My short time in the Republic of Abkhazia marks yet another of the post-Soviet “frozen conflict” states that I have visited. It was an impromptu stop on my travels, but one that I ended up being thankful for making.
I was returning to Georgia through Armenia; my plan was to go to Tbilisi and Batumi, and then onward to Turkey. I had assumed that the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been no-go areas since the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, accessible only through Russia. However, a British tourist I met in Gyumri, Armenia informed me that while this was true for South Ossetia, it was possible to enter Abkhazia from Georgia and return the same way. The only requirement was to e-mail an application form to the Abkhaz foreign ministry. Just to keep my options open, I quickly filled out the application form online and e-mailed it in. Less than two days later, the ministry sent me my letter of invitation, which I would be required to present at the border, and then use to get my visa in the capital, Sukhum, immediately afterwards.
I had already planned out the next few weeks of my travels, but suddenly I felt that I had to make this random detour. Having already visited the breakaway states of Transdnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, I figured Abkhazia would be a nice one to add to the collection. More importantly, I had always had a vague image in my mind of Abkhazia as a war-torn corner of the former Soviet Union. I read that it was now safe to travel there, but I wanted to see how much “on the edge” it really was.
Once arriving in Georgia, various Georgian people that I met in Tbilisi reacted differently when they heard that I was going to Abkhazia. Younger people, for the most part, warned me that Abkhazia was potentially dangerous and that it might be smarter not to go. These warnings gave me pause, but I had done my research and it sounded safe enough. Also, I figured that since Georgians are largely forbidden to travel there themselves, many of them were unaware of the current reality of the situation for foreign tourists. Older Georgians, meanwhile, waxed nostalgic about the great beauty of Abkhazia that they remembered from more peaceful times, and gave me recommendations on must-see sights in the region.
I took an overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, a town in northwest Georgia only a few kilometers from the Abkhaz border. Most tourists use Zugdidi as a jumping-off point for visiting the gorgeous mountains of this part of Georgia, and most famously the town of Mestia. I had slept second-class in the train, sitting in an airplane-style chair whose basic reclining function made for a slightly less-uncomfortable sleep. The carriage was large, crowded, and uncomfortably humid, with the requisite group of loud, boorish guys getting ever-more plastered on cheap vodka. I rolled out of the train in the morning and piled straight into a taxi for the Abkhaz border.
The border is a nondescript affair, much quieter than I had imagined. The crossing consists of a long bridge across a river, which one is required to either walk or take a rustic horse carriage across. I chose the former and set off on foot for the bridge. There was a Georgian military post on the Georgian side, but the soldiers just continued playing on their phones as I walked past. Since Georgia (along with the vast majority of the international community) recognizes Abkhazia to be part of its territory, there is of course no “border check” on the Georgian side.
The morning was gray and drizzly, and the long walk across the bridge was eerily quiet. It was seven in the morning, and there were only a handful of other people stepping around the water-filled potholes littering the asphalt. I made it to the other side to find that the Abkhaz crossing wouldn’t be open for nearly an hour.
As opening time approached, the crowd grew larger. There were even a few other foreign tourists who showed up, surprising me. There was an Australian couple and their female Chinese friend; an Estonian/Lithuanian couple who were studying in Tbilisi; and an eccentric middle-aged German with constantly twitching eyebrows. Eventually a rotund Abkhaz soldier with an AK slung over his shoulder came to the gate and called out in Russian, “Touristi!”. Our small motley crew stepped to the front of the line and dutifully presented our passports and invitation letters, and relatively quickly we had made it through the border.
Abkhazia is an extremely popular beach holiday destination for Russian tourists, with the only Westerners being a handful of more adventurous travelers looking for quirky destinations. However, the speed with which I received my invitation letter and the hassle-free treatment I received from soldiers and government officials along the way suggests that Abkhazia is all too happy to broaden its base of tourists and allow Westerners to see the reality on the ground.
Our small group of foreigners shared a mashrutka ride into the nearest town, Gal, before taking a bus onward to Sukhum and traipsing around the city in a light rain looking for the visa registration office. When we ended up at the wrong office, a lovely woman getting off work drove some of us in her car to the correct location, pointing out interesting city sights along the way. Until my last day in Abkhazia, I found no one who spoke English; at least a modicum of Russian is necessary to get around there. Abkhaz, though widely used by Abkhaz people at home, is rarely heard on the streets, and was described to me by one Abkhaz man as being “more difficult than Chinese.”
After getting our visas (a slip of paper inserted in the passport, to be removed upon leaving the country, leaving no evidence of the visit) sorted, our short-lived band broke-up. The Aussies and the Chinese girl headed up to the northern beach town of Gagra, planning to work their way back down the coast. The German was returning to Georgia that evening, apparently having come to Sukhum just for the day to pick up some rare coins. I didn’t bother asking any further questions of this real-life Peter Lorre character. That left the Baltic couple and me; we ended up getting rooms at the same small guesthouse, and spent the rest of the day exploring Sukhum.
Once a great cosmopolitan Black Sea trading port, Sukhum is now a shadow of its former self. It reminded me somewhat of a less developed version of those other great, formerly cosmopolitan but now more homogenous, seaside cities, Odessa and Baku. Sukhum suffered heavy fighting during the war with Georgia in the early ’90s, and still bears many obvious scars of conflict. However, the city is undeniably staging a comeback. The Botanical Gardens in the city center are lovely, many of the buildings are architecturally impressive, and the long waterfront promenade provides a lovely walk along the reliably beautiful Black Sea.
Along the coast, we were drawn to a large bronze statue of a man falling off his horse. The plaque next to the statue reads that it is dedicated to those Abkhaz who suffered mass expulsion from their lands in the mid-19th century. I laughed bitterly upon reading this, given the current situation in Abkhazia. Of course, it was the Russian Empire that expelled the vast majority of the Caucasian peoples from the northeast coast of the Black Sea in 1864, an event commonly referred to as the Circassian genocide. An estimated 90% of the region’s indigenous peoples, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were forcibly evicted and sent to the Ottoman Empire, with a huge number of them perishing along the way. It is thus somewhat ironic that allegiances have shifted so radically: Abkhazia stands solidly with Russia and speaks more Russian than Abkhaz, while the formerly loyal Georgians have terrible relations with Moscow. Some descendants of those forced to leave have understandably complained about next year’s Winter Olympics being held in Sochi, just a few kilometers from the Abkhaz border and a former epicenter of the deportations, during the 150th anniversary of those deportations.
At one point while trying to find a shortcut between two disjoined parts of the beach promenade, we stumbled across one of the coolest sights of our time in Sukhum. It was a ghost town of a neighborhood that, during Soviet times, had clearly been an impressive center of life and culture. There were broken old theaters still carrying tattered Soviet-era advertisements for performances, and lovely stone pavements overgrown with grass and weeds. The whole area had a decidedly eerie, post-apocalyptic feel. Next to one small house, behind a light chain-link fence similar to those in any suburban American backyard, stood what appeared to be a giant armored missile carrier, larger than a tank. It was partially obscured by overgrown shrubbery, parked behind the house like an old lawnmower. The juxtaposition was surreal at an almost Dali-esque level.
The next day I parted from the Balts and headed north to the beach town of Gagra, not far from the Russian border. I lucked out and caught a comfortable ride on a minivan from Sukhum, thanks to a friendly Russian couple, Pavel and Tanya, that I’d met on the bus. They were on their way to Sochi, where they would begin a three-day train ride back to their hometown of Arkhangelsk, near the Arctic Circle. Tanya spoke basic English, and would comically cover her face with her hands every time our driver, Misha, zipped into the other lane to pass a car on a blind curve. He drove with that controlled recklessness so common to motorists in these parts.
Misha dropped me off at the house of a guy he knew in Gagra who had a room for rent. The homeowner was an old guy, with a bushy mustache and missing teeth, who spoke Russian in low, gravelly tones. His daughter-in-law showed me the room, and when I asked if she was Abkhaz, she replied that in fact they were an Armenian family. Excited, since I’d just spent some time in Yerevan, I returned to the father and threw some Armenian phrases at him. He was intrigued that I knew a bit of Armenian, and we chatted about how his family had moved to Abkhazia after being forced to flee Trabzon and Izmir during the Armenian genocide. Despite this bond over discussing Armenian history, he still tried to charge me double the normal rate for the room. Business is business, I suppose.
I spent the rest of that day on the beaches of Gagra. The town itself is a small, unremarkable place, though possessing it’s share of the gorgeous Abkhaz Black Sea coast. The beach was a pebbly one, full of Russian tourists on the cusp of high season. Despite the fierce sun and sweltering summer heat, the water was icy cold.
The next day, I joined an excursion to see the famed Lake Ritza, a little over an hour’s drive inland toward the Russian border. Russian tourists love their “excursions”: small group bus trips with a Russian-speaking guide. I, of course, was the only American on mine, though everyone naturally assumed that I was also Russian.
Along the way to the lake, our faithful little minibus stopped at various tourist traps. There was the “honey farm”, selling jars of honey, some kind of honey juice, and honey cha-cha (vodka). A complimentary shot of the latter provide a great pick-me-up at 10 a.m. Next was the canyon stop, with copious opportunities for paid photo-ops: guys dressed as Tatar warriors sitting tourists on horseback, and kids with tamed owls and rabbits ran around trying to force the animals into the arms of the tourists. And of course a long row of stalls with women selling drinks and assorted Abkhazia tourist trinkets. The Russians were lapping it all up, pulling out their rubles left and right to buy bottles of local cha cha and photos of themselves in furry Caucasian hats. I wanted to be condescending, but who was I to judge? They looked like they were having a great time on their vacation.
We finally made it to Lake Ritza, and I can honestly say that it was one of the few times in my life where a sight that was described as “must-see” actually lived up to its reputation. The lake and its surrounding environs are absolutely stunning, and no photo (not to mention words) can properly do it justice.
Ritza is a huge expanse of perfectly still, deep blue water, hidden away in the Abkhaz mountains like a prize sapphire. The hills rising high above the lake on all sides are covered in a dense, unbroken forest. It is the kind of vista that makes you do a double-take, even when you have already seen it several minutes prior.
While at the lake, our guide, Sergei, started trying to make conversation with me, and he was happily excited to find out that I was American. When the group stopped for lunch, I joined Sergei and our driver, Hasan. I did my best to converse with them in my broken Russian while we ate cubes of meat, pink cabbage, cheese, and a corn-meal-like substance, all consumed in a particular order.
Both of them were eager to talk to me about the U.S., as it was exceedingly rare for them to meet any Western tourists in Abkhazia. Both also were highly interested in American knowledge (or lack thereof) about Abkhazia, with Hasan especially wanting to “correct” whatever misconceptions about his country I may have heard in the Western media. Both lamented Abkhazia’s twilight international status, repeatedly indicating our ridiculously beautiful surroundings and pointing out how many more tourists should be coming to see this sight.
That evening, back in town, I finally found a cafe with WiFi in Gagra. There I came across the Australian girl from the border crossing. She was making a tearful Skype call and was almost babbling from grief. It turned out that she and the Chinese girl had had their handbags stolen the previous day. Passports, money, phones…all gone. I felt deeply sorry for them. Losing one’s passport anywhere is a huge hassle, but in an unrecognized republic with no Western embassies? Ouch. I had no idea how they would get out of their predicament, and I couldn’t do much other than lamely wish them good luck in getting through it.
The next day I made it back to the Inguri bridge via a series of short bus trips across Abkhazia. This time it was mid-afternoon, and I was the only foreigner at the border. Once the guards saw my passport, they again ushered me ahead of all the locals to the front of the line. They eagerly asked me what I thought of Abkhazia, and I truthfully replied that it was an exceedingly beautiful country. Once back across the bridge, the Georgian police called me over and kept me waiting for about 20 minutes, presumably to comb through my passport and make sure that I hadn’t entered Abkhazia via Russia. Once this fact had been ascertained, they let me go without further questioning.
What started as an off-the-cuff idea turned into an unexpected favorite amongst my travel experiences in the Caucasus. While its cities are not much to look at, Abkhazia possesses some of the most stunning natural beauty in the region. Furthermore, I’m glad that I saw the situation on the ground there for myself, not having to rely on Western and Russian media sources, or Georgian word-of-mouth. I shake my head now at how previously, when the country’s name was mentioned, I’d pictured a burned-out war zone that only thrill-seeking travelers would visit.
The murky political situation aside, I would highly recommend to anyone traveling in the area to make a stopover in Abkhazia if possible. I’m glad that I did.