A journalist’s incredible trip to Russia’s North Caucasus

An extract from a new book documenting a four-month trek through the Caucasus mountains – and their history

Tom Parfitt
11 August 2023, 9.51am

2008: journalist Tom Parfitt in in the foothills of Dagestan


Image: Tom Parfitt

In 2008, veteran journalist Tom Parfitt walked 1,000 km from Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea to the city of Derbent on the Caspian – a journey through the North Caucasus mountains and their surroundings. Parfitt did it to find out more about the regions and people who make up the place, but more than anything – to confront the horror of his first encounter with the mountains. Four years earlier, he covered the Beslan school siege, when 300 people were killed after Chechen militants seized a school in North Ossetia and Russian special forces mounted an operation to take back control. It was a tragedy that shook Russia – and Parfitt.

“For a long period after the siege,” he writes, “I was in a wilderness [...] Almost twenty years later, I still think about it every few days”.

But Beslan became part of a wider picture of insurgency and counter-insurgency in the North Caucasus, where violence became a daily occurrence. Parfitt’s new book, High Caucasus, tracks his journey on foot through the mountains, meeting the people who live in them and their complex history, in an effort to go beyond the tragedy. Or at least come to terms with it.

The following is an extract from High Caucasus. A Mountain Quest in Russia’s Haunted Hinterland.

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Kubachi, a large hill village in south-east Dagestan, was famous for its silversmiths.

There was a lushness here, close to the coast: Derbent was now only thirty-five miles away. Rhododendron sprouted. In the centre of the village, we found the head of the administration, Gadzhi-Isa, forty-five years old with – appropriately – spiky silver hair and a moustache that crept down over his top lip in a silver portcullis. He was thrilled to have guests. Look at our Islamic inscriptions! Look at our silver-making kombinat! At the kombinat, slabs of silver were being flattened through an electric mangle similar to one I’d used as a teenager to thin pastry at a village bakery in Suffolk, and a silversmith battered out a goblet. Gadzhi-Isa had something even more interesting at home: a real bathroom with running hot water. I spent an hour of delirious pleasure, sploshing and scrubbing.

The end of the journey was approaching. We had walked for almost three weeks through highland Dagestan without tents or bedding. Every night, without fail, a stranger had taken us in. It was hard to comprehend how these people had ever been accused of lacking ‘civilization’.




CC BY SA 3.0 Fred Schaerli / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

Himself, Gadzhi-Isa had done something exceptional, something with the grandeur of poetry or saga. That night, he poured some vodka and told us the story. The road to the local market town, he said, was about fifteen miles long. “Too far for our traders,” he said, but there was no government plan to solve the problem. So Gadzhi-Isa and five friends had got together to build a new road that would cut the journey to five and a half miles by hugging a wooded mountain valley. They would do it all by themselves, out of charity. They started work with a tractor and a bulldozer provided by Gamid Gamidov, a popular politician later killed in a car bombing. “We began well, but little by little, my friends lost interest,” said Gadzhi-Isa. “I was left on my own.” One man to build a road. He became obsessed. He planted sticks of dynamite to blast the way from the rock, creeping away to a safe distance with a detonator. He slept outside, under overhangs, on beds of leaves. Rain dripped down his collar and he shivered through the night. The funding ran out, but he carried on with his own money. The digger toppled over a cliff. Relations with his wife became strained as the family budget was squeezed.

“It was an idée fixe,” said Gadzhi-Isa. It took him two years to complete the final three miles of the road. It was a dirt track where plants sprouted through the surface here and there, but it was a road nonetheless, passable by cars.

“Incredible,” I said.

“And tomorrow, I will show you,” said Gadzhi-Isa. “It will shorten your route as well.”

He was right: next morning, the track pulled us into a wooded glen where the sun passed through leaves turning red, yellow and gold. Gadzhi-Isa caught up in his Lada Niva; I had forgotten a fleece at his house. He walked on beside us, pointing out trees: delicate aspen with whitish trunks, some on tops of cliffs; beech with rich, claret leaves; oak, ash – still green, they would turn later; hornbeam, maple, wild pear, apple and cherry.

“Look, these blackberries grew in these places where I blasted rock and cleared timber,” he said. There were guelder-rose, buck-thorn, wild raspberries and red and blackcurrants. We stopped to pick them, the juice staining our fingers. There were plums, too, little bombs of sweetness.

“Wait!” Gadzhi-Isa had stopped. “This is where we used to otdykhat [relax],” he said. A shack had appeared in a clearing by the road- side. “I came here every night to strip to the waist and wash.” He walked to one side and began overturning rocks in the undergrowth. “It’s got be here somewhere. Yes!” His fist held an earth-stained bottle of vodka and some plastic cups. “I secreted it here in case of emergencies,” said Gadzhi-Isa.

We drank a toast to his achievement and said our goodbyes. The road continued, clinging to steep wooded slopes above the river, some almost sheer, marked with the shattered drill holes where Gadzhi-Isa had placed his explosives. It ended by a stream and a footbridge that led towards the market town.

That was the thing: Gadzhi-Isa had not yet managed to replace the footbridge with one that would take traffic. I never found out if he managed that final step. I’m not sure I want to. In my mind, his road burns to this day like a comet of human enterprise.


Parfitt's journey took him through the whole of the North Caucasus


Image: Tom Parfitt

So much of my walk had circled back to familiar themes: home, grief, deracination. To be torn from one’s native place and culture was a trauma that could be overcome – even harnessed to advantage. Yet for many, the pain of removal seeped through the years. If you managed to get back, were you ever the same again? Could you restore what was lost?

Beyond the stream at the end of Gadzhi-Isa’s road, a scrap of cloth fluttered from a pole and a narrow path climbed through undergrowth into forest, switchbacking over the roots of trees, a ribbon of muddy ground slick with fallen leaves.

There was one last place to see before reaching the coast, and this was the way. I got ahead a little – Suleyman’s limp often slowed him down – and met a Dagestani soldier in uniform descending the path. He had a pistol at his hip and was carrying two bulging plastic bags full of walnuts. “Wow,” he said, on meeting an Englishman. “Aren’t you afraid? I go everywhere with my gun, even when I’m off duty, like now. The boyeviki [militants] could be anywhere in these woods.”

My aches seemed to have faded for a day, and I sped up the hill through the trees, feeling fit and unmoved by the soldier’s warning. At the top was a grassy knoll with a mosque and a mausoleum on it. To every side spread a vista of thickly wooded slopes and rocky scarps. The mausoleum, protected by the spreading branches of a beech tree and startling in its simple grace, was a hunkered building of stone blocks and rough brickwork with a blunt, tapering tower no more than ten feet high. There was an archway over the door and a single slit for a window. Before the mausoleum stood a cluster of carved gravestones.

This was the location of Kala-Koreysh, literally, “the fortress of the Quraysh”, a place of pilgrimage and veneration with no equal in southern Dagestan. No one can be sure, but it is believed that Kala-Koreysh was founded by Arab members of the Quraysh tribe, to which the Prophet himself belonged, and played an important role in the spread of Islam in Dagestan in the Middle Ages, becoming the centre of the Kaytag Utsmiystvo feudal state.

On slopes beneath the mosque and the mausoleum were the remains of a village: stone walls split by shrubs and trees, the shells of houses and a caravanserai. The sun shone warm and a breeze moved the grass around the ruins. Besides Suleyman and me, there was no one around. Only after a while did a man in his sixties appear from an intact house behind the mosque. His name was Bagomet and he was the guardian of the place, he said: its single resident. The soldier I had met was a relative who had been making a visit.

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Portraits of Caucasus heroes hang in a village school in Dagestan


Image: Tom Parfitt

Bagomet showed us the four tombs inside the mausoleum, draped with green and white satin, and the interior of the mosque with its solid pillars of scarified stone. He was an even-tempered man in a purple skullcap and a tweedy jacket with long cuffs.

Bagomet had grown up in the village of Kala-Koreysh; the ruins we had just explored. “This is one of the top three Muslim shrines in the world,” he declared as we drank tea and sucked sweets in his cottage. Foreign visitors were rare, he admitted. A Moroccan had come recently. He had complained about the rags that pilgrims had tied to trees and bushes: they were pagan and undesirable.

The last Kaytag ruler had sworn allegiance to Russia in the early nineteenth century. When the Chechens were deported from their homeland in 1944, the residents of Kala-Koreysh were forcibly moved to Chechnya to take over their homes.

“I was six years old, so I don’t remember a great deal,” said Bagomet.

The villagers were allowed back to Dagestan in the 1950s, but the remote hilltop settlement at Kala-Koreysh, built up with such fearful effort over the centuries, was no longer a fit place to live. They found new homes down on the plain. Bagomet had worked for three decades in a city as a machine operator, only returning to Kala-Koreysh four years before our visit, after the previous watchman, his cousin, had died in an accident.

“I renovated this one room – this is my parents’ former house,” he said. There were a few sticks of furniture and a cooker. “I’m completely alone. Every morning, I get up early and walk around the village. I go down the central street, see if any walls have fallen, and then come back up. Sometimes I cut the nettles with a scythe. When I’m passing the houses, I recall the names of the families who lived there and say their names to myself, not to forget.”

“That’s sad,” I said.

Bagomet paused. “I remember people here working, laughing, arguing. Some days, I go to sleep after lunch because there’s nothing to do, no one to talk to.”

Now and then, he would go into town to buy provisions and collect his pension, but in winter, he could go days without seeing a soul. In the warmer months, he spoke to any visitors who made the climb to the hilltop, and in autumn he collected nuts from the trees.

“It’s a strange feeling,” he said, pouring some more tea, “when the place where you once lived becomes a museum.”

Excerpted from High Caucasus. A Mountain Quest in Russia’s Haunted Hinterland, written by Tom Parfitt and published by Headline Publishing Group. Copyright © 2023 Tom Parfitt. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For more information about the author and this book, see the publisher’s site here.

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