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.