The republic of North Ossetia is a hidden gem in the Caucasus. Amongst the high peaks are well-preserved ruins, some in an architectural style that almost looks alien. The capital Vladikavkaz is a pleasant base for exploring this region.
Literally meaning “ruler of the Caucasus”, Vladikavkaz was built by the Russians as a fortress in 1784. Nowadays it is a city of over 300,000, and the last Russian city I crossed before going into Georgia. In the centre I found colourful and decorated pre-Soviet buildings amongst a pedestrian boulevard, with mountains in the background. In North-Ossetia Christians and Muslims live next to each other, the orthodox Christians being the majority. My favourite spot in the city was the pedestrian bridge over the fast-flowing Terek river, from where I had a view of the beautiful Mukhtarov Mosque. I had low expectations of Vladikavkaz because a French blogger wrote that there is nothing to see. But I found plenty to see here, and I would discover spectacular sights around it.
I like to travel independently as much as possible, but safety risks made me hire a guide to visit the mountains of North-Ossetia. I read on a forum that in these mountains earlier in 2018 two Israeli tourists were stopped by police, held for a day and forced to pay a fine. The reason was that it is apparently forbidden for foreign tourists to wander around here by themselves. I wouldn’t take the same risk. On my first day in Vladikavkaz I found a tourist agency willing to arrange a driver and a guide for me. My destination was the remote necropolis called “Dargavs”.
The Ossetian Mountains & Dargavs
The next morning my driver Tolik, accompanied by my guide Marina, drove me into the mountains. It’s a spectacular ride, as peaks here are over 5 kilometres high. Marina pointed at hotels being built along the road. It seemed tourism was growing here. Eventually she told Tolik to stop the car, and we walked to an old castle carved into a cliff. Later we drove to the Alian Uspenski Monastery, situated so high in the mountains that few trees grow near it. A dirt road led us even higher to “Dargavs”. There was one woman in an office selling tickets. I didn’t spot any other people. She told us we were the first visitors that day, and that the day before only three people visited. This is a shame for her, since what I saw was spectacular.
Dargavs is a cluster of 99 ancient houses with an identical architecture of ridged curved rooftops, though in different sizes. They were built between the 12th and 17th century on a hill in a barren mountainous landscape. Although it looks like a village, it is a necropolis. The ancestors of the Ossetians, called Alanians, buried their dead here, and the bones are still in the houses. The story goes that during the plague, infected people awaited their death in these houses.
A few of the houses have boats in them, an odd thing so high up the mountains. The reason for the boats is that Alanians believed the dead had to cross a river to the afterlife. The history, the remoteness, and the almost alien look of the buildings make Dargavs a scary but unforgettable sight in Russia.
Practical advice on traveling here
Transport: I took a bus to Vladikavkaz from Pyatigorsk central bus station. Later I traveled from Vladikavkaz to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi by shared taxi. It took me just a minute to get a taxi near Vladikavkaz train station. My onward travels to Georgia didn’t go well, as you can read in “Stuck for three days on the road from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi”.
Finding a tour to Dargavs: to see the mountains and get to Dargavs I used “Alliance touragency” at ulitsa Revolutsiy (улица Революции) 62, Vladikavkaz. I visited their office and agreed on a tour. They have both Russian and English guides, but they told me their English guide is not always available. Therefore it’s best to contact them in advance if you want an English guide. Their site is ta-alliance.ru.