A few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic reached Georgia, I travelled to Abkhazia, a place that is hard to describe without offending anyone. I had never been to a territory where the official status is referred to as “de-facto” and I wanted to see it for myself. During my journey, I discovered that Abkhazia’s legendary beauty is real. The trip, however, left me with a bittersweet sense, one of stunning beauty mixed with a feeling of isolation and loneliness. It made me wonder how isolation affects a person’s life, and even now, as I write this essay, that remains an open question.
Before moving to Tbilisi at the end of 2019, the word “Abkhazia” did not mean much to me. It was my ignorance about the topic, combined with Georgians’ powerful memories of the place, that inspired me to take the train to Zugdidi, the last railway station in Georgian-controlled territory, in January.
When I arrived, after a night on the overheated train, the cold was bitter enough to wake me. Most taxi drivers tried to take me to Mestia, the famous Svan ski resort. But my destination was the last Georgian police post near the Enguri River.
A taxi dropped me off at 8am. Two hours later, after securing permission from Tbilisi, a Malaysian tourist and I were given the greenlight to cross the Enguri.
Crossing the bridge, I noticed the Georgian and European flags gradually being replaced by the green, red, and white flag of Abkhazia. Before I could enter Abkhazia, I had to pass through Russian and then Abkhaz border posts. Or perhaps it is the other way around. As a non-Russian speaker, it was hard to know who was who.
Not many questions were asked, I guess mostly because we didn’t have a common language. In a way, not speaking Russian helped me.
After that, the real waiting began: waiting for a greenlight from each side, waiting for the first marshrutka to the town of Gali to fill with passengers at the border, waiting for the second marshrutka to leave once you reach Gali, and so on until we reached Sukhumi. The road leading to the city was breathtaking. Miles of plains, against a backdrop of high snowy Caucasus Mountains and a few wonderful (but mostly empty) houses on the roadside.
It was a relief to finally reach Sukhumi, nearly 24 hours after I left Tbilisi. The seaside city was stunning in the setting sun; it looked quiet and peaceful, and the breeze off the Black Sea was refreshing.
But over the days and nights I spent there, a sense of loneliness and isolation crept in from the edges, coloring what I saw, heard and experienced.
The feeling was partly due to the season: I was there in January, not an ideal time to visit a summer resort and, in fact, the guesthouse where I planned to stay was closed due to the season. Instead, I ended up staying at a rather fancy hotel in the center of Sukhumi.
One of the first things I noticed at reception were the clocks on the wall. Usually hotels display the time in major Western capitals (New York, Paris, London, Madrid, etc.), but these were set to the time in Moscow, Managua and Caracas—the capitals of governments that officially recognize Abkhazia as an independent country.
The next morning I started to explore Sukhumi properly, first taking a walk by the waterfront.