Tips for visiting the ‘UAZ graveyard’ in Zugdidi, a collection of abandoned Soviet-era UAZ-452 ambulances.
Two summers ago I spent almost a month ‘living’ in Zugdidi, the biggest city in Western Georgia’s Samegrelo region.
Best known for the Dadiani Palace and Botanical Garden, two landmarks that hark back to Samegrelo’s royal heritage, Zugdidi is a small but very beautiful city.
One afternoon when I was out mosaic hunting, I came across a fleet of peculiar cars parked in an abandoned hospital lot. I snapped a quick photo and thought nothing more of it.
When I decided to include that photo in my Zugdidi City Guide, I had no idea I would get so many emails and messages (almost on a weekly basis) from travellers who were interested in seeing the old vehicles. I did some more research into UAZ ambulances and realised their significance as a remnant of Zugdidi’s Soviet past.
I recently returned to Zugdidi and revisited what I’ve called the ‘UAZ graveyard’ to do some investigating and take more photos. It’s certainly quirky, and it’s just one of many reasons to spend a day or two in Zugdidi on your way to/from Mestia.
This quick practical guide should hopefully answer all your questions.
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What is a UAZ?
UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) refers to a type of off-road vehicle manufactured in the city of Ulyanovsk, Russia. The name of the cars comes from the state-owned factory where they are assembled, the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant.
During WWII, as the German army encroached on Russia, it was decided that the biggest vehicle manufacturer in the country, the Stalin Plant or ZIS – which lends its name to other models of Soviet car including the famous ZIS-110 armoured limousine – should be relocated 900 km east of Moscow to Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin. Here, aeroplanes and helicopters were manufactured for the war effort along with UAZ army vehicles.
In the post-war period, the factory evolved to produce minivans, minibuses and trucks for public and private use. As you might know, car plants in the USSR were famous for producing ‘copycat’ versions of American vehicles. Some UAZ models look very familiar – the Hunter, for example, is said to be the Soviet version of the British Land Rover Defender.
The UAZ-452, which first rolled off production lines in 1965, is probably the most well-known model. Nicknamed the Bukhanka or ‘bread loaf’ in Russian, its chunky silhouette with a rounded front and back does indeed resemble a sandwich loaf!
Sturdy Bukhankas were deployed across Russia and the former Soviet Union for various municipal services. In Georgia, the main energy company Energy Pro still uses Bukhankas today. I often see them rolling down the streets in Kutaisi.
UAZ-452s were also used by the postal service and by hospitals. The ambulance version was given a different nickname, Tabletka, which aptly means ‘pill’.
Bukhankas and Tabletkas have a few interesting features. They have four doors – two at the front, one on the right-hand side plus a double-wing door at the back – a fuel port on either side to fill up two separate tanks, and most curiously, the 78-horsepower engine is positioned in the front between the driver and passenger seats.
Bukhankas are still manufactured in Ulyanovsk today – only now they come with ABS brakes and power steering. There’s even a contemporary version of the Tabletka ambulance, known as the UAZ-3962.
The UAZ graveyard in Zugdidi
In Georgia, it’s not uncommon to see a vintage Bukhanka trundling down the road or an older model parked somewhere. But it is rare to see so many of the vehicles in one spot. That’s what makes the ‘UAZ graveyard’ in Zugdidi so special and intriguing.
There are 15 vans here in total, all abandoned and each in a various state of decay. Much like the sanatoriums in Tskaltubo or the old cable car stations in Chiatura, the vehicles have been almost completely stripped of anything of value.
Only one of the vans still has its speedometer and fuel gauge intact on the dashboard.
The UAZ-452s in Zugdidi have rectangular rear lights, which means they were produced after 1979 (earlier models have small, round lights). They are all a uniform grey-blue colour with a red stripe, a simple cross insignia and 112, Georgia’s emergency number, painted on the side and front.
Almost every ambulance still has its hood ornament, a silver V-shaped symbol within a circle. This iteration of the UAZ logo came into use in 1962 and is said to signify V for Victory, with the sharp angles representing ‘freedom and speed’.
Some of the ambulances are in slightly better condition so you can make out how they might have looked inside when they were still functioning. In the back compartment, you can clearly see single chairs and folding tables where the paramedics must have sat. The metal ramps would have folded down to load on the trolley beds.
I have no idea when these ambulances were decommissioned or why they ended up here in Zugdidi. I noticed that several have ‘Poti’ written on the side, so I suspect they were originally used in Samegrelo’s Black Sea port city.
The vans have clearly been vandalised, with windshields smashed and engine parts wrenched out and strewn about. Do take care when walking around the area as there is a lot of broken glass and other trash on the ground.
Like other Soviet-era throwbacks in Georgia, there is a feeling of immense nostalgia and something desperately sad about the UAZ graveyard. I can’t help but imagine the people who travelled in these vans everyday – doing their job which was saving lives, nonetheless – only to wake up one morning and find their whole world had been turned upside down.
Yes, these are decrepit cars and some people might see them as little more than scrap metal. But for me there is so much history and so many untold stories in such objects and places. Unearthing strange and beautiful places like Zugdidi’s UAZ graveyard is one of the things I love most about exploring Georgia.
How to visit the UAZ graveyard in Zugdidi
The UAZ vans are located at Zugdidi’s main hospital on Konstantine Gamsakhurdia Street, roughly 2.5 kilometres south from the centre of town. It takes around 30 minutes to walk there, or you can use public buses #1 or #2.
The walk is actually very pleasant – K. Gamsakhurdia Street and Z. Gamsakhurdia Avenue are both completely flat with plenty of beautiful oda-style houses and yards to admire on the way. Or you can follow an alternative route to the hospital down Stalin Street!
Approaching from town, the vans are clearly visible from the main road. You will see them as soon as you pass by the old concrete hospital sign and the colourful mosaic wall. They are visible on Google Maps, too – in the lot behind this supermarket.
Judging by the architecture and the use of mosaic decorations, Zugdidi’s main hospital definitely dates to the Soviet period. Some of the buildings look abandoned, but others are still in use. Today it functions as the Zugdidi Referral Hospital.
The vans are parked outside in an area that is completely open with no fences, gates or security posts. You can very easily walk in (taking care to step over the cattle grate) and move freely around.
Do keep in mind that this is a working hospital. There is a bus stop near the car park, so you will see staff and other people coming and going. I definitely got a few curious looks when I was there, but in the end no one approached or questioned me. I really wish that someone had approached me so I could have asked them a few questions!
The car park and the ambulances are clearly government-owned, so please be responsible. Don’t remove anything from the site and don’t leave any trash behind either.
Love vintage cars?
Georgia is heaven for vintage car fanatics (though I do maintain that Armenia is even better for Lada-spotting). Nivas and Volgas are a common sight, especially in smaller cities and towns.
In fact, I saw this gorgeous classic car (a GAZ-M20 ‘Pobeda’) parked in front of a house in Zugdidi on my way to the hospital.
If you’re a fan of old cars, then I highly recommend visiting the Auto Museum in Isani. One of the coolest museums in Tbilisi, it houses a wonderful private collection of restored and maintained Soviet models.
Or you can go one step further and rent a UAZ Bukhanka to drive around in! Tbilisi-based Overlando has a fleet of new 4×4 UAZs that they have converted into campervans. Our friends Kim and Del from Going the Whole Hogg did a couple of expeditions in a Bukhanka and created this video series.
I have fond memories of visiting a ‘car graveyard’ in Krusevo in North Macedonia, where I saw some wonderful old Yugoslavian models. The only other site like this I know of in Georgia is a private lot with old Soviet wrecks near Pasanauri, off the Georgian Military Highway on the way to Kazbegi.
Do you know of any other car graveyards in Georgia? Have you seen the UAZ ambulances in Zugdidi?