North Ossetia-Alania is a republic within the Russian Caucasus bordering Kabardino-Balkaria to the west, Stavropol Krai to the north, Chechnya and Ingushetia to the east. Georgia and South Ossetia lie to the south.
North Ossetia can be considered as three regions.
- The Central Lowlands — a fairly flat area (alt. 300 - 600 m ) penned in by mountains
- Mozdok — a small corridor of territory connects the second largest city and its environs to the Central Lowlands
- The Mountains — are largely inaccessible without permits, except for the great Georgian Military Highway and the Trans-Caucasian Highway, which head south out of Russian and cross the mountains to Georgia and South Ossetia, respectively
- Vladikavkaz — capital and largest city by far; the northern end of the scenic and historic Georgian Military Highway
- Alagir — alternate entry point given its rail connections
- Beslan — third largest town and site of the horrific Beslan school massacre
- Mozdok — second largest town and site of many terrorist attacks against Russian facilities
- Zei (Цей) — this once premiere Soviet high alpine resort (currently hobbled by the difficulty of travelling near a war zone) offers skiing, relaxation, and excursions to some of Europe's highest peaks; if willing to put up with a lot of red tape, it may be possible (once the Georgia-Russian border opens up) to trek across the spine of the Greater Caucasus from here to the Soviet resort of Shovi in Georgia's Racha region
- Dzinaga — a smaller, but similarly gorgeous tour-base in southwestern North Ossetia
The Ossetes are an Iranian ethnic group who speak Ossete, a language related to Farsi. As a small, Orthodox Christian group in the predominantly Sunni Muslim North Caucasus, the Ossetes were quick to ally with the Russian Imperial government in its conquest and annexation of the region. This alliance has endured to the present, where Russia tacitly supports its allies the Ossetes in their goal to reunify North Ossetia with Georgian controlled South Ossetia and in their ethnic conflict with the neighboring Ingush. This particular ethnic conflict has made North Ossetia a magnet for terrorist attacks, especially in its southeast, and has led to a tight security situation policed by often corrupt officials that is discouraging for travel.
Just to make sure you sound sophisticated, Ossetia is pronounced ah-SEH-tee-yah, Ossete is ah-SEET, and Ossetian is ah-SEH-tee-uhn (not ah-SEE-shuhn)
While Ossetian is the official language, all Ossetians understand Russian. Even though English is becoming a necessity in Russia, Ossetia hasn't followed the trend yet, and English remains almost nonexistent, which is why you will almost certainly be spoken to in Russian as a tourist. This does however go without saying that learning a few Ossetian words and phrases will be extremely highly appreciated.
Travelers will find pre-arranged travel with reputable agents to be far more convenient than independent travel on unreliable public transportation.
- Dargavs (a.k.a. Мёртвый городок, Mertviy Gorodok, City of the Dead) - A village of little houses built specifically to entomb the dead.
- Beslan - School Number One made the news in 2004 when over 1,000 people were taken hostage. The school is now open as a memorial.
- Mountain climbing/biking
Ossetia is famous for its delicious meat pies, very similar to Georgian khachapuri, but it is stuffed with lamb, beef, and mushrooms instead of cheese.
The most common food of the region are Ossetian pies with different fillings such as cheese, potatoes, meat, pumpkin. However Fizonag which is similar to kebab is also wide spread like in the rest of Caucasus. Vladikavkaz offers a large variety of traditional and international restaurants. Dzykka, one of the region's most ancient dishes is popular among the Ossetes, and is most probably the easiest dish for a visitor to taste.
North Ossetia is famous for its alcoholic drinks, very similar to Russian drinks. Locals prefer to drink an alcoholic drink called Arak, an alcoholic drink produced from corn grain, barley or other grain crops.
North Ossetian State University-located in Vladikavkaz.
Because of the ongoing Ossete-Ingush ethnic conflict, regional instability, and proximity to Chechnya, travelers should consider North Ossetia a war zone and tread very cautiously, even though it is safer than its eastern neighbours. Avoid going near the border to South Ossetia, as the border is guarded by extremely corrupt army officers on both sides.
Ossetes are very hospitable people and are generally well open to foreigners. You do need to remember that this is a traditional and conservative society and that you need to look out for yourself when you feel you are in trouble.
Speaking out against a person's relatives, either alive or deceased, may make a local person act very hostile against you. This doesn't mean that Ossetes are temperamental, rather they are strong believers in honour and dignity.
Under no circumstances, whatsoever, will you ever touch a person's hat, because according to Ossetic customs, hats are considered to be a sacred and untouchable thing. Ossetes have zero tolerance towards touching people's hats, and this can lead to some unwanted quarrels. When greeting people, you need to greet the elders before you greet any others, just as a form of respect.
Ossetes are very proud of their own culture and language, and may act generally very defensive if you speak out against their customs.
In North Ossetia there are three GSM operators (MTS, Beeline, Megafon), one 3G-UMTS operator (Beeline) and one CDMA 2000 operator on 450 MHz frequency (SkyLink) and they often have offers that give you a SIM card for free or at least very cheap. If you are planning to stay a while and to keep in touch with North Ossetian and other North-Caucasus people, then you should consider buying a local SIM card instead of going on roaming. To buy a SIM card from a shop you'll need your passport for identification. It only takes five minutes to do the paperwork and it will cost less than $10.
- Georgia - the Georgian Military Highway heading south to Kazbegi in Georgia is open to all third country nationals with no special complications apart from the need to track down insurance in Vladikavkaz if coming into Russia from Georgia. Border officials may question you as to your travels but they shouldn't pose a problem.
- Dagestan - take a detour via Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria to avoid the extremely unstable Chechnya and Ingushetia.