We took the night train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi as our first step in getting to Abkhazia. Well, our first step was actually sending our clearance applications to some random Russian email address, in response to which we received our clearance letters (about a week later) to be printed and shown at the border.
Zugdidi is not actually that far from Tbilisi, some 300km, but somehow the train takes eight hours. This was fairly welcome as we were to sleep on the train. As it turns out, the cabins were hot and muggy, so not all that much sleep was gotten. We shared the cabin with two other travelers, and it became clear that basically the whole train was other travelers, the great majority of whom were heading to Mestia, the idyllic town deep in the Caucasus mountains (which is our next destination).
So, long before the sun rose, with clearance letters in hand we got a taxi to the Inguri border after stopping by the market to exchange some dollars to rubles (the currency used in Abkhazia).
The border was a sleepy place at 7am, looking very much the like war zone we expected. The damp and cloudy weather contributed to this vibe. We showed our passports to a friendly Georgian border agent who laughed and smiled and let us through. We walked the 1km Inguri bridge to the Abkhazian side where the road was blocked by concrete barricades, car traps, and a locked barbed wire fence. A gun turret was visible not far away. The border opens at 8, and promptly a soldier came to open the fence. By this time, a crowd of a dozen or so others (mostly elderly women with big bags of who-knows-what) had spoiled our solitude. It was another hour before somebody got around to manning the passport check and ushering us through.
We ended up leaving Tbilisi a day earlier than we originally expected, and I neglected to realize that our clearance letters were date-specific, so the soldier pointed to the 24th (clearly marked on the letter) and turned us away as it was the 23rd. We verified that we could return the following day and left in a huff, defeated, tired, cold, and hungry.
On the fence about going at all at this point, we headed back to Zugdidi to think it over. We concluded that we may as well try again the next day and booked a room in a hostel of sorts (although we were the only guests there) to while the remainder of the day away. The rain started pouring torrentially, so we spent most of our time relaxing indoors.
By the next morning, the rain had unfortunately not let up, and was accompanied by thunder and lightning for most of the night and morning. We got another taxi to the border with the boisterous Mamuka, who was thrilled to talk to us in Russian the whole trip. After a firm handshake and insisting that we call him for a ride when we return, he dropped us at the border again where we explained what went wrong the day before to a different set of Georgian border guards.
With the rain still coming down we splurged on the horse drawn covered wagon to cross the bridge. The driver, drunk on chacha (a spirit from distilled grape skins) was shouting about this and that in Georgian and Russian and asked us continuous questions in languages we couldn’t understand. The women sharing the wagon with us giggled incessantly.
This time, the same guard on the Abkhazian side greeted us, took our passports and clearance letters, and showed us his translator app which simply said “you will have to wait”. We weren’t sure why, or how long, but we stood in the rain with our bags for two hours before finally being let through. We were occasionally called over to the guard shack for questioning (again via translation apps). We weren’t sure what information they needed, but the guard apologized for making us stand in the rain and insisted that he had no role in the decision making; his orders were coming from Sukhumi.
We were nearly at the breaking point, about to just ask for our passports back and give up on Abkhazia altogether when he waved us over, gave us our passports, and ushered us through. We suspect that showing our hotel booking and future airplane tickets from Baku had something to do with this, they seemed worried that we had no plans to leave or something. While hotel bookings and tickets aren’t required as part of the procedure (largely because all transport to and from Georgia is done by informal minibuses with no advanced ticketing), they seemed to help in convincing the authorities that we didn’t want to stay in their beautiful, but war-ravaged and economically-dead breakaway region locked in a frozen conflict with their southerly neighbor for the past 25 years. Big surprise, right?
The weather seemed to have some idea of our success, and the sun started to shine as we were waiting for our van to leave towards Gal. In Gal we were dropped off right in front of the van headed towards Sukhumi which promptly left right when we got on (which was a nice change from waiting around for a half an hour for them to fill up).
The trip to Sukhumi was quick as we rocketed through the ravaged and forgotten towns of southern Abkhazia. Ornate graveyards boasting house-like tombs were frequent reminders of the bloody war that halved the population surprisingly recently.
We hopped out of the van on the southern edge of Sukhumi, where our guest house was, and wandered around asking directions and being pointed in contradicting ways. We finally made it, and were greeted by the smiling and friendly Russian lady who runs the guest house. Her English was limited, but she had no reservations about using it and made sure we felt right at home.
We hadn’t eaten all day, so we headed into town for some food right away. Abkhazia was known as the Soviet Riviera, and Sukhumi is a very common holiday destination for Russians. This was clear as we saw the late season vacationers still clad in shorts and tank tops despite the 15°c weather; still clinging to the tropical holiday vibe.
The city is weird. Clear indicators of the recent war are everywhere with destroyed or derelict buildings on practically every street. Yet, the cheery holidayers provide a constant income and coax the sluggish economy into building resorts and nightclubs. The backdrop of grandiose Soviet architecture, half destroyed and long abandoned, makes for a strange holiday destination nonetheless.
We spent most of our time the first few days exploring what the city had to offer. There is a busy open market in the center where much of it’s life is lived, and the people go about their daily business as though the parliament building doesn’t lay in ruins only a few blocks away. The crumbling building is left as it was after the war, a shattered husk, although mostly structurally sound. There are no restrictions to entrance, so we were free to explore the abandoned hallways and destroyed elevator shafts. Judging by the garbage and graffiti on the walls, this is a common activity for the city’s youth. A full-grown tree flourishes on the ground floor of a bombed out section of the building.
We decided to check out the zoo, but thought better of it as we came upon the neglected and forgotten cages. A woman at a kiosk awaits your money while the nearby monkeys rattle a locked cage door, hungry and cold. Some part of us wanted to witness the tragedy, but out of sight was out of mind, and we had the freedom to turn and leave.
The following day, after the quick process of picking up our actual visas (in the form of a loose paper, not stuck to a passport page) from the consular office (the clearance letter gets you across the border, but the visa lets you leave) we spent the day at Novyi Afon, a short drive up the coast from Sukhumi. The village is quite small, but a lot less damaged than Sukhumi as well. We somehow ended up joining a Russian tour group to the famous cave system there, and spent a few hours riding strange, subterranean trains to various parts of the system while a guide described things in Russian. Weirded out by that experience, and wanting to separate ourselves from the throngs of shoving and huffing and puffing Russian tourists, we headed over to the (perhaps more famous) monastery. It’s quite orthodox, we supposed, and Oona had to cover her hair and wear a sort of long skirt that was supplied at the entrance.
We hitched a ride back to Sukhumi in a van packed to the gunwales with Abkhazian tea. The driver spoke no English but was kind enough to let us cram into the passenger seat up front. The tea was something of a natural air freshener, and we were treated to pleasant smells the whole way back.
We headed back to the border the following day after bidding farewell to our guest house owner. Our marshrutka to Gal left shortly after we arrived, which set a precedent for other such rides on the way to Mestia that day. As we flew past the destitute and ruined villages, Oona brought up that in spite of the hard times this particular region has faced, the villages were much more lively than the ones we saw in Mongolia. Who’s to say why the locals here prefer to be out and about, tending to this or that, while tumbleweeds blow through their counterparts in Mongolia.
As we screeched into Gal, the driver of the connecting marshrutka to Ingur beckoned us over and shouted “pajehali davai!” Our string of good luck was placed on a brief hold at the border, where we waited in line with yet more huffing and puffing Abkhazians and Georgians trying to shove their way by us. After an hour or so we eventually made it to the tinted window, just barely able to make out the features of a guard who inspected our paperwork on arrival. Clearly recognizing us, he bellowed out a “khello!” with heavy Russian affect.
On the bridge, we spotted Mamuka from our trip to the border. When he dropped us off he was insistent that we didn’t get ripped off by the wagon driver, enunciating every repetition of “adin lari!” (one lari). We gathered that he was apologozing for not being able to drive us back, and came again with his trademark “adin lari!“, this time for the marshrutka back to Zugdidi.
After a brief visit to the Georgian authorities we hopped in the marshrutka and again departed immediately. When we arrived at the station, a guy whose job it apparently is to yell random potential destinations at travelers tried a few before we yelled back “Mestia!“, “Ahhh, Mestia…” he responded pensively, and came over from his plastic chair posted at the corner of the parking lot. He made a few phone calls and ten minutes later we piled into a van with three Russian girls making their way from Batumi to Mestia.
The language situation in Abkhazia is complex. The state language, as declared by law is Abkhaz, but the de facto language for everyday transactions is Russian, and practically everybody speaks Russian near natively. Georgian and Mingrelian are typical near the border, but anywhere north of that Russian is the dominant language. Ethnic Abkhazians are essentially the only population who has any command of Abkhaz, so all inter ethnic group communication is done is Russian. In rural areas Abkhaz is common in the home and on the street, but in any urban setting Russian is the standard, and even many ethnic Abkhazians born and raised in places like Sukhumi can’t speak Abkhaz. With that said, it is occasionally encountered in town, and many people have at least a basic understanding of common phrases.
We were lucky enough to have a small lesson on Abkhaz from a shop owner when we were buying a bottle of water. As if identifying the linguist in me, she repeated the price in Abkhaz, a nigh unheard of gesture for encounters with foreigners. Maybe she did it for laughs, expecting us to collapse in utter confusion, but she ended up teaching us how to say “thank you” as well. It’s spelled иҭабуп, but to my ears was [itaβuː]. We ended up using it on a few other occasions to the amazement of shopkeepers everywhere, and if they were Abkhazian they would immediately light up and return with a few other polite phrases.
While in Novyi Afon we also had the good fortune of hearing an actual conversation in the wild as well. A man of 30 something came into a shop and greeted in Russian, but switched to Abkhaz for some reason. The shopkeeper responded with “Aha, Apsny!” (/apʰsnɨ/ is the term for Abkhaz in Abkhaz) and carried on in Abkhaz for a few minutes.
As for the language itself, it’s quite bizarre from a European point of view. It is a Northwest Caucasian language with about 100,000 speakers, many of whom live in diaspora communities in Turkey and Syria. It is fairly typical of Northwest Caucasian languages with one of the largest consonant inventories of any language in the world at about 56 (for the literary dialect) with only two vowels. It’s primarily prefixing with a heavy focus on verbal morphology and very little nominal morphology. And yet, from the placement of agreement prefixes on the verb, even without any nominal cases, it clearly follows an ergative-absolutive alignment. The consonant inventory is fairly standard Caucasian with a voiced/aspirated/ejective contrast with the addition of labialized and palatalized versions of almost all of them. The vowel inventory follows a simple height distinction contrasting only between low and non-low, however, there are a number of different allophonic manifestations of the two vowels. The language is written with a heavily modified version of Cyrillic, and can be seen on signs all over the country.