My North Caucasian Vacation: Exploring Chechnya and Ingushetia

Ever since my childhood, I was interested in Russia’s North Caucasus region. This region includes the famous republic of Chechnya and a bunch of other “ethnic” republics.

I remember being aware as a kid that there was a war in Chechnya, and as a result, some Chechens were moving to Germany. In fact, there were Chechen kids living and playing in my neighborhood.

Chechens seemed to have a really bad reputation. Back then and even now, Chechens are stereotyped as violent people involved in a lot of criminal activity and as Muslims with lots of weapons. 

As a kid, I also remember hearing that Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was the most devastated city in the world. This intrigued me, and I always wanted to visit the Chechen republic and its capital. 

My curiosity peaked last year during the post-Heuereka tour when my fellow travelers and I toured the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. The Pankisi Gorge is a place where ethnic Chechens live and supposedly Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters used to congregate. 

On horseback in the Pankisi Gorge

So this year, when I succeeded in obtaining my Russian visa — a very challenging process I’ll tell you about in a moment — I didn’t dally in Moscow. I flew into Moscow, checked out the Red Square, saw some more of the sights and then flew to Grozny. 

But don’t sleep on Ingushetia. Cechnya’s North Caucasian neighbor is a fascinating place, as well, with beautiful scenery. In addition to climbing around watchtowers and stumbling upon a cannabis grow in Ingushetia, I actually participated in a traditional Ingush wedding, something that involves a custom you might find surprising or shocking, but I didn’t mind the least bit.

The saga of my Russian visa

I spent five weeks trying to apply for a Russian visa through the embassy in Berlin. The tour agency I was using unfortunately provided me an invitation that was not correct. Two weeks later, I received another invitation that was also incorrect.

Four weeks into the process, I was issued a visa that covered the nine days of my North Caucasus tour. But it did not cover the rest of my Russia trip — Sochi, Crimea, Saint Petersburg etc. I didn’t want to skip these parts of the trip, especially Crimea.

Neither the Russian embassy in Berlin nor the tour agency I was using were very cooperative. At this point, I was in Riga, Latvia and things weren’t looking so good.

But I came up with an idea. I grabbed my second passport (something very useful to have) and flew to Hamburg. In Hamburg, I walked from my hotel to the Russian consulate, handed over my passport and applied for an expedited visa. The Russian consulate workers in Hamburg were very professional. Four hours later they called me, and I picked up a 30-day double entry visa.

Unbelievable… off to Russia 😊

While securing the visa, I sacrificed the first leg of my Russia trip: Kaliningrad. I was supposed to fly from Riga to Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. But that didn’t happen because of my detour to Hamburg. Still I plan to visit Kaliningrad some time in the near future. 

The Fontenay

Hamburg also worked out very well because I stayed at The Fontenay, a new luxury hotel with a nice infinity pool. There I met some rich Russian families, which gave me a taste of life in Moscow before my arrival.

The Fontenay’s infinity pool

From Hamburg, I flew to Moscow with a stopover in Riga. Again, complications arose. In Riga, there was a long line of Russians trying to board the flight to Moscow. Almost all of them overstayed their Schengen visas. The plane waited, delaying our departure.

Apparently this is pretty common in Latvia. The Russians with Schengen visa issues went into a private room where things got sorted out. Most of them overstayed by 5-10 days. Eventually the plane took off, I landed in Moscow and my Russian adventure officially began.

Summertime in Moscow

Recalling the Chechen wars

The Chechen wars of the 1990s and 2000s didn’t arise out of a vacuum. Bad blood between Chechens and Russians dates back a while. Chechens are an ethnic group native to the North Caucasus region that have fought against foreign rule continuously since the 15th Century. They largely converted to Sunni Islam between the 16th and 19th centuries, with Islam being seen as a hedge against Russian imperialism.

Nonetheless, the Russian Empire annexed Chechnya. Then during Soviet times, Chechnya was merged with Ingushetia to form the single Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. It was an autonomous republic within the Russian Soviet republic.

During World War II, a massive expulsion occurred. 496,000 Chechens and Ingush were deported to the Kazakh and Kyrgyz Soviet republics in Central Asia, as well as to Siberia in the Russian SSR. More than 100,000 people died or were killed during the roundups and deportation. Many Chechens and Ingush were also put in gulags. Survivors did not return to the North Caucasus until after 1957. 

Upon the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya declared independence. In 1994, war broke out.

The First Chechen War lasted two years. Chechen guerrillas fighting for their independence took on the firepower and manpower of the Russian military, which at the time, wasn’t so well trained or organized. The war basically ended with a humiliating defeat for Russia. Moscow’s troops withdrew from Chechnya totally demoralized.

Chechnya maintained de facto independence for the rest of the 1990s. This was a period in which warlords ruled, and the principal source of income was said to be kidnapping.

Devastated Grozny

In 1999, the Second Chechen War started. The Russian military carried out a seize of Grozny, and by early 2000, the city was almost completely destroyed. The first phase of the Second Chechen War ended in April 2000 with Russia restoring federal control over Chechnya.

But Chechen militants continued to attack Russian troops, and the war lasted another nine years. This phase was also a war Russia was waging against Islamism. Moscow benefited from pro-Russian Cechen forces fighting on its side, while many Arab jihadis helped make up the ranks of the Chechen militias.

By 2009, the Second Chechen War ended. Some estimates place the death toll of the Chechen wars in the tens of thousands. Others place the death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Over the last decade, violence and terror attacks have continued in Chechnya, though much more sporadically than over the previous two decades. That is due in part to the efforts of Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Getting to know the Kadyrovs 

Akhmad Kadyrov was the chief mufti of de facto independent Chechnya in the 1990s. At the beginning of the Second Chechen War, Akhmad Kadyrov switched sides, allying himself with Russia.

In October 2003, Akhmad Kadyrov became the first president of the Chechen Republic. But he had basically been serving as the president since July 2000, when new Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed him head of Chechnya’s administration.  Akhmad Kadyrov died in 2004. He was assassinated in a bombing at a Victory Day parade in Grozny.

Papa Kadyrov’s legacy lives on in Chechnya.

Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmad’s son, was the leader of his father’s militia. At the time of his father’s death, he was too young to technically become the leader of Chechnya. In 2007, when he turned 30, Ramzan Kadyrov took over as president of Chechnya. 

Like his father, Ramzan was formerly part of the Chechen separatist movement. But he became a close ally of Putin, and he has battled warlords and separatists in Chechnya.

Human rights groups accuse Ramzan of ordering mass arrests of gays, as well as assassinations in Europe and general abuses, like kidnappings and torture. Ramzan Kadyrov is now a major target of western sanctions, as well as a recipient of social media bans.

He previously had a large social media following, including 3 million Instagram followers. Ramzan would pose for Instagram photos with snakes and tigers and in other posts threaten to shoot his enemies. Now he’s kicked off Instagram, but his rule over Chechnya continues uninterrupted.

First impressions of Grozny 

Upon landing in Grozny, I was surprised to see no mountains. I thought Grozny was surrounded by mountains, but there were only a few hills. Grozny is basically in the lowlands of Chechnya. 

I had to wait an hour for my guide to pick me up. He was still finishing the process of obtaining permits for me. You don’t need a permit to enter Chechnya, but when you venture out of Grozny and into some mountainous areas of Chechnya, like within 30 kilometers of the Georgia border, you need to have travel permits.

My guide picked me up and took me into town. Contemporary Grozny does not resemble a war zone or a devastated city. Shortly after leaving the airport, I was traveling on modern roads and looking at many modern and tall buildings. 

My Grozny view

We headed to a five star hotel, the Grozny City Hotel. It’s part of an impressive complex of towers that also include a business center and apartments. The towers light up at night.

Grozny skyline/my hotel complex

My guide told me that, when Grozny was being rebuilt, Ramzan Kadyrov got inspiration from Dubai. He tried to model the redesign and reconstruction of the city after Dubai. You can see that in Grozny’s gardens and skyline, which colorfully lights up a night. 

Hotel complex by night

I checked into the hotel, rested for a bit and then we set out by foot to explore the Chechen capital. Grozny is no Mogadishu. There is no need to be led around by soldiers as in Somalia. It would have been safe for me to explore Grozny on my own, but nonetheless I had a guide. 

We first went to a shopping center, passing through extravagant gardens along the way. Through the gardens you can see Kadyrov’s palace. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to photograph it.

The gardens from above

Inside the shopping center, we had some kind of traditional Chechen lunch. The main dish was dried meat. Back in the day, there were no refrigerators, so Chechens had to dry their meat and eat it later. It was an interesting dish for my first meal in Chechnya. 

Shopping… in Chechnya, anyone?

The shopping center is large, and there were lots of people inside. In fact, there were lots of beautiful women. 

Blood revenge and a bit about Chechen culture

So did I try to meet a beautiful Chechen girl or two? No, I was scared.

Blood law, aka blood revenge, is still very prevalent in Chechnya. It’s customary in Chechnya for justice to be served by clans. For instance, if someone is killed, the victim’s clan takes it upon itself to see that revenge is served.

Also despite the appearance of the women (many do not wear headscarves), there is a quite strict adherence to some aspects of Islamic law. So don’t expect to find much booze and pork in Chechnya. And women are supposed to behave modestly around men.

Chechens speak Chechen, which is a Caucasian language. Specifically, Chechen is part of the North or North-Central Caucasian language group. Russian is also an official language in Chechnya.

The mega mosque and the holy trinity 

Chechnya’s mega mosque

Chechnya has lots of mosques. After lunch, we went to the largest one, the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, which is also known as the Heart of Cechnya. It’s one of the largest mosques in Russia and in Europe, if you consider Chechnya part of Europe. The mosque’s minarets stand out in the Grozny skyline, alongside the towers of my hotel complex. We entered the mosque, and my guide took a short break from the tour to do a little praying. 

Another mosque

After the mosque we visited an area in the core of the Grozny city center with a nice pedestrian street and a lot of shops and cafes. Believe it or not, it has a European feel. This area hardly resembles Chechnya anymore. Apparently, as a result of Kadyrov’s alliance with Putin, Russia has poured a lot of money into Grozny. 

Grozny-turned-Europe?

Nowadays, there are statues and pictures of Putin all over Chechnya. Likewise of Kadyrov, though mostly of Akhmad, not Ramzan. Interestingly, I heard from my guide that Chechens mock Ramzan Kadyrov and his relationship with Putin. They call Putin, Akhmad and Ramzan the holy trinity — with Putin being the Holy Spirit and of course Akhmad being the father and Ramzan the son. My guide said that’s why photos of the three of them tend not to be placed together. I found it interesting that even though Ramzan Kadyrov is kind of a dictator, Chechens are still not afraid of mocking him.

Two strong men

From mosque to mosque and Putin to Putin

After lunch at the mall, I returned to the hotel for a nap, still tired from my early morning flight from Moscow to Grozny. In the evening, we had dinner at a traditional Chechen restaurant. The meal was mutton with a variety of side dishes.

Then at night, we drove to Argun, the third largest city in Chechnya. By the way, Chechnya has a population of about 1.4 million, though the figure is disputed. The republic has one of the youngest populations in Russia and is one of the few regions with natural population growth. Grozny has around 300,000 people, while Argun, which is much smaller, has a population of close to 40,000.

Argun is now known for having, at least at night, a very colorful mosque. The Haja Aymani Kadyrova mosque is named after Ramzan’s mother. At night, the bright lights of the mosque change colors. The mosque actually looks like a spaceship. 

The spaceship mosque

Chechnya has held a “From Heart to Heart” marathon in which athletes ran from the mosque named after Ramzan Kadyrov’s father to the mosque named after Ramzan Kadyrov’s mother. The visit to the mosque named after Ramzan’s mother marked the end of my first day in the North Caucasus. After taking a look around, we drove back to Grozny, I did some work at the hotel and called it a night.

On Day 2, I visited a big Chechen market before departing Grozny. It was a pretty typical Eastern European market , though there were huge watermelons for sale. Take a look at those bad boys:

Juicy

We hit the road to Ingushetia. This allowed us the opportunity to see rural Chechen life on the way to the neighboring republic. We drove through some villages, where it seemed as though the living conditions were certainly not the worst. We also passed a lot of schools with Putin and Kadyrov pictures on them.

Closing in on Ingushetia but still in Chechnya, we reached a new mountain road. The road was initially supposed to connect Chechnya to Georgia and the Pankisi Gorge. But apparently, because of all the problems between Russia and Georgia, that is not going to happen. 

The road is still under construction on the Russian side, though. We drove 10 kilometers until we could not go any farther. Then we turned around, headed back and crossed into Ingushetia. 

Summer fun in Ingushetia 

We were greeted with an entry arch and the word “welcome” in Russian upon reaching Ingushetia. That was the friendly part of our welcome.

The first welcome

200 meters later, the checkpoint came. I had to get out my passport, and our car was searched. After this second “welcome,” we were actually free to enter Ingushetia. 

Change in scenery

The landscape changed quickly. Large mountains came into view, as did big cliffs and green valleys with lots of horses, like on the other side of the national border. 

Feeling a bit like Pankisi

But the most exciting change in scenery was the many stone towers that appeared. These towers are like the famous towers in the Georgia region of Svaneti.

In Ingushetia, stone watchtowers are an integral part of the beautiful mountain landscape. Unfortunately on this day, the weather wasn’t the greatest. But I still got a feel for how beautiful the area is. 

We stopped briefly at an old Christian temple and then ventured to the most well known collection of towers in Ingushetia. In one spot, there is a pair of watchtowers on a steep, jagged cliff. The towers overlook a valley and a river.

Ingushetia’s most known towers

Since I am of course inclined to climb, I climbed the cliff to just below the towers in order to photograph them. Actually, I wasn’t alone. It was a Saturday, and there were families doing the same thing. Plus they were having a barbecue. 

Steep incline

At this point, we were within three kilometers of the border. The Russian-Georgian border in the area is basically just a mountain. We gazed at Georgia and got back in the car to go to a village of stone towers. 

The village is situated just below a mountain. My guide saw I was fit and eager to explore, so he led me on a hike to the highest towers in the area. They were also on a cliff. 

Let’s go for a hike.

We had fun hiking and climbing and taking photos. Then we descended on a hidden path. We were probably the first people in hundreds of years to take this path down the mountain. 

This path led us to a pasture of wild cannabis. Yes, cannabis. There is a lot of wild cannabis ruderalis growing in the area. It has a very low THC content, but regardless, this was probably the nicest cannabis grow I had ever seen and definitely the nicest setting for one.

Lovely place to grow some Cannabis 🙂

It was very cloudy and the clouds were very low, so we could not see some of the mountains. Still I was pleased with the photos. 

After this hike, which lasted about two hours, we drove through mountains and through fog and maybe even through clouds. Finally, we arrived at our destination: the home of my Ingush host family.

A bit about Ingushetia

Chechens and Ingush are very similar people. There is a lot of intermarriage between Chechens and Ingush, but still a lot of tensions between the two ethnic groups

Similarly, the Ingush and Chechen languages are closely related. They are both part of the North Caucasian language family, but they are two distinct languages. 

Ingush people refer to themselves as Ghalgai. In Ingush, “ghala” means fortress or town and “ghai” means inhabitants or citizens. 

A ghala?

The Ingush converted to Islam after the Chechens, doing so at the end of the 19th century. Similar to their neighbors, they have a clan system and unwritten law.

In 1810, Ingushetia joined imperial Russia. Some historians claim Ingushetia joined the Russian Empire voluntarily, though there were Ingush clans that resisted Russian conquest. 

You already know that Chechnya and Ingushetia were combined into a single Soviet republic and, during Stalin’s time, the Ingush were expelled from their homes along with the Chechens. 

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was a spillover of violence from Chechnya and other conflict-plagued republics in the region into Ingushetia. This also generated a refugee influx into Ingushetia. 

My guide explained to me that people belonging to ethnic groups native to the region are not very well like by ethnic Russians. He told me Moscow Russians call Chechens and Ingush the negroes of Russia. I told him he looked white. He was very flattered.

Ingush dining

The home of my Ingush host family was located very close to the Russian-Georgian border, which is wide open in this area. I stayed overnight at this house.

The family greeted my guide and I with a dinner that could feed 20 people, even though we numbered just two. The whole meal was homegrown and home-butchered. There was lots of chicken and lamb, as well as stacks of bread, cheese, vegetables and more, as you can see. 

Could you eat all this?

I really enjoyed the cherry kompot. You may recall this is a drink I previously enjoyed in Odessa, Ukraine at the cafe aptly named Kompot.

The route to the Ingush wedding

Morning in Ingushetia

The following morning, my guide drove me to the Georgian border. This actually involved exiting Ingushetia and entering the republic of North Ossetia. We hit two checkpoints, but the officers weren’t so strict. 

We came within one kilometer of the border station on the Russian side. There were lots of vehicles and cargo backed up in a long line, so this was the closest we could get to the actual border. We took a quick look and then got back on the road for some zigzagging between Ingushetia and North Ossetia.

Border traffic

Many parts of North Ossetia were perviously Ingushetia. There was an Ossetian-Ingush conflict that turned into a brief war in 1992, but enough about war and ethnic conflict for now. After all, we were on our way to something joyous. 

We crossed back into Ingushetia and drove through the republic’s low-lying plains. This is an area where my guide has relatives. They are distant relatives — like 6th or 7th cousins — but my guide still knew there was a wedding taking place in the family’s village.

We rolled up at the wedding, or the pre-wedding festivities, and were greeted by the groom. He was a nice guy who couldn’t speak any English but was very hospitable. 

The groom invited me to a lunch. I enjoyed a very good lunch with lots of Chechen-Ingush guys. Everyone there was male, except for one old woman who was cooking. The lunch crowd was basically waiting for the bride to arrive. 

Ingush marriage traditions

It was no accident that only men were at lunch and were waiting for the bride to arrive. When the bride did arrive, the crowd greeted her as Ingush men do. They honked lots of horns, grabbed lots of guns and fired off lots of rounds into the air — traditional Ingush hospitality.

Something important to understand is that, upon getting married, the husband is not allowed to ever see his in-laws. From wedding day on, he cannot see his wife’s parents. The wife can still see her parents, but the husband is forbidden from seeing them. You may find this appalling, but I’m developing a liking for this tradition. 😉

This custom starts with the actual wedding. Where was the bride’s family? Nowhere to be seen. The bride did not have a single relative at the wedding. 

Wedding photo with the groom… none of the bride’s relatives in sight.

So the wedding serves as her introduction to the groom’s clan. This introduction starts with her standing in the corner for much of the day. First, she stands and mingles with the female relatives of the groom. Then later, the male relatives try to speak to her. But the bride is not allowed to answer. This makes for a funny tradition.

Even with the bride’s family not there, the wedding was still a quite large gathering. The groom had lots of relatives who were in attendance. 

As the day progressed, I got a lesson in Ingush wedding etiquette. I could not sit with my shoulders against a door. Rather, I had to sit on the side of a wall. Also, I learned that if I wanted to stop eating and drinking I must leave some food on my plate and beverage in my glass. If I were to empty my plate and glass, I would always be served more food and another drink. 

It was a bit difficult for me to communicate with the wedding guests. They could speak Russian, which I understand a little, but they were all speaking in Ingush. My guide translated some of what was being said. The groom and his relatives were all very hospitable people. That much was clear. 

My impressions of the region

After spending some hours at the wedding, we hit the road to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia. I would spend one night in Vladikavkaz before venturing elsewhere in Ossettia…

To cue you in, this part of the trip is why I needed that double-entry Russian visa. And you’ll get to hear about it in an upcoming post. 

As for my experiences thus far on the journey, I was quite pleased with the North Caucasus. I found people in Chechnya and Ingushetia to be very friendly and hospitable, and I’m already planning a trip back to the region. Maybe some of the stereotypes having to do with love of guns, etc. are true. But then again, why wouldn’t I be happy in a place where people love their guns as much as they love their giant meals and gender roles? 🤔

And a place with this kind of scenery 😊

More Russian adventures are coming. Stay tuned.