Primož Jakopin, photo diary

Abkhazia, the Reclusive Sleeping Beauty
Arbaika, Getting There

August 20 and 21, 2019, 18 pictures and 2 film clips

          Most images are approximately 768 x 1024 pixels in size, numbers in front of the picture descriptions are serial numbers of the original photo files. Most visible event participants who contributed to the making of these pictures (in no particular order, š is pronounced as sh, ž as zh, j as y): Julija Timoševskaja, Darja (Daša), Nastja and Marija (Maša) Fedotova, Zinaida (Zina), Evgenij (Ženja) and Anatolij (Tolik) Kasjan, Ovanes Hrištakjan, Mihail (Miša) ?, Aleksandr (Saša) ?, Zoven and Ruben Varvaštjan, Svetlana Arakeljan.
          Many thanks to all the participants of the Krubera-Voronja (in further text referred to only with the second half of the name, as it was called here) cave summer camp (Ukrainian Speleological Association) for the warm welcome and for making the stay an enjoyable one, especially to its leader, Mr. Kasjan.

          This page, text and pictures copyright (c) Primož Jakopin - Klok 2019.


          Abkhazia is a small country on the northeastern shore of Black Sea, population 250.000, 8.660 square km (3.340 square miles), about the size of Cyprus or Puerto Rico, with 230 km of coastline and 75% of mountainous area - Dombay-Ulgen at 4.046 m is the highest peak. In the domain of caving this land has a very special place - at the time of writing this report the world's 4 deepest caves: Verëvkina (2.214 m), Krubera-Voronja (2.199 m), Sarma (1.830 m) and Snežnaja (1.760 m) are all located here. So it probably deserves a brief introduction.

         Old History

          It was was established in 778 as Kingdom of Abkhazia and in 1008, through dynastic succession, became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Georgia. Abkhazia stayed in the realm of Georgia till 1992 - from 1801 as part of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union. The only exception was the period 1921 - 1931 when both countries had equal status in the Union. Demographic picture of Abkhazia changed considerably in the beginning of the 20th century with the demise of the Ottoman Empire when a substantial part of the population left for Turkey (the only sizeable Abkhazian diaspora), replaced by an influx of immigrants, caused by related events. The largest immigration wave started after unfortunate death of a paramount Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba on December 28, 1936. Abkhazian elite was thrown into prison and later executed, including the entire Lakoba family - one of his brothers miraculously escaped. State-sponsored resettlement of tens of thousands of Georgians into Abkhazia followed in the next 17 years, Abkhazian language was banned from schools, replaced by Georgian, alphabet was changed from Latin to modified Georgian. It all changed the ethnic fabric to such an extent that Abkhazians became a minority in their own country. Abkhazia was also turned into a popular Soviet riviera destination (top left, 3 million visitors in 1991), even for people such as Nikita Hruščev or Joseph Stalin.

         1992 and 2008

          After the dissolution of the union in 1991 Georgia regained its independence in 1991, which South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both autonomous republics within Georgia, also strived for. Abkhazia proclaimed independence in July 1992, to which Georgia responded with war which lasted from August 1992 till September 1993. Initially Georgians captured most cities but could not conquer the mountainous countryside and after Abkhazians got help from relatives on the other side of the mountains (Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus), most notably the Chechens, Georgian forces withdrew from Abkhazia, together with half of the population.
          Unlike Georgia or Slovenia Abkhazia did not have the support of western countries for its independence, John Paul II did not promote it, United Nations had other business to attend to. So it was not recognized and the big neighbour to the west and to the north was the only choice where to turn to for survival and protection.
          In 2008 Georgia attempted for the second time to regain the rebellious territories and another, very brief war followed (English wikipedia article is too biased, Russian one is very detailed and all-inclusive) with an outcome again not to its liking. In the aftermath Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and was followed by a handful of other countries such as Venezuela and Syria. Georgia responded by declaring Abkhazia as being occupied by Russia, a stance also adopted by its allies in Brussels and Washington, and many other countries.
          It resulted in almost perfect isolation of the country from the west. The number of western scholars who took a different stance can be counted on fingers of one hand. The same can be said for English wikipedia articles - Abkhazia is part of Georgia, all names are Georgian, (also Google maps shows Abkhazian place names not only in Georgian but even in Georgian script), general tone is pejorative towards the Abkhazians, even to a point of sarcasm. In the description of the day Georgian army set the Abkhazian National Archive on fire in 1992 it is stated that local firefighters didn't attempt to douse the blaze. The only part missing here is that the firefighters were not allowed to extinguish the fire, just had to watch how the irreplaceable national treasury is burning down, as Slovenian firefighters had to, when prevented to stop the burning of Slovenian National Home in Triest in 1920 by the Italian fascists who set it on fire.
          Russian language, no wonder, is the name of the game here, English is, strange as it may sound, virtually useless. A vendor in a dress shop in Candripš, when discussion (in Russian) came to the top world language explained that she was learning it in the trade high school for years but, asked she, what use do I have of it now? None. Once I went to Turkey on a tourist trip and I was able to make use of my English - to ask in the street where the toilet is (in the open market and in souvenir shops Russian was OK). Georgians still control the international flights and so large, jumbo-jet capable Babushara airport serves a single destination, mountain village of Pskhu. There is no rent-a-car service in Abkhazia - it is possible to get a car in Soči on the Russian side or in Zugdidi on Georgian side but it is not possible to enter Abkhazia with it.
          One can only speculate how things would turn out if Georgia would respond to Abkhazian (most understandable) urge for independence with a peaceful, friendly approach Russia took when Kazakhstan, with a considerable Russian population, became independent in 1991. Georgians could stay in Abkhazia and for both countries the path to join the open and prosperous countries, in line with the best Mediterranean destinations, would be wide open.
          The country and its tourism, both destroyed by the 1992/1993 war, very slowly recovered. Only in 2019 did the number of visitors come close to the last pre-war figure (3 million). How things will develop in the future is anyone's guess, current standstill serves neither Abkhazia nor Georgia nor even Russia, who covers two thirds of Abkhazian budget. Russia proposed integration of Abkhazia into Russia in 2014, so that Russians could easily obtain Abkhazian citizenship and with it the right to acquire real estate, but was rejected, of fear that Russians would buy all the best land in the country and so effectively own the Abkhazia. Which again has an impact on further development of the country.

45185. Rose of sharon blossom protruding through the fence in Candripš, western Abkhazia.


          The vast majority of visitors (probably over 99.9 %) are from Russia which recognized the independence of Abkhazia and so they do not need a visa. Visitors from most other countries need one and an Internet application form gets you the entry permit, free of charge, in 5 working days. After entering Abkhazia with this permit the visitor is obliged to obtain a visa in 3 days either in the capital Sukhumi (office open in business hours) or at the border crossing at Psou (office open 24/7) at a cost of 500 rubles (8 Euros). In the application form it is necessary to write the border crossing where the potential visitor would like to enter (and leave) Abkhazia. There are two - in the west with Russia, near Soči, across the river Psou bridge (open 24/7) and in the east with Georgia, near Zugdidi, across the river Enguri bridge (daytime only, from 8 a. m. - the bridge is 870 m long, quite a stroll).
          On paper the eastern entrance would be preferable - Turkish Airlines will take you via Istanbul to Batumi (closest airport in Georgia to Enguri) or Tbilisi from most European cities at a decent price, plus Georgia and the EU countries are visa-free. English is more useful in Georgia though still not as much as Russian, despite all the animosities. But there is a catch - in the past years the Enguri border crossing was open year round while in January 2019 it was closed for a month, until February 5, the reason being to prevent the spreading of swine flu. At the end of June Abkhazian side closed this border crossing again, after mass protests in Tbilisi (Sergej Gavrilov chair affair), and it remained so at least to the time of this report. The western entrance, the Psou, which enjoys incomparably larger traffic, was therefore the only remaining option for the writer of these lines. Now Aeroflot would be the most suitable airline and for western visitors a Russian visa is also required. It involves substantially more demanding paperwork, and at least double entry visa is necessary for Abkhazia. Multiple entry visa is more recommended as it may turn out that you forgot to take something with you to the trip (or were not allowed to take because of flight luggage limitations). Say you need a small portable gas cooker (not allowed on the plane) and want to buy it in Abkhazia. You will be directed back to Russian side for this purchase (8 km from Candripš) but without a multiple entry visa a no go. From Soči airport in Adler to the border it is a 13 km distance and the taxi costs from 500 (outside the building) to 1000 rubles (official taxi at the airport counter). From the border crossing onwards there are shuttle vans (maršrutka) and buses. It also has to be taken into account that by Georgian law it is a punishable offense to enter Abkhazia from any other place but from Georgia. So any evidence of your travel through Psou crossing can lead to major problems on Enguri next time.
          Ruble is the official currency in Abkhazia, but US dollars can also be changed or used in many places. Euro is little known and accepted only in the (few) main banks.

         Further Reading



          But all the hassle is well worth it. To see the world's deepest caves, at least one of them, from up close, is no little feat. To participate in their exploration is a challenge to make any young caver's heart tick. There are two major mountain ridges at the western border of Abkhazia, the closer and more known one is Arbaika ridge (Verëvkina, Krubera-Voronja, Sarma, Snežnaja caves, the highest mountain Peak of Speleologists, 2,758 m) and, just across a deep valley to the east, the Bzyb ridge (Pantjuhinskaja cave, 1.485 m deep, nr. 14 in the world, top mountain Mt. Khimsa, 3,033 m).
          Why Arbaika and not Arabika? Here the original name is preferred, Arabika was adopted later just to make things simpler, easier to pronounce. The ridge obtained its name from the Abkhazian words «арбаҕь аика» - arba aika, which translates into rooster's crest, to which the massif bears a strong resemblance.
          Besides Arbaika there are not many such hotspots for deep caves in the world, Pico de Europas in Spain, Oaxaca in Mexico, Aladaglar mountains in Turkey, Baysun Tau in Uzbekistan, Kanin mountains in Slovenia and Italy to name a few. Each hotspot attracts cavers from nearest big caving metropolis, and as Americans are for decades attracted to Mexico, so are the Russians and Ukrainians to Abkhazia. Connections are good, a few hours by plane or a few days by car. Abkhazia accepts visitors with an open heart, Abkhazians are known not only for the longevity of life but also for their hospitality and in the exploration of the first sub-2000 m cave, the Voronja, cavers from 21 different countries have participated, including Ukraine, Russia, Israel, United States, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland, Spain, United Kingdom, Belarus, Belgium, Britain, France, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Moldova, Turkey and Slovenia.
          As will be seen in this report, the access is safe, not too strenuous, and, if you join one of the caving research teams operating on the mountain every summer, rather straightforward. In the summer of 2019 there were 9 caving camps on Arbaika alone. The contact persons of the teams in the two deepest caves, Verëvkina and Voronja, are Pavel Demidov and Jurij Kasjan. Both can be found on Facebook.
          The author joined the latter team, and wishes to express his gratitude to all the participants who welcomed him warmly on the mountain and helped make his stay as pleasant as possible, especially but to Mr. Kasjan, also for the invitation and giving him a place in his tent.

From Ljubljana to Candripš, August 20


45150. Alënka (pron. Alyonka, diminutive of Elena) milk chocolate, a dessert of the in-flight snack, adds to cordiality of the welcome as much as do ...



45148. ... the flight attendants, here pictured at the exit door of the plane at the Moscow airport. All girls in the world are handsome, yet the ideal of beauty is still quite elusive, there are so many opinions about it. If you ask the Italian fashion designer Antonio Marras: I have no ideal of beauty, but to a certain extent it's personified by Russian women.



45149. Plane wing above the western horizon over southern Russia, close to Soči.



From Candripš to Voronja Cave Camp Below the Mt. Berčilj, 2.495 m, August 21


45152. Living room of Zoven and Svetlana. Many treks to Arbaika started from their yard on the other side of these windows.



45151. Breakfast: polenta (corn porridge) with soaked dry cranberries, camomille tea, oatmeal cookies



45155. Office of one of the two main cell phone operators in Abkhazia (the other being Aquafon). Its service seemed to be a reasonable choice but unfortunately an all-inclusive package with ample SMS, calling time and Internet transfer could not send an SMS to western or central Europe and they had no signal on the mountain, where only services of Russian and related operators worked.



45153. Open market in Candripš. It was an ordinary day with limited choice - no spinach, no chard, no green beans - a full market day would be tomorrow, Thursdays.



45154. Uphill view of the road in the village of Hašupse (pron. Hashoopseh), about 100 m a. s. l. The voyage from Candripš to the shepherd home below the Voronja cave is 17 km long but the ride takes over 3 hours. Here the road is still very reasonable.



45156. The road passes through the villages Hristofor (300 m a. s. l.) and Mendeleevka (500 m a. s. l.) up to which the figs grow. In general on Arbaika there are settlements up to around 1.500 m above sea level.



45158. At higher elevations the road turns into a more demanding track.



A 37-second film clip of a loaded forestry truck driving downhill and a jeep driving uphill, over a muddy section of the track high (about 1000 m above sea level) above the Hašupse valley with its spectacular slot canyon.

45157. Side view of the UAZ jeep. The ride cost (car and driver) is in the region of the largest greenback bill but is worth every penny. A 2 m hazel stick, protruding from the back was fetched along the way. It is indispensable for the downhill walking on steep trails.



45159. Yellow flowered plants with butterbur-like leaves (yet to be determined) could be found all the way from the coast up to the top of the ridge.



45160. Blossoms up close



45161 - 45163. Panoramic view north-northeast from the saddle above the hamlet Gizla, at about 1.600 m a. s. l. Berčilj mountain ridge is on the left.



45164. Cattle on the saddle ...



45165. ... and in the shadow of a wooden shack



A 20-second film clip of a jeep driving over a rocky section of the track on the slope of the southern Berčilj (pron. Berchil') mountain ridge, about 2000 m above sea level.

45179. Southeastern Berčilj ridge slope. Arbaika is watered by almost daily (and nightly) showers and is green even late in the summer. Reminds one of St. Patrick's island, just the altitude is higher.


45166. Water pool for the livestock on the small saddle where the road crossed the Berčilj ridge, at about 2.220 m a. s. l.



45171. Past the saddle the road winds down, to the northwest, to the ...



45167 - 45170. ... next saddle with a shepherd home, and upwards (picture center) across the next ridge and further to the other two mountain valleys, Gilgeluk and Žove Kvara.



45181. The shepherd home, operated by Ovanes and his wife, at about 1.870 m a. s. l. Their main problem is the lack of spring water (rainwater only). The voyage from here to Voronja cave continues on foot.



45176 - 45178. Newly acquainted friends in the vicinity of the Hrištakjan shepherd home - left to right (last photo): Ovanes, Miša, Nastja, Saša, Zina, Tolik, Julija, Maša, Daša, Ženja and Ruben.
A mouse click (or even better two clicks) on any of the above three pictures shows it in better resolution. Caving camp is behind the saddle on the right side of the last picture, an hour walk away.



45174. Ruben



45172. They also keep turkeys such as this gobbler ...



45175. ... and 4 shepherd dogs.



To the Camp at 2.240 m a. s. l.


45182. Resting halfway: Daša and Ženja, Maša, Nastja, Zina and Tolik



45183. View west from below the saddle - the shepherd home is barely visible in the picture center.



45184. The wonder of mother: Zina with Ženja and Tolik




  Mt. Golica, 1.836 m, August 18     Voronja Cave Entrance, August 22  


This page, text and photos by Primož Jakopin, member of the Ljubljana Cave Exploration Society (DZRJL). Send inquiries and comments to primoz jakopin guest arnes si (insert dots and at sign as appropriate). Page initiated on August 30, 2019; date of the last change: September 14, 2019.