Monuments, tanks and ghost towns.
Nestled on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, between Russia and Georgia, Abkhazia is home to just under a quarter of a million people. The region is famed for its beach resorts, once known as the ‘Soviet Riviera’ – back when even Joseph Stalin had a holiday home here. Since the breakup of the USSR however, Abkhazia has seen numerous bloody conflicts. Georgia still claims this region as their own, while many of the locals, with Russian support, have continued to fight for independent status. As a result the so-called Republic of Abkhazia is one of a handful of unrecognised countries in the region; what’s sometimes referred to as a post-Soviet frozen conflict zone.
The Abkhaz capital is Sukhum (spelled ‘Sukhumi’ by the Georgians, but ‘Sukhum’ by most of the people who live there now), and in August 2017, myself and a couple of friends obtained Abkhaz e-visas online, then crossed the demilitarised zone from Georgia to spend a long weekend exploring Sukhum and its surroundings. Here’s what I found.
Bridge on the River Ingur
By half past eight in the morning we arrived at the border checkpoint. It was quiet – taxi drivers slept in their cars while out on the road a single dog chased through a herd of slow-moving cattle, nipping at their ankles in playful provocation. Past the silent cars and cattle, a mile around the corner and just beyond the bridge on the Ingur River, another militarised checkpoint marked the entrance to the unrecognised Republic of Abkhazia.
At a window beside the barrier, we slid our passports across to a dour-faced Georgian guard. He nodded, took our documents and told us to wait. Looking around at the flimsy office buildings, the plastic garden chairs outside the cafe, I decided that this was just about the worst border checkpoint I had ever seen. But then, as far as Georgia is concerned, this isn’t even a border.
We waited there for an hour before the man at the window waved us on through the checkpoint; the first checkpoint of three.
Abkhazia can be reached by road from Russia, but here, on the Georgian side at a river crossing just north of Zugdidi, visitors to Abkhazia must proceed on foot. It was almost a mile to the river, a strip of quiet tarmac hemmed in by trees. One of the stray dogs had followed us, and she kept our pace as far as the Monument to Peace: a metal gun with its barrel tied into a knot, the last built structure on Georgian-controlled territory.
I have never seen a more picturesque no-man’s land. The trees fell away at the water’s edge and a long bridge carried us over a landscape of rolling hills and babbling currents. I had been warned that Russian snipers watched the bridge from positions hidden in the bushes; stop to take photos of this scenic demilitarised zone and the least they might do is deny you entry to Abkhazia. We saw no sign of them though, and as we walked we simply enjoyed the lush green scenery in blissful naivety, our cameras tucked away inside their cases.
The next checkpoint, just beyond the river, was controlled by Abkhaz authorities. Beyond that we’d meet a third and final checkpoint staffed by Russians. It was this middle one that got us, though.
It was clear the Abkhazians took the border more seriously than their Georgian counterparts did. We were met by soldiers, chainlink fences and barbed wire. A guard post was positioned before the fence and we stepped inside to show our paperwork. Please wait, we were told, as the border guard took our passports away once again. He puzzled briefly over our nationalities – one American, one Australian and a Briton – then made some calls. We waited.
By now the midday August sun was rising and outside the guard hut, sat on the dusty grass, there was nowhere to find shade. I ran out of water in the first hour and as the temperature rose to almost 40 degrees Celsius (100+ Fahrenheit) I was sure I could actually see my skin slowly burning. All the while, other visitors were arriving and passing on through, the groups getting bigger as the day went on. They were locals, and I wondered what their stories were – so many people had been displaced by the war, communities uprooted, families divided. My sunburn was probably pretty minor compared to whatever they were going through.
Three hours passed, sitting in that grassy no-man’s land. We became increasingly concerned… was this normal? My phone was still picking up Georgian internet, and as chance would have it, a friend had recently introduced me online to Abkhazia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; she’d met him in Sukhum, and now we were Twitter friends. I sent him a message, asking if a four-hour border wait was normal. No, it’s not, he replied, and said he would look into it.
Twenty minutes later, the guard waved us through. Two checkpoints down, one more to go.
This last barrier was staffed by Russian soldiers. They looked so young – I guess many were still teenagers – but they were smartly uniformed, sharp, keen-eyed, and not altogether unfriendly. Reaching the gate, one soldier started asking us questions in Russian. I struggled my way through a few before he switched, with a half-smile, into surprisingly proficient English. The questions were predictable (What we were doing? Why did we have cameras? Did we work for press organisations?) and we kept our answers simple: Tourism. Tourism. Tourism.
We seemed to pass the test, and just before we passed the gate the soldier asked to take a quick look through our bags. Of course, we said. We didn’t have anything to hide… or so we thought. But my American friend had been shopping back in Tbilisi. He’d bought a bunch of DVDs of old Georgian WWII movies; and now this Russian soldier had found a stash of historical-political media packaged in cases covered with Georgian script. It couldn’t have looked good. He lifted them with an outstretched arm, as if contaminated, ordered us not to move, then took them to his superior officer.
Eventually they let us into Abkhazia, but my friend wouldn’t see his DVDs again.
Once inside we tried to play it cool; tried hard not to look like the naive tourists we were. We ignored the drivers waiting at the gate, shouting “Taksi!” as we walked by tired and sunburnt. There was absolutely no way they wouldn’t overcharge us. Problem was, once we’d got past them we didn’t see many other options. Some locals were waiting in a marshrutka, but to get to Sukhum meant changing in Gali, plus there was no knowing when this bus would be full, and ready to leave. So we got cold drinks in a shop where moustachioed border guards were arguing over plastic cups of kvass; and then, once rehydrated, we bit the bullet and put ourselves at the mercy of the taxi men.
I guess it wasn’t too bad in the end. Between three people we haggled from 2,500 down to 2,000 Russian Rubles (about €25), whereas the bus would have cost just one tenth of that. But this was the fastest we’d moved all day, we were finally on our way, and it felt fantastic.
Our driver – a mad, bombastic sort of man, his flatcap resting so far down his red, round nose that I wondered if he could actually see the road at all – made a first stop in Gali, just 10km north of the border. We pulled up on a market street near the train station, where he heaved a couple of sacks from the back of his car, and onto a nearby truck. He opened one and tossed us each a hazelnut for our troubles; then pocketed some cash from the truck driver and we were back on the road.
In Georgia, taxi drivers had always seemed offended when I put my seatbelt on; as if it were some kind of sleight against their driving skills. They had groaned and complained (one called me a girl), but Abkhaz taxi drivers, apparently, were more direct. David, our Australian in the front seat, got a surprise when the driver reached over and forcibly unplugged his belt. He turned then to us in the back and we all unbelted, as per our driver’s bellowed commands.
From Gali we followed the coastal road north, speeding through an industrious green landscape of factories and farmland; scattered with ruins, bullet-holed houses and the most extraordinary mosaic-tiled bus stops. Our driver saw us enjoying the view and he shouted, “Fotos! Pazhalsta!” as he gestured at us to document it. So we wound down our windows, poking lenses out the sides of the car like cannons on a war galleon. Meanwhile, some kind of national music blasted through the in-car stereo – all drums and accordions – and when the road was empty, our driver would crank the steering wheel, swerving across both lanes in time to the frantic rhythm.
The Republic of Abkhazia
In August 2017, BBC Radio broadcast a short documentary titled Abkhazia: A Land Forgotten. The words “forgotten” and “remote” appear frequently throughout the piece… as they do in many other Western accounts of the region. Calling this region “remote,” however, belies a certain anglocentric naivety. From Sochi – Russia’s largest resort city and host of the 2014 Winter Olympics – you can drive to the Russian-Abkhaz border in 40 minutes. Another 40 minutes and you’ll have reached your beachside hotel. That’s faster than London to Brighton.
Meanwhile the heaving crowds of Russian tourists who flock each summer to Abkhazia’s seaside resorts (as many as 1.67 million in a year) don’t appear to have “forgotten” this place… and the Georgians certainly haven’t forgotten Abkhazia either. Even before I published this article, it was already attracting attention. Back in November I received a polite-yet-firm email in response to a hidden photo gallery on my site, that read: “I would like to ask you to indicate Abkhazia as Georgia, as it is the part of the country currently under occupation.” A follow-up email made the same case again, adding, “I am happy to hear that Abkhazia is of interest to you, awaiting your story about one of the most beautiful parts of Georgia.”
During my trip through the Caucasus I spoke with a lot of Georgians, and a lot of Abkhaz people too. I got on well with almost all of them – but on the subject of Abkhazia, I heard opinions from either side that were simply irreconcilable. (Perhaps that’s why it has taken me 18 months to put this story into words… because I know that whatever I write, it’ll no doubt upset someone.) Look, I’m no expert. I’m a tourist with a travel blog. If you’re interested in this region then don’t take it from me, do your own research. But the problem, put simply, is this: Abkhazia is a distinct region with its own unique identity, and while there is precedent for it being independent, there is precedent too for it falling under Georgian jurisdiction.
Going back as early as the 9th century BC, Abkhazia formed part of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Colchis. By the 7th century AD it existed as an independent Byzantine Princedom, later reuniting with the Kingdom of Georgia in 1008 AD. In 1810, Abkhazia became an autonomous principality within the Russian Empire and from 1921 was declared by the Bolsheviks as a fully independent Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR Abkhazia). In 1931 Stalin (a Georgian himself) demoted Abkhazia to the status of an autonomous republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic… and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia declared itself independent once more, whilst most of the rest of the world continued to view it as part of Georgia.
Both sides of this debate appeal to history to justify their arguments. From the Georgian perspective, Abkhazia has been a part of their world for most of 30 centuries; and the times when it wasn’t theirs came largely as the unwelcome result of foreign interventionism (be that Byzantine, Russian, Soviet, etc.). But according to Abkhazia, the Abkhaz people are historically, ethnically, culturally and linguistically different to both their contemporary neighbours – the Russians and the Georgians – and their story is one of an underdog nation forever struggling for independence.
In the lead-up to the 1992-93 War in Abkhazia, Georgia was accused of committing cultural genocide in an attempt to re-Georgify the region; in response, it is reported that (allegedly Russian-backed) Abkhaz separatists led a campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing against the ethnic Georgians who then made up the majority population in the region. A United Nations mission found both sides guilty of severe human rights abuses.
Relationships with Russia further complicate matters. It was Russia, and later the Soviet Union, that drew the modern borders between Georgia and Abkhazia, and many Georgians reject such divisions as foreign tampering. During the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Abkhazia fought with Russia against Georgia… leading Russia to formally recognise the ‘Republic of Abkhazia,’ and Georgia to officially declare Abkhazia as a Russian-occupied territory. Abkhazia remains friendly with Russia today, not least because Russia supplies the military strength with which Abkhazia continues to maintain its border against Georgia.
But like I said, don’t take my word for it. The history of the region is dense, complex and bloody; making sense of it is far beyond the remit of this 5,000-word article. What I can tell you with confidence, however, is what it’s like to visit.
I have visited a handful of unrecognised republics now (see for example: Transnistria), and out of them all, Abkhazia was by far the most different from its ‘parent’ country. More than just a rebellious breakaway region, the Abkhaz people are ethnically unique. While Russian is widely spoken here Abkhazia has its own language (written now in an adapted 55-character Cyrillic alphabet), and while they accept the Russian ruble, for convenience, they also have their own currency – the apsar. They have their own government, flag, anthem, and all the other trappings of state. It doesn’t feel much like Georgia at all; and despite the presence of Russian flags and soldiers, it doesn’t feel an awful lot like Russia either.
The architecture is largely Soviet-classical, and in between the frequent ruined buildings (scars from the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict) stand lovingly (and often expensively) renovated hotels. Someone is clearly pumping a lot of money into the region. The Soviet war memorials of Abkhazia are well maintained, not neglected and falling apart like many of those in Georgia, and stood alongside you’ll see monuments to the victims of more recent wars – typically, designed in a similar style to the Soviet ones. And my god, are the Abkhaz people friendly. I find it’s often the way with these unrecognised republics: the fewer nations that recognise a state’s sovereignty, the more welcoming the locals are to tourists. I guess it’s like a validation of sorts.
Although having said that, not everyone warmed to us right away. The woman who ran our guesthouse in Sukhum was downright suspicious when we arrived – side-eying us as she led the way through the garden to an outhouse made up for guests. The family dog was less judgemental though, and as we made friends with him, she softened too. By day three our host was serving us freshly made kompot, and telling us off for leaving the house without sun hats.
Once checked in, we hastily dropped our bags then headed out to get our bearings. Our accommodation was just off the main boulevard, and it led us straight to perhaps the most iconic building in modern Sukhum: the old parliament, former headquarters of the Council of Ministers. This 12-storey government building was a casualty of the war, and now it stands ruined at the city’s heart. Rather than ignore it though, or tear it down, it seems the Abkhaz government has recognised its power as a monument; the ruin stands defiant, its Abkhaz flag flying high over the streets of the capital.
From parliament we walked down to the seafront promenade. Exploring Sukhum, with its palm trees and Beaux Arts architecture, there were moments I could have believed we were in the Caribbean. It was a far cry from the post-Soviet war zone I might have pictured: instead, holiday makers walked the cobbled streets in flip-flops, past ice cream stalls and caricature artists, while aggressive seagulls dive-bombed them for chips. Sukhum had all the trappings of every upmarket resort town I’ve ever visited, and it pulled it off better than most.
The eye-catching Amra Pier, clearly built as a focal point for Sukhum seafront, looked almost abandoned from outside. We were delighted to find it open though, and what’s more to discover a wonderfully retro 1960s cafe inside. We had a beer in the shade then continued our walk along the promenade… past balloon sellers, toy guns, hot dog stalls and a man offering rides on child-sized electric cars shaped like Soviet tanks complete with Abkhaz flags.
Wandering inland we crossed a green park full of monuments, to reach a burned-out backstreet mansion. Purple graffiti marked the red and fire-blackened bricks. We stopped to take out cameras, when a pair of strangers staggered towards us. They wore shabby, dishevelled clothes, with mischievous eyes… one was clutching a bottle of vodka, which he waved in my direction as he started talking at us. His Russian was heavily slurred, but I understood the words money and more vodka.
Instinctively, we said No – and they shrugged off the rejection, now seemingly interested just to talk with some foreigners. We chatted a bit, as much as we were able (the state they were in, I don’t think their Russian was all that much better than mine), and then I gave them 100 Rubles anyway.
Have fun! I said, and the smaller man grabbed me suddenly, pulling on my lapels as he reached in to kiss me once on each cheek. “Russia Forever!” he shouted, in English. His colleague took up the chant, and together they tumbled off down the street, hooting and hollering.
The Soviet Riviera
Back at the border, we had anticipated a grilling from the guards – and so we’d memorised a list of legitimate reasons why we might want to visit Abkhazia: the 2nd century Anacopia Fortress; Stalin’s Summer Residence at Novy Afon, later frequented by Khrushchev and Brezhnev in turn, and now a museum; the extravagant domes of the Simoneau-Kananitsky Monastery; and the Veryovkina Cave, which at a depth of 2212 metres is the deepest known cave on Earth. But we didn’t visit any of them in the end. Instead we joined the crowds and spent a full day touring the resort towns of the riviera.
For the preceding week we had travelled around Georgia by rental car. Here, our dependence on taxis was restrictive, expensive… yet also, somehow liberating. It was clear, and clearer all the time, that we hadn’t allowed enough time to properly see Abkhazia. Four days and three nights would only give us time to get our toes wet; but doing that by taxi, hopping from one beach resort to the next, at least gave the experience some authenticity. We would see Abkhazia’s riviera the same way Soviet tourists had, in the old days – and the same way that millions of Russian tourists still do.
First we stopped in Novy Afon (‘New Athos’), then at the northern end of the Abkhaz coast we spent a while exploring Gagra: with its abandoned hotels, some extraordinary Soviet-era bus stops, and a long walk down the beach with ice creams. We took another taxi to Pitsunda where resort hotels spilled out into a beachside plaza with bouncy castles, fountains and bronze monuments.
Does it feel like I’m skipping some details here? There’s a reason for that. My main goal while touring Abkhazia was to document the region’s Soviet-era monuments, Modernist architecture and bus stops… and in the near future I plan to share dedicated posts expanding on these topics.
My general impression though, on exploring Abkhazia’s former ‘Soviet Riviera,’ was that this was as pleasant and peaceful a holiday destination as any I can name. The scars of war are still visible, of course – we’d pass fire damaged buildings like the ruined Gagarin Mall in Gagra, or see bullet holes sprayed across backstreet residential blocks – but the scars of former conflict were off-set by a lot of new investment. Boutique hotels and trendy cocktail bars line much of the Abkhaz coast, while the mood in the resorts was one of lazy contentment. Getting into Abkhazia (at least, from the Georgian side) had been a headache, all guns, barbed wire and bureaucracy… but once inside, it’s exactly the sort of place you might want to bring your family for the holidays.
Driving back to Sukhum in the evening, we chatted with the taxi driver. He only wanted to talk about the war though: “Russia took Abkhazia from the Georgians,” he told us, “and gave it back to us.”
Near the village of Bzipi I asked him to stop at a Soviet-era WWII memorial beside the road. He consented with a shrug, then while we took photos he waited with the car. Two minutes later he was pulling over again though, this time to show us a contemporary monument to the victims of the Georgian-Abkhaz War. Quid pro quo. The old man approached this monument as if it were some holy altar; head bowed, hand on chest. I wondered who he had lost.
On the morning we left Sukhum, our hosts’ dog followed us all the way down to the waterfront. We tried sending it home but it would retreat crestfallen, watch us from a distance for a while and then come trotting after us again. When we sat down for breakfast in a cafe on the main promenade, the dog curled up outside to guard the doorway. The woman who worked in the cafe was Syrian, and we talked for a while as she delivered our lattes, eggs and avocado toast (the menu in this place would have looked perfectly at home – save for its Cyrillic script – in any hipster coffeeshop from Brooklyn to Shoreditch). At some point during our meal, the dog got bored and went home.
There was one last thing for us to do: Western tourists visiting Abkhazia must have their visas approved at the ministry of immigration in Sukhum. We didn’t get around to it until our last morning.
Finding the building was easy enough, but then we had to wait an hour or so in queues, squatting in a cramped hallway alongside crowds of locals waiting on paperwork. Thankfully, by the time we finally got into the office the process itself was refreshingly simple: a couple of quick stamps and our e-visas were validated. Welcome to Abkhazia said the man at the desk, we thanked him, then hopped in a taxi to the border.
That last Abkhaz taxi driver thought we were spies. One American, one Australian and a Brit, all armed with fancy cameras, clearly defied any other explanation. He chatted with an Abkhaz woman in the passenger seat, while we sat in the back, taking photos out the windows. Every time a shutter clicked the driver and his friend shared knowing glances.
On the way to the border we stopped in Gali again, this time to pick up a man in a freshly pressed border guard uniform. I presume he was hitching a ride to work. As we squeezed in, now six of us in the car, the driver turned to the newcomer and said in Russian, “Maybe spies.” The border guard furrowed his brow and nodded sagely.
“Slava Abkhazia!” the driver shouted, suddenly (“Glory to Abkhazia!”), and us three foreigners hastily agreed.
We got a grilling from Russian soldiers at the border: “What were you doing in Abkhazia? Where did you visit? Where did you stay? Where will you go next? What is your profession? Are you a journalist? Do you have friends in Abkhazia? Do you have friends in Georgia? Are you sure you’re not a journalist?”
This young Russian spoke even better English than the previous one, but the questions felt more perfunctory than suspicious. He even permitted a smile to cross his lips, when he finished and waved us through with a “Have a nice day.” As we entered the chainlink corridor towards the bridge, a local man passed us carrying a pig in a sack.
We were across the river, just passing the knotted gun sculpture, when we were stopped by researchers working for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. They weren’t allowed inside Abkhazia, they told us, so they waited by the border and quizzed tourists on their way out. “What were you doing in Abkhazia?” they asked. “Where did you visit? Where did you stay?” It was almost the same script the Russian soldiers had used.
And just like that, we were back in Georgia. Or perhaps we never left? I’ll let you be the judge of that, though I can tell you that crossing the Ingur River really does feel like walking into a different country. Abkhazia is objectively different – culturally, socially, politically – to Georgia, but when you consider that such differences result (at least in part) from an organised campaign of ethnic cleansing… well, it did somewhat sour my otherwise positive impressions of the place.
Of course, #NotAllAbkhazians should be made to answer for those crimes, just like #NotAllGeorgians supported the “vicious, ethnically based pillage, looting, assault and murder” committed against ethnic Abkhaz people in Sukhum(i) back in 1992 (as detailed in this Human Rights Watch report). But it seems – at least to this tourist – that the relative peace that exists in Abkhazia now, however politicised, however imperfect, must surely be better than what came before.
Thanks for reading – I know this was a long one. If you’re thinking of visiting Abkhazia for yourself, then I recommend you take a look at this guide by Megan Starr. It certainly proved invaluable while I was planning my trip. Good luck!>
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