Return to Abkhazia: Day 1 (kind of)
On each of my three visits to Abkhazia over the last 18 months, I’ve seen an incredible amount of change.
The first thing along the journey that was radically different was the Tbilisi train station. The first time I took the night train to Zugdidi, the Georgian town closest to the de facto border with Abkhazia, the place looked abandoned. I approached the unlit train tracks and asked the figures standing around in the dark where I could buy tickets. They pointed to the dark shell of a structure surrounded by wooden and concrete barriers. All of the doors I could find were blocked. It looked like the kind of ghostly place that high school kids dare each other to break into with tales of a murderous caretaker. Once inside, the only occupied room in the massive building was a small waiting room with only one ticket counter open.
Now the old Soviet station has been renovated into a clean glitzy shopping mall with a train terminal at its center, and I immediately didn’t like it. I admit that like many Westerners living and traveling through the former Soviet Union I have a strange fetish for the old palaces of the proletariat — train stations, metro stations, etc.. The proud structures of a bygone era continue to maintain a charming mixture of socialist realist murals and general dilapidation. This new station seemed almost offensively out of place.
In one of Tbilisi’s poorer neighborhoods, the big white building sits next to the city’s largest open-air market where merchants push everything from vegetables to panty hose and bathroom fixtures. On both sides of the train station, masses of marshrtukas – a type of panel van converted to squeeze in 20-or-so travelers – wobble around and rumble off, carrying commuters around the city and country. Stepping into the train station is like being transported to a different reality.
The ticket booths are nestled around a jumble of shops selling stainless steel washing machines and high-end electronic gadgets. More shops and food court joints wrapped around the terminal and, like much of the construction projects of the Saakashvili era, the whole place seemed designed for an imaginary class of well-paid consumers or for Misha’s buddies from Columbia law school. But on the benches for waiting travelers, reality sets in again.
Those waiting for the train to Zugdidi and other points in the regions were mostly low-wage commuting workers and old women dragging in laundry bags loaded with potatoes and oranges – probably to resell in markets elsewhere in the country. This is the real Georgia, a country that the government seems to have lost touch with long ago.
More than 50 percent of the population of Georgia works in agriculture — mostly at the subsistence level. And yet, the budget for the Georgian ministry of agriculture in 2010 was 38 million Georgian lari ($21.5 million) — less than the cost of the hideous and unnecessary footbridge the government built in downtown Tbilisi last year. The priorities are quite clear.
In the end, my tour of the new train station was in vain; to my bewildered surprise, the train to Zugdidi was sold out. The other two times I took the train it was more than half empty and my only explanation for the Monday night train being full was that either a large amount of people were headed to Zugdidi as it is a stop along the path to the mountain resorts of Svaneti, or that the IDPs recently evicted from Tbilisi were still commuting back and forth between their old jobs in the city and their new homes in the Western regions.
Thus, my journey would have to really begin the next morning, taking the 8 a.m. marshrutka — meaning a joyfully cramped and bumpy 5-hour ride.
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