Makhachkala in the Republic of Dagestan in the Caucasus doesn’t appear on most tourists’ maps either. My host is called Renat. He’s an IT expert, 37, and has had his driving licence for three months. He’s looking forward to getting lots of practice when we set off on a jaunt the next day in his black Lada Granta.
Makhachkala is a sprawling shambles, a chaos of shawarma kiosks and kvass stalls, wedding-dress shops and mosques, a crazy pandemonium of colourful advertising posters. Only a few metres separate the dreariness of grey Soviet blocks from a colourful beachfront on the Caspian Sea, with volleyball players, picnickers, bathers and muscle-bound wrestlers working on their training.
Officially the city has 600,000 inhabitants, but unofficial estimates put it at twice as many. They’ve more or less lost count.
Young men on the beach: on the Caspian Sea, every day is exhibition day. © gullivertheis.de
The beach also functions as an open-air gym. © gullivertheis.de
… and as a wrestling arena. © gullivertheis.de
Officially, this city on the Caspian Sea has 600,000 inhabitants. Tourism is virtually non-existent – the foreign offices of most Western nations advise against visiting, because Dagestan is considered a hotbed of terrorism. © gullivertheis.de
On the beach, at least, the inhabitants can forget their everyday worries. © gullivertheis.de
My host, Renat, lived near Düsseldorf for three years. Sometimes he speaks a very charming mixture of English and German. © gullivertheis.de
Renat’s guest room takes a bit of getting used to, furnishings-wise. © gullivertheis.de
He, on the other hand, turns out to be a wonderful host, telling me all sorts of things about life in Dagestan. © gullivertheis.de
We head south. The countryside grows greener at first, then increasingly mountainous. At the edge of the road is a police box. ‘Shit, they’re definitely going to pull us over,’ says Renat. ‘Then that’s the whole day gone. They’ll ask for all our papers, our contacts, what we’re doing here. They won’t believe a word, no matter what we say. Pure harassment.’ They don’t pull us over.
Renat has grizzled hair, brown eyes and a tanned complexion. For three years he lived in Langenfeld, in an asylum centre in an old military barracks. In those days lots of refugees came to Germany from Dagestan, because the region was badly affected by the Chechen War. ‘I learned German from Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were so patient. And from WDR 4. “I lost my heart in Heidelberg” and songs like that, because the sentences aren’t so complicated.’ A pragmatic man.
He has very positive memories of Germany. Of the jogging path round the lake, the au pair girls from the language course, the propriety of the officials, the freedom outside family rules. ‘Parents in Dagestan try to control you until you die. They’re afraid to just let their children be, even when they’re fifty or sixty.’
TO BALKHAR, THROUGH MUDDY PUDDLES
His application for asylum was turned down, and he abandoned his dreams of making a fresh start in Europe. Now he hopes that tensions with Moscow won’t intensify. ‘The situation in Ukraine is more critical right now – that’s better for us, because we’re not the main enemy.’ Five or six years ago it was much worse, he says. Every crime a person from the Caucasus was involved in turned into a political issue.
We’re now driving along a gravel track between steep cliff walls, rising up from the grassy fields like oversized fins. The edge of the road is decorated with incredibly variegated flowery meadows; the air smells of citrus fruits and the mud of cow dung. A huge eagle circles above us. Renat puts the car through its paces, driving through deep muddy puddles and slaloming around large rocks.
We’re constantly assuming that beyond the next serpentine curve, we won’t get any further without four-wheel-drive. Yet somehow we make it to Balkhar. This mountain town boasts a spectacular cliffside location and decorative old men in hats, sitting on a bench in the main square. Tiny, hunched babushkas are coming back from the fields, carrying wooden baskets full of tea leaves. On the stone walls of the houses, smelly cowpats are stuck to dry, later to be used as fuel. Donkeys, chickens and cats roam around, and the muezzin calls the town to prayer.
I find it all magical, although Renat is less keen. ‘I don’t understand why people live in such remote places in this day and age,’ he says. This is all part and parcel of couchsurfing: the locals often take a much more sober view of what travellers find romantic and authentic.
Men in the town centre: in Balkhar, in the mountains south of Makhachkala, time seems to stand still. © gullivertheis.de
The area, like the region as a whole, is majority Muslim. © gullivertheis.de
Cowpats dry on the walls, later to be used as fuel. © gullivertheis.de
My host, Renat, doesn’t understand why people still live in such conditions in this day and age. © gullivertheis.de
On the setting, however, we’re agreed: the countryside around the town is absolutely spectacular. © gullivertheis.de
On the journey there, the towns became increasingly old-fashioned. Here the shopping options are relatively modern. © gullivertheis.de
The Caucasus region could attract significantly more tourists if travelling here weren’t considered dangerous. © gullivertheis.de
Stalin in the town centre: an hour’s drive from Balkhar is Shukti, a town where a millionaire built 200 luxury houses. Yet he died before they could be completed – the buildings were never finished. © gullivertheis.de
One week later, a night train takes me to Volgograd, where my hosts are Sergei, Krisia and Grischa, 55, 37 and three years old. In his couchsurfing profile, Sergei quotes a saying of his mother’s that I liked: ‘One percent of people, at most, are absolutely brilliant and perfect, and one percent are completely bad. The other 98 percent are a complex mixture of good and bad. In your life you mostly meet people who are neither angels nor devils, but a cocktail of them both. If you want to live among angels, you’ve got to prompt the people around you into showing only their good side.’
I’ve come to a similar conclusion on my travels. It’s in the countries that get the worst press that I often have the most wonderful experiences with quite ordinary folk, who don’t seem to fit its bad image.
I find the statistic thoroughly convincing, including at the bottom end: about one percent of Russians are absolute dipshits. And one percent of Austrians, one percent of Muslims, one percent of Americans, one percent of Germans, one percent of Christians, one percent of Nigerians, one percent of refugees, one percent of people from Cologne, one percent of women, one percent of the left-handed.
Sadly this one percent gets the most attention.
Their numbers may be few, but with 7.4 billion citizens of the world, that makes 74 million idiots. Enough to mess things up.
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