This is one part of a series of my travel writings about Abkhazia, first published in the Issue 09/2022 of Lonely Planet China magazine.
For the other two parts, see “Abkhazia, a ‘nonexistent’ country (2)” and “Abkhazia, celebrating National Day in a ‘nonexistent’ country“.
This English version was translated from the Chinese original using DeepL, with the manual correction of some obvious mistranslations. I apologize for any mistakes made by this AI translation tool.
The most special “border”
“To Abkhazia, why?”
“Because Abkhazia is part of Georgia, and we wanted to see that part.”
Facing the Georgian soldier at the checkpoint, I recited fluently the pass code I had learned from internet. He nodded his head in satisfaction.
I am not lying, Abkhazia is indeed a part of Georgia. The vast majority of countries, including China, recognize it as such. However, after two bitter wars in 1992 and 2008, this autonomous region of Georgia has been in a state of de facto independence, calling itself the “Republic of Abkhazia”.
We took an all-night train ride from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to here – the small town of Zugdidi on the Inguri River. The railway, built in Soviet times, used to lead straight to Abkhazia and further afield to Russia. Now, however, the railway has long been discontinued and all passengers travelling from Abkhazia must get off the train and be checked at the Inguri river.
On the map, Abkhazia is shaped like a long boot: the toe points to the vast Black Sea, the heel clings to the Caucasus Mountains on the border with Russia, and underneath it is the Georgian mainland. Due to the long years of war, there is no open civil airport here, and it can only be reached by land. For us, it was much less hassle to go through Georgia itself than Russia, which requires an extra visa. Without a doubt, this is the most unusual border I have ever seen: although Georgia has always considered the opposite side to be part of itself, the Abkhaz authorities insist that it is an “independent state”.
That conversation was followed by an endless wait. This was the special treatment for foreign tourists – apparently they had no interest in the locals who come and go with their big bags. We had come early in the morning because we had heard there would be a long wait. After about an hour, maybe two, he finally informed us that we could go across. It was still about a kilometre from the Abkhazia checkpoint across the river, and, following the example of the locals, we jumped into a public carriage and waited for the horses to take us to the other side at a slow pace.
I regretted it as soon as the carriage departed: it was more expensive to take the carriage than to walk across the border by myself, and the point was that the awning blocked the outside so tightly that I didn’t even get a good view of the border bridge. I must walk across the border on my way back – I thought to myself. This dream came true right away: when we presented the “Abkhazian Ministry of Foreign Affairs” approval we had applied for online and waited for about an hour at the checkpoint on the Abkhazian side, we were rudely told. “You can’t go through today, come back tomorrow.” When asked why, his English was not good enough to express it. We had to turn back with all our bags on our backs. This was the first time in my life that I was denied entry, so I’d have to take my chances tomorrow.
Just as we were about to walk the entire length of the bridge in the hot sun, two foreign tourists in a carriage driving by shouted at us, “Go back, you can cross now!” We were confused. We found out afterwards that we had just met the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry on their lunch break and they were late in waiting for confirmation and had to send us back.
After walking across the bridge for the second time in 10 minutes and making it through the checkpoint we had just passed, we were greeted by yet another checkpoint. No longer the loose-limbed Abkhazian police from earlier, but a group of heavily armed Russian soldiers. One of them ordered us, in fluent English, to enter a special room converted from a shipping container. “Can we bring our luggage in?” “No.” “Then can we enter one by one?” “No.” he repeated the syllable with an expressionless face, without any room for negotiation. I couldn’t help but worry about the luggage had been asked to leave outside the house: was he asking that so he could steal something?
It was one of the most tedious border checks I’d ever experienced, with questions being asked while a form was filled out with everything from parents’ names to travel history, and the claustrophobic and stifling heat of the container certainly added to the tension. Clearly, this is another special treatment for foreign visitors only. What was incomprehensible was that he asked us two separate times, even including questions that apparently would have been answered exactly the same by both of us, in order to secretly compare our answers? By the time all this was over and we were finally released from the dark room, it was over an hour later. The only good thing was that no one seemed to have tampered with our luggage.
Outside the gate, the legendary direct shuttle bus to Sukhumi, the “capital”, was nowhere to be seen, and the only minibus waiting for passengers here only went to Gali, the nearest town, which meant we still had to change there to reach our final destination for the day. Since entering Abkhazia, the Georgian mobile phone cards no longer had a signal. There was inevitable concern that the journey would be smooth – the Lonely Planet guide in hand specifically mentioned that “Abkhazia is generally safe, except for border areas like Gali.”
Luckily, the bus to Sukhumi was parked right next to us when we got off at Gari. The small square, surrounded by shops, didn’t look dangerous and there was even an ATM machine for us to withdraw rubles to pay for the bus. Today Abkhazia is a complete Russian vassal, with Russian GIs all over the territory, the same time zone as Moscow (one hour different from the rest of Georgia), and even the prevailing currency is the Russian ruble.
The 2 hour journey to Sukhumi, despite the ever-present expectation of the unknown, the always grey and gloomy weather, the constant passing of decaying house ruins along the way, all made me even more depressed than I had previously thought. An unrecognized country with an unpredictable future would never greet us as an easy trip, I thought to myself.
We got off in front of Sukhumi train station. Built in the Soviet era, the station still has glimpses of its former majesty in the towering spires, yet up close, the interior is nothing but rubble. Despite the abandonment of the station building, trains still run here every week to Moscow, except for Tbilisi, the Georgian capital on the other side of the railway, where no more trains will ever come.
Crossing the rickety railway overpass, we followed a path to a long-booked B&B not far away. When we pushed open the door of the B&B, there was a cozy, ordinary family living room in front of us. The kindly, white-haired hostess answered the door, but when she saw us, she looked horrified and pushed us out without a word. The trouble was that she spoke no English and we spoke no Russian (which is more commonly spoken here than the native Abkhazian language). After some difficult communication, we could only guess that there had probably been some kind of misunderstanding.
But she was adamant in refusing to let us stay, even if we had to pay extra cash, so we had to leave. Without internet, without any useful information, in such a completely unfamiliar city, we had to ask one hotel after another as if by chance. All the hotels, however, were either unavailable or far over our budget. Was the first night in Abkhazia to be spent sleeping on the streets?
A chance encounter with a family dinner
The search ended when we saw the sign “City Hostel” on the beach. Walking through the narrow doorway into the small courtyard, the aroma of grilled meat hit me. “City Hostel?” I asked the old man in the courtyard. “Yes, City Hostel is upstairs on the left hand side. Are you guys tourists, where are you from?” He actually spoke standard American English. “But the rooms are all full today. But I think there’s another room at my brother’s house, and it’s usually for friends. Let me ask him.”
He ran off to ask the man in the apron who was grilling in the corner, then came back with a set of keys and showed us around the room. The small room was old but spotless, and we clearly preferred the Soviet feel of the place to the brand new hostel room next door. The best part was that he offered a very reasonable rate of about $15 per night. Warm hosts, comfortable rooms, and a sea view close by…could not have been better for us, and I’m even a little glad we didn’t stay at the original B&B.
The old man introduced himself as Rauf, an English teacher in Sukhumi. The reason of his fluent English was because he had lived in the United States for almost 20 years. He was here today for his sister-in-law’s birthday party.
“Have you dined yet? My brother said that he would very much like to invite you to the party.” With that, Rauf handed over a glass of white liquid, and I, who was thirsty, drank it down without much thought. Instantly, a blazing fire burned from my lips all the way to the depths of my abdomen.
“One bite? Awesome! That’s pure vodka, 75 degrees.” He apparently didn’t realize I was mistaking the liquor for water.
“So…ahem…is this a pre-dinner drink?” My throat still hadn’t recovered from that baptism.
“No, no, that’s just for you guys to gargle. This is the pre-dinner wine, make your own oh.” With a wicked grin on his face, he carried a huge plastic mineral water bucket and poured another pale yellow white wine in order into the glass he had just made. “Cheers!”
This hadn’t even started and yet I was already down two drinks, one of which was a 75 proof vodka. Sure enough, you can’t travel in the Caucasus without a good set of liver.
When the family dinner started, Rauf, who speaks the best English, took on the burden of introducing us to the family members: chubby John, the man who had just grilled the meat, is Rauf’s brother and the owner of the hostel.
“Ah, here’s today’s…Queen Majesty!” Said Rauf, doing an exaggerated curtsy to John’s wife, the birthday lady, and everyone broke into laughter. “
The three children who didn’t want to sit comfortably at the table and kept running around were their daughters. The older daughter, who is in junior high school, has become a standard Eastern European beauty; the younger daughter, who has just started elementary school, is still a chubby little girl with short hair that I almost thought she was a boy.
“Oh yeah, and here he is!” Rauf pointed to the salivating puppy under the table, “His name is Alpha.”
“Alpha? So where’s Beta and Gamma?” Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, just like the earliest history of Abkhazia, which was pioneered by the Greeks. The first city they founded here, Dioscurias, is said to be the earliest predecessor of the present-day city of Sukhumi.
“In your China, what would you name a dog?” Rauf asked.
“Wangcai!” A companion immediately came up with the earthy name.
“Wang…chai?” He repeated the pronunciation with difficulty.
“It’s ‘Wangcai’.” I corrected.
“Wangcai! Wangcai!” Rauf stared at Alpha and said with a straight face, “Listen, from now on your name will be Wangcai!” We all burst out laughing, leaving only Alpha at the bottom of the table with a bewildered look on his face. Rauf, who had left the United States, still retained his American humor.
The official drink of the feast was a bottle of champagne-like sparkling wine, the third completely different drink I’d had in 10 minutes. While I was still conscious, I hurriedly examined the dishes on the table and suddenly realized that this inadvertent table reflected the complex recent history of Abkhazia.
Kharcho gumbo, which looks rather like polenta, originated in Georgia – Abkhazia was part of the Georgian kingdom in the Middle Ages.
A home-style vegetable salad with cucumbers and tomatoes, it’s hard to say which country it belongs to, but it does bear a strong resemblance to the Turkish Choban salad – Abkhazia was annexed by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. The name Sukhumi was given by the Turks.
And the tantalizing aroma of pork shashlik is undoubtedly a Russian specialty – in the 19th century, the expanding Tsarist Empire gradually took control of all of Abkhazia. To this day, the Russian influence on Abkhazia remains pervasive.
If there is one Abkhazian specialty that must be identified, it is probably the Ajika hot sauce used for dipping meat. But this orange-red dipping sauce, which supposedly originated in Abkhazia, is now also claimed by Georgians.
After a few rounds of exchanging glasses, the redness gradually appeared on everyone’s face, and the atmosphere changed from group courtesy at first to discussion in twos and threes.
What I am most curious about is what status Rauf used to stay in the United States after Abkhazia’s “independence”. Would the United States have given a visa to an Abkhazian passport, which was about as good as a piece of waste paper? I even imagine that if Rauf had been on a plane to the United States at the moment of Abkhazia’s declaration of independence, would he have been in the same dilemma as Tom Hanks’ the Terminal, when he entered the United States? .
“No, we’ve always had Russian passports.” He laughed and fished his passport photo out of his phone to show me that in the “place of birth” column, it said “USSR”, a clever way of avoiding the embarrassment of Abkhazia’s status today, and in the “nationality” column, it said (like all Russians) “Russian Federation”. In other words, traveling around the world on this passport, he is no different from an ordinary Russian in the eyes of the local authorities. Yet why would he return to Abkhazia, where the war has just ended and the situation is far from stable, when he could legally stay in the United States? “Life in America…is a little better than in Abkhazia, I suppose?” I posed the question carefully.
“That’s for sure! There’s no war in America, no conflict, and none of this goddam wreckage. Also, I made five times more money in America than I do now. You must be wondering why I came back, right?” Perhaps it was the alcohol that did it, but Rauf went straight to talking to himself.
“Because, this-is-my-home.” He uttered the words in a single breath. With that, he tilted his head and drank the rest of the wine in his glass.
Sukhumi, first impressions of Abkhazia
The next morning, we were able to step out into the streets of Sukhumi with ease, having unloaded our heavy bags from the day before. Immediately after stepping out of the hostel door, the Black Sea was as calm as a lake. Most of the buildings along the coastline had been restored and looked like a normal seaside resort town. However, if you turn a corner, you will find a large number of old, unrestored and crumbling houses, many of which still have bullet holes from the war.
The locals’ favorite breakfast spot still looked like a Soviet canteen: rich women in old-fashioned aprons stand behind a glass counter with old-fashioned grease, and customers line up for their meals, each with a tray, like employees of a Soviet-era state factory. Omelettes, vegetable rolls, grilled chicken legs…Even the dishes on offer I couldn’t tell any difference from Russia.
The first time I had an authentic Abkhazian dish was at the famous seaside restaurant NARTAA. Every visitor to the restaurant was greeted by the waiter with a plate of Abysta, the national dish of Abkhazia: the yellowish base, which looks like glutinous rice, is actually a mixture of cornmeal and flour, and the whole piece, plunged boldly in the centre, smells like the signature fermented sourness from afar, is Georgia’s most common Sulguni cheese. We did as the locals do, squeezing the batter and cheese into a ball with our hands and shoving it into our mouths whole – my dairy-lover companion exclaimed that it was delicious, but I was so overwhelmed by the strong cheese taste that I took a few gulps of wine. Although really not blessed with Abysta, Abkhazia’s wine – as it is everywhere in Georgia – was truly unspeakably delicious. In what was claimed to be the most upscale restaurant in Sukhumi, local wine was only $3 – not for a glass, but for a whole bottle!
If Abysta contains only Georgian ingredients, Achma, another dish, is an exact replica of Khachapuri, the national dish of Georgia. This cheese pie, which resembles Turkish pide and shares a common ancestor with Italian pizza and Xinjiang naan, certainly bears witness to the footprints of the Silk Road caravans.
However, none of these Abkhazian specialties, as they are called by the waiters, were seen at the family dinner yesterday, which made me wonder if they are still the daily fare of Abkhazians today.
Sukhumi is not a large city, and no matter how you wander, you cannot miss the former Council of Ministers building, which is still the tallest building in Abkhazia. From a distance, the slab of concrete stands as a wall of oppressive Soviet-style beastliness, but look closer and you’ll see that there’s not a single pane of glass left in the building – a city landmark right in the middle of downtown that’s in ruins.
What I didn’t expect was that such a politically rich ruin would have almost no security. After evading the only gatekeeper, we easily entered. The orthodox Greek classical triangular frieze still seemed to proclaim the majesty of power, but the surrounding walls were already painted with random graffiti left by previous generations. Inside, it is like a disaster movie: the once magnificent interiors have either been destroyed in the war or stolen; the huge revolving staircase, with its broken concrete and exposed rebar; the original white paint on the walls is indistinguishable, leaving only the dark green of moss and the disgusting blackness left by water. The massive main building, however, was built in the 1980s, much later than the two flanking wings. Yet its designers probably did not anticipate that only a few years after its completion, this majestic building would become the greatest innocent victim of the Abkhazian war.
Over last night drinking, Rauf mentioned the reason why it has not been restored: the Abkhazian government believes that “the building represents the dark history of Georgian rule”. This sounds at first, as the “Abkhaz government-in-exile”, which is part of the Georgian government, still uses the building as its emblematic image. Rauf’s explanation as to why it was not torn down is simple: there was no money. (“The government can’t even afford to maintain the office toilets!”)
This extreme poverty is by no means limited to the government. In fact, you don’t need much of an eye to easily find several evidences of it all over Sukhumi. Abkhazia was once the most sought-after seaside resort mecca in the former Soviet Union. Strung like pearls along the coastline, luxury resorts hosted visitors from all over Eastern Europe 24/7. Today, however, most of them have been reduced to rubble, as has the Council of Ministers building.
The high-rise apartments that once stood alongside the resort hotels, each with a panoramic balcony with uninterrupted views of the sea, were once a luxury sought after by the Soviet upper class, and prices were once higher than in Moscow. Nowadays, however, if the city center of Sukhumi is still inhabited mostly by wealthy, middle-class people like Rauf, in the suburbs, the downward shift in the class of residents of these once-luxurious holiday apartments is certainly evident.
Guram Odisharia, a writer of Georgian origin born in Sukhumi, had this to say about the absurd status quo: “We Georgians had thought that after independence from the Soviet Union we would live like millionaires on wine and mineral water, while the Abkhazians, with their sea and idyllic landscapes, thought that when they broke away from Georgia, they would become a second Switzerland, and We would all be well off.” But the truth is: the present state of “independence” has not only left Georgia in shreds and separated from its flesh and blood, but has never brought any prosperity to the Abkhazians.
When talking about Abkhazia today, one has to mention the founder of it all, Stalin. The iron-fisted leader of the former Soviet Union chose to spend four of the last eight years of his life in Abkhazia. It was during this time that a number of infrastructure and resort projects were implemented with his approval, transforming Abkhazia from an obscure frontier of the empire to the “Red Riviera” for holidaymakers.
Yet the Georgian-origin man Stalin, always insisted that Abkhazia was part of Georgia, and in 1948, when talking about this with the Georgian leaders who ruled Abkhazia, he even stated bluntly, “They [Abkhazians] are closer to the Svans (another minority living in the mountains of northwest Georgia) than to the Georgians, but no one thinks that Svanians are not Georgians. Everyone familiar with history should understand that Abkhazia has always been a part of Georgia. There is basically no difference between Abkhazians and western Georgians, in terms of customs and beliefs.”
It was Stalin’s preference for Abkhazia that turned it into a holiday destination far and wide; yet it was also Stalin, whose insistence on Abkhazia’s status, that sowed the seeds of war and unrest here half a century later.
In the rundown outskirts of Sukhumi, I accidentally found ANCHOR, a restaurant converted from an abandoned cruise ship pier. The name which seems to commemorate the dock where there are no more cruise ships tying anchor. The panoramic terrace reaching out into the Black Sea and the translucent curtains that flow in the wind gave the place an almost dreamy, melancholic quality. Order a beer and anyone can sit here and easily while away the day.
The sun was setting, the sky was drenched in orange, as bright as a freshly plucked citrus, and a blazing fire was burning in the sky. For a moment, the battered Abkhazia seemed like the “Red Riviera” all over again. I finally understood why Soviet vacationers were so attracted to Abkhazia.
Only this sky, however, has long since ceased to belong to the unified and powerful Soviet Union.