Dargavs, the City of the Dead in the Russian Caucasus

Dargavs, the City of the Dead in the Russian Caucasus

Before rushing either way to Vladikavkaz or Kazbegi/Tbilissi, take a detour in North Ossetia to visit one of the many hidden gem of the North Caucasus : Dargavs, also known as the City of Dead to discover its myths and legends. Spend a day or two and enjoy a medieval burial / quarantine site in the heart of the ancient kingdom of Alania.

This guide includes a quick history of Dargavs, transportation informations, the truth or myth of a necessary border zone permit, sleeping options and more.

Last updated : 06/11/2022

Dargavs, Russia

History of Dargavs

Located in the Prigorodny region of the North Ossetian Republic in Russia, Dargavs is, actually was a village that is nowadays mostly know for its unique and very well preserved necropolis also known as the City of the Dead.

Archeologists and historians thinks that noble Ossetian clans are from Dargavs. The village itself was partly destroyed by Tsarist troups during the conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century and people started to move down in the lowlands. The last inhabitant left in 2002 after the Kolka glacier collapsed. What’s left of it today is a picturesque necropolis hidden in the fog and surrounded by legends.

Searchers estimate the City of the Dead dating back to the 14th to 18th century and are meant to be family/clan crypts. The fancier the crypt, the richer the family/clan.
Inside the crypts there are few floors where the bodies were placed through the window. Archeologists only started to study the necropolis in the 1960’s and found many well preserved bodies which were sort of momified, thanks to the dry and windy weather of the necropolis’s location.

Dargavs was also used as a quarantine site during plague – hot topic these days. The sick moved inside the crypts to avoid infecting others.

The Alans (descendants of the Sarmatians, a Scythian people) and the ancestors of today’s Ossetians believed they had to cross a river to the afterlife and you can see some these boats in quite a few crypts.

There are plenty of legends about Dargavs. The most popular is by far the local belief claiming that anyone entering the necropolis will not come out of it alive …

How to get there

Contrary to popular beliefs, there is public transportation from Vladikavkaz, the capital and biggest city of North Ossetia, to Dargavs.

  • Marshrutka N°115 from the central market (Tsentral’nyy Rynok – Центральный рынок) all the way to Karmadon : it stops at Dargavs village and passes right in front of Gorod Mertvikh (Город мертвых – the City of the Dead), the necropolis.
    According to Yandex maps (the one and only app you should use to get to Dargavs. Google maps is absolutely useless), there is a marshrutka every 3 hours, daily. It also goes north of Verkhny Fiagdon and takes about an hour and a half one way.
  • Bus N°235 to Djimara. Goes twice a day, late in the afternoon at 5:25pm and 6:26pm – which is pretty inconvenient if you ask me – and go back the next day early at 6:30 and 7:30am. Takes about 2 hours one way.

If you choose this option, make sure to stop at Fazykau village, one stop before the end and then walk up to the necropolis. It most likely going to be dark by the time you get there and unless it’s a full moon – which would be epically creepy ! – you won’t see anything.

  • Taxi. If you are in a rush and need to be back in Vladikavkaz on time because of some tight schedule, I’d recommend you to get a private taxi. A russian taxi driver (in Ossetia at least) is more likely (not all taxi drivers are bad, don’t get me wrong) to rip you off than an Ossetian one.

    Give the man 50€ cash and he’ll give you a grand tour of the area : The City of the Dead, the Kurta tower, Stalin’s statue (there’s this dodgy local belief and fantasy that Stalin was Ossetian. He wasn’t.), the Kacheli instagrammable swing, the Alansky monastery, and a drive back through Kuban village along the Terek river, the unfinished dirt road to Vladikavkaz.

    He would probably know a great place to eat a famous Ossetian pie (Ossetinsky pyrog – Осетинский пирог) as well ! You don’t want to miss this out !

There is an entrance fee to visit the necropolis, I paid 100 roubles back in 2019. Foreigners pay more than Russians.

The myth of the border zone permit

Let’s break the myth : you don’t need a border zone permit to visit Dargavs. Anyone telling you otherwise doesn’t know what he/she’s talking about or simply talking bullshit because he wants a bribe (that low rank corrupted policeman you might encounter on the road).
One needs a border zone permit to hike to Midagrabin waterfalls or around the Digor valley.

South Ossetia

A North Ossetian border zone permit does not grant you any access to South Ossetia (don’t even think of sneaking in through the mountains) nor to the mountains of Ingushetia which is on the other side of the Georgian Military highway and require another border zone permit from the FSB in Ingushetia.

Interested in hiking around the North Ossetian mountains close to the border? Check out my full guide here to apply for a border zone permit !

Where to sleep

Vladikavkaz

One could do a day trip to Dargavs while based in Vladikavkaz.
I’ve stayed in North Ossetia’s capital quite a few time but stayed at a different place every time. I’ve never found a great value for money …

  • Budget : Hostel One, the best hostel I stayed so far in Vladikavkaz simply because I was there off season, the lady owner/manager gave me a key and I had the whole place for myself for a couple of days.
  • Mid-range : Kameliya-V hotel, super clean & cosy rooms. The receptionnist speaks no english but is super nice.
  • Russian style 4 stars : The Aleksandrovskiy Grand Hotel has it all : center location, mountain views, very nice rooms, english speaking staffs, restaurant, spa …

Near Dargavs

The village with the more sleeping option is Verkhny Fiagdon, 15 kilometers from Dargavs, a great base to hike around the surroundings. There are plenty of guesthouses ( Гостевой дом – Gostevoy dom) & cafés to have local food.

If you travel during the high season, book your accomodation in advance, there’s a high demand and not enough places for everyone. Many offer a full house to rent, which is a great deal for a Russian family of five but not for solo backpackers.

The best deal is probably a small guesthouse named “Mayili (Гостевой дом Майли) in Karmadon/Verkhny Kani : bed in a dorm and homemade food. If you are looking for hiking buddies, you might be able to befriend some Russian tourists there.

The best alternative to Booking.com is Ostrovok.ru

Extra questions you might have

Do I need a visa to travel to Dargavs from Georgia / Kazbegi ?

Probably. North Ossetia is a republic within the Russian Federation. You will be crossing the international border between Georgia and Russia. Unless your country gets visa free to Russia, you definitely will have to apply for one in advance.

Is it safe to travel to Dargavs ?

Yes, the dead shouldn’t bother you. More seriously, if anything happens in North Ossetia, it’s probably going to be in big cities. The North Caucasus republics are nowadays pretty safe with check posts on the main highway between the republics and an heavy military presence in some of them. Plus, if a war starts again with Georgia, you will be on the right side of the border.

Is that cool to take pictures of the skeletons ?

No. Would you like some foreign tourists to open your grandpa’s grave, take a pic of his bones and then post it in their instagram stories ?
The crypts are open but it doesn’t make it okay to take pictures, to touch or take anything from them.

I don’t speak Russia, can I travel to North Ossetia ?

I don’t speak Russia, can I travel to North Ossetia ? Obviously. You can totally get by with Google translate. It’s not Moscow, people are nice and patient in the Caucasus.

Is it safe to travel to North Ossetia as a solo female tourist ?

Yes. I did it myself. I also think it’s the most liberal of the North Caucasian republics, you don’t really neeed to worry about making any cultural faux-pas.

Dargavs, Russia

There you have it : a complete guide about Dargavs, the City of the Dead in North Ossetia, Russia. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions and feel free to share your own travel experience !

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