It was just after the Russian Civil war when the Ukrainian journalist and adventurer decided to move to the Caucasus from his native Kiev. The sea seemed to be the only feasible entry to Abkhazia, as roads and bridges had been blown up, but no one was allowed off the ship due to a quarantine that was being enforced against the typhus that was ravaging the neighbouring provinces.
Roads and bridges have been reconstructed more than once during the last eighty years but things havenâ€™t changed that much. Abkhazia still remains blocked since the tiny republic seceded from Georgia back in 1993 after a brief but brutal war. Paradoxically enough, it is now the sea route which is impracticable. The former “quarantine” has been replaced by the current trade embargo from the Georgian government, who, of course, doesnâ€™t recognise any new country in the Black Sea region.
Leaving the Abkhaz de facto border behind, the exuberant vegetation pays contrast with the emptiness of the place. Silence is abruptly broken by the helix sound of a Mi 24 Russian combat helicopter flying low. Cows graze alongside the road, indifferent to the scarce road or air traffic; or even lie down in the middle of it as if they knew that asphalt is doubtless a safer surface than the still heavily mined forests of this border region.
“Cleared by the HALO trust” proclaims blue panels at the entrance of every ruined village. The British NGO not only takes anti-personnel mines off the ground, but also advises the local kids against the risk of playing football outside the school yard. Too many apples on a tree or too much moss on a graveyard may indicate the same as the international yellow triangle with the black skull inside that warns against land mines. Another fact Gali kids are aware of.
The eleven oâ€™clock bus to Sukhum waits at Galiâ€™s tiny bus station, the first real place of any size after the border crossing over the Inguri River. Despite the Russian ruble being the ordinary currency in Abkhazia, Georgian laris still come in handy in this sector to buy a drink or a khachapuri (a cheese filled pastry) at the handful of kiosks nearby.
The road reaches the Black Sea at the small village of Ilori just before the ghost city of Ochamchire, to wind along the coast afterwards all the way up to Sukhum, the Abkhaz capital. An old sign in Cyrillic at the entrance still keeps the Georgian name of the city: “Sukhumi”. Nonetheless, name changing is scarcely surprising here, as this has been a major trading port for centuries. The original Abkhaz name is “Aqwa”, but it was also called “Dioscurias” when the Greeks colonised this corner of Colchis more than 2500 years ago. A restaurant in downtown Sukhum is also named after Sevastopolis, the name given to the city by the Genovese sailors back in the XIV century.
The ruins of the ancient prosperous trade centre lie just offshore, so, very unlike those ones on the surface, they canâ€™t be visited. In the “new” Sukhum, families pick their way through rubble en route to the beach, as the concrete debris seems to pop up from the soil alongside the climbing plants that struggle to hide it. The “queen” of the ruins is doubtless a burnt Stalinist building, which was the Presidential palace during the Soviet times. Edvard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet minister of foreign affairs, turned Georgiaâ€™s second president following a coup, personally commanded his troops during the war but narrowly escaped afterwards from this besieged building. Today it remains as an appalling symbol of the Georgiansâ€™ defeat.
Very close to the ruined palace stands a mural of a triumphant Vladislav Ardzinba in camouflage gear, Shevyâ€™s Abkhaz counterpart during the conflict, and Abkhaziaâ€™s first president. Also telling are the bullet holes, still visible on faÃ§ades or even park statues, as well as the pictures of the “martyrs” that hang from the walls of a centric building nearby the renewed Hotel Ritsa. Unfortunately, very little remains of the former Hotel Abkhazia, once a luxurious resort opposite the now empty harbour. So far, it seems that priority is given to accommodate the dead soldiers at a centric park facing the sea. A mosaic of a smiling Lenin looms out of the tropical vegetation at the entrance of a Russian R&R compound, which “miraculously” escaped the bombing back in 1993. Small wonder as it were the Russian fighters who shelled the city from the air. Deliberate or not, Mir Prospekt, the Peace Avenue, got the first bomb.
Still, Sukhum is a city of exuberant vegetation, where citrus trees hang heavy with ripe oranges. New shops have opened during the last year along Mir Prospekt; a necessary ball of oxygen in this suffocating war-torn atmosphere. Despite the embargo they donâ€™t look in short supply, probably thanks to the “illegal” cargo ships that arrive from Turkey, but mainly to the fluent ground transportation from neighbouring Russia, via Sochi.
Leaving the capital behind, the road meanders northwards along the semi-tropical coastline, pressed close to the sea by the Caucasus range. Eventually it climbs up the slopes in order to avoid being pushed into the water, offering a remarkable aerial view over Sukhum before reaching Novy Aphon (New Athos) Monastery.
Back in the twenties, Konstantin Paustovsky took the same journey by coach with his close friend, Isaak Babel. The beauty of the place was then eclipsed by a young Russian nun at the monastery hostel: “the apotheosis of woman”, according to young Babel. Soon afterwards, this complex, built by monks from Athos in the XIX century, would be turned into a Soviet holiday camp and severely vandalized for years.
Today, Novy Aphon is the â€œmust seeâ€ of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church, as well as a major tourist spot alongside the Anacopia gorge nearby. The numerous Russian tourists come on a day trip from neighbouring Gagra, and both sites get particularly busy in those grey days when sunbathing is not an option. Small wonder, as Gagra doesnâ€™t offer much apart from its long beach, which is, on the other hand, what the average tourist from central Russia has been longing for throughout the year. Still, the curious traveller heading for the hilly streets up the Caucasus slopes is likely to hear a dozen languages: from Armenian or Pontic Greek to the north Caucasian family; Adygean, Circassian, Chechen, Kabardinâ€¦and Abkhaz, of course; “a language spoken in guttural voices, somewhat reminiscent of an eagleâ€™s cry” according to Paustovskyâ€™s perception.
Unfortunately, despite Abkhaz being the only co-official with Russian, it is still an endangered language. Besides, itâ€™s written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which has proved almost useless for the North Caucasian weird phonetic system: Hardly 3 vowels but 56 consonants. Even Fazil Iskander, Abkhaziaâ€™s best known writer, wrote his whole work in Russian, which is, in fact, the language everybody understands here.
Gagraâ€™s outskirts offer many more surprises: Here a Greek graveyard, there a tiny Armenian church, or even a restaurant in the heights where the tourists can take a picture of themselves holding a Russian machine gun or even a bird of prey for just 50 rubles.
But nothing compares to the beauty of Lake Ritsa. The road that climbs up to almost 1000m is crowded with tourist buses that make several stops at the gorges and waterfalls on the way before they reach the lake. Then comes the moment when everybody marvels at the blue water, topped off by the 3256m peak of Agapsta. Most of them will sit down afterwards at one of the terraces nearby, but those feeling more adventurous may take up some high altitude boating to reach Stalinâ€™s dacha on the opposite shore. The Georgian dictator realised here that dynamite proves more effective for fishing than a simple rod, so it was easy to guess for the local shepherds if they were being gifted by the most powerful man on Earth. Shopping is also a choice up here, with souvenirs ranging from Abkhaz flagged cups and key rings to T-shirts with the same logo – green and white stripes with a white hand on a red background.
Packed tours stop nearby the lake but the road keeps climbing up to the border with Karachai-Cherkessia, another North Caucasian republic within the borders of the Russian Federation. Other groups, yet very different from these, took the same road down from the neighbouring republic during the war. Northern Caucasus battalions composed of Circassians, Adygeans, Kabardins and Chechens crossed the high border post to help the Abkhaz fight the Georgians, and laid the first brick to build a North Caucasian Confederation flanked by the Black Sea and the Caspian. Amazingly enough, the recently deceased Shamil Basayev fought alongside the same Russians who would shell Grozny a year later during the first Chechen war. He commanded the so called “Abkhaz Battalion” despite its members being Chechen volunteers.
War is still latent in this corner of the Black Sea, especially since Georgian troops took control of the Kodori Gorge in upper Abkhazia last July. Tbilisi made the symbolic movement of installing what they claim to be the “true Abkhaz Government” back in motherland Abkhazia, or at least on the heights of it. Furthermore, Georgiaâ€™s president Mikhail Saakhasvili said during his New Year speech that 2007 would be a decisive year for Georgia.
For the time being, tourists still flock every summer to what is left of the former “Soviet Riviera”. Buses and marshrutkas run full with sunburnt tourists along the Abkhaz highway, but, by no means go any further than Sukhum. Small wonder, for whatever happens near the Georgian border belongs to another world, yet in the same tiny corner of the Black Sea.
Author – Karlos Zurutuza.