A sea of abandoned sandstone buildings spreads across a bold mountain cliff. The ancient, crumbling masonry looks as if it has grown into the rock, the remnants of a by-gone civilisation already fused with nature. This ancient aul, or mountain village, is not easy to reach, a steep hike half an hour away from the nearest road. The locals compare it with Machu Picchu, the remote Inca citadel in Peru which has laid abandoned since the 16th century. But Gamsutl was still inhabited until just a few years ago. Its last inhabitant died in 2015.
For centuries, Dagestan’s remote location high in the mountains of what is now southern Russia was an asset for Gamsutl’s population. It shielded them from the mighty armies of the Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Ottomans and Russians passing through the Caucasus. But its seclusion became an increasing liability in the late 20th century. People began to abandon Gamsutl in the late Soviet period. Of the few that stayed, most left after the collapse of the USSR, when state run enterprises had to shut down and the young headed to the cities in search of work.
“If we don’t watch out, many more of our ancient auls will disappear like this,” says Zaur Tshokholov a stocky thirty-something from the nearby village of Chokh. He has made it his life goal to save his native village from dying out. His formula: ethnotourism. For Tshokholov, that means renovating crumbling historic buildings and turning them into guesthouses that can authentically convey the village’s unique Dagestani culture.
Looking at Chokh, it’s easy to understand the need for such a project. Many of its elaborate edifices from the 19th and early 20th centuries have started to crumble. Some have already lost their roofs, bringing to mind the nearby ruins of Gamsutl. Many stand empty. “There are more jobs in Makhachkala than here,” says Tshokholov, whose brother moved to the Dagestani capital for work. Built on the Caspian Sea, the city’s population has more than doubled since 1991, largely at the expense of villages like Chokh. Since the collapse of the USSR and the closure of state industries, many others have left for cities across Russia. They have left behind depopulated villages in the mountains. Today, more than 50 auls lie abandoned. Tshokholov is the only one of six siblings who stayed in Chokh.
But with the loss of people also comes the loss of culture. With a complex ethnic patchwork of more than 30 indigenous nationalities, each with their own language, Dagestan is the most ethnically diverse region in Europe. Most of these groups are small, which makes their traditions particularly vulnerable. Chokh is inhabited by Avars, one of the largest nationalities of Dagestan. Situated on a highland plateau with scenic views, the town was once one of the great cultural centres of Dagestan, famed for its scholars, blacksmiths and wrestlers. Tracing its roots back to the 8th century, it was located on the silk road. This strategic location attracted numerous empires, such as the Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Ottomans, Russians and Soviets. Most of them left their mark on the rich architectural blend of Chokh, with remnants ranging from ancient Arabic inscriptions to a bust of Joseph Stalin.
“We knew something had to be done quickly to save Chokh and our culture. Something that creates jobs and convinces people to stay. So, I came up with the idea of ethnodom: to build guesthouses and use the income to preserve the village,” says Tshokholov. “At the beginning, people thought I am crazy. Nobody believed that something like this would work.”
When Tshokholov came up with his plan six years ago, there was virtually no tourism in the Dagestani mountains. He invested his own money, and did a lot of the construction work himself, until he finally won a six million rouble (£59,000) grant from the federal Russian youth forum. As his social media following began to rise, Tshokholov’s project started to gather interest from across Russia. Two Russian filmmakers even shot a documentary, Man of Chokh about him and his project, and he was featured on national TV.
“We knew something had to be done quickly to save Chokh and our culture. At the beginning, people thought I am crazy. Nobody believed that something like this would work”
Tshokholov’s first guesthouse opened in late 2018. Located in a 19th century merchant villa with large balconies and arched porticos, it offers stunning views over the valley below. The interior design reflects the curious mix of cultural influences in Chokh. There is old Avar craftwork and weaponry, Arabic pottery, Persian carpets, and early Soviet gadgets such as gramophones and radios. A poster of Stalin can even be found on one of the balconies. “Stalin built the biggest collective farm for livestock in all of Dagestan here. It was named after him,” Ravzat, a women in her sixties, tells me. She works at the ethnodom and serves guests local specialties like apricot porridge and khinkal meat dumplings. Traditional music and horseback outings are also on offer, as well as trips to a nearby Neolithic site and to Gamsutl.
The guesthouse has found itself perpetually full, and seven freshly renovated rooms were added to the building last year. Next, Tshokholov has employed additional staff and started to renovate other buildings in Chokh. But he is also looking beyond his own village. Ethnodom has become the blueprint for a whole new set of ethnotourism initiatives all across Dagestan. “Young people from the cities move back to their auls to build their own ethnodoms. And I am helping them with that,” says Tshokholov who compares his role to one of a startup advisor. Even an Austrian man married to a Dagestani women has settled in the highlands to launch an ethnotourism venture. The republican government has equally gained confidence in the tourism potential of its mountainous regions, and plans to invest in more large scale projects, such as a ski resort near the abandoned village of Stary Sivukh.
Not so long ago, such plans would have been unthinkable. Across much of the 2000s and 2010s, Dagestan was ravaged by an insurgency of jihadists who infiltrated the mountains from the neighbouring region of Chechnya in 1999. Disaffected young locals further fuelled an endless succession of terrorist attacks, met with brutal reprisals by Russian security forces.
While terrorism exacerbated underdevelopment and depopulation in mountainous Dagestan, it also kept the region isolated from much of the outside world. Projects like ethnodom have played an important role in breaking down that barrier, and attracting an ever-increasing number of tourists to Dagestan since the threat of terrorism began to subside in 2017.
Many of those rediscovering the area do not come from far afield. Most Dagestanis can trace their roots back to the mountains: now, many of them return not only to visit their relatives but also to connect with their cultural heritage. Albina Abdulayeva, an artist from Makhachkala, started leading tours to the highlands two years ago. She says that more and more Dagestanis want to get to know new parts of their diverse homeland, reaffirming their own national identity. Tshokholov agrees: he says that the current enthusiasm around ethnotourism reminds Dagestanis that they are part of a great culture.
But the trend is also drawing the rest of Russia closer to Dagestan. About 90 per cent of ethnodom’s guests come from anywhere between Kaliningrad and Vladivostok. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made domestic tourism more popular as travelling abroad has become more difficult. According to Russian tourism board Rostourism, Dagestan benefited from that boost more than any other Russian region in 2020.
The change is a significant one, especially considering that stereotypes of Dagestanis as violent and extremist are still widespread after years of news reports about terrorist attacks and Islamism. “When I told my parents that I was going to Dagestan, they were not exactly happy about it,” says Oleg, a young tourist who has come to Chokh from Krasnodar. “But perceptions are starting to change. People in my generation are much less worried.”
Ethnotourism particularly appeals to these younger generations. With its mixture of cultural authenticity, sustainability and adventure, it attracts a young and forward-looking clientele of Millennials and Gen Zeders hungry for new experiences. “Those are the kind of pioneers who influence travel trends through social media,” explains Tshokholov. He believes ethnotourism is responding to a wider global trend: “People are fed-up with fake hotels. They want to eat real local food and want to see how people live here. Some also want to do something good and help our communities.”
Through social media, Tskholokov has drawn dozens of young people to come for volunteering weeks to Gamsutl. Inspired by the Soviet subbotnik tradition of voluntary community work, they help preserve the ancient site. Most of the enthusiasts are from Dagestan, but some come from as far as the Urals and the Russian Far East, regions that have suffered from depopulation, too. Tshokholov believes that his ethnodom success story will encourage them to launch similar projects to help their traditional communities survive.
While ethnotourism has helped to put mountainous Dagestan on the travel map, it could become a hope for other neglected parts of Russia, too. “People are worried about the survival of their villages everywhere,” concludes Tshokholov.