If you have travelled to all corners of the Caucasus and just left out the North-Eastern part due to security issues, it’s now the time to go. Chechnya is a fascinating example of state building after a devastating war, whose traces are still obvious – not so much in ruins, but more in the overly visible post-war ideology and personal cult of Putin and Kadyrov. If you just want to explore a country which is new on the tourism map, Chechnya is great: Everything is still developing; there is no mainstream tourism yet. If you want to find an authentic piece of Caucasus with great food, hotels and infrastructure, however, better go to Georgia or Armenia.
Before leaving for Chechnya, I consulted several persons with experience on the ground or living in Grozny about the security of foreign tourists. They unanimously said that Chechnya is now secure for international tourists, and that some have indeed visited already. Recently, warfare and terror attacks have gone down to almost zero. Since Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov wants to attract tourists, he has made it very clear to his security apparatus and to the population that the tourists should be treated well. And that is how I felt in Chechnya. There have been no situations which made me doubt about it.
However, it is important to bear in mind that, as for now, most tourists go accompanied by local tour operators, and so did I. Our operator had made security arrangements with the local security authorities in advance. They were aware of our plans and had given their OK. This avoided hassles at the police checkpoints, which still exist, particularly in the mountain area. I am not sure how the situation would be for foreigners who go unaccompanied and unannounced. While the danger of violence is minimal, they might attract unwanted attention by the local security apparatus. However, for one afternoon I walked around Grozny alone, and I encountered no problems. Neither did I when I left Chechnya by train unaccompanied. In fact, I perceived the police to be much friendlier than in Russia.
What to see and to do
In the long run, the main touristic asset of Chechnya is its mountains: Scenic roads, waterfalls, picturesque hamlets, you name it. The infrastructure up there is currently being developed. As a Swiss, it was however not the mountains which impressed me most – they look a bit similar everywhere.
Rebuilt Grozny on the other side is impressive in a bizarre way: Glitzy and megalomaniac, it stands in a stark contrast not only to its violent past, but also to nearby cities in other Russian republics, which look rather poor in comparison. Even hipster gastronomy has arrived to Grozny. There is a lot of representative buildings, monuments and new business centres. But it all looks rather deserted and artificial.
Sernovodsk is Chechnya’s spa town, with a sanatorium where you can bathe in dark and smelly sulphurous water to treat your skin. I especially appreciated the live music concert in an almost empty hall in the evening.
Our tour group visited several museums, where we always met other tour groups, all Russian. An absurd example of personal cult is the Akhmed Haji Kadyrov Museum in Grozny. Dondi Yurt in Urus-Martan is an open-air museum, consisting of the personal collection of items brought from all over Chechnya by its dedicated owner. The museum in Itum-Kali high up in the mountains shows the life in the area, but the buildings are actually more interesting than their content.
Guard towers in Argun gorge
Hotels in Chechnya are still closer to the Soviet standard than to Western level. While there are some rather posh places in Grozny, most hotels do not offer too much value for their price. Grozny is the only real city in the country and has several options which can also be booked online. In the rest of Chechnya, hotels are far between. The sanatorium in Sernovodsk and the resort on Lake Kezenoi-Am are OK equipped for tourism. Our tour group stayed in Hotel Argun City, which was a particular experience. The hotel is located in a brand-new 22-storey building. All rooms of our group were on floor 18, and we seemed to be the only guests in the whole hotel. Even though just built, many things already did not work. And the rooms on the other floors looked like the last guests left long ago and nobody had ever bothered to clean up.
Hotel Hash Tza (Хаш Ц1а) in Tazbichi, high up in the mountains behind Itum-Kali. Looks like a lodge from the outside, but we slept in simple hostel rooms. The hospitality of the owners was amazing, though They opened their doors for us spontaneously and late at night, after we had been stuck in the mountains due to a landslide in Argun gorge. And slept themselves on the kitchen floor.
In the Soviet Union, Caucasus was famous for its food. Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani restaurants are still among the most popular in Russian cities. Unfortunately, Chechnya clearly is not Georgia. As our guide stressed several times, the Chechen cuisine is “ascetic”: There are no dishes which are complexly prepared over hours, and not many spices are used. The main local speciality is called Zhizhig-Galnash and looks not very appetizing: Boiled mutton with small dough dumplings. It is served with a garlicky broth, which is poured over both. But the dumplings – similar to pizzocheri – are quite tasty. There are several similar, mutton-based dishes. Like in other post-Soviet states, heavy soups (surpa) and stews are also popular.
My favourite Chechen dish was a desert, hingalsh – greasy sweet pumpkin tarts.
98% of Chechnya’s population are Chechens, so Chechen is clearly the spoken language No. 1. Russian has an official status alongside Chechen and is taught in school. Therefore, most Chechens have quite a good command of Russian, although usually with a marked accent. I was surprised and a bit disappointed to find the Russian language much more present in public (signs, advertisement etc.) than Chechen, especially in Grozny. On the other side, music is a clearly Chechen (and Ingush) affair – no Russian pop in Grozny!
Do not expect any knowledge of English. Some people do know some words, but the majority clearly not.
How to organize a trip to Chechnya
As mentioned, I am not 100% sure that an individually organized trip with no help on the ground is feasible. I imagine that a day trip to Grozny should be no problem, though. Otherwise, several Chechen and Russian tour operators offer trips to all parts of Chechnya – just google for it, I don’t want to advertise any, since I didn’t try them out. Joining a Russian tour group is certainly an experience in itself. For that I can recommend chetours.me (to be contacted either on VKontakte or Instagram), but knowledge of Russian is essential.