Trans Eurasia travel

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The southwestern corner of Georgia is a highlight of the country and intriguingly idio syncratic: it’s humid and semi tropical
and has a sizable Muslim population. Since the loss of Abkhazia, Adjara (also spelt Achara, Ajara or Ajaria) has taken on the
mantle of Georgia’s holiday coast. Batumi, the Adjaran capital, is the destination of choice for most Georgians – and many Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Ukrainians – in search of summer fun, with a real party atmosphere, especially in August.

Founded on July 16, 1921, approximately five months after the Bolsheviks annexed Georgia, the province of Ajara covers an area of 3,000 sq. km. It has a population of around 400,000, many of whom are Georgians of the Moslem faith. Lenin used the religious issue as the reason for creating this autonomous country. It was an interesting tactic coming from the head of an atheistic government and exemplifies the policy of divide and rule that the Bolsheviks exercised in Georgia.

Located in the southwest part of the country, Ajara is covered with the mountain ranges and foothills of the Lesser Caucasus, which protect the Ajaran coast from cold fronts coming in from the north and east. In the west the coast along the Black Sea is a strip of lowland that is topographically a continuation of the Colchian depression. In the south the republic shares a border with Turkey. With the explosion of trade with Turkey, the little Georgian border town of Sarpi is seeing a lot of activity as a continuous stream of Georgians and Turks cross back and forth.

Some Georgians also go to visit relatives who live in a fairly large region south of the Chorokhi River, which belonged to Georgia before Lenin's deal with Ataturk that gave the land to Turkey. The Turkish province of Tao has many Georgian speakers and historic monuments-most notably the churches at Oshki, Oltisi, Ishkhani, and Parkhali. (If you count all the provinces now in Turkey that had at one time in history belonged to Georgia-Lazika, Tao, Klarjeti, Shavsheti, Kola, Artaani, Chrdili, Erusheti, Speri, Tortomi, Parkhali- the total area would be 34,000 sq. km)

Though Adjara’s beaches are mostly stony, the climate is beautiful and the scenery gorgeous, with lush hills rising behind the coast, and peaks topping 3000m in the Lesser Caucasus inland. The climate of Ajara along the coast is humid and subtropical with an average temperature of 4°-6° С in January, and 20°-23° С in July, and it's horribly humid in summer. The foothills have a similar climate, but average temperatures are a few degrees cooler. The region is famous for the amount of rain it receives: 2,400-2,800 mm annually along the coast and in the foothills facing the sea. It's cloudier than Abkhazia, which claims 100 more sunny days per year.

The province is known for citrus and tea production as well as its oil refinery located in Batumi. Despite the number of rainy days, tourism has always been big here. Batumi, Kobuleti, Tsikhisdziri, and Makhindzhauri are important resorts for Georgians.

Ajara was one of the first regions in all Georgia to receive Christianity, largely through the missionary work of Andrew the First-Called in the first century. Throughout the feudal period Ajara had a thriving agricultural-based society with the land divided amongst small khevi or communities consisting of hamlets in the various gorges of the tributaries of the Ajaristskali River. This feudal society reached a high degree of culture in many of the arts, but was almost entirely destroyed when the region was invaded by the Turks for the first time in the 1080s and again in the 1570s. Turkish occupation lasted until the 19th century, and very little remains of the pre-Turk period. Despite the efforts of the Turks, however, the Ajars clung to Christianity until the end of the 18th century, by which time the relentless persecution of Christians caused the populace ultimately to leave for other parts of Georgia or convert.

During the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) Ajara joined Russia. In 1918 the Turks, taking advantage of Russian disillusionment with the First World War, marched once more into Ajara and seized Batumi. In that turbulent year a Georgian independent state was established, and only an agreement with the German Empire checked Turkish expansion. However, within a week of Germany losing the war and signing an armistice, 15,000 British troops marched into Batumi. They stayed less than two years. Re-evaluating their position toward the Bolsheviks, the British pulled out of the South Caucasus completely, evacuating their last troops from Batumi on July 9, 1920. Ajara, along with the rest of Georgia, was annexed by the Bolsheviks in 1921. Immediately after that Russia created an autonomous republic within Georgia in 1921 as a condition of peace with Turkey.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union Adjara was ruled as the personal fiefdom of Asian Abashidze, whose family had been in charge here since the 15th century, and never tolerated much opposition (Tbilisi streets are named not after Asian but other Abashidzes who were fine poets). Abashidze was appointed chair of the Adjaran Soviet by Gamsakhurdia in 1991, and always had strong support from the generals commanding the Russian (nominally CIS) base outside Batumi. He ruled firmly, keeping the Mkhedrioni out of Adjara, and handed over very little tax to Tbilisi; nor did he go to Tbilisi himself - although elected as a deputy, he never attended parliament and should technically have been dismissed. Meanwhile the Adjaran opposition lived in Tbilisi, due to threats against them in Batumi. It was unclear why Shevardnadze didn't stand up to him, given all Abashidze's insults and his talk of challenging for the presidency; as he had plenty of funds due to his take of the trade passing through Batumi from Turkey, he easily persuaded opposition parties outside Adjara to throw in their lot with him. Abashidze claimed to have been the target of frequent assassination attempts, which he blamed on the Shevardnadze government. No-one outside Adjara took this very seriously, but the streets of Batumi were full of young toughs in plain black clothes wielding Kalashnikovs.

All this changed after the Rose Revolution - in May 2004 Abashidze staged a confrontation with Saakashvili and had three bridges linking Adjara to the rest of Georgia destroyed. Saakashvili gave him ten days to disarm and return to constitutional rule, sending the army to conduct a major exercise just across the border, while activists were smuggled in to lead protests and seduce Abashidzes guard away from him. Fortunately he was also persuaded to go peacefully and was flown to> Russia, and Adjara returned to being a normal part of Georgia.

Only 5 km south of the Chorokhi River and 33 km from Batumi, Kobuleti is the second largest town and health resort in Ajara. It is also the site of one of the oldest towns in Georgia, settled as early as the fifth century BC. The Italian missionary Archangelo Lamberti, who visited Georgia in the 17th century is credited as the first person to mention the town. The beach here is among the best along the entire coast, with a stretch of black sand approximately 80 meters wide that slopes gently into the sea. A line of coniferous trees runs parallel to the sea, providing much needed shade on a hot day. Now Kobuleti is chiefly a beach resort, although there is also a small port. With the closure of Abkhazia, this is currently Georgia's prime resort on the Black Sea.

Continuing south along the A305 to Batumi, the road climbs and winds up and down some steep hills that will remind you of the Corniche on the Cote d'Azur. Some little and not so little villas nestle on the hillsides with stupendous views.

Two places are worth a stop on the way to Batumi. Tsikhisdziri has the remains of a Byzantine fortress called Petra, constructed in the sixth century AD. The Georgian name means "fortress foundation," and its position on the cape is most evocative. Tsikhisdziri also has some of the most important citrus plantations in the entire country. The next village on the coast, just 18 km from Batumi, is Chakvi. This was the first place in Georgia where tea was cultivated. Also here is the Oriental Tea House, currently disused but a reminder that this is where Lan Chun-Chao introduced tea growing to Georgia. In 2005 a 657m-long road tunnel was opened through the ridge south of Chakvi; a second one to the north of Chakvi was completed in 2010.