Saturday, January 04, 2014

Abkhazia, a Must-Visit During/After Sochi Olympics

This boat has seen better days. A nice playground, though. On the seafront of Sukhumi, Abkhazia. 

The Olympic winter games will soon come to Sochi in Russia and thousands and thousands of people will be visiting. But the trip doesn't need to be only about winter sports. Why not combine your sports trip with a visit to break-our republic Abkhazia, only 140 kilometers away? Not heard about it?

Well, it is only recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tuvalu and Nauru. The two latter tiny nations have presumably done so in exchange for money. Three other not widely recognized republics, namely South Ossetia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh have also recognized Abkhazia. The wannabe country is officially a part of Georgia, but is desperately seeking sovereignty. It seems unlikely that they will get it any time soon, despite a newly signed trade deal with Russia.

The trade deal isn't all that good, though. The border between Russia and Abkhazia will allegedly be closed or partly closed during the Olympics, so you will have to go to Abkhazia before or after the games as trains and buses will stop running. You may still be able to hitch a ride with a Russian registered vehicle or just walk across the border. To walk is not a problem, given that they will let you in. You'll just get a ride to the border, walk across and get another ride on the other side. A standard border crossing procedure between certain countries. Eurasianet's news report on the matter is a little blurry. 

One of several random sculptures in Sukhumi.


Abkhazia is located between the Caucasus mountain range and The Black Sea, which means a diverse and beautiful scenery. It is not particularly tricky to get a visa to enter either. All you do is fill out an application and send it via email together with a scanned version of your passport. You will receive a visa letter a few days later. This needs to be printed out and carried with you to the border. An electronic version of that letter will not do.

I found that out the hard way and had to return to Zugdidi in Georgia to print out the letter. The letter that I had actually received electronically via email. To find anywhere there with a printer was however nearly impossible on January 1 in the Georgian town. I had to stay in Zugdidi an extra night to find a currency exchange shop that actually had a printer. Neither the two hotels, the couple of bars, the internet cafes, the pharmacies nor any other open shops could provide me with a bloody printer. Oh well, Zugdidi is certainly a happening town, so a night there was pure bliss.

Just for the record, the last sentence was of the ironic type.

Upon producing a printed version of the visa letter, entrance was granted in a matter of minutes. Not until yet again having walked a kilometer from where the taxi let me off on the Georgian side of the border. The last 500 meters across an old river bridge in dire need of repair. Horses pulling carriages transport lazy people and goods the 1000 meters or so, but it is faster to walk.

Access from the Russian side is allegedly easier, just remember that you will need a double or multiple entry visa to Russia to be able to travel back into the country. 

After being accepted into the country, you will have to register and get your passport stamped at the Ministry of Repatriation on Sacharova Street 33 in the capital Sukhumi within three days of arrival into the country. The office turned out to be closed for a week due to Russian Orthodox Christmas when I visited. A Christmas number two and a full week in Abkhazia was however not in my plans this time, and I returned to the border hoping that the border guards would show some common sense.

My backup plans included wading across the river, but I luckily  managed to talk my way out of the country. No surprise, I had after all become friendly with the border guards after two previous visits. Then again, I would normally have been refused exit from the country due to the lack of my visa stamp and been ordered to return to Sukhumi.

But why go to Abkhazia in the first place? First of all, this is a place virtually no one has visited. Bragging rights guaranteed, just don't expect people to be able to place it on any map or spell the name. The country also produces its own wine and tasty food. It's similar to Georgian, although possibly a tad spicier. Although not a popular destination among westerners, a fair amount of Russians go there due to its location on The Black Sea with a number of good beaches. I was however a novelty. Random locals demanded having their photos taken with me when they realized I was indeed a "real" foreign tourist, not a Russian.

The town itself is also photography heaven. It is like time stood still. All the old Sovjet style buildings will make you want to walk around for hours. The lack of maintenance clearly proves that communism won't work in real life. If no one owns them, who the hell will take responsibility for keeping them in shape?

Abkhazia uses Russian language and Russian currency, a clear difference to Georgian language and Georgian Lari in Georgia. Do not expect to find many people speaking English, although smiles and sign language go a long way. Although maybe not for a differentiation between various pork, chicken or beef dishes. For the only English menu in town, try the restaurant of Hotel Atrium Victoria. It offers is one of the best accommodations in the country, although do not expect Wi-Fi.
Free internet can still be found in most cafes free of charge. There are a few pretty good restaurants on the sea front. The most unique location is Amri, a restaurant on the end of a pier. It has a good selection of local food.

You should also venture outside town to see Novi Afon, a Christian Orthodox cathedral, 20 minutes from the capital. The building itself is nice enough, but the real reason to go is the attached cave with
thousands of stalagmites and stalactites. The lakes Ritsa and Msui are also worth a visit for those craving quality scenery.

Do remember to bring rubles into the country. You will need it for transportation. Georgian Lari or US Dollars are not accepted, and no hotels or restaurants accept credit cards. You can exchange money in the banks or from certain shop owners, but the latter won't win any awards for their exchange rates. There are two ATMs in Sukhumi, though, and they now accept foreign cards.

And just for the record. Abkhazia feels totally safe. I would not have any second thoughts about going there again.

For Abkhazian news, comments and analysises, do visit Abkhaz World.

Fancy a room?

6 comments:

  1. Don't forget that the Russia/Abkhazia border will be closed during the Olympics.

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    Replies
    1. I didn't know...that complicates a couple of things...

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    2. Maybe it's only partially closed.
      http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67742
      It's a little unclear how reality relates to official statements...

      Delete
  2. I went via the Russian border in October and it was quite a hassle. For most of the day the border was arbitrarily closed. At night it was back open. I have a multiple-entry Russia visa but this was my first entry on that visa and I had not put Abkhazia (or Sochi) on my itinerary for my original invitation letter. They found a girl with limited English to translate and from what I could ascertain, this was a big issue. Also that on the Russian visa the inviting agency was not listed. I believe this happens with multiple-entry visas, but was a problem to them. The Abkhaz invitation letter was irrelevant to the Russians. After nearly a hour of halting back and forth them let me out of Russia without stamping my passport.

    The Abhaz side was a breeze, back and forth.

    Returning to Russia was less grueling but still about twenty minutes of attempted questioning.

    If the border is open at all during the Olympics I strongly recommend non-Russian speakers to have a Russian speaker with, prepare to be shut out.

    As a place to visit, I really enjoyed my short visit to Abkhazia. People were quite friendly compared to their big neighbor.

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  3. I want to travel from abkhazia why I cant get throw sochi its forbidden until the games over is there is anyway ?

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