Sunday, September 15, 2013

My (Very Short) Weekend In Abkhazia

First, a little geopolitical introduction:

Russians and Georgians have always rubbed each other the wrong way.  So when the Soviet Union split up in 1991, it was pretty much Good Riddance.  Except that Georgia had kind of been the prettiest part of the USSR, and it was their relatively warm Deep South.  And Georgia's culture and economy had been tied to Russia for at least 150 years.

Now the Abkhazians had been a totally different Caucasian group all along.  But when Stalin was drawing up the boundaries of the new Soviet Union, he 'gave' Abkhazia to Georgia.  And in the ensuing years many Georgians moved to Abkhazia and settled there.  Which the Abkhazians didn't really like.  But, hey, it was one big Soviet Union, right?

But once Abkhazia was part of a new, independent Georgia, they really didn't like that.  So they started their own war of independence, won it, and kicked out hundreds of thousands of Georgians.  Which didn't sit well with Tbilisi.  But for 17 years the whole Abkhazia/border area sat there in extremely poor devastation.

Then in 2008 Georgia decided to start a war with Russia, hoping that George Bush would intervene and start World War III on their behalf.  But even he wasn't that dumb, and so they got totally gooshed.  But the positive outcome was that now that Russian soldiers were defending Abkhazia, it could become an actual (if mostly diplomatically unrecognized) country.  And both it and the Georgian region around Zugdidi could finally see stability and economic progress.

So now it was Thursday morning, and I had just taken a taxi to the border.  I stopped at a tiny Georgian police kiosk and they asked me why I was going to Abkhazia.  I said, 'tourism', they looked at my passport, and waved me on.

I then walked about a third of a mile through the summertime countryside, mostly over a long, low, rundown old bridge.  A few poor Georgians were trudging in each direction.  When I got to the other side there was a small Russian kiosk, where I handed them my passport and Abkhazian letter of introduction, and then stood there for a couple of minutes while they looked at me through two way glass.  Then they kept the letter, gave me back my passport, and a hundred feet beyond waited a marshrutka that was going to the capital, Sukhumi.  All in all, it was one of the most low key Third World borders ever.

But first we had to stop at the first town, Gali, which in my research had been described as the most dangerous place on Earth.  I was fully expecting to see rusting out, blown up tanks, and kids playing hopscotch with spent shell casings.  But instead it was hardly a town at all, more like a crossroads in the midst of cornfields.  And, yes, there were some empty concrete slabs of buildings on the way, but you see that everywhere in the former Soviet Union.  It was supposed to be a fifteen minute stop, so I sat there in a plastic chair by a plastic table quietly drinking a Pepsi.

That dragged out to a half an hour.  Then the driver came and said we were going.  Funny, there were four Czech kids who had also crossed the border this morning.  Where were they?  We drove a few blocks and stopped for fifteen minutes more.  Finally the Czech kids showed up.  Turns out that when they got off the marshrutka 45 minutes ago they had immediately walked around taking hundreds of pictures.  Which isn't the smartest thing to do when you're in a sensitive border area.  So they had been at the police station all that time answering questions. 

Anyway, back on the road.  And it was pretty empty countryside for the next hour or so until we got to Sukhumi.  Then all of a sudden the driver stopped and said this was it.  As I got out, the Czech guys, who were continuing, yelled out that the visa office had moved a couple of months ago.

Great.  If there was one thing my Abkhazian research had established, it was how to go get the official visa once you were in Sukhumi.  Oh well.  I supposed that if I found the old office, there would be information there about where the new office was.  So I started out.

But first I had to figure out exactly where in Sukhumi I was.  Looked like I was near the old railway station in the northwest part of town.  So all I had to do was head south to the Black Sea, find Lakoba Street, and then keep walking east until I found number 21.

The shore was only a few blocks away.  And, wonder of wonders, I found a street sign that said 'Lakoba' in Cyrillic.  Now all I had was the trans-Europe problem that building numbers only change building by building, not block by block, so that it might be a mile and a half between, say, #168 and #21.  Which it was.  In hot humidity.  Although, thankfully, my pack was light.

Okay, big Foreign Ministry building.  I tramped up.  A nice young soldier pointed to a posted page in English which said where the new visa office was.  Six blocks back the way I came and one block up.  Off I went.

When I finally got to the new digs the process was fairly painless.  The buy printed out a personalized visa which I could carry with my passport, I paid him 400 rubles ($12), and that was it.  I was an official Abkhazian tourist.

Although now I had the larger problem of finding tonight's accommodation.  Someone had recommended a 'hostel', which indeed was listed on Hostel World.  And the listing had said that there was no indoor plumbing, but it also said that they spoke English and really liked meeting interesting people.  Sounded quaint and appealing, since the only other not-totally-over-the-top option was finding babushka grandmothers on the west side of the beach renting out spare rooms.  Where Uncle Vlad would likely be snoring away.

And they had emailed, saying that they could pick me up in town.  But when the nice guy at the visa office called, the hostel guy sounded kind of rude, and said that I needed to go to the MVO Sanitarium.  Wherever that was.

First, though, I had to eat.  So I headed down to the beach, figuring out that this was where the action would be.  I was right.  Even though it was the end of the season, there were still a fair number of Russian tourists straggling about doing beach things.  Of course you should understand that, like other Black Sea destinations, Sukhumi has a rock beach.  But I guess that if you're Russian you take what you can get.

Oh, and like Yalta, there were also small freighters just off shore.

Anyway, I did find a nice restaurant, and since Georgian/Caucasian cuisine seems to be centered around cheese and bread, I was able to order something decent.  Now, stomach stuffed, I set out to find that MVO Sanitarium.

I can decipher Cyrillic, but I only know about eight words in Russian.  Which is about eight more than any Abkhazian knows in English.  But they are nice people, so at some point someone got me on a local marshrutka that took me a km or so to the MVO.  Okay from here I had printout instructions from Hostel World.  Go straight; turn right' turn left under bridge...  The instructions stopped there, and I was still in the middle of town.  After about twenty minutes of confusion I went into a bar, and a guy called the hostel number.  The dude at the other end acted all pissed off, but finally said he would come down and get me. 

He finally showed up in an old Russian military truck that I would have had trouble getting into when I was 20, and we drove up the hill.  When we got to the 'hostel' there was a half inch mat on a concrete floor.  When I kind of objected to that, he said that he also had a 'double' for $9, and we went up the hill a little more.  Still no mattress, but at least an old beat up couch.  By now it was too late to do anything else.  Besides, those babushkas might not even be there at the end of the season.

He went away, and I surveyed my situation.  No stove, no fridge, no water.  And now I had to... go.  I'm certainly not squeamish about using an outhouse, but this was a filth encrusted tiny hole in some concrete.  Hmmm.  Take off my boots.  Take off my pants, so that they don't drape in the filth.  Put boots back on so that my feet don't drape in the filth.  Okay, I know that squatting is the way that Nature intended us to do this.  But have I mentioned my knees? 

In great pain I realized: I really am too old for this s---.

Back to the room.  There was an old plastic water kettle that worked, and some dirty water in a jug.  Let's see, if I boil it and kill the germs, is it okay to drink the dirt?  Better to marshal the very few sips I have left...  Well, at least there was a nice view as the sun set.   And fortunately I was exhausted.  Because as soon as the sun was down, so was I.

I awoke at the crack of dawn ready to implement Plan B.  First, I walked all the way down the hill to the gates of the MVO Sanitarium.  Turns out that it was a Soviet relic, complete with a mosaic of a beneficent Lenin at the entrance.  I walked to the rock shore and turned west, hoping to follow it all the way to downtown Sukhumi.  But the surroundings got pretty decrepit, and soon I saw why: a creek blocked my way.  So back I went, wandering among the moribund ghostly buildings of what was once a proud People's vacation destination, and med it back to those sanitarium gates.

My next task was to find a map of Abkhazia.  A couple of women had just opened their souvenir kiosks, and I supposed that there might be a postcard with a map on it.  No dice.   But one of the ladies did have a t-shirt.  So I noted that the town furthest west was Gagra.

I was starting to get the hang of this place, so I had a nice shopkeeper call up for a taxi for me, and the nice taxi driver took me to the marshrutka stand by the old railway station.  One was about to leave for the Russian border, so I hopped on and told him to drop me off at Gagra.

West of Sukhumi it got hilly and subtropical; it's weird to see palm trees in the former Soviet Union.  And the whole situation looked more lived in and better off the closer we got to the Russian border.  When I got off at the Gagra 'plage' I was less than twenty miles from Sochi, home of the soon to be Winter Olympics.

The beach at Gagra is the best in the former Georgia.  In fact, it is the consistency of small pebbles.  And it was relatively crowded with swimsuited Russians of all strange shapes.  A jet ski buzzed by.  A couple sailed by paragliding.  The sky was deep blue.  You could see why the Russians would never let this go back to Georgia.

On almost every street corner in Abkhazia there are people set up with card tables and large posters with various pictures of what you would see on the myriad tours that they are selling tickets to.  The pictures looked great: An old monastery, Stalin's dacha, lakes in the mountains.  But the tours would all be in Russian, and I wouldn't even know how to find the bus if I bought a ticket.  So I just took a picture of the pictures, and let it go at that.

By now I had seen Abkhazia from border to border.  Behind the small coastal plain rose steep green mountains.  And behind them even steeper snow covered ones.  And it would be great to get up in there, but without a tour that wasn't going to happen.  Besides, there was that little problem with accommodation for tonight.

So I found a couple of ladies who were waiting to flag down a marshtrutka to Sukhumi, and went with them.  And when we got there another one was just about to leave for the Georgian border.  I went over to the little food stall and ordered 'edeen bolshoi Pepsi & dva ceer'.  And away we went.

Arrived at the border around three.  A Russian soldier asked me a whole bunch of questions, but he was really just trying to show off his English.  The guy behind the two way glass took my visa away and gave me back my passport.  I walked the third-mile back.  The Georgian police guy checked my passport to make sure nothing Abkhazian had been stamped in it.  And I took a taxi back to Zugdidi, where I knew a real bed and a really good Georgian meal would be waiting for me.

So, in short: Abkhazian people, nice.  Georgian people, nice.  Russian people, strange, but okay.  Why can't they just get along???

Saturday was now open for me.  So I arranged for a pickup at 7 am to go to the town of Mestia, which is in the midst of the snow covered mountains on the Georgia side of the border.

It being so early in the morning I was expecting to get the first, best seat.  Instead I got the last, worst one.  And almost everyone else in the marshrutka was an Israeli backpacker.  Now you hardly ever see Israeli tourists in the rest of the world, but in those few places where you do see them , that's all you see.  And each individual seems oblivious that they're all traveling around in giant herds.

Anyway, at the first rest stop I maneuvered myself to a better seat, and the rest of the journey up was satisfyingly spectacular.  Mestia itself was a small quaint Georgian mountain town which was quickly transforming itself into Backpack Central.  Almost each building was a guest house.  And an ersatz alpine center square was nearing completion.  Still, it was a really nice setting, and if I had had a companion and/or my legs weren't too totally crapped out for a hike, it would have merited a stay. 

But I also knew that I wanted to be in Batumi Sunday afternoon.  So, after a couple of hours, I spotted a marshrutka cruising around for passengers, and I hopped on board.  This time I got shotgun, so had a really great view of gorgeous green mountains and blue sky going down.   Back to my nice bed.  Back to that great restaurant.

And it also turned out to have been a smart move.  Because that night a lot of rain rolled in.  Who knew how cold and miserable it was up in Mestia right now?



At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Megan said...

wow! so cool to read your experience here. and so much of it sounded similar to mine! when i was in touch w/ the hostel, i had been in touch with the female (can't recall her name) and she picked me up after i was unable to find the santorium thing LOL! i found out why they dont want people knowing they are a 'hostel' and dont like people calling on their behalf is because they are required to register anything that charges a buck or two as a business to the country. and they never did they dont like people knowing they actually exist. i think that is why on hostel world they dont really give definitive information on the location (at least they didnt when i stayed). im laughing at the 'water' and bathroom situation LOL. i brushed my teeth with a bottle of water and spit it out the window of the kitchen. i felt so nasty for those few days, but it was better than staying with a babushka as you mentioned!!!

im glad you had the chance to visit and i hope you enjoyed yourself. abkhazia sure is a one of a kind place.

btw...i heard the location for the visa changed just recently too via comments on my blog. so difficult to write posts on their when i cant keep up with the actual updates ;)

hope all is well and i cant wait for your next reports! :)


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