“An AMERICAN? Why are you trying to travel to Abkhazia?” inquired the Georgian police officer as I slipped my blue passport under the checkpoint’s glass.
Uh, that’s a good question, I thought to myself. I had planned how to go to Abkhazia, but hadn’t really pondered my reasons for going in the first place.
Indeed, you would be forgiven if you had never heard of Abkhazia before this post. Abkhazia is self-proclaimed breakaway republic that is internationally recognized as a part of Georgia, but in practice is a partially-autonomous region self-administered with significant assistance from Russia.
Abkhazia became a bloody flash-point after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when Russian-backed Abkhaz separatist forces violently attacked ethnic Georgians. As many as 20,000 or more were killed in the 1992-93 war, while almost a quarter million ethnic Georgians were driven from their homes and made into refugees. With backing from Russia, the separatists eventually drove the Georgian military forces out of Abkhazia.
Today, Abkhazia exists in a state of Russian occupation. It’s mostly cut off from the rest of the world and dependent on Russia for its economic survival. Abkhazia is still a deeply touchy subject for Georgians, and it’s not entirely out of the question that conflict might flare up again (as it did in 2008 in the neighboring breakaway province of South Ossetia).
Both the US State Department and the UK Foreign Ministry warn against all travel to Abkhazia. The southern part of Abkhazia has a reputation for lawlessness, with several travelers reported to have been robbed and beaten by thugs. Furthermore, in such cases there is no consular support available to assist — meaning you can potentially get stuck in Abkhazia if your passport is lost or stolen.
So, back to the Georgian officer’s question: why, then, did I want to travel to Abkhazia?
I sort of spit out an incoherent, though truthful, answer: “Uh, I was already nearby in Svaneti. I travel the world full time and try to make it my mission to visit kinda off-the-beaten-path types of places. Abkhazia definitely qualifies there. Plus I heard from many Georgians that Abkhazia is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Also I think there is like a nice lake or something to see?”
The officer spends about five more minutes grilling me with questions like: “Why is your passport less than a year old?” (I got a new one before I left home), and “Isn’t a little late in life to start travelling?” (interesting question, but I didn’t just start, as I had another passport before).
“Ok, well, we’ll submit this for approval to Tbilisi but it can take an hour or more so you need to wait.”
I plop my bags down on the sweltering concrete and settle in.
“Both the US and UK warn against all travel to Abkhazia”
A few minutes later the guard comes out to interrogate me with one more question: “You’re an American — do you follow the NBA?”
In fact, I do.
The stern look on the guard’s fact is gone, replaced with a gin from cheek to cheek. It turns out that he is a die-hard Lakers fan and seems genuinely thrilled to be able to have a discussion with an American NBA fan (even though I support the Spurs). And though I consider myself reasonably knowledge on the NBA, he takes basketball geekery to another level.
He can rattle off the list of every NBA Defensive Player of the Year winner, and knows Michael Jordan’s stats — year-by-year — like the back of his hand. This goes on for nearly an hour, with the officer growing more and more excited. When another guard eventually comes out to inform us that I am cleared to go, he is visibly disappointed that I have to leave.
I then set out to walk across the kilometer-long bridge to Abkhazia. On the other side of the bridge is another checkpoint.
Except that this one looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie.
U.N.-plastered jeeps slowly roll past me as I walk up to the barbed-wire lined fences hemming in the narrow pedestrian walkway to Abkhazia’s immigration windows. A Russian military officer barks something at me and then, upon realizing I speak English, whispers something into his radio.
Yet more waiting ensues. By this point the day is wearing on much longer than I had expected. I’m worried because I need to get out of the southern part of Abkhazia, which has a reputation as being dangerous, before dark falls.
Thankfully, after a bag search and some questions by the one Russian soldier who speaks some broken English, I’m through.
On the other side of the Russian checkpoint sits a massive dusty dirt parking lot adorned by nothing but a large Abkhazian flag flying proudly overhead.
Another man sporting a ripped t-shirt and a sawed-off shotgun appears
I’m immediately approached by a man asking if I want to go to Sukhumi. I do. But he tries to hurry me into his taxi, and I really don’t want to get in. Though I’d have no problem shelling out the rubles (you can’t use Georgian lari as currency in Abkhazia) for a private car, I’ve been warned that I must take shared transportation only. So I politely decline and inform him I’m looking for a marshrukta (shared car or minibus transportation).
Before I can walk away, another man sporting a ripped t-shirt and a sawed-off shotgun appears. He starts yelling something in Russian at me.
I have no idea what he is saying.
It very well could be “the marshrutkas are to your left.”
But he sure is yelling it loudly.
And he sure is holding a shotgun.
So I say nothing in response, while slowly sliding myself around the corner of the nearest car. The man doesn’t follow me, thankfully, though the taxi driver continues to harass me even after I eventually find a marshrutka.
Oh, and, here’s the thing about marshrutkas: they leave when they are full. So if you are, like me, the first to arrive, you claim the best seat and then wait. However long it takes. Sometimes they fill in minutes, sometimes it takes hours.
So I settle in, and begin a playing a game that will become a theme of my time in Abkhazia: watch the people walking by and root for them to choose your marshrutka among the many on offer.
Thankfully, this one fills quickly and we are on our way.
Looking out the window as we amble through southern Abkhaiza, I feel like I’ve been cast into a dystopian movie — one where 90% of the buildings are abandoned to the elements, haunting reminders of a population long gone.
Except this is no movie. The sad reality is that the many abandoned homes belong to those, most of them ethnically Georgian, who were forced out during the war. It’s hard not to be pensive at the thought of all that tragedy. This is a place that has clearly suffered a lot, and yet the truth is that most of the outside world knows nothing of it.
Finally, I arrive in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. The town also bears the heavy scars of war, standing at half of its Soviet-era population.
But signs of development are also everywhere. Chalk boards touting menu specials sit outside new hip steakhouses, while just next door abandoned apartment complexes look like they could cave in on themselves at any moment. Fresh young saplings line streets that are in places newly paved and in others still checkered by potholes.
Though I had been told to bring all my money in cash, it turns out there are ATMs sprouting up everywhere. And I manage to obtain a local SIM card at a brand new store staffed by one of the few people I meet who speaks English. She translates for me as everyone else in the store prods me with questions about why I am coming to Abkhazia.
I still don’t have a full answer, but I withhold admitting one reason I’m here: I’m trying to improve my photography on my trip, and I’m eager to shoot photographs of Abkhazia, especially inside some of these abandoned buildings.
Sukhumi does not disappoint on that front, and I spend the remaining minutes of daylight getting shots from an abandoned pier and a huge forgotten Soviet train station.
It’s a Friday, and usually that means you’ll find me out dancing somewhere. But this is most definitely not the sort of place you want to be partying — far too dangerous, I think — so I settle in early for the night
“I feel like I’ve been cast into a dystopian movie”
The next morning I find my way to the marshrutka station, using the assistance of a Russian-speaking friend who kindly answers my many What’s App calls seeking a translator. I’m going further north, almost to the Russian border, to Gagra.
In Soviet times Gagra and its surroundings were a popular summer family destination. Today, Russian sun-seekers are beginning to flock back, lured by Gagra’s pebbly Black Sea beaches and its cheap prices. Many day trippers come across the border from nearby Sochi for a quick and affordable weekend getaway.
By the time I get to Gagra, I’ve started to accept the reality that, no matter where I go in Abkhazia, I will never be inconspicuous. Though the language barrier is very high, everyone here — locals and Russian visitors alike — wants to try to talk to me. Most of them seem in disbelief that an American is travelling in Abkhazia at all.
At my guesthouse, I get a knock on my door from some Siberian women who are eager for me to join them for tea. Later, while I am grabbing a bite at a local restaurant, I notice the chefs repeatedly peering at me from behind hanging utensils. At the end of my meal the entire staff comes out to shake my hand. I can’t understand anything they are saying, but they are very excited.
“Is this where the organ harvesting will happen?”
The next morning I cram myself into the back of a Russian tour bus going to Lake Ritsa, a stunning lake high in the mountains where Stalin himself used to spend his summers.
As the bus winds through the increasingly jaw-dropping Abkhazian countryside, I am befriend by the Russian groups on either side of me. One is a crew of four college-aged kids from southern Russia who are here for a school holiday, while the other is a large family from Moscow. The father, Roma, helps translate for the rest while cradling his infant son. Maintaining a group conversation in this fashion is a laborious process, but none of them seem to mind. They are all thrilled to have a new American friend.
That evening we all go to dinner together, where the bonding continues over many courses of warm bread, cheese, and beer. I receive an invite to stay with Roma’s family during the World Cup next year, something I may well later cash in. And one of the younger Russians turns out to share my love for Latino music, so we waste away the better part of an hour belting out Nicky Jam lyrics.
Roma and his wife have left their infant with his grandparents for the first time, and are beginning to get a bit nervous about being separated from him. So we flag down a random minivan in the pouring rain, pile in, and head outside the city so that they can check up on their baby.
After a brief visit with the infant, Roma emerges with a large bottle of homemade chahca — a Georgian spirit that can pack over 80% alcohol by volume. Roma leads us down a pitch-black alley towards the nearby sea.
I nervously crack a few jokes about whether this is where the organ harvesting will happen.
As we slide along the wet pebble beach, reggaeton playing from my iPhone speaker, Roma announces that we are going swimming.
He discards his clothes, as does another one of the younger Russians, and dives into the sea. He calls for me to join him. I consider for a moment — skinny dipping in the Black Sea would make a nice addition to my Top Experiences While Traveling the World list.
But it’s 2 AM and it’s cold, so self-restraint finally gets a grasp on me.
Abkhazia is a vivid juxtaposition of the best and the worst of the world.
Early in the morning, as I wait for my marshrutka to the border, I get a flurry of sentimental text messages from each of my Russian friends, all in English that has clearly been run through Google Translate.
I have to change marshrutkas a half dozen times to make the journey out of Abkhazia, which gives me plenty of time to contemplate.
I think I finally understand why I came here.
More than anywhere else I have been, Abkhazia is a vivid juxtaposition of the best and the worst of the world.
Abkhazia’s breathtaking natural landscapes stand in stark contrast to its man-made desolation. Abkhazia’s people are so kind and warm that is hard to believe they were so recently subjected to (or in many cases the participants of) tragedies of unthinkable proportions.
And all of this exists in a corner of the globe that is almost entirely forgotten by the outside world.
Perhaps Abkhazia will be liberated one day and emerge from its shadows and into the world stage, as have other conflict-ridden places like the Balkans.
I certainly hope so, as Abkhazia deserves better than languishing in such forgotten darkness.
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