Further along the coast, the destruction was even more pronounced. Disembarking in the once popular resort town of Ochamchira by an eerie, crumbling statue which looked like a concrete Buddha being eaten by piranhas, we were greeted by a Ukrainian Catholic missionary.
"I've been here for six years," Dmitri told me, stroking his bushy ginger beard. "It's pretty bad. Most of the houses in town are empty. There used to be mining, a fabric factory and an oil plant, but now they're all gone."
We followed a trail of rusted red wagons to the vokzal (train station). With most of the track and overhead lines from here to the border having been looted, the station has long been abandoned. Featuring a peeling yellow faÃ§ade of Doric columns and arches, it spoke of bygone days and faded glories. Its ceiling partially caved in, the pastel blue waiting area looked like a drawing room in a Classical dacha. Picking my way across a collapsed section of flooring, I located the jail cell, something no Soviet-era train station was ever complete without.
We were staying out of town near the birthplace of Stalin's henchman, Lavrentiy Beria, at a guesthouse situated on a cliff-top looking out across lush subtropical vegetation and what the Greeks and Romans once called the "hospitable sea." With the dazzling sun reflecting off the azure waters, you couldn't knock the view.
"I come to Abkhazia every summer," an ebullient girl with high bangs who introduced herself as Valeria told me. "It is so beautiful here. The owners are very nice people. They say they're Greek, but I think they're Georgian, although they'd never admit it.
"They make their own honey," the English language teacher from Moscow added, as I noted the number of bees and wondered if they'd try to nest in my hair, as was their wont. "Every year, I cross back into Russia at two a.m. and smuggle in honey."
Fueled by generous amounts of vodka, later that evening I found myself summoned over by a woman from Samara with dyed blonde hair and talonous red fingernails. It was about 4:30 in the morning when she spoke her first and only words of English.
"Go to bed," she huskily suggested, leaning across the table and smiling.
"Da, ya ustal," —Yes, I'm tired‐I replied, duly retiring to my room.
It wasn't until she started banging on the door and slurrily asking if she'd offended me that the penny dropped.
Not long after this, we found ourselves unceremoniously awoken by an old woman crashing about in our room, the arbitrary nature of which seemed perfectly fitting. Unable to comprehend a single word she was saying except "passport," we presumed she was to do with the proprietors, but every time we handed her our documents, she just tossed them back on the beds. Adding to the absurdity, a host of sparrows had followed her into the room and were flitting about like something from a Disney movie. At a loss, I went to find Valeria.
"Don't worry," she told us, ushering the woman out as if this were the most normal thing in the world, "she's just drunk."
This was the final straw which saw us move into the same hotel—I use the term loosely—that I'd stayed in three years previously, the only major difference being that since that time another section of the Holiday Home Abkhazia had been gutted by fire. Constructed in 1989, smelling of the sweat, cigarettes and testosterone accumulated ever since, the hotel serves as a microcosm of the allure of this picturesque, tragic, and fantastically odd place. Cut adrift in a dysfunctional mosaic fountain, a statue of heftily built, scantily clad women, one groping another's bottom, greets guests. A bronze of Vlad the Impaler sits in a foyer with stained glass windows where shaven-headed men and their soldier buddies talk wistfully about the lack of available car parts.
In the hotel bar later that evening, illuminated by lightning, men in denim jackets smoked cigarettes rolled from yesterdays' newspapers. Joining hands, women shoulder danced to a live band, the holidaymakers partying heartily until eleven p.m., when the random curfew which had hit the city center earlier reached the suburbs. With everything abruptly closing, within minutes the lapping of the waves and the buzzing of persistent mosquitoes were the only sounds.
Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist, travel writer and award-winning author specializing on Central Asia and the Caucasus. A mix of travel, history and reportage, his book on Central Asia—Does it Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans was released in December 2016. See more at www.stephenmbland.com
Tipsy in Transnistria—Trying to Stay Sober in Nowhereland - Rory MacLean
A Grim Commemoration Day in Modern Russia - James Dorsey
Sulfur Clouds and Sacred Sites: A Journey through the Debed Canyon - Stephen Bland
A Requiem for Bluefields, Nicaragua - Richard Arghiris
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