How a remote village in Russia’s Caucasus became a rising tourist hotspot

Kubachi, a village in the mountains of Dagestan in Russia’s Caucasus, is home to roughly 3,000 people. During the Soviet period, the bulk of the population was kept employed by a local crafts factory which produced decorative weapons, armor, and jewelry. Today, the factory is running at a mere 10 percent of its capacity, and the youth, as in the majority of Dagestani villages, are moving to the republic’s larger cities. Rasul Kurtaev, on the other hand, returned from the regional capital of Makhachkala to develop the tourism industry and prove to locals that Kubachi does offer opportunities. He’s been been hosting guests from all over the world in his home for the past 10 years. Kurtaev spoke to Strelka Magazine about what he aims to teach local residents and how his inborn hospitality has allowed him to help support the village.

The village of Kubachi

Return to Kubachi

I was born, studied, and have worked my whole life in Kubachi. According to the latest studies of our family tree, my family goes back seven generations here. After school, I went to Makhachkala to study tax law at Dagestan State University, but I couldn’t stand it. I switched to the extramural program, and two years later I moved back. I wanted to develop the inner life of Kubachi, to keep locals from moving away and show them that there are opportunities here.

What to do in the village

When I got back, I went to work at the Kubachi Crafts Factory, making jewelry. Then after two or three years I decided to get together with the village youth to organize some different kinds of entertainment for ourselves, since there was absolutely nothing to do in Kubachi back then. When the district head noticed our activities, he offered me a job as head of the House of Culture [cultural, educational, and recreational centers that were built during the Soviet period – Strelka].

Rasul Kurtaev

When I took over the cultural center in 2002, it had been completely neglected, and there was no programming there at all. We restored it with funding from residents of the village. We invested 400,000 rubles in the renovation and put in a stage, a ceiling, and new windows.

I got activity at the House of Culture going again: I invited entertainers, musicians, and a circus for children. I liked that people had something to see and somewhere to go.

I paid musicians with room and board and sometimes for transportation. Now they’ve become well-known entertainers and actors in Dagestan, but at the time they were only beginning. It’s nice to know that some people found out about them because of me.

In 2005, I left the House of Culture. Then the head of the village administration offered me the post of his deputy. I accepted and became a delegate, and then chair of the local council as well. From 2010 to 2015, I served as the head of the village and worked on capital improvements. My proudest moment was that with great difficulty I managed to get gas supply to 90 percent of the village. And at the same time, starting in 2005, I began actively developing tourism and attracting people to Kubachi.

Hospitality as a business

Ever since I was a kid, I have been used to always having guests at my parents’ house. Since the House of Culture was then in a state of disrepair, we often used to have concerts at our house. My father, a hospitable and kind person by nature, would welcome everyone. Even now he’ll admit that he gets bored if even one day goes by without a guest. So when I grew up, I started hosting guests the same way.

In 2006, I registered on the CouchSurfing website, which was recommended to me by tourists who had stayed with me. Thanks to that site, a lot of foreign travelers have made use of my home and found out about Kubachi. Tourists often don’t know the region and just search for “Dagestan” to see where people are prepared to host them.

More and more guests gradually started to arrive. But up until 2015-2016, I didn’t charge them and did everything on my own initiative: hosted them at my house, fed them, led tours, and introduced them to local residents. It was only last year that I registered as a business.

I share the culture, history, and everyday life of the village with tourists. I’m helped by my wife and children, who host and feed the guests. It’s hard for me to see this as a business; I’m used to hosting guests and showing them our village for free. But the guests themselves have been teaching me that you shouldn’t do this kind of work for free.

Save the village with the help of tourists

Just 10 years ago, a few dozen tourists would come to Kubachi each season. Five years later, the total number has grown significantly. In 2017, we hosted around 1,500 people.

I show the visitors the old section of the village and the mosque, and tell them about the history of Kubachi before the acceptance of Islam. We go into the homes of local residents and see their everyday lives. And, of course, there’s event-based tourism, when we invite tourists to our celebrations. I ask my friends and relatives to host guests. Some people are happy to do it. The only thing is that people don’t charge for it, which is worrying me now, since the local people may get tired of doing it just like that. Now I’m trying to teach them to accept some compensation and am trying to organize master classes in cooking our national dishes and jewelry-making. I’m teaching my fellow villagers entrepreneurship in the tourism sphere. I’m also getting my children and nieces and nephews hooked into the business. And I’m now actively working on remodeling my home to make it into a guest house.

Sometimes it’s difficult to accommodate a group of 30 people among all my friends, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, and grandfathers.

There are Kubachi residents who support me, since they understand that this is a means of survival. And there are others who think that there’s nothing to see in our village. They don’t like tourists, since they are different. In Kubachi there are about 2,500-3,000 people, and young people are leaving more and more; there’s no work. Our main crafts factory, where local people made silver, is working at 10 percent capacity, and the jewelry business isn’t developing. With the help of tourism we can gradually save the village, so that it doesn’t empty out entirely.

Where Kubachi residents work

The village has been noted as a center of jewelry-making since the 5th century. We teach children this craft from a young age at home, and then in arts and crafts at school. It is believed that if someone doesn’t know how to work with metal, then he won’t survive. And people will say, “Strange, how can your son not know how? You need to teach him.”

Each family has their own secret methods that were worked out through much experience. And if a father isn’t sure that his son will keep the secrets, he won’t pass them on to him. People used to work at the factory, and you could see 30-40 brightly dressed women in white shawls embroidered with golden threads working on silver on the shop floor. Now everyone makes things in their own studios.

Women knit wool socks and embroider traditional Kubachi white shawls, which they wear themselves as well. Little girls start learning how to do that in childhood, and sew into old age. For some it’s an additional source of income, and others do it for their daughters and granddaughters.

There are also people in the village who work on the roads every day, who install streetlights, and who build fences. The youth support any initiatives aimed at improving life in the village. We go out on voluntary work days. Once we planted more than 2,000 trees in two days. And over the past 10 years, residents have also completely removed unofficial trash dumps. People are getting themselves together and realizing that you shouldn’t treat your home that way. There are also people in the village who help out with burials. We don’t bury people in coffins here, but directly in the ground, and for that you need to make floors and partitions. Young people volunteer to do it.

Every resident of the village counts only on their own resources and does everything in accordance with their own abilities. For example, there is no running water in the village. And so for housekeeping needs, people collect rainwater and snow from their roofs, and women carry drinking water in old-fashioned containers. Some people have a spring near their home, others have a river, and people look for water everywhere to try to find solutions.

Grand weddings and other pastimes

It’s a custom among us to visit each other at home. And we also have three cafes. Local residents built them first of all for locals, and people also come from neighboring villages. People eat, drink, and play cards there, and usually go on Thursdays. In Kubachi, we call Thursday our market day. It’s our day off. Even the state enterprise, the Kubachi Factory, is closed on that day. In accordance with the ancient custom, people bring goods from the surrounding villages and sell them at our market square. They used to sell horseshoes and daggers, and today it’s clothing, shoes, dishes, and silver. Everyone sells things to each other or trades them in barter.

We have one of the few villages where wedding traditions have been preserved. Weddings are celebrated over three days in the summer, so there’s one practically every day. I can remember going to five weddings in one day. The whole village celebrates during that time.

On the first day, the bride and groom register their wedding at the civil registry office and hold a small picnic in a meadow near the village. From there, everyone returns to their own home, and in the evening the relatives of the groom bring the bride a dowry. After this, everyone goes to the market square for a party. The friends of the bride and groom come out onto the square and dance a Kubachi dance. At night everyone separates, and the newlyweds each return to their own homes.

Mummers at a wedding in Kubachi

On the second day after lunch, the groom’s side sends a courier to the bride’s house and he invites all her relatives to the groom’s home. It is there that the ‘mummers’ appear – friends of the groom in masks. In the old days, they kept order, but today they are more like jesters. In the evening, the women from the groom’s side collect the bride. On this night, only the bride and groom stay in his house, even if his parents usually live there. And on the third day, all the relatives arrive starting at six in the morning to congratulate the newlyweds and bring them presents and the dowry. Lastly, the relatives of the bride invite everyone to their home. It’s a very rich and beautiful celebration, and we love to show it to tourists.

Text: Aleksandra Sivtsova
Translation: Jonah Simpson
Photographs from the collection of Rasul Kurtaev