In uncharted territory: North Ossetia
Jun 25, 2008
|Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia
Nothing like a rough day to make one really want to get home after 4 long weeks on the road. I came all this way only to discover that, technically at least, I'm not allowed to travel in North Ossetia outside the capital, Vladikavkaz, and its near suburbs. You're probably thinking I'm lucky, as who would want to travel anyway in North Ossetia, which people wrongly associate with Chechnya and Ingushetia. More on that in a minute. The real attraction here, as elsewhere in the Russian Caucasus, is the mountains. But if I'm not allowed to visit them, there doesn't seem to be much point in being here.
That in itself is disappointing enough. Beyond that, Vladikavkaz is a less than welcoming host city. I expected the same generally high level of hospitality and friendliness that I experienced north of here in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. Clearly, rural and mountainous areas are better incubators of that famous Caucasian hospitality than big cities like Vladikavkaz (pop. about 350,000), where I've been greeted by gruffness and faces that are stern even by Russian standards. The men have deep, gravelly voices and there seems to be an argument of sorts on every corner. Again, this is somewhat typically Russian, but here it seems a bit more pronounced.
Ossetians seem like simply tough folk. The men appear shorter and squatter than most Caucasians, with thick necks and chunky limbs, kind of like how you imagine Chechens to look. There's a reason Ossetians are some of the world's best wrestlers. The raven-haired younger women, like many Russian women, challenge genetics with a mix of judicious dieting and high heels. There's still a healthy Russian population here (the Ossetians are one of the few groups down here that traditionally have got along well with the Russians), and Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion. As a result, Vladikavkaz seems less exotic than cities like Nalchik and Cherkessk.
I had planned on being in the mountain village of Tsey today. Like Terskol and Dombay, Tsey is tucked into a cul de sac where a long river valley ends at a vertiginous gray wall of rock. Tsey gets some Russian visitors and a smattering of foreigners who probably don't know they aren't supposed to be there. But there's a checkpoint on the way there, and it's not worth the risk. I heard a rumor in Terskol that recently a couple of foreigners had gotten in big trouble for being in Tsey. I could probably have snuck in on a public marshrutka (van), but it's not a chance I was willing to take.
Instead I'll take a less-risky trip up a closer valley, to Dargavs, where there's an Ossetian city of the dead - mummified remains of ancients in a "village" of eerie mausoleums – tucked into the mountains. Dargavs isn't as far up-valley as Tsey, there's no checkpoint, and everybody (except for OVIR) assures me that I won't get checked and it's cool to visit (although technically I believe I'm not supposed to).
Dargavs is not far from Kamardon, where a glacier broke apart in 2004, triggering a landslide of such force that it rolled 25km down the Kamardon valley toward Vladikavkaz, steamrolling everything in its path and killing more than a 100. A renowned Russian actor/director, Sergei Bodrov, who was filming a movie in the Kamardon valley, was among those crushed by the cascading wall of ice, rock and grit. North Ossetia is a magnet for tragedy. Beslan, infamous for the heartbreaking school siege that left hundreds of children dead in 2004, is a suburb of Vladikavkaz. Rebels from Ingushetia were responsible for this. The Ossetians and Ingush don't like each other too much. Their occasional outbreaks of hostility are usually concentrated near the Ingush border, well to the southeast. But in the case of Beslan it spilled into the populous center of the province. A third major tragedy saw a Russian plane, carrying mostly children, collide with a Fedex plane in midair over Switzerland in 2002. That plane originated in Vladikavkaz. A local man who lost his entire family in the debacle, Vitaly Kaloyev, would end up murdering the Danish air-traffic controller who was on duty at the time of the incident. Kaloyev served a modest two years in Switzerland, was released, and is now deputy minister of housing for the North Ossetian government in Vladikavkaz.
Rather than trekking in Tsey today, I was left to prowl Vladikavkaz chasing dead leads for travel agents and looking in vain for a hidden gem that usually reveals itself in any city if you wander around long enough. Nothing came up. I gave up looking for stuff and decided to kill some time on the internet. But the few internet cafes I found were offline. All in all it was a frustrating day. The frustrations reminded me of Rostov, my first stop. At least Vladikavkaz has lots of in-tact turn-of-the-20th century architecture, as well as decent natural scenery in the form of a grove of skyscraping cliffs surrounding the city's southern suburbs (see photos).
So I guess I've come full circle after two weeks of smooth sailing through amazing countryside. My flight home 48 hours from now is coming at a good time. Tomorrow it's back to Moscow, where coincidentally I'll be for the Spain-Russia Euro Semifinal. It will be madness in Moscow if they win.
Tourist count: 25
Not counting Elbrus: 5
(That's right, I met another tourist, at the bus station in Nalchik. She was a Czech girl who had just arrived from Vladikavkaz after a few days of hiking in and around Tsey. How strange that the 5th tourist I met (outside of Elbrus) was en route from North Ossetia, a place that probably gets about 10 foreign tourists a year. Go figure. Caveat: She was studying in Moscow and spoke perfect Russian)
Old Muslim Cherkessian man riding shotgun in my shared taxi from Cherkessk to Kislovodsk 2 weeks ago: How's life over there [in the US]. Better than here? [It's a question I get all the time]
Me: It's OK. I don't know if it's better. Some things are good. Some things are better. Some things maybe worse.
Old man: But the people are rich there!
Me: Not everybody. And there is lots of money here too. One big difference is that we have more people in the middle. We have a middle class. Here you are either rich or poor. Maybe not in Moscow, which seems to have a middle class now. But everywhere else it's rich or poor.
Old man: That's because the Jewish bandits steal everything here! Look at all the rich here in Moscow. They are all Jewish!
Me: Yeah I guess a lot of the oligarchs are Jewish. Like Abramovich. Berezovsky. But maybe not all of them. I don't know. I guess the Jews are good businessmen.
Old man: They're bandits! All of them. The politcians too. They are bandits and Jewish. Abramovich, Potanin, that Chubais ... look what Chubais did, giving everything away to the Jews. He created a country of bandits. In the Soviet Union we lived well here. We lived better than anybody in the world! But now, we are poor. Everything’s terrible. The Soviet Union was a rich and powerful country. Then Yeltsin, Chubais, those two Jews and their Jewish bandit friends came to power and destroyed everything.
Me: I don't think Yeltsin was Jewish
Old man: Yeltsin was Jewish! And so is Putin, another thief and another Jew. The country is controlled by Jews. And so is your country. Bush and Clinton. All in the pocket of the Jews. Many of your presidents have been Jewish. It all started with your Abraham Lincoln. He was a Jew too.
Me: Ah, I don't think because his name was Abraham he was a Jew. We've never had a Jewish president. I don't think Jew could get elected president in the US. There's still too much anti-semitism. But of course, nothing like here.
Old man: Of course Abraham Lincoln was a Jew. Everybody knows that.