As the train pulled into the Zugdidi train station in Western Georgia, the drivers started shouting "Mestia! Mestia!" assuming that most tourists getting off the train here would be heading north to the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site, as I did on a previous trip. On this day, though, I had a different end. A driver approached me like he would any tourist, offering his services to the Upper Svaneti region of the country. Curious, a small group of drivers gathered to chat when I answered that I was not headed far. I was hesitant to answer as I was going to a place that was still controversial for many Georgians. I reluctantly replied that I was heading to Gali.
Gali is a small city only about 25km away from Zugdidi, yet is a place that most drivers won't go. In fact, it is a place that most drivers can't go. Although technically part of Georgia as defined by the United Nations, Gali is the southernmost city of the disputed territory Abkhazia. The Georgian government and much of the rest of the world consider Abkhazia an 'autonomous republic', but with the support of a handful of countries - including the powerhouse of Russia - Abkhazia is a self-declared state with a border that most Georgians are not allowed to cross.
The drivers assumed I was an ignorant tourist and insisted that a trip to Gali was not possible. They were wrong, of course; other nationalities can get into Abkhazia relatively easily. Any other member of the CIS (most former Soviet republics) can enter visa-free, while most westerners can apply for special permission and get it, hassle-free, in about five days. I soon found the one shared taxi, or marshrutka, leaving for Gali and once I'd assured the Abkhaz driver I had permission we were on our way.
When marshrutkas finally leave here for Gali, they are usually carrying all kinds of material that is either cheaper in Georgia or unavailable in Abkhazia. If you’re a foreigner on the bus, you’ll likely be – as I was – the only one. Most of your fellow travellers will be local Abkhaz, coming home after a day ‘abroad’ in Georgia. The border crossing is not far away, and consists of concrete blocks on either side of the road so any vehicle wishing to pass must zigzag their way along. There are a couple of transport containers as well, from which Russian guards come out to do passport checks. A huge monument of a pistol with its muzzle tied in a knot faces toward Abkhazia, with huge flags of Georgia and Abkhazia on either side of it. Travellers with pre-arranged special permission will usually have no problem getting through border control and will soon find themselves like I did, in Gali and on a bus to Sukhum, the capital.
Gali itself is not much bigger than a village with cows grazing in the central park, and bombed out buildings around town. After shopping around for some snacks, I soon began to get the impression that the local Abkhaz population really hates the Georgians. They hate the Georgians more than the Georgians hate Russians. Not coincidentally, it was right around this time when I realized I wouldn’t be able to change my Georgian currency like I assumed I could. The Abkhaz currency is the Russian ruble; fortunately I had a couple thousand rubles and a handful of always-accepted dollars on me. Travellers should keep this in mind and plan accordingly; getting stuck in a country with no usable money is, of course, a disaster waiting to happen.
Although Abkhazia is technically part of Georgia, visitors will really feel that they’ve entered into a different country. Not a word of Georgian is spoken here, and I didn’t see a single sign in the curvy Georgian script. The Abkhaz have their own language, but everyone here speaks Russian, which is a real difference from Georgia where you could go days upon days without hearing a word of it. In the center of Gali, there was a huge monument to the 'struggles for an independent Abkhazia'.
When I arrived in Sukhum, I suddenly felt like I was in Russia. Sukhum is not only the capital of Abkhazia, it is also a very popular resort town for Russian tourists; and they were everywhere. As such, the town is home to a number of local residents who rent out rooms to summer visitors, and who sometimes – for a small fee – will also act as drivers and guides for those in their keep. Having found both, I set out to take care of one more bit of business before I could relax and enjoy this ‘unrecognized territory’: a visa. The special permission allows for entry into the Republic of Abkhazia, but visitors still need an official visa. To get this, travellers need to hunt down the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, paying mind to the closing times if you can find them out, and pay a fee of four hundred rubles, or about $12 US. I told them I’d come for my ‘visa’, and after a much-smoother-than-expected visit, I left with a piece of paper that looked like an official document but which was not stamped in my passport.
After enjoying Gali and its maze of mountain roads, beaches and trees, I decided to make my way on a day trip to the city of Novy Afon, about an hour’s drive away along the shores of the Black Sea. Novy Afon, or ‘New Athos’, is most famous for its caves and monastery, both of which are easily found by following the general flow of Russian tourists. A fairly inexpensive ticket gets you on the train down into the cave system where a guided tour awaits, potentially in Russian only; the gamble is yours. The tour through the subterranean rooms lasts about an hour and a half, which is plenty of time to explore the millennia-old stalactites and stalagmites, as well as what is claimed to be the longest subterranean bridge in the world. Back out into the open, and into a 15 degree change in temperature, I made my way – along with everyone else it seemed – to the monastery. The monastery was the original home to an overflow of Russian monks out of Greece back in the late-ish 1800s, and today the building, which has weathered more than 130 years’ worth of season changes in the Caucuses as well as the onslaught of Soviet anti-religion, is a great place to spend an afternoon taking pictures and exploring.
Another interesting spot for visitors is Kyndyg and the surrounding area. The first stop there for my friends and I was at the seaside, which was much less crowded than in Sukhum. In fact, apart from a family of nudists and a group of goats, we were the only ones on the beach. We’d been told that if we managed to climb to the top of the nearby hill, we’d find an abandoned house. We climbed and in addition to the lighthouse that was very nearly taken over by nature, we found a very rewarding view of the sea and coast. Heading back into the more touristy parts, we visited Kyndyg’s popular hot springs, where we found dozens of people happily slathering mud all over themselves and taking a dip in the many pools of hot water that dot the area.
A good place to end your short stay in Abkhazia is Chornovika, an extremely beautiful canyon carved by a river that left the rocks smooth, rounded and intricately decorated. There are pools of water so clear that every detail of the bottom can be seen and, in some areas, it’s quite difficulty to tell that there is water there at all. If overly-affected-by-tourists places aren’t your thing, though, you’d better hurry to Chornovika, or not go at all. The canyon is home to a tourist development that includes a huge expensive restaurant and an amusement centre, as well as footpaths that seem barely able to handle the human traffic going through. That said, though, the beauty is still there, and there may be something to be said for dining at tables that sit atop platforms that hang impossibly off the smooth rock cliffs.
I would have liked to stay in Abkhazia longer but my permitted stay was up and it was time to head back to Georgia. I got back to Gali and took a taxi to the border, walking the rest of the way as my Russian driver could go no further. The border guards checked my documents and collected the ‘visa’ that had never been officially put into my passport. As I crossed the bridge over to Georgia, I realized that beyond memories, contacts and photos, I hadabsolutely no proof that I’d ever been to this unrecognized country.