Saturday, September 08, 2012

Georgia and Abkhazia

After 15 hours on the train from Yerevan, I jumped off the train at the coastal town of Kobuleti instead of finishing the ride to Batumi. It was 6am, the sun was just rising and I had no idea where I was really. The station was just a single platform and a small, closed building on the side of a coastal road with very little development, clearly I wasn't actually in the coastal resort town of the same name. It not being my destination it actually worked out better for me that I was already on the road and so I proceeded to stick my arm out and wait for a lift as I'd become accustomed to doing in Armenia.
It was slower going in Georgia but eventually I scored a few rides and made it north to Zugdidi by 9am and could actually get some money changed and eat breakfast.
Zugdidi is the last town before the “border” with Abkhazia so with a little more effort I actually got a lift to the border, despite the fact that nobody crosses there from Georgia because the Georgians are very bitter about Abkhazia. Like Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia is a de-facto independent country that broke away from Georgia but remains unrecognized by everyone except for Russia, who in this instance played the big brother that came in militarily to assist and maintain the breakaway status of Abkhazia. Abkhazia has a border with Russia and there are many Russian tourists in Abkhazia as it apparently has some of the nicest Black Sea coastline to build a resort on. Abkhazia has a lot of Russian influence instead of Georgian, for example they speak Russian, use the Russian rouble and, unfortunately have inherited Russia's mentality of touristic bureaucracy and foreign affairs. Because it's pro-Russian and anti-Georgian and Georgia is developing and continually closer working relationship with the west, Abkhazia is not inclined to do any sucking up to western tourists. Unlike NK where I could enter and purchase a visa on the spot, to get to Abkhazia first you must get a pre-clearance letter online from their ministry of foreign affairs. It's not too bad actually, it is free to do it and the form is not too complicated. The problem is they are notorious for not replying to people.
I'd gotten my letter quickly and easily the first time I applied. The problem is that it has set dates for validity and my dates had changed as I'd been travelling around. This meant that my letter was no longer valid. All future emails to the ministry were never acknowledged so I couldn't get it changed. Guess what the country dialing code is to a country that doesn't exist, or the phone number to a ministry of an unrecognized government. Exactly. I never could figure it out and all the numbers I did track down were wrong.

A fountain in Zugdidi.

The river border with Abkhazia.

I knew it was a long shot but I figured I had to try and just show up at the border and see if I could talk my way in or somehow get the dates changed on the spot up there. The border isn't as strict as I expected. There is a small military contingent on both sides of the bridge crossing the river that constitutes the border these days. But it seemed really lax. The bridge has very little traffic. It's quite long and full of potholes and only a handful of people were walking across it in either direction or taking the horse cart that was there to transport people back and forth. It was really quiet but the surrounding scenery still very pretty and surprisingly I was able to take photos despite it being such a sensitive area.
When I got to the other side of the bridge I quickly learned that the Abkhazian officials also inherited the rude, uncompromising and intolerant mentality of Russian officials. Upon seeing my wrong dates I was completely stonewalled and they wouldn't even acknowledge the possibility of the concept of calling the ministry or even trying to locate a number for me. I argued and made a scene as long as I could before being forcibly shoved on my way back across the bridge completely unamused by the situation. Equatorial Guinea refused me entry back in February as well so I am not batting 100% this year. Very frustrated and not overwhelmingly excited about being in Georgia again (recall that it was one of my least favourite countries when I went through in 2006) I started looking into the possibility of retracing my steps and taking a ferry to Ukraine since I was already so close to the coast.
Calling the port in Batumi they told me they had nothing (in a ruder way than I mention here) and unable to call Poti, the other port, I decided to hitch there and physically check it out. I knew there were a couple of boats scheduled to leave with in the next couple days but when I got into Poti they started giving me the run around as well. I don't know why but in 2006 it took me 5 days to track down a boat and the company had denied it's existence right up until I bought the ticket just before it was to leave, and I was getting the same vibes that they were going to be doing the same thing again this time as well. Already in a bad mood I ended up in an internet cafe brain storming alternate destinations and ended up buying a flight back to Germany for 2 days later. Believe it or not Germany was actually the cheapest destination to fly to anyway and it did make sense for me to just go because that's where I was ultimately headed.
In 2006 we'd left Georgia from Poti by ship so I did recognize a few things. It was late so I went by the hotel we'd stayed at back then but it was a complete dive (it was back then too) but now way overpriced and very seedy. Refusing such conditions I wandered around looking for an alternative until way after dark. It was getting to the point where I was just heading down the coastal highway once again, trying to get to the edge of town and some alternate sleeping option that would not see me eaten by stray dogs, when I walked into a corner store to ask if they knew of anything at all in the area.
The lady there called a friend and I ended paying for a private room in someones house. That was very fortunately because only a few minutes earlier I was seriously considering jumping a fence and sleeping in a cemetery.
The next morning I hitched to Batumi and hung out on the beach while it was nice or in the train station while it wasn't until catching the overnight train to Tbilisi. I don't really understand why people like Batumi so much. It is the beach town of Georgia on the Black Sea but the beach is rocky and both times I've been there the weather has been very humid while overcast or raining.

The beach at Makhinjauri, with Batumi in the distance.

I arrived in Tbilisi at about 6am again and had the whole day to kill before flying out that night. I was much more impressed with Tbilisi this time around. They've done a ton of construction and cleaning up of the city centre and the process still continues. They've opened up or developed more park area across the river where there was nothing before, put in a cable car system up the mountain to the fortress and generally made it a more pleasant experience. I had predicted in 2006 that it would need another 5 years or so to get Georgia ready for tourists. They aren't finished yet, but it is improving.



Freedom square and the city hall.

The old town with Narikala fortress above.

I walked around the city center until late afternoon before heading to the airport to “sleep” until my 4am flight back to Munich where I was reunited with Ena once again.


At 12:41 PM , Anonymous Sonia Bianca said...

Lovin all the photos!

At 1:46 PM , Anonymous Sonia Bianca said...

Are you kidding me?!? The blue Lagoon looks incredible! You're too spoiled from all the ultra incredible places you've already been,


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