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Friday, February 14, 2014
My trek to the 'End of Russia'

By Wayne Drehs


SOCHI, Russia -- Perhaps the best perk of my job is the opportunity to visit exotic places I would otherwise never get to see. In nearly 14 years at ESPN, I've climbed through the pyramids in Cairo and stood beneath Iguazu Falls in Brazil. Stories have taken me from New Zealand to Qatar, Germany to Costa Rica.

And so on Thursday morning, when I woke to another sun-splashed day and had a few hours to kill, I headed out of my hotel on a quest to find one of the points where the largest country in the world comes to an end. A few days earlier, Julie Foudy and I had stumbled into paved path behind our hotel that beautifully followed the coast of the Black Sea, winding its way to the Olympic Park.

I stood on the same path Thursday, but headed in the opposite direction, curious where exactly it might end. A simple Google Maps search told me I wasn't more than a few football tosses away from Russia's neighboring country to the east, Georgia. At least I thought it was Georgia.

Sure enough, not more than a few minutes after beginning my walk, the meticulously laid brick path came to an abrupt end. It spilled into a wasteland of rocks, dirt, empty beer bottles and forgotten flip-flops. It looked like a construction site.

Some 50 yards further stood a massive yellow brick wall that stretched about 12 feet into the air. There it was, I thought. The end of Russia. As the wall crept closer to the Black Sea, it transformed into a white iron gate that traced the border into the water. The wall and gate were topped with a ring of barbed wire. A white sign with fading red letters gave some sort of warning in Cyrillic. When I later showed the photo to a colleague who speaks Russian he translated it for me: "Keep Out. No Access."

Why the warning? Well, I discovered later that it wasn't actually Georgia I was staring into. At least not according to everyone. The 3,336 square miles on the other side of the fence was instead the disputed territory of Abkhazia. Russia and four other countries in the world recognize the territory populated by more than 240,000 people as the independent state of Abkhazia. But Georgia and the majority of the world's governments -- the United States, included -- consider the land part of Georgia. The disputed land is at the heart of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, a fallout from the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Georgian military was defeated here in 1993, granting Abkhazia its independence. Sort of. Despite a ceasefire agreement in 1994, the conflict has occasionally flared up, most recently in 2008. That's when Russian forces crushed the Georgian Army in a brief battle.

But here's what I found so fascinating -- in the shadow of these walls, bars and prickly wires were fishermen. Lots and lots of fishermen. Many of them had ridden their bikes to this point with multiple rods in tow. And right there, nestled up against the iron gates of this border and stretching back into Russia, they patiently waited, hoping for a bite.

I just sort of stood there and took it all in for a moment before snapping a couple pictures. The sound of my camera prompted one of the men to turn around and look at me. I smiled and said, "Hello." He had no response. I asked if he had caught much today. He again said nothing. I smiled again, nodded as if to say, "Thank you," and began to walk away. And that's when the man finally spoke.

"Fish," he said.

"Yes," I responded. "Fish."