Traveling in the Phantom Republic of Abkhazia

abkhazia towel

     I am not a big souvenir guy since I have to carry everything around that I buy or spend a lot to mail it home, but this towel buckled me.

     Say you’re Boris from Smolensk. You work hard at the petrochemical kombinat, provide for your lovely wife, Svetlana—why is every other woman in Russia named Svetlana?—and kids, and you want to take your precious summer vacation by the sea. Where do you go?
     With the ruble in its present dismal condition, western Europe is out. Traditionally cheaper destinations like Turkey and Egypt are out because of recent tensions involving downed planes. Crimea is now Russian, but until “Putin’s Bridge” gets built connecting it to mainland Russia, you have to fly in and out to avoid Ukraine. Sochi on the Black Sea is the next logical choice, but why go there when you can nip over the border to the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia? Same coast, more exotic, and cheaper.
     I learned all this when I set foot in Gagra, the first resort about an hour over the border, which is packed with Russians. Gagra is hardly a town in the civic sense as the entire length of it caters to tourists and nearly every home advertises rooms for rent, but no one cares, especially Boris.
gagra beach

     The beach in Gagra isn’t packed because it’s so long and spread out. Not much sand to be found. The water either had jellyfish or a lot of scum floating on top, but a Russian couple I told this to looked me up and down and gave me the “What a wimp!” look.

waterfall car

     This is genius. The car, hats and sword have nothing to do with anything, but park this where tourists are, charge less than a buck, and few can resist.

     I had a taste of mass Russian tourism when I went to Lake Ritsa on an “excursion”, they call it. Everyone gets packed into vans and whole convoys careen up the mountain. By having the front seat I earned the driver’s scorn for wearing a seat belt. He kept scolding me until he tired of my sissiness.
     I naively thought the whole shebang was just going to be transport, but it turned out to be a Chinese-style mess with coordinated stops to buy honey, alcohol, and souvenirs, and to pose with endangered animals in chains. Also, these kinds of excursions highlight that Russians love loudness. If there is a beautiful place next to a lake or river, they want Eurotrash dance music blasting to ruin the scene.
     The payoff was worth it, though. The water is a special color this time of year as you can see in this short video here if it doesn’t show up below:

zipline ritsa

     A dude ziplining across the rushing river—and getting stuck. He had done something wrong (what can you do wrong?) and the guys running it were in a tizzy.

     Russians had said to me that Abkhazia was like Russia twenty years ago with its crumbling infrastructure. That’s the attraction for a lot of people in this day and age of globalization, including me. It is a nice change of pace to see few western products in Abkhazia; I can only think of soft drinks, snacks and candy. It seems regulation-less in a libertarian dream. People smoke indoors. Young punks race around town with impunity.
downtown sukhumi

     Sleepy downtown Sukhumi, the capital, with a burned out building in the background. It’s funny to see the police self-importantly run their sirens and shuttle dignitaries around on the empty streets. There are hardly any stop lights. Only 250,000 people live in the whole country.

sukhumi wreck

     This is one of two concrete wrecks built on the water. During hot afternoons I sat with a cold drink and did some breeze receiving while I typed out award-losing blog posts.

     Speaking of the waterfront,this is an interesting article about Abkhazia’s predicament being Russia’s benefactor. The Russians have been eyeing the long coastline of Abkhazia for development, which the Abkhazians are trying to avoid, but good luck with that when you need Russia to cover half your budget. There is video of a lawyer’s car being blown up right on the popular promenade where locals congregate every night. He had been trying to protect the coastline.
abkhazia spices

     Spices used to spell out stuff.

     In Sukhumi there’s a big, popular sprawling restaurant called Nartaa right across from the sea where I met an Uzbek waiter named Rams. He had been studying in Latvia and was lamenting his missed chance in getting a visa for USA. He said studying in an EU country is a pipeline for tons of Uzbeks to get American visas. He said all kinds of things that didn’t make sense, and he couldn’t articulate why he wanted to go to USA so badly except that a friend of his was there and he was making $7 an hour in a restaurant, which was all he needed to hear.
     I am always a wet blanket in these conversations to temper dizzying ideas about America being a yellow brick road to riches. I reminded him that you have to pay for accommodation and so on, but he said that the restaurant had his friend sleep somewhere for free and he ate in the restaurant. He claimed there were $500 round-trip flights from Tashkent to New York. I challenged this but he was adamant.
     Somehow people like this manage, it seems. Who knows? Maybe people who put their heads down and do what they have to do to make some money succeed, but the problem is that the people who don’t succeed aren’t honest about it to the newcomers out of shame, and the cycle perpetuates.

     The khachapur at Nartaa. This was about a dollar.

kvas tanks

     Kvas tanks. Kvas is a very popular fermented beverage across the whole former Soviet Union. Not a fan.

     In a previous blog post I wrote about entering Abkhazia without a visa, but it may be easier to enter from the Georgian side.
     Airbnb has hundreds of listings for Abkhazia, believe it or not. Like in Russia, sometimes hosts will want you to make contact with them through the site, but pay in person. Also, like I wrote before, if I do pay through the site, I only book the first night through Airbnb and then ask the host how much if I pay in person. In Sukhumi I paid 10 euros (740 rubles) on the site and then in person, 500.
     Only rubles are used in Abkhazia, though there are many places to change dollars and euros. I saw plenty of ATMs, too, but I am not sure if they will work with international cards. I doubt it.
     Getting around the main places in Abkhazia is easy. Sukhumi to the border (2-3 hours) is 150 rubles in a bus and 200 in a van. Getting around town is about 10 rubles for a bus and 15-20 in a marshrutka, which is a smaller van or minibus.
abkhazia border

     Leaving Abkhazia to go back to Russia. It felt like a return to civilization, which was bittersweet.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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Traveling in the Phantom Republic of Abkhazia — 4 Comments

  1. Abkhazia ,my experience:
    I spent 11 days in Abkhazia.Mostly in Sukhumi,Gagra and mountain surroundings of Gudauta.Crossing the border from Sochi to Abkhazia was like crossing in to 1960s.
    While the nature ,sea and clean fresh water were stunning on their own,tasty chayote ,feihoua and persimmon growing everywhere on a trees.Notwithstanding poor infrastructure,every second house ruined with no prospect for renovation,no lights on the streets,terrible driving habits,abounded beaches.
    The Abkhaz people,however have no manners,very little respect for tourists and foreigners.Abkhaz deem with suspicion every foreigner except Russian as some kinda enemy or intruder.Just by walking from my house to the grocery store and market or other places I was regularly harassed by locals ,was stared it as I was some kinda of alien and not only that.Save for drunkards following me ,shouting at me,hissing behind my back,but also sober ones forcefully making their way through on the bench to sit next to me not asking for permission. Interrogation with all the stupid question of a caveman:

    “Who are you?
    Didnt I tell you to stop?
    Why did you come here?
    Where do you stay,-which address exactly?
    What will you say about Abkhazia? ”
    (What could I think about Abkhazia with such horrible treatment and bad attitude?)

    I do agree Sukhumi is safer then most European capitals though.
    The worst experience was while leaving Sukhumi.I was near main bus station around noon,walking on a sidewalk,suddenly a car pulled near by me from the highway,without me initiating anything.I was walking minding my own business ,there was a bush separating sidewalk and highway.The tall ,skinny guy in civilian clothes with no credentials,had opened the car door and very rudely and somewhat threatening started demanding my passport without him leaving the car seat.I declined to cooperate with unknown stranger,and simply kept walking.He didnt give up though,he stopped the car near me,refusing to leave me alone.I heard him shouting:
    “I am KGB,did you hear me?! Now you will see,we will take you soon!”
    Indeed,shortly enough,another unknown young man approached me, on a sidewalk,he spoke some English and was more pleasant I have to admit.He shown me his FSB credentials and demanded my passport and visa.He inspected it for a few moments before he let me go.

    So,this is Abkhazia in a nutshell.Lazy people who don’t want to rebuild the country,people who dislike foreigners,I wish Abkhazia luck with their independence bid.It’s a pity for a land who has so much potential,if right people would rule it and inhabit it,Abkhaiza would be like a Greece.if Abkhazia doesnt do much needed reform ,fundamental reform,that “country” has no future.

  2. Man, you have had some bad experiences!
    I would be discouraged from traveling after all that. It’s a shame your time wasn’t as good as mine.
    Thanks for sharing. It’s good to hear all the perspectives.

  3. Pingback: All You Need to Know About Traveling to Abkhazia

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