Does Tommy Lee Jones know he has a diner named after him in Dagestan? I wondered as I sat in a pretend Cadillac. A young, blonde waitress in a rock and roll dress was serving cheese burgers to a family whose Cadillac-table was parked next to a snow-white christmas tree standing in a jumble of shiny-red presents. Roy Orbison was playing from my in-car speaker. I had just arrived in Machatschkala, the Caspian Sea side capital of the Republic Dagestan on the mountainous southern edge of Russia. The Tommy Lee Jones Diner was next door to my hotel. I was surprised and amused, it wasn’t the culture shock I was expecting.
An hour before I was still on the two day train ride from Moscow. I was sitting in the buffet car and dwelling on the more negative stereotypes of the contradicting articles, reports and travel advice I had read about travel in Dagestan and Chechnya. The British foreign office advises against all travel to Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, (the span of my intended trip) citing corruption, a high risk of terrorism, kidnapping and an ongoing Islamic insurgency as major threats to UK citizens. Islamic State claim the whole region as an Islamic caliphate. One travel advise website spoke of inedible food and a conservative Islamic culture where a traveler risks potential murder for breaking local customs was not unknown; surely the last one was taken directly from the time of Tolstoy nearly 150 years ago?
The only other person in the buffet car was a self-composed, serious-looking, young man in a black shirt with black hair and beard. Straight backed he was successfully paying no attention to me. I was struggling to keep the sloppy dumplings on my plate whilst I tried to cut into the dry knuckle of boiled mutton I had endeavoured to order as the Dagestani option from the menu of the Makhachkala Express. On his table an unopen Koran lay next to an undrunk glass of black tea. The puzzle book he was working on was open at a half finished word search. He looked vaguely at the dusty scenery of lowland Dagestan passing by. Cloud hid the mountains down to their base. I was nervous as I stepped out onto the platform of Makhachkala station and into the North Caucasus.
Once safely in my Cadillac, I waited to meet Shamil, a photographer I had been put in touch with who was, I though, organizing a permit for me to travel to the southernmost border region of Dagestan from the FSB (the Russian security forces). He had messaged me on Facebook when I had arrived at my hotel suggesting we meet in the diner. A man in his thirties with a trimmed beard and in an orange gore tex jacket came through the door, grinning, he warmly shook my hand. ‘Salam le kum, nice to meet you, Welcome to Dagestan! I was worried, you got here earlier than you said. I wanted to meet you at the station. Were there a lot of police and army there? Not many foreigners come here on their own.’ This was about the extent of my Russian comprehension. It seemed he had been messaging me in English via Google translate. I, out of politeness, had been messaging him in Russian, mostly via Google translate. Shamil spoke no English, my 6 month old Russian language skills were now struggling on ‘the front line' of Russian comprehension.
Shamil was unmoved by the diner. To him it was just another new, themed restaurant for the wealthier Dagestanis and Russian tourists who are starting to forget the stigma of danger associated with the North Caucasus and discover Dagestan’s touristic splendour; the beautiful Caucasus mountains, the ancient mountain auls with their traditional cultures, crafts and legendary hospitality. There is a newly opened ski resort in the south eastern flank of the region. Russia and Dagestan find it absurd that the UK advises against all travel here. Perhaps becoming concerned that Dagestan wasn't as I had hoped, Shamil showed me a YouTube video of traditional peach jam making process in a mountain village.
The North Caucasus region is part of Russia. It stretches along the Caucasus Mountains from the Black Sea, east to the Caspian Sea. The Tsarist Russian campaign to conquer the North Caucasus began in the seventeenth century but it was not until the mid 19th century that the region finally fell to Russian rule; the eastern region of Dagestan and Chechnya in 1858, the western region of Circassia in 1864 after a brutal Russian military campaign that would be considered ethnic cleansing today; the surviving population being forced to flee across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire. The whole region has remained (except a brief Chechen independence after the first Chechen war in the 1994) part of Russia ever since.
‘Modern Dagestanis are Russian, but also not Russian,’ one lady was to later explain to me. The mountainous North Caucasus are turreted along Russia's southern edge. They historically mark a region that is both ethnically and culturally distinct from Slavic, Christian Russia. Whereas Chechnya, to the west of Dagestan, has one main Chechen ethnic group and Chechen language, Dagestan has 31 ethnic groups or nations each with its own distinct language in an area the size of Scotland. Made up of village fortresses (known as auls) high up on crags above the mountain valleys they were defences against other villages, and foreign invaders. The Persians, the Moguls the Ottomans, all failed to get more than a foothold in Dagestan, the Russians, eventually, were the first to fully colonise it.
Sufi Islam was introduced to the North Caucasus in the 8th century via the 5 thousand year old city of Derbent on the Caspian Sea, a city that was a contender and the real winner for the oldest town in Russia, only loosing out because the Kremlin fudged some archeology knocking 3000 years off Derbent to insure that the oldest town was Slavic in origin (and not Dagestani). Sufism eventually spread and mingled with the animistic mountain beliefs throughout the whole North Caucasus by the 16 century. Salafist Islam, a modern ultra consecutive version of Islam, one sponsored by rich foreigners, entered the region via Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan in the 1980s and increased in strength culminating in the second Chechen war which pitted traditional, Russian backed Chechen Sufi 's adherets against Salfis militants. The war caused years of a rumbling Salafi insurgency that spread into Dagestan and still, if very much diminished continues today. The militants are known locally as Wahhabis.
Leaving the diner, I climbed into Shamil's spotless green Landrover defender that was outside in the car park. He smirked when I mentioned it was a British made machine and offered me a roll up cigarette with orange flavored papers. We were going to meet some people.
I was awoken at 11 the next morning with a banging on my hotel door into a numbing hangover. It was Shamil, the Landrover was waiting outside. In the passenger seat sat Gabor an artist we had met last night, though, I had not realised he was going to travel with me or in fact us. I was still under the impression that Shamil was going to get me the border permit and I would would be travelling alone. Kick starting my Russian language skills, I managed to ask about the permit, Gabor came through in English explaining how the border patrol leave the mountains in the winter and so they don’t want anyone going up there. And instead they, Shamil and Gabor, were going to me show round the mountains themselves. `Why would anyone want to come to the Dagestan mountains in the winter?’ I heard Shamil grumble in Russian. Gabor had an easel and three or four newly stretched canvases in the back.
Gabor spoke faltering English with a Chinese accent as he spent seven years teaching art at a university in South China. His bluish shaven hair formed a sharp widows peak, he had deep set hooded eyes beside a strong roman nose which added to the serious way he had. Yesterday, after leaving the diner, Shamil and I had gone to meet him in his flat where he lives with his wife and son in a tower block. The interior is stripped back to the concrete and half the apartment is the artist’s studio.
He regularly flies back to China to spend a week painting portraits for the rich. We were drinking green tea at a low table and benches which Gabor had a Chinese carpenter make from the giant ribs of an old wooden sailing junk he found rotting on the coast where he and his family had lived on the South China Sea. The wood was rounded and shiny with regular, weather worn holes passing throughout. A painting of some imaginary hunters returning with a deer in the snow was thick with many smooth layers of paint and hung amongst many others on the apartment wall.
Gabor’s 15 year old son, having grown up in China, spoke Chinese and English fluently. He had dark hair like his father. He told me he didn’t like painting. His mother, an English teacher scorned him before smiling. She was fair haired and had an easy warmth and pleased to be speaking English, asking me all about London and about my paintings.
In Gabor's studio paintings were stacked against the wall. They showed traditional Dagestani scenes of village life; women collecting water in ornate silver jugs, horses, old stone built farm houses with carved wooden eaves. One painting showed a women next a tree with strips of material tied to the branches. I was to see these scruffy rags tied to trees, fences and memorials everywhere in the mountains. They were the old superstitions from shamanistic, pre-islamic times that still continue today. There was a half finished portrait of a smart looking Chinese lady on the easel.
Finishing the tea, Shamil, Gabor and I then drove off in the Landrover through the mild Caspian evening and to a large house which had a rotund double tower guarding the front designed to look like a village fort in the mountains. The door opened and one of those large, saggy skinned dogs that have seemed to have never grown into their puppy fat bounced out followed by a tall, broad shouldered man who greeted us with a boyish enthusiasm. He was treated with an obvious respect by Shamil and Gabor.
His name was Seder. He offered us a drink. It was common for Dagestani men to make their own wine. Like neighboring Georgia, Dagestani wine making is an ancient tradition. Seder had a microbrewery in his basement. He showed us the two stainless steel vats, and picked up two bottles. We joined four other men in a large room and the glasses were handed round. We all nodded our approval after the first toast of wine. Seder disappeared every half an hour to bring back two more bottles. One side of the room was a tangle of wires over a table between two large blocks of wood Seder had carved out into concave speakers. The electric music mixing equipment he had also made himself. There was a technical looking rifle on the wall which he used when he shot for Russia in the Olympics (he had also made this). He had a yacht in the harbor. Gabor was showing our host my painting website and explaining the art in far better terms that it deserves, Seder said he was impressed that I had come to the North Caucasus because I'd read Tolstoy and Lermontov. I felt ashamed that I could not add anymore to the conversation and stared at the talkers mouths hoping to magically lip read a language I didn’t really understand but endeavoured to nod along to the conversation and laugh at the appropriate times. I hoped that perhaps they were speaking one of the 31 languages of Dagestan instead of Russian until I learned they were all from a different Dagestani nation and so would have to be speaking Dagestan's lingua franca, Russian. I became increasingly concerned the party might be in my honour. More people arrived. Seder’s tall and beautiful wife came in for a drink. 'Were these the descendants of the legendary warriors Tolstoy so much admired?' I may have drunkenly wondered, I can't rememeber. There were more toasts.
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