The world, it seems, is in two minds about the Black Sea statelet of Abkhazia at the western end of Georgia.
For Russians, it is a subtropical holiday paradise and they go there literally by the million every year to frolic by the sea. For the governments of the West, on the other hand, it is a dangerous no-go zone and they advise their citizens not to set foot in these badlands.
In 2015 I went three times to the South Caucasus and made it to quite a few places, but back home in Wales it gnawed at me that I had not set foot in Abkhazia. This felt like a serious omission and I decided to find out who is right about Abkhazia – the Russians or the West.
In international law this lush, beautiful region is part of Georgia, but covert Russian forces played their part in wresting it from Georgia in a war fought by Abkhaz nationalists in the early 1990s. Abkhazia claims to be an independent state, but only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu recognise it as such. In practice it is a small extension of Russia, which has a land border on its western edge. Abkhazia’s currency is the Russian rouble.
In late June, just a few days after Britain’s European Union referendum, I set off for Georgia. It was a shambolic departure. When I should have been packing, I was writing to my Member of Parliament urging a new referendum. I have never had such a chaotic start to a journey, but that vote did rather upend my emotions.
I flew from Bristol via Warsaw to Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi, carrying with me an e-mail from Abkhazia’s foreign ministry promising a visa on arrival in the Abkhaz capital. I arrived at Kutaisi airport in wet, grey weather, but out on the highway in a taxi I knew that I was in Georgia. Cowherds sheltering under umbrellas padded along with their cattle on the road from Zugdidi. Georgia wouldn’t be Georgia without its omnipresent livestock. The taxi driver told me that he had lost his left thumb in the Abkhazia war, which suddenly felt more real.
I stayed two nights in the town of Zugdidi for some gentle acclimatisation and then headed in a taxi to the nearby border. This must surely be one of the few official border crossings left in the world where most of the travellers are either on foot or in horse-drawn taxis, covered wagons which ply their trade between the Georgian and Abkhaz border posts.
There is another unusual touch. On the left side of the road, after the Georgian passport control and before the bridge over the Enguri river which marks the border, stands the statue of a black revolver pointing towards Abkhazia. But the barrel of the gun is twisted upwards and this actually points at the sky. While the intention, I suppose, is noble, the statue just seems odd on this rather quiet stretch of road.
The Enguri river was in a sense familiar territory. A year earlier I had walked to its source in Svaneti, at the Shkhara glacier, and now I was close to the end of its journey.
Over on the Abkhaz side of the river I came to a solitary passport officer sitting in a basic shelter. He was a jovial fellow who clearly enjoyed some conversation to help pass the time. He addressed me in Russian, with a certain lightness in his tone. “So, what are you? Tourist, journalist, extremist or terrorist?” Given this menu of options I chose tourist. I also offered the information that I was Welsh since the European soccer championships were on and the world had finally heard of Wales, partly on account of its football maestro Gareth Bale. My new friend, when not flirting with a passing woman, then proceeded to show great interest in matters Celtic and spoke at length about Robert Louis Stevenson and the Picts. I couldn’t follow all he said, but I did reflect that travellers entering Britain would probably not be treated to such literary conversation at passport control.
We said farewell on the best of terms and his parting words to me were “Welsh extremist”. Now the author Ned Thomas, many years ago, wrote a book with this title. I can’t imagine that my Abkhaz passport officer knew this, but it is strange how he chose these words.
From the border I took another taxi to the nearby town of Gali which is still largely inhabited by ethnic Georgians. The taxi driver even accepted payment in Georgian lari. My guide book described Gali as sadly dilapidated — a result of war damage –but the town had commerce and looked in better shape than I had been expecting.
By bus I carried on to Sokhumi, the capital of Abkhazia and a seaside resort of great charm which is finding its feet again after the destruction of civil war.
Luckily the website booking.com marches on into disputed territories like Abkhazia and I made my way to a pre-booked guesthouse, run by a woman of Armenian extraction, Anaida.
Her husband Sarkis, a self-employed mechanic also of Armenian origin whose forebears fled to these shores after the Genocide, was sitting on a bench in the front yard, pottering with bits of this and that. We fell into conversation. Within less than 10 minutes he asked me: “Why don’t the English like Russia?” I wanted to say “Give me a break, I have only just walked through your door!” Instead I said something to the effect that Russia’s chequered history, with chapters like the Stalinist purges, induced a certain caution in the English where Russia was concerned.
This prompted Sarkis to embark on a list of America’s misdeeds over the decades, but happily we did not dwell on geopolitics for long. Still, it was a swift lesson for me that having crossed the Enguri river I was now in a part of the world where the Kremlin’s world view prevailed. Sarkis’s tone was not one of raw hostility, but nor did it feel like an invitation to amicable open-minded debate on the state of the world.
Partly, I think, the question was simple curiosity on Sarkis’s part – in the normal way of things he wouldn’t meet many of my compatriots. I spent 16 days in Abkhazia and did not meet a single person from anywhere west of St. Petersburg.
Sokhumi was badly damaged in the Abkhaz war but now feels quite prosperous, feeding off a buoyant tourist trade from Russia. Orange and white trolley buses trundle through its streets giving an air of municipal normality and Russian holiday makers throng the seafront promenade lined with oleander bushes. It feels like a good-tempered resort of the old-fashioned kind. During the day a little train takes children for rides along the promenade and in the evening couples come out and dance. Groups set up tables on the stony beach and drink. Young boys shout “Garyachaya cuckoorooza” which to my ear is more melodious than “Hot sweet corn”. I can imagine spending a few happy days shouting “Garyachaya cuckoorooza” on the Sokhumi seafront, but the idea of yelling out the English equivalent has no appeal whatsoever.
Occasionally the heavens open and the seaside idyll is temporarily suspended. Once I spent nearly an hour on the seafront huddled inside a popcorn vendor’s stall waiting for a downpour to subside.
I arrived in Abkhazia without any firm ideas on itinerary but I didn’t want to try anything too daring. I settled on a plan of walking from Sokhumi to Gagra, another popular seaside resort about 80 kilometres away towards the Russian border.
I set out on a bright sunny morning. I bought a peaked cap and an umbrella in Sokhumi’s excellent central bazaar and just walked down to the promenade and turned right. There were bathers in the sea, people on the beach and patches of snow on the Caucasus peaks. I love moments like this, when you simply walk out in fine weather into the unknown.
At the western end of Sokhumi I was reminded of the region’s difficult modern history. I came across the first war memorial of my walk – I was to see many others.
“Eternal glory to the combatants of the Sukhumi battalion who fell in the battles for the motherland!” The memorial gave the names of 36 fighters, one dead in 1992, the others in 1993. Behind were the ruins of a five-storey red brick building partly covered in vegetation. Presumably one of the battles for the motherland had taken place right here.
The first day of my Abkhazia walk, July 6, was also the day that Britain published its long-awaited Chilcot report on the Iraq war, so the human propensity for slaughter was hard to shift from my thoughts.
One of the outcomes of the Abkhaz war was the mass deportation of Georgians from the region. Before the war about half of the population of Abkhazia was Georgian and they greatly outnumbered the Abkhaz. In the political and economic tumult surrounding the end of the Soviet Union, relations between the ethnic groups fell apart, with both sides committing atrocities. In the fighting Russia put its weight behind the Abkhaz and more than 200,000 Georgians were forced to flee their homes. Today, Abkhazia’s greatly reduced population stands at a little over 240,000.
The loss of Abkhazia and the ethnic cleansing of so many people is the worst tragedy to afflict Georgia since it regained its independence in 1991. The whole dreadful episode brings to my mind a short conversation I had in Tbilisi in the spring of 2015, when the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s role in that had been a major world story for months. In the cafe at Prospero’s book shop on Rustaveli Avenue I briefly met Robert Nalbandov, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Utah State University. Nalbandov told me that he had been writing a book on Russian foreign policy under Putin.
“So what is it like,” I asked, “to be a neighbour of Russia?” I half-thought that I might get a carefully nuanced reply from a cautious academic. But the good professor’s response was bluntness itself. “It sucks,” he said.
As I walked through Abkhazia, it did become clear that linguistically this is a seriously Russified part of the world. Russian is the language on everything from billboards to beer bottles, from fridge magnets to menus. It is the tongue you hear most often.
A linguistic map of Georgia, published by the Tbilisi-based Centre for the Studies of Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (website csem.ge) shows how beleaguered the Abkhaz language is. Abkhaz, a Northwest Caucasian tongue spoken by about 100,000 people, is restricted to a band of territory more or less following the coast from Ochamchire in the south to the village of Kaldakhvara in the north, a stretch of about 140 kilometres. In the south Mingrelian, a Kartvelian language related to Georgian, predominates, while in the Kodori valley of eastern Abkhazia there are villages populated by speakers of Svan. The map shows many pockets of Armenian.
But what the map doesn’t tell you at all is the primary linguistic truth of Abkhazia – the Russian language is king.
I also realised, as I headed north, just how very beautiful Abkhazia is. After about four hours’ walking, largely on roads with no sight of the sea, suddenly there was the Black Sea. I had a glorious view of the whole coast stretching to the northwest, with wooded mountains sweeping down to the water and the golden domes of a monastery glinting in the sun. I walked the last kilometres along deserted beaches, sometimes getting my feet wet because the beach was abruptly terminated by rising land. But these were not savage shores and I came safely home to a long straggling village where I found a room overlooking the sea.
The next morning I walked the few kilometres to the golden domes of the huge Novy Afon monastery, established by Russian monks in the 19th century. The monastery and its cathedral are popular spots with day-trippers from Sokhumi. While there were some worshippers, secular tourists set the tone. But it is a very lovely place all the same, with the domes nestling so naturally among the trees.
From Novy Afon I retraced my steps to the main road, past a lake and verdant landscaped gardens, and walked on to Gudauta. This is also a seaside town, but utterly eclipsed by its sisters Sokhumi and Gagra. I checked into a sterile hotel which reeked of the Soviet era. The front door squeaked outrageously and immediately to its left was a building in ruins. In the morning a kitchen babushka dispensed porridge to the guests in a rather Spartan canteen.
After Gudauta the road swept inland and was quite heavy with traffic. The saving grace was the lush subtropical landscape, the trees and the mountains. Some of the trees are so big. The elder trees, with their flowers in bloom, are great bursts of white in the landscape, but so high that the lowest flowers are out of reach. The elderflower cordial enthusiast would need a ladder!
On day three I walked as far as the village of Kaldakhvara. I couldn’t see any sign of a hotel or a B&B so I just went into a shop and asked the owner, a woman, if she knew where I could find accommodation. “Would a tent be OK?” she asked. I said that would be fine and she made a phone call. While I waited I took stock of what she sold. This was a well-provisioned country shop. It had plenty of Abkhaz wine, but the shelves also boasted Jack Daniels and Amaretto.
Soon a young man arrived and whisked me off to a nearby camp site. Sadbey, a 23-year-old Abkhaz, said his small camp site was in its first season. He was a qualified mechanical engineer and had studied at Sokhumi and Rostov-on-Don in Russia. He said his grandfather had provided him with the land to start a business. Sadbey was charming, hospitable and mentally attuned to the wider world. He has an aunt living in Virginia. Never again can I view Abkhazia as an improbable distant land of which I know nothing!
On day four I rested and read one of Margery Allingham’s novels, “Death of a Ghost”. The time always passes agreeably in Ms Allingham’s company.
The next day I completed my walk through the heart of Abkhazia and entered Gagra. Walking along roads is not the ideal scenario, but I felt better acquainted now with this part of the world. I knew the sounds of the Abkhaz countryside – the chirruping of crickets, the tinkle of cow bells and, rather less poetic, the whirr of grass trimmers.
For some of my walk from Sokhumi the road had run alongside a railway line. If you ride this line far enough, you arrive in Moscow. Put the other way, you can travel from Moscow’s Kazansky station and 36 hours later arrive in Gagra, in the subtropics. I had never thought before about trains leaving Moscow for the subtropics, but when I checked into my guesthouse I discovered that the place practically shuddered every time a train passed. So I have now mentally adjusted my ideas of Russia’s railway network. There is more to it than the Trans-Siberian.
I warmed to Gagra. It is a popular resort in a good sense, without pretension and simply very lovely, with green wooded hills tumbling down to the sea. If you have been through a north Russian winter, this coast must be a taste of bliss.
I did fall ill in Gagra, with a stomach complaint and the start of a long attack of hiccups. But such is a traveller’s lot on occasions. On my last full day before returning to Sokhumi, feeling distinctly below par, I paid for a place in a 4×4 to go to Lake Ritsa, one of Abkhazia’s star attractions.
I was glad that I raised myself from my sick bed. The trip to Lake Ritsa, up in the mountains, was glorious. Now you might imagine looking at a map of the Caucasus, that the route going up to Ritsa is a quiet country road. You would be wrong! The road simply teemed with traffic. Russian tourists in literally hundreds of 4x4s dotted the countryside between the coast and the lake, taking in side tracks that go to two spectacular waterfalls. They often stood in their vehicles, did high-fives with passengers in other cars and generally threw a party over a great swathe of countryside. But what countryside! On the drive to Ritsa the road goes through a canyon and you really couldn’t wish for grander scenery.
The lake itself is sublime. The waters are a light greeny blue and specked with little paddle boats. The backdrop is wooded hills and behind them a line of snow-streaked rocky mountain. This is a very popular spot indeed, but somehow nature accommodated everyone and I didn’t begrudge anyone their time in such splendour. Inevitably, Stalin had a dacha here. (You almost didn’t need to be told that. You could probably guess.)
Back in Gagra for my final evening I watched a fiery red sun sink into the Black Sea. This is a town of great natural exuberance and beauty.
My little health problem accompanied me back to Sokhumi (I travelled in motorised transport this time) and this meant that I did not stray too far from my bed for much of the time. But I did make it to the botanical garden, a well-tended, well-frequented place with shady bamboo groves and soaring pines and palm trees.
After a few days of doing little I decided to head back to Georgia proper. At the border my old friend the passport officer recognised me instantly and we re-entered the conversational realm of matters Celtic, particularly languages.
For the very first time, just minutes before leaving, I had a conversation in English with an Abkhaz citizen. A man in his thirties told me that he had an MBA from the University of Westminster and a hazelnut processing factory in Gali just down the road. “We export hazelnuts to Russia,” he said. I asked how Gali was doing. “We are building, bit by bit.” He said it was slow because no outside investment was coming in, but he struck an upbeat note about Abkhazia. “We have stability,” he told me.
That, presumably, is where the British Foreign Office would disagree with him. But during my 16 days in Abkhazia I didn’t see anything to contradict him. The region felt pretty stable to me and never once did I feel unsafe.
I unfurled my Sokhumi umbrella and in light rain embarked on the 20-minute walk to the Georgian border post. A gentle mist hung over the waters of the Enguri and horse-drawn wagons crossed with their passengers.