We are standing at the top of Musa Achitara mount at the height of more than 3,000 meters. While the temperature is about 10°C, we both are wearing just summer sandals and jackets. But these are Dombai and the Greater Caucasus Range that we have in front of us, so no cold or wind can make us tear ourselves away from that spectacular view.
Dombai is a small village at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic. It is known in the first place for its skiing and snowboarding trails that attract many people every winter. However, there are lots of nature lovers who’ll find Dombai in summer even better due to the lack of crowds and since the prices are as much as 4 times lower than in high season. During summer months the hiking in the surrounding mountains and gorges will make you feel like you’re the only person on the planet.
It’s rather easy to come to the place. Unless you go by plane, the best way is to take a train (from Moscow or St. Petersburg) to Nevinnomyssk and to catch a bus that runs twice a day from here to Dombai. It takes 4,5 hours to reach the village, and you’ll probably spend this time in a small space pretty crowded with people and their stuff. Thanks to the Sochi 2014 Olympics, the road is of good quality, and unlike elsewhere in Russia the bus doesn’t shake. Of course, you can always contact hotel and ask to organize a transfer for you (the price is approximately 5000 rubles).
Summer prices for accommodation in Dombai are low. Typical room costs 1200 rubles/night. You’d better contact hotel ahead of time to ask for the pass. You’ll need it because Dombai is located near the Russian-Georgian boundary, and the trails to main gorges, glaciers, and waterfalls go through checkpoints. The pass is 150 rubles/person.
Dining in restaurants was a luxury for us since the prices in Dombai cafes were as high as in Moscow (according to our Moscow friends). So if you want to save money, it’s better to shop in small stores. We managed only with instant porridge, milk products and local baking. Hychiny (хычины) is something you must try. It is a type of big pie filled with cheese, herbs or potato. This Karachai national dish is very nourishing and really delicious.
Dombai wins your heart immediately after the moment you see its snow-capped peaks appearing behind one of the road turns. The word ‘Dombai’ means European bison. Formerly these animals abundantly inhabited vicinities. The animal also gave name of the highest peak in the area – Dombai-Ulgen (in Karachay language it means ‘dead bison’). There is a belief that poachers killed the last European bison on the slope of that mountain. In Dombai exotic beautiful names surround you everywhere: Teberda means ‘God’s gift’, Dzhuguturlyuchat is ‘goats pasture’, and Amanauz is ‘angry jaws’, since this gorge is most rich with avalanches. The names of some places here have to do with legends that tell sad love stories.
Our main goal was to go on ropeway upwards to Musa Achitara mount. The price is 800 rubles/person. The views at the top are stunning. To enjoy them, you’d better think over your outfit ahead of time. Coming there wearing only summer clothes, you have good chances to numb with cold. The wind on top was so furious that we had to put on our plastic raincoats to protect ourselves from chilling cold. We certainly looked ridiculous but felt warmer. The weather being cloudless, you can see the peak of Elbrus; however, it’s shrouded with clouds most of the time, so you’ll be lucky to see it.
Lots of tourists tend to come to Dombai just for one day to ride the ropeway. But this place is worth staying for 5-6 days. The village is located in the valley between three gorges, and you’ll discover amazing hiking paths in each of them. The paths don’t require special physical training. Another advantage is that you can walk by yourself without any guide almost everywhere.
The Alibek gorge is one of a few places where you will need a guide. The tour costs 1400 rubles/ couple and includes the Alibek glacier, Lake Turie, and one of numerous local waterfalls. Like real alpinists, you’ll even climb a small rock. The entire walk lasts for about 6 hours. We lagged behind our group, so over the course of the hike we got lost several times and had to stray among the hills looking for the trail. It’s ok walking alone if you know about small stone piles-up that indicate the trail. However, unless you are used to long steep ascents and orientate yourself easily in such hikes, you’d better follow the guide to avoid playing in pathfinder.
After the Aliber hike we felt experienced enough to explore other routes by ourselves. As already told, the village is located between three gorges: Alibek, Amanauz and Dombai-Ulgen. The closest place worth seeing is the waterfall Devil’s Mill located in the Amanauz gorge. This walk will take 2 – 2.5 hours and will lead you to the narrow canyon of the seething river Amanauz. It falls here from the heights and swirls giving the place its romantic name. The legend says that unfaithful wives were thrown down right into the Devil’s Mill ages ago. From the viewpoint you can see the Mount Sufrudzhu.
Our third walk in the Dombai-Ulgen gorge to the Chuchkhur waterfall was the easiest and the most pleasant for the time spent in Dombai. While walking, you don’t need to climb or stop from time to time to take a breath. You just have to tear yourself away from the stunning views around you and watch your step for not to stumble. The trail stretches along the Dzhuguturlyuchat mount and approaches Dombai’s highest peak Dombai-Ulgen. You merely can’t describe the feeling when you are sitting on the sun-warmed rocks near the waterfall and looking at the mountain range towering in from of you. It seems like you’re soaring into the air.
Dombai is also famous for the group of Baduk Lakes that are considered gem of the area. These three lakes are located at the height of 1971 to 2000 meters above sea level. The round trip will take five hours. During this hike you first walk in the relict forest that turns into the crooked forest later on as you approach the first lake. The height difference between the lowest and the highest points makes up 600 meters, so this hike is not the most complicated. It’s definitely worth going there to see the magic colors of the water in the Lakes and feel the seclusion in this place.
Dombai is not far from the Black Sea. The Abkhazian city Sukhumi is only 60 – 70 km away from the village. There is an abandoned Sukhumi Military Road that connects Dombai with the coast. Some part of it was known as the ‘Turkish trail’ and served as caravan route ages ago. The Road hasn’t been used for more than 50 years now. However, up until the collapse of the USSR and the establishment of borders, there were many sea lovers who managed to reach the sea without any road. They used to leave at 5 am and reached Sukhumi in the evening the same day. Feel the difference: now you need to go more than 500 km to get to the sea cost. If you still want to, there is a bus running between Dombai and the resort town of Gelendzhik.
Dombai is an amazing place. If you like mountain landscapes, purest air, glaciers, the sound of waterfalls and springs running down from the peaks, you definitely should come here.