Abkhazia – a staircase to nowhere

Abkhazia, a natural paradise that many would argue simply does not exist, is a tiny buffer zone between Russia and Georgia stretching for some 180 km along the Eastern Black Sea coast.  Yet, contrary to any common logic, getting there is perfectly doable for most of the world, besides for a few that were born within its own borders. Once considered the Soviet Riviere and a popular touristic destination for half of the globe, at the moment Abkhazia is a pretty but desolate piece of land, a heaven for Caucasian criminals in exile, and de facto a somewhat independent country formed in the turbulent years marking the collapse of the USSR. In 1992 a violent civil war sparked by merciless nationalist aspirations broke out in Georgia, resulting in thousands of casualties, numerous rape cases, brutal atrocities, forced mass expulsion of civilians and an unrecognized sovereign state. Russian imperialist ambitions, pan Georgian nationalism and the ever looming Abkhazian dream for further autonomy all had their share in the tragic process that made this territory raise up to the limbo where it lays.

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More than twenty-two years later the wound is still open and casts a sad shadow over the region. Not contained with its freshly painted borders Abkhazia stretches further living in the memories of scores of ethnic Georgians expelled during the conflict who are not allowed to return even as visitors to their birthplaces.  Customized grey factories and crumbling down blocks accommodate old refugees who never found a new home.  It is in their stories that we step into Abkhazia for a first time. ‘The Abkhazians are great people’-they insist-‘but the Russians tricked them’.’We like each other, but the Russian government played a dirty game’. ‘Its beautiful there and the people are friendly’ – we are reassured continuously. ‘Go there and maybe you can meet my sister. She has to be 88 right now. I have not heard anything of her since 1993’ – smiles an old grandfather as he downs his morning cha cha, just a couple of km away from river Ingur that currently serves as a border between Georgia and the contested neighbouring Republic.

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Morning tea and chat with Georgian Abkhazians, who left their homes at the age of sixty.

Few days later, we walk slowly on a ramshackle bridge that was built by Stalin in 1936. Spearheading a ruthless anti-Abkhazian campaign and reasserting Georgia’s claims over the region, ironically, the infamous Soviet leader was deeply attached to the natural beauty of the place and ordered the construction of everything that could ease his access and travels around. Most certainly  indifferent to the history of the bridge, a party of informal merchants or a gang of lucky cabbage and potato smugglers, protected by the blessing of the border authorities, overtake us in bizarre convertible carts pulled by sad horses, rushing towards the Abkhazian customs office. In political terms we stroll onto a platform that starts in Georgia and ends nowhere. However, we do not fall into an abyss on the other side but into the diligent hands of the border police.  Skillful interrogation and thorough passport checks confirm that we do not intend to destabilize the integrity of the territory and a short quiz on winter sports proves that we are not passionate fans aiming to sneak into Sochi for the Olympic fair. All that verified and we are allowed to enter the forgotten paradise.

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‘Beware of the 20 km between the border and Gali’ – we were told a night earlier- ‘Criminals and outlaws of all sorts lurk in the forests’. A perfect set up for a hitchhiking thriller. The ominous words resonate in our ears as we decide to walk to Gali rejecting to blow half of our daily budget in a ten minutes ride of packed marshrutka. An hour of peaceful walk is interrupted by the roar of  a rotten Kamaz. The truck pulls over and we are waved in by a couple of guys. Absentminded and tired, we temporarily forget the wise council of our last night’s host and jump into the creaking cabin of the truck, soon to realize that it can only be open from the inside with a screwdriver hold in exclusive possession of the driver. A few hundred meters later, suspicious phone calls set us into alarm; a further several hundred and a white van driving in the opposite direction breaks abruptly and the drivers let us know that their cousin is joining us. The awkward silence that follows and our confused looks, are soothed by a leery voice that urges us “don’t worry, don’t be afraid”. The screwdriver opens the door to let in ‘a cousin’ with an impressive number of stitches, bruises and scars adorning his face. He grins friendly revealing a row of a few sturdy teeth as we plunge out pulling our bulky backpacks and gasping for air. ‘Don’t you like my cousin?’ – we hear from the back.  ‘Too little, too little, the truck is too small for all of us’ – we mumble an excuse with a theatrical smile as we jump back to the road.

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Once in Gali, we gradually start doubting our mistrust regarding the good intentions of the cousin and his friends, and we almost regret the way we allowed fear to take over us in a second. It is either that the city abounds in bandits or that the cousin’s outlook is fashionable in these latitudes. We walk through Gali carefully examining each detail, expecting to witness the gloomy scars of war. But instead we sink into a timelessness characteristic for places undergoing severe economic stagnation over a long stretch of time. Collapsing houses and old Soviet cars coexist with modern jeeps stamped with the logos of the UN and a few international NGO’s. A Lada with velvet seats and 60’s Russian hits, happens to be the alternative to the throng of taxi offers we receive on the way out of town. Each mile north reinforces the ghostly feeling of desolation. Pretty mountains vainly reflect their snowy peaks into the Black Sea as we pass by silent villages hidden in between mandarin trees. We fall into the trap of distance relativism that haunts this little territory, and reach Sukhumi earlier than expected. The size of Abkhazia is miniature, and combined with the practical restrictions imposed on travelling by the possession of an internationally unrecognized passport, has developed a peculiar understanding of distances in the locals. 20 km is deemed an unwalkable hike and we are consistently advised not to undertake any enterprise of the sort and take a bus from Sukhumi to Novi Afon.

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Novi Afon, the elusive monastery (we walked round and round for an hour till we reached a path leading to its back door).

Novi Afon is a pretty apricot coloured monastery with gilded domes housing frescoes of intense gold and blue, that lies nested in lush green mountains overlooking the sea nearby. It was built in the late 19th Century by a group of Russian monks who fled Athos fearing pogroms by the Ottoman authorities in the face of the ongoing Ruso-Ottoman wars. Numerous little caves, some of which are turned into altars to unknown saints, all better said to all saints – laden with coins and icons, hide in the hills around under the quiet watch of Anakopia’s fortress – the ancient capital of the Abkhazian kingdom. . Here in February half of the forest still lives a quiet winter dream, while the subtropical vegetation and a few pioneer herbs impatiently celebrate the upcoming spring. We readily join their happy carnival and pick some nettles and mint, gladly accepting the unexpected present,  aware that spring in Iran will probably have completely different colours. The puffing of an old locomotive brings us abruptly back to reality,  and we realize that the railway at which we have taken photos and idly jumped around a bit earlier is not as abandoned as it looks like. We warily cross it intensely staring at the maw of the tunnels on both sides that spit it out and squat in a tiny cabin next to it – a somehow creepy but comfortable home for a night.

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Novi Afon (frescoes).

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Cave’s altar around Novi Afon

The soft sun warms up the gently swaying waters of the calm sea as we sit on a bench at the quay of Sukthumi. The smell of coffee, the clicking of dice on a  backgammon set and the romantically decadent facades of the buildings add to the melancholic sense of tranquility. A few people on a Saturday stroll  pass by silently. Calm, quiet, neat and cute, Sukhumi´s city center feels as the pearl of the Soviet architecture.  Restored and wealthy looking it is hard to believe that what lies south of the Abkhazian capital is the same country. Billboards with government propaganda reassuring the population that the place will resurrected from the ashes seem completely out of place. Only the blocks in the outskirts painted with the dance of riffles hold the marks of an armed conflict.

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The seafront in Sukhumi

Near the closed opera of Sukhumi a middle aged lady selling tickets, starts a conversation with us asking straight away where are we going to stay tonight. She promptly rules out the possibility of us sleeping in a tent and invite us to stay in her home for as long as we want. She has two houses and would be happy to let us spent some time in Abkhazia comfortably. At 5 o’clock she finishes work and we can go to her place. Not believing our luck we merge with the relaxed atmosphere of the city, drinking coffee by the beach, watching the grandfathers afternoon games and enjoying chats with Murat – a Turk of Caucasian roots that we meet in the little restaurant resented by Lika – a local Armenian. Later on we meet Luda again. This time  she has a different set of questions in mind and  inquires what do we do in Abkhazia and where did we came from. Our answers seem unsatisfactory and probably considering us Georgian spies she concludes that she cannot host us.  Luda apologizes and explains hurriedly that she does not want to deal with anything even superficially related to the southern neighbours  and walks away.  Dazed and puzzled we stay on a bench in the park unable to make anything sensible out of our recent experience, and only a while later we are able to walk a few miles and seek refuge in the crumbling train station, where Ana opens to us a new door. A few days later, a Russian girl who hosts us in a village near Gali solves part of the mystery. After the war and expulsion of the Georgian population many houses were left abandoned. Plenty of them still crumble empty and, like a sad metaphor depicting the misfortunes of many Georgian refugees, staircases lead to homes that are not any longer there. Some people, though, took over the ghost villages or simply occupied the houses of their neighbours. Could it be that Luda wants to keep such an act as a secret?

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Sukhumi’s old train station

Although, the legacy of the war might not be that visible at first sight, it stubbornly persist in the memory of the locals. Nationalism, that psychological disorder so common in the Caucasus, keeps the pile of fear and mistrust burning vehemently. The savagery committed by a handful of people in Georgian military uniforms seem sufficient justification for hostility towards an entire ethnic group. However, the participation in the fair of atrocities taken by groups loyal to the Abkhazian idea is conveniently omitted. We leave beautiful of Abkhazia with the bitter feeling that reconciliation is an impossibility. Common people are those that have to pay the toll.

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A staircase to nowhere (Khinkhli)

If you are curious about the look of Abkhazia, you can see a few more photos in flikr.  And to see it by yourself, and make your way to this little paradise, here is a short guide to Abkhazian bureaucracy.

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Lika at her caffee in Sukhumi

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Anna (a lovely Armenian inmigrant) – our host for a day in Sukhumi

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Julia, a girl from Moscow who fell in love in Abkhazia and hosted us in the tiny village of Kinkhli (with her husband, dog, and us)