The last several days have been incredibly interesting for me. I came up from Israel for a night in Moscow and a late night tour of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin. I then headed down to Sochi to catch a car to Abkhazia which was my 299th Travelers Century Club country. Abkhazia was added to the TCC list a few years ago after the most recent conflict in the Caucusus Region. Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is the closest airport and would also be a place I would spend a few days. As I now have had a chance to sleep a bit and reflect, I still cannot believe that Sochi will host an Olympics and Abkhazia was one of the more interesting and beautiful places around.
The independent status of the gorgeous Black Sea Republic of Abkhazia is the central issue of the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict. The two formed part of the Soviet Union until 1991. As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate towards the end of the 1980s, ethnic tensions grew between Abkhaz and Georgians over Georgia’s moves towards independence. This led to the 1992–93 War in Abkhazia that resulted in a Georgian military defeat, de facto independence of Abkhazia and the mass exodus and ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population from Abkhazia. In spite of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and years of tense negotiations, the status dispute has not been resolved. Also, despite the long-term presence of a UN monitoring force and a Russian peacekeeping operation, the conflict has flared up on several occasions. In August 2008 you may recall, the sides again fought during the South Ossetia War.
Russia and Nicaragua officially recognized Abkhazia after the 2008 South Ossetia War. Venezuela recognized Abkhazia in September 2009. In December 2009, the powerful nation of Nauru recognized Abkhazia, reportedly in return for $50 million in humanitarian aid from Russia. The unrecognized Republic of Transnistria, which is a lovely place, and the partially recognized Republic of South Ossetia have recognized Abkhazia since 2006. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria all belong to the Community for Democracy and Human Rights, a group that attempts to further the cause of unrecognized states that came from the former Soviet Union. Abkhazia is also a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Check out that list sometime, it’s kind of cool.
Politics and tensions aside, Abkhazia is an interesting and beautiful place with a lot of pride and much to see and do. It’s location along the gorgeous Black Sea is breathtaking and made even more spectacular by the backdrop of rolling green mountains and a perfect blue sky. Crossing the border from Adler, site of the Sochi airport and all the stadium venues for the Winter Olympic Games was a breeze assuming you have the correct documentation.
In order to get into Abkhazia, you have to email their Ministry of Tourism. In theory, they are supposed to send you a letter of permission to enter within 5 days. This is false and you have to harass them plenty to actually get the letter. In fact, the reason I got mine so easily, well so quickly, was because after not hearing anything for weeks after applying 6 weeks or so before my scheduled trip, I wrote something on my Facebook fan page about it. My fan page is connected to Twitter and someone in the Abkhazia Ministry apparently follows me on Twitter and emailed me immediately to write him and email and CC the Ministry head. So I did and I had my letter the next day, it was kind of awesome actually, the power of social media.
Entering the north of Abkhazia is great because you get to see the whole Republic as you wind down to Sukhumi, the capital. You first pass through Gagra, which is a lovely little beach town that I almost stayed a night in but decided that it would have nothing to do once the sun went down. So I went all the way down 100km or so passing beautiful natural scenery and a cool monastery to Sukhumi.
I stayed at the Inter Sukhum Hotel which is located right off the main boardwalk area along the waterfront promenade. That sounds really nice and all but the truth is the hotel sucked, it was overpriced and filthy and so was the promenade. Although, it did have a nice sunset and was a nice place to walk at night although it wasn’t well lit and people do carry guns in Abkhazia openly.
All the restaurants, meaning the 3 or so, are located about a mile or so from my hotel near an abandoned building in the harbor, which is odd. The main and best restaurant called Nartaa (loosely translated/spelled in English from Russian) specializing in local Abkhaz specialties was excellent. The house favorite in this handmade chimichurri bread dripping in cheese and butter. Good for the heart it’s not, but good in general it is! After dinner it is off to bed as there is nothing that I need to get involved with in Abkhazia after dark.
After getting the visas and necessary documentation at the Ministry the next day and seeing that there wasn’t too much to do other than hike around and see the natural scenery, we decided to spend the day in Abkhazia then head up into Sochi for the next two days. There is more to offer and do up there. Plus I was eager to see how it was possible that this town I had never heard of until they got the Olympics in 2007, got them. Well obviously there was some money exchanging hands and a little help from a certain Mr. Putin but I’ll get to that.
Sochi is a beach town. That is what it is; it’s an old school Soviet style Black Sea resort that Russians love but the rest of us would hate. It is old, crumbling, gross and is mind blowing to me that it will be hosting a Winter Olympics in 2.5 years. Nobody speaks English; the signs are all in Russian; the traffic on a one lane road is appalling; all the public toilets are pay squat toilets and in terrible and smelly condition; the hotels are overpriced and crappy; the beaches are all rocks-literally; and the Boardwalk if you want to call it that is full of crappy carnival games, fast food places and fake merchandise stores selling all kinds of junk again like Atlantic City. Sochi doesn’t even sell official Olympics tee shirts. I don’t think that anyone in Sochi actually knows they will be hosting an Olympics in a few years. It was really shocking to me. The other thing is Sochi won’t actually host any events.
All the event stadium venues for the opening ceremonies, hockey etc are being built in Adler, the site of the depressing airport and about a kilometer or so north of the Abkhazia border. They seem to be about half way done with the main stadium venues in Adler and the alpine events are all going to be in another mountain town about 2 hours away from Sochi. Sochi will just be the base in name and for hotels. However, again the hotels are way overpriced and anything reasonable is absolutely filthy especially if you’re paying some $120 at the Hotel Primorskaya like I had to below. The sheets were nasty, the bathrooms and shower was filthy and the hallways were scary big, cold and Soviet. The place had style if you like 1930’s Soviet bland where an axe murderer might jump out and kill you but if you’re not a masochist then you’d probably be appalled.
I kept laughing that if a bunch of yuppie type Americans, French, Swiss or some other rich country came to Sochi for the Olympics expecting some Winter playground like Aspen, Chamonix or St. Moritz then they’d have a heart attack on site at the state of Sochi. The traffic right now is abysmal. From the airport to Sochi will take anywhere from 1-3 hours depending on the time of day. They are not expanding the roads, they are building a railway connecting Sochi and Adler and Adler and the mountain town that is hosting the alpine events. This will be a disaster….trust me. I am predicting right now that Sochi 2014 will be the worst Winter Olympics ever in terms of attendance and overall satisfaction for visitors.
There is no way this town that is essentially a village with a carnival beach boardwalk should be hosting the Olympics. I think everyone knows that Vladimir Putin had his hand and his country’s oil money working to get the bid won. There is no way that should have happened after what I just saw. The restaurants are terrible and again, nobody speaks English, French, Spanish or anything but Russian. If you cannot read Cyrillic which luckily I can after sounding the words out like a pre-kindergartener and my friend speaks fluent Russian, you are really screwed because nothing is written in English letters. Even China wrote signs in English for Beijing 2008! Anyway, it should be interesting.
The positive of Sochi is when the sun goes down, the moon light lights up the Black Sea and creates a gorgeous setting to have some wine or a beer and it’s a good place to get a tan but not in the Winter it won’t be. Honestly though that’s really all I can think of. The beaches are not nice and packed with big, fat Russian men in little Speedos and fat women in bikinis no matter how fat they are and I’m talking orca fat! It’s funny because a waitress said to my friend and I that we ordered too much food after we each ordered our own individual pizza at lunch one day. I am thinking to myself, they are small, I’ll probably have to get something else on top of the mini pizza.
She then made a joke to my friend in Russian that American’s eat so much. My friend and I are looking at each other like we must be taking crazy pills because all the Russians we saw on the beach were enormous. It was pretty funny but not as funny as the one normal sized woman we saw getting a water pumped butt massage on the beach below. I had never seen that before and was thoroughly entertained!
Anyway, it was a great eye opening experience in Abkhazia and Sochi along with Adler and some other small towns we saw. I likely won’t be heading back ever again to Sochi unless I do decide to see what the final result of the 2014 preparations are come time for the games. We shall see. Either way, I am glad I went and am now sitting rested after a nightmare overnight connection through Turkey in Bucharest, Romania. Check back with me soon.