Still in Georgia, I awoke in the north Caucasus range in the small village of Stephantsminda and found a marshutka to the road just south of Mskheta. There I found a ride to Kutaisi from some friendly Georgians on their way further west. They were pleasant, though of course we couldn’t really speak, and bought some special sweet raisin bread for me to try when going through the Samguarli Range and Northern Imereti Foothills on the way to Kutaisi, the second largest city in Tblisi. As usual I was appalled by the speed at which they drove, and the passenger indicated to me that his friend was crazy. I was relieved to alight in Kutaisi and bid them farewell. I hired a taxi to take me to the mountains in the old part of town near the Gelati monastery (sadly, I was rushed and didn’t take the time to see this UNESCO world heritage site). I arrived at a hostel appealing to Polish travelers (there are many in Kutaisi in large part because of the cheap flights from Poland to Kutaisi via Wizz Air), and spent the evening talking with a lovely Polish couple intent on hitchhiking over large sections of the world. They kindly made me a very healthy salad and then turned in early for the night, as they had an early flight the next morning. Sadly, a very rowdy group of travelers came in after they’d gone to bed and continued to party and drink till the wee hours of the night. It didn’t give the couple much shut eye.
The next day, I made my way via taxi to the bus station. I was a good 30 minute bus ride from the bus stop and didn’t feel like waiting for hours for a marshutka. In any case, I caught a marshutka to Zugdidi. It must have averaged 20 mph, because a 60 mile ride took us about 2 1/2 hours. I’ve spent whole days traveling the distance that would take me 2 hours to drive in the states. Good for learning patience, not for efficiency. Once in Zugdidi, which I admired for its lovely central park and gardens located in the city center, as well as the grounds of the Dadiani Palace (previously the Queen’s palace and Niko’s palace) and the old Botanical Garden (Queen’s Garden) and the city boulevard. Sadly I was rushed again and didn’t spend time in any of these locations – another place to go back to. I found a taxi to the border with Abkhazia along the Enguri River, and showed my passport to the Georgian border officials. They asked me how long I planned to stay in Abkhazia (I said 8 days and ended up staying 30), and where I would stay. I then walked across the border bridge (took 15 minutes), and presented the letter of invitation from the Abkhazian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Russian border guards.
After 30 minutes of checking, they decided I was legitamite and I was allowed through. I looked for a marshutka to Sokhum, the capital of Abkhazia and largest city about half way up the coast, but found none. All the signs are in Russian, and as I wandered from bus to bus, a traveler stuck his head out the window and said that I should get on his bus. I did so and found out that he was German and from Hamburg. Berndt, as my new traveling companion was called, and I ended up staying together for the next 4 days or so. We arrived to Gali, where we waited 40 minutes for the next marshutka to Sokhum. I bought some poori (Georgian style white bread baked in special ovens) and we found a very dirty bathroom. I spoke a bit of Georgian to the bread baker and we had a laugh. My first impression of Sokhum was of a formerly elegant and sophisticated capital that had fallen into disrepair due to lack of money and bombing during the Georgian invasion in 1992. Berndt and I disembarked from the marshutka after paying double the normal fee (tourists are always charged double the locals for public transit). We walked to a local park and I tried asking whether there were any affordable places to stay. As I didn’t speak Russian or Abkhazian at that point, it was a very convoluted and challenging experience.
Two hours and $10 later (the taxi driver wanted $20 for his time – we only drove about 2 miles in total), Berndt and I landed in a guest house run by an Abkhazian woman full mostly of Turkish workers. We were able to communicate that we wanted separate rooms. Berndt was working on a computer project and spent the next number of days trying to back up his hard drive. He claimed to be working on some kind of wikileaks-type project regarding exposing the German government. His English was fairly basic, and as I don’t speak any German, I wasn’t always sure I understood what he was saying. I spent my days walking around the city and especially liked the seaside promenade, which I ritually walked morning and evening. I made friends the first night with a very kind man, Staz, who is an expert caver and takes important foreign visitors to Krubera Cave, reportedly the deepest cave in the world. It involves a massive rappel. Staz has loved caving since he was little (there are many limestone caves in and around Sokhum), and lost his right leg and had his other foot and hands blown off due to a land mine. He was a combatant defending Abkhazia from Georgian incursion during the 1992-3 war and planted land mines all along the river north of Sokhum. Several NGOs have since done mine removal, and Staz claimed that large storms have washed away the remaining mines. I was sobered by his tenacity: he uses a cane and prosthetic, and walks very well given this limitation. We ended up going caving in the “locals” cave near the Gumista River, but I panicked when there was limited oxygen in the chamber and I asked to leave.
Once outside the cave, we went to the beautiful river and I looked at the beautiful stones along the bank and the steep tree-lined cliffs on either side. After 2 days, I found a new guest house in Sokhum and Berndt followed. I had met a really nice fellow, Tengiz, who originally is from the Ural mountains but lived in Costa Rica for 8 years and now is looking for work in Moscow. He was visiting his son and mother in Sokhum and was the first person I met who actually spoke English. We had several really good conversations, and he introduced me to his sister Maka who had rooms for rent. Berndt and I met Maka and really liked her and her kids. Over the course of a few days, they taught me many basic phrases in Russian (they spoke a smattering of English). I also met a really interesting man, Rauf, who lived on the east coast and New York 15 years ago. He told me about the intellectual scene in Sokhum in the past, with conversations long into the night between he and his friends. He was very close friends with Daur Nachbekia, an Abkhazian writer whose house museum I visited with Staz during my stay in Sokhum. Daur was a very animated and charismatic man who loved to laugh and make others laugh. His son now oversees the house museum, which includes many quotes from his father’s books as well as photos of his life and a library of his works.
During my time in Sokhum, I got to know the downtown and had a very good latte at the Barista Cafe and on the cement ship in the harbor. Apparently the ancient Greek city of Sebastapolis was located in Sokhum, and later a Turkish fort was built on the waterfront. I went to the very good history museum near the botanical garden and philharmonic (previously the cathedral but converted to a music event center during soviet times). The museum housed amphoras and treasures that have been excavated from the Sokhum seafront. It was very hot – I ended up staying in Abkhazia during the entire month of June, with temperatures regularly exceeding 90 F. Together with the humidity, I was usually bathed in sweat and felt like I might have been in Miami Beach. On my last night in Sokhum, I met Rauf and his friend, and they treated me to a lovely Abkhazian meal at the very good local restaurant on the waterfront. After many toasts, mostly wishing that they and Abkhazia heal from the war (they very kindly wished me a great trip and good life), we wandered back to our respective residences.
The next day, Berndt and I boarded the marshutka for Gagra. We met a very kind Russian orthodox priest, Andrey, who helped us find the right bus. He invited me to sail with he and his brother-in-law at a future time. I was delighted at the prospect and took down his information. I ended up spending several delightful days staying with he and his family (and sailing in Gagra). More later. Berndt and I ended up on the marshutka from hell. The driver, a young Abkhazian, was trying out for the Indie 500, and he probably averaged 80 mph on a road built to drive 40 or 50. Narrowly avoiding cows, potholes, and other obstacles (including oncoming traffic), I literally pleaded with him to slow down and offered him money, but to no avail. I met a very nice man on the way, who lived in Pitsunda and suggested that we stay there instead of Gagra. He and his wife have a guest house, and he invited me to stay with them. I decided to change plans and go to Pitsunda instead (Rauf had waxed poetic about the beautiful pine forest in Pitsunda), and we found ourselves on the side of the highway with Aram, the new friend from Pitsunda. We took the 15 minute bus trip to Pitsunda, and on the way Aram told us that he didn’t have room after all. He walked with us to try to find a place to stay. Berndt was on a very strict budget, and the first guest house asked 1600 roubles (Abkhazia uses Russian currency), roughly equivalent to 35 USD for a room. Berndt couldn’t afford more than $7 for his part, so we continued to walk till we found a place that Aram said would be cheaper.
That’s how I met Ruben, a lovely Armenian man whose father, also a medical doctor, moved from Armenia to Abkhazia after the genocide in 1917. Ruben loved talking politics and gave me an earful about his views about the war with Georgia, Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, and his views on the solutions to the drought in California. Over the next few days I swam in the beautiful sea (filled with an unusual explosion of jelly fish), ate and talked with Ruben about his ideas in the morning and evening, and explored Pitsunda by foot. I went to the Pitsunda monastery, explored the wall and old jail that was part of the monastery, and walked to the furthest south part of the beach. There is a large gated part of the resort area that is reserved for Russian political and military dignitaries. The 200 hectare pine forest in and around Pitsunda was made a national park in the 1930s to protect the Pitsunda pine. After the Sochy Olympics in 2014, there has been a very serious infestation of moths that are attacking the pine and other sensitive plant species. Sochy is very close to Pitsunda (100 miles or so away), and many non-native trees were brought to the Russian city to beautify it. Sadly, it led to the invasion by a non-native moth which is wreaking havoc on the sasmsheet, a native very slow-growing bush/tree.
After a lovely stay in Pitsunda (we also had a wonderful thunderstorm, featuring great bolts of lightning and booming thunder), we headed to Gagra. Rauf had given me the phone # of a friend who apparently had an inexpensive guest house. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Gagra, the friend did a bait and switch and claimed that unless we stayed for 10 days, he couldn’t host us. He introduced us to his sister, but I thought she had a horrible place and I diplomatically bowed out. I found a very nice hotel, the Sea Hotel, within 10 minutes, and I was very happy with it. Russians book it months in advance, so I was only able to stay for 2 nights. Berndt stayed one night and left the next morning. He was worried about problems crossing the Abkhazian-Georgian border (he had a 3 hour wait upon entering Abkhazia), and wanted to avert any additional problems. I felt a bit lost without him, and spent the next days wandering around Gagra by foot. I discovered a beautiful mountain stream and forest at the northernmost part of Gagra near the fort on the northern border. I met a beekeeper while there who showed me his hives, let me taste his honey, and gave me a ride down the hill. I decided to return to Sokhum, and met up with the Russian orthodox priest that I had met a week or so earlier. We went on a wonderful boating trip in Gagra (there was no wind so we motored and had a lovely swim in the sunset), and then I headed to Pitsunda.
Pitsunda is a lovely town with a beautiful pine forest on the coast (the pines are a relic frfom earlier times). I had the pleasure of returning to Ruben’s home where I stayed for a few days, walking and enjoying the coast (incuding swimming of course) on a daily basis. I then made my way to visit A., my Russian orthodox priest friend. I spent a lovely 3 days with his family up in the hills near Sokhum. I was impressed by how much his sons help with daily operations at the house, incuding fishing, collecting fruit (plums) to be cooked into a sour plum sauce, etc. When they need to go into town, they walk miles to the main road (there is a small van that shuttles villagers twice a day, but it’s easy to miss). We had a lovely meal at the local restaurant built on the river (very beautifully done – complete with carved wooden railings). A.’s friends from Russia, also involved with the church, were visiting for a few days, and we had a lovely traditional meal together.
That Friday there was a large celebration planned for the head of the Abkazian church, Father Vasili. A few days earlier I met Matushka Heruvima, a lovely and kind mother superior who has established a number of monasteries in Russia and now in Abkhazia. We planned that I would stay at the monastery for several days after the festivities on Friday. I had the pleasure of attending a lovely dinner in Father Vasili’s honor, with many toasts and appreciations made. I also had the chance to see Abbot Ignati again, the abbot of the Komany monastery outside of Sokhum. He had been very kind on my visit to the monastery and asked me to come again to see him, which I vowed to do. There was a lovely thunderstorm during the dinner, which I found out later Matushka Heruvima and the sisters had completely organized. We had a late night, arriving back at the monastery in the wee hours of the morning. I was told that they were used to getting 3 hours of sleep (I however am not).
I ended up spending 10 days there. It was an unforgettable experience – the location (on the sea), a beautiful fountain that they would light up at night for special occasions, the beautiful coast. I was assked not to write about my experience there, and so I will not. Suffice it to say that I would love to return, and learned a lot about myself during that stay. I wandered the roads, crossed one river and tried to cross another (but decided against it), found many beautiful places, wandered onto a millitary facililty by accident (in search of my lost hat), got to know some of the locals (communicating in my newly-learned Russian, which the mother superior had kindly helped me with), and other interesting adventures.
At the end of my stay, I bade a sad farewell and returned to Pitsunda for a few days of relaxation. I especially wanted to explore the wooded area above the beach, which is apparently a host to a very unusual forest. On my first night’s walk, I got scratched by rusted razor wire which someone had left coiled on the ground (don’t get me started on the hazards of walking in Abkhazia and similar countries). I was also told not to go in certain areas due to unexploded landmines. The joys of war. My leg was bleeding and I called Richard, my friend and naturopath, to get his advice. Having ascertained that no pharmacy was available, he suggested putting a clove of garlic on the wound (topically), as well as eating a clove and taping one to the bottom of each foot. I followed his protocol for 2 days and came out unscathed. The next day I had another calamity befall me (I can’t remember now), and I got the distinct impression that I was getting the not so subtle hit to get my butt out of there. In response to this directive (plus the fact that the temperature had exceeded 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity on a daily basis), I got out of dodge.
Taking an infamous marshutka, I went to Sokhum and met Abbot Ignati. We had a lovely visit, he in his generosity lavishing me with gifts, food, sweets – I felt like a royal. We spent a few hours in the afternoon, then in the evening after one of his many formal functions. And of course the next morning. He very kindly had his driver give me a ride all the way to the border. Normally a 4 hour trip by marshutka was reduced to1 hour. He asked me to deliver several presents to relatives in Tblisi and to the head of the SF Russian orthodox church. I have delivered on the first and will do the second when I am back in the US.