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Originally published April 23, 2011 at 7:04 PM | Page modified April 24, 2011 at 12:07 AM

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Abkhazia: a wacky visit to a disputed territory

Two Americans traveled all the way to Abkhazia — that internationally disputed territory along Russia's southern border — hoping for a glimpse of Joseph Stalin's summer home. After all they went through to get close, a rusted, Soviet-era paddleboat across a mountain lake seemed like a good idea.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

Abkhazia

Basics

The United States and most of the international community considers Abkhazia a part of Georgia. The U.S. State Department does not recognize the authority of the Abkhaz government and advises against traveling to the territory. For more information, see the State Department's information sheet on Georgia at www.travel.state.gov.

Getting there

Americans can enter Abkhazia from Georgia proper with a letter of invitation from Abkhazia's (unrecognized) Ministry of Foreign Affairs, www.mfaabkhazia.org. You must check in at a Georgian police kiosk outside the city of Zugdidi, but you won't receive an exit stamp. The Georgian authorities do not consider that you're leaving Georgia. Once in Abkhazia, you must apply for a one-month visa ($33, at roughly 31 rubles to the dollar) at the "Ministry" in downtown Sokhum. Visitors may not transit from Georgia through Abkhazia to Russia, or vice versa. According to Georgian law, it is illegal to enter Abkhazia from Russia, and violators have been prosecuted.

Logistics, lodging

The Abkhaz tourism industry is developing rapidly, but arranging hotels, tours and transportation ahead of time is still almost impossible. Bring a double dose of patience, a Russian phrase book and a fist full of U.S. dollars (access to ATMs is limited to Russian banks), which you can exchange for Russian rubles at a number of exchange places around town.

There are a handful of basic, relatively inexpensive ($15-25/night) "guesthouses" scattered around the territory, but they don't have websites, and most are just vacated bedrooms in locals' homes. Be prepared for shared bathrooms and no privacy.

The official Abkhaz tourism site (www.abkhazia.travelen/) offers some information.

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It wasn't the plan to take a rusted, Soviet-era paddleboat across a mountain lake in a war-ravaged and internationally disputed territory along Russia's southern border, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Here's the thing. My friend Paul and I had traveled all the way to Abkhazia — this 3,300-square-mile territory wedged between Georgia and Russia in the South Caucasus — hoping for a glimpse of Joseph Stalin's summer home. The infamous Soviet dictator had built one of his dachas in this relatively remote hunk of land back when it was part of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and the premier vacation spot for Soviet apparatchiks.

Nowadays, to get to Abkhazia from Georgia proper, you have to take a train to a bus to a shared minivan to a horse-drawn carriage (the only transportation available across Georgia's no man's land) to, in our case, the back seat of a jovial smuggler's silver SUV and, eventually, to a packed Russian tour bus.

To put it another way, by the time Paul and I made it to that internationally disputed mountain lake, we were in no mood to let a decrepit paddleboat and one measly half-mile of frigid water stand between us and Stalin's Adirondack chair. Please. We were on a mission.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The land that time forgot

Abkhazia is technically — by consensus of the vast majority of the international community — a part of Georgia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, along with nearly all the other satellite states, was thrown into a period of bloody unrest. In 1992, Abkhazia broke away from the newly minted state of Georgia and fought a series of terrible battles with the Georgian army, leaving much of Sokhum, Abkhazia's capital city, riddled and blackened by bullets and bombs, and hordes of refugees on both sides of the line.

In the 1990s, both Russia and Georgia blockaded rebellious Abkhazia, which had the effect of essentially freezing this tiny swath of territory in time. For about 15 years, almost nothing was built, torn down, renovated or altered in any way. Visiting Abkhazia today feels a lot like time-traveling to the Soviet Union in, say, 1986. In Pitsunda, a beachfront resort town in the north, Soviet-era high-rise apartments stand sentinel over perfectly preserved Soviet mosaics and pavilions that still bear etchings of the hammer and sickle.

In Sokhum, streets have slowly disintegrated; once-bustling piers have sagged into rusted, spidery carcasses; and families who lived in apartment buildings bombed during the wars in the '90s have simply moved back into the undamaged floors. The hulking, burned-out parliament building downtown, its once-classical facade scarred by fire, became a symbol of the territory's stagnation.

Abkhazia's extreme makeover

And then, in the fall of 2008, everything changed. After a brief, weeklong war between Russia and Georgia, Moscow recognized Abkhazia as an sovereign state and pledged to protect its borders, fill its state coffers and buttress its embryonic economy.

The result? In the last several years, Abkhazia has been undergoing an extreme makeover. Flush with rubles from both the Kremlin and private investors, streets are being repaved, lights rewired, parks relandscaped and government buildings overhauled.

Sokhum's seaside boardwalk bustles with street vendors and makeshift souvenir kiosks selling magnets and T-shirts that nod to the city's rather unique status in international limbo: "Abkhazia, Country of the Future!" one shirt reads. Once-posh hotels nearby are swaddled with scaffolding and posters bearing architectural drawings of what is to come. (The poshest of them all, the Ritsa Hotel, from whose balcony revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky gave a eulogy to Lenin on the day of his death, already has reopened.)

For the first time in 25 years, Abkhazia is beginning to regain its status as a coveted tourist destination in Central Asia. Tourists, mostly from Russia and the other former-Soviet states, flock in summer to its clear water and warm beaches, lured by memories of when they visited these shores as kids, or by inexpensive bus tours and visits to Stalin's summer home.

Where there's

a paddleboat ...

And that's where Paul and I — and two other American friends we joined — come in. As children of the '80s, we all had a sort of inexplicable desire to see where Stalin, the most infamous Soviet leader, put up his feet.

Alas, according to our Russian tour guide, we would never know.

"You can't get to Stalin's house from here," she said apologetically. We were standing on the shores of Lake Ritsa, where Stalin's house is. But we were on the wrong side of the lake. "And it's too late to drive there. The bus is leaving in an hour, and we can't be late."

We were crushed. Could we hike through the woods? Could we hire a taxi? Could we swim?

"You're so funny!" our guide said, laughing. "Americans are always scheming about something."

She left us standing, peering out into Lake Ritsa, our shoulders hunched in collective dejection. We were so close, and yet.

We milled around and came up with the plan: We would paddleboat there. About a half-mile there, a half-mile back — we could do that before the bus left, right?

And so it went. We rented a paddleboat from a dubious Abkhaz man for $10 an hour. Upon boarding, the stern sunk about five inches under water and we were all standing up to our ankles in water, but — with a complimentary bottle of "chacha" (bathtub vodka) in hand — we set off, paddling furiously.

A little less than a half-hour later, we rounded a point in the lake, and there it was: Stalin's summer home, at last.

From the water, it looks like little more than a small white cabin, surrounded entirely by a thicket of trees. In front, there's a lawn and a short white pier, where tourists pose for photos. Visitors are not allowed inside the cabin, so that was pretty much it.

Still, fueled by a robust, if misguided, sense of victory, we turned our listing dinghy around and, with 10 minutes left before the bus was leaving, began to paddle our little hearts out back to the shore. Back to where the paddleboat-rental man was peering at us with a mixture of disgust and consternation. Back to where our Russian tour guide was gesticulating wildly, pointing at the bus and her watch.

"Conspirators!" she yelled when we got close enough, her smiling eyes betraying her anger. "American conspirators!"

Haley Edwards is a freelance journalist, and former Seattle Times writer, who recently reported from Yemen.

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