TBILISI, Georgia Admittedly, I’ve developed somewhat of a penchant for quasi-independent nation states. In my school years, I was an enthusiastic Northern California secessionist and have long harbored ambitions of one day starting my own country. What better way to educate myself than to see how it’s worked out breakaway republics like Transinistria near Moldova and Abkhazia on the northern frontier with Georgia.
The name Abkhazia may may sound familiar Georgia fought a brief but bloody war with the Russian Federation over this territory and South Ossetia last summer but that wasn’t the reason I wanted to visit.
Its capital, Sukhumi, was once one of the most pleasant spots in the whole USSR and a popular vacation destination for Soviet elites. Getting there appeared straightforward enough, despite the official warnings of trigger happy militias, bandits and heavily armed Russian peacekeeping troops.
It all started with an email to the Abkhazian Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Two days later, I received a letter that I would show the Abkhazian authorities that would grant me passage to Sukhumi where I could apply for my visa.
A night train took me across Georgia to Zugdidi which is now home to thousands of displaced people from the series of wars that Abkhazia has fought with Georgia since the early 1990s. It was still dark in the early dawn hours and weary passengers stepped off the platform as a steady rain fell that shown in the headlights of waiting taxis and minibuses. Elderly men and women clamored into a blue Mercedes diesel which the driver told me would take us to the Ignuri Bridge the only land crossing into Abkhazia with Georgia.
Paranoia had gotten the better of me. Tales of banditry, suspicion of non-Russian foreigners or the resumption of armed conflict had led me to stuff dollars into my sock. With no consular representation in Abkhazia, I would be in a tough spot if I lost both my passport and my money.
We motored off through the darkness winding on a narrow pothole filled road and minutes later arrived in the Inguri River valley. Concrete barricades on both sides block all but a narrow passage for vehicles. The only ones I saw crossing were white United Nations trucks delivering food aid or shuttling international bureaucrats.
The men, women and children from the minibus gathered their belongings and began the half-mile walk across the famous Inguru Bridge. A plaque in Georgian and Russian tells of its construction in 1948 by German POWs which extends over the vast river delta from which a chorus of frogs sang in the darkness. A giant sculpture of a pistol with its barrel tied in a knot faces Abkhazia in a bizarre and cynical nod to the spate of hostilities between the Georgians and Abkhazians. I’d like to know who commissioned it.
Out of the darkness came the sound of two coconut shells being banged together. A cart being pulled by the skinniest horse at first I mistook it for a foal passed by. With motorized access limited, this enterprising cart driver ferried passengers too lazy or infirm to walk themselves.
The Abkhazian border guards were dressed in green camouflage fatigues and spoke only Russian. Locals offered them gifts of phone cards and small denominations of Russian rubles and I felt like an idiot having forgot to bring anything that could pass as tribute aside from my camera or a $20 bill.
Seeing my blue passport and clearance letter, the guards explained that they’d have to make some phone calls. I sat down to read and watched the bored guards literally drive around the post in circles while I admired the bullet holes that had been riddled through their hut’s tin roof. Outside it rained but the strafing had been limited so I stayed dry.
Nearly an hour later after the minibus driver got sick of waiting for me and left – I was cleared to enter and walked on the other side. The Abkhazian banner with its green stripes and red hand welcomed me and I sat in an empty minibus waiting for enough passengers to make the short trip economical for the driver to take us to the first town of any size, Gali.
Gali was a ramshackle market town that’s home to a mix of refugees and displaced people. I didn’t linger long enough to get the story. I caught a minibus headed for the capital. We came into Sukhumi which was very attractive with its white washed palatial buildings and palm trees and even eucalyptus that thrive in the Caucasian subtropical climate. The town wasn’t as big as I’d reckoned and before I knew it we were heading north. I quizzed my fellow passengers in a mix of sign language and pidgin Russian. Yes, Sukhumi was back there they told me.
Stop pajalsta! I blurted to the driver. I paid and got out. The rain began to fall and I was a good two or three miles north of town. I walked along the highway with my thumb out as Mercedes and BMWs with tinted windows sped past.
Before long a silver-haired man in a Lada sedan stopped for me and I climbed in. He said he spoke a little English but soon I realized that wasn’t true. I showed him my clearance letter and explained that I was due at the ministry for my visa. He proceeded to drive me around town until we found the building. He refused a proffered 50 ruble bill brusquely and I had to force him to accept some maple candy and Ukrainian caramels as a gift.
The ministry building was spartan and efficient. Trim and attractive young women walked the hall ways as I stood waiting for my visa to be processed. I excused myself to go to the toilet so I could fish out some dollars to pay the $20 fee. The process was straightforward enough and I later found out that I had been handed my visa by none other than the deputy foreign minister of Abkhazia.
As I had put my profession as journalist I was directed to the Abkhazian Press Agency to register. I expected a grilling but instead was served tea and the closest thing I got to a grilling was the quizzical stares from one of the press agency woman’s toddler son.
Outside I met up with a Spanish woman I’d met on the Black Sea ferry to Georgia who had waxed lyrical about the wonderful absurdities of Abkhazian and convinced me to visit. Like me, she was trying to make a go of doing some freelance journalism. Having just been fleeced and then lied to by her interpreter who she later realized was in the employ of the Abkhazian government she was fed up with trying to get a story during her visit. The weather was fine so we caved in and turned the visit into a Black Sea holiday walking the long promenades and sampling the tourism infrastructure that normally only caters to Russians.
The people were very friendly and more than a little surprised to see a Western European and American making a holiday in Abkhazia. About a third of the cities stately buildings were vacant. Some obviously from the war of the early ’90s while others seemed the victim of economic stagnation.
Two days later, I convinced the Spaniard to save $70 in taxi fare by hitching back to Georgia with me. We walked southward and caught and electric trolley bus headed several miles out of town. When it ran out of cable and began to turn around we alighted and started to hitch. Two out of three of our lifts were with armed members of the Abkhazian military but they kept their weapons holstered and shared their cigarettes so no complaints there.
Crossing back into Georgia was a breeze. There was a few cursory questions and the Abkhazians caught me photographing the scenic mountain panorama that had their defensive positions in the foreground. After I duly deleted the offending shots they let me pass and we were back in Georgia proper. After delightfully spicy meal in Zugdidi, we caught a night train back to the capital.
For visiting a supposedly war-torn and lawless area, things were remarkably well ordered and civilized. I am happy to report things have gone swimmingly which has been great for me though likely dull for the readers of this dispatch. Ho hum.