Around the Caucasus with a Baby

We set off for Dagestan in Southern Russia and Pankisi Valley in Georgia. For "work & travel". Ethnographic fieldwork waited for us in Dagestan, and an agrotouristic project in Pankisi Valley. Our daughter Lena "decided" to join.

Dagestan and the Pankisi Gorge lie close to each other, but due to the closed borders and high Caucasus mountains it takes a week-long drive around the Caucasus to get from one region to the other.

We had not intended to travel 12 thousand kilometres, but due to such prosaic reasons as the ones described above had to drive with our baby around the whole Caucasus.

Dagestan and the Pankisi Gorge are rarely visited by tourists and travellers.

Dagestan is not mentioned in tourist guides, so it does not exist for globetrotters, similarly to the Pankisi Gorge, although there the situation is gradually changing thanks to the increasing number of tourists coming to Georgia; the gorge has been visited by some journalists, reporters, and even by tourists. But Dagestan remains the Caucasian “terra incognita”, still waiting to be discovered by people who like to travel to places yet unspoiled by the tourist industry (The political situation which has deterioraited in the North Caucasus in 2009, in 2007 was relatively stable).

If it hadn’t been for the closed borders, one could easily get from Dagestan to Pankisi within 24 hours, maybe even faster, but we had to spend the whole week travelling around the Caucasus.

We were a bit worried at the start and started thinking that maybe we should limit ourselves to visiting just one of the “hot” spots. But the prospect of driving around the Caucasus even if it were only for such a prosaic reason as the closed borders seemed very tempting...

How is Lenka going to survive all this? Wouldn’t the long trips be too tiresome for her? It was July, full summer. Children should be protected from heat... And what about mosquitoes? They are said not to transmit malaria any more, but the authorities of various republics are reluctant to disclose the true incidence rate while cases of malaria have occured in this region, especially on the Caspian lowlands, where the large bogs used to be a hotbed of malaria gradually eradicated in the Soviet times.



We had been to Dagestan several times before fascinated by its diversity, charm and hospitality of people living in the republic where we have conducted ethnographic research for several years. This time, inspired by Bulach Gajiev’s book “The Poles in Dagestan”, we decided to look for the descendants of the Polish exiles (and voluntary migrants) who had settled in the Caucasus.

We had heard a lot about the Pankisi Gorge, lots of bad news from the media and lots of good things from our friends who, like us, want this place to be associated with something more than just Chechen militants and refugees. We helped the local Kists to improve the image of their homeland and create infrastructure for future tourists by describing and promoting interesting places in the gorge in the online guide www.pankisi.org.

Around the Caucasus – our itinerary in brief

Our Lada Niva took us and our 7 month daughter Lenka through Ukraine and Russia to the Caspian Sea coast and Dagestan. Then via the Stavropol Krai, Kabardino-Balkaria, Krachay-Cherkessia and Adygea we reached the Black Sea coast. We took a ferry to Turkey and drove to Georgia (the Russian-Georgian border is closed).
We made an unplanned stop at Mount Elbrus. By cableway and on foot we reached the altitude of 4000 metres.
In Georgia, we went to the Pankisi Gorge. We also visited the nearby valleys of Khevsureti and Tusheti and introduced our baby to a few medieval Georgian churches and Stalin’s museum.
We had initially planned to return home by ship (through the Black Sea to Ukraine and further on to Poland), but changed our plans and decided to drive back through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, a trip that makes 12 thousand kilometres altogether.

Child in a rucksack... against stereotypes

We did not sleep in air-conditioned hotels and only had a chance to use the bathroom several times during the 2 month trip, we did not need piles of “essential baby utensils” that usually clutter up homes of fresh parents. We did not have to stop every hour – our brave baby took the several hour trips on bumpy Caucasian roads better than us, she did great in heats and high altitudes, during the long hour walks and horse rides...

No bathroom, so what?

Is it difficult to imagine that one can take proper care of a baby without a bathroom, changing table, baby wipes, cotton wool balls and hundreds of advertised baby lotions and other gadgets?


Lenka was quite happy to be washed under a pump, in a spring or a mountain river. She did not really like to bath. The Caspian Sea in Dagestan was exceptionally cold this year (probably like the Baltic Sea during a really hot summer:-). The waves of the Black Sea were too big for Lenka, who couldn’t jump over them yet. Unfortunately, she did not like the Alazani River so favoured by local children. From time to time, we had a chance to take a longer bath in such luxuries as a metal washtub or basin.

Khachapuri?

Lenka did not like the taste of khachapuri (a Georgian pie filled with melted cheese, sometimes topped with an egg), but apart from her mother’s milk she also tasted the specialties of the local cuisine. She was very fond of Caucasian ice-cream in wafers, yoghurts (especially the ones made by the Kizlar Diary Plant), she also liked water melons, blackberries and home-made juice.

Our baby’s teeth (although growing very fast during the trip) were too weak to allow her to taste a mutton shashlyk. Unfortunately, soups are not very popular in the Caucasus, so we tried giving her various meat stew sauces and salads.
Several jars of baby food that we took with us from Poland (their proper storing temperature was exceeded more than twice because we carried them in the boot) came in handy especially in Khevsureti, where after having driven 100 kilometres we were told that we had passed the nearest shop 50 kilometres ago, which meant a 5 to 6 hour drive on the bumpy switchbacks.

Bacteria, illnesses and other dangers

What if she gets sick? – we were asked on and on. There are children living there, too... – I would answer avoiding any further discussion.
Just in case, we asked a doctor to give us a prescription for sulphonamide which turned out useful, not for Lenka though, but for Sebastian. Lenka luckily avoided any stomach problems. The D3 vitamin that we took with us from Poland turned out useless, she got enough of it with the sun. The nappy rash cream was quite useful, although leaving her without a nappy turned out more effective.
Baby mosquito repellents were completely useless. It seemed that after using them Lenka was more bitten than without them.

The adult ones had a better effect (but the best protection was a trip in the high mountains...). The lack of hygiene and an excess of sun was beneficial for Lenka, who got rid off the cradle cap.

High altitudes

High altitudes considered harmful for children discourage many people from taking their baby to the mountains. It is just a speculation, because there are no reliable data. Children living in the Andes or Tibet seem to have no problems with high altitudes. Lenka probably identified herself with the latter, not the pampered European babies. During the climb of Mount Elbrus she either slept or observed the white surroundings. We gave up 1600 metres before the summit due to our completely improper shoes (obviously we had not planned to attack the summit on that occasion:).

Early preparations

In a sense, we had been preparing Lenka for this trip since birth by avoiding sterility, bottle scalding or everyday bathing. We also did not shun contact with other children, crowds, parties. Our friends visited us from the first days of Lenka’s life. When she was 2 weeks old, she went to her first parties, and when she turned 2 months we took her for a skiing holiday. Two months later she inaugurated her first passport during our trip to Lithuania.

Air-conditioned hotels?

If nobody invited us for a night and the place was not suitable for putting up a tent, we slept in hotels. Like during our previous trips, we sought the cheaper ones with the “atmosphere”. Adults care much more about cockroaches and mice than babies do..., besides they did not occur that often. Lenka was fond of sleeping in a tent, especially when the ground, e.g. sand or stones made it easy for her to crawl.

The nights spent with our old or new friends were the most pleasant. Houses in Dagestan (and many other places in the Caucasus) often have a special room designed especially for guests (called kunatskaya). It is usually full of mattresses, pillows and blankets. In Dagestan, people usually invite you to stay in their homes just a few minutes after you arrive to their village. Upon seeing a stranger, local people usually ask – Who are you staying with? Oh, you have nowhere to stay? So come to my place. It happens even more often when you travel with a child.

Piles of luggage?

We packed Lenka’s stuff in a 20-litre rucksack, we also took a baby carrier and nappies. Unlike what one might expect, the roof rack wasn’t packed with baby clothes, but with gifts for our friends and people we were to encounter on our way. We took a few changes of underwear, some shirts, trousers, something warm, but not too many things (it wasn’t difficult to guess what the weather would be like), sun caps. According to the saying “a child is either clean or happy”, we did not care about a dirty blouse or stained trousers. Lenka did not seem to bother at all about the greyish colour of clothes washed in mountain rivers and springs, which could not be removed even with the best stain remover.

Bad times...

It wasn’t always so easy. Lenka is not a good sleeper. She needed to be fed at night, sometimes she would wake us up several times, so we were not getting enough sleep and couldn’t make it up during the day when temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius. Another thing that made it difficult for us and our child to sleep were mosquitoes. Lenka usually slept well while we were driving, so she wasn’t quite ready for a 12 hour rest at night.

and good times...

If you trust people and do not suspect every person who shows interest in your child of paedophilia, a trip with a child may be less tiring than a vacation at the seaside. When travelling in Europe, the child is always with you, whether you’re trying to eat something in a cafeteria or go shopping. In the Caucasus, children are kind of a “common good”.
When the parents are eating, teenage girls or someone who has already finished the meal will take care of their child. And it does not apply only when you are someone’s guest.

Instead of “fighting” with your baby who is trying to plunge her rattle in a glass of beer during lunch in a roadside bar or restaurant, you can always count on the staff for help. Lenka was quite happy to visit the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, a beer garden in Dagestan or a grill bar on our way from Batumi to Tbilisi.

Sometimes people offered us to take care of our child for a longer period of time, but there was no such need with one exception: when we were gathering information for the Pankisi guide on a very hot day. We decided that Lenka would be better off left with a group of local children. Their parents told us that it did not really make any difference whether they took care of five or six kids.

What’s most important, during such a trip – even if it led to the end of the world – a child has a permanent contact with both parents. Lenka will probably never tell us about her impressions – the new landscapes, languages, tastes and sounds, but she looked very happy and did not seem to bother about the lack of a bathroom or an air-conditioned hotel.

Stages of our trip

Part I: Through Ukraine and the Stavropol Krai to Dagestan
Part II: The baby in Dagestan
Part III: Climbing Mount Elbrus with our baby
Part IV: From Russia via Turkey to Georgia
Part V: In the Pankisi Gorge
Part VI: On Horseback and carried by a Pankisi Gorge Kist
Part VII: Off-road with our baby - Tusheti
Part VIII: The baby in Khevsureti
Part IX: Travelling through Georgia - $600 at the border
Part X: The way back home through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia

About us

Iwona and Sebastian Kaliszewski with Lenka

We have started travelling to Russia, the Caucasus and other countries of the former USSR a long time ago. Lenka, who has joined us recently, has been to the Caucasus already twice, the first time comfortably by train in my belly. Her second trip was more bumpy – with the Lada Niva on the roadless tracts of the Caucasus.

By travelling around the “Islamic Caucasus” with our child, we aim to change the stereotypes about the region considered to be dangerous and about travelling with a baby who seems to be a better travel companion than an older child.
Our previous travels & photos can be found at: www.tajga.org