Break-Away Republics

September 2019: South Ossetia is an independent country that can be best described as a break-away republic.   A break-away republic is a land that has formed its own independent country after splitting from another country that lays claim to it. Often a break-away republic consists of a different culture that felt under-represented by its former country. Another reason for breaking away is a difference in ideology such as a push towards communism or difference in religion. The process of breaking away is usually a bloody one and involves multiple countries in the region or beyond that all have a stake in the outcome. Break-away countries are typically not recognized internationally or by the United Nations. There are dozens of break-away countries around the world. Most are located within eastern Europe, Asia and in Africa. They commonly occur after the disintegration of a former empire or colonial power. In the case of South Ossetia, it was held together with Georgia as part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the country of Georgia was formed with South Ossetia included in it.  Like all political issues, the differences between Georgians and South Ossetia is complicated. Growing nationalism within both sides led to tension and eventual conflict. In 2008 South Ossetia chose to break-away from Georgia and the President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakahlii sent in Georgian troops. War ensued and Russia entered the war as an ally with South Ossetia and an enemy of West leaning Mikheil Saakahlii who was entertaining the possibility of joining NATO. Russia and South Ossetia troops pushed back Georgia and Georgia lost at least 20 percent of its territory.  As part of the peace agreement between the countries, South Osettian is allowed to be independant, however the citizens are eligible for Russian citizenship. Additionally, Russian military bases operate within South Osettia for what is described as peace keeping reasons. The Georgians consider South osettia to be a Russian occupied State.

 

More About South Ossetia

South Ossetia is located in the Caucuses mountains and is bordered by Russia to the north and Georgia to the south. The border with Georgia is militarized, full of land mines and occasionally there are deadly skirmishes between troops. The only way to enter South Ossetia is via Russia’s province North Ossetia though the Roki tunnel. A 2-mile tunnel built through a mountain during Soviet times.  

Since you must enter South Ossetia via Russia, a Russian visa is required and because the Caucus’s region of Russia is no stranger to conflict with flighting in Dagestan and Chechnya, a special permit is required by the Russian government. This requires additional visa processing time and guarantee of approval. Then to enter South Ossetia, a permit is needed and must be organized by an inviting party from within the country. Prior to my visit few foreigners were being allowed to enter South Ossetia and definitely very few Americans since the west was viewed as friendlier to Georgian interests. 

To obtain a permit to enter South Ossetia, I reached out to a travel contact on social media who put me in touch with the sports minister of South Ossetia-Sergo. In addition to being Sports Minister, Sergo was also a military commander during the war. He was currently trying to start up a tourism business on the side. I reached out to Sergo via WhatsApp and he organized our permit and assisted us in obtaining a Russian permit too since he had connections in Russia as well. 

Location of South Ossetia

Zoomed in map view

Day 1: I organized a few of my friends to join me on the trip. We met in Moscow and from there flew into Vladikavkaz, capitol city of the Russian State, North Ossetia. We met a driver that Sergo sent to pick us up at the airport who didn’t speak a drop of English and we set off using google translate to communicate.  The drive was a few hours until we reached the rugged Caucasus Mountains and passed through the impressive Roki tunnel. It took us nearly 20 minutes to pass through the tunnel, which is located almost 7000′ above sea level. It is the only way to enter South Ossetia through the mountains along the Russian border and it is prone to rockslides and avalanches . It is only available for use in the summer effectively cutting South Ossetia out from the world for months at a time. visit two border posts

Once in South Osettia, we had to visit two immigration posts; the first Russian and the 2nd South Osettia. The Russian one was the most difficult. Immigration officials searched our vehicle and interviewed us each one by one. I went first since I organized the trip. I was seated in a small sterile office beneath a portrait of Putin. A Russuan official, who didn’t speak english called a translator who translated the officials questions to me. Given the lack of Americans and tourism in general in the sensitive border area, the Russians were very curious about us. They were also very curious about the exotic stamps in my passport. The interview lasted about 30 minutes and without the letter of invitation from Sergo, who was very well connected, I am not sure we would have been allowed entry. One by one my friends were indivdually interviewed and asked the same questions as I was to ensure that all of our answers were consistent. The South Osettian border post was straight forward. Our letter of inviation from Sergo ensured a quick entry.

Street scene Tskhinvali with bullet holed buildings from the war with Georgia

After passing the Roki tunnel, we were in the capitol of South Ossetia-Tskhinvali within an hour. Tskhinvali is a small city of approx. 30,000 people and has all of the appearances of a typical ex-Soviet era town with austere architecture and rows of communist bloc apartments. In many buildings the legacy of the war was still visible holes in buildings from shelling and bullets.

We checked in to our hotel, which was an old spa during Soviet times. Even though it was only September, it was already freezing outside, and it felt like winter was closing in. We walked over to one of the only restaurants and bars open at night and made some new friends with the college kids working the bar. They practiced their English and taught us about their country. Then finally, Sergo was able to break free from his busy schedule and meet us for a beer at the restaurant.

Soviet bloc apartments with shelling holes from the war

Sergo the Sports Minister for South Ossetia and a military commander is a friendly imposing charismatic man with the appearance of being a Russian Gi Joe. he was well known by everyone and everywhere we went it seemed people would greet him and shake his hand.

Day 2: The next day, we explored Tskhinvali, which was is a very interesting town that felt like going back in time to the 1950s. There is no working foreign ATMs in the country and our cell phones did not have reception. Old Russian ladas and trucks were the norm. There were many stout and strong babushka women with scarfed heads out and about. 

The demographics of the town definitely leaned more towards the elderly since the majority of young people have left for Russia looking for better economic opportunities.

Public bus

Old  Neighborhoods

We purchased food and supplies for our homestay in a remote mountain village. Sergo picked up us AK-47 with plenty of ammunition for some fun shooting for later. Per Sergo everyman had an AK-47 at home and was part of a militia assigned to protect Sout Osettia in the event of another invasion from Georgia.

Richard Inside an Orthodox Church

Breakfast at our hotel with a bizarre stuffed full-sized man that I found in the lobby. My fun little joke was not appreciated by the babushka lady serving us our breakfast and I was promptly scolded.

On the way out of town we stopped by a war memorial. Sergo told us that during the war with Georgia many civilian vehicles trying to flee the war were strafed by helicopters and many South Osettians were killed. The memorial contained some of these vehicles all surrounding a cross.

War Memorial

We traveled along the south of the country within visual distance of the militarized border with Georgia. The road ventured so close to the border at times, that Sergo mentioned there were landmine fields on the side of the road. The southern region of South Ossetia is not mountainous and contains olive trees, vineyards and abandoned Georgian villages.

South Ossetia has an ancient history dating back to biblical times and it is no stranger to invading armies. Genghis Kahn and Timurlane the Great all came through South Ossetia laying waste to the land. So many people were murdered that the population of South Ossetia before the Mongol invasions was larger than it is now. One method for keeping an eye out for approaching marauding armies every village was to build giant stone watch towers in the outskirts of a village. These watch towers or what remains of them, are still found all over the country. We went to the village of Jagina to see some well-preserved watchtowers. The hunble villages with their braying donkeys, olive trees and ancient oak trees were beautiful and I wish we had a few days to spend in this part of the country alone. Every place we went had the feeling of being un-discovered by tourism.

Jagina Watch Tower

Sergo in his military fatigues seated at the top of the tower

Tunnel inside the watchtower

Old, abandoned graveyard we found outside the village

Mountain Homestay

After exploring the villages of the lowlands, we headed up to the mountains to a small village where Sergo said he has a friend with a house where we could stay for the night. The road was no longer paved and at times muddy and 4wd. The mountain scenery was spectacular and Sergo invited us back to do mountain trekking. A vast portion of the country is all roadless mountain country and the only way to access it is on foot. If we had more time, this would be a true highlight. 

Old, abandoned graveyard we found outside the village

There was no need to bring water. These fresh water springs were found all over usually with a tap and a small meorial to a soldier that fought and died in World War II.

Tsoan Village

Like most of the country, the village of Tsoan seemed forgotten by time. The wooden houses were rotting and on the verge of collapse. It was difficult to discern which houses were abandoned or lived in and farmers used antiquated equipment. The valley was surrounded by rocky hills full of trees that had turned their autumn colors.

When we arrived at a small cluster of wooden houses, our host and a few other adult men were splitting logs and piling them into a woodshed. The family was preparing for the long cold winter ahead and wood stoves were the only way to stay warm in these parts.

Fall colored hills around Tsoan Village

Tsoan Village

Old farm equipment

Our homestay

Like most of the country, the village of Tsoan seemed forgotten by time. The wooden houses were rotting and on the verge of collapse. It was difficult to discern which houses were abandoned or lived in and farmers used antiquated equipment. The valley was surrounded by rocky hills full of trees that had turned their autumn colors. 

When we arrived at a small cluster of wooden houses, our host and a few other adult men were splitting logs and piling them into a woodshed. The family was preparing for the long cold winter ahead and wood stoves were the only way to stay warm in these parts. 

Our homestay’s wood stove

The kitchen

Tsoan Village Healthy Cows

Pigs

Village man stocking up on firewood from the nearby forest

Wes helping to load the firewood for our hosts

Big traditional dinner with vodka and local whiskey

We had a huge meal with traditional food all made of organic and local vegetables and meat. Then we drank locally made red wine and did shot after shot of whiskey and vodka-some did more shots than others and paid the price. Sergo shared his war stories with us. He fought in the frontlines against Georgia and he had many gripping stories.  Jimmie challenged Sergo to a shot contest, which ended with Sergo escorting Jimmie to his bed. The night was freezing and we throw as much firewood as we could into the fireplace.

South Osettian Whiskey   

Caving and Shooting Ak-100’s in the Mountains

Day 3: The next morning we awoke early to a full breakfast. Sergo was unphased by the whiskey shots of the previous night. Jimmie was deep asleep and not interested in joining our excursion into the mountains. We set off in Sergo’s jeep up the rugged dirt road higher into the mountains to where a cave entrance is located. From the road we hiked up a ridge into the cave and hiked as far into as we could and then set up his AK-100 a modern relative of the AK-47. With a few lessons from Sergo we each took turns unloading clips of ammunition into a boulder at the edge of a field. The kick and intensity of shooting the gun was awesome. Richard scared me a little bit when he started to turn slightly towards us while shooting.

Sergo in his familiar military fatigues on our hike up the ridge to the cave

Cave Entrance

Richard, Wes and I

Exploring the cave

Sergo giving me shooting lessons

Sergo giving me shooting lessons

me having a go

Wes

Koze Lake

After collecting Jimmie, who finally awakened we said goodbye to our hosts and set off for some more mountain scenery. Along the way we stopped at a small chapel believed to be sacred to the local people. To reach it, we had to climb about a mile of steps. Along the way we met some picnicking South Ossetians who asked us to pose with them for photos. 

Jimmie and I posing with some South Osettians 

Then from there we drove through a few rivers and rough 4wd tracts to get to lake Koze, one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen set among towering groves of pine trees. As soon as we arrived at the lake, I disappeared into the forest exploring. I was in heaven and loving it. 

Lake Koze

Lake Koze

Mountains by Lake Koze

Afterwards we drove back to Tskhinvali and spent the night in the same hotel as on the 1st night. 

City of the Dead-Erman Village and Interrogation by Russian Intelligence Soldiers

Day 4: On our last day, Sergo told us he would try and take us to the City of Dead, a place I was sold on from just its name alone.  To get to this place we would have to drive off down a really bad road for hours to a sensitive security area near the Georgian border and Russian State of Ingushetia border.  This is an area of alleged weapons smuggling and even potential terrorist crossings. At one point in the drive a Russian military jeep pulled us over and a few Russian soldiers examined our passports and began speaking to Sergo in Russian. Sergo translated their questions to us. To make sure we were consistent, I was answered all of the questions on behalf of the group. The soldiers were very curious about our presence and wanted to know what our occupations were. The experience seemed a lot like an interogation and Sergo appeared slightly nervous as these soldeirs had the capability of detaining us if they decided to. Then probably more so out of boredome than anything, they took opportunity of our captivity to learn more about the USA. They asked us what people thought of Russia and what Americans thought of South Osettia and Russian soldiers being there. I told the truth and told them that most Americans don’t know anything about the region and that Russia is very well liked especially the girls. They smiled and let us proceed on our path.

 

Ermin Village

Then we finally arrived at my favorite part of South Ossetia and really a travel highlight-Ermin Village and the City of the Dead. Ermin Village with beautiful with its little stone houses and haystacks adjacent to stone watch towers. The city of the dead was not really a city at all, but a series of old crumbling stone watch towers spread throughout a mountain valley. Vast forests of fall colored leaves cover the hills. The reason why the city is dubbed of the dead is because throughout the valley and near the watch towers are small stone structures with an opening big enough to crawl inside. In the openings of these structures are dozens of skeletons and skulls. 

Ermin Village house with a watch tower adjacent

Men sorting the hay in Ermin Village

Men sorting the hay in Ermin Village with old Russian vehicles

Men sorting the hay in Ermin Village

City of the Dead Watch Tower

City of the Dead Watch Tower

City of the Dead Watch Tower

The city or more so the valley of the Dead was separated from Ermin Village by a few miles. The place is shrouded in mystery and not much is known about it. There are likely lots of superstitions I’m sure and I would have liked to lean about them from the villagers, but our time was limited. Watch towers and ancient stone structure ruins were scattered throughout the area. These were the ruins of the ancient Ossetian people, who were in a constant state of war and built the towers to observe the enemy in advance. The dead were left inside the open stone structures and were not buried. I was able to crawl inside of one structure and see dozens of skeletons and skulls. The valley was absolutely magical and rates as one of my favorite places that I have visited. Despite the immense tourist potential, there were no tourist buses, souvenir shops or masses of selfie stick carrying tourist. Instead, there was just the wind and a sense of being fortunate enough to visit a pristine place shrouded in overwhelming mystery. 

Structure containing skeletons and skulls

Skulls

Sleeping in the village and having more time to explore would have been ideal but we had to head back to Russia. From the village we set off on the long drive to Vladikavkaz, in North Ossetia and arrived in early evening. We said our goodbyes to Sergo and checked in to our hotel in anticipation of exploring our new surroundings during a major soccer match that seemed to ignite the city In a frenzy of excitement. 

15 + 13 =

error: Content is protected !!