In recent years, Abkhazia has drifted closer and closer to Russia for support and in 2009 Moscow signed a five-year agreement with Abkhazia to take formal control of its frontiers and borders with Georgia, another move that angered ministers in Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital).
This war is still very much in the forefront of people’s minds and it has created a fragile, somewhat corrupt and lawless land, although technically Abkhazia has laws – there is simply nobody to enforce them, meaning crime in some areas is rife and bribes are common practice, as we were later to see first-hand.
So after spending those first 5 days in Georgia, witnessing natural beauty & abandonment as well as the capital for a brief while - I jumped into a taxi which was border bound with my girlfriend Jade and friends Dan and Simon. Three of our visas had not yet been authorised by the consulate in Sokhumi due to the failed application notices ending up in 2 of the groups spam or Gmail junk folders, however we crossed our fingers during the journey and waited for the promised “3pm” email containing the authorisation letters for myself, Jade and my good friend Dan.
The constant scrolling and refreshing of my email inbox on my mobile phone, which was running off a forth friends, Simons hotspot was common practice during the first hour of the ride, it was a nervous wait… 3pm, nothing, 4pm, nothing. We were now only 20 minutes from the border town of Zugdidi, which was our last hope of printing these letters (an essential part of gaining access to Abkhazia). 4.20pm, Dan receives an email timed at 3.20pm, it turns out Abkhazia is one hour behind Georgian time, they lose 20 minutes, well that is now known by the group as “Abkhazian time”.
The next task was a simple formality, as we went to get the letters printed selecting an electrical superstore in Zugdidi, carefully selecting a young lady as the person which we were to request this from, usually the language is a barrier however you to have a chance with some of the younger folk as usually they have some form of English lessons or education at school – letters in hand we left the store – fist pumping the air as we danced back towards the taxi.
We arrived at the land border at around 4.45pm, a lot later than planned as it was due to close at 7pm, we passed the first two checkpoints hassle free and arrived at the third at about 5pm (4pm Abkhazian time), handing over our passports to the Russian guards before taking our seat in what can only be described as a second-rate bus stop. Then some 20 minutes later a miracle happened, Simon was called forwards and asked to move through the small cabin, exiting its rear and make his way up to the final checkpoint for some further checks. This was going to be a formality, right? Despite the fact, Simon had just walked off with the mobile phone signal in his pocket.
An hour passed, then two. Very little communication came from the only Russian speaking guards. Us three remaining were questioning each other, was Simon in? Why were we still waiting, what was the issue?
A guard popped his head out of the booth, shrugging his shoulders in our direction. Then just as this happened the telephone in the booth rang. Lots of Russian went back and forth between the five guards, the phone was placed back down – then silence broke. A couple of minutes later I was called into the booth by hand gesture only to be handed 3 passports back, looking up to see the guard doing an “X” with his arms and a cut throat sign. What had happened?
I grabbed my translator app, punching in some words. The guard did the same in return… “You are not on the LIST, you cannot come through before the border closes in 20 minutes”. Damn. Replying with more “challenging translations” I asked if we could return tomorrow, and asked if our letters were ok? The guard replied, “return tomorrow, but not before 10am” – I read his note, looked up at him to see him displaying the number 9 on his fingers… great!
The walk back across the long bridge that we had come across to this 3rd checkpoint was the most depressing part of the entire trip, especially when it dawned on us all we only had 20 Lari (Georgian currency) between us. However, we struck lucky when a taxi agreed to take us back to Zugdidi for 10 Lari – but it didn’t lift our moods, the taxi ride back to town was silent.
9am we departed our apartment, jumping in another cab towards the border via the supermarket. We were in higher spirits though – last night ate, contacted Simon (who had made it into Abkhazia and had linked up with our guide there and proceeded to make a plan for our arrival) and also drank, lots of wine – which had given us the feeling of a clean slate.