That Time I Visited South Ossetia And Got Stuck In The Mountains Of Southern Russia

Most travelers do not explore Russia on an itinerary starting with Moscow-Chechnya-Ingushetia. As you already know, shortly after the start of first my Russian adventure I found myself in the North Caucasus, visiting mosques, climbing watchtowers and celebrating at a wedding where the bride’s family was nowhere to be seen.

Cruising the North Caucasus under the watchful eye of Uncle Joe

But that was just the beginning. It was time for me to venture to an area even less frequented by tourists — the largely unrecognized country of South Ossetia, a separatist region that broke away from Georgia. In 2008, South Ossetia was the flashpoint that sparked the war between Russia and Georgia. It’s even more off the beaten path than Nagorno Karabakh, another post-Soviet frozen conflict zone in the Caucasus that I visited several years back. It’s also less touristy than the frozen conflict zone of Transnistria, an unrecognized country that broke away from Moldova, likewise with the help of Russia.

Still, visiting South Ossetia is not as hard as you might imagine. You need a permit and that all-important double-entry Russian visa that I worked so hard to get. Before going, I had heard stories about tourists getting interrogated over the phone for an hour by the FSB before being allowed to enter South Ossetia. But that wasn’t the case for me.

Actually, this leg of my Caucasus adventure got difficult and bizarre after I departed South Ossetia. So in this post, not only will we cover what life is like in a seldom-visited unrecognized republic, but we will also go over what is is like to trek through the mountains of the North Caucasus with real-life Cossacks. When the going gets tough in remote regions of Russia, that’s how I get going — on foot with Cossacks.

Who are Ossetians and how was their “country” formed?

The Ossetians are an ethnic group living in the Caucasus who also go by the name of Alanians. In fact, the name of the northern Ossetian region is North Ossetia-Alania, while its southern neighbor is the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia — the State of Alania. North Ossetia is formally part of Russia, while South Ossetia is not, though some people say it is being annexed by Russia.

Ossetians are said to be descendants of the Alans, an Iranian tribe that moved to the Caucasus more than a millennium ago. A dispute between Ossetians and Georgians has been ongoing for at least decades, if not hundreds of years. Fighting between Ossetians and Georgians broke out a few times over the last century, spanning 1918-1920 and on three occasions between 1991 and 2008.

The events of 2008 surrounding the Russia-Georgia war are a bit of a blur. It’s hard to know what is true, since truth is usually the first casualty of war. My South Ossetian guide said Georgian troops attacked South Ossetia, starting the war in August 2008. Anyway, Russia came to the defense of South Ossetia and fought a 5-day war with Georgia. The Russian military quickly overwhelmed the Georgians. 

After the war, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia, as well as of Abkhazia, the other breakaway Georgian region. Four other UN member states currently recognize South Ossetia.

We start in North Ossetia

Vladikavkaz

The trip to South Ossetia started in Vladikavkaz, which is the capital of North Ossetia. We traveled south through mountains on a surprisingly good road with beautiful views. The views became especially nice just before the border with South Ossetia, where it was cloudy but we could see the peaks of snow-capped mountains. As we were driving through the clouds, it suddenly became clear and I enjoyed amazing views of the mountains.

Heading south with views

The tunnel to South Ossetia

The border station on the Russian side is 20 km before the actual border. To cross into the separatist territory, you need to pass through the Roki Tunnel, a mountain tunnel that was built by the Soviets in 1984 and is situated along the only road connecting Russia to South Ossetia. The Roki Tunnel is about 4 km long. It is very strategically important, and military experts around the world still wonder why the Georgians didn’t bomb the tunnel during the 2008 war. Open passage through the tunnel allows the Russians to easily penetrate deep into the Georgian heartland. Once Russian tanks cross through the tunnel, they can be in Tbilisi within two hours.

The Roki Tunnel

Before I passed through the tunnel, I needed to deal with some border crossing formalities. This is the point where, so I’ve heard, that my guide would have to make a special phone call to the FSB and they would question tourists for one hour about what they would be doing in South Ossetia. 

As you know, that didn’t happen with me. The process was fairly simple, though I don’t know exactly what happened since I didn’t understand what was being said. After just 10 minutes at the border post, I got my permit and we continued on.

Not the busiest border crossing

We drove through the mountains and through the tunnel and reached the border post on the South Ossetian side. We handed over our documents, waited briefly and were then let in the largely unrecognized country. 

“Thank you Russia”, it says.

Arriving in Tskhinvali

We quickly arrived in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. With its population of 30,000, Tskhinvali is the metropolis of South Ossetia. More than half of the people in the de facto republic live in Tskhinvali.

Our first order of business after arriving was having lunch. We ate at what was basically the only restaurant available, or the only real restaurant we could find in Tskhinvali. 

After lunch, we checked into our hotel, rested a little and embarked on a walking tour. My tour guide was an older man who had good command of English. He led us around Tskhinvali. 

Tskhinvali

The most interesting part of the tour was when we visited a South Ossetian national museum. There you get to see the gifts South Ossetia received from the leaders of the countries that recognize its independence. 

What are the countries that recognize South Ossetia? They number five: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria and Nauru. 

The nice part of town

We strolled around Tskhinvali, taking a look at churches, including an Armenian church, St. Mary’s, which is situated in the nicest part of town. We also took a look at the parliament and went up a hill that gave us good views of the city. 

The South Ossetian parliament

Tskhinvali seemed like a very depressing place to live. There are bombed-out quarters of town that were almost completely destroyed and are still not rebuilt.

Decent views but a bit depressing

As our walking tour was coming to an end, a storm was closing in on us. So we went to the house of our guide. I met his brother, who is a doctor, as well as the matriarch of the family, their 92-year-old mother.

The mother was quite a character, and she had lived a pretty incredible life. Even though she didn’t speak any English, she was very well educated. She had lived in Moscow all the way back before World War II. Nowadays, she maintains a big library inside her South Ossetian home. 

The family cooked a very nice meal, which we enjoyed and washed down with homemade vodka, along with local wine and local beer. As you can see with the many churches they have, Ossetians are not Muslims like Chechens and Ingush. Ossetians consume a lot of alcohol. We toasted 7 times to my future travels.

This was a very pleasant evening. I spoke in English with the guys and put my Russian to the test with their mother, though I needed translation help when she started asking me about the Nibelung saga (a German poetic tradition). The whole family, for that matter, was interested in the Nibelung. They told me there are striking similarities between Nibelung and sagas of the Ossetians.

At the end of the night, we took a photo together. The mother gave me some items so I would always remember her and always remember South Ossetia.

Great company

We went back to the hotel, and I got some sleep.

Rugged, rural exploring in South Ossetia

The following day we explored rural South Ossetia. First we drove to a town called Leningor, aka Akhalgori. Leningor is of course the Soviet name of the city, but it seems to have stuck. Akhalgori is the Georgian name.

Leningor/Akhalgori

What’s unique about Leningor is that it is a predominantly ethnic Georgian town within South Ossetia. Yes, there are ethnic Georgians still living in South Ossetia. When you go around Leningor, you notice many of the cars have Georgian license plates.  Apparently, ethnic Georgians can still cross the border and travel to Georgia proper, which is less than 10 kilometers away. And it appears all Georgian citizens can do that as well.

Ethnic Georgian area

Leningor is basic, rural and much poorer than even Russia’s North Caucasus. The town has a nice, old building — basically like a villa — that houses a museum about South Ossetian culture. We took a stroll through the museum, and our guide spoke to us about the paintings. 

What else in Leningor? Not a whole lot.

We walked around town a bit and ate lunch at a restaurant located in the town’s fortress. The restaurant served Georgian food. We enjoyed khinkali — Georgian dumplings. 😊

After Leningor, we turned around and headed back in the direction of Tskhinvali but made some stops along the way. First we stopped at a small village where my guide knew an old man who was a subsistence farmer. The farmer was very poor, but he had a nice house and was very knowledgable about the region.

Along with the farmer, we drove across a river and parked our car. We then hiked to the ruins of the so-called Alanian fortress. This fortress is more than 1,000 years old, having been built in the 10th Century.

Inside a 10th Century fortress

We trekked uphill to get to the fortress, climbing a mountain for about 30-40 minutes. The hike came with anticipation — not just about the fortress… but about animals. 

South Ossetia actually has the largest concentration of wild animals in Europe. In the de facto republic it is very normal to see brown bears, wolves and other wild animals. Unfortunately, there was no wildlife to see when we reached the fortress. I was surprised.

That could have been a big letdown because I actually wasn’t enthused about doing the hike just to visit the ruins. From the trailhead, the ruins did not look very impressive. But things turned out in reverse and that was okay.

When we arrived, to my surprise, the ruins turned out to be quite large. Other than a fortress, we stumbled upon the ruins of a large church. We had the whole site to ourselves, and this made for some fun.

Time to climb

I decided to climb the church tower. Perhaps this wasn’t the wisest move. I struggled to climb up the church tower but managed to do so. It was then even harder to get down. There was a straight 3-meter drop, so I couldn’t just retrace my steps or footholds. I only managed to get down with the help of two people who had to grab my feet and my hand and lower me down.

Nonetheless, the view at the top was nice. It made for quite an adventure to explore these ruins in the woods.

Next we ventured to another old church and to old Ossetian watchtowers, similar to the ones I saw in Ingushetia. There was no way to climb the towers, but we still enjoyed nice views while walking around them. We drove farther up into the hills, traveling along the old gravel road that leads from Tbilisi to Tskhinvali.

This next church had some stairs. We climbed them and again found a ruined church that is centuries old. And again it was an interesting sight to see. 

Finally, after lots of hiking and sightseeing, we went to the house of this subsistence farmer and devoured a nice dinner. As always, the hosts were very hospitable. They had almost no possessions, other than a lot of homegrown food — great vegetables and meat, as well as homemade wine, beer and vodka. That was our dinner — standard South Ossetian dining.

Farm to table

In rural South Ossetia, people live on average off of 150 euros a month. But with their large gardens, they can satisfy all of the god-sent visitors like myself. 😊

A bit more about the war 

Before departing South Ossetia on the third and final day of this leg of the trip, my guide gave me a bit of a history lesson. 

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia technically controlled South Ossetia, but the breakaway region declared independence and a war broke out in 1991-1992. Following that war, a joint peacekeeping force was created that included Georgians, Ossetians and Russians. Fighting broke out again in 2004, but the peacekeeping force functioned relatively well until 2008. 

According to my guide, Georgians attacked a building in South Ossetia — which he showed me — and that was the start of the war. This building seems relatively normal except for the fact that it is ridden with bullet holes and the remains of about half of a tank lie inside the structure. 

Cluster munition used in South Ossetia

Again, South Ossetians say Georgians attacked first, but it is difficult to know what exactly is true. 

What I found as interesting as the explanation of who attacked first was my guide’s explanation of the economic events that led up to the 2008 war. South Ossetia basically had two trade partners, or trade routes: Georgia and Russia. Mostly agricultural products, but also also petrol and alcohol, would flow across the border from South Ossetia to Georgia. Alcohol was much cheaper in the former than the latter. Naturally, there was a lot of smuggling. But in the year or two leading up to the war, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili cracked down on the flow of goods across the border. 

Around the same time, Russia banned Georgian agricultural imports. This caused traffic through the Roki Tunnel to subside and South Ossetia collected less money from tolls. South Ossetia was basically left with no money at all, except subsidies from Russia. So Russia effectively claimed South Ossetia for itself. 

Reentering Russia

The time had come to depart South Ossetia. We drove back through the Roki Tunnel and hit the border post on the Russian side. Getting back into Russia was no big deal. I got my double-entry visa back at the border and then we started making our way toward Nalchik, the capital of Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, which is home to a pretty tall mountain.

Kabardino-Balkaria is also home to this.

The trip veers far off course

My guide wanted to take a mountain road through the North Caucasus. He said he had driven the road once or twice before but did not really remember it, other than it being a rough, gravel road. Still he said we’d reach our destination eventually. I’m adventurous, so of course I said yes to the idea. 

We started out on the mountain road, passing some old mining towns where people still live in aging barracks. Slowly, we climbed to higher and higher elevations. We passed through one village with a lot of old, dilapidated houses that had missing windows. And then there was one nice house in the village. Apparently, it belongs to the president of North Ossetia.

As we climbed higher up the mountains, the weather started to change. It went from pleasant to rapidly weather swings. After about another 15 kilometers, the road changed from dry gravel to basically mud. We drove 1 or 2 kilometers through this wet dirt road before we hit a big mud puddle. 

My guide was determined to make it through the mud puddle. He probably would have managed had there not been a large stone in the middle of this mud patch, which created quite an obstacle. If we went full speed through the mud, we would crash. So my guide reversed slightly and tried driving off road a bit to avoid the stone. There was even more mud on this new path.

Stuck in the mud with you

We got stuck in the mud high up in the Caucasus Mountains about 20 kilometers away from the next village.

The vehicle we were in was a Toyota Highlander. It’s an SUV but it was not a 4-wheel drive. And it was certainly not suitable for this road. 

We made use of everything available, including stones and roots, to try to get the Highlander out of the mud, but to no avail. After about 2 hours and many unsuccessful attempts passed, we heard voices. 

Four people were headed in our direction. They stopped about 500 meters away, probably discussing what to do about us, and then after about 30 minutes, they approached us. It turned out the four people were young Russian Cossacks. 

For those of you who are unsure, Cossacks are Gothic-origin people in Russia and neighboring countries who have strong military and anti-communist traditions. After facing repressions during Soviet times, Cossacks have reemerged in modern Russian society. Now under Putin, it’s actually quite cool to be a Cossack. And you get to walk around with a gun.

The Cossacks who appeared before us were Cossacks of the Kuban River region. They were three guys and one girl, dressed in military fatigues, and they were hiking through the Caucasus Mountains.

These Cossacks came to our aid with a big rope. Now having the manpower of 6 people and a rope, we tried again to get the Highlander out of the mud. 

This worked. We got the car out of the mud… for one meter. Unfortunately, my guide steered the vehicle into another mud puddle. This was an even muddier mud puddle. Another 2 hours went by and we were still stuck.

About 6 hours passed from when we initially got the car stuck in the mud. It was evening and starting to get dark. We spoke among ourselves and decided we needed to reach the next village before it became dark. The Cossacks also needed to carry on.

I grabbed some essentials from the Highlander and left my backpack behind. My guide and I followed the Cossacks, and the long hike began. 

Follow the Cossacks

It took us 2 hours to hike 15 kilometers to the next village. Yes, we probably walked about 15 km and did so in 2 hours. 

This was actually an enjoyable hike. The Cossacks didn’t speak English, but my guide translated, enabling us to have a nice conversation while we walked through the mountains. This was a very cool experience, one we capped with a photo:

Paleolibertarians

I got to know these Cossacks as well as Cossack culture. Cossacks are the quintessential Russian paleolibertarians, having fought communism and paid with their lives over the last century. 

There wasn’t much action in this village we reached. But there was a man who had a large vehicle and was willing to lend a helping hand. 

15 km hike complete. Now a taste of village life

The man and my guide headed out to rescue the Highlander. I stayed in the village with the man’s family. They were very hospitable. They welcomed me in their rustic Spartan-style home and served me a nice dinner consisting of sausages and mashed potatoes. I couldn’t really communicate with the man’s mother. 

But I was very grateful to be inside a warm home. It was getting quite cold outside, and my guide and his helper with the car didn’t return for about an hour and a half. 

Indeed, they did return with the Highlander. It took them around 30 minutes and 7 tries, but they managed to get the vehicle out of the mud. We stayed a bit longer at the family’s home, and my guide ate dinner there. We conversed a bit and thanked them for the hospitality before hitting the road again. 

The family actually offered for us to spend the night at their home, but I needed internet because I had a consulting call scheduled for that evening. I insisted we go to our hotel.

Our hotel was still about 90 minutes away. We drove back down the mountain, eventually reaching a nice road that led to a ski resort. We made it to this resort where there was nice hotel waiting for us. 

Visiting Europe’s tallest mountain

At 5,642 meters, Mount Elbrus is Southern Russia is the tallest mountain in Europe. I was privileged to be able to visit this mountain and venture more than half way up it.

We finally made it to Nalchik and then took a boring highway to Mount Elbrus. We arrived in a village underneath the mountain. 

Up we go

We checked into a hotel, ate lunch and then headed up the mountain in a cable car. The cable car goes up to an elevation of 3,800 meters. This is quite high, and it is cold and snowy up there. Unfortunately when we arrived, the weather was not good, and we could not see much of the mountain. We could just see clouds, fog and some decent views of other mountains. 

Snow time

The air was thin, and it wasn’t so easy for me to breathe, having just shot up from 1,800 to 3,800 meters in 15 minutes. So we went down the mountain, relaxed in the hotel, ate dinner and I got ready for another Elbrus climb the next day.

Taking another crack at Elbrus

On day 2 at Mount Elbrus, I ventured back up the mountain in the cable car, though this time alone. Again the weather was not very good, but the views improved. I could see much of the surrounding mountain range, though I still could not see the peak of Elbrus. Up at 3,800 meters, I waited in a hut where I had a drink. The sky did not clear enough for me to see the peak. I did see a lot of people, though, who were trying to climb the mountain. A bit frustrated, I headed in the other direction, getting back in the cable car to go down the mountain, so I could continue on with my planned sightseeing for the day. 

Nice to be at 3800 m but no luck

Then suddenly I got lucky. As the cable car started the descent, the sky cleared enough for me to see the peak of Elbrus. Clouds still covered the lower part of the mountain, but I could actually see the peak very clearly. The timing was perfect.

 

Elbrus

I could only see the top of Elbrus from the particular location I was in. If I had still been up at the hut by the top cable car station, I would have had the wrong angle, and clouds would still have been blocking my view.

But as I started to head down the mountain in the cable car, I was in the right location with the right angle. I finally snapped that elusive shot of Elbrus.

Elbrus on a clear day in all its glory – well, this is not from me

After getting down the mountain, I drove with my guide to another town in the area. This town, Pyatigorsk, is a well known spa town that is famous for its sulphur baths. 

My guide knew the town well because he had studied there during the Chechen wars. It was in Pyatigorsk where he studied English, as well as French. So he led me around town, showing me nice architecture, parks and another cable car.

A couple of Pyatigorsk’s five hills

Pyatigorsk means 5 hills in Russian. The town is named 5 hills because… well, it has 5 hills. One of the hills is quite high. We went up it with the cable car. Looking down on Pyatigorsk and the surrounding region, there are nice views, but still the weather was a problem. But we found one natural sulphur bath with a quite impressive view. 

Sulphur bath with a view

Pyatigorsk was where I said farewell to my guide. At this point, I was on my own in Russia and would have to make do for the rest of the trip with my limited Russian speaking ability.

The next day I hopped aboard a Lastochka, a modern Russian train, which took me to the city of Krasnodar.

Elbrus at a distance

It so happened that on this day the weather was very nice. From the train I enjoyed a completely clear view of Mount Elbrus. This big white mountain surrounded by green landscape made for a very impressive sight. Unfortunately, my phone camera isn’t the greatest, so you can’t enjoy the view of the mountain with quite the clarity I had.

Ending in Krasnodar

Krasnodar

I arrived in Krasnodar, a city on the Kuban River near the Black Sea. Krasnodar is now a city of 1 million people, but it isn’t that noteworthy of a place. I explored a bit and took some photos. 

More Krasnodar

Even though Krasnodar did not make for the most exciting end to my North Caucasus adventure, the trip itself was very memorable. Traveling to South Ossetia and hiking through the Caucasus Mountains with real-life Cossacks are certainly two of the memories I cherish. And seeing the peak of Europe’s highest mountain wasn’t too shabby either. Thank you Russia. 😊