Abkhazia, a Must-Visit During/After Sochi Olympics
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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.