From Pyatigorsk to Grozny
In the mountains of Southern Russia there is a diverse mix of cultures, languages and religions. Chechnya is internationally known, though often for the wrong things. The republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya were considered unsafe for many years due to war and terrorism, but safety has improved here recently. I traveled to these republics from a spa town called Pyatigorsk.
Just a four hours drive from Chechnya’s capital Grozny and two hours away from Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital Nalchik is a touristy town called Pyatigorsk. It started attracting people in the 19th century for its mineral water, and a lot of buildings here are from that era. I got here on a bus from Maykop, entering a region called Stavropolski Krai. On my first day I walked through parks, passed the old theatre, climbed some stairs and went through a tunnel to get to the most famous part in town, namely the cave holding a spring. The next day I visited Kislovodsk, a town with a similar history to Pyatigorsk. But this town is smaller and greener. I headed up the mountain nearby. It was a clear day, and I could see Europe’s highest mountain Elbrus 70 kilometers away.
Back in Pyatigorsk when I was looking for information about trips around the region, I saw an advertisement for day trips to Chechnya. I already read that Grozny had become safer and more developed, being sometimes compared to Dubai. But I wasn’t sure whether I, a Dutchman, was allowed to go there. Back at the hostel I asked the manager whether it was safe for me as a foreigner to visit Grozny. “Of course” she said, but she told me to just take a bus instead of a tour. Later at night I had dinner with local people I met through Couchsurfing, and they confirmed I could easily go to Chechnya. It seemed like I had a plan for another trip.
In the morning I got on a minivan to Chechnya’s capital Grozny. The road from Pyatigorsk to Grozny goes through three republics: Kabardino-Balkaria, North-Ossetia and Ingushetia. There are checkpoints along these borders. When we drove into Kabardino-Balkaria, a soldier told me and some of the passengers to get out of the van. We were directed to a building, where we had to show our papers. I had to do this at every republic border, so it became a routine. I didn’t see any military anywhere else except near the borders. The road itself was in a very good condition. I made it to Grozny in the afternoon.
From Grozny’s bus station I took a taxi to the centre, passing rows of grey flats. My taxi driver, Aslan, pointed me the landmarks, including a church. Then further down the road we could see the enormous main mosque called the “Heart of Chechnya”. That’s where I got out to explore the city. Chechnya is Muslim republic where alcohol is banned, women cover their hair, and a lot of men grow their beards. Having said that, a Christmas-market was being built across the road from the main Mosque and not far away I found an ‘’American Steakhouse’’. From the Christmas-market I saw a skyline of modern buildings behind the Mosque. Billboards of current president Ramzan Kadyrov and his father Ahmad Kadyrov were spread across the city. I walked past some futuristic buildings, and the presidential palace with its huge surrounding garden. The sight of heavily armed soldiers at the entrance made me not want to explore this part of the city any further. As darkness fell neon lights covered the skyline. At the main square two police officers stopped me and checked my papers. When they realised I was Dutch, they wanted to know more about Dutch drug-policy and the price of weed in Amsterdam. They were friendly and helpful, showing me the best way to get back to the bus station. I made it back to Pyatigorsk after midnight.
The people I met in Pyatigorsk through couchsurfing told me they occasionally do hiking trips with friends. I was invited on one of those trips. In a four-wheel drive we headed into the republic Kabardino-Balkaria. This time I didn’t have to show my papers at the border. We got high up into the mountains. I was dressed and equipped for a big hike, but we did short walks instead. Our plan was to go to Ushtulu near the Georgian border. We had to get out of the car at an army checkpoint. The soldier there had no issues with my Russian friends, but was puzzled about my passport. He studied it and typed something into a computer. Then he said the computer stopped working because it froze, that’s how cold it was up there. He had to make a phone call. Finally he got bad news: foreigners couldn’t pass without permission in advance. This wasn’t a big deal, since there were plenty of other sights to explore and we got lucky with sunny weather. We drove to the village of Ishkanty to see ancient ruins on the mountains slopes. A majority of the people here are Muslim, hence the mosques I saw along the road. Rules are more relaxed compared to Chechnya though, as our day ended with shashlik and wine.
Practical advice on traveling here
Where I stayed: Pyatigorsk was my base for exploring the region. I stayed at an excellent and affordable hostel named ‘’Hostel Svoi’’. There I met some nice people, including the owner who gave me great advice and spoke English as well. I booked the hostel through booking.com.
Getting around: I traveled by bus from Maykop (Adygea) to Pyatigorsk, and traveled onwards to Vladikavkaz (North-Ossetia). Pyatigorsk has bus connections to many cities in the South, including Nalchik and Cherkesk. Timetables for many - though not all - buses can be found on t.rasp.yandex.ru. Tickets are sold at a desk at one of the bus stations or on the bus, depending on the destination. My trip to Grozny was by minivan, also called mashrukta. They leave once they are full, so be early. The departure-times for mashruktas are only estimates. And be aware that the bus to Vladikavkaz leaves from the bus station in the centre, while the mashrutkas to Nalchik and Grozny leave from the Eastern bus station. I did the day trip to Kislovodsk by train. Train tickets can be bought at the station or through eng.rzd.ru.
Safety: I felt safe and welcome here. As mentioned above, people in the South told me it was safe for a foreigner to travel to Grozny and Kabardino-Balkaria. Make sure that you can show your passport and visa at all times, because I sometimes had to show them. Since I live in Moscow, I showed my registration as well when stopped by police or soldiers.