- Tskhinvali — the capital and the largest town in the region, home to the government of South Ossetia
- Alkhagori / Leningor — a small town formally under Georgian control, home to the Lomisi Brewery
- Java — nominally the administrative center of Georgia's Java district, but not under Georgian control
There is surprisingly little to see in South Ossetia. And it is hard to go see what little there is, owing to the ongoing separatist conflict between the Ossetes and the Georgian central government and to the security vacuum the conflict has created. Sure, the mountains are beautiful, but they are just as beautiful in the regions to the west and east (Racha and Kazbegi Region) where there is far less danger of being kidnapped or caught in crossfire. And if Ossetian culture is what you want, head to North Ossetia. Most of South Ossetia's population has fled there to escape the conflict and it is a good deal safer than South Ossetia, albeit it too is not that safe.
South Ossetia was an autonomous region of the Georgian SSR under the Soviet Union. In 1989, amid rising nationalist sentiment throughout the Soviet Union, the government of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region passed a resolution to merge with the North Ossetian ASSR, in Russia, but the Georgian SSR government promptly overturned this resolution. In 1991, the president of Georgia declared that Russian would no longer be an administrative language of the new country, and that Georgian would thus be the sole administrative language. Alarmed Ossetes pressed for official status for Ossetian and either greater regional autonomy or full secession from the Georgian Republic to join with North Ossetia, in Russia. Nationalist tensions escalated on both sides until violent conflict broke out between the formerly neighborly ethnicities, resulting in a full-scale war between Ossetian separatists and the Georgian national government.
Under Russian pressure, the Georgian central government agreed to a ceasefire, policed by Russian peacekeepers, which theoretically holds to the present. On the 8th August 2008 the military of Georgia launched a military offensive into South Ossetia in order to regain Georgian control. Several South Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers were killed and Russia immediately got involved into the conflict. Russian forces started a fully-fledged military offensive and defeated the Georgian forces within days. The Russian backed South Ossetian government took over the administrative control. The war was brought to an end by a ceasefire agreement, calling on both sides to withdraw to the positions they held before the conflict. The government of Russia now recognizes South Ossetia as an independent country, angering Georgia and its western allies but causing celebration among the Ossetians. The Russian government has spent years in trying to merge the region with Russia, but has come up with no success.
And just so you sound sophisticated: a person is an Ossete (oh-SEET), the ethnicity and the language are Ossetian (oh-SEH-tee-ahn), and the land is Ossetia (oh-SEH-tee-ah).
English-speakers are virtually non-existant.
The people of South Ossetia can speak Ossetian, Russian and Georgian. However most people will refuse to talk in Georgian and may act hostile towards you if you do, due to the conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia that has been ongoing since the early 90's and experienced a highly publicized war in 2008.
There are two ways to get in: From Russia or from Georgia.
To get in from Georgia, you will have to drive towards the border until you come upon a Georgian Army checkpoint. Your car will be searched, and you will be questioned about your intended visit. If the soldiers agree to let you through, you will drive another five kilometers until you reach the buffer zone, which is controlled by Russian troops in fortified positions and armored vehicles. You will again be stopped, searched, and questioned. If the Russians decide to let you in, you will have to follow a Russian Army staff car, which will take you to the South Ossetian Foreign Ministry to register your arrival.
Another way in is through Russia. The Russian-South Ossetian border is mountainous, and the only way in is through an underground pass, called the Roki Tunnel. You will have to coordinate with the Russian authorities, who are willing to let some people in, including journalists. If they allow you in, simply drive into the tunnel from Russia. When you exit, you will be in South Ossetia.
Ossetian food is delicious, a Caucasian cuisine similar to, but significantly different from Georgian cuisine. Be sure to feast on Ossetian pie, a dish similar to khachapuri, but with meat and mushrooms instead of cheese.
South Ossetia is probably the most dangerous region of Georgia and should be avoided. Visitors are advised to prepare for traveling in a war zone. As mentioned above civilian causalities are common and it is quite possible to get caught in the crossfire. Weapons are also all over the place, often in the hands of bandits, other minor criminal outfits, splinter rebel groups, and ordinary, fearful civilians. Foreign visitors have disappeared in South Ossetia, never to be heard of again.
The Ossetes are understandably jumpy and may arrest travelers taking photographs of, well, anything. It is also a bad idea to voice your political opinions regarding the conflict—better to listen to locals' perspectives and to be vaguely sympathetic.
If kidnapped, or taken hostage, it is best to remain passively cooperative. Your captors may well seem friendly (for them, the region's chaos is daily life), and you are likely to be released, but don't count on this.
- If you find yourself in South Ossetia, you should probably try to find a way to get out. The fastest and safest way is most likely a public marshrutka going south on the main road from Tskhinvali towards Gori, Tbilisi, or Kutaisi. You could take a cab (i.e., flag down any car and pay them to drive you south to Gori), but getting into cars with strangers in a war zone is not a good idea.
- The Russian border crossing at the Roki Tunnel is not a good place to be. Officials on both sides are exceptionally corrupt and fairly lawless. Only Russian and Georgian citizens are likely to be allowed through.
- While this route is not recommended (due to security concerns) it is possible to take a mountainous road northwest from Tskhinvali all the way to Oni in Racha.