From May 14th till May 18th my travel partner and I spent a few days in the defacto state Abkhazia. Officialy this region is part of Georgia but they seperated themselves from it a few years ago and with Russian support they see themselves as a sovereign state. With only a handfull of countries supporting and recognising them, it is still a defacto state. The Netherlands is not one of the countries supporting them and so visiting this place was bit sketchy…with no embassy, no normal travel insurance and no authorities being able to help when in trouble we went in anyway. It would be a trip to never forget…and amazing experience!
A little bit of History
At the end of the 1980, during the last days of the Soviet Union, tension between ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians grew. The Abkhaz wanted to be a Soviet Republic in its own right and not be part of Georgia.
The first time the dispute turned violent was in 1989. Soviet troups restored order after several days of violence.
In 1992 Georgian government accused the Abkhaz of kidnapping a minister and dispatched 3000 soldiers to the region. The Abkhaz were relatively unarmed at that time and where forced to retreat to Gudauta and Tkvarcheli.
With the help of several paramilitairies and mercenaries and with training from the Russian Army, the Abkhaz launched an attack on Geogian held capitol Sukhum in 1993 breaking the cease-fire. Once the city fell, they quickly overran the rest of Abkhazia.
During the war gross human right violations were reported on both sides. Georgian troops have been accused of having committed looting and murders "for the purpose of terrorising, robbing and driving the Abkhaz population out of their homes" while Georgia blames the Abkhaz forces and their allies for the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia.
The conflict has not been resolved and up to present day Abkhazia remains a breakaway region of Georgia
Day 1 - Crossing the border
We got up early on monday morning because we had no idea how long crossing the border into Abkhazia was going to take us. We arrived at about 8.00 AM and then the waiting game started. Lucky for us there were two Polish guys also looking to cross and they spoke English and Russian so they acted as our translators at all check points. The first one was the Georgian border control. The officers looked at our passports and papers and told us we had to wait till 10.00AM because they had to call to the office in Tbilisi and they were not open yet. We sat down in some sort of busstop and patiently waited.
The border between Georgia and Abkhazia is the Ingur Bridge and we watched the first people crossing the brigde from the Abkhazian side. Soon after we sat down a minivan with “bank” signs parked near the busstop. Curiously we watched them set up. Suddenly a Marshrutka crossed the bridge
After an hour the small bar/cafe across the street opened up so we went inside for a coffee and some cheese bread (khachapuri). Finally it was 10am, one of our Polish guys went to the officers and came back with all our passports. We were allowed to cross!
The weather wasn’t very good, so we hopped on a Marshrutka (unfortunately the horse carriages that used to crossed the bridge were replaced by these mini busses) and drove towards the second border crossing. We had read online that this was going to be the Russian post…but to our surprise there were Abkhaz guards in the small booth. There is a time zone between Georgia and Abkhazia, so when we got to the officers it was 9AM on this side. We handed over our passports with our letter of acceptance. The officer told us to wait because he had to call the office which…yes you guessed it right…opened at 10AM.
Another hour of waiting and at about 10:05AM we heard a phone ring. There was a knock on the window and the officer waved with our passports. We could pass this control post. We walked up to the next one: the Russians. Immediately we were spotted among the crowd by two soldiers. The poked eachother and I heard “tourist”. The soldier checking our bags was really friendly. I had a huge backpack which had clothes for the both of us and my camera backpack in it. The cameras made him curious but very quickly he said all was okay…but then we suddenly had to wait at the side. Another soldier showed up and together with the Polish guys we had to follow him and a higher placed officer inside a small office. Then the questioning began. He wanted to know lots of personal things, like if we were maried, what kind of job we were doing, if we had kids etc. He also wanted to know where we would be going in Abkhazia and then wanted to know about our camera stuff. I heard him use the word spy in Russian and started to laugh “njet njet no spy!” He laughed and then all was good. We were allowed entry!
Next up was picking up our actual visum in Sukhum. We took a minibus to Gal and from Gal we took another one to the capital. Again this involved patience because they don’t drive at set times, no they go when they are full. In Sukhum the driver pointed us in the right direction and a little later we had our visum. Time to check in at our guesthouse “Guesthouse Stella”. We had a small bedroom and there was a shared bathroom & kitchen. Simple, but more than enough for us.
Once we were settled in it was time to do some exploring.
Day 2 - Exploring the Capitol
In the morning I walked to a small store across the street to get some stuff to make breakfast. The lady in the store only spoke Russian but with pointing I managed to get everything I wanted. Except for the eggs,I didn’t see them anywhere. Then I saw a Kinder Surprise Egg and used that to explain…she first thought I wanted the Kinder, but I then pretended to be a chicken (including flapping of wings and “cluck cluck” noises). She burst out laughing BUT … she understood and got me some eggs.
After breakfast we first walked to the old parliament building. This building was heavily bombed and set on fire during the Georgian-Abkhaz war and only it’s shell is still standing. Inside it was a MESS. With human dung everywhere and countless needles and garbage.
While we were inside we suddenly heard a loud noise outside. It was coming closer and getting louder, sounded like it was right above us. We looked at eachother quited puzzled when we realised it was a helicopter and it was hoovering right above the building. We peaked outside and saw some soldiers on the square in front of the
parliament and the copter was landing. We both thought it might be a good idea to pack our camera’s and head outside to see what was going on. Turned out to be nothing more than just showing off the helicopter or something like that.
We took some exteriour shots of the building and decided it was time to head towards our next locations. One was the main railway station. On the front side there were some coffee stands and some police men were sitting there, having a cup of coffee. Now if we had know what we heard later that day, I don’t think we would have entered the station at the other side. One of the boards was missing so it was easy getting inside. We took some photos, while a ‘sleeping’ stray dog was looking at us with one eye open. Gave him some cookies and when we were done, went outside again. The police men were still drinking coffee…so no worries. Well, later that day we heard from other explorers that they had spent 6 hours at the police station when they were caught inside the railway station. Being questioned. Whoops.
But since all went well we hopped on a Marshrutka and enjoyed the ride to our next stop: Gagra
When we arrived at the hotel, the lady running the place appologised. There were roadworks and so the hotel had no electricity until 6PM. No problem for us and as a compensation she offered us a free glas of wine at their rooftop bar. Unfortunately no electricity meant…no hot water either. So we couldn’t take a shower before heading out for dinner. The restaurant was right by the sea so we had a lovely view. It was pretty quiet, two other tables were occupied and there were a few stray cats. As entertainment there was a man singing some Russian songs and then suddenly…whoop no electricity! We didn’t mind, now at least he stopped singing…but…he had an idea. Drove his car right next to the restaurant, opened all the doors and started playing music from his car. This had us laughing for quite a while! Great way to end a great day!
Day 3 - If I could walk 500 miles...
This day we went everywhere on foot. We left our main backpack with clothes in our hotel and went out with just our camera bags and tripods. Took a taxi to the furthest location on our map…and walked from that one to the next one and the next one…and the next. All this walking made us thirsty especially with the weather around 30°c so we stopped at a small coffee stand to buy some water and cola. The lady asked if we wanted coffee too, but just the drinks were enough for us. The coffee stand was right next to an abandoned cable cart station and I decided to take a look if the cabin was worth a shot. Unfortunately it was covered in plastic and when I came back down the steps I saw Leon with a big smile on his face…’we’re getting free coffee’. I looked at him confused, then looked at the lady in the coffee stand and she was nodding ‘yes, coffee free’. I still can’t believe it when I now think of it. Don’t see a thing like that happening here in Holland.
After coffee it was time for more locations. On our way up some stairs I suddenly saw a snake serpentining towards me. I screamed and jumped out of its way. Leon just started to laugh at my ‘avoid the snake dance’ and said “ah now I know what I heard in the grass beside me”. At the top of the hill we met a very friendly Russian lawyer who curious about our camera gear and kept talking with us for almost an hour. We shared the same hobby as he also liked taking photos.
At the end of the day our feet were killing us. Leon stopped a Marshrutka, a fairly modern/new one without passengers. Seemed that he was not working but just stopped for us. I showed the driver where we were heading, he nodded and we were on our way. It was only a mile or maybe 1.5 mile and when we reached our destination I asked him ‘skolko rubley?’ … he smiled and waved. We didnt have to pay for our little trip! I shook his hand and thanked him and he gave me the biggest smile…guess we looked so tired that he felt that he felt sorry for the silly tourists. Second time I was amazed by the kindness of the people here!!
Back at the hotel, the lady offered to call us a taxi to our next town. She negotiated and then hung up. Told us the price, we agreed and she then told us her own driver would bring us to our next hotel for the same price as the taxi would cost us. We got into a huge SUV, I was thinking ‘finally a nice car’ but as soon as he turned the key I noticed that even this nice, big SUV had all the warning lights burning in the dashboard.
The driver didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Russian, so it was a quiet drive to Novy Afon. We checked in at the nicest hotel of our trip and went down to the restaurant for a good meal. Beef stew with Abkhazian wine and of course my favourite … khachapuri. Then it was time to get some sleep because we wanted to get up before sunrise to shoot a beautiful abandoned railway station at a lake.
Day 4 - What's the Story Morning Glory
So, we got up early to catch the sunrise. Only to find out that maybe it would have been a good idea to check from which side it would rise. Because I wanted to take a shot from the bridge and unfortunately that was shooting into the light. So we took some shots from the other side, went back to the hotel (Leon’s idea…I was mostly agry at myself for not checking) to have some breakfast and went back to take the shots from the other side.
Before it was time to take a taxi back to Sukhum we went to another railway station. This building is abandoned but the train still stops at this place. While we were taking photos a big old Soviet train stopped and people walked up to it selling all kinds of fruits to the passengers and the conductor.
Now it was time to take a taxi back to Sukhum. There had been a taxi in front of the station the whole time, so that was easy. We got in and Leon immediately said ‘this guy probably won’t be speeding’…it was a senior citizen. Well, no he didn’t speed…but his driving was maybe even more scary. He drove so slow that people kept overtaking us at the most dangerous curves in the road and such. Nerve wrecking if you ask me! In Sukhum he didn’t want to drive any further than the railway station. Even with our Guesthouse being just 1 mile down the road…no, he wouldn’t go any further. So we got out and walked up to the other drivers waiting for passengers. They didn’t understand where we wanted to go but one of them grabbed his phone and called to Stella. Ahhhhh! Yes now they knew so we were pointed to a taxi and two minutes later we were back at the guesthouse. When I got out and paid the driver, he put both his hands over my hands and my wallet, pointing around us: warning me to keep my wallet safe in this area. I thought this was such a sweet gesture, taxi driver looking out for tourists!
After we dropped off our stuff we wanted to go to the boulevard to stroll around a bit, take a look at the old pier and grab some dinner. We went across the street to our little store and asked about a taxi. She pointed next door…walked outside with us to show us, there was a taxi business right next to her store. Doh.
We tried to explain where we wanted to go, but the driver had no clue. We had an idea though and got into his old rambling Lada. I sat in the front, holding my phone with google maps directing us to the pier. He had such a great time trying to copy the dutch ‘turn left, turn right’ verbs and it got us where we wanted to go!
More to come soon…