Mystery in the Caucasus Mountains

On the hunt for new ethnicities in Dagestan

By / November 2013

A German linguist, a Dagestani driver, and an American writer. Sounds like the opening line of a lame joke. And, to be sure, there were laughs to be had on this January morning. Kazi, our Dagestani driver – an ethnic Lezghin from southern Dagestan, proud Russian patriot, and decorated police colonel – took great pleasure in pestering Martin, the German linguist, about Nazism and Russia’s glorious defeat of Hitler in 1945. Martin handled the ribbing well, helped by his facility with the Lezghin language, Kazi’s native tongue.

We were headed to Kurush, an isolated mountain community perched high on the mountains of southern Dagestan. At 8,500 feet up, Kurush is the highest municipality in all of Europe. The road to Kurush skirts the Caspian Sea, rises over roadside vineyards and dusty thorn bushes. We hoped to survey the culture and distinct dialect of this isolated mountain community tucked deep in the mountains of southern Dagestan near Russia’s border with Azerbaijan.

But from the start, two things troubled me. The road ahead was a dirt track covered in snow and ice. And the car charged with transporting us safely across was a rear-wheel drive Russian Zhiguli. This staple compact car of the Soviet Union hasn’t changed appearance or basic engineering since it’s debut in 1970. The enamel-white, unassuming, Soviet K-car was about to outdo itself in most extraordinary fashion, piloting us on an unforgettable voyage, from the towering heights of human habitation to the mysterious depths of ethnic origins. But not quite in the manner we had anticipated.

We crossed into another world by way of the Samur River. Azure waves glistened majestic in the late-morning rays. Wild chokecherry bushes, sea buckthorn shrubs, almond, and apricot trees lined the river valley in a lush contrast to the dark, snow-patched granite walls looming above. Two eagles, angling for a river’s catch, soared overhead. I twisted my head uncomfortably against the back seat window in order to scout upwards for villages hidden in crevices or perched on precipices. These centuries-old villages were nearly invisible, their ancient stone homes blending seamlessly with the rocky surroundings. The air was thick with discovery.

We inched up the lower passes like amateur skaters rounding the edge of a rink. When we finally stopped to put chains on the rear tires, a jeep load of hunters pulled up, ethnic Laks from a different region of Dagestan who had come to Kurush to hunt. Hunt what, I wondered, but did not ask, suspecting they might have been poachers in pursuit of the endangered ibex. After a few minutes of friendly small talk and profuse invitations to their home village, they jumped back into their Russian jeep and continued winding their way down the mountain. We slipped and slid and watched our lives flash before us during a few scary stretches of extremely narrow, hairpin curves lathered in ice and mud.

Three hours into the ascent, near the mountain’s bare, boulder-studded crest, we were greeted by a herd of dirty-white sheep. We inhaled deep breaths of the fresh, light air, even as we briefly imbibed the deep satisfaction of having finally reached the summit. The bleating choir (a living portend, we felt, of divine welcome) was driven by an unshaven shepherd smoking a homemade cigarette and re-adjusting the strap of a 12-gauge shotgun slung across his shoulder. “To protect against the wolves,” Kazi assured us.


The wooly-robed band behind us, we continued around another few hundred meters of strewn rock. The bumpy homestretch suddenly ushered us between two piles of stone, out onto a treeless vista overlooking a postcard, mountain-top village that time forgot. The ancient settlement of stone and mud and concrete homes hovered over the barren mountain, leaning precariously over the abyss, like a lost Atlantis. Primal, mounded haystacks leaned against the village gates. Piles of sheep dung, the local fuel of choice, dotted small yards. Even so, there was electricity. A handful of makeshift satellite dishes serve to connect Kurush to the outside world in a stunning display of modernity’s mad achievements.

The colder mountain air was matched by an uncharacteristically cold welcome. People were shy to greet us, not due to some National Geographic explorer-meet-isolated-native moment, but rather because of an unfriendly technicality. We discovered, much to our astonishment, that we had arrived illegally.

We had no ibex-hunting or drug-smuggling ambitions, mind you, but unawares to us, Kurush is located in one of Russia’s many foreboding and forbidden ‘border zones,’ access to which is granted only via a 90-day advance formal application, a process littered with red tape. We had no clue. If there was any veiled or withered sign along the one way up, we certainly had not seen it. With all due respect to Russia’s security needs, it’s a true pity to keep such a breathtaking specimen of culture effectively locked away from tourism and research.

A village official hurried over to us with a frown. An overworked fellow in his early fifties, smartly dressed despite his rural profile. His weathered face wrinkled with concern. His body language seemed reluctant, but his voice boomed out a formal notice that we were under arrest. He and a posy of curious onlookers escorted us on foot to a 4X4 jeep parked at the other end of the village. We climbed into the back while the engine roared to life and propeled us across the jagged top of a narrow canyon wall and over another frightening mountain pass to a military camp hidden from sight about two miles away as the eagle soars.

My imagination jostled on the rough ride. Looking downwards out my window, I could see only sky and clouds. But all fear of height and an untimely mountaineer’s death was tempered by the sobering realization that we were already in official custody. At the gates of the out-of-place garrison, the commanding officer proved as sympathetic as he was shocked. He warmed to our dilemma and appeared genuinely persuaded that we meant no ill. He agreed to release us, under one condition: we leave immediately.

Kazi protested. He decided that now was a good time to inform us that a sharp rock near the end of our journey had severed one of the Zhiguli’s break lines. I had been too busy upon arrival taking in the sights and trying to greet the villagers to notice what Kazi was doing under the car, or to observe the trail of break fluid behind us on the track of packed snow. Couldn’t we just stay overnight, he pleaded, and mend the vehicle in the morning, before departing? No. The otherwise kindly captain steeled his face. His career could be jeopardized by the decision to show us such favor. We had to choose quickly: formal detainment and possible deportation or immediate release with a risky descent. My arrogant attempt to bribe the officer only worsened the situation. Kazi told us we had to leave at once to avoid further trouble.

A gulp formed in the back of my throat. The sun had just slipped over the steep horizon. How would we make it down with only one break line, in the dark, without any streetlights or guardrails, over icy trails? We were taken back to the village where our nightmare unfurled in most poignant reality. The car’s brakes weren’t the only thing destroyed. Crushed also was our dream of spending quality time among this isolated culture. “Roll your windows down,” Kazi commanded, as we began our decline in the pitch black, a little before 7 p.m. The temperature had plunged well below freezing.

We cranked the Zhiguli’s portals open. “What for?” I asked. “If we lose control or go over the edge, jump!” Kazi retorted. “Through the window, jump!” After an awkward pause, Martin and I erupted in laughter. We couldn’t help ourselves. Neither of us is a small person. If we were to go overboard, there was no chance of survival. But we appreciated Kazi’s optimism and practicality. The hearty laughter proved a good and needed coping mechanism for the madness of our descent. Down the mountain we flew. Kazi churned the Zhiguli roughly between second and first gears, using the low gears as a natural brake. He was hesitant to use up his remaining brake power. Which meant we took some of the paperclip corners at a dizzying speed, Kazi instructing me to shift my weight towards the inside of each curve. I swear there were moments when I felt the little car go up on two wheels. Expressions of horror and disbelief punctuated unending bouts of nervous laughter.

To our wonder and profuse praises, the old Zhiguli faithfully delivered us to the safety of the lowlands. In the process, though, she wounded herself. The gearbox was grinding and we were having difficulty shifting gears. Kazi announced that in the vehicle’s present condition, he didn’t wish to continue all the way home to the capital city.

This is when, out of the rubble of a ruined expedition, a thrilling discovery was conceived. Kazi rang an old classmate from boarding school days. His home is near Dagestan’s southern city of Derbent – home to an epic, 1,500-year-old castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ilyas lived a few miles away in the village of Jalgan. It was past midnight. I was shocked that Kazi would impose upon a friend at such a late hour. “This is Dagestan,” Kazi reminded us. “I can show up unannounced at a friend’s place even at 3 a.m. He will rise and host me. It is our custom. Hospitality is our strongest law.”

We arrived at 1 a.m. Sure enough, after gregarious greetings, Ilyas ushered us inside to a waiting round of fresh tea and assembled fruits. He had already roused his wife and niece and daughter-in-law who were busy in the kitchen preparing a feast of boiled lamb and dumplings.

“So he’s a Lezghi, too?” I asked Kazi as Ilyas went to retrieve his next-door brother to join us. As an armchair ethnographer, details of Dagestan’s phenomenal ethnic patchwork mesmerize me. “No, he’s not Lezghi.” I continued my query, firing off a half dozen other ethnicities I know of that are native to this region. “No, no, he’s completely different. They are their own people. You must ask him for yourself.”

After what seemed an eternity, Ilyas returned with his brother Ullbek. When I finally asked the pair about their ethnic identity, the question ignited a fervor that kept us all up until the pre-dawn. In between mouthfuls of mutton and homemade breads, and not a few shots of cheap vodka, Ilyas revealed that a thousand years ago his ancestors were dispatched as a special battalion from the Persian Empire to provide security for the Derbent castle’s (known as the Narin Kala to locals) sprawling southern wall. They were basically stranded and forgotten about. Their original mountain-top village, they said, was still visible from this newer, lower settlement along the tarmac, and is still inhabited.

Over time, they assimilated much of the surrounding culture and traditions, but they have retained their unique dialect of ancient Middle Persian along with a distinct sense of ethnic identity. Perhaps 12,000 in number today, they call themselves, simply, ‘Jalgan.’ Regional politics and prejudices have stymied efforts for decades to get their heart language into writing and their ethnic status officially acknowledged.

In the weeks and months following, we would corroborate details with other villagers, and launch formal expeditions with local academics to both the Lower and Upper Jalgan settlements. While questions linger as to the Jalagan’s relation to other nearby Persian diaspora groups a strong case is building for their formal recognition as a distinct language and ethnicity.

Guardians of ancient secrets these Dagestanis are. As we returned home from Ilyas’ the next day, through the maze of villages and towns and languages, I found myself reflecting on Churchill’s famous description of Russia as ‘a mystery wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma.’ Nowhere can the mystery be mightier or the cultural riddles more ravishing than here in Dagestan.


Dave Hayton is a writer living in Dagestan.