Pretty much anyone coming to Ossetia will arrive first in Vladikavkaz (Oss. Dzæudzhyqæu), the capital of North Ossetia-Alania. The easiest way is by plane; the airport at Beslan, 14 kilometres north of Vladikavkaz, is served by four or five flights a day from Moscow and a couple of times a week from St. Petersburg. They are cheap, between $40 and $80 one-way. Vladikavkaz is also served by rail from Rostov, Moscow and Sochi but it is long, as are the roads. For my first visit I arrived by private taxi from Grozny in Chechnya, about an hour-and-a-half away, and continued on afterwards to Tbilisi in Georgia, also by taxi, which took about four hours including the border crossing through the stunning Daryal (from the Persian Dar-e Alan, “Alan Gate”) Pass. Note that there is only one way in or out of South Ossetia, by road through the Ruk tunnel, the border with Georgia being closed since 2008.
Vladikavkaz is a very pleasant mid-sized city of about 312,000, large enough to boast many cultural activities—especially classical music, traditional Ossetian dance, and Ossetian-language theatre in both the Iron and Digor dialects—as well as a good range of restaurants. Those who like clubbing, on the other hand, won’t find much here to entertain them. (Better to stay in Moscow.) What I love most about Vladikavkaz is two things: first, look up from anywhere in the city and your gaze will be greeted by the sight of some of the most spectacular snow-capped mountains you will ever see, and second, it is a fabulous place for taking a relaxing stroll! The main boulevard, Prospekt Mira (usually called simply “Prospekt”), is a lovely pedestrian mall that stretches for more than a kilometre through the heart of the city. In summer the restaurants and cafés all have outdoor terraces which serve excellent food at very reasonable prices and are great for people-watching. Prospekt is also lined with some of the city’s most beautiful neo-classical buildings, dating back to the early 20th century when Vladikavkaz must have been one of the most gorgeous places in the entire Russian Empire. At the lower end near the entrance to the central park is a new national museum which is well worth a visit. Aside from Prospekt there are long riverfront promenades along both banks of the Terek where one can amble at a relaxed pace, taking in the fresh air and scenery without the plague of traffic. It would be a great place for cycling, though one sees very few cyclists. Personally, I plan to buy a bike in time for summer.
The functional language in Vladikavkaz is Russian and many Ossetians who grew up here speak little or no Ossetian—for that you have to visit villages or South Ossetia. Of 67 public schools in Vladikavkaz only three are Ossetian-language medium. Still, there is Ossetian television, radio, and print media. The capital is also a hotbed of Ossetian nationalism, and I always find it ironic to hear Ossete intellectuals and nationalists holding forth in Russian about the great Ossetian culture. I wish more would be done to promote and preserve the Ossetian language, the only surviving relic of the Scythian tongue which dominated the entire Eurasian steppe from the Balkans to Mongolia throughout the entire first millennium BCE. Ossetian is thus hugely important for filling out the field of Iranian Studies and world history in general, and deserves far more scholarly attention than it receives. It is sad that even amongst proud Ossetes there is a notion that Ossetian cannot be used as a means for holding high-level discussions. When I spoke at the South Ossetian State University in Tskhinval last summer I agreed with Soslan Dzhusoity, economic advisor to the President who was serving as my interpreter, that all events connected with my visit would be held entirely in Ossetian, and Soslan frequently had to intervene to remind people not to speak Russian. He concluded the question-and-answer session following my lecture by telling the audience, “You see? We have now conducted an entire academic event entirely in Ossetian. So we have proven that it can be done!”