First posted on The Best Travelled. Reprinted here with kind permission.
South Ossetia formally declared its independence from Georgia in August 2008. This was accepted by Russia and has subsequently also been accepted by Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. This small territory is recognised as part of Georgia by the United Nations. Mountainous and even in its lowlands at an altitude exceeding 700 metres, this small territory is nowadays inhabited by the Ossetians, a tribe related to the Iranians. Their language is of Indo-European origin, unlike Georgian which belongs to a different family. South Ossetia as a name was first used in 1922 by the Soviets. Almost 100 years later, this place now functions under the auspices of Russia, whose military assistance ensures the ongoing survival of the place. Surprisingly, the Travelers Century Club does not recognise this as a ‘country’ with the flimsy excuse that ‘they do not want to be independent’. Given the place has a parliament, a language and quite obviously an identity, I can’t see how this can be true.
Getting in to South Ossetia
I had been in contact with Vadim and it appeared all was clear. My flight from Moscow landed in small Vladikavkaz airport – I had been there before and can recommend the town in its own right, one of the prettiest in Russia and, being North Ossetia, with a distinct regional, Caucasus feel. I didn’t know what to expect and who exactly would be waiting for me or what he – surely it would be a man – would look like.
A dark skinned, lived-in face approached me. This was Vadim! I had imagined him older and … Russian. Instead Vadim was absolutely Ossetian and only 28, though he looked much older. We headed out and quickly I was introduced to Giorgi, also dark but more youthful looking even though it turns out he was 30 and already had two children. We set off in the direction of the distant mountains.
It’s always rather strange when you are suddenly sitting with two complete strangers but especially when you are heading towards a country like South Ossetia. Both guys were curious as to my reasons for wanting to visit. I couldn’t shake the idea that they might think I’m a spy, but I explained in the best Russian I could come up with – we conversed exclusively in Russian – about TheBestTravelled and how it involves getting points for wherever you go.
The route through the fringes of North Ossetia becomes progressively more interesting as you head towards the mountains. A rough looking river, gorges and in May still snow-capped mountains make for some lovely scenery, and there are a few monuments to Ossetian heroes on the way for good measure. The scenery and the increasingly friendly conversation made the one and a half hour to the border roll by.
I expected more trouble and questioning on the Russian side but it was much easier despite a longish queue of vehicles in front. Clearly this is a legitimate border crossing for the parties involved. Vadim told me I was the first tourist of 2016 – he should know as he works with the minister! So we passed the Russian border, and there’s still a good 10 kilometres up the mountain until the tunnel, recently upgraded.
This tunnel has all the elements to be the most orgasmic border crossing in the world. First, tunnels as borders are not all that common in the first place. Then, you are technically crossing over from Europe to Asia. And the best ‘frisson’ of all – when you’re out you’re in one of those few territories whose status is ambivalent. Clearly it is de facto independent. But just as clearly only 4 UN countries recognise this (plus Abkhazia and Transnistria) and it’s the only one of the de facto independent status to have an unclear visa policy.
Once you are out, in South Ossetia, the downhill starts. The first notable thing one sees, apart from gorgeous mountains, is a‘спасибо россия’ (thank you Russia), written in the land next to the remains of a would-be Georgian hotel that never happened. And then is the first village and the checkpoint.
There were no complications here, we were on the guys’ home turf after all and they clearly knew most of the men in uniform arming the checkpoint. Ten minutes later, we were cleared and on our way to Tskhinvali, another 54 kilometres south, right on the border with Georgia – where the last blocks of the capital end, Georgia proper starts.
The route down is not boring at all. We stopped at a natural spring with water squirting out here and there – a very high iron content makes for a pungent taste. There were some Russian soldiers having a break there too. The route reveals wonderful Swiss-like green mountains, snow still on the peaks. I couldn’t help express my enthusiasm but Giorgi, with a great sense of humour reminded me of this when we were seeing the destruction in Tskhinvali – Switzerland, he exclaimed with self-sarcasm, just at the right moment.
I had not been told that meals were included in the ‘package’ but they were. So before the capital, our first stop was an unscheduled one at Giorgi’s villa, still in construction by the road. He wanted to check on the workers building it, and by that time we had already become friends so this was not an issue. A few metres from there was a roadside eatery with a couple of private wooden stalls in the woods where food was served. A gorgeous Ossetian girl – the first woman I saw since the border – served the traditional pie and meat that would be the staple diet for the next three days. We also overdosed considerably on fantastic red wine, though Giorgi was a bit more conservative as he was driving.
It was only another quarter of an hour to the outskirts of the capital where we arrived about 6 pm. A newly placed sign proclaiming the town a ‘hero town’ is a natural stop for the selfie of success. Yes, I had made it to Tskhinvali!
A town that probably would never imagine it would one day become a capital. Today it has 30,000 people, a bit more than half of the population of the country. Obviously, this is not exactly New York in terms of traffic and interest, but it has more than meets the eye, as I would quickly discover. The first thing we did was walk in the central square area, where on the one side the old theatre is being rebuilt and on the other there is a pretty little square leading to the new national museum and the also new parliament building, the white, red and yellow flag of Ossetia waving away at the top.
Giorgi drove me around the two main roads – Stalin and Lenin – and it was immediately clear there was more for the disaster tourist in me than I had bargained for. Lots of shelled Soviet blocks, clearly bearing the marks of war, quite a number of roadside memorials to Ossetian youth who perished during the whole period of instability but especially in 1991 and then the 5-day war in August 2008 that led to the country’s independence. I was told that I could take photos anywhere in the capital – no limitations. Clearly, this is very far from North Korea. To my delight, my guides quickly left me at the hotel and I was able to go for my own little reconnaissance walk, though it soon got dark, and rather dead in the streets.
The hotel was the best in town; though I think it doubled up as accommodation for sports clubs as it was attached to a big football field where it appeared young guys were practising at all hours of day and even in the dark. The room was perfectly comfortable and clean though in a very bizarre twist, there was no shower in the bathroom. In other words the bathroom just had the toilet and a washbasin. I resigned myself to a showerless 48 hours and couldn’t wait for the next day to come – surely there would be a number of surprises!
Despite the fact that this was an organised tour of sorts, the ad hoc nature of it all cannot be doubted. Though I was yearning to go as early as possible, I was given a time of ‘between 9 to 10’ for the start of the day. Meanwhile, I was told there was a cafe behind the hotel for breakfast, but it turned out this opened only at 11. So I went for a morning walk on an empty stomach, taking photos of the former railway station, now unused as there is no communication with Georgia, of a tank half sunk into the floor of a building and left to be there as a memory of what was, and of some familiar-looking surviving mosaics from communist times.
Vadim appeared alone around 9.45. Apparently this day was a commemoration of a massacre of innocent people on a bus back in 1991 and Giorgi would be busy there. Meanwhile our vehicle, which would be different from the day before, was at the car wash. So we would start with the museum.
However, when we arrived, they were still cleaning and sweeping, though I can’t imagine who exactly they were expecting and I failed to see a cashier at the entrance. At any rate we were told to return so Vadim took me to Vincenzo. This was one of my biggest surprises here, a two-storey, thoroughly modern cafe which had just opened. There were TV screens playing music and a variety of dishes being offered though it was rather quiet at this time of the morning. The coffee and scrumptious cake were more than welcome given I hadn’t had anything at all.
The museum was another huge surprise. Opened in 2015, this was far more substantial than one would imagine. There was a vast amount of bronze exhibits, many dating back more than 2000 years. Lots of pottery, but also decorative wear, belts, necklaces, and all neatly laid out in a spacious, light hall. The entrance to the museum itself was rather grand, with Ossetian-themed paintings and a huge chandelier leading to a carpeted staircase. I was gobsmacked.
Photos were not permitted but I protested, especially given I was the only visitor. Eventually after numerous conversations and considerable confusion as to who was actually conducting the museum tour – Vadim, a young girl, a guy, another guy? – the director appeared. He had a twinkle in his eye, this man, and obviously was very proud of the fossils and ornamented finds that had been found in the small but obviously rich land of South Ossetia. He summoned me to his office and from his desk took out a magnificent heavy knife, apparently 2400 years old. A treasure kept firmly by the director.
The second floor of the museum had exhibits related to local culture and a hero section for Ossetian fighters in the Second World War. There was no mention, however, of the more recent events. It was as if Georgia just didn’t exist.
After the museum, we walked to the old church which had a distinctly Armenian style. It’s not particularly impressive but it was the only major church I saw in the capital which again surprised me somewhat. Further down the road is old Tskhinvali, also known as the Jewish part of town. I was shown a building that serves as a synagogue by the few remaining Jews in town – most have left. The roads in this part of town were not tarred and the vast majority of buildings were dilapidated or at best tired-looking. Clearly a lot of work still needs to be done, though most places do have a satellite dish.
Our car was ready so we started our drive, which would end up being a 6-hour tour of nearby areas. The furthest one can go is the Leningor area, some 85 kilometres away, but time was too short for that – another day would have been necessary. Instead, we first went to a nearby hill for a panorama, passing the World War II memorial (behind it you can’t miss the Russian embassy), the river, the football stadium and then a new sports hall. Heading east and climbing up the hill, Tskhinvali lies ahead. It’s from here that the proximity of the border becomes clear – it’s literally about 100 metres and a few bushes between the last blocks of the town and the nearest Georgian village. An impenetrable divide.
Our next stop was a small church a little to the north. The drive took us by the ruins of an old fortress with an Ossetian flag waving away. It was at the church here that I saw Georgian for the first time on the trip, engraved on a tombstone in its characteristic strange script. The church had a small shrine with icons but clearly was used only very rarely. The view from the hill down to fantastically green expanses is inspirational. I can thoroughly recommend the entire country for fresh air and a respite from the stresses of life.
We then ventured west as far as the road went, to the capital of the smallest region, Zaur. The road is quite literally on the border – you can touch the fence and see tall cameras at some point but I don’t know who they belong to. On the way west, maybe 5 kilometres out of town, there are 7-8 charred vehicles placed in a semi-circle as a memorial. One of the highlights for those interested in signs of conflict.
Heading west through more green hills, it becomes obvious that the countryside is lovely and the small villages very rural and feeling abandoned. We saw an old fortress, climbing up a cobweb-filled narrow staircase like being in a horror movie. And then we ended up in Zaur, where the largest church in the country can be found. It was shut but Vadim summoned the ageing caretaker who lives next-door and he opened for us. Inside, there was scaffolding almost everywhere and once again it appeared that this was used very occasionally, an ancient sacred building much like a time machine to another time.
Zaur is, I checked later on the map, the end of the line – probably a kilometre south is Georgia. The small town (town is actually not an appropriate word) has a bust not only of Lenin but also of Stalin and a pleasant park. It was past 3 by this time, so we decided to have lunch here at a restaurant that was empty but seemed unusually fancy for a place like this, probably the venue for weddings and the like. Once again the ad hoc, informal, unforced nature of the tour became clear to me, as Vadim ordered the usual pie, salad and meat for lunch. This time no wine but soft drinks – all imported from Russia – instead.
After lunch, I wanted to raid the souvenir shop and get all sorts of trinkets. But it was shut and the owner didn’t answer his phone. By the time he did, we were already out of town again, heading northwest to the little known Cihantur waterfall. The dirt road became increasingly difficult to get through, with fallen logs on slippery terrain, so we walked the last 15 minutes up, thereby ruining my entirely unsuitable shoes. Still, it was worth it, as waterfalls always are, the brute force of nature falling down into a river. We were the only people there of course and this made it even more special. It would be my last memory of a full day.
It was arranged with the souvenir store guy I would go there at 10 am in the morning of my last day. And I did – to the sight of a wonderful array of souvenirs from clocks to an irresistible pillow to T-shirts to magnets, you name it, it was there, a South Ossetia-themed extravaganza, all very reasonably priced. I bought useless things I really don’t need and would have trouble carrying, though the pillow featuring a roaring lion and the map of the country came in handy on subsequent flights.
Heavy plastic bag in hand, I walked out only to be met unexpectedly by Giorgi who was ready for a half day with me. We headed for Vincenzo and Vadim joined us briefly. They insisted on footing the bill which I found unnecessary but very nice of them. Giorgi asked me if I wanted a book about South Ossetia and we headed to a bookstore but they were out of stock. So, to my incredible surprise, we drove to his house, where he got out for a minute and came back with a smile, handing over a book with an orangy cover and South Ossetia in Russian and English. He got himself a thousand credits of goodwill with this single kind gesture.
Vadim lived in a flat of one of those ancient blocks and we picked him up after I left my hotel and saw Evelina’s guesthouse to have an impression (a very positive one) of what a house stay would look like. It was time to take the same road north and say goodbye to this small but proud land, which claimed its independence less than 10 years ago and sees very few outsiders come in a year.
An early lunch was included on the way, a bit before the checkpoint – you won’t go hungry here though the meal times are flexible for sure – and very quickly we were back in the tunnel heading for another continent … I felt I had made new friends, people who had a story to tell and were more than happy to openly share it. When, and if, we will ever see each other again remains to be seen…