Before midnight on February 5, 2011, I leave my friends Jan and Evelien’s apartment in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia, for the train station. I’ve booked a berth on a train that will take me to Zugdidi, the last place in the Republic of Georgia that one can go before the train tracks slam into a militarized border with Abkhazia, a former Georgian territory that now aligns itself with Mother Russia.
Americans don’t visit Abkhazia, because on our globes, Abkhazia doesn’t exist. That’s what fascinates me about it: a place that is only recognized by a few nation-states (Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela), one island in the Central Pacific (Nauru, population 9,000) and a few ex-Soviet territories which themselves fail to exist on Western maps (Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Transnistria). Georgia and its former territory had been in intermittent states of war since the USSR dissolved in 1989. Think of it like historical arthritis: there’s fighting that flares up every few years.
Paul Theroux wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar that travel is “flight and pursuit in equal parts.” But he’s wrong. This trip is solely the latter, a pursuit of the unknown.
At 3:59 a.m., while sleeping snugly atop my backpack, wearing earplugs and an eye mask, I am awoken by a pair of hooligans who treat the train like a nightclub. They drink, smoke and shout as if it isn’t an ungodly hour and we aren’t trailing a rusty old locomotive.
As the journalist and travel writer Martha Gellhorn wrote, “Solitude is alright with books, awful without.” Fortunately, I have a copy of Ryszard Kapuściński’s “Imperium” with me, so I can read about the dissolution of the Soviet Union twenty years earlier, while experiencing the effects of it firsthand, by looking around at the sad and lonely faces of my fellow travelers.
* * *
I am deposited at a train station in the Zugdidian darkness, where myriad men with cars promise me rides to the border. Despite speaking minimal Georgian and even less Russian, I find a guy to split a taxi with me. The taxi drops us in the middle of nowhere, with only a barbed wire fence and a guard tower surrounding us. The driver points his finger in the direction of the border.
It’s raining buckets, the kind of rain that is the worst possible rain on earth, the kind of rain when you wish it were just a bit colder so it would be snow. I realize I don’t have boots, only a pair of now-soaked New Balances. C’est la vie.
I see a mother with her four daughters who walk in ragged clothing toward the border, like a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof,” but without Tevye. I wonder if the family patriarch perished in one of the many wars.
I walk past an empty guard post and cross a bridge where the water is up to my ankles. I notice a small ridge that I cross like a first grader on the gymnastics balance beam.
The Abkhaz “border guards” aren’t so rough and tumble. They look like they’re straight out of a bar in in Pittsburgh, or some other coal country. Half don’t believe I’m American.
They take my passport, pass it around, triple check the “visa” I received from the “consulate” in London (a university professor who moonlights as the Abkhaz ambassador) and read the letter of introduction that I had him write for me.
Perhaps thinking me a defector to the Soviet bloc, the troops ask me to – more or less force me to – consume a bottle of vodka with them. It’s not yet six a.m., but who am I to refuse a humble act of free booze to celebrate my brief emigration? My only hope is that the vodka will help cleanse me of the many germs I acquired on that dirty, rust-covered train.
Then, I am in.
Crossing borders on foot is always thrilling, but rarely fun. Border towns are typically dumps, stray dog emporiums, populated by people missing half their teeth who want to take your money and then disappear before you realize it. This one is no different, except they serve khachapuri, the Georgian cheese bread that warms my soul just thinking of it. Little do I know, this is the last khachapuri I’ll find in Abkhazia.
I make my way into a marshrutka, a shared minibus, and meet a girl who says she studies psychology at Sokhumi State University in Tbilisi. But before we have a chance to converse, she gets off at the first stop. All of my questions about her university, as an Abkhaz stronghold in Georgia, will forever be unanswered.
The remainder of the ride to the capital, Sokhumi, consists of unassuming trees, wheat fields, ruined palaces and long-abandoned government buildings. The roads are potholed and the driver pedals the bus like we’re on a slalom course, avoiding huge, deep puddles.
I pop into a cafe for lunch, first noticing the lack of cheese bread, and then a similar lack of meat. We’re not in Georgia anymore. I observe that everyone around me consumes one of two staples: Russian beet salad or potato salad. I speak to a guy at the cafe who knows enough English that when I tell him my plan is to return to Georgia, he responds “Assassinate Saakashvili,” referring to the the anti-Russian Georgian President. I move on.
I stroll around the city and take dozens of photos, but not seeing much else to do, decide to call it a day and return to Georgia.
I jump into a marshrutka that’s heading back to Gali, but have a bad feeling: I know these minibuses won’t leave until they are filled. The marshrutka is efficient for the driver, who only drives with a full load, but inefficient for anyone who may want to get somewhere at a specific time.
A man in his forties boards with his small child. He drinks beer and smokes a cigarette, which angers the driver. Then the drunken man falls asleep. I feel bad for the kid. The woman who sits beside me mutters in hushed tones, “Bad, bad man.”
When I arrive back in Gali to exit Abkhazia two hours later, a new shift of guards is on duty. None of the dozen men who were present this morning are still around.
I enter the guard post and smile. Again, they take my passport and pass it around, again and again. But something is off. An older man with a bulldog face, who is surely in charge, confronts me. The only words I understand are “Sukhumi” (the capital of Abkhazia) and “visa.” He makes a stamping motion with his hand. It has been decided: The guards will not let me cross back into Georgia until I get my passport and visa stamped at the “embassy.” But today is Sunday, and the “embassy” won’t open until tomorrow, back in Sukhumi, two hours away. Ugh. I’m stuck.
I play out situations in my head, knowing it could be a heckuva lot worse. What if my passport was stolen? What if I was taken as a political prisoner and sent to a gulag in Russia?
I meet a woman who tells me she can find me a family to spend the night with in Gali, but I figure it’s better to head back to Sukhumi tonight, deal with the embassy in the morning and then head back here.
But it becomes clear that I have already missed the last bus for the night. In Gali, I try to purchase food, but my bills are too big. Nobody will touch large bills, like they have leprosy or something.
I’ll hitchhike back to Sukhumi. My thumb’s up.
A man who drives a sleek black car with tinted windows stops before me. He looks straight out of “The Godfather,” wearing a pinstriped suit and dark sunglasses. The man offers to drive me to Sukhumi for $100. I decline. I came to this country for an adventure, and I might as well have one.
I’ve previously thrown myself into similar situations in the Balkans and sub-continent, but I realize that for this situation, I am totally unprepared, without a guidebook and no telephone to ring a friend. For a second, I think “What the heck am I even doing here?” but then realize that confidence is king. I look at Kapuściński’s book and remember that even great travelers get tangled, thrown in jail for a few days and kicked around a bit, despite having significant travel expertise. “It’s all part of the adventure,” becomes my mantra.
I see a marshutka that looks identical to the one I took to Sukhumi earlier in the day. I try to flag it down, but it doesn’t stop. I hail the next one that comes by. Nope, not going anywhere near Sukhumi.
I wait on the side of the bleak road. My thumb is pointed toward the sky. It is almost dark. I estimate I have about fifteen minutes before I’ll be stuck in the border town for the night.
I flag down a pickup truck. Inside are two guys in their early twenties, both wearing military uniforms. Understanding that I don’t speak Russian, one asks for my “documentos.” I don’t want to hand over my civilian passport to armed forces members of a totalitarian-ish state, but I oblige, knowing they can very easily steal my documentos and drive off.
They leaf through my passport, impressed by the places I’ve traveled to. They tell me to jump in the back of the cab.
We drive for fifteen minutes along the same road to a guard post. It’s still raining. We joke that they should give me a guard’s jacket and then I will check the cars that pass by through the gate, despite being unable to speak their language. My charades skills come in handy as we act out our proposed situation.
I assume I’ll sleep in this guard post tonight. Though I’m still far from Sukhumi, these guys are kind and, bizarrely, I feel safe.
After being inside the guard post for only five minutes, and settling into Kapuscinski’s words, a large bus arrives outside. The guard opens the gate to let the bus through. He tells me it’s heading to Sukhumi. In thirty seconds, I’m on board and on my way.
Driving the bus is a sixty-ish man who I call Father, along with Mother and Daughter (who looks to be about thirty) sitting behind him. The bus is enormous, loaded with furniture and sacks upon sacks of grain. We meander super slowly, but the ride is far safer than how most drivers get on in this part of the world.
For the first hour we sit in silence. I think my feet may freeze off from being so soaking wet, but I don’t know the etiquette of removing my shoes and socks on a bus, so I do nothing.
Then, I start to talk with Daughter, who I notice is way taller than the rest of her family.
Eventually, after two hours on the road — I estimate at this pace it will take four to get to Sukhumi — we take what I am told will be a five-minute detour. I know there is no such thing.
We drive off the main road. We stop outside a rural house in the middle of what look like cornfields. In the pouring rain, I am directed to help Father move furniture from the back of the bus, with a handful of cousins and a couple of friends. Joy! My jeans are instantly browned with mud. We make multiple trips, moving couches, dressers, bedframes…
We go inside for tea. I can tell this is a grandparents’ house, though it is sparsely furnished. People give me hugs and kisses, wrongly presuming I’m a distant relative. I’d much rather be with my own grandparents and family at this moment. At least they have heat.
Someone makes a joke that they will kill me and bury me in the ceiling. Self-consciously, I wonder if my nose gives away that I’m a Jew. Then they joke that we’ll all sleep here tonight. Not funny.
Then, finally, we’re back on the road. Detour: one hour. I watch as the rain drenches the fields. I presume that in a couple of months, when this country is in bloom, it will be beautiful.
I fall asleep on the bus and Daughter wakes me up, pointing at a hotel. I grab my things and pass along a $20 bill as a thank you for the ride.
Inside the hotel, a gum-smacking babushka fingers through my passport, twirling her gum with her finger. The woman who works at the front desk has no idea who I am, where I came from. She acts like she’s never seen an American passport before. She dials a rotary phone and starts to chat. She hands me the phone, and then I talk to her English-speaking nephew who says he’s studying in Turkey right now. We chat for a minute, I explain who I am, and then I am led to a room.
An elderly couple opens a door on the hallway, and cigarette smoke wafts out. They eye me up and down.
Inside the room, there is no functioning sink or shower. It is all there for show. The toilet has burnt out cigarette butts inside it. There is no heating, only a space heater. I remove my soaking wet clothes and place them beside the heater, and drift to sleep quickly.
The next day, I meet the ambassador and insist that he phone ahead to the border to make sure I can leave without issue.
I now see why this country doesn’t exist.