Last week, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend three days in Abkhazia – one of the most stunningly beautiful and challenging places I have ever been. Below, I have included a few thoughts about my trip that may help guide your own preparations if you wish to visit the region in the future.
“Haves” and “have nots”
There are two formal crossings into Abkhazia; one at the Psou River close to Sochi and Adler in Russia and one across the Inguri River in Zugdidi, North West Georgia.
After crossing over the Inguri Bridge, I entered into the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia. While the independence of Abkhazia is only recognised by Russia and a handful of micro-states in the Pacific, the proceedings at the border are every bit as intrusive as complex as in any other state.
The process of getting into and out of Abkhazia is a complicated and potentially uncomfortable process that tests even the most experienced of travellers in the South Caucasus to their limits. I don’t intend to focus on the logistics surrounding the process in this piece – for that, please read my separate piece here.
After passing through the ID checks at the Inguri Bridge, I picked up a bus in order to get to Abkhazia’s capital city Sukhumi – a journey that takes about two and a half hours. The journey itself is genuinely stunning, taking you over numerous bridges suspended over turquoise-coloured rivers, through fields lined by palm trees and past villages that were decimated by the fighting in the early 1990s.
In many respects, I think the starting my journey through Abkhazia by passing through areas of the country that still showed such extensive signs of war damage and suffering was an important way of helping me gain at least some understanding into life in the province today. While I was to see a Sukhumi that was vibrant, attractive and, to the untrained eye, relatively “normal”, the south of the country still shows the deep scars that were inflicted by war.
In the south of the province is the Gali district which is home to roughly 40,000 ethnic Georgians who have returned to the area in the last few years. 210,000 remain displaced elsewhere in Georgia and have never returned to their homes. After seeing the relative vibrancy of Sukhumi and its surrounding areas, it was painfully clear to me that investments made in transport infrastructure, home building and the tourism industry haven’t reached Southern Abkhazia yet.
I have been criticised in the past for raising the issue of the human rights situation facing Georgians in Abkhazia but, from the perspective of a first-time visitor to the region, it does appear as if this bias against ethnic Georgians is intentional. If it were not, why would the Secretary General of Abkhazia’s Security Council Stanislav Lakoba be so publicly opposed to granting Abkhazian passports to ethnic Georgians?
Sukhumi and sunsets
I have been to few cities in the world that are more blessed in terms of their scenery and positioning than Sukhumi. Shortly after arriving at my hotel, I stood on my sixth floor balcony and looked down on beautiful, turquoise sea to my left and a cloud-lined mountain range to my right.
The Promenade is what really makes the city, though. Sukhumi is apparently famous for its piers; four of which stretch out one hundred and fifty metres or so into the sea.
At the end of one is a great restaurant called ‘Akwa’ (which I understand is the Abkhazian language name for Sukhumi) where I had dinner one night. When the sun goes down, the restaurant is lit up with subtle neon lights which shine down into the turquoise water below. When coupled with the warm breeze and excellent Abkhazian home brew I was served there, it made for a great place to spend a few hours.
Another of the piers is connected to the near-mothballed Sukhumi Seaport which only now operates occasionally due to the naval blockade of Abkhazia. The owners of the port have, however, been creative and opened a small restaurant and bar on the downstairs concourse of the port. I didn’t eat there myself but when I passed by late one night it seemed as if a big party was just beginning.
The third pier I came across is located towards the northern end of the Promenade close to the beautifully-maintained gardens that line the seafront and opposite the now-derelict Hotel Abkhazia (which has been tastefully covered with awnings so as to protect the view of the seafront). The downstairs of the building on the pier has a pair of ornate wrought iron doors covered in mermaid designs but, when you look through them, you realise there is nothing inside. Instead, a cafe operates on the top floor of the building and has some great views along the rest of the Promenade.
Then fourth of the piers is an altogether more ramshackle affair, made up of wooden slats that have been repaired in a makeshift fashion. There was a small sign warning people to be careful of the bridge due to its poor state of repair but I and a large number of local fishermen ignored the advice, walking to the end in order to get a great view along the rest of the coastline.
On my final night in town, I spent a good hour or so walking up and down the various piers taking in the beautiful sunset – the sea on one side, the mountains on the other. The photographs I have posted in-line with this text don’t even come close to doing the scene justice.
Aside from the pier, the seafront is dotted with numerous arts and crafts stalls as well as a modest selection of cafes and restaurants. As you sip coffee and drink cold beer on the Promenade, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a small town on the Riviera – not in a conflict zone.
The most stark reminder of this is the imposing Abkhazia Government building which stands two blocks or so back from the seafront. By any estimations, the building is enormous with at least nine storeys and spanning roughly one hundred metres from side to side.
Standing on the seafront with your back to the ocean, you are able to see the building towering in the distance. If you have been to Yerevan, you will notice that the building is made out of a similar kind of pink-to-light brown stone that many of the city’s buildings are made of. Approaching the building through the park that stands in front of it, there are relatively few indicators to show just how badly damaged it is – the structure appears to be well intact and there is no visible indents in its facade.
It’s only when you’re actually within a short distance of the structure do you realise it is entirely empty. Thankfully, the Abkhazian authorities haven’t closed the building off entirely so it is still possible to go inside and get a sense of what the building must have been like before it was gutted during fighting in 1993.
I climbed the remains of the staircase to the first floor of the building and was still able to find a number of items that had been left behind after all valuables were no doubt removed from the building by looters. In one office, the filing cabinets were still there, in the bathrooms the rusted remains of the waste-paper bins were still on the floor and it was still possible to make out the floor indicators above the lift-shafts on the main concourse of the building.
The majority of the routes to upper levels of the building have been sealed off by iron gates that block your passage but, when exploring one of the annex’s to the west of the main building, I was able to find a staircase that was still accessible. After climbing over a pile of rubbish, I was able to get up to the third floor of the building. From there, I got a view of the building’s beautifully ornate central staircase and was also lucky enough to find a small safe that still contained a few papers that hadn’t been removed from the building. I was delighted to find a set of old postcards dating from the Soviet Union which I took with me.
I hope that, regardless of the future of Abkhazia, this amazing building is able to be saved and regenerated.
The same sentiment goes for Sukhumi’s beautiful central station which is also in a similar state of disrepair. Once a major terminal that saw trains run the Moscow in the north and as far as Yerevan in the south, the building has now been abandoned and rail services relocated to a modern, soulless building nearby.
In my opinion, there can be no finer example of Communist architecture than Sukhumi station – the silver star still sitting bold as brass above its empty husk and attractive marble designs just about still evident under layers of grime outside.
Aside from the Promenade and the sadly ruined buildings which I will confess hold a degree of fascination for me, I also enjoyed a very pleasant walk around the city’s well-maintained Botanical Gardens which is well worth a visit if you have time.
One big disappointment for me about the city was the quality of the food. I am a huge fan of Georgian and Mingrelian cuisine and has been excited to hear that traditional Abkhazian food was generally a spicier version of the two genres. Sadly, I had real trouble tracking down any restaurant serving genuinely Abkhazian food, instead having to put up with sub-standard version of food I could easily have bought get at home such as pizzas and burgers. When I asked a restaurant owner if he had any local dishes, he seemed rather surprised a tourist would want such a thing and instead pointed me in the direction of his “Italian specials menu”. Sigh…
On a positive note, I found Sukhumi a perfectly safe place to walk around during the day but will confess to being a little nervous walking the kilometre or so along the back-streets to my hotel after dark, partly due to unfamiliarity with the city but mainly because of the lack of streetlights to guide my way. Nevertheless, I survived in one piece!
Before I visited Abkhazia, I was told that I must under no circumstances miss out on seeing the monastery at Novy Afon. As such, on my second day I took a bus and made the forty minute journey from Sukhumi’s bus station (just outside the old station) and headed up the coast.
When you arrive at Novy Afon, the bus drops you outside the gates to a park when you then have go walk fifteen minutes or so uphill through a forest in order to reach the monastery. The walk is almost worth the trip in itself with fantastic views down towards the predictably-turquoise coast and across the very attractive town below.
As you walk up the hill, you eventually begin to see small flashes of the monastery above you – chiefly, its ornate golden spires. As you get closer, more and more of the building comes into focus as you get a clearer view of its terracotta and light yellow facade. I can honesty say that the monastery is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, both in terms of its own architecture and its location. When I reached the top, I sat at one of the benches marvelling at both the building itself and the coastline below.
The inside of the building is every bit as impressive. After walking into a large courtyard in the centre of the main building which was buzzing with monks going about their business, I came across a church painted in white and maroon colours. Inside the church was an astonishing array of multi-coloured frescos that covered every conceivable space – from ceiling to floor, pillar to alter. As I had done outside the church, I just sat down and took in the surroundings for what must have been at least an hour.
Politics aside, one of the great tragedies about the conflict in Abkhazia and the province’s modern-day isolation is the fact very few people will ever get the chance to see Novy Afon for themselves. If you are in Abkhazia, it’s an experience which should certainly not be missed.
The future for Abkhazia
As a non-Russian speaker, I’ll freely admit that I faced considerable challenges in Sukhumi. Getting around and performing tasks as simple as ordering from a restaurant menu involved a good deal of confidence, patience and hand-waving. Indeed, ascertaining the ingredients of a particular pizza involved me performing a comedy “oink” sound to the waiter to establish it contained pork (something I am sure friend and foe would like to see me do again – it’s not going to happen). Nevertheless, local people were incredibly helpful and the only outward hostility I personally encountered was from aggressive border officials.
As my time in Abkhazia came to an end, the contrast between the rejuvenated Promenade in Sukhumi and the ruins that mark so much of the rest of Abkhazia made me thinking about the situation rest of Georgia – a country that is far from having everything right but is nonetheless headed firmly in the right direction.
While it is clear that money is being spent to try and improve Sukhumi and the resort city of Gagra, the province remains poor, the service sector highly under-developed (there is no 3G mobile service and international credit cards do not work) and tourism from areas other than Russia remains almost non-existent.
Contrast this with Batumi in Adjara which also used to be part of a breakaway province inside Georgia and the differences could not be more stark. Batumi, for want of a better word, is booming with huge investments having been made in the city by not only the central government in Tbilisi but also international leisure firms such as the Sheraton Group, Trump Casinos and Raddison Blu. International DJs play every night in Batumi throughout the summer season and the city has become a magnet for real-estate investment across the entire Black Sea region. Batumi has achieved all of this with only a fraction of Abkhazia’s natural beauty.
Since the war in the early 1990s, Georgia has changed massively. It’s no longer the crime-ridden den of intrigue it was in the early 90s but rather a highly-modern and successful multi-ethnic state where Georgians, Armenians and Azeris live without quarrel. I can’t help but feel that the citizens of Abkhazia would be better served as part of Georgia than as an isolated outpost whose only external line of communication is to the Kremlin.
I’ll start where I began this blogpost; by saying that Abkhazia is one of the most stunning yet tragic places I have ever visited. I only hope that, rather than continuing down its current path of isolation, Abkhazia will one day be able to open its doors to the rest of the world.