love to tick that off.

    • Mt. Elbrus would be so cool to visit! Our guide advised us to choose Dombay over Elbrus this time because our kids were so young. Next time, we’ll hit Elbrus!

  • I can’t believe how stunning those views are. My husband and I love the mountains especially with all the snow. A visit to Dombay would definitely be on our list. Skiing, not so sure we would do, but it would be neat to take the chairlift to the top & take in all the views. And a cat fell through your ceiling? That must have been an interesting story to tell!

    • I’m sure you’d love it there. We couldn’t ski but it was still worth a trip! A highlight for sure. As for the cat, we just walked into our apartment one day (door locked, windows latched) and found a cat there. Apparently, it managed to dislodge one of the ceiling tiles and fell through, poor thing 🙂

  • You are absolutely right that I’d not heard of Kislovodsk or knew much at all about the Alpine Russia region of Caucasus. I remember from my history lessons that some of the royalty (and then later the communist party leaders) had their summer palaces and homes in the region, so I can understand it must be quite beautiful. We also love self-drive touring, so would follow your example should we visit this destination one day.

    • If you go there, Kavita, you’ll find it splendidly interesting. You’re right; there’s quite a storied history, and it’s certainly scenic. As an aside regarding self-touring, many folks try to find the bronze eagle statue (we’ve got two pictured) located somewhere in each of the four towns. You can get around via train and bus pretty easily, but for the more remote locations, it’s easiest to hire someone to do the driving. -Shon

  • Um…I think I need to know more about this cat that fell through the ceiling! Great photos by the way. It is great to learn about off the beaten path destinations, so I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

    • Hey Delisa, Jenia and I both wrote a little about the cat in response to another pair of commenters, so just have a look and you’ll see the whole (rather uninteresting, I’m afraid) story. Glad you enjoyed learning about Kislovodsk! It’s a fascinating region!

  • I think the beauty of travelling is that you learn first hand what a region is like, instead of just hearing the news reports. The beauty of reading travel blogs is we get to share the experience from a first hand source without an agenda. Great to hear that such a beautiful place is really doing ok and not the way it’s sensationalized in the news.

  • Wait a cat fell through your ceiling and you don’t elaborate? That sounds too funny — in retrospect anyway. Please do share!! 😉 I’ve heard many wonderful things about the Caucasus and your post confirms how wild and beautiful it is. Someday.

    • There’s really not too much to tell about the cat! We’d been out, and when we came in there was a ceiling tile on the floor. I noticed it immediately, but nothing else was out of place. Having the little ones in tow, we were focused on getting them situated, and it wasn’t until we’d been home a while that a very scared feline zipped out from behind the couch and made a bee line for the door. The landlady later made a comment along the lines of, “Oh, no. We thought we’d sealed the attic off.” Sounds more interesting than it actually is, right? I think you’d really dig the Caucasus region. I couldn’t recommend the tour guide we had for our trip to Dombay enough; really knowledgable and an all around nice person, too. If you ever go, be sure to hit him up for a ride in the beautiful mountains!

    • It’s certainly a lovely place to explore; I’ve never been anywhere quite like it. I’d be willing to be that you’d enjoy it! -Shon

  • You had me at “off the beate path”! We love to explore the lesser known areas but we never thought about the Caucasus. From what I read here it’s definitely worth the trip, and you’re right, some pictures look like America!

  • The Caucasus is indeed nothing short of a revelation. Was not aware of this region in Russia. As you have mentioned it is probably very less known or written about outside of Russia. This is definitely off the beaten track. Also how a place or region is projected internationally varies from the actual state of affairs, and the locals are the best to go to here. If the locals head out there, obviously things are fine.

    • That’s true. The only thing we’ve generally heard about outside of Russia is tensions and conflict in Chechnya, and that’s referred to as “The Caucasus.” The actual region is much larger than that, of course, and it is so interesting.

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