Drink Plenty of Tea and Bathe Once a Week

In the mountains of southern Dagestan, Dave Hayton goes on a tea bender

By / January 2014

“Shame! It will be big shame if we do not stop. Just ten minutes for tea. Please!” Kazi, my guide, pleaded with an emotion as raw and earnest as it was unexpected. We were now at the village of Kutul, only five hours into our journey from Makhachkala to the mountainous Kurakh region of southern Dagestan. And according to my Germanic calculations, we had another three hours until we set up camp. I felt like a Rough Rider after a full morning of wild driving up sharp ascents into the mountains by jeep. The stress, combined with the sleeplessness the night before, had emptied me of my fight. Reluctantly, I caved to Kazi’s demands.

I knew we’d be in Kutul longer than ten minutes. I knew we’d be drinking tea, but I had no idea how much. Like many uninitiated Americans, I associated tea drinking with stuffed-up Victorians from a bygone era. A nasty, unworthy version of coffee drunk by effeminate rich folk with nothing better to do with their time. The Boston Tea Party pretty much summed up my opinion of the beverage.

Sure, I knew that tea drinking was nearly universal outside of the US. Even so, my outlook was poisoned by deep stereotypes. It took Dagestan, and in particular, the Lezghi region of Kurakh, to change all that – to teach me that there is a kind of tea culture that is noble and admirable, vibrant and untamed. As untamed as Tagir, Kazi’s brother-in-law, who ushered us inside his compound in Kutul, bellowing chain-smoker shouts of welcome and ordering the womenfolk to make preparations.

Tagir’s exceptional face — sun worn, wrinkled in all the right places — detracted my attention from his heavy limp, broad shoulders, and huge, leathery hands. He had dark bulging eyes, a big hooked nose, and a broad jaw housing several gold-capped teeth. His Lezghi ancestors, I imagined, were undoubtedly warriors. Tagir fights a different kind of battle. As a trucker and small-scale rancher, Tagir’s prowess is directed toward fixing engines and navigating highways, gathering hay and calving, along with entertaining guests. For the latter, fresh tea remains Tagir’s weapon of choice and he wielded it right away upon our unannounced arrival.

In Dagestan, the preferred method of preparing tea is the samovar, though its labor-and-time intensity has marooned it to more occasional contexts. Modern folks opt for stovetop pots or electric kettles. The tea itself is usually a nondescript black tea. Other local varieties exist – mountain herb, mint, rose petal, and my favorite (if I’m forced to choose a favorite tea): sea buckthorn. But black tea remains the staple, while green tea becomes a common alternative during summer months.

The Lezghi people championed, and continue to champion, tea drinking in Dagestan. No other ethnicity here – and there are dozens – drinks tea with such passion, such abandon. Their teas always include fruits and sweets and are often mere preludes to full-fledged, barbaric feasts. Like the Turks and the Persians, with whom they fought and traded for centuries, the Lezghi drain their samovars with pear-shaped, translucent glasses. It was amusing to watch these macho Spartans grip the dainty glasses with such tenderness, as if they were handling treasure.

After removing our muddy shoes and flat caps, we were promptly seated at a long table adjacent to a very small kitchen. Directly in front of the only doorway, and the largest room in the home, the table seemed to be the sun of the compound’s rather chaotic solar system. Tagir’s two veiled teenage daughters frantically cleared away fabrics and sewing materials, school textbooks and a mobile phone. Just as swiftly, they wiped the table clean and set down plates and cups and saucers and utensils and napkins, as well as bowls of assorted fruits and nuts from nearby orchards, and honey from a hillside honeycomb.

Bread was made from scratch right in front of us, served steaming hot with homemade butter from the barn. Pitchers of homegrown red wine were produced and chased down intermittently with fresh pours of black tea. Failure to keep up with hunks of bread or mouthfuls of apricots secured a scolding from hawk-eyed Tagir. By 10 p.m., there were sixteen of us now squeezed around the ever-shrinking table.

The modest, angel-faced daughters dutifully served the entire time. An occasional giggle or loud comment betrayed freedom rather than oppression. Grandma plunked down piles of boiled dumplings and chunks of beef onto our plates, along with a sour cream garlic sauce. A platter of fresh vegetables and greens offset the draughts of meat and bread and goat cheese. Tagir himself reached over now and then to stab more unwanted mounds onto our plates. Free will doesn’t exist at a Lezghi table, especially if you’re the guest.

It wasn’t until 4 a.m. that we had our last of what must have been forty cups of tea. Except for regular outhouse breaks, we hadn’t left the table. The men slept shoulder to shoulder on comfortable floor mats in one room while the women slept in a smaller room. After six hours of epic snoring, we were back at the table. Ten minutes of tea had become a twenty-two hour experience.

By the time we reached the central hospital of Kurakh District (‘Kurkah’ means ‘dry place’ in Lezghi), in the mid-afternoon of our second day, I had literally thrown my itinerary out the window of our Lada Niva. Littering is a bad habit, easily reinforced in Dagestan where public waste bins remain a rarity. Against my original will, we had decided to visit the district hospital, giving heed to the fervent summons that came our way by phone the night before. One of our tablemates at Tagir’s rang his buddy, the area’s Chief Physician to tell him that an American was in the area. Dr. Azim was hailed as a repository of local culture. After decades of service to villages that populated the local river valley and mountainsides, his insights were said to be unmatched.

Emerald leaves and amethyst blossoms robed a cluster of small pear trees near the three-story hospital’s entrance and shone in stark contrast to the dry, charcoal cliffs surrounding the valley full of villages. Inside, kettles of green tea bookended a stiff bottle of cognac enjoyed with the esteemed doctor. His off-color jokes and lackluster anecdotes tired me, though, so I asked him for the most significant health secret he could share. The first part of his answer wasn’t too surprising: ‘Drink plenty of tea. And only bathe once a week. You’ll live a long life.’

Mid-week, an unexpected and treacherous journey up narrow, muddy tracks with no guardrails found us at an altitude of over 10,000 feet. Another unplanned teatime connection had pointed us in this direction to a local ‘holy place’ – a small mountaintop mosque venerated as a shrine by the region’s folk Muslims. Wet snowflakes mingled with freezing drizzle. The weather changed as drastically as the scenery. The round mosque was made of brick and plaster. The flagpole out front hoisted a faded green flag. There was also a small log cabin and an eerie graveyard within eyeshot. No vegetation except for a pale yellow moss covering a few of the tombstones. The entire scene was enveloped, ghost-like, in a thick, cold fog.

Magomedali lives alone, hermit-like, at the top. The caretaker of the site, he eats and sleeps in the modest cabin. The scalding tea brought tears to his eyes. I had never seen a Dagestani man cry. It quickly became clear, however, that it was his memory, and not his mouth or his hands, that was burning. He fought back an involuntary weep as he recalled, vividly, that day in the Spring of 1937 when the Communist officers arrived at his home to interrogate his father, the village imam. Stalin’s Purge targeted the intelligentsia and powerbrokers of society, which included religious leaders.

The whole family stood outside facing the authorities. He was a seven-year-old boy. Suddenly, a single shot deafened the early morning reverie. His father dropped to a slump right next to him, a rope of blood unspooled from the back of his head. Orphaned at age seven, Magomedali was condemned to grow up beneath the stigma of being the son of an Enemy of the State, a curse that would stymie his education and career opportunities for the next half century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, after his wife’s death, he moved up to this mountain. After the fourth cup of tea, Magomedali regained composure, blessed us warmly, and let us be on our way.

Photograph by Sudhamshu

The end of our weeklong journey found us in the village of Shtul being hosted by Kazi’s older, sprightly brother, Zukhrab. Once more, this proved to be a spontaneous decision. The more I tasted the impulsiveness of daily life in rural Dagestan, and the more and more gallons of tea I imbibed, it dawned on me that tea was as much a structural mechanism as it was anything else. Daily tea times were the community day-planner and debrief of sorts. Teatimes, like the call to prayer, reverberate throughout the day, providing a rhythm for the unpredictability of life in these mountains.

Zukhrab’s jovial wife Salmaz, striking and dove-like despite her sixty years, outdid herself in preparing not one but three veritable feasts to accompany our teatimes. We stuffed ourselves on homemade Lezghi round breads and traditional dishes like afar, tsiken, and hinkal, all served with loads of lamb and beef and chicken and turkey, along with fresh vegetables, and a special garlic sauce. Washing it all down was handmade plum juice, Russian vodka, and of course, Lezghi tea. A history teacher at the village high school by day, and a general store keeper by night, Zukhrab is a walking almanac of local history. His senses come to life during tea, as he tells me about a time, less than a hundred years ago, when a promiscuous woman in their village was publicly stoned in a community-wide honor killing.

Two homes over from Zukhrab’s is that of his father-in-law, Halid. At 4’10” and ninety years old, Halid doesn’t quite strike you as the fighter he is and was. Halid is a decorated WWII vet who participated in the storming of Berlin in 1945. These days, he’s busy fighting and conquering the unruly apple trees in his small orchard. A woodstove heats his petite home, where his wife of sixty years prepares a special tea of mountain herbs. A samovar atop the woodstove became the rallying point for our discussions about ‘The Great War,’ what Russians call WWII. If your country lost 26 million lives in a single four-year war, you too would be eager to bequeath WWII a more dignified moniker.

The simmering chebrets tea wafted a heavenly fragrance through the small room, giving wind to the sails of Halid’s memory. My favorite story came from his time in the deep forests along the Belarusian front. His unit was ill equipped, over-extended, and under-fed. Both deserters and looters faced an instant death penalty. One night his platoon happened upon an abandoned cabin containing sacks of eatable potatoes and cabbage. The soldiers followed Halid’s lead and gorged themselves. Then they found fresh tea and brewed pot after pot, until the predawn demanded their return to camp. They stuffed their pockets with potatoes and tealeaves.

Halid briefly paused from his tale of survival to take a deep draught of his steaming tea. ‘It really was the tea’, he remarked with a sigh of delight. How else could he explain the fresh courage that washed over him when met and confronted by a lone colonel from a different battalion? At risk of death, Halid led his crew in turning their guns on the officer. They faced court-marshal, likely the firing squad now, no matter what. Saving his buddies’ lives was uppermost on his mind. There was only one thing to do. Halid put to use martial skills instilled in him as a Lezghi youth. They roughed up the colonel’s face to mar his appearance. Halid and his men then forced him to strip and run away in the opposite direction. What they weren’t able to put to use of the colonel’s clothes, they burned, along with his passport.

I’ve learned that drinking tea in Dagestan is far from a passive pastime. It destroys plans – and prejudices. It creates relationships and cements friendships. It demands thoughtful, patient, participatory conversation. It primes and prepares, consoles and debriefs. It always beckons for more – a fresh pot of tea, an extra round of sweets and fruits and breads, another hour of talk, a deeper level of intimacy. It also gets at something of the heart of this ancient people living in a changing world but trying to preserve the best of the old ways.


Dave Hayton, a writer in Russia, is a regular EthnoTraveler contributor.