Abkhazia: Landmined, Leftover Resort

Not many people these days—except Russians—visit the Black Sea resort enclave of Abkhazia. Travel writer Graeme Wood shares his recent impressions of the place in an article in The Smart Set. Here are a few tidbits to nibble on.

The Republic of Abkhazia is one of the few countries, if you can call it that, where every tourist who shows up gets a handshake and a friendly chat with the deputy foreign minister. Or rather, it would be such a country, if it were a country at all. A wee seaside strip in the Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia hasn’t yet persuaded anyone to recognize its independence, even though it boasts many of the trappings of nationhood — a president, a parliament, and an army that guards the border in case the government in Tbilisi wants to invade again….

Before the war began in 1991, Gorbachev, like Khrushchev before him, kept a dacha here. Stalin kept five, one of which the Abkhazian government rents out to tourists for $50 a night. Still today, all Russians know Abkhazia as the balmiest coast in the otherwise frigid ex-Soviet empire — “a corner of Spain or Sicily,” wrote one 19th-century explorer, “dropped at the foot of Old Man Caucasus.”…

In the mouths of the troupe of Abkhazian pensioners who shared my bus, the Abkhaz language sounded dissonant and buzzy, as if they all kept wasps and crickets in their mouths. (It has 64 consonants and only two vowels, so typical Abkhazian villages are cursed with names like “Adzjwybzha.”) Abkhaz signs appeared on the roadside, written in a Cyrillic script modified by a mad array of curlicues.

Clouds followed for a couple hours’ drive through Gal, a heavily mined zone from which the Abkhazians expelled thousands of Georgians at gunpoint during the civil war. The buildings looked derelict and rotten, like the abandoned houses of Chernobyl after 20 years’ vacancy. Abkhazian soldiers along the road waved us past rusty demining agency placards toward the holiday resorts of the capital….

A decade of war has left Sukhumi shabby, run down badly since its Brezhnevian heyday. Windows are smashed and ceilings have collapsed. The old Intourist, an impressive Colosseum of a hotel on the waterfront, is as derelict as Roman ruins, but inhabited by weeds instead of cats. Palms line the esplanade, but the balustrades are crumbling and the waterfront is disfigured with concrete blocks and chunks of corroded metal. If Tbilisi’s tanks do try to come back to Abkhazia’s capital, Sukhumi, they can expect bitter resistance, and this beautiful seaside promenade will be spattered with blood, just as it was when Abkhazia originally fought for its independence in the early 1990s….

Russians crowded the waterfront cafés, and their presence felt oppressive. The bewitching beaches have beguiled them from noticing the bitter irony, that to escape the misery of Mother Russia they make a lavish holiday in a war zone. I minded this irony more than they did. After days in Sukhumi, I had seen aspects of Abkhazia that reminded me of Moscow, of Miami Beach, of the Italian Alps, and of Plum Island Animal Disease Center, but little that was distinctively Abkhazian.

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Filed under Caucasus, Russia, travel

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