Abkhazia was one of the territories on my Caucasian route this summer. Self-declared independent with Russian support after an atrocious war with Georgia in the 90s, Abkhazia is a land of contrasts. And not just the contrasts of high mountains and endless coastlines; but those of beach holiday makers enjoying their summertime in the middle of war ruins.
The war ended 24 years ago, but the first impressions are that of a country that just got out of it.
Many buildings still wear the scars of war or are even demolished. Abkhazia lost more than half of its population (killed or exiled) so many houses are abandoned and the country feels strangely quiet and empty. The roads are in a terrible state, and there were power cuts the whole day when we were there.
And yet, Abkhazia has always been an important holiday destination for Russians and still is, as it offers cheaper accomodation than elsewhere by the Black Sea, plus a few beautiful sights. So you’ll find all the mass tourism cliches, from people taking selfies, street vendors selling beach accessories, tourists parading on the promenade in Segways…
What I think holds Abkhazia together, along with the support from Russia, is the propaganda. How else could you justify living in such isolation and desolation? There are a few propaganda posters; with flags of Abkhazia, and with messages reminding that the war was worth it. Abkhazia is beautiful, that’s why we had to fight for it. We died in order to live.
Oh, it’s not mass tourism; there’s no airport and the only way to reach is from Russia, but Sochi airport is just a few hours away, and trains run, including a direct from Moscow. So quite a few Russian families choose to spend their well deserved summer break there.
What is funny, is that Russian is the default language, even amongst locals. Unless people know each other, they address each other in Russian until they find out that they both can speak Abkhaz. Why is this happening, if the country is independent?
But as a matter of fact, Russian by default is not just the language. The currency is the ruble, dispensed in the few ATMs the country has, the only train left (as connections to Georgia are broken) is fully operated by the Russian company RZD with the same Russian agent at both sides of the “border”, and regarding the “border”, well, they won’t stamp your passport, so is it really a border anyway?
A deadly war full of atrocities, followed by 24 years of peace in ruins, all of that to get rid of the Georgian domination, and get vassalised by Russia instead? Abkhazian logic eludes me.
48 hours stranded in a hole, somewhere in the middle of a Soviet nowhere – this happened to me last summer when bad weather conditions caused my flight out of the remoteness to be severely delayed.
I was in Ust-Nera, in the Russian permafrost, ending a visit of the most remote, isolated and abandoned areas of Soviet Russia.
There is very little to do in Ust-Nera; the place is totally desolated, it was raining, and you had to wait until 2 pm to buy booze – an old Gorbachev-time law that has long disappeared in Russia, but the decree of cancellation may not have reached this part of the world.
So until I could intoxicate myself to make the reality shinier, I used my mornings to walk around and figure out: what can it be like to live in such a hole of the Russian permafrost?
Imagine that you live in Ust-Nera, a previous base for the gulag labour camps, 9.000 km East of Moscow, with 6.000 other inhabitants.
There are 8 to 10 months of winter, when it typically gets as low as minus 50.
When the summer is finally there, mosquitoes proliferate and bite you mercilessly.
Summers are also humid, and because it’s permafrost, the rain stays on the surface instead of being absorbed by the earth. Hence the whole place is a swamp, and a paradise for mosquitoes.
Interestingly, the frozen earth means that all houses are on pillars; houses are all Brejnev-time apartment buildings here, as most of the town was created at a time when the Soviets did not build anything else.
No matter how remote, the propaganda has always made its way to you. OK, your local Lenin statue might be of a cheaper material, but there is one – and you did receive Putin’s posters for the latest anniversary of the Great Patriotic War.
The next town is an 8-hour drive and it’s the exact same town. For a change of scenery, you should take a 2-hour flight in an old Antonov or Tupolev aircraft.
Your apartment is the same as everyone’s apartment in Russia, as illustrated so well in Russia’s cult film The Irony of Fate. You may have the model with 1 or 2 bedroom, it’s not too bad actually, you can hear the neighbours but you have central heating, and it costs 45.000 rubles per square metre (730 euro), 3 times less than in Moscow.
There are 3 or 4 shops in town and they all sell the same basic stuff. Everything is brought by truck from Yakutsk where it is brought by flight from Moscow, so it’s not fresh and costs 3 times more.
Your supplies depend on the town’s supplies. I have heard people in the shops not ask “What have you got today?” but “What has arrived today?”.
In continental Russia, kids often play in parks on real tanks from the war. No tank actually made it all the way here, but Moscow has thought of everything and provided the local kids this wonder of a toy to play with in the municipal park.
Entertainment is scarce, but serious. The town has one restaurant and one cafe, and there is still some activity every now and then at the House of Metallurgists.
There is probably a reason why you’re here. There is a mine nearby and you’re a skilled worker and got incentivised to move here a long time ago. Or your family’s history is that of former gulag convicts who never returned to mainland Russia. And now you’re stuck here. It would be too expensive to move elsewhere – and to go where anyway?
Russians tend to be fatalist. In the small town of Artyk, I asked an old lady who has been living there all her life, how she liked it. Instead of answering the question, she shrugged and said “Artyk is just a transport hub you know, there’s not much going on”. Make up your mind what she actually meant.
It is Saturday afternoon and I am sitting on a rather empty train that moves slowly along the frosty steppe of Northern Kazakhstan. The quiet humming of the train reminds me of those long journeys in Russia that I have loved so much – how much of a contrast with the busy Southern Kazakh trains I have travelled with in the past few days!
The first impression when you get on a train in Kazakhstan is the exact same as in Russia. No wonder because the two neighbours share a number of routes (with sometimes Kazakhstan being just a passing by country, such as on the Moscow-Tashkent line) and use the same carriages with the same distinctive berths disposition; and equally the codes and the behaviours on-board these trains tend to be the same.
But there are a few observable differences as well; and these go much beyond the landscapes you can admire through the train’s windows – endless birch tree forests in Russia, endless treeless steppe in Kazakhstan.
The top 3 differences I have observed in people’s behaviours show a lot about the Kazakh collective, clan-based culture and traditions.
Not just a tea mug; you need a whole tea pot.
It is customary on trains in both countries to travel with a tea mug; every coach has a samovar where you can get hot water and people drink tea throughout the whole journey.
But unlike in Russia, in Kazakhstan I have seen many groups with whole tea pots – either their own that they took in their luggage with them, or even an official one with printed logo from the railway company they had borrowed from the coach master.
For many people in Kazakhstan travel in parties of family or friends; and tea is a social affair here.
Even those who travel alone are quite likely to meet someone they know on board, or to meet new friends along the way, and end up sharing a tea pot.
A different notion of personal space
That feeling when you wake up feeling something touch your legs; and realise there is someone sitting there – yes, right here, on your own berth – comfortably installed and having a chat with another person equally settled on the opposite berth (which also belongs to nother sleepy passenger).
Personal space is clearly, albeit tacitly, regulated on Russian trains. None would start invading your personal space (especially on your own bed sheets) unless expressly invited to do so. But it is different in Kazakhstan.
Kazakh trains, a sales channel for small businesses
Very small businesses to tell the truth. There is some trade going on in Russian trains – you often see old ladies selling dry fish to help pay for their ticket – but this takes a complete different proportion in Kazakhstan.
Every 2 minutes, someone is passing with goods to sell. Food and drinks of course, but also clothes, iPhone covers, colouring books for children, and any other made in China crap you would normally expect to find in a bazaar, not a train.
Selling on trains is a typical phenomenon of developing countries, and I’ve seen that for example in Mumbai’s suburban train or Cairo’s metro. But nowhere is there so much time as on a Kazakh train (where it probably takes over 10 hours to get to the next big town) so these ladies have the time to sit down and touch the fabric and discuss the cut…
One of the key reasons I travel is to spend time with locals and get to know them; and at this level, Kazakhstan has been very generous so far! But as an introvert traveler, I also enjoy a bit of calm sometimes…
Luckily today’s journey is much quieter, and actually the only guy who tried to sell something on the train today was a dumb man with 2017 calendars; a bit of quiet does me good!