A complicated history, and now a breakaway state
Abkhazia (population 240,000) is wedged between the Black Sea and Caucasus mountains, and neighboured by Georgia and Russia. Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in a bloody war between 1992-93, shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart. In 2008, after a five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia, Moscow officially recognised the republic as independent. It is a complicated conflict, and I won’t profess to have a clue about who is right or wrong (in all of these situations there tends to be right and wrong on both sides in any case). Georgians represented more than 50% of the population prior to independence and abkhazians less than 30%. The population is now 40% of what it was. Today the UN still consider Abkhazia to be part of Georgia. Abhkazia is only officially recognised by Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria and Venezuela. The economy is largely held up by the million or so Russian tourists who come every summer for a cheap Black Sea experience (it feels like the British equivalent of going to Benidorm).
The lottery of life
Many Abkhazians only have Abkhazian passports (unless they are lucky enough to have a Russian parent). Technically they can get a Georgian passport, but apparently that isn’t really allowed as ‘the security services will come after you’. I had never really contemplated what life was like as a ‘citizen’ of a largely unrecognised state. Officially this means that they can only go to the countries that recognise them. Practically this means they can only go to Russia, as there are no direct flights from Russia to any of the other places that recognise them, and it isn’t obvious that airlines would even recognise an Abkhazian passport as an official ID. I have always felt grateful for having passport(s) that allow me relative freedom of movement, but even with passports from less popular countries it is still feasible to get a visa to go to many places. I can’t imagine not being free to travel – such is the lottery of birth! I am grateful every time I travel that I was born when and where I was.
Sochi,Gagra and Russian tourists
We arrived in Abkhazia via Sochi – a Black Sea resort for working class Russians, now famous for the Winter Olympics. It took an hour to get through Russian passport control, we were apparently the fifth (non Russian) tourists the border chief had seen that year, so he had to ask us a few questions. On the Abkhazian side, they waved us through but I made our guide stop so I could get a passport stamp. They tried to talk me out of it, as they were worried I would have problems in Georgia, but we eventually persuaded them.
Our first stop was Gagra, a soviet beach resort, starting with a visit to the Tsereteli playground. Zurab Tsereteli is a famous Georgian artist, still alive today and with a whole museum in Tbilisi dedicated to his work. He is famous for his use of mosaics and curves and as well as the playground he was responsible for some of the finest bus stops in Abkhazia. We had a stroll along the beach, stopping for an excellent Turkish coffee. We visited the abandoned cinema and an excellent abandoned villa (formerly home to the princes masseuse).
Ritsa national park
We headed up the gagra valley to the Ritsa national park. The valley becomes a stunning gorge carved out over centuries by a fast flowing snow fed river. The road culminates at Stalin’s dacha, a place he only visited five times, on the banks of crystal blue lake Ritsa. It was nice but was somewhat marred by the presence of a road (I am a kiwi and prefer to walk in the mountains than go by road), and somewhat marred by the presence of a lot of Russian tourists, but probably mostly marred by the animals tied up on the side of the road for tourists to take photos with. Eagles, peacocks and monkeys on leashes less than 20cm long. It was awful, and the practice would die out pretty quickly if the Russian tourists weren’t paying 100 rubles to have a photo taken with the peacock.
Dinner and finding a husband
On the way back we stopped at the abandoned train station in Gagra – the architecture is amazing. And we checked out the old abandoned soviet market and the beach.
Dinner was shashlik and kachapuri (excellent Georgian cheese bread), followed by strudel. Service wasn’t brilliant, but was typically Russian, with the food taking an hour to arrive and it was delivered by a grumpy looking waitress. They drove us out of the restaurant eventually by pumping up the volume on bad Russian pop.
Dinner conversation was amusing. Our guide, Diana, is fiercely proud of being Abkhazian, with every sight being introduced with ‘isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it the best thing you have ever seen?’. The sights weren’t normally that amazing, but her enthusiasm was commendable. Somewhat incongruently, she wasn’t a great cultural fit with the locals. By her account, abkhazians are still very conservative, especially in villages. Women are apparently not allowed to work outside the home, date any man they aren’t going to marry, speak too much to their husbands in public, divorce or generally bring shame to their husbands or fathers. And as a thank you, the men do nothing to contribute to the house. It sounds fantastic. But Diana is stuck here and can’t travel as she doesn’t have a Russian passport. We did spend some of our time figuring out how she could get one, marrying one of her more trustworthy cousins who already has a Russian passport is apparently the best idea.
Donuts and bus stops
The next morning, we had an excellent Russian breakfast, eggs, bread, and cottage cheese donut things which were amazing and a few Turkish coffees each and then headed out for a meandering journey to Sukhumi. Sergei our driver had gone home last night and had bought his lovely daughter Katia back with him, she was trying to improve her English, but was as shy as you would expect a 12 year old to be.
The morning started with some incredible bus stops by Tsereveli – the Whale/dolphin, the Spaceship, the Fish, the Cock, and the Creature of the sea.
Pitsunda and soviet beach resorts
We then strolled along the coast at Pitsunda, it was like being transported back to how I imagine 70s Russia might have been. Incredible architecture!
We also visited an incredibly cool cathedral with a mildly interesting exterior but a very groovy interior with an incredible Art Deco organ and seats that looked like they were stolen from a 1950s cinema.
We passed by the ruined church in Miusera, which was a bustling picnic spot. The church was surrounded by platforms of Georgian houses that had been destroyed during the war, it was eerie. The area has now been turned into a national park.
Lunch cooked over the fire with the hunters
Our lunch stop was with a family in the village of Achandara. We couldn’t find their house so the matriarch despatched her son in a battered Lada to come and find us. We ate in a wooden cabin adorned with bear and wolf skins shot by her sons, and she cooked us a kind of polenta above a wood fire which we ate with spicy beans, pork knuckle and homemade cheese. We finished it off with feijoa jam and bread (she made everything herself).
Stuffed to the gills, Sergei took us to the cosmopolitan Sukhumi. We visited two abandoned railway station (Sukhumi and Baratashvali) and the botanical gardens.
We also saw the main square which is famous for the abandoned Georgian government building which the Abkhazians burnt from the inside and have vowed to leave as a monument. It was been covered with hoardings commemorating 25 years of independence.
Glitterati in Sukhumi
Dinner was a surreal experience in the ‘top’ hotel in Abkhazia. We had borscht, kebab and local honey cake. Everyone around us was ordering off the extensive sushi menu. I have never quite seen sushi like it – oversized, elaborately decorated with mayonnaise and lurid sprinkles…. I am not sure what the Japanese would have made of it. Our fellow diners were clearly the glitterati of Abkhazia with Chanel bags and very high heels!
Morning run along the seafront
I woke up early enough for a run and headed out along the seafront. In the distance I spied what looked like several men in black shell suits loitering around a kids playground…. it all looked quite dodgy and I was contemplating turning back. As I got closer I realised it was an outdoor gym area and the blokes were all doing press ups! The promenade was busy with (mostly) men strolling and a few more doing squats and push ups. A great way to start the day.
The benefit of the run was quickly destroyed by breakfast, a ridiculously large spread with porridge, sausages, eggs, vegetables and more of the incredible cottage cheese pancakes with a couple of cups of coffee. Fortified we headed to the bazaar for a wander around. Apparently the opening of a big supermarket nearby is ruining trade, and the bazaar is largely run by Armenians. There was a spectacular array of merchandise, my favourites being the camouflage gumboot shoe and the nut sugar strings.
Setting an FKT on Anakopia
The tourist highlight of Abkhazia (for those who are less obsessed with soviet bus stops) is the Anakopia fortress and the new Athos monastery. Diana, our 25 year old guide assured me it was a 40 minute hike to the fortress, I took the challenge and made it in 12 (somewhat miffed as I had taken one wrong turn and lost a minute or so, I was even more miffed on the way down as I found all the shortcuts so reckon I could do it in 8 now). The view over the Black Sea is stunning, and I lay in the sun like a lizard on a rock for 20 minutes waiting for Diana :-).
We climbed the tower, took a photo with the Abkhazian flag that Diana had carried up for the purpose – it is the hand of peace, seven stars for seven districts and green and white stripes to demonstrate Christian and Muslim harmony. We also visited the tiny and mostly ruined Orthodox Church along with a few smartly dressed elderly local ladies who had made the climb. The downhill took 7 minutes (and I still missed a few shortcuts).
Soviet tourism in the cave of New Athos
After that we went to see the ‘famous amazing cave of new athos’. It was large! Sadly, it was a tourist production where the tourists are put on a train, and then we had to walk very slowly for an hour and a half through the caves, in a big crowd. I put a podcast on and stayed at the back…. waiting until the lady who was responsible for turning out the lights came behind me to move to the next spot. On the bright side it was an anthropological exercise in Russian tourist watching.
We also had the pleasure of visiting another abandoned station – Psirtskha – beautifully located on the river.
Lunch followed with more kachapuri, stew, grilled pork and a nut and cabbage dish and more Turkish coffee. From there we wandered to perhaps my favourite abandoned train station – Psirtskha station – it was more like a posh gazebo, and was beautifully located on the river.
Then we headed up to the old Monastery. It was more stunning from a distance when you could see all the gold cupolas reflecting the sunlight. There was an old man painting icons for the tourists. We had a chat, and he asked where I was from. I said NZ, and he asked if I was Maori. I asked him if he knew New Zealander’s, he said I was the first one he had met but was curious about polynesians as he was a fan of Gauguin. Is a stunning monastery, with incredible paintings inside.
Back to Russia
After that we meandered back to Russia by way of a bonus palace and church on the way and one final bus stop. Exiting was slightly tricky as I had to rustle up the guard to get my exit stamp, he was very impressed with my greeting and thanks in Abkhazian. Entering russian took a bit longer, as my passport seem to raise a few red flags!
I would recommend Abkhazia for 3-4 days purely for the bus stops and the train stations. The monastery was lovely also. We didn’t see everything and next time I would quite like to do a lot of hiking in the high mountains.
Stephs’ photos are here
Gagra, 5 May, 2019
- For the kiwis they have feijoas here – it’s amazing, feijoa juice, jam, it was amazing…. that’s a reason to visit
- It’s very cheap here. Abkhazia is deceptively poor. The average teachers salary $250 per month, a flat in Sukhumi cost $65k to buy, which means property is very unaffordable. For foreigners, everything seems cheap.
- We booked this as part of a bigger holiday through native eye in the UK, but you could probably book direct with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer. If you wanted to go off-roading, you could also contact Sergei at off-roading Abkhazia.
- We stayed at Hotel Abaat in Gagra and Hotel Leon in Sukhum and both were good
- I would suggest learning a few words in Abkhazian, the locals were always thrilled when I said thank you very much (itabob idootsana) and very good (dar ibzyo)