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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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|
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