Saturday, August 25, 2007

Travelling to Iraq: '' are crazy, you have a deathwish or something?''

I look on the clock, six pm already. The low sun burns the left side of my face, we are driving north. I stared out of my window, looking at a landscape I had been looking at for the past week. Dry, sandy hills lying under a blue sky which seems to be always cloudless. Suddenly, I was focussed on the road again. The driver slowed down and stopped behind a row of cars. An old Toyota van with a numberplate in Arabic was waiting in front our BMW. Slowly we moved to the front of the que. A man wearing a greenly camouflaged suit walked towards our car, he had a dark skin and a big mustache. I saw a Kalashnikov hanging over his left shoulder. He puts his head in the window of our old BMW, his eyes going carefully through all the passengers in the car. His hand points at me and he said something in a language I don't know. 'Hollanda', I said, figuring he asked for my nationality which usually is their first concern, I gave him my passport. He made a sign I should step out of the car. One of the other passengers followed me to the office and said he would translate for me, as he knows some English. The Peshmerga (local name of the military forces) flicks through my passport. He asks: 'why are you here?' 'Tourist', I replied him. He nods and continued searching my visas. Than his hand stops moving and he shows me the sixth page of my passport. He asked: 'you have been to Iran?' 'Yes', I said with a question tone in my voice. 'Why you have been to Iran?', he asks emotionless. 'Same reason, tourism', I said with confidence. And than he gave me the answer I was waiting for: 'Ok mister, that's all'.
I step back into the car and the driver accelerates quickly to 120km/h. Within an hour I arrive at the destination I payed him for: Ibrahim Khalil. Ibrahim Khalil is different than other border crossings. It is a heavily fortified maze of roads, checkpoints, Turkish trucks, army vehicles and fences. The border separates two states, but at the same time, it divides one nation. Ibrahim Khalil divides the biggest nation in the world without a state. And all thought on the southern side of the border the splitted nation, the Kurds, control their lands, have their own government and their own military forces (Peshmerga) I felt strange crossing a border which shouldn't be there. I was traveling to the northern side, to a country which is considered to be safe, a country without terrorism, a fully functioning democracy, a country completely different than the one I just came from. I was crossing into Turkey. In total I had to wait 6 hours to be on Turkish ground again, the reason is an amazingly slow and extensive car-search on the Turkish side. Also I had to wait for a taxi across the border to fill up. I wasn't complaining though, as I managed to get the taxi for free. Also I spoke to a friendly Turkish guy who has been living in Germany and he invited me for a diner. Two hours after, I was standing on a bridge. The bridge connects the two countries and is considered no-mans-land. The bridge was full of cars, one row for passengercars, the other row for trucks. Slowly our taxi moved to the front of the row. It was almost midnight, still four cars in front of us. I look up to the sky, full moon.
Finally, we were able to drive further. Our car was searched by the Turkish military. They searched everything, the spare wheel, they looked into the engine, we had to unscrew everything unscrewable in the car. It took almost half an hour before we were able to drive on. I wandered why the hell they are unscrewing everything; for drugs or weapons, they can use dogs, can't they? After the searching everything went fast, I got my Turkish entry-stamp and before I know we are driving towards Silopi, the first town in Turkey. On the way the driver gave me back my passport and I look at all the visas and stamps I collected. Then suddenly I start to believe what country I just came from, I realize I had been traveling in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I realize I have been to Iraq.
One week earlier: 20/08, Diyarbakir, Turkey.
It is 6.30 am in the morning, I open my eyes. I see people walking in front of me and I hear the sound of cars. I am still tired and my back hurts, the price I payed to sleep on a bench in Diyarbakirs bus station. I took my bags and walked into a cafe for coffee. I sat there for an hour or so, still waking up from the painful night. Two cups of Turkish coffee later, I walked out of the station and catched a bus to the center. I walked a bit and stepped into the Balkar Hotel, this was the place where I was supposed to meet Edward, an Irish guy who was also traveling to northern Iraq. I made the receptionist call his room and a couple of minutes later I met him in the lobby. We talked a bit, had breakfast, a quick lunch and we sat in a bus towards Silopi, a Turkish town 15km from the border with Iraq. Like with all Irish people I've met, I had to get used to the accent, all thought Ed's accent isn't very strong. During the bus journey we talked more about our destination and the difficulties we might approach. The Kurdish region in Iraq is supposed to be perfectly safe, the mean difficulty is that we didn't had information on the area, as no one is crazy enough to write a guidebook for Iraq. We drove for about 100km past the Syrian border before we arrived in Silopi. I was full of excitement, I was 15km away from traveling into a country most people only know from carbombs, chemical weapons, sectarian violence or a crazy dictator with a big mustache. We went into an internetcafe to find more information on Iraqi Kurdistan, used the ATM and chartered a taxi to take us across the border. There was lots of paperwork involved for our crossing into Iraq, but after about an hour we sat in a small building on the Iraqi side. The borderguards asked us a couple of simple questions and gave us free tea. Soon after we said goodbye to our driver and hired another taxi to the first city in Iraq: Dohuk. In Dohuk we found a place to stay, a small hotel with very helpful and funny staff. As we were almost starving, we had an amazing diner directly after. The owner of the restaurant sat on our table as well and we talked quite a bit with the friendly man.
Next day started with coffee and some hanging in the hotel. We enjoyed kebab for breakfast in the same restaurant we ate the day before and I walked a bit over Dohuk's bazaar after. The city is very busy, with hordes of people and too much cars on the roads. It has a nice atmosphere and made a good introduction for Iraq. But soon after we moved on, to the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Arbil (aka Hawler). The guy controlling the car, drove like a maniac, making dangerous curves and seldom driving slower than 100km/h. Seatbelts he only wears when a policecheckpoint is ahead. Speaking about checkpoints, the roads controlled by the Kurdish forces are full of checkpoints. During our two hour journey we passed at least 8 checkpoints. Usually the driver waves at the soldiers and we can move on, but occasionally they ask for our passports and we answered a couple of simple questions. When we were halfway, things started to become a bit dodgy, because we saw Iraqi flags weaving above housing instead of the usual red-white-green Kurdish flags. We left the Kurdish territories for a couple of kilometers and drove through the Iraqi controlled land, 15km outside of the extremely dangerous city Mosul. But luckily, before we knew we saw the Kurdish flags again and continued our journey to Arbil.
Arbil is quite an amazing place, it is a huge city and even busier than Dohuk. There is a big citadel overlooking the city on top of a hill and we slept in a hotel next to the chaotic bazaar. Like elsewhere in the country, it was extremely hot in Arbil, with temperatures rising as high as 47 Celsius. Probably the heat has been one of the reasons why Ed became sick, he had stomach problems the first day in Arbil. I bought some stuff for him on the bazaar and went out by myself after. Strangely enough, all the shops were starting to close at about 9pm already, totally different than Dohuk, which was very lively even after midnight. So it took me a while to find a place to eat. I had some sandwiches with meat and went to an internetcafe after. By the time I walked out of the internet, around 11pm, the atmosphere in the city was rather dodgy. There was absolutely nobody walking the streets and everything looked pretty empty. Also one guy scared the shit out of me. When I walked out of the internet there were two guys standing at the exit of the cafe. One of them, an old man selling cigarettes and wearing old clothes, he was holding an AK-47. I was used to seeing a lot of kalashnikovs due to the many checkpoints on the road, but the fact that a guy who sells cigarettes caries an AK with him, made me feel a bit afraid. I said 'Salam Aleykum' and didn't had problems with him, but I quickly walked back to the hotel and didn't feel like making an evening stroll in the city that night.
At 10 o'clock the morning after, Ed decided to travel back to Turkey as his sickness started to become worse. We relaxed a bit and I joined him to the taxi-stand after. When he left for Silopi, I walked to the big mosque of Arbil. The 10 minute walk was pretty hard, because there was no shade on my route and the hot wind and fierce sun burned on my head. I tried to remember the heat I experienced in Iran the year before, I couldn't believe it was hotter overthere, it must have been at least 48C that day in Arbil. The mosque was quite nice, but I didn't stay long, I fled into an internetcafe soon after. Later that afternoon, when the city cooled a bit down, I hiked up the citadel. To my surprise, I was called over by a Pesha when I tried to enter the historical site. He body-searched me, asked me lots of questions and wanted to see my passport. At first he didn't want to let me in, but gave me a go after. So I walked into the citadel and within 10 seconds, a couple of other soldiers called me over and I had to answer their questions. They said I wasn't allowed in the citadel, only the two small museums. So I did what they told me and I walked into the museum. The museum shows some traditional Kurdish carpets, but besides the old stuff, there was a guy in a camouflaged suit holding a huge gun inside the museum. When I walked out of the museum, a couple of other soldiers again asked me questions and told me I wasn't allowed to see more of the citadel. It seemed there is some kind of armybase up there, as it was full of soldiers and army vehicles, and the strict security of course. Walking out of the citadel the soldier which spoke to me first wanted to see all the pictures I made, which I showed him. After I walked down to the bazaar. It really is a pity I haven't seen the citadel, because it is one of the oldest in the world. Some people told me Arbil is the longest inhabited place on the planet, it had been a city for over 5000 years. Back down I strolled over the hectic bazaar and I spoke a bit with a UN-soldier from the Fiji-islands. In the evening I met the two guys I shared the room with, a Kurd from Sulaymaniyah and an Arab from Basra. We watched some Hollywood B-movies on the satellite-tv before I went to sleep.
The next morning I woke up, my hair wet of sweat; the airconditioner was turned of in the night. I made myself some coffee and did some reading. In the afternoon I went to the 'Suly-garage' for a shared taxi to As Sulaymaniyah. The friendly driver spoke some English and we set of for As Sulaymaniyah (aka Slemani or just Suly) quickly. The journey was pleasant and we drove for 200km through the desert. Again the road was filled with several checkpoints. Halfway, I started to become quite nervous. We drove into Arab territory and into one of the most dangerous cities on earth: Kirkuk. The driver told me it isn't problem and that the Kurds control the roads, but driving in the suburbs of Kirkuk really gave me some dodgy feelings. We didn't had problems though and when the driver waved the last Iraqi checkpoint farewell, we were back on Kurdish territory. We stopped for a while in a roadside restaurant and an hour later, I was in Slemani. Like the other Kurdish cities, also Suly is hectic, a truly Middle Eastern city. I found a hotel and met some friendly guys overthere. The two guys are both named Ali, one coming from Baghdad, the other from Kirkuk. They work as tolks for the American army and were enjoying vacation in Slemani. The stories they shared with me were more than amazing. One of them had been kidnapped, the other one was also close to death as he was in the middle of a shooting incident. Their work can be called extremely dangerous and I listened to their anecdotes with much respect. We watched a bit of tv together and I went to sleep soon after. Again I had a satellite tv on my room, with as many as 1405 channels (!), unfortunately most of them were in languages I don't speak and strangely enough most channels are Italian, but also Sudan TV, Indian Karaoke TV, Vietnam TV, CCTV (China) and many others.
When I walked down to the hotel lobby the morning after, I met a man named Ayob. I talked a bit with him and he invited me for breakfast. Later on I met the Ali's again and we strolled over the huge bazaar. Much more I haven't done that day actually. I went back to my room early and washed my stinky clothes sindarella-style. With an Italian musicchannel on the background, I read a couple of chapters of my book and went to sleep.
When I woke up, I looked on my mobilephone and blamed myself for sleeping so long again. It was almost noon already. Quickly I got dressed and made myself some nescafe. I went into a small restaurant for falafel and walked towards the suburbs of Slemani. After asking several people, I found the place I was looking for: Amna Suraca (also called Red Prison). It is a museum about the horrors from the Saddam regime in Kurdistan. I was able to join a free tour with a couple of other Kurdish people. They showed me the prisoncells and the ways of torturing. The prison has an empty atmosphere and I could see some bulletholes in the buildings. Outside of the building, some tanks and artillery stuff were showed. The guide told us the tanks are still working and we were allowed to play a bit with the warstuff. I made some fun pictures on the tanks and thanked the guide after. The tour was free and I walked back to the citycentre. In a country as hot as Iraq, it feels like someone is blowing with a hairdryer in your face all the time and I went into a small cafe to escape the heat for a while. I continued my stroll back to the hotel and had kebab in a good restaurant after. The overweighted and friendly owner welcomed me into his restaurant and asked me if I could speak German. 'Ein bischen', I said and I had a long conversation with him in my broken German after. For some reason, he kept thinking I was coming from Greece as he asked questions about the weather in Athens and kept talking about Greek passports. He gave me a big discount on the diner and three cups of tea. Back in the hotel I did the same as the night before and went to sleep late.
The next day, I went back to Arbil. Again I was pretty nervous about crossing through Kirkuks suburbs, but like the first journey through Kirkuk, I also didn't have problems this time. After Kirkuk the driver did something unusual, he drove slowly and wasn't overtaking cars anymore. Strangely, the other cars were doing the same and the cars coming from the other side all stopped on the site of the road for a while. Soon I realized what was going on: we were driving behind an army convoy. Ahead of us, I could see three camouflaged hummers with artillery on top. I wandered under which flag they were driving, but up until now, that stays a mystery. When we arrived at the next Checkpoint, the convoy turned left and the driver was free to go crazy again. During the way, I had been questioned twice at the checkpoints, which caused some delay. Back in Arbil I went to the same hotel again and shared the room with three Arabs. One of them was the same man I met before, a friendly guy from Basra. I watched some B-movies with them again and went to sleep.
My last day in Iraqi Kurdistan, I woke up late, had kebab for breakfast and went back to my hotel. For quite a while, I had been talking with the Arab man from Basra. He told me how much he hated people with extreme ideas about religion and he showed me pictures on his mobilephone about his work. He works as a blacksmith and he teaches Arabic language to small children. After an hour or so, I said him farewell and walked to the taxistand. I chartered a taxi to Ibrahim Khalil. The ride was nice and relaxing and at about 7pm I arrived at the border. Around midnight I finally finished all the paperwork and carsearching and the taxidriver brought me to a hotel in Silopi named the Habur Hotel. I asked the reception to call room number 204. Within 5 minutes an Irish guy walked down the stairs. I was talking with Ed about my journey in Iraq for a while and gave him a small present I bought for him in Arbil: an old Iraqi banknote with Saddam Hossein on it. When I asked the reception about the roomprices, I figured I didn't want to stay there as it was quite pricey. I showed him my sleepingbag and pointed at the floor of the lobby. 'Ok, no problem mister' he said. I slept on the floor of the hotellobby for free!
While I was lying on the hard floor, I thought back of my journey in Iraq. Most people I spoke to before I went into Iraq told me I am crazy. They see pictures in their eyes about war, sectarian violence and danger. Big media companies show us the violent part of Iraq, they show us images of death people, carbombs and army presence. But as allways, media is something we shouldn't fully rely on; if you know what you are doing and stick to the safe areas controlled my the Kurds, travelling in Iraq is as safe as travelling in Turkey. The Kurds are amazingly friendly people and, besides a couple of moments, I felt perfectly safe and had a great time exploring a truly Middle Eastern country.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Out of the Caucasus, into the Middle East

From the Georgian town Ninotsminda, I tried to hitchhike towards the main coastal city Batumi. But as hitchhiking goes, sometimes your lucky, and sometimes your not. This time, I had to wait about an hour for a car to pick me up. The guy brought me a couple of kilometres further and soon after, a second lift took me to Akhalkalaki. In this small town I walked into a cafe for khachapuri. And within 30 seconds in the cafe, I was invited by some Armenians to join their breakfast and a bottle of vodka. I talked a bit with them and did some vodka-toasting, before I headed to the marshrutka stand. I decided to continue by public transport as I was in the middle of a town and planned to travel far that day. I took the marshrutka to a place called Khertvisi, in other to see the amazingly beautifull fortress overthere. The fortress is one of the oldest remaining fortresses in Georgia and has a spectacular location. I walked around there for an hour or so and continued my journey towards Batumi. Unfortunately, the road was pretty much empty and as I didn't managed to stop a car until 3pm that afternoon, I ended up taking a marshrutka again. The marshrutka brought me to a provincial town named Akhaltsikhe, where I decided to spend the night. I found a cheap place for 5 lari ($3), dropped my luggage and had Adjarian khachapuri for diner in a small cafe with a really friendly owner.
The next day, I took a marshrutka throught the autonomous region of Adjara, until the coastal city Batumi. The road was in a pretty bad condition, which caused that the journey was long and painfull. The scenery was very nice though and it seemed like the area is inhabited by some kind of Amish people. The way of living is very primitive and when three local women entered the marshrutka, they seemed like they had never been in a car before. Stepping out of the marshrutka five hours later in Batumi, I had to get used to the solid ground again. I walked a bit and found a place to stay. Soon after I went to the city-centre and walked around. Batumi is quite a nice city, it has a subtropical climate and it is the main domestic tourist destination of the country. Full of palmtrees, beaches, expensive cars and a relaxed atmosphere, I was happy to stay there for a couple of days. I haven't done much though, I used the internet quite some time, enjoyed numerous khachapuri and coffee and did some walking. Also I was supposed to meet some girls from Tbilisi who went to Batumi for a month or so, but I haven't seen them more than 5 minutes. So as I didn't spend time with them and also because I haven't met any other travellers, I felt a bit lonely after a while.
My lonelyness was the main reason I left Batumi after two days for Turkey. I took a marshrutka to Sarpi, which is at the border and after an easy bordercrossing I was in Turkey. The border is heavily fortified, with fences all over the place and it is full of Turkish trucks. As the only form of public transport from the Turkish side is a taxi to nearby Hopa, I decided to hitchhike. After changing money, kebab and coke, I walked to the main road. Within a minute I pulled out my thumb, a big truck stopped for me and brought me to Hopa. From Hopa I had a second lift to a small town in a beautifull valley and soon after a third ride to a mid-sized town named Artvin. The guy who picked me up had been living in Nantes, France, and I communicated with him in my basic French. He gave me lots of fruit and roasted corn on the way and in Artvin he found a cheap hotel for me, which he insisted on paying. Really an amazingly nice man. In the evening I enjoyed tasty lahmacun and went to sleep early. Around midnight that evening, I woke up because of Georgian prostitutes knokking on my door. I didn't open, because I knew they were working girls as I saw them in the hotel before.
The day after I had something else disturbing my sleep at 04.30am. My room had an open window and was next to the main mosque, so I woke up because of the morning prayer call. After sleeping a bit more, I started my journey towards to Iraq. Throught a travelforum I met an Irish guy, Edward, who was going to Iraq as well and we arranged to meet in the southern Turkish city Diyarbakir. So on that day, I travelled for over 700km from Artvin to Diyarbakir in two different bussus, as I had to change in Erzurum. In the second bus, from Erzurum to Diyarbakir, we were stopped by a militairy checkpoint somewhere halfway. Appearantly, it had something to do with the PKK, as I was entering Kurdish territories. I arrived on Diyarbakir's Otogar (busstation) 30 minutes past midnight and as the only way to get to the centre was by taking an expensive taxi, I decided to sleep on a bench in the busstation. The day after, I went into the republic of Iraq, but more on Iraq later on.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tight-ass backpacking in Armenia

The concept of backpacking is simple: exploring the world by carrying all your stuff in a backpack. And usually, most backpackers have more time than money and therefore travel as cheap as possible. But to travel ultra-cheap, by doing things like hitchhiking, sleeping outside and following a diet consisting instant-noodles for breakfast, lunch and diner has a different meaning. My Bulgarian travelpartner Kalin gave it a name: Tight-ass backpacking. And Armenia I will remember as a country where I virtually travelled all the way this style. Read the following story and find out why.
After hitchhiking to the Armenian border from Tbilisi, we got our Armenian visas straight away for a fee of $30. But as it was late allready and getting dark, hitchhiking into the country wasn't easy. Kalin and I finally managed to get a ride to a gasstation in the middle of nowhere and, luckily, soon after a second lift to Haghpat monastery. We stayed in a small hotel next to the monastery, where we enjoyed a gorgious Armenian diner. The morning after we saw the pretty monastery and walked down towards the main road after. On the way, a priest from the monastery picked us up and brought us to the first real town: Alaverdi. In that place we bought a honeymelon for lunch and figured out what to do next. At the same time, a bus full of Dutch 'Golden-Age' tourists was stopping next to us. I went into the bus and asked the tourguide if we could join their group to whatever place they where going to. However, the guide refused us at first, but came back to us later and invited us to join the tourgroup until lake Sevan.
So, we enjoyed a nice free busride with airconditioning and free information about the area from the guide. Also we stopped in Haghartsin monastery and made it to lake Sevan that evening. Sevan is one of the highest lakes in the world, lying at 1900m above sea-level. Only downside of Sevan is, that it's a touristic place (domestic tourism) and that accomodation is expensive. So, we decided to sleep outside. We walked towards Sevan-peninsula, saw the amazing monastery overthere and dropped our backpacks in a nice piece of grass. The night was very painfull and cold though, as we were sleeping on some rocks and I only had a thin sleepingbag. But who's free.
As expected, we woke up early and walked to the main road. We hitchhiked to the capital Yerevan after, where we arrived around 10 o'clock. In Yerevan we had a long walk to the first metrostation and we saw some nasty dogs doing 'exercise' (shagging) on the sidewalk. My first impressions of Yerevan were not quite positive. The Armenian capital is very polluted and quite a boring city, there is nothing much to see and it is a big city like any other. However, I enjoyed staying in the capital a lot, because we found a very cheap place to stay. We stayed in the ghetto-area of Yerevan, in a small homestay for as little as 1250 dram (less than 3 euro). Our room had two U-shaped beds, there was no running water, a bucket-shower with cold water, free coffee and another guy staying there who spended twice in jail and had been deported from Russia for an unknown reason..... But again, who cares, it is cheap and we enjoyed our VIP-accomodation for five days in total.
The next day in Yerevan, we did some walking around and we met a British guy with whom we drunk a couple of beers in the evening. The day that followed, we woke up in our royal-suite, took a metro to the centre and went by marshrutka to Echmiadzin, a place 20km west of Yerevan. Echmiadzin is the holy-see of Armenian christianity and we saw the impressive church there. Like in Georgia, Armenians are deeply religious and this was quite visable in Echmiadzin. We didn't stayed long though and catched another marshrutka back to the capital around 5pm. Back in Yerevan we ate some cheap lahmacun and went back to our homestay. The following day we made another daytrip, we went by bus south to a church called Khor Virap. The church is beautifully situated with views on the holy Armenian mountain Ararat. It is an amazing place with gorgious views on the surrounding areas. Inside the church we met a guy holding a chicken and a knife. Kalin talked with him and the guy told us that they brought the chicken to sacrifice it. We saw the slaughtering of the chicken after and one of the women draw a cross on our foreheads with the chicken's blood (see my picture). Quite an amazing experience. On the way back, we hitched to the main road, where we bought and ate a melon. Soon after we hitchhiked back to Yerevan, together with a nice guy in a Samara.
The next day, we haven't done much. I took a bucket-shower and washed my clothes by hand. Kalin and I played lots of chess, drunk a beer and ate some kebab on the blazingly hot day. In the evening we met Yoav, an Israeli backpacker who is a friend of Kalin and who I met in Tbilisi and Kazbegi. We had diner together with Yoav and played a dice game in the night. The morning after started with lots of coffee and hanging around in our homestay. We had kebab for breakfast and walked in the city centre towards the busstop. I left Kalin and Yoav around 4pm, with a bus to Ashtarak, 30km west of Yerevan. The rest of the day I hitchhiked to Georgia. I got a ride for about 50km to a town named Talin and after half an hour waiting a second lift 10km further. The guy from my second lift felt sorry for me and insisted I took 2000 dram (6$) from him, amazing. Also, the same man arranged a third lift for me to the northern Armenian city Gyumri. On the way the driver pulled over because of a huge hailstrom. The weather completely changed and it rained hailbricks as big as rice. Finally, we made it to Gyumri and the driver brought me to the end of town, so I was able to hitchhike further. The main problem was, that it was getting dark allready and almost no cars passed by. Luckily, I got a ride from 4 funny guys and they decided to bring me all the way to the border. Around 9.30pm I crossed the shithole border Bavra into Georgia and got a ride from two big maffia-type of guys to the first real Georgian town Ninotsminda. The guys where absolute bastards: big, fat, chainsmoking guys, with kind of a gangster attitude. They were nice to me however and brought me to a cheap hotel in Ninotsminda. I payed 5 lari (3 dollar) for a bed and a beer in the hotel, which is even cheaper than the place in Yerevan. I slept early, because I intended to travel far the next day.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Bikini's and bulletholes in obscure Abkhazia

In Kutaisi, Kalin and I had a quick breakfast in the early morning, in order to catch the bus to Zugdidi. And allthought busses in Georgia are cheap and more comfortable than the packed marshrutkas, our bus to Zugdidi was annoyingly slow, with stops in almost every village. When we made it to Zugdidi, I met an English guy named Ian, with whom I agreed to travel with to Abkhazia. I guess most of you people have never heard of the republic of Abkhazia and have no freaking idea what kind of country it is. Well, Abkhazia officially isn't an existing country, because on paper it is still part of Georgia. But the Abkhaz fought in the '90s an independance war, supported by Russia, which they more or less won. Practically, Abkhazia is now independant from Georgia and the Abkhaz have there own government, which issues different visas. Abkhazia lies northwest of Georgia and shares most of its border with Russia. For me, it was quite exciting to travel towards Abkhazia, as virtually no western tourists are going there and most people still consider it as warzone. So the minutes before crossing the border were quite nervious and I was full of curiousity of what Abkhazia would be like.
Ian and I took a taxi to the border and, after showing a Georgian border guard our papers, we hopped on a free UN-bus to the Abkhaz side of the river Inguri (which is the border). At the Abkhaz side, our names were written down in some notebook and we legally entered Abkhazia. From the border we went by marshrutka to Gali, which is the first real town in Abkhazia. Gali is quite an odd place, as most of the city is deserted and I saw almost no people on the streets. Lots of empty appartment buildings and it was pretty obvious that the majority of the population left the city during the war. A couple of kilometres outsite of Gali, we were stopped by a checkpoint of the Russian military forces. The Russian soldiers were acting like absolute assholes, abusing their power and stupid uniform by asking unimportant questions and showing us they are in charge. Luckily, they didn't hassled us too much and we managed to find a ride to the 'capital' Sokhumi soon after. An Abkhaz couple with a Lada picked us up and they drove us to Sokhumi for 200 rubles (Russian Ruble is the currency in Abkhazia, Georgian Lari is worthless). On the way, we saw a lot of UN cars and the villages on the way are mostly abandoned. Most part of the area between Sokhumi and Georgia used to be the major warzone and this was still visable, allthought with the UN presence it is quite safe nowadays. Also on the way to Sokhumi, the driver hitted a small pig, crossing the road, and allthought the Lada didn't had any problems, the pig was pretty dead after. The driver didn't bother and brought us to Sokhumi within an hour.
In the Abkhaz capital of Sokhumi we found a cheap (800 ruble) homestay at a nice family. After we dropped our luggage, we strolled a bit around the city and visited the ministery of foreign affairs in order to get our visa. Ian was at first not allowed to enter the ministery, because he was wearing shorts (they said: this is ministery, not a beach!!) but we got our Abkhaz visas the day after. When we finished our ministery visit, we continued our walking in Sokhumi, which I think has a nice atmosphere. It is full of burned Russian tourists and it feels a bit like a Latin American beach town. The climate is subtropical, the city is full of palmtrees and has some beaches, which are known as the best ones in former Soviet Union. On the other site, lots of buildings in Sokhumi are abandoned, some full of bulletholes and it still feels a bit grimm. Russian is the main spoken language, the currency is Ruble and most of the products are made in Russia. Abkhazia is kind of a Russian satelite-state.
The second day in Abkhazia started with a very heavy thunderstorm, which together with crying babies and barking dogs, kept me awake in the early morning. The rest of the morning was pretty rainy as well, but I spended the dryer afternoon visiting some churches and more strolling around the plesant city. In the evening, Ian and I had diner in a nice restaurant and after a while I was invited to drink a couple of beers with two Abkhazian guys. At first sight, they looked nice and honest. But when one of them was buying cigarettes and the other man left the table for a toilet visit, the waitress told me: 'please don't go with them, they are bad boys'. Also it was pretty strange that they weren't interested in my background at all and wanted me to join them for 'a walk on the beach'. I took the advise of the waitress serious and made up some excuse to leave them. I went back to the homestay soon after.
Next morning started with instant noodles, Georgian coffee and a long walk to the busstation. While waiting for our bus, we walked on Sokhumi's trainstation, which is one huge scrapheap. There is junk and trash all over the place and the station is one of the dodgiest places I've seen. After our wandering on the railwaylines, our bus took of for Novy Afon, a town 20km west of Sokhumi, where we arrived half an hour later. The town Novy Afon is very beautifull, with an amazing monastery and a relaxed atmosphere. But also, it is packed with hordes of redly burned Russian holidaymaker.
After the monastery, we saw some caves and spended a couple of minutes on the nice beach, before catching a marshrutka back to Sokhumi. Back at Sokhumi's busstation, we were invited for cognac and coffee with Abkhaz policemen, which was quite plesant. We talked a bit about the weird Abkhazian situation and went back to our homestay after. The fourth day in Abkhazia, I spended with a bustrip towards Gagra. But after the third breakdown of the bus, I hopped of somewhere halfway and went back to Sokhumi by marshrutka. Back in the capital, I did some more walking and had diner with Ian after.
The morning after, we intended to leave Abkhazia and walked towards the southern part of town in order to hitchhike. At first, we asked in the UN base if we could go with one of their vehicles to Inguri. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to go with an UN car, which caused we needed to hitchhike properly. And soon, we managed to get a ride with a nice guy working for Unicef, who brought us halfway. Not long after, a second lift brought us to a deserted crossroad, not far from Gali. We catched a bus to Gali and I spended most of the busride talking with the cool busdriver. The Russian checkpoint in Gali wasn't a problem this time and quickly we were back at the Abkhaz-Georgian border. We didn't had any problems on the Abkhaz side, but totally unexpected, the Georgian side of Inguri gave us a small headache. When we thought we managed to be back in Georgia, some fucko in a family car called us over to see our passports. As the guy was sitting in a car, wearing casual clothes, I asked who he was and I demanded to see his ID after he said he is a borderguard. We showed him our passports and Abkhaz visas, but after he returned us our passports, he kept the visas. I wanted to keep the Abkhaz visa as a souvenir and had a long discussion with the guy to keep the visa. Officially, he is not allowed to take our visas and he acted, as most of the stupid borderguards, as a little baby. Childish as he is, he demanded we made a photocopy of one of the visas in Zugdidi and he promissed us to give the other visa after. With a delay of allmost three ours discussing with this dickhead, he returned us our visas and we moved on back to Kutaisi.
In Kutaisi I went back to the same homestay, where I enjoyed a wonderfull meal and a good game of chess with Ian. I slept outside that night, on the roof of the house, because the inside-temperature was blazingly hot. The next morning, I woke up at 6, had a quick breakfast and hopped on a bus to Tbilisi. When I arrived overthere around noon, I had a rendez-vous with Kalin at Khatuna's homestay and we enjoyed gorgious khachapuri for lunch. As we decided to hitchhike that day to Armenia, we left soon after and went by metro outside of the city. Our first ride brought us halfway to a small town named Marneuli. Overthere, we were invited for beer by some old tipsy Georgian guys. I found it highly amusing to watch and talk with the slightly drunken Georgians, but after about an hour we continued hitchhiking towards the Armenian border. Quickly, we got a ride from an Armenian guy in a Lada minivan to the border and in the early evening we entered the republic of Armenia.