Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Abkhazia - The Soviet Riviera

The Georgian border post officials checked our passports, asked us a few questions and then let us through, but they did not stamp our passports. We were not officially leaving Georgia. Two pony and carts ferried passengers across the kilometer or so of no man's land whilst others walked. As we crossed the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) into Abkhazia we passed various check points with armed guards. We helped two women carry their load of 20 enormous, plastic vats for storing jam or chutney before making it to the Abkhaz immigration. It was at this point we realised that the print out of our Letter of Invitation, which had been emailed to us a few days ago, was missing the far right hand details. It was now too late to do anything about it, we kept our fingers crossed that the Abkhaz would not noticed.

They did, but not before several other excuses were given in an attempt to extract a bribe from us. First, they stated that they had not been notified of our visit and, surprise surprise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be contacted. It was not until after listening to our protests that they noticed that the document was missing some details, and pursued a different line to prevent our entry. The official pointed out that the document was missing the first possible date of entry. However, as this date was 30th October 2011 (with the 30 missing off the letter) and we were now in November, we managed to argue that this should not matter; applying some common sense meant we were eligible to enter. Finally, the officials realised that one of the reference numbers was missing. We had no answer for this. Refusing to pay a bribe, we tried the 'getting in the way' tactic but the officials wouldn't let us wait at immigration, instead directing us to a hut, tucked away in the woods. Looking around at the soldiers with their mismatched uniforms - some Abkhaz, some Russian and even some Georgian uniforms, probably acquired during the last spat - we both decided that it was best to trudge back over the bridge to the Georgian side. There I sat with the bags whilst James got a marshrutka back to Zugdidi to find an Internet cafe and print out a complete copy of the letter. The Georgians, keen to show their hospitality after hearing about our trouble with the Abkhaz officials, bought me a coffee as I waited for James. James managed to get the paperwork sorted out very quickly and our second attempt to cross the ABL was successful.

The Abkhaz border town of Gali remains war ravaged and deprived even though the last significant clash with the Georgians was 12 years ago. Whole streets of houses lay eerily abandoned. Little else remained of them other then the four walls but now with the addition of substantial trees growing through their skeletons. Dogs with horrible deformities wandered the muddy potholed streets.

The delay at the ABL had resulted in us having missed the last marshrutka to Sukhumi. The taxi drivers were asking for an exorbitant amount to take us. It was now late, so we decided to stay in Gali; we had thought that the comments the taxi drivers had made about there being no hotel were lies. However, we soon found out that the taxi drivers were right; there are no hotels in Gali. In desperation James went to the Post Office and pleaded with the women, some customers, some staff, to take us in for the night. An older woman bullied the younger cashier to take us, pointing out that it would be a useful extra bit of cash for her. James agreed a price with her. Once we got to her flat, and saw how she was living we negotiated up the price. She needed the money more than us.

The flat was in a stripped out block of flats. There was no glass in the windows, only plastic sheeting, it was freezing cold and damp. A tiny black and white television flicked in the corner. The previous one, she told us, had been stolen. In this flat she lived with her two sons. No mention of their father. And she was lucky, she had employment, having worked in the Post Office for the last 15 years.

In the initial creation of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was designated as a part of the Georgian Socialist Republic, but ten years later in 1931 it gained Autonomous Republic status. It remained an ethnically mixed place with Abkhaz, Georgians, Russians and Armenians calling the region home. As the Soviet Union began to break up Georgia claimed Abkhazia as Georgian territory whilst Abkhazia struggled for independence. In 1992 Georgia declared a return to the 1921 Constitution and 3,000 Georgian troops were sent into Abkhazia to assert this.

The following morning we got the first marshrutka to Sukhumi. The marshrutka driver complained about our bags (one big one and one small one) and wanted more money. Fed up, we pulled that 'this doesn't happen in Georgia' card and he didn't ask again.

On arriving in Sukhumi, we wanted to go straight to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get our visas. James chose to ask the roughest looking guy in the whole of Abkhazia for directions. The man was as wide as he was tall, unshaved with scars crisscrossing his face. He was having two shots of vodka for breakfast and his voice sounded as if he had been drinking all night as well. However, he was very helpful and with his directions we found our way.

After toing and froing we finally got our Abkhaz visa. This entitled us to leave Abkhazia! It is a required document to exit and therefore useful to get on arrival in case it is urgently needed.

The guesthouse price had tripled from that stated in our guidebook, and this was after negotiation. We were the only guests. The heating didn't work. After the mornings administrative efforts I was exhausted but James insisted on some sightseeing - he must have been feeling unwell.

We got a marshrutka back into town, changed transport a couple of times and finally made it out to Novy Afon. There, on a lush green hill overlooking the Black Sea, was a monastery. It was surrounded by the sub-tropical forest of the region, where the climate can sustain both satsuma and hazel nut crops, but with little ability to export the produce much of the land remains uncultivated and the forest untouched. The monastery's gold domes topped with the gold orthodox crosses shone in the afternoon sunshine above the forest treetops. Some Russian tourists milled about outside.

As one of the most southern lands of the Soviet Union Abkhazia has a special place in Russian hearts and it is often looked on with nostalgia. Many sanatoriums were developed (the Novy Afon Monastery also became one during Soviet times) for the workers and the KGB had some there too. Stalin had a dacha on the coast where he spent many holidays, whilst rarely visiting other parts of Georgia, even his mother down the road in Gori.

Exploring Sukhumi the following day we walked along the sea front where some redevelopment had taken place. Posters of the recent World Dominoes Championships were plastered on building site fencing, announcing to visitors that Abkhazia was an international venue. The rest of the town was dilapidated through war damage, although hints of the previous grandeur of the town could be seen. Shells of ornate buildings now with trees growing through the windows, the white paint peeling from the exterior walls, lay derelict. The train station was the saddest structure of all. It had obviously been a stunningly beautiful building but now lay unused.

In 1992 Georgian soldiers were sent into Abkhazia to restore order around the border areas. They were under strict orders not to advance further into the territory. This was completely ignored and the Army continued to Sukhumi and ransacked the town obliterating buildings and infrastructure, including the train station. It was another year before Sukhumi was back under Abkhaz control. In the meantime Georgians had moved back their homes in the area around Gali but, just a year later, were refugees again.

When returning to Gali James visited a local NGO running projects to unite local communities. The local staff working for the NGO were mainly ethnic Georgians who had not left. James innocently asked about their thoughts on the political future of Abkhazia. An audible silence came over the entire office. This was not something which was ever discussed. The subject was quickly changed.

As we walked down the road to get a taxi to the ABL, carrying our backpacks, a white Danish Refugee Council Landcruiser went past. The 3 passengers and driver, all of which were Westerners, nearly drove off the road as they craned their necks to stare at us. I don't think they get many backpackers in Gali.

Me with the boys at our homestay in Gali

Gali - on the Administrative Boundary Line between Georgia and Abkhazia

Novy Afon monastery

Inside the Novy Afon monastery.


  1. Thank you for a nice relation! Would you mind sharing how much did you agree to pay for sleeping in the woman's place and how much was the guesthouse? This information would prove useful to me! Thanks :)

  2. Hi, I think we paid about 400 Roubles to stay in Gali (for 2 + 'dinner'). I am afraid that I can't remember exactly what we paid in Sukhumi but it was about 3 times the amount in the Lonely Planet and the guesthouse was listed as the cheapest one(if you are able to look this up)- sorry don't have my LP to hand. We managed to get the price down to about twice the amount quoted in the guidebook. Prices seem to have gone up quite a lot in the last couple of years. Good luck!