What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa.  The UN recognizes 193 member states.  Then there is Palestine and the Vatican, which are called Observer States.  That brings you to 195.  There are other countries like Taiwan and Kosovo which seem like countries but due to global politics, are not part of the UN 193 club.  There is a process to joining this club which includes two thirds of the members voting affirmatively.

Then there is an entire cast of characters that act like countries such as Somaliland, Republic of Artsakh, Transnistria, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.  If it walks like a duck …  These de facto countries have many trappings of a UN member state.  Many have their own functioning governments, currency, flag, national anthem, armies, and even require a visa to enter their country.

And this brings us to the Republic of Abkhazia.  Abkhazia is a stretch of land the size of a combined Delaware and Rhode Island with only 250,000 inhabitants.  It can be found on the Black Sea scrunched between Russia and Georgia.

Abkhazia is not a member state of the UN, but it is a de facto state with its own government, flag, and even passport.  And Abkhazia even requires an Abkhaz visa to enter their territory.

Some History

Abkhazia has a long history in the Caucasus and often it was under the yoke of a greater power.  Abkhazia has called master many empires beginning before the time of Christ.  Abkhazia has been part of the Greek, Georgian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Russian empires.  More recently, Abkhazia was part of the Soviet Union within the Georgian state.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazs became concerned about their future in an independent state.  Two wars paved the way for de facto independence.  In 1992-1993, a viscous war was fought between Georgia and Abkhazia.  A brief war in 2008 between Russia and Georgia led the way to a more independent, de facto Abkhazia.

Abkhazia is recognized by 5 UN member states; Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and very recently Syria.  The Pacific island of Nauru was provided with a $9 million contribution from the Russian government for their recognition.  And the club of other unrecognized states have also lined up to support Abkhazia with recognition including South Ossetia, Transnistria, Artsakh, and Sahrawi.

Visa

There is a two-step process in getting a visa to visit Abkhazia.

First, you need to visit the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  There is a brief application that you need to fill out and including an uploaded scan of your passport.  You will receive an email within seven working days with a PDF (written in Cyrillic) providing you permission to enter Abkhazia.  I emailed the office once, and received a prompt response.  Make sure you print this letter since you will need to produce it at the Abkhaz border.

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

Second, once you enter Abkhazia, you must present yourself to the office of the Consular Department in the capital Sukhumi within three working days.  Enter the building and turn to the left to find the Consular office.  I sat down with a helpful woman who spoke good English.  I presented my letter and passport.  The cost of the visa is 400 Rubles, which I paid in cash.  You also have the option to use a credit card.  Previously, the Consular Department would not accept payment for the visa, you would have been directed to make the deposit at a nearby bank.  Today, the payment is made directly at the office.  I was quite psyched and thanked the Consular worker.  The address for the Consular Department is 33 Sakharova.  Just show your Letter of Invitation to a taxi driver to drop you off here.

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

Get your visa here!

You will receive a full page visa but it will not be attached to your passport.  So make sure you take a photo for a keepsake.  When you exit Abkhazia, the border official will keep the visa.

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

Enter from Russia or Georgia

You can enter Abkhazia from either Russia or Georgia but there are a couple of things to keep in mind.  There is no active commercial airport in Abkhazia.  Due to Abkhazia’s unique political situation you need to know that if you enter from Russia, you need to exit back to Russia.  And the same is true for Georgia, if you enter Abkhazia from Georgia, you need to exit back to Georgia.

Please note if you enter from Russia, it is required that you have a double-entry Russian visa, or you will not be able to get back into Russia.

Despite Abkhazia’s nominal independence, Georgia views Abkhazia as their land, not an independent state.  So in other words, if you enter Abkhazia from Georgia and then you exit into Russia, Georgia views this as an illegal exit of their country, since there is no Georgian border facilities at the Russian/Abkhaz border.

Enter From Russia

Sochi, a Russian town on the Black Sea, is a good launching point to enter Abkhazia.  From my understanding, this is a straight forward border crossing assuming you have the double-entry Russian visa.  Many Russian tourists use this border crossing.

Enter From Georgia

I entered from Georgia.  There are three options to get to Abkhazia from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

Taxi.  I rolled out of the Tbilisi airport at 6am.  I stood on the curb typing my destination into Taxify (the Uber of Georgia).  A taxi rolled by and yelled over.  In a moment, he matched the fare on the Taxify App.  For 200 Georgian Lari (about $80) I was on the road within moments.  It is an approximately a five hour ride to the Enguri Bridge crossing.

Train. There is both a day and night train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi (the big Georgian border town).  The night trains take about seven hours while the day trains are fast trains and about five hours.  The train is approximately $5-$20.

Marshrutka.  Marshrutkas are large vans that run routes throughout the country.  You can catch one of these from Tbilisi to Zugdidi.  This is the least comfortable and convenient option.

Zugdidi

Zugdidi is a town located near the Enguri Bridge crossing.  I opted to spend the night here before I crossed the border the following day.  Zugdidi is a sleepy town with a one or two touristic places to visit.  I stayed at Mars Hotel which was a convenient and cheap option.  I had a very good Georgian meal at The Host.  And check out the snazzy McDonalds.

Zugdidi to the Enguri Bridge Crossing.  You can take a taxi for 10 Lari or a marshrutka for 3 Lari for the 15 minute ride to the border.

Crossing The Border

This is where the fun starts.  At the Georgian side is a lone police station manned by a couple of policeman and a couple of shops, including one where you can get a snack and a beer.  There are a lot of taxis, car, and vans in the area as well.

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

Snack time!

I approached the police station and offered a გამარჯობა, hello in Georgian.  The officer took my passport and entered some data into his computer.  He left the passport by his computer and told me he would inform me when I could exit Georgia.  From my understanding, the policeman is waiting for permission from Tbilisi for me to cross.

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

A glimpse of the Georgian police station

It was an odd border crossing.  Georgians and Abkhazs crossed the border mostly at will.  Cars with both Georgian and Abkhaz license plates crossed into Georgia.  Some slowed down and made eye contact with the policemen.  Others would hop out of their car and quickly slide their passport into the station.  Others just walked or drove by the station without passing.

There was an approximately a 90 minute wait and I was finally given the signal that I was able to pass.  The walk was approximately a kilometer.  In the recent past, horse and buggies would provide rides across no-man’s land.  Today, there are taxis that make the drive picking up passengers.  I dragged my duffle bag down the road passing a handful of cars and a number of pedestrians.

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

I passed a sculpture of a gun with a twisted barrel.

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

And near the sculpture, was a tent with a handful of Georgian soldiers armed with assault rifles.  They seemed indifferent, not bothering to turn around when I passed.  I then crossed the Enguri Bridge which was built by German POWs and completed in 1948.  The blue and yellow railings seemed out of place.

What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa

After the bridge was the Abkhaz border facilities.  The atmosphere immediately changed in contrast to the casual Georgian side.  I noted a pill box on top of a hill and an excessive amount of barb wire and fences.  Things felt tense.  I was channeled into a narrow passageway bordered by a fence topped with barb wire.  I entered a small hut with a lone soldier who reviewed my letter and passport.  This border is open from 8am-7pm.

I was sent back into the fenced in passageway I noted the security cameras and on the adjacent road were tank traps scattered on the road.  I so wanted to snap some photos but did not want to risk detection.  The passage ended and there were a series prefabricated huts.  I slid my passport and letter through the slit in one of the huts.  The window was a mirror.  A soldier tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me two place my two bags on a table.  I noted the patch on the soldier’s shoulder.  It was a Russian flag.  Two ore soldiers gathered around my bag.  Another soldier in crisp Russian accented English directed me to empty my bag onto the table.  I placed a couple of t-shirts and socks on the table and looked over to the soldier.   I made eye contact with the soldier, he responded with a slight smile and told me to proceed.  I emptied the entire bag.  Another soldier wanded my bag.  The English speaking soldier then opened up my toiletry bag and then reviewed my medication.  I overviewed my Ambien and Cipro.

My backpack was next.  I carry a lot of gear, a lot of electronic gear.  And a drone, a DJI Mavic Pro.  My English speaking Russian soldier, questioned every piece of gear, from laptop to my wide angle lens.  My nerves started to rattle when I thought of them discovering my drone.  In many countries, a drone is illegal or not looked upon fondly.  I keep my drone in a separate bag within my backpack.  The soldiers had gone through every item except my drone bag which I was holding in my hand.  One of the soldiers nodded at me, and I began to repack my gear.  Then my favorite soldier tapped my drone bag for me to open it up.  For a moment he was perplexed as I held the drone and pointed to the lens.  I attempted to explain it was just a camera.  But he was too sharp for that.  He directed me to sit down.

Thirty minutes later he returned and ordered me to grab my bags and follow him.  I followed him into another prefabricated hut serving as an office.  Another Russian soldier sat behind a desk. A Russian flag was hung on the wall.  What followed next was an hour interrogation, both professional and very thorough.  I tried to slip in a couple of questions of my own to my interrogator.  The blue-eyed soldier responded to one of them allowing me to know his name and home town; Misha from Moscow.  But of course he could have been lying.  Misha was very sharp, and was able to drill down several levels in his questioning of me.  He went through my bag again.  He spotted my business card.  And analyzed every line.  He went through my iPhone and camera and reviewed the photos.  He overviewed my Instagram account and I showed him the type of photos I took with my drone.  Completely harmless, in fact, beautiful.  He asked me about my parents, my relationships, my job, where I live, and so much more.

I analyzed the odds.  It was 49%/49% that I would be either sent back to Georgia or allowed into Abkhazia.  Anytime I am in a situation like this, there is a part of my brain that assumes the worst, that is the 2%.  Worst case scenarios including drone confiscation or maybe even arrest.

Misha abruptly told me to zip up the bags again and to follow him once again.  As I trailed after him, I casually asked what direction I would be heading in next; left for Abkhazia or right to Georgia.  He let out a sly smile as he handed back my passport and directed me to turn left to enter Abkhazia.  I thanked Misha and dragged my bag into Abkhazia.

Getting to Sukhumi

Next goal was to get to the capital Sukhumi.

Taxi:  I opted to go with the taxi that I had prearranged.  It takes about two hours and cost 2000 Rubles (about $32).  I need to thank my friend Marko, who arranges tours to Abkhazia, who hooked me up with his driver.

Marshrutka.  Yes, you can take a van to Sukhumi.  Despite this only being 90 km, it will take several hours.

Hotel

I stayed at DEM Hotel (more like a small boutique) and was really happy with my choice.  It was a big, newer room with a big bathroom.  I splurged a bit getting a room with a big balcony which overlooked the Black Sea.  The wifi worked decently.  The staff was nice and helpful, but English was very limited.

Where to eat

I don’t have a lot to offer here, not being a foodie.

DEM Hotel.  I ate here three times out of laziness and comfort.  They have a pleasant patio adjacent to the promenade.  The food was decent, but a bit on the higher side for Sukhumi.

Narta.  I also had a meal at Narta, which has the feel of a traditional restaurant in this area.  It is located on the promenade.  The restaurant has both inside and outside seating.  Enjoy some wine and Caucasian food here.

Fast food falafel.  Across the street from the Abkhaz Consular Department is a Syrian fast food shop, strangely being run by a Syrian refugee.  Stop here for a good and cheap falafel wrap.

SIM Card

Near the Abkhaz Consular Department is a local mobile phone provider.  It is on Ardzinba Street with its name in red Cyrillic.  Within five minutes I was the proud owner of a local SIM card.  One of the woman spoke good English.

Currency

Put away those Georgian Laris.  They will not help you here.  The Russian Ruble is king here.  I would suggest you get some before you arrive in Abkhazia so you have some money to get you to Sukhumi.  The ATM card worked here, and I was able to get Rubles from ATMs in Sukhumi.  I also used my credit card to pay my hotel bill successfully.

Guide

There is enough to visit in Sukhumi for at least a day.  And there is enough for a day trip or two in Abkhazia as well.  I hired a taxi driver for the day through the hotel.  This cost me 6000 Rubles (about $100).  This is totally worth it if it is in your budget.  On the promenade are many kiosks offering day trip tours.  You can easily join a group tour for the day to some of the popular sites in Abkhazia.  Most likely these tours are in Russian.

Language

There is not a lot of English being spoken in Abkhazia.  Make sure you download the Google Translate App, and download the Russian packet for offline translation.

Safety

I felt completely safe in Sukhumi as well as on my day trip around the country.  It is my understanding that there are some safety issues in southern Abkhazia near the Georgian border.

Enjoy Abkhazia, it is well worth a visit.  What You Need To Know When Visiting Abkhazia and Getting A Visa.

Disclaimer:  Book a hotel through my links, I will get some money. 

Check out what it is like honoring Victory Day in Abkhazia.

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