Propaganda, ruins of war, and beach holidays: my first impressions from Abkhazia

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.

Many houses are in ruins even in the centre of the capital, Sukhumi. The red signs says (in Russian) FOR SALE, so if you’re tempted, just give them a call.

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…

Sukhumi beach looks like a typical holiday beach, and yet, one street away you’re in the post-war zone…

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.

Beautiful sunset with view on the Novy Afon monastery and the Black Sea.

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.

A typical photo of Russian holiday makers by a waterfall. This is Abkhazia!

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?

There’s only a handful of countries that have recognised Abkhazia as independent, and their flags are regularly displayed across the country: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and the equally self-declared independent yet not internationally recognised Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

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.

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How I realised, by a sunny afternoon in Tbilisi, that I may be a travel snob

It was a tough and rewarding day travelling, and I was over the moon. So proud of myself – this was exactly what travel is to me:

  • A journey out of the beaten track
  • Where experience is as important than the destination itself
  • Travelling by my own means
  • And suffering a little bit on the way, real travel shouldn’t be too easy

After breakfast that morning, I had only a vague idea of what the day would bring to me: my goal was to wander around, into the non touristic Northern neighbourhoods of the Georgian capital, to potentially check out a few landmarks I found about in Google, and see what else I would find on the way.

I love these days spent walking, with a broad objective in mind, and letting encounters distract me and my plans. I spend the whole day observing, experiencing, analysing; getting to new insights about the place and its people. It really makes me high.

Serendipity and using my flair brought me to this cemetery, Didube Pantheon, and I am so glad I got to make this picture.

That day, I walked during 8 hours, including a 45-minute detour just to check a building that looked interesting at the other side of the river.

This bizarre building was the Ministry of Highways in Soviet times. Later abandoned, it’s been recently renovated and is now the HQ of the Bank of Georgia. It was worth the detour, wasn’t it?

That day, I also took a bushrutka – OK that’s a word I made up, because it was a vehicle of a size between a proper bus and a marshrutka (a van in Russia). And guess what: the journey was horrific.

The bushrutka was 45 minutes late. It was so incredibly crowded that it felt it was going to explode. It was too heavy to go uphill, and incredibly slow. It was incredibly hot inside. I was feeling privileged but cheating because I had a seat.

When we reached a bus stop and I saw a man stand with 2 children, I didn’t believe my eyes: they did actually try and get in. I sensed the trap, and immediately grabbed someone’s bag to put it on my lap; good choice, as just a second later my neighbour had a child on his. Tap on my own shoulder: oh yes I’m an experienced traveller.

There’s no tourist landmark in the Northern suburbs of Tbilisi, but if you’re a travel snob like me 😉 you are likely to find it interesting to explore them anyway!

At the top of the hill, I gave the man by the door a heads up that I was planning to get off at the next stop, so he would let me pass. His severe face expression confused me and I jabbered and didn’t express me really well. He said no and looked away.

That day, I learned the difference between hospitable and friendly. Georgians are incredibly friendly with tourists because they are incredibly hospitable – they love having you there in their country and want you to experience all what’s great about it. But that doesn’t mean they are particularly friendly outside the beaten track, especially if they don’t know you’re a tourist.

I had to fight a little, but I did eventually manage to extract myself from the overcrowded van.

I was starving, as it was Easter Monday and Georgians are serious about Christian holidays: all shops and restaurants were closed and I didn’t find a single thing to eat or drink the whole day.

I was happy and proud: it was a real day travelling, outside the beaten track, experiencing the real life and its daily struggles, just for the sake of it. A bit of a painful process at times, hence even more rewarding.

And the next day, I came across this article posted by a fellow traveller in a Facebook community I belong to: 22 Reasons You Are A Travel Snob.

Reason 1, tick. Reason 2, tick. Reason 11 obviously, and 13, and 17 perhaps, 20 possibly, and certainly, oh yes, reason 5:

You equate pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing without as more authentic than traveling without pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing with.

My heart skipped a bit: I may actually really be a travel snob!

How I climbed on top of an Iranian minaret to dance the boogie woogie

If you have been in Iran like me, you know that the country, seen from the inside, has not much to do with the axis of evil Western propaganda tells us about.

The friendly and hospitable people of Iran have to comply with the rules, but it doesn’t take long to spot a nice touch of rebellion in a portion of them.

The duo – uncle and niece – who took us to the ancient village of Kharanagh were masters of joyful irreverence. How they were having fun and were flirting with the norms gave me a delightful flavour of this part of Iran.

The village of Karanagh (85 km of Yazd) is now abandoned but there were women picking the fresh pistacchios at the time we visited. You can see the minaret standing in the village.

They told me I should climb to the top of the village’s minaret mosque, which was very old and very narrow.

“Stand with one feet on each side”, they told me. I found this a funny order, but I complied.

“And now, dance the boogie woogie”. What? “Yes, shake from one leg to another”. Really?

The minaret is 15 meter tall; the stairs inside to get to the top are not broader than 50-60 cm; in th efinal two meters, there is no stairs, so it’s proper climbing . I was standing there, shaking it!

I must have looked very puzzled, because they laughed a lot, but I did what they told me, and the minaret started shaking, making the whole mosque tremble and gently roar.

It’s only after a few seconds that I realized what they made me do: I was dancing the boogie woogie on top of a minaret! I also like to flirt with the norms and the rules, but this went much beyond what I had hoped for myself in Iran.

Not only did this seem rather dangerous – how many more times until the poor mosque will actually collapse? – but it made my travel companion, standing at the bottom of the minaret with no clue of my endeavours, freak out and believe he was trapped in an antique mosque during an earthquake.

View from the top of the minaret!

But I was so exhilarated! I am not one who expresses political opinions or signs up for ideological debates; but I did manifest my outlook on life: I danced the boogie woogie on a top of an Iranian minaret!

This post is a response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: Climbing

Teaching Iranians how to cook vegetables in Masuleh

Iran is the land of kebab; particularly if people are going to bother and go out to a restaurant, then it’s a festive meal and kebab is on the menu. Not the most exciting perspective for a non meat eater like me.

During my trip in Iran, tired to eat rice and bread after a while, I decided to try and make them grill vegetables. I bought a few onions, aubergines and courgettes on a food market and brought them to a street food restaurant.

The men were puzzled at first. It had never occurred to any of them that they actually could grill vegetables, it seems. But they gave it a go; and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner of grilled veggies with lime, garlic yoghurt, and Iran’s fantastic flatbread.

Seeing aubergines on a food market prompted me: why should I stay on a rice and bread diet, when there are so lovely veggies around?

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme was Cook.

What do you expect is easier: entering or leaving Israel?

We all know Israel is a country under pressure: it cannot be easy to maintain a claim for Jewish land in the middle of more or less hostile Muslim nations.

And yet, entering Israel was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done; it’s leaving the country that was a real pain.

When you live in a country supposedly attractive that has to control immigration, you are used to harsh rules to entry and it’s not uncommon to see people having to answer endless questions or even detained for several hours before they are allowed in. But then they don’t even bother to check your passport as you’re leaving.

But funnily, it’s the opposite that happens in Israel, and I am still trying to understand why.

EXPERIMENT 1: ARRIVAL BY AIR

I entered Israel for the first time after a flight from Paris that took me to Tel Aviv airport.

Step 1: showing my passport.

Step 2: answering a question.

My travel companion, who was ahead of me, had explained we were friends. They cross checked the information by asking me how I knew her: “we studied together”. This simple answer was my gateaway to Israel.

I was very ready to ask firmly to not get a stamp in my passport – I didn’t want to sabotage any future travel plans to Muslim countries. But there was no need; I was delivered something that looked like a voucher that I scanned to open gates and there I was, freely moving around on the promised land.

EXPERIMENT 2: ARRIVAL BY LAND

From my base in Jerusalem, I ventured a couple of times into Palestine and the occupied territories. And was extremely surprised by how easy it was to re-enter Israel, how young the Israeli military agents were, and how little case they seemed to do about a border crossing.

For example, on the way back from Ramallah, our bus was stopped at the border and we didn’t even have to get off, it’s an Israeli teenager soldier who got on.

Step 1: showing my passport.

Step 2: cute young Israeli notices I’m French, smiles and says in French: “Bonjour! Ca va?”

And here I am, in Israel, coming straight from Palestine, without anyone even checking my bag.

Jerusalem

EXPERIMENT 3: LEAVING FROM TEL AVIV AIRPORT

I had been told to be at the airport at least 2 hours in advance of my flight, as control can take a long time. Good advice.

Step 1: interrogation. You get approached by agents as soon as you join the check-in queue, who bombard you with questions. They are not really interested in your answers, but apply psychological techniques to figure out how genuine you are – whether you are telling the truth or making up stories.

This consists in asking a lot of questions about previous travels, really fast, sometimes several times. They asked about all the travels that were documented in my passport – luckily I was holding a rather fresh one so it didn’t take too long.

They asked about all these travels, but really insisted on one in particular. Not my 3-month Russian journey; not even the trips in Muslim but non Arab countries like Uzbekistan, or even Iran. No, what they were particularly interested in was a trip I did to the UAE; oh they asked me a lot about that.

Following the questioning, the interrogator determines your ranking on a scale that goes from 1 to 6 and, it seems, indicates your likelihood to be dangerous for the country. They don’t tell you the ranking, and you may not even notice it. It is the first number on a barcode that they stick on your passport.

I had a 5.

I since have read somewhere that only a rabbi could get a 1, an Israeli a 2, a tourist on an organised tour a 3; having been in the UAE made me miss the 4 and I got a 5.

Step 2: the procedure then varies depending on your ranking. Being a 5, I had to go through a very thorough check of literally everything I was carrying on me and in my luggage. Everything was checked in great detail, both manually and using technological equipment. It took a while to check all my person and all items in my bag one by one, that’s when I really understood why I should be really 2 hours in advance at the airport.

Step 3: personal escort to the gate. It probably varies for passengers with a different ranking, personally I was escorted to the gate by yet another cute male 18-year old Israel military agent.

RESULTS OF THE EXPERIMENT

I’m sure the authorities of Israel know what they’re doing, but I am yet to understand why it is so difficult to leave the country; especially when entering it, including from Palestine, is so anecdotal.

But glad I didn’t get a 6 like someone I know who ended up the search in his underwear!

With my four camels in the Sahara desert

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme is Four.

Four days walking in the Adrar Plateau of Mauritania, with four lovely camels. That’s a fabulous trip I did in 2007.

Click on this link to a previous post to see a portrait of each of my four camels and the nicknames I gave them; below are also some of my visual memories of this trip.

Interested in more Mauritania stories? Click on my Mauritania tag, or read about the incredible journey on board the iron-ore train in Mauritania!

What it’s like to live in the most isolated town of remote Russia

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.

Try googling Ust-Nera. You will probably have to zoom out a few times before you can relate to anything familiar on the map.

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.

A street in Ust-Nera

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.

Typical housing building in Ust-Nera

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.

Stained Lenin statue in Artyk

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.

Someone is trying to sell an apartment in Ust-Nera, but it doesn’t look like many people are interested.

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?”.

Ust-Nera’s municipal park

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.

Ust Nera’s 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?

Ust-Nera is pretty remote, but has a really nice WWII memorial

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.

In the permafrost regions, all pipes are kept above the ground. This has a huge impact on the street layout.