The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Tskhinval, South Ossetia

Tskhinvali Cathedral

The breakaway “Republic of South Ossetia” was a major focus of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.  The border with the rest of Georgia is closed to foreigners, but it’s possible to visit from Russia. You need advance permission from the South Ossetian authorities. They don’t issue a visa or even provide an authorization letter, but instead they add your name to an authorized list at the border checkpoint.

I applied for permission from the South Ossetia Foreign Ministry about four weeks before my trip.  They didn’t actually give me permission until about 5 days ahead of my visit.  I had a similar experience with Abkhazia, I suspect they simply don’t like to issue permission more than a few days ahead.  They don’t have an application form, instead they requested me to email them a scanned image of a formal signed letter requesting permission to visit and giving the dates and my identification information.

Glimpses of the Greater Caucasus

I took the bus in from Vladikavkaz’s Avtovokzal #1 to Tskhinvali. There are five or so buses a day (from 9am to 4pm) and there are also occasional marshrutkas. The bus took three and a half hours.  The road runs through narrow passes through the Greater Caucasus range, so it’s often quite scenic.  There are several tunnels, including the 4km Roki Tunnel, which crosses the border between Russia and the RSO.

Exiting Russia I got questioned for several minutes by the Russian frontier officers. But it was all fairly friendly and they seemed mostly concerned to make sure that I knew what I was doing and had somewhere to stay. An English speaking officer translated.  The Russian authorities tactfully avoided stamping my passport when I crossed into RSO and also when I returned.  There were no issues or questions on my return.

The rather battered Hotel Alan

I didn’t actually go through any entry or exit checks for South Ossetia itself. The bus drivers indicated I should just stay quietly on the bus when they stopped at the checkpoints. (I suspect they didn’t want to be delayed.)  So I never had my entry permission checked.  But obviously you should not rely on that!

At Tskhinvali I stayed at the Hotel Alan, which is on the South side of the bus station square. It looks dilapidated and abandoned, but if you go up to the second floor, that is operational. It is a little basic, but fine for a few nights.

War damaged buildings

There isn’t that much to see in Tskhinvali itself. The town is still recovering from the 2008 war, with only a limited amount of reconstruction going on. The highlights are probably the cathedral and the parliament building.  The central area is mostly in reasonable shape, but the Northern sections contain many derelict buildings.  More Tskhinval photos.

Other travel practicalities:  Although the Russian border post doesn’t stamp passports, it does count as a Russian exit and re-entry, so you’ll need a double or multi-entry Russia visa to enter RSO and return.  You don’t need a visa for RSO but you do need advance permission from the RSO Foreign Ministry.  (Google Translate will help you there.) The RSO Tourism department (yes, it exists) has a Russian language website giving various pieces of travel information at minmol.org/ru.

Novorossiysk: Brezhnev

I’ve bagged Lenins by the dozen.  And even a couple of Stalins.

But a Brezhnev?  In the wild?  Now there’s a real rarity.  But there he was, striding casually down the street in downtown Novorossiysk.  So I nabbed him.

This isn’t the doddering, geriatric Brezhnev of the 1980s.  This is the rising apparatchik, posed with a hint of rebellious informality, a loosened tie and a jacket casually slung over one shoulder.  Not the wooden politburo veteran, but the younger man-of-the-people getting ready to grab power.  The Brezhnev who recklessly sped in (and sometimes crashed in) high-end foreign cars.

The most amazing thing about the statue is that it was erected in 2004, long after the fall of the USSR, paid for by local public contributions.

Why does Novorossiysk love Leonid Brezhnev so?  Well, Brezhnev liked to emphasize his heroic war record, centered on the Northern Caucasus, including Novorossiysk.  As Brezhnev rose in power, so did his remembered heroism and so did the remembered importance of (among others) the heroic battle of Novorossiysk.  And so in 1973 Novorossiysk was awarded the prestigious Soviet title of “Hero City”, one of only a dozen such.  And the citizens are no doubt grateful for this favor.

Balaklava: Giant Secret Lair

In Balaklava, Ukraine, I visited one of the USSR’s super-secret  bases, “Facility 825”.  This is a giant semi-submerged underground lair, where submarines could enter, be refueled or repaired, and be entirely invisible from the air.

Oh yes, and it was designed to survive a 100 kiloton direct hit.

The base seems to have been conceived in the early 1950s. It was constructed by the teams who had built the Moscow and Kharkiv metro systems, so it isn’t too surprising it takes the form of a giant tunnel, with a concealed entrance in the Balaklava harbor and an exit into the Black sea.  The tunnel is wide enough to allow subs to be docked at one side for maintenance, while others slid past in the main channel.

The base is also chock-full other tunnels, for the supporting humans and for the various arsenals.

Facility 825 was super-secret in its day. The entrance is designed to be invisible from the air.  They were initially worried about spy planes, but of course this also worked well against satellites.  The Soviets apparently hoped to keep even the existence of the base entirely secret, using various ploys to conceal the construction work.

But where are the nuclear wessels?

It was decommissioned in the early 1990s, but even today it’s hard to find reliable data on what was actually based there.  It is generally cited as a “nuclear base”.  But as far as I can figure, it was only used for Whiskey and Romeo diesel powered subs (the tunnel was probably too narrow for the later nuclear subs).  There were probably nuclear warheads, but even that is a little unclear.

It’s all a wonderful relic from the Cold War.  It’s rather sad to see it turned into a rather desultory museum.  Where are the international super-villains when you need them?  Why aren’t aspiring megalomaniacs bidding frantically to “borrow” it for “historic renovation”?  Alas, we live in banal times.

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Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m in Sevastopol, Ukraine.

The city was formerly host to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. After 1991, the fleet was partitioned between Ukraine and Russia and both halves are still based at Sevastopol, although most of the warships I spotted had Russian ensigns.

Like Vladivostok, Sevastopol was a closed city during the Soviet era, so it feels strange to be able to wander freely and admire the once guarded fleet.

The city also hosts an eclectic mix of memorials from the Crimean War, WWII and Soviet periods.

Crimean War Cannon, Malakhov Mound.

WWII Artillery, Malakhov Mound.

I’ve been through the Lenin Mausoleum and the Mao Mausoleum. The Kim Il Sung Mausoleum is much, much, more intense than either. Definitely no loitering, chattering, or smirking.

We were strongly encouraged by our guides to dress in our best clothes and to wear shirts and ties for our visit.

The Mausoleum is a large sprawling building, formerly the Presidential Palace. Visitors are carefully screened before entering. Cameras and bags must be left behind. And of course we had surrendered our cells phones on entering North Korea.

We were conveyed inwards through marble corridors on long moving walkways and escalators. As foreigners, we were given priority over patiently queuing North Koreans. The general mood was one of hushed respectful silence, and we tried to blend into that. Rumor has it that Chinese tour groups are no longer allowed to visit the Mausoleum, supposedly because they tended to be too noisy and thus “disrespectful”.

As we neared the inner sanctum we passed through air blowers to blow away any dust we might bring with us.

We passed through the “Hall of Lamentations” where by holding little MP3 players to our ears we heard a description of how the North Koreans had lamented the Great Leader’s passing. (The MP3 players also kept us quiet and attentive.)

Then finally we entered the sanctuary and paraded around the preserved figure. As we had been instructed we bowed carefully at the sides and base. (But not at the head. Not at the head!) Kim Il Sung looks much less waxy and distinctly less vampiric than Lenin, but I’m afraid he does look rather Brezhnev-esq.

We exited into a room full of the Great Leader’s honors and awards. We all relaxed slightly and admired the lengthy collection, including two Orders of Lenin, a standard Stalin WWII victory medal, and honors from most of the former USSR Republics and many other nations. The only US honor was a degree certificate from the little known Kensington University of California. Some of the honors were posthumous, even as recent as 2007, presumably to recognize Kim Il Sung’s continuing role as the DPRK’s “Eternal President”.

Breathing more easily, we now headed out. We were discreetly studying the inward bound North Koreans and they were similarly studying us. Sometimes covertly, sometimes fairly openly, occasionally defiantly staring past us. Mostly they seemed simply curious, occasionally friendly, in a very few cases hostile. Some of these visitors might be making a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Pyongyang to see the Great Leader, so they were naturally curious at the unexpected bonus of exotic foreigners.

I wonder what they made of us? I do rather fear that the regime makes use of visiting foreigners as further proof of the Leader’s greatness. See, even foreigners come from far away, neatly dressed, to bow at the Great Leader. Hmm. That isn’t quite what I had in mind.

More DPRK pictures.

I attended the Mass Games in Pyongyang. They were a bizarre, wonderful and very intense experience.  (More photos here.)

The current version of the games, the “Arirang”, tells the history of North Korea through a giant series of dance and gymnastic sequences. There are reportedly up to 100,000 participants, although only a few hundreds or thousands appear in any one scene. Fifteen thousand children with giant flipcard books provide a continually changing background display. The games take place in a giant custom-built stadium. I had coughed up the 150 Euros (ouch) for a first class seat in the central viewing area.

Birth of Kim Jong Il

The many scenes include the historic birth of Korea; the struggle against the Japanese; a celebration of the birth of Kim Jong Il (yes, really!); the happy prosperity of the nation (!!); a joyful vision of the future reunification of Korea; and a paean to Chinese-Korean friendship.

Prosperity!

The tone is not particularly militaristic. It is often light and in a few places even playful, with friendly pandas doing pratfalls, and comical chickens and pigs dancing to celebrate prosperity. There is no overt hostility to either South Korea or the US. But the background music is stirring, the massed coordination is often daunting, and the general mood is intense and fervent.

Photographs and videos can’t really convey the intensity of seeing the live performance. As soon as you step in, you are swept up in the forceful warm-up music. The staging and presentation are extremely skilful: you initially see a vast wall of banners and then through them advancing what seems like an infinite army of performers. The stadium is too wide to be easily taken in in one glance, I had to keep my eye roving to see the full picture. The scene transitions are often cleverly dramatic: as one scene winds down and the actors start to exit, we are allowed to glimpse a new army of performers massing in the back, then the lights are dimmed, leaving just enough light to see a shadowy horde surging forward onto the arena floor.

The dancing and gymnastics are well choreographed. If they were performed by a few score people, they would be only moderately amusing. But when they are performed on the Mass Games scale they become a very different thing. Some of the scenes are elegant ballet like performances, other are mass marching or banner waving, others are seemingly informal, such as the invasion of the happy farm animals.

Most of the performers are young adults. A couple of scenes involved hordes of 8-10 year olds.

The performances are skilful, but on this scale a few flubs are probably inevitable. I noticed a couple of the younger kids accidentally collide and go sprawling. But part of their training seems to be in quick recovery, and amidst the mass of performers you have to watch carefully to spot glitches and the overall experience continues undisturbed. There was heavy rain in mid-performance. We spectators were safely under cover, but the performers got pretty wet and had to cope with shallow puddles.

I liked the experience enough that I coughed up more Euros the next day for a second look. It was actually better the second time, partly because I had a better sense of what the script was trying to say and partly because I could anticipate the timing and what to watch for. Also, since it was dry, they were able to include the concluding grand firework display this time.

It’s great. Just do it.