When most people think of traveling to Russia they think of going to three places - Moscow, St. Petersberg, and traveling on the Trans-Siberian railway. Some will think of five places adding Kazan and Lake Baikal for good measure to their bucket list. But Russia is by far and away the largest country on earth - something like three times the size of the United States. Furthermore, it has a rich history and has incorporated many ancient nations and empires into its country. Accordingly, it is full of indescribable gems just waiting to be explored - and few in this world know about them.
The History And Diversity Of Russia
Travel south from Moscow all the way down to the southern border with Georgia and you will arrive in the Caucasus region (from where we get the word "Caucasian" for white people). This mountain range is the border between the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan to the south. On the north side of these spectacular mountains is Russia. With peaks reaching over 18,000 feet forming the southern border of Russia, this is one of the most scenic regions of Russia.
Long before Russia expanded to the south these mountains were full of many fiercely independent mountain peoples, tribes, and nations of dazzling linguistic and cultural diversity. It is hard to overstate how just diverse these mountain peoples were and still are today. Today these mountainous tribal peoples form quasi-independent republics within the larger Russian federation. And they retain their languages and cultures. Every part of these languages and cultures has precious little in common with the ethnic Russian majority of Russia.
The Unforgettable Republic of North Ossetia
In the middle of this spectacular mountain range, we find the Republic of North Ossetia. This autonomous region is home to the Ossetian people of Christian and tribal religions with all the other republics in the north Caucuses being Muslim. The capital of this tiny republic is Vladikavkaz and the population of the republic is around 700,000.
People in this region are incredibly traditional, friendly, and above all hospitable. Expect to be spontaneously invited off the street (as a foreigner) to parties and weddings. In this region traditionally there are no tourists, just guests. Traditionally (and still practiced in the villages today) every traveler must be given food and shelter for a minimum of three days for free otherwise the village would be shamed.
Travel To The "City Of The Dead"
Travel now away from the capital and head deep into the mountains. The landscapes greeting you on this road are spectacular, ancient, and storied. There is so much to see and explore here but all that is beyond the scope of this article. Going deeper and deeper into the mountains through these mystical and foggy valleys and you will arrive somewhere unforgettably eerie.
They call it in the local Ossetian language "Dargavs" or translated into English - "The City Of The Dead." It is a city or necropolis like no other in this world. It's not a city at all but a collection of tombs or mini mausoleums (i.e. a necropolis). This is where the dead would be laid to rest with the oldest of the 99 tombs perhaps dating back to around the 12th century.
Each of these crypts has a small opening. And you can peer into each of these tombs and the sight is not for the faint-hearted. You will be confronted with human skeletons - often several in each crypt. Lauding over this site is an old watchtower that characterizes the deep mountains of the Caucasus. In the ancient past, one could never be sure there wouldn't be a raid from the neighboring village or rival clan. So almost every family built a large watchtower in which to fight and protect themselves. They are reminiscent of the ancient "keeps" of medieval Europe (a "keep" is a single defensive tower too small to be a castle). Adding to the sense of mystery and legend, as you see the dead laid to rest inside their crypts, it is as though they are still on guard watching the valleys from their lofty watchtower.
How were these people buried here? Well, that is where the stories diverge somewhat. According to the locals, during times of plague, those infected with the deadly disease would walk up to this necropolis, crawl into the tomb and await death. Other sources claim they were entombed here after death. It is even said among the locals that if one goes there, one will never leave alive. And few local Ossetians dare go there today.
This is one of the world's hidden sites and one day it is sure to become a UNESCO-listed site. Few people outside or indeed even inside of Russia are even aware of this site. It is steeped in medieval mountainous history and mystery and nestled amongst some of the most spectacular natural backdrops one can dream of. It is easy to access and the local people are happy to see foreigners coming from abroad to visit their mountainous homeland. It is an experience like none other.
For the explorer who hasn't traveled outside of the Western World, one needn't be worried about facilities or restaurants. There is a large castle-like restaurant on the highway not far from the City Of The Dead. The capital, Vladikavkaz, is a modern city like any other with hotels, restaurants, and some people who can speak English.
Often travel advisories caution against traveling to the Northern Caucuses as it was the scene of a lot of unrest during the 1990s, but today it is perfectly peaceful and calm. And most of the unrest back then was in Chechnya across from Ossetia.
If you are ever planning a trip to Russia, definitely consider traveling south to the Caucasus. You won't regret it!