The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian

The Caucasus lie at the southern edge of Russia and are a wild land of fiercely independent people, who were not incorporated into the Tsar’s Empire until the mid-19th century. It is the land of legends, an untamed landscape of imposing peaks and hidden medieval villages. Here customs stretch back to the dawn of human settlement and for us one of the most exciting parts of Europe.

This trip takes you on an unusual journey through the collection of semi-autonomous republics that mark Moscow’s limit of control. These are places that few outside of Russia have even heard of. We start in the breakaway state of Abkhazia, a subtropical country nestled between the Black Sea and the mountains still claimed by Georgia. Here we explore abandoned villages, an impressive fortress and the stunning monastery of New Athos.

We then head inland to the Circassian republics – Adygea, Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. We explore beautiful scenery, see the world’s largest radio telescope and discover the history and traditions of the Circassian people. Moving on we travel across the mountains to North Ossetia, home to traditional stone built villages. We’ll see some of the best views in the Caucasus and visit the bizarre ‘city of the dead’, an entire village of tombs built during the medieval plague epidemics.

Our next republic is Ingushetia where we visit the dramatic watchtowers of Vovnushki. These look for all the world like something from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films and are perched on steep mountains to guard for the invaders of old.

Our journey then takes us into Chechnya and the capital Grozny, rebuilt from the ashes after the devastating wars that took place here in the 1990s. We have time to explore before moving on to its highlands, home to old towers, castles and necropolis. Finally, in Dagestan, we discover the famed hospitality of the region in isolated mountain villages and explore the ancient city of Derbent, crossroads of cultures on the Caspian Sea.

This is a Europe that you have never seen before, where ancient customs are still very much alive in hidden valleys and isolated settlements, where the modern world arrived a little over a hundred years ago. Its vistas of snow-capped peaks, deep gorges and gushing waterfalls are breath-taking. The Caucasus have always been Russia’s wild frontier, a source of inspiration to writers such as Pushkin and Tolstoy, a land of romance, imagination and mystique. Discover Russia’s best kept secret.

The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian

Highlights

  • Visit Dargavs’ ‘city of the dead’
  • The unrecognised country of Abkhazia
  • See the watchtowers of Ingushetia
  • Traditional highland hospitality
  • The charming city of Vladikavkaz
  • The pagan traditions of North Ossetia

Day 1 - Sochi

Arrive in Sochi and transfer to the hotel. The rest of the day is free. Overnight tourist class hotel.


Day 2 - Gagra

Transfer to Gagra, in Abkhazia. Explore this resort town with its old Soviet architecture as well as the nearby town of Pitsunda, then head to the traditional village of Achandara for lunch with a local family. In the afternoon visit the fortress of Anakopia, dramatically located on a steep hill. Finally visit the impressive Orthodox monastery of New Athos, founded in the 19th century by monks from Greece. We end the day in Sukhumi, Abkhazia’s capital. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Abkhazia

Abkhazia is a contentious subject. Formally part of Georgia it declared independence soon after the breakup of the USSR, resulting in a messy war which saw the Georgians withdraw. Today it claims to be a separate country – recognised by no-one else – and is heavily supported by Russia, but historically has also been associated with the Ottoman Empire, being one of the provinces it claimed sovereignty over.

Abkhazia is geographically diverse with lowlands stretching to the extremely mountainous north. The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range runs along the region’s northern border, with its spurs – the Gagra, Bzyb and Kodori ranges – dividing the area into a number of deep, well-watered valleys. The coastal areas have a subtropical climate, and the region was much favoured during Soviet times as a holiday destination – old villas once stayed in by the KGB still remain and provide a snapshot of those times. The highlands still harbour the best of traditional culture, with shepherds looking after their flocks deep within the mountains, and offer great hiking opportunities for those willing to get even further off the beaten track.

Most Abkhaz are Christians of the Eastern Orthodox faith, but there is a large diaspora, whose descendants fled when the area came under Russian rule, and in places like Turkey you’ll find Abkhaz to be Muslim.

New Athos

In the year 1874 Russian monks from Greece arrived in the Psyrtskha river valley and after just a year’s time, they founded a new monastery at the foot of Mt Athos. The construction was completed after twenty years, but the sheer volume of work done is staggering, even by today’s standards. The landscape was dramatically reshaped when a huge portion of the mountain, equivalent to about 1,000 tons of soil and rock, was removed. Part of the building materials were delivered from distant countries by sea. Roof tiles, for instance, were brought from Marseille while the clock for the main bell tower was donated by the Russian Tsar Alexander III.

Later on, a light railway, a ropeway and a dam were built on the Psyrtskha River along with one of Russia’s first power stations. The marshy and thorny valley of the river was cleared and turned into a park with canals and a network of ponds for breeding mirror carp. Orchards were laid out on mountain slopes where apples, tangerines and olives were grown. By the beginning of the twentieth century, New Athos had become the biggest religious centre on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus and has remained as such to this day.

Day 3 - Sukhumi - Tkuarchal

Explore Sukhumi, visiting its market and learning about the history of the city. In the afternoon we head to eastern Abkhazia to see medieval churches, rural landscapes and the abandoned mining town of Tkuarchal, returning to Sukhumi in the evening. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 4 - Lake Ritsa – Sochi

Drive into the mountains through impressive scenery to Lake Ritsa, and visit the old summer dacha of Stalin. In the late afternoon cross back into Russia and return to Sochi. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Sochi

This Russian Black Sea city was fairly unnoticed by the rest of the world until the 2014 Winter Olympics, but has long been a popular holiday spot for Russian tourists. One of the very few places in Russia with a sub-tropical climate, it stretches along the coast (and is sometimes called the world’s longest city), and was once part of the Circassian nation, until Tsarist troops arrived in the 19th century. It was established as a fashionable resort under Stalin, who had a dacha here, and was well frequented by the Soviet nomenklatura.

Day 5 - Khadyzhensk – Mezmai

Travel by train to Khadzyensk, then head to the old logging village of Mezmai, surrounded by beautiful scenery, which we explore on foot. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 6 - Adygea – Karachai-Cherkessia

Head to Maikop, the ‘capital’ of Adygea, the first of the republics that we visit on this trip. We visit the home museum of Zamudin Guchev to learn about the culture of the Circassian people, then continue to the village of Zelenchukskaya, home to the world’s largest radio telescope. We can learn about the work of this structure from the people that work here. We then visit the 10th-century cathedral nearby, built by the Alan people. Spend the night in the ski resort of Arkhyz. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

The Circassians

The Circassian people live in the north-west of the Caucasus, mostly spread between the republics of Adygea, Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Once numerous, the 19th-century expansion of Russia to its south saw it come into conflict with the Circassians, who were systematically pushed out of their homelands.

During the imperial rivalry of the time, rogue British adventurers attempted to assist the Circassians and force the British government into intervening, but despite a long and fierce resistance, Russian forces eventually won the fight. Many emigrated to the Ottoman empire, enduring terrible conditions on crowded ships across the Black Sea, and today the Circassian diaspora, like the Armenians, is far more numerous than those that live in their traditional homeland, making them one of the first stateless peoples in modern history.

The Circassians are Muslim, but a strong element of their belief structure is habze, a moral code that embodies notions of strength and honour – it is seen as shameful for a Circassian to show weakness, and greed and desire for possessions are considered a disgrace. As with many of the Caucasus people, hospitality is a key element of the Circassian culture, to the extent that even an enemy is considered a guest if they enter a home.

Day 7 - Pyatigorsk

Drive over the Gum-Bashi pass, where we will be rewarded with a stunning view of Mount Elbrus. Continue to the towns of Essentuki and Pyatigorsk, a fashionable spa resort in Imperial times, and closely associated with the famous Russian poet Lermontov. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 8 - Nalchik - Tsey

We travel to Nalchik, taking us into the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Learn about the military traditions of the Kabardians, renowned for their skilful use of the shashka, a light bladed weapon like the Japanese katana. From here continue to the Digoria Valley to see old Ossetian mountain villages and great views. End the day in Tsey, with its ancient pre-Christian holy sites. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 9 - North Ossetia

We head into the breathtaking mountains of North Ossetia. Visit the Midagrabin Falls, perhaps the most beautiful spot in the central Caucasus, and small villages such as Ursdon. The highlight today will be the ‘city of the dead’ – Dargavs, a town of tombs built during the plague epidemics of the 16th century. End the day in Vladikavkaz. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 10 - Vladikavkaz

Spend the day exploring Vladikavkaz, with its interesting pre-revolution architecture and hidden treasures in the historic part of the city. In the evening visit a workshop where a local folk ensemble makes traditional instruments, which we’ll be able to hear. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 11 - Ingushetia - Grozny

Travel along the Georgian Military Highway to the mountainous republic of Ingushetia. Explore the medieval Ingush towns with their formidable watchtowers, visiting Erzi and the incredible towers of Vovnushki, perched precariously on steep mountainsides. From here continue to Grozny. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Ingushetia

Tiny Ingushetia is home to around half a million people, and a fairy-tale landscape of jagged mountains, lush meadows and ancient stone built villages with high watchtowers, built to look out for invaders crossing the high passes. Perhaps the most impressive of these are the towers of Vovnushki, built on bare mountainsides and looking for all the world like something from the Lord of the Rings films – they truly have to be seen to be believed.

The Ingush have a bit of a shared history with the Chechens – resistance in the 19th-century, deported to Central Asia at the end of the Second World War, and entangled in the conflict that rumbled on at the turn of the 21st century. Predominantly Muslims now, they were Christian previously and converted along with the Chechens during a gradual process from the 17th to 19th centuries – it’s still possible to see examples of architecture from the pre-Islamic time, tucked away in remote valleys.

Day 12 - Grozny – Kezenoy-Am

Explore Grozny then drive to Lake Kezenoy-am – the largest lake in the Caucasus. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Chechnya

Mention the name Chechnya to people and the immediate association, if any, will be that of the terrible wars that were fought here in the 1990s and early 2000s, when this small mountain republic tried to wrest independence away from Moscow. Chechnya has moved on since then, and the capital Grozny, almost completely destroyed during this time, has re-emerged like a glittering phoenix from the ashes, with brash skyscrapers and modern architecture giving rise to comparisons with modern cities like Dubai (with a bit of imagination!).

It’s impossible to talk about Chechnya without addressing the obvious. Chechnya has had a troubled relationship with Russia proper ever since the two met in the 19th-century, during the Tsarist push to conquer and subdue the Caucasus. Like most of the region, it is made up of high peaks and deep valleys, where traditional ‘auls’ (villages) perched in inaccessible spots, making them difficult to conquer for the Russian invaders. The famous Avar leader Imam Shamil organised fierce resistance throughout Dagestan and Chechnya, holding off Russian penetration of this region for thirty years until he was finally captured.

In 1944, the Chechen people, along with other ethnic groups, were deported en masse by Stalin to the steppes of Kazakhstan, unjustly accused of collaboration with the Nazis – clearing the country entirely. It was not until 1956, after Stalin’s death, that they were allowed to return, having endured a harsh life in an alien land that was unprepared to accommodate them.

The breakup of the Soviet Union saw Chechnya declare independence from Russia, a move fiercely opposed by Yeltsin, and the conflict was brutal with villages being razed, civilians killed, and Grozny virtually destroyed before Russia withdrew. The conflict reignited in 1999, this time with a more favourable outcome for Russia that led to the eventual establishment of a pro-Moscow regime in Grozny, led today by the controversial Ramzan Kadyrov.

Chechnya, along with the rest of the Caucasus republics, receives very little in the way of tourism, most potential visitors discouraged by stereotypes that are fast becoming out-dated. For those prepared to visit, this gutsy mountain land is a breath-taking region of high peaks, imposing watchtowers reminiscent of medieval times, and picturesque traditional villages. All accompanied by the famous Chechen hospitality, where guests are treated with the utmost honour – after being isolated from the international community for so long, Chechen people are pleased to see visitors exploring their country, and they will undoubtedly present as long-lasting a memory as the scenery itself.

Day 13 - Dagestan

In the morning, travel to Rakhata village – one of the few places in the Caucasus where they make felt cloaks, then continue to Gotsatl, a famous Avar village of jewellers. We explore the village and its traditions. Overnight local homestay. (BLD)


Day 14 - Gunib

Drive to the Karadakh gorge and explore on foot. From here head to Gunib, the last stand of the 19th-century Avar leader Shamil against the Russians and learn about the struggles that the Avar and other people faced against the encroaching Russian empire. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 15 - Balkhar – Kubachi

Drive to Balkhar – a Lak village, which is located in a very different part of the republic, where we can see local craftsmen at work. By the evening we will move to the mountains of the Dargins, where we stay as guests of a local family and have dinner in the famous aul of goldsmiths and armourers of Kubachi. Overnight local homestay. (BLD)


Day 16 - Derbent

Walk to Kala-Koreish, an abandoned village notable for its 13th-century mosque and tombs of the old rulers of the area, the Arab Quraysh tribe. Continue to Derbent, Russia’s oldest city. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Derbent

Derbent is an ancient city, sitting on trade routes between the Middle East and Eurasia, and lays claim to being the oldest city in Russia, dating back to the 8th-century BC. Its strategic position lies in it controlling access across the Caucasus – there are few places one can easily cross this mighty mountain range, especially in pre-modern times.

Lying between the Persian Empire and Russia, Derbent has been subject to a number of different influences, perhaps the most striking of which is manifested in the 6th-century Sassanid fortress. Within the city lie old caravanserais, bathhouses, madrassas and old mosques. The citadel and ancient part of the city have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and give an idea of what life was like in one of Russia’s most exotic and unusual outposts.

Day 17 - Derbent - Makhachkala

Explore Derbent visiting the old quarter, the Naryn Kala fortress, the Armenian church and the Djuma Mosque. In the afternoon drive to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 18 - Makhachkala

Transfer to the airport to catch your onward flight. (B)


The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian
The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian
The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian
The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian

What's included?

  • Airport transfers

    We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers.

    Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.

  • Accommodation

    Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere. Please note that due to the nature of accommodation used, a single room cannot be guaranteed in homestays and smaller hotels.

  • Guides

    You may be accompanied by different guides for this trip – one for the western section of the trip, and another for the eastern section, in order to take advantage of their specific knowledge of the areas that you will be visiting.

  • Meals

    As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip – in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again.

  • Entrance fees

    Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.

  • Single Supplement

    Please note that if you have a single supplement, we may not be able to provide a single room on some days due to the nature of the accommodation used.

What's not included?

  • Visas

    We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively a visa agency such as Travcour.

  • Airport taxes

    If there are any departure taxes to pay that are not included.

  • International flights

    Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however, you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.

  • Travel Insurance

    If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves, we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.

Visas

All travellers will require a visa to enter Russia, which must be obtained before travel. Most travellers will also need an invitation letter, which we will provide if requested.

You will need a double entry visa for this trip as you will arrive in Russia, enter Abkhazia and then return to Russia. Abkhazia requires an entry permit only which we will arrange for you closer to the time of departure.

Visa regulations can change however and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy for the most up to date information.

Health and vaccinations

We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations, you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

Insurance

It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover, which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.

Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.

Money

The local currency in Russia is the ruble, which can be obtained before you depart. If you want to bring money to exchange while here, Euros or dollars are far better than UK sterling.

All meals are included on this trip, so you don’t have much need for a large amount of money while here – drinks and any souvenirs will be your largest expense.

Local conditions

When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible and thank you for your patience.

Travel advice

We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO advises against travel to most of the regions that we visit on this trip.

Should you have any concerns over safety please do not hesitate to contact us and we can address your concerns. We work very closely with our local team and are fully confident that we can operate tours safely in the Caucasus.

This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.

Please note that the information contained above is highly susceptible to change, and while we endeavour to keep up to date, we recommend that you use this as a guide only. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Updated May 2019

The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian
The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian
The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian
The Caucasus - From the Black Sea to the Caspian
Date(s)
Price (PP) Exc. Flights
Single Supplement
Trip Status
Date -
07 June 2020
Price (PP) -
£4,399
Single Supplement -
£400
Trip Status -
Available
Date -
06 June 2021
Price (PP) -
£4,499
Single Supplement -
£400
Trip Status -
Available