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Old 25 May 2010
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South Ossetia with a car

I just returned from a four day drive around South Ossetia by car. Although it's not as interesting as Abkhazia, it has some spectacular mountains and is peaceful (at present, where I went at least), friendly and surprisingly easy to get around.

To get in, you need to email the South Ossetian administration. Contact details are on their website at

Republic of South Ossetia

I was given no clearance letter, but was just told that I could enter on the date I requested, and that the border authorities had been forewarned. There is no visa system, just a migration card given at entry.

Access at present seems to be from Russia only, at the Nizhniy Zermag / Zemo Roka border crossing from North Ossetia (Russia). The road to the border runs from Alagir, which is about 36km west of Vladikavkaz. It's a beautiful road through the gorgeous mountains of North Ossetia. The road is in great condition.

The border post is about 10km short of the tunnel. Leaving Russia was very quick and easy. Obviously you need a multiple entry or double entry visa in order to re-enter Russia. I don't think there are any flightsin / out of South Ossetia. The border with Georgia seems to be impossible to cross at present.

The Roka tunnel is quite a feat of Soviet engineering, at 2100m, going 3.7km through the high Caucasus, linking two continents.

On the South Ossetian side formalities were very informal, was just given a migration card, asked how many days I wanted to stay (I'm not sure there's any limit) and told to register in Tskhinval.

South Ossetia uses the Russian Rouble only.

In Tskhinval, the de-fact capital I stayed in the Hotel Ireston, on Teaternaya Ploschad, Ulitsa Stalina. Rooms start at R170 per person, but had no real bathroom. There are better rooms (pol-lux R400, lux R900 roughly) but I expect that just means you get more battered old furniture and your own dysfunctional bathroom. The hotel director will register you for free (on your migration card).

No documentation / registration is necessary for your car in South Ossetia and I found the traffic police to be pleasant and easy to deal with (unlike their counterparts in North Ossetia).

Tskhinval is not a very interesting place, but it's pleasant enough. North of town there is very heavy destruction, but much of the centre has been rebuilt.

I made two trips into the mountains - one to Lake Ertso, a shallow lake in the hills about 30km NW of Tskhinval. The second was up the Edis Valley from Lower Roka (about 10km from the border), which runs east to the Georgian border, quite close to Kazbeg. It is extremely beautiful and well worth the effort of getting there.

The road snales down from Lower Roka, then starts slowly climbing. At Zgubir, about 7km in, there is a beautiful stone church which locals told me was Greek (Byzantine) and was the most intact stone church I saw in SO. About 18km in is Edis, a beatiful small village of wooden-roofed houses. 5km beyond here on a tough track is Yerman, with remains of a medieval town all around the nearby hills. Walk about 2km further and you come to a three-way valley junction with some very scenic ruined towers. A further 5km up one of the valleys one reaches the Kelskoe Volcanic Plateau, which from pictures looks sublimely beautiful, but the valleys were still metres deep in snow when I visited. I guess the are accessible only in July - Spetember. A North Ossetian shamen told me this area was the real Shambala.

Overall, South Ossetia was pretty interesting, particularly the mountain villages with their Byzantine churches, ruined towers and semi-pagan looking grave markers. it was an easy place to visit, I had no hassles from the authorities, only curious locals who assumed i was a journalist, but seemed very happy that a foreigner had come to their isolated little republic just for the sake of seeing it.

The only unpleasant experience was re-entering Russia - a 10 hour ordeal involving a KGB 'questioning' in Vladikavkaz. Not a pleasant welcome back... but it's Russia.

Good luck

Daniel
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