When the Lada Largus rushes into a mountain village with stray cows at full speed, driver Gamzat shifts his gaze to the passengers in the backseat. “I have 22 cousins with the police,” he roars through the whining Dagestan disco hit from the CD player. “So I drive the way I want.”
The red travel advice from the Dutch government applies to Dagestan, as it does to all other Russian provinces in the Caucasus. Not traveling because of ‘danger of terrorist attacks, kidnapping, detonation of mines, armed conflict and crime’. My experience in Dagestan is that those dangers have disappeared in recent years, but the red travel advice is justified by another danger: the danger of a Dagestan road accident.
I have even seen Russian men get scared on the Dagestan roads. The first accident I saw happened at the start of my first reporting trip to the mountainous province, right in the airport parking lot. The seriousness of the danger has dawned on me while waiting in the traffic jams that each time end at fresh car wrecks.
‘Oi, oi, oi’, I hear the shaking of the taxi drivers say as they drive past a wreck at walking pace. And then they hit the accelerator again.
Fortunately, I always meet taxi drivers in Dagestan who have extraordinary driver talents. Gamzat, the man with 22 cousins in the police force, last month at high speed in a fog bank on a mountain pass: ‘I have eyes with night vision. I can see through the fog. ‘
Magomed, the driver I met a day later, turned out to be blessed with a sense with which he can estimate whether he can overtake before a corner. “I just sense whether an oncoming car is approaching.” Another Magomed said alarmingly little. When suddenly a roaring sound swelled in his Lada, he turned out to be the source himself. He was shaken up just in time by the photographer in the passenger seat.
The memorials on the roadside reveal that Dagestan is one of Russia’s most corrupt regions. Not only do drivers feel inviolable by protecting cousins in the police force, they also get driving licenses more easily.
Bribery of driving examiners is common throughout Russia, but only then when driving off (otherwise the examiners will not let you pass). Jakoeb, our driver on the exciting ride back to the airport, said that he had ‘passed’ his driver’s license without a single lesson this year for 35,000 rubles (390 euros). More expensive than a bribe in the exam, but he saved costs for lessons and theory exam. And it also saved time.
And so a double continuous line in a tunnel does not make any impression in Dagestan. “It doesn’t work for us to obey the traffic rules,” said Jakoeb. “Then you get hit or hit someone yourself.”
The biggest safety problem on Dagestani roads is of a very different nature, according to Yakub. “Women behind the wheel, dangerous.”