Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dagestan: Day 2

Makhachkala (Махачкала)

Pronunciation: muh-HOTCH-kala

Our first full day in Dagestan began with an ice-cold wind whipping through the streets as we walked to the local grocery store for some breakfast. The wind does not come off the Caspian Sea, as I had anticipated, but rather from the north - an Ivan wind, they call it (as opposed to a Mohammed wind from the south).

Eldar once again picked us up in a taxi and took us to the central square of Makhachkala. This is where many government buildings are located, including the capital building, which we jokingly referred to as the "White House."

"White House" detail

Later in the day, Eldar would take us into the "White House" to meet several of his friends who work in the Dagestani government. Like Valeriy in Elista, Eldar seems to know everybody who's somebody in this town. The people we met were all very friendly and welcoming, taking time out of their busy schedules to talk with us, and they even set up transportation for our upcoming excursions into the mountains. 

Anyway, back to the square... As in many central squares in Russian cities, there stands an enormous statue of Lenin, and Makhachkala's square also sports several banners depicting Putin.

After walking around for a bit and being nearly blown over by the wind, we arrived at our first stop of the day - the Дом Дружбы Город Махачкала: "Makhachkala House of Friendship." This is a museum dedicated to the cultures of the many diverse national groups of Dagestan, as well as the neighboring states in the South Caucasus and along the Caspian Sea. If you visit their Facebook page, you can see photos of our visit in an April 19th post!

At this museum, we learned about the wide variety of traditional clothing worn in Dagestan, the lifestyle of the people throughout history, and what is being done today to preserve the rich culture of Dagestan and cooperation amongst the various national groups (34 different groups, to be exact!). We had a wonderfully knowledgeable museum guide, and the museum director himself began our personal tour. Along the way we were accompanied by a museum photographer to document our visit. 

Our tour guide at left, and the museum director at right
Photo credit: Дом Дружбы Facebook page

Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

The grounds of the museum were very nicely landscaped, and I was sorry we couldn't hang around a few more days to see all these tulips open up!

There were plenty of other tulips in bloom in this beautifully manicured city, however, including a peony-like variety that I have never seen before but will certainly look for once we're back in the U.S.

My favorites are those in the lower right - they look like peonies but grow on a tulip stem!

After our tour of the Friendship House, Eldar took us to a high-end souvenir shop back on the central square. The ornate building was painted a pale pastel green, like an Easter egg. In the photo you can see the souvenir shop on the ground floor with the word ДАГЕСТАН (DAGESTAN) over it. 

There the shop ladies dressed us up for a photoshoot - Ted in a traditional Dagestani jacket and hat, and me in a head scarf. I think we look pretty authentic, don't you?

Photo on the right of Dagestani man and woman taken in 1904 by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (via Wikipedia)

If you're ever in Makhachkala, we highly recommend this souvenir shop. The name is Торговый Дом (Trading House) - be sure to ask for a dress-up photo session! 

The museum and souvenir shop were hard to beat, but when Eldar asked us what else we would like to do or see in Makhachkala, I had my answer ready. The city is situated right on the Caspian Sea, so of course I had to go stand on the beach and put my hands in the water. When would I ever have a another chance to see the Caspian Sea?

Eldar's daughter later pointed out to me that though we call it the Caspian Sea, in reality it is a giant lake - the largest in the world by area, actually. It isn't very salty, and nowhere does it connect with any sea or ocean. So I guess it is just an enormous lake, but it sure felt like being on the coast of a small sea to me!

Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

The sand is very course - millions of small pieces of shell and rock, really. The air doesn't smell salty like being near the ocean, but the waves lap the beach (and my shoes!) nonetheless. The weather was cool and very windy on this day. 

I wore my raincoat most days to act as a windbreaker; without it the wind was bitingly cold.

The walk down to and around the waterfront took us past many interesting buildings - old and new. The building upkeep here seems to be better than in Elista, though we still saw some abandoned buildings in disrepair. Overall this is a modern city that retains much of its old charm. 

The old theater, no longer in use

Seaside hotel

After our brief jaunt down to the beach, we headed back into the city to visit the history museum. Again, as we walked to the museum we were struck by the juxtaposition of old and new, historical buildings sandwiched between sleek, modern ones.

Through the ornate arch you can see a modern children's play structure in the park.

A closer look at the museum (left) next to what I assume are offices next door (right).

Detail of museum facade

When we arrived at the museum (which was free admission, by the way!), all the lights were out. I didn't think much of it at first because people in Kalmykia and Dagestan don't leave lights on the way Americans do. It's not unusual for hallways in the university buildings and dormitory to be unlit during the day.

We learned from a museum docent, however, that they were having issues with the power at that moment. There was a good amount of natural light coming in through the museum's many windows, however, so we stayed to have a look around.

Museum interior hallway (after lights came back on!)

Museum floor detail

The museum exhibits taught the history of Dagestan, all the way back to prehistoric times. The informational signs in the prehistory room were all hand-painted on canvas and showed the animals that lived in the shallow sea that once covered this corner of Russia, and huge ammonite fossils were on display where anyone could touch them (but probably not steal them since I'm sure they weigh a ton!).

Hand-painted canvas

The colorful backdrops were also hand-painted.

We also toured rooms that showed history of wars in Dagestan (the lights had come back on by this point) and more traditional clothing and tools used by people in this area. Common elements of men's clothing were fur hats and little pockets on the coat breast for storing vials of gunpowder.

Gunpowder vials

The women's clothing was more decorative, with embroidered fabrics and lots of metal ornamentation. Our morning tour guide at the Friendship House told us that some of the most heavily ornamented costumes for special occasions could weigh up to 25 kilograms (55 lbs)!

Ted's interest was more in the history of the events of Dagestan. Below you can see photos of his favorite parts of the exhibit:

Regiment flag from the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War

Under the portrait of Imam Shamil, the leader of the resistance
in Dagestan to the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century

As we were preparing to leave the museum, a tour group of middle school students surrounded us in one of the rooms. We had been dancing around each other the entire time, as we filed in and out of the museum's many rooms (the building housed the republic's Agriculture Ministry until recently). One of the students had finally worked up the nerve to try out her English with us, and she asked us where we were from. Her friend soon joined us to practice her English, and as we chatted more and more students filled in around us, listening in and taking photos. Before we knew it, their school photographer was lining the students up to take a photo with the Americans! We finally said our goodbyes and tried to make our exit, only to be chased down by individual students who wanted to take photos with their phones and get our Facebook information. We were like celebrities!

The first two brave students who approached us. They are from a town in the mountains, down in the city for a field trip to the museum. Their English was quite good, actually!

By this point in our day we were pretty exhausted. We had a long day of travel the day before, and Ted was mentally exhausted from having to translate everything for me. Although we hear Makhachkala has a great art museum, Ted and I asked to go to a cafe and relax instead. Eldar had just the place!

Along our walk to the cafe...

We ended up in an Uzbek tea house, in a cozy back room with upholstered walls and a fabric-draped ceiling. Just the place to sink into some soft cushions, drink some hot tea away from the cold wind, and have a quiet conversation.

Uzbek tea house interior (front room)

Ceiling detail of lights and draped fabric

Our cozy little corner

Eldar ordered a variety of teas for us to try.

By the end of the day we were too tired to even go out for dinner. We ate lunch leftovers in our hotel room (in bed!) and went straight to sleep.

Our earlier lunch in the "White House" government building; the food in the Soviet-style cafeteria was delicious!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Dagestan: Day 1

Travel to Dagestan

Over the past decade, Ted has written and published three academic articles with a colleague who lives in the Republic of Dagestan - a colleague he has never met in person! While here in Kalmykia, we had to take advantage of our proximity to Dagestan and visit him.

Last Tuesday we set off on our long journey to Makhachkala, a large city on the Caspian Sea. Dagestan is a little different than Kalmykia when it comes to travel; there are police checkpoints along the roads and in the cities, so we had to make sure all our documents were in order as foreigners traveling through the republic.

We first took a taxi from Elista to the southern border of Kalmykia. Once outside of Elista, it was steppe as far as the eye could see... for 3 hours. Luckily, we had a terrific taxi driver who had a great balance of conversation and playing music, which made the time pass quickly.

At one point we stopped at a cafe outside a small village to use the restroom. There were cows in the road anyway, so it was a good time to stop.

When we got out of the car I headed toward the cafe, only to realize that our driver was headed toward the bathroom, in a very different direction....

If you've never done a road trip outside the U.S., you may not realize this, but most roadside stops don't have toilets, just a hole for squatting over! Maybe this is where the term "pit stop" comes from...

Our driver got a kick out of us taking this photo. 

To be honest, it feels much cleaner than many of the U.S. gas station bathrooms I've been in.

At the border between Kalmykia and Dagestan we had to stop at our first checkpoint. There, after all our documents were scrutinized and approved, we were picked up by two employees of the Dagestan Geographical Society who drove us the rest of the way to Makhachkala.

"Border patrol" :)

The first 10-15 minutes of the Dagestan looked similar to the Kalmyk steppe, but the scenery soon changed, growing hillier and more lush with plant life.

There was also a change in the religious landscape, with roadside khuruls (Kalmyk Buddhist temples) being replaced by roadside mosques:

There was a small mosque attached to almost every gas station in Dagestan.

Another difference from Kalmykia were the police checkpoints along the road in Dagestan. We were stopped once (waved over by policemen standing in the road) to have our documents checked. This particular checkpoint was right alongside the border with Chechnya, and the police kept our passports for quite a while, which made us nervous. But in the end, they gave our passports back and we were allowed to continue. For this reason, it was essential that we have a Dagestani escort - someone who knew the system and could vouch for us. Not many Americans travel around Dagestan!

Here we are, stopped at the police checkpoint near the Chechen border.

As we finally entered the city of Makhachkala, it seemed to be not very different in appearance from Elista. However, as we got closer to the city center, the buildings got bigger and newer-looking, the roads got more congested, and it no longer looked anything like Elista!

Our Dagestani drivers in front of the central mosque in Makhachkala

All in all, the journey spanned about 550 km and took about 8 hours. Ted's colleague, Eldar Eldarov (the one we came to meet!), had arranged a hotel room for us at the Sport Hotel, right next to a stadium. We were so grateful to be able to go directly to our room after such a long time in the car.

After we unpacked our bags and rested for a bit, Eldar picked us up in a taxi and took us to his home (He doesn't drive, and after a few days of riding in a car around Dagestan, we understand why!).

View from our hotel balcony

Another view from our hotel balcony

Eldar's home, a very nice apartment in the city, was lavishly decorated and very comfortable. His wife and daughter had prepared a feast for us, and we were so happy to see all the vegetables! The tomatoes in Dagestan are out of this world - I could have eaten only tomatoes for dinner and been very, very happy.

Clockwise from top: Russian potato salad; salted fish and boiled potatoes with dill; chicken and roasted potatoes; a plateful of delicious tomatoes and sliced cucumber sprinkled with parsley; and pink pickled cabbage

The traditional dish of Dagestan is called khinkal [hing-KAL]. It consists of braised meat and thick doughy noodles - almost like undercooked biscuits - usually served with a bowl of bouillon. The red tomato sauce and white sour cream sauce are loaded with garlic and are served alongside khinkal.

Photo credit: Bela Eldarova, Eldar's daughter

Of course there was incredibly smooth Dagestan cognac, too!
Photo credit: Bela Eldarova
After dinner treats included chocolates, cookies, and a nutty bun similar to a cinnamon roll, but not as sweet

Dinner was so delicious and so relaxing - a great way to be welcomed to Dagestan. And I must say, Dagestani hospitality cannot be beat. We were not allowed to lift a finger the entire time we were there, and our hosts supplied everything we needed and/or wanted. 

After dinner, we sat around and chatted, and Eldar's daughter let their house pet run around and greet everyone:

The rabbit's name means something like "jewel" in Russian, but I can't remember the exact word...

It was so great to finally meet Eldar in person, after so many years of email correspondence. We went to sleep that night looking forward to exploring Makhachkala and learning more about Dagestan, which we will write about over the next few blog posts!

Ted and Eldar, together at last