Chasing Adventure in Dagestan

Places

Written by Corey Shepherd

March 1, 2021
It was the summer of 2014 and the second day of hiking through the rugged, raw wilderness of Dagestan in the southwest corner of Russia. The five of us – myself and four friends – had just come through a bend in the road when a pack of 10 or so ovchakey caught our scent from 100 meters away and began to approach. What began as a casual encounter with the Caucasian sheep dogs quickly began to escalate into a foot race between us and them as they sought to defend their wooly charges. Our run-in with the ovchakey was just one of the many adventures we had along the way.

The five of us recently gathered virtually on the sixth anniversary of our hike to recount that unforgettable trek through a forgotten land where old traditions still hold against the ever-encroaching threat of modernity. This is the written record of our adventure.

Dagestan, which literally means “mountain country,” has been a part of Russia since the 19th century.

Moscow to Makhachkala

Illias, the organizer and leader of our group, was born in Dagestan in the Lezgi region of Akhty. Zach, my American colleague, and I met him when we were still low-level Russian speakers, but Illias was a self-taught proficient English speaker and this made a way for our friendship. Illias moved from rural Dagestan to Moscow when he was only a young boy, but the memories of climbing mountains on his father’s back are fixated deep in his heart — an anchor that keeps drawing him back to his homeland. Zach and I felt honored to be invited by Illias to explore the land of his ancestors by foot. Joining our party were Gusein, also a Dagestani-born Lezgi patriot and Moscow resident; and Zurab, a Lak, a gifted story-teller, a second-generation historian, and museum curator in Dagestan’s capital of Makhachkala.

We traveled by plane from Moscow to Makhachkala. Makhachkala is a bustling city of a million people nestled between the descending Caucasus Mountains and the glistening Caspian Sea. From many places in Makhachkala, both sea and mountain are visible.

Zach and I were immediately struck by the sensation that we had left Russia. This, of course, is not true. Dagestan, which literally means “mountain country,” has been a part of Russia since the 19th century. Moscow is dominated by Slavic faces and dotted with Russian Orthodox cathedrals, with a smattering of Central Asian migrant workers and olive-complected Dagestanis. Makhachkala is a different world. We didn’t see any Slavic faces, and the Arabic calls to prayer echoed from mosques on virtually every block, giving us the impression we’d arrived in the Middle East – not an outlying Russian city.

Makhachkala to Akhty

From the capital, we traveled south-southwest to Akhty by public mini-bus and eventually made it to the home of Illias’ uncle, Eldar. We were treated to copious amounts of “kompot,” a traditional Russian juice made fresh from the cherry trees out back; “chudu,” a beloved Dagestani dish similar to flatbread filled with homemade cheese, ground meat, greens or potatoes; and “hinkal,” a famous Dagestani dish consisting of boiled dough and meat served with warm broth.

Hospitality is a Dagestani value like no other. Guests are treated with the greatest respect and care. Although they are not poor, Illias’ family would have spent their last kopeki to feed us well upon arrival to extend this hospitality to us.

We happened to arrive at Eldar’s home just two days after his mother – Illias’ grandmother – had passed. By custom – or “adaty,” the ancient word for Dagestani folk traditions – friends and family visit the nearest relatives of the deceased for several days after the loved one’s passing. When a quorum of men had gathered, we all moved into a large room and sat on the floor in a rough circle. The women remained behind, helping in the kitchen.

At the head of the circle was Eldar’s father, donning a Yankees baseball cap. He took a small, worn slip of paper from his shirt pocket containing handwritten transliterated Arabic prayers from the Quran to be recited on this occasion. After a time of prayer and silent mourning, we stood, shared condolences, and most of the men left. Some gave money to the widower, largely to cover the costs of hospitality during this period of grieving. A few stayed to eat hinkal and chudu.

That evening, our group of five ventured out on a small warm-up hike to watch the sunset over Akhty. On our way up to the overlook point, we crossed a bridge built by Italians in 1915; took a peek inside a broken-down “krepost,” or fortress, built by the Russian Empire in the first half of the 19th century; admired the winding Samur River in the valley below; and noticed a centuries-old mosque that had been converted into a grain storage barn during the Soviet Union. Watching the sunset, I was struck by the adventure of this moment. The next day, we would go further and deeper into this mountain country with its ancient traditions and kind people.

Akhty Into the Mountains

We struck out early on the second day. Western culture had taught Zach and I to be self-sufficient, and so we had well-provisioned but heavy backpacks. They were comical, really, in comparison to our friends’ small satchels. They had learned to depend on the hospitality and generosity of others along the way. In both approaches, there are strengths. It was Zach who supplied sunscreen on several occasions to the other guys, but local hospitality would prove its own worth in our first encounter of the trek.

Two hours outside of Akhty was an abandoned village that we explored for a short time before continuing on. The village was deserted after an earthquake in the 1960s, but one woman had remained there alone, loyal to her native soil. We found her house but could not find her.

The road we walked was at times completely impassible by car. The most enjoyable part of hiking in Dagestan is walking through a raised plain that extends out between two mountain ranges. It’s not strenuous hiking because the plain slopes gently, but the views are stunning. Nestled at the opening of one of these raised plains was an isolated farmhouse. In search of water, Illias and Zurab decided to visit the farmer who lived there, leaving Gusein tucked behind a small hill to care for the foreigners and not draw attention to the unusual constituency of our traveling band.

The farmer, like Illias, was Lezgi. When Zurab, a Lak, asked questions in Russian, the farmer would answer Illias in the regional Lezgi language. Such was the sense of loyalty to one’s own people and language. The farmer warned them that on our path ahead were several large herds of sheep with accompanying shepherds and packs of aggressive ovchakey. He said that if we encountered the sheep dogs, it was important that we know two key words: “tet,” which means “stop,” and “yeri,” which means “go back.”

Equipped with this local insight, we continued on. A few hours later, we found ourselves approaching the bend in the road, with a rock shelf above us. Unbeknownst to us, the rock shelf stretched out to become a wide grazing plain for a herd of some 500 sheep guarded by the aforementioned ovchakey.

Barking casually, they let us know that we were encroachers, and they would protect their sheep. They put us on edge but were far enough away that we didn’t feel threatened. About this time, Zurab approached the same bend. When his path brought him just below the shelf where the already irritated guardians had gathered, the chase was on.

The dogs began to aggressively bark at Zurab, and he began to run – he remembers it as flying – toward us. As the dogs began to give chase, Zurab’s position below the shelf gave him a head start as the dogs carefully made their way down. Once they did, it was a foot race. The four of us saw all of this unfolding behind us and pleaded with Zurab to run faster. In that moment, I still remember thinking, “It’s possible that I’m going to get mauled to death on this beautiful mountain a thousand miles from anyone who knows my name.”

When Zurab had more or less made it to us, we joined him in fleeing from the pursuing pack. Within a couple of seconds, it became clear that we had no chance. We stumbled to a stop and turned to face the frothing dogs, pulling out knives and brandishing walking sticks. We began yelling vain threats hoping to intimidate our pursuers, but the dogs were unphased and kept coming. Recounting this precise moment on Zoom a few weeks ago, each member of the group admitted there was genuine fear, and no one was sure what was about to happen.

Gussein and Zach overlooking Akthy, Illias’ home village.

In a split second of clarity that may have saved our lives, someone remembered the words the farmer taught us – although there’s debate if I or Zurab was the first to remember this. “Tet!” one of us yelled. Within milliseconds, all of us were loudly shouting, “Tet, tet, tet!” To our great surprise and unspeakable relief, the dogs obeyed. They slowed to a walk, and then they all stopped. They continued barking but weren’t giving chase anymore. We then began to yell the second word, “Yeri!” With a yawning, disgruntled whine that expressed disappointment that the mission had come to a peaceful conclusion, the ovchakey began to turn one at a time and rejoin their herd.

As our shouts and commands of sheepdog language turned into whoops and hollers of joy and laughter, we looked beyond the rock shelf to a shepherd who had been standing with his sheep watching the unfolding drama. He never said a word, never made a move. We took his indifference to be satisfaction at the entertaining show that we and the sheepdogs had just put on for him. And so we continued — shaken but relieved, full of laughter, wondering what awaited us around the next bend.

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