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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Abkhazia – a region that’s trying hard to be a country!
Photos and text by Luc Jones

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia has made international headlines precisely twice. Firstly, in 1992-3 during the civil war when the Abkhaz Republic tried to break away from Georgia, and then again in 2008 following Russia’s brief foray into Georgia to ‘liberate’ South Ossetia.

The larger neighbour recognized both territories as full nation states, despite international condemnation, and being the only country other than Venezuela at the time to actually do so. But both republics had been de-facto independent since Georgia itself became a sovereign country in 1991. It wasn’t always like that; in fact Abkhazia was where much of the elite (read: those who were more equal than others) would enjoy their summer holidays during Soviet times, at spas and sanatoria along the Black Sea coast.

Misty morning in Gagra

Abkhaz nationalists argue that Abkhazia had never been a part of Georgia, and was only incorporated in 1918 following the October revolution the previous year when Soviet demography rarely paid much attention to who lived where when lines were drawn. In fairness to the Abkhaz, the Soviet government actively encouraged Georgian and Russian immigration to the region whilst suppressing local traditions (especially under Stalin) to the extent that the Abkhaz had become a minority in their own region.

Yet even during the difficult years following the collapse of communism, Russian continued to flock to the beaches of Abkhazia, lured by the low prices and the nostalgia, or perhaps habit, of years gone by. Foreigners, however, were a rarity.

Today non-CIS citizens require a visa which cannot be obtained at the border with Russia (the border with Georgia on the other side is pretty firmly shut) but with no Embassies abroad to issue them, there is a cumbersome process of obtaining official permission from the interior ministry in the capital Sukhumi by downloading various application forms, faxing a packet of documents, cutting out some special offers and sticking your underpants on your head, then a week later hopefully receiving a positive reply, by fax, which you present at the border and which allows you in. However, that’s not all. You then need to proceed to the capital and apply for the visa itself at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (open weekdays only) which lets you leave the country again. Being far too old and ugly to bother with such hassles, we decided in true British style to try to blag our way in. And hopefully out again!

Any hotel in the Sochi area can arrange a day trip to Abkhazia, and hawkers on the streets will happily book you up too. We made it clear that we weren’t Russian and were told that we’d be fine. It’s an early start; expect the bus to pick you up around 7:30 to make the short trip to the border. Our fellow passengers looked more like shuttle traders than touristy day-trippers. Since we were the only non-Russians on the almost full bus we were given some rather bemused looks to begin with. Our Abkhaz guide introduced himself and facilitated our walk across the border (passengers debark for the short stroll across the Psou river which doubles as the border between Russia and Abkhazia (which strangely is called Apsny in the Abkhaz language, which uses a version of Cyrillic, although Russian is spoken by all).

Once the border guards had spent a few minutes shaking hands with each other whilst studying our passports and had established that we were on an organized tour for the day, they were happy to let us through adding “when you go back to your England, tell your Prime Minister to recognize our independence”.

The first stop was the port of Gagra, which even in the morning mist looked like it had definitely seen better days. We quickly moved on to the resort of Pitsunda for a breakfast of tasty, warm khachapuri and coffee which overshadowed the empty accommodation blocks against a backdrop of Spring drizzle. March is definitely the low season for tourism so we had the place to ourselves for visiting the impressive New Athos Orthodox Monastery where we arrived after a wine- and cognac-tasting session at a nearby winery. Some had been excellent and a few a bit on ropey side, but they ‘got us there’! And with more wine over an excellent shashlik lunch, we were ready for what was probably the high-point of the trip.

New Athos Monastery

The Krubera caves are the deepest in the world at over 2,000m from the highest to lowest explored points and are reached by an underground train that resembles the Moscow Metro! Russians refer to them as the Voronya, or Crows Caves in Russian, but whatever you call them, they are a spectacular sight full of stalactites and stalagmites glistening from the dripping water in the artificial light, and it take a good hour to walk through all the main areas. For the truly claustrophobic they’re not, but there’s plenty of space inside and you wouldn’t do Abkhazia justice without coming here. And there were souvenir shops so you can prove to those back home that you’ve actually been here (your passport won’t be stamped on the Abkhaz side) and conveniently the Russian rouble is the currency in use.

The tour packs a lot in a single day, and doesn’t even take you as far as the capital, but you’ll need an overnight stop for that. Time will tell whether Abkhazia begins to attract tourists from outside of the CIS, although since for a one-day trip you’ll need a double, or multi-entry, Russian visa it may take a while. Flights are from the nearby Sochi/Adler airport, and there’s no way around this for now. But with decent investment this place could certainly become somewhere alternative for those who’ve ‘done’ the Crimea.

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