Thousands of miles from home and a long wait by the side of the road.
It’s the fifth year of their hitchhiking journey around the world. After North and South America, New Zealand, Australia, and most of Asia, she’s on her way home. Only ‘she’ because Chopin got seriously sick in Pakistan and had to fly home, so Kinga is continuing on her own. Alone, she crossed Karakorum Highway, part of China, amazing Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, and is now in Georgia, looking for a way to go around the Black Sea, not quite realizing that there is Abkhazia along the way…
What the hell? (Georgia)
Except for an old beat-up bus, there’s no traffic on the Georgian border. The bus gives me a ride, then some local farmers pick me up, and I manage to get across the hilly steppes to a place where a lonely ruined tower stands proudly on top of a grassy hill. In the nearby rocks there are a few caves that used to be shelters for Christian monks. I can see a whole row of similar caves in the distant mountain range. I go there and visit the main monastery, where a long-bearded monk tells me the story of the place. The monastery complex has had a very troubled history. It was destroyed by the Mongols, thousands of monks were killed, and during the Soviet times it served as an army base. Only recently, the monastic life was able to return here, and now the monks are trying to renovate the place with the help of the villagers.
In Tbilisi, I stay with Fiona, an Irish girl I met in Baku, who works here. The Georgian capital is a very pleasant city. There are plenty of historic churches, and the atmosphere of the old town seems not to have changed for centuries. Some buildings are in a state of charming disrepair; others are being renovated to give the old town a fresh look.
Looking at the map of Georgia, to head towards Poland, it seems that the easiest way would be to take a ferry across the Black Sea to Russia or Ukraine, and continue straight home from there. So I go to the Polish embassy where they give me an AB stamp, necessary for Polish citizens to enter Russia. I don’t want a repeat of our Sakhalin story.
I really like Tbilisi, but…Chopin is waiting for me in Poland, so I start heading towards the Black Sea. On the way, I visit the nearby town of Mtskheta – Georgia’s ancient capital, with a few important, historic churches and monasteries. One of them sits picturesquely on top of a hill overlooking the town, and another one boasts to be the place where they found Christ’s authentic robes. In the afternoon I reach the town of Kutaisi, another historical place. The first thing I do is climb up a hill where the ruins of the Bagrati cathedral lay. In the evening light, they look truly enchanting. I learn that tomorrow there will be an important Christian holiday, and they’ve already begun the celebrations today. The long-bearded priests are holding a ceremony inside the ruins. The cathedral no longer has a roof, only the walls remain, but it is full of devotees, mostly women with headscarves holding lit candles and singing. They’re going to pray here all night.
When I get off in Batumi by the port, I see that the Black Sea isn’t black at all – I didn’t think it would be. There are ferries from here to Odessa, and I want to find out more about them. When I talk to the guards at the entrance, a foreign-looking girl in a wheelchair shows up. It turns out that she is French, and wants to catch the ferry to Ukraine as well. Her name is Claire, and it’s her second time in the port because she has had trouble finding out any information about this ferry, especially since she doesn’t speak Russian. I do, but regardless, getting any reliable information here isn’t easy. A few more port workers arrive, but all they’re able to tell us is that the ferry won’t be leaving tonight. We decide to come back early in the morning, and go to the center of the town for now. I offer to push Claire’s wheelchair but she refuses.
I’m impressed when I find out she’s traveling on her own. Just like me, she spent about a month in Uzbekistan, and then came here following a similar route, only skipping Turkmenistan. Alone in a wheelchair! When I tell her how much I admire her, she just laughs.
“Great. But you know what – I don’t care. I just like traveling, that’s all. And what’s so amazing about taking buses, trains, or taxis? That’s what I do at home, too.”
It’s too bad Claire doesn’t speak Russian so she could tell the people here that she’s not a beggar. It has happened a few times that when she asked somebody on the street a question, they just gave her some small change thinking she’s asking for money. Because what else can a person in a wheelchair do…?
It turns out that the cheapest ticket from here to Odessa costs $120. Claire can afford it. I, looking at the map, get a better idea – I can go around the Black Sea instead, by land. As soon as I get the idea, I start fulfilling it. There isn’t much traffic on the road, so it takes me a while before I manage to arrive at the Abkhaz border. Since the recent bloody war with Georgia, this separatist republic has considered itself a separate country until it achieves its goal – of joining Russia. Now it is officially closed to foreigners. The border between Abkhazia and Georgia is also closed to vehicles. Following the people, I walk towards the checkpoint on the road. Foreigners are a rare sight here, so the Georgian officials are a little shocked to see me, but they let me go. I walk over the bridge, and on the other side an Abkhaz border control officer asks me:
“What the hell are you doing here?”
I explain shortly that I’m going home, ending a long journey. I’m almost there, all I have to do is go around the Black Sea, and Abkhazia happens to be on the way. He calls his superior, who is pretty understanding, and puts me into one of the nearby taxis telling the driver to take me to the police station in town where they’ll give me a special permit to cross through their country.
With the permit in my hand, I watch Abkhazia from the windows of a bus going all the way to the Russian border. From what I see, it seems to be a green, beautiful country where the Caucasus Mountains charmingly meet the Black Sea. In the afternoon, the bus makes it to a place near the border where a crowd of people is waiting with little carts to transport the bus passengers’ goods across the border. I follow the crowd. On the Abkhaz side, nobody even controls the border or gives you an exit stamp. But there’s quite a line to the Russian checkpoint. While all the people pass through without much trouble, the female customs officer is shocked at the sight of my passport.
“A Polish citizen?!”
I understand she might be surprised, but I didn’t expect any major problems now that I have the AB stamp in my passport.
“This border is only open to local traffic. It is strictly closed to foreigners,” she informs me in a cold, official manner.
She calls her boss and he only repeats what she said. It isn’t the first time that I can already see Russian land, but an invisible wall suddenly rises in front of me.
After a morning bath in the Black Sea, I go to the Abkhaz border officials, and ask them if they have any solutions for me. It is a very different kind of talk with these people compared with the stiff Russian officials, who only know the language of rules and regulations. The Abkhaz boss, Sergey, says they’ll try to come up with something and I have to admit, they are remarkably creative. Here are their suggestions:
Equipping me with a new, Russian identity and issuing me a document certifying that I am a Russian citizen who lost her passport, and needs to cross the border to go home. We decide against it, however, because my accent would give me away.
Sending me through with a United Nations or a Red Cross vehicle. But this idea is out after we talk to an Irish man working with the UN. He says their cars and all the passengers are also very rigorously checked.
Taking me across the ‘green border,’ that is, through the river. Sergey calls a guide, an expert dealing with these kinds of expeditions on a regular basis. He agrees to take me for free, but he tells me to prepare two hundred dollars for the bribe for the Russian border patrol. I thank him, but pass on his offer – I can get a ferry straight to Odessa for much less.
That’s all they can come up with for now. It looks like the only thing I can do now is head back through Abkhazia, and then cross the Black Sea by ferry. I start to hitch back. As I walk along an empty road, I meet a young guy walking in the same direction. We talk for a while. Ruslan just can’t comprehend it all:
“So you mean you wanted to see the world, you packed your backpack and hit the road, you’ve been traveling for five years, and today you’re here, walking along the same road that I am?”
I guess you could put it like that. After a while we get a ride together, and are dropped off just before a town where Ruslan invites me to visit his friend, Redhead, who is the commander of a little army camp by a water power plant. I have nowhere else to go, so I go with him.
Redhead and about ten other teenage guys greet us and invite us into the common room, where the walls are covered with rifles and other weapons. It serves as their bedroom and a living room as well. They invite us to sit down and to stay for the night because it’s already late in the evening. They offer us the best they have – black tea, stale bread, and cigarettes.
That is, in fact, all they have at the moment because the food delivery has been delayed – as usual, they say. I ask about a toilet and leave all my stuff in the common room while one of the young soldiers shows me the way in the darkness, across the field. After a few minutes I’m back, alarmed to see that the pocket of my small backpack is open. I check – all my money is gone! A few guys were there when I was leaving the room, but right now there’s only one lying on the bed, and he claims he just fell asleep. Redhead comes in with all the other guys. They say it must have been the orphaned village boy who always hangs around the army guys. He was here a while ago. Now – he’s gone.
Redhead sends a few of his guys to look for the little thief, and assures me that they will catch him soon. I check the rest of my stuff. Everything else is there, most importantly my camera equipment and my passport. Only all my cash is gone. It is or isn’t much, depending how you look at it: ‘only’ about one hundred dollars – for me, enough to get me home overland; for here, a real fortune. After midnight the guys come back – the boy has disappeared without a trace. They promise to resume the search tomorrow morning.
I didn’t expect the morning search to bring any results. They checked his home, but his grandma says she hasn’t seen him for two days. I suppose he’ll remain hidden for a long time now. Redhead tells me how sorry they all are for the incident.
“I’d give you my own money, if I only had any,” he says, and I feel he’s being honest.
They assure me that if I wait for a few days, they’ll find the kid and make him return the cash. I thank them and say I have to go. My return has already been delayed by the closed border. The guys won’t let me leave without one cent in my pocket and without an ATM machine for hundreds of kilometers. They start a collection, and arrange for an ‘uncle’ to drive me to the Georgian border. They borrow some money from him, and in the end, hand me some three hundred Russian rubles – about ten dollars.
So far, I’m moving forward thanks to the good hearts and the kindness of strangers I meet along the way. Helplessness at the Russian border, and now last night’s incident, make me feel depressed. It is the minibus driver who helps me look at everything from a different perspective.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “You lost your money, and I lost my son. And I live with it.”
He shows me the photograph of a boy of four or five who recently died of a heart disease. Having dropped off all his passengers in town, he takes me to the port. I can’t manage to convince the captain of a Bulgarian ship to give me a ride across the Black Sea. I try to negotiate with one maritime agency. The agent must like me because he says, no problem, he’ll buy me a ticket for tonight’s ferry which is going to the Russian town of Sochi.