Holidaying in lands that don’t exist: South Ossetia

Sascha Duerkop May 23, 2020
Holidaying in lands that don’t exist: South Ossetia

Should you be in the High Caucasus already, you might want to go a step further into it and end up in one of, if not the, least visited part of the world – South Ossetia.

How do you get to South Ossetia?

Almost exclusively known for the fierce war in 2008, the region is famously hard to visit, if you don’t happen to be an Ossetian or at least Russian. You would have to take five-hour ride from Vladikavkaz in Russia to get to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinval (Tskhinvali in Georgian), which is tiresome in itself.

The real issue is the border halfway through the ride, though. On my last arrival, I had to put my name in a book, which lists all non-Russian citizens to ever have visited. I was number 134 and two of these prior visitors was also me. The reason why so few people make their way to the region with just over 30,000 inhabitants is, other than its remoteness, the complications many people experience when trying to get a visa or entry permission. Taking one of the four tours on offer is thus definitely recommended.

Street Artists painted “The Kiss” on of the destroyed buildings of Tskhinval’s Jewish Quarter, by Sascha Duerkop

Tskhinval: From Lenin Street to Stalin Street

The capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinval, looks and feels like any barely visited Russian provincial city, to be honest. Just the ever-present bullet holes, shrapnel scars in buildings and a tank hatch that got stuck in a street make you realise this is not your average small town. Being such a tiny republic, all sights, from the national museum to the parliament and the old, and almost entirely destroyed, Jewish quarter are within 15 minutes’ walking distance. If you fancy having a beer or vodka with a minister, hang out in the only posh place in town, a restaurant called “Vincenzo’s” in the main park area. Everything of relevance is somewhere between Lenin Street and Stalin Street.

Vincenzo’s Restaurant – the place-to-be in Tskhinval, by Sascha Duerkop.

Getting a long, long way away from it all

The beauty of South Ossetia surely lies in its nature, which is largely unspoilt and scattered with ancient watch towers, small traditional villages and wild bears, horses and other flora. My favourite place, probably of all unrecognised countries, is in the North of South Ossetia. A few rough off-road hours away from any tarred road lies Edis (Edisa in Georgia) in a sleepy valley. The city is no more, but the thousand-year-old necropolis, huts and watchtowers are all over the valley and create an absolutely magical atmosphere.

The ancient necropole of Edis, a long-gone village in a remote valley, by Sascha Duerkop.

Finally, South Ossetia’s second city, or shall we say hamlet, called Leningor (Akhalgori in Georgian) is worth the five-hour drive from Tskhinval, if you are looking for a very special story.

The city is almost entirely inhabited by ethnic Georgians, who are the only people in the whole region who are allowed to cross the heavily guarded border to Georgia. Shops will have Georgian TV running and you can easily buy a souvenir magnet saying “I LOVE GEORGIA”, while you are standing in the enemy’s land. The city also features the palace of a 19th century Prince who ruled over the village the city lies in centuries before. Today, the palace is a surprisingly well-kept museum full of art and exhibitions on the history of the region.

The palace of the Eristavi Noble Family in Leningor, by Sascha Duerkop.

When should you visit South Ossetia?

South Ossetia is beautiful in winter, but as the only road connecting it to the outside world is often closed for weeks due to avalanches, a visit in summer is recommended instead.

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Sascha Düerkop is a German mathematician, economist, football maniac, geography nerd and traveller. He has travelled to most unrecognised countries and way beyond, organised football tournaments for not-quite-states and has over 500 football national team shirts in his wardrobe.