As a child, I used to watch the evening news with my parents after dinner pretty much every day. But one news story always stuck with me, perhaps because I found the name of the concerned territory so fascinating, and ever since I somehow regarded this place as the epitome of off-the-beaten-trackness. Abkhazia. Abkhaaaazia…
It was 2013 and it was my first visit to Georgia, a country which back then I didn’t know I would fall in love with and even call my home at some point. My travel companion and I were in Borjomi, a place I love very much because a) this is where the best mineral water in the world originates from and b) the green, luscious nature and pine-scented fresh air are perfect for escaping the scorching Tbilisi summer. We were looking into the process of entering Abkhazia and found it required a bit more preparation then just happy-go-lucky-style rocking up at the Transnistrian border and filling out some form. I mean, any self-respecting breakaway territory would require you to at least apply for an entry permit beforehand, which – shock and awe – in Abkhazia’s case can actually be done online. Then, after a couple of days, you will most likely receive a pdf in your inbox with the permission to enter, stamped and signed by the consular service of the Abkhaz Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give you that real, official feeling.
Of course we were not there yet. We headed to Zugdidi, the gateway to Abkhazia, and stayed there for a night to mentally prepare ourselves for the visit. The owner of our hostel, herself an IDP from Abkhazia, told us about another traveler from Europe who stayed with her and was beaten up in the border town of Gali a week earlier. His embassy couldn’t help him because of the whole unrecognized territory bonanza and therefor some local organizations had to rescue him from the hospital where he was forced to stay for a while. It made the whole idea of visiting Abkhazia a little less attractive and we seriously even considered canceling the whole trip.
Enter Mr D, a 40-something teacher from the US and one of the most cheerful and definitely the most well-traveled person I have ever met. He and Mr I were staying at our dorm and that evening we were exchanging hilarious stories, thoughts and ideas. Mr I had just returned from visiting Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, and said he did not encounter any problems at all. In fact, he had never felt as safe in his life because he ended up sharing a hotel room and consequently a double bed with two buff Norwegian rugby players.
Worried by the absence of Scandinavian rugby players but strengthened by Mr D’s optimism and the idea of teaming up, we decided to wake up early the next day and go for it. Equipped with our entry permits, which had to be transferred into visas at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi within 3 days after entering, we showed up at the border and were pointed to checkpoint no. 1. It actually wasn’t as intimidating as we anticipated it to be. There was a small office with three friendly enough officers who didn’t make much of a fuss and sent me towards checkpoint no. 2 by saying: “Have fun, Milla Jovovich!” Bad day for not bringing my multi-pass!
We crossed the bridge to the Abkhaz side. It was a grey drizzly day and the sight of horse carts transporting many babushki, entirely dressed in black and carrying big bags of potatoes, painted a gloomy, frightening picture. Checkpoint no. 2 certainly was way more disputed territory worthy. Barbed wire and soldiers were everywhere and because of the blinded mirrored windows at the counter, it was impossible to see who you were dealing with or what happened to your passport after handing it over. After the passport control we had to put our luggage through a security scan and entertained a highly-ranked officer while waiting for the Soviet-era scanning device to give us clearance. This man was surprisingly happy to see us, three confused tourists who pretended to know what they were doing, and inquired about the purpose of our visit. He highly recommended us to go swimming.
Luckily, checkpoint no. 3 didn’t pose too many obstructions either and all of the sudden we found ourselves in Abkhazia. A marshrutka took us from the border crossing to Gali, where we had to wait for an hour at the local bazaar to catch the next minibus to Sukhumi. We experienced Gali as quite an unpleasant place and tried to keep a low profile by hiding in some corner, shutting our mouths and refraining from smiling. The drive to the capital took almost 2 hours and was captivating. An eclectic mixture of beautiful untouched nature; completely abandoned ghost towns made up out of small petrol stations presently inhabited by cows and empty concrete buildings with trees and plants growing from them; a pristine coastal line and the odd dacha with small vegetable gardens passed us by.
Even though Sukhumi hosts plenty of Soviet-style hotels, it was high season and therefor all rooms were either occupied by Russian tourists, of which there were many, or seriously overpriced. We ended up settling for the same hotel and possibly the very same room where Mr I had the safest platonic experience of his life with the Norwegian sportsmen. The lobby included an altar dedicated to a hybrid of Lenin and Darth Vader, and of course the receptionist forced us to stay in the most expensive room since every other room was ‘booked’ due to some tour group arrival. We had been acquainted with them before, this tour group of invisible guests, known to be used as an excuse to sell the priciest room on the premises to ignorant foreigners.
However, the room wasn’t too bad even though the door looked like it had been kicked in several times, the lock was broken and the sofa-bed had cannibalistic tendencies as Mr D got stuck in it and we had to literally pull him out, like in a cartoon. My personal observation of Sukhumi is a surreal mishmash of beautiful beaches; concrete high-rise buildings; elegant colonial architecture which has been reclaimed by nature; bullet holes in the walls here and there and big brown bears in small cages at random locations in the city.
Even transferring the entry permit into a visa was surprisingly straight forward. The visa is printed on a separate piece of paper and is not attached to your passport since upon leaving the territory, you will have to return it to the border guard (for advice on how to keep it, continue reading). That’s all. However, make sure you don’t get stuck in the toilet of the Ministry where you, as a last resort, are forced to embarrass yourself by knocking on the door and screaming for help, as I did.
But yes, all in all it was quite pleasant to be in Sukhumi during summer time. The seaside boulevard is like a Soviet Saint Tropez and of course the space monkey zoo is not to be missed. In Soviet times, it used to be a laboratory where monkeys were sent into space and scientists allegedly tried to create a powerful ape/human hybrid to strengthen the Red Army. Now it is a somewhat sad zoo hosting the monkey cosmonauts’ offspring and a permanently closed museum. Even though Sukhumi does not have many obvious tourist attractions, it is easy to see why Abkhazia was once called the Soviet riviera: it is a stunningly beautiful part of our world and I am a little sad that we never made it to Ritsa lake, which must be gorgeous. Plus, if you are into collecting kitschy fridge magnets, Sukhumi is your walhalla!
After stocking up on aforementioned magnets, we decided to call our adventure a day and return to Zugdidi. On the way back to the border, we met a Russia-based Austrian journalist who joined us in going through the string of checkpoints again, but this time in reverse direction and backed by somebody who actually spoke fluent Russian. Reasoning we should take advantage of his language skills, we asked the Austrian to tell the border officials that we would like to hold on to our visas. He got a firm “nyet”. Just as we tried to cope with our loss, we heard somebody calling us. It was the friendly officer whom we met on the way in. He asked if we had a good time and we gratefully nodded, after which he told us we were welcome to return to Abkhazia any time. And maybe there was anything he could do for us before we left? We decided to try our luck and explained that we would love to keep our visas as a souvenir of the good times we had in this beautiful place. He summoned us to wait. After some minutes, he returned and handed us our visas back.
High on adrenaline, we expressed our gratitude and continued walking towards Georgia proper. We were still close enough to the checkpoint to hear the officer shouting: “Hey Milla, did you go swimming?”