A few weeks ago we travelled to the beautiful republic of Abkhazia, which is located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. Its far and recent history was very interesting for us – the fact that we were entering unrecognised internationally country which is area of frozen confilct between Georgia and Russia was both fascinating and a little bit scary. At the border we met our dear friends from Krasnya Polyana (town near Sochi), and thanks to them, we had a chance to see all the places that were on our planned travel map and many more!
Abkhazia has a versatile and rich history. Since the 9th century BC the country has been under Roman, Ottoman, Russian and Georgian rule. During the Soviet times it was a famous tourist destination with its wide beaches and pure water (known as the ‘Soviet Riviera’) – even Stalin had dacha there. After the collapse of the USSR, it has seen numerous bloody conflicts. Georgia claims that the region is part of them (and occupied by Russia) while Abkhazia with pretty controversial Russian support have continued to fight for independent status. Only a few countries have recognized its independence and for a long time now it seems like it’s a forgotten land.
From Georgia the only way to go in and out to Abkhazia is to walk the bridge across the Inguri river. First we had to pass Georgian border which took from us over one hour. After we gave our passports to the police we were told to wait as they needed to “call Tbilisi” to check the permission. We sat down, waited and wondered how one phone call can take such a long time. Lots of Georgians were crossing the border by foot or with minibuses to get to Gali (only district of Abkhazia with ethnic Georgians constituting clear majority) and back. It looked like an everyday life routine for them. People waved to us, a stray dog kept company and one gentleman brought us some coke. We tried to refuse, but he didn’t give up (maybe we looked so tired under the hot sun) and kindly pushed bottles to our hands. Little did we know that since then many fantas, sprites and diabetes triggering sodas will be gifted to us!
We will never forget our walk over the bridge to Abkhazian side. The blazing sun, a long narrow road, a tropical climate and misty mountains covered with ungle-like forests. Our eyes could rest to admire its various shades of green. A middle of the road we took a look at a peace monument – a sculpture of a knotted gun. It stood there in silence like a desperate hope to achieve a peace between conflicted sides.
Suddenly the only sound we heard was our breath. We noticed that we were walking through the bridge alone – no other people. On the border, luckily, we didn’t have to wait long to get our visas. Few checkpoints, answering some questions (mainly places we wanted to see) and in 15 minutes we were free to go. A good-humoured border policies gave us strawberries and the only thing we were a bit concerned was Abkhazian stamps in our passports ( that they might cause problems when we would go back to Georgia).
On the way to Sokhumi we could see lots of ruins covered by nature. In fact,
from the Soviet times, there are lots of abandoned railway stations, sport centers, theaters and whole abandoned cities to explore. A long human history has left an architectural and cultural legacy that complements its natural beauty. Also in its small land, snow covered mountains met beaches and caves. It was easy to imagine that Abkhazia used to be a popular tourist resort.
The green image continued when we arrived to Sokhumi. The city was surrounded by different kinds of trees and flowers. Local men were sitting in cafes – talking, smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon game. We walked through the main sea boulevard where white and tall columns were shining under the sun. There were not many tourists around there and those that we saw were always Russians.
The Sokhumi pier with its iconic Amra cafe emerged behind the palms. It looks pretty much abandoned from the outside and we were delighted to find it open. Downstairs everything was ripped off and with smashed windows and walls full in fungus it looked wild. On the top though there was a small cafe trying to keep the place alive. It looked like straight from Aki Kaurismäkis movies: a lonely man drinking chai, empty dance floor and behind him rusty metal umbrellas giving a shadow.
Finally an evening came with some more cool air breeze from the sea. We made a little campfire on the rocky beach and looking towards horizon we spotted wild dolphins jumping in the dark waters. Their performance was truly magical and made us wish to own a pair of binoculars to get a closer look. Worth noting though, we were warned no to fulfill our dream and jump to swim with them – apparently dolphins can pretty much hurt a person by hitting it with high speed. :O
Next day, on our way to New Athos, we stopped to see the ruins of the Eshera Sports Complex (the former Central Olympic Base of the USSR). Like so many buildings of note in Abkhazia, it was ravaged during the war and left alone. After driving a jumpy road we found the main hotel and living quarters (that used to be for athletics) with its distinctive spiral tower. Inside there was much to see – bullet holes on the walls, a swimming pool with a long-since rusted platforms, old ripped posters, books lying on the floor and lonely school tables with wooden chairs. Once we climbed up high on the roof, the view of the Black Sea and back across to Sukhumi was magnificent. We could see a perfect empty beach and other mysterious ruined buildings around the sport centre. The roof itself over time turned into a field with various bush growing around. It was hard to believe that once this place was one of the most important multi-sports training centres in the entire Soviet Union.
From Eshera, we decided to take the shortest road to New Athos but somewhere in the middle of the dirt road, in front of us, there was a huge hole that made the rest inaccessible.. Thanks to it in the end we were back on even more wild roads with various fruit, nut and berry trees. There, a first time in our lives, we ate fresh mulberries straight from trees!
On of our favourite places was an old train station of Psyrtskha in the city called New Athos. Train tracks are still in use, and there are few trains to Sokhumi passing by every now and then. Waiting room serves as a lookout on man made turquoise lake which, as we walked a bit further we noticed, that it turns into a small waterfall. On the shore there were eerie looking couple of dolphin pedal boats parked up like they would wait for someone to drive them. The station was like a villa: a beautiful round shape with white columns and huge windows. Inside a painted star was decorating the floor. A natural light illuminated the room and it gave a perfect light for photos and contemplation.
Another must see place was the five-domed cathedral of St. Panteleimon that stands in the middle of the New Athos Monastery. Its built Neo-Byzantine style. The interior of the church was totally embellished with beautiful frescoes (behind those impressive works are builders from the Vladimir Guberniya and a group of Moscow artists headed by N. Molov and A. Serebryakov). The plots of all main Orthodox feasts were reflected on the walls of the cathedral. Frescoes were distinguished by a combination of blue, brown and gold. For us it was more like an amazing art gallery to explore. We had ever seen such amazing and unique paintings inside the church walls!
During a next day our friends took us to a secret cave that was hiding in the forest near Lake Ritsa. On our way to see the lake and a famous army green Stalin’s dacha, we stopped the car and went deep into the forest. The cave is unknown to most people, but we had an amazing luck to be there with friends who actually worked for a little time there. We learned that once there was a project to create a nature trail for tourists but the finacial problems came and it was abandoned. Until this day wooden steps and poles are left in the forest, more or less guiding us up to the cave. We climbed along the hill until we reached the entrance. We went inside and walked down till we saw a point with a water. We switched off our headlights to stand for a moment in silence. The cave gave away intense smell of humidity and we could hear how the water fell down from the rocks creating a sound that echoed around us. On our way back groups of bats were flying near the entrance, and we could feel the warm air from their wings next to our ears. Outside of the cave we admired the wild and dense forest that opened in front of our eyes. We walked through an amazing and unique to Abkhazia boxwood forest(which in Russian sounds pretty funny, go ahead and check “boxwood tree” on google translate) and touched its glossy dark green leaves.
After our adventures in the Lake Ritsa we were surprised with a trip to the village of Kyndyg. It was like a blessing to jump into a pool with a water from natural hot springs. We loved the rawness and authentic feel of the bath. Everything was done at the most basic level: no service, simple wooden benches, stone pools filled up with gravel paths and rusty pipes.
Under the waterfalls (from a height of about 5 meters) we could take a relaxing massage and in addition to hot water, there were mudbaths (we brushed it all over our bodies) and a cold pond. On our way to a car hundreds of fireflies surrounded us and suddenly in the darkness the ground looked like the starry sky.
In the last day before crossing the border back into Georgia we made a trip to famous ghost towns of Tkvarcheli and neighbouring Akarmara. In the past both of them used to be coal-mining towns with elaborate Soviet architecture. Nowadays factories are closed, most of the inhabitants have left their homes (during the war) and the area has a huge unemployment percentage. In Tkvarcheli all the buildings were covered with vegetation. Once again it has seemed like abandoned places were a perfect breeding ground for plants.
The centrum area was clearly inhabited and surprisingly alive: huge blocks of flats, people walking on the streets and resting under shadows. and a small food market looked quite busy. Before we headed to Akarmara we stopped to admire its long railroad bridge. The rails are now gone and a green moss has settled in their place.
Akarmara looked more like a real ghost town – perfect illustration for post-apocalyptic books and video games: rusted junks, car frames, ruins everywhere and running water eroding steps. When we watched carefully around, we saw how curtains swung in the window, and a girl played alone on an empty street.We learned from here that there’s bus comming to take kids to school in Tkvarcheli.. It was hard to imagine how life can be in this ruined town. Just few families survived here on their own without the luxuries of a modern society.
Our holiday time in Abkhazia went fast and soon we had to cross the Inguri river once again to get back to Georgia. it truly felt that we had just experienced one of the most beautiful, and at the same, the most contradictory country on our road. Its amazingly rich vegetation, beautiful landscapes and architecture makes it unbeatable, but behind it’s today’s state very dark and very recent past is hiding. One thing we knew for sure leaving this place, it is indeed area of a frozen conflict and even it’s close future pretty much unclear.
We are sooo thankful to our friends who patiently took us everywhere we dreamed to go. So much happened during those few days. Often times we were so amazed about all of the things that happened to us that we forgot to use our camera. We decided to experience everything fully, with all our senses and in our memories Abkhazia shall stay forever.