Why visit

People visit South Ossetia for unusual cultural experience, adventure, and untouched nature of the Caucasian mountains. This land has a soul, and the people living there are amazingly hospitable, which is the main treasure of this country. Even though it may sound trite, in the case of South Ossetia it is true. Spend a week or at least a few days there and you will feel how different the world there is from what you are used to. Plunge into the special rhythm of mountain life. Get to know ancient customs and strong human characters.

Almost immediately after the events of 2008, we started to travel regularly to South Ossetia. We meticulously explored the gorge after the gorge - hitchhiking, horseback riding, and trekking. We trekked for hundreds of kilometers (miles) through the alpine meadows and deserted highlands with backpacks behind our shoulders. We climbed to the tops to see ancient temples and searched for inconspicuous sanctuaries in the groves. Helped peasants reap their harvest. Lived in a monastery. Made more than 100 liters (26 gal.) of jam and 500 liters (132 gal.) of apple wine. Over the years of travelling there, we have tried a lot of things - and it will not be possible to fit all of it into a short trip. Nevertheless, you can choose the most interesting things to do in South Ossetia:

1. To Get Acquainted with the Traditional Religion of Ossetians and Take Part in a Rural Holiday Celebration

On a hill surrounded by the mountains, stands a stone church. Men holding three pies in their hands walk around it three times. Passing by the bell, they ring it each time, then sit down nearby, say a prayer addressed to heaven, and then drain the horn with Araka. A little bit further away, there is a young man holding a lamb to the ground. He cuts its throat with a knife whispering something. Soon after, the lamb is in a huge cauldron.
Many consider South Ossetia an Orthodox country, and there are really good reasons for that. However, the situation is somewhat more complicated. Despite several waves of Christianization in Ossetian culture, dinner table rituals, traditional dances, and rituals of remembrance preserved traces of the ancient pre-Christian religion. The tradition of prayers in holy places, many of which are located on the ruins of Orthodox temples, is also preserved. In most cases, it is difficult to determine whether a sanctuary was built in the place of a church or was it the other way around - a church was built in the place of an ancient sanctuary. Many people consider Ossetian religion to be pagan, which is controversial, because it has the concept of a single supreme creator god Xucau. As for various patrons of elements, phenomena of nature, and spheres of activity, they are recognized only as celestial beings (Dzuars) and spirits (Daudzhits). Many Dzuars have Christian names - for example, the name of Uastyrdzhi, the patron of wars and travelers, comes from St. George, and the name of Uacilla, the patron of the rain, lightning, and thunder, from St. Elijah.
There are sanctuaries all over Ossetia where people pray and celebrate the Day of Dzuar ("dzuarbon" in Ossetian). Take part in such prayers is one of the most interesting experiments that the country can offer to a traveler.
Please note that part of the tradition is a feast during which a large number of toasts - usually more than 30 - are said, and the locals always insist that each glass should be drained. In fact, you don't have to drain your glass all the time - it's just part of the national fun activity called Get the Guest Drunk.

2. To Learn How to Make Ossetian Pies

Traditional Ossetian pies are not just national food, they are a ritual dish. Almost always three round (although sometimes they are triangular) pies are served on the table. The circle is a symbol of being. The three pies sitting on top of each other represent the structure of the universe. And making a real Ossetian pie is not that easy. There should be a lot of stuffing, and the dough should be very thin. Only an experienced hostess, who has been baking pies since childhood, will cope with this difficult task. Recipes for good pies are a matter of family pride and regular discussions because someone knows how to tell good wine from bad, someone is a coffee expert, as for Ossetians, there is nothing more important for them than properly cooked pies.
3. To See Volcanoes and Lakes on the Keli Highland
The rocky Keli Highland is located at an altitude of about 3,000 meters (9,842 ft.). It is covered with colorful extinct volcanoes - red, pink, green - and many lakes. The Keli Lake with an area of 1.28 square km (0.5 square miles) is the largest and most picturesque lake. Every time we walk in its surroundings, we see bears or herds of chamois. This pristine high-mountainous area will impress even the most experienced travelers despite the fact that a hike through it is quite possible even for beginners.

4. To Brew Beer, to Make Wine or Araka

Harvesting and preparing drinks for the holidays is a busy time in an Ossetian village. Plan your trip to Ossetia before some big religious holidays to see how traditional beer is brewed in huge pots. Stay for the holiday to taste it. Or come in late September or early October, when grapes are harvested and turned into wine, Araka, and Chacha (Georgian grape distillate) all over the country. And be sure to participate in the process!

5. Ride Horses or Go on a Horseback Riding Trip in the Mountains

Horse breeding in South Ossetia is on the rise - more and more people are getting horses for their farms, more and more horse farms are found in villages. You can spend a few days on a farm like this to learn how to understand horses and sit in the saddle, and if you're an experienced rider, you're ready to go on a horseback riding trip in the mountains. For several years now, there have been horse races in South Ossetia during the days of Uastyrdzhi prayers (from Monday before November 23rd through the next Monday). If you plan visiting the Caucasus in November - don't miss it.

6. Learn the Rules of The Ossetian Feast

Kuvd is a religious feast that lasts many hours. Participation in it is not easy for a person of another culture. However, some mental effort combined with ritual Ossetian beer will help gain invaluable experience.
Long wooden table. At the head of the table is a lively man around 70, he is the eldest at this table. There is a head of a calf in front of him. Boiled meat, salt, Ossetian pies are put next to it. Everybody gets up, and the elder says a long prayer in which the names of Xucau, supreme creator god, and Uastyrdzhi, the patron of wars and travelers, are mentioned. He is holding the three pies in his hands. When he finishes his prayer, he calls the youngest man at the table, gives him take a sip of Araka from the elder's horn and take a bite off the top pie.
After Kuvd, you will never be able to drink a glass of wine without giving a toast, and never start saying a toast without listening to your eldest. Read an article about Kuvd before your trip and you will be ready to join the feast.
7. Visit a Paleolithic Cave
There are four caves of the Paleolithic Age in South Ossetia which you can visit even without special training. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, these caves were inhabited by the first people who left Africa. During the Soviet era, the excavations there lasted for 30 years. The found artifacts are stored in the State Hermitage Museum and museums of Georgia. However, even now there is a chance to find a skull of a cave bear or saber-toothed tiger. Just don't forget to hand over the find to the National Museum or South Ossetian State University.

8. Taste Mineral Waters

The carbonated mineral springs in Ossetia are called Suars. Each of them features its own characteristic composition of water and has its own impact on the body. Ossetians take water seriously, they will gladly discuss the subtlest shades of its taste. The smart owner will lay miles of hose to his house to have a supply of good water or will regularly drive tens of miles to his favorite source simply to avoid using tap water. The most popular Suars are in Bagiata, right off the Trans-Caucasus highway, and in Zgubir. However, in some valleys the springs are found every 5 kilometers (3 miles) so that the tasting of mineral water becomes a separate topic of the Ossetian trip. Some Suars can be used for taking healing baths, oil comes out of the ground next to others, and one of the springs can even be set on fire – there is natural gas coming out with the water.
9. Visit Georgians
In South Ossetia, the choice of nationality depends not so much on the family background (many Soviet-era marriages were mixed) or a native language (almost all speak Ossetian, Georgian, and Russian), but on a personal choice. Even today, some South Ossetians continue to call themselves Georgians and maintain their traditions. When travelling around the republic, you can compare Ossetian wine with Georgian, Ossetian pies with Khachapuri (traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread), Araka, and Chacha.
10. Discover New Things for Yourself and Others
Since ancient times, travelers in the Caucasus were considered people sent by God. The travelers would bring news from faraway lands and add something new to the isolated life of the highlanders. South Ossetia has been equally closed-off and separated from the rest of the world for the last three decades. There were few people willing to visit the region of the constantly smoldering conflict, and those who went abroad rarely returned. Therefore, guests are always welcome there. Having come there, you will not only see and try something new for yourself, but also realize that you also have something to share, because communication expands the horizons and enriches each of the interlocutors. Very open people live in South Ossetia. You can talk to local artists and journalists, have a jam session with musicians, give a lecture to students, or teach a lesson at a village school. Be sure to leave some spare time in your trip – you might get some crazy ideas and you never know what unexpected meetings await you on the way. Welcome!
© 2019 Caucasus Explorer
This travel guide was created by Caucasus Explorer. Our company conceived this project to respond to the hospitality of the highlanders and, at the same time, to support the urban development of Tskhinval and help preserve the traditional way of life in the villages.
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