Below is a fairly general walkthrough for planning a trip to the (mostly) unrecognized breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. For specifics on the route I took from Tbilisi to Sukhumi, check out this video. For a 10 point checklist summary of this article, scroll to the end (but where’s the fun it that?).
Disclaimer: Visiting Abkhazia is both complicated and controversial. 20 years of international
isolation have decimated the Abkhaz economy, with visible affects on the lives and livelihoods of those in the region. Using the tourist dollar to support everyday entrepreneurs who have fallen victim to transnational politics is, in my eyes, a legitimate cause. Undeniably, supporting a separatist regime that gained its independence through alleged war crimes and ethnic cleansing is far from venerable. This article is neither an endorsement of Abkhaz independence, nor of Georgian sovereignty over the region. Caveat visitor…
For most passport holders, a visa application prior to visiting Abkhazia is required. It’s a simple process, but it requires a hotel reservation to complete the application and a decision on how you’ll enter Abkhazia.
The later first – entering Abkhazia. There are 2 possible routes – via Russia (most common for CIS passport holders) and via Georgia. Most
visitors come via Russia, but most visitors are Russian and don’t require the elusive Russian double entry visa. Russia considers Abkhazia a separate country, and thus to re-enter Russia you’ll need that double entry visa. Onward travel to Georgia is reportedly impossible, and Georgia considers the Russian-Abkhaz border crossing illegal. You’ll run the risk of being detained and possibly deported if you do try to exit Abkhazia to the south after entering from Russia.
For most Western passport holders, visiting from Georgia will pose no trouble. To watch me do it, check out this video I made tracing my journey from Tbilisi to Sukhumi.
Next you’ll need to sort out accommodation. Despite spending almost 20 years of international isolation with minimal international
recognition, booking accommodation is relatively straightforward. Hotels are listed on major accommodation websites, although expect the region to be listed under ‘Georgia’. Given the alleged lawlessness of the region, many people might hesitate to pay a deposit for an Abkhaz hotel. Rest assured, many don’t require a deposit – and bookings through major accommodation websites do often carry guarantees to protect visitors in these sorts of situations.
With these two vital details in hand, it’s time to download and complete the visa application form from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Send it back to email@example.com and, by all accounts, you should have a very courteous email from the Consular Service in 3 working days.
A note on money – Abkhazia unsurprisingly uses the Russian Ruble as opposed to the Georgian Lari. We came across several long queues at ATMs across Sukhumi, and later found those ATMs to be empty when we were strapped for cash. There are moneychangers about the city, and we did eventually find several Russian ATMs to withdraw Rubles using Visas and Mastercards, but a bit of hard cash goes a long way (quite literally – it’s an affordable trip!).
There are a few stories of people having their visa application rejected from the start, and so it’s probably best to wait until this point to purchase train tickets if you’re planning to travel from Tbilisi. Georgian rail tickets can be bought online here.
Crossing into separatist territory
For those who long for the USSR, crossing from Georgia into Abkhazia will be a refreshing throwback to the halcyon days of Soviet bureaucracy. Expect to wait. And wait some more. Leaving Georgia involves a quick passport check and usually the classic line “You speak Russian?”. Crossing
into a separatist territory is not the time to become ostentatious. The answer is no. No you don’t. The mantra ‘Nothing to see here’ will serve you well, as anyone with a non-Georgian or Russian passport will be an oddity.
Once on the Abkhaz side, the first guard will take your passport and a copy of your visa letter – one of the several you printed out, right? Keep a couple of these deep in your bag, as often you won’t get them back. You’ll then progress to the next stop to get your documents checked again. No, you don’t speak Russian. Tourist, on holidays. Beach! A little bit of mime and a ‘happy go lucky attitude’ will see you through quickly. That, or cigarettes. If you’re really lucky (ie. American), you may be pulled aside by the Russian guards. I thought they were military, but more informed people tell me they’re FSA agents. Again…No, only English. Tourist, on holidays. The likelihood of finding an English speaker at the border is next to nil, which works in your favour for breezing past the guards with feigned blissful ignorance.
Eventually you’ll get past the border and back onto the road!
Off the map
Before you head off into the depths of Abkhazia, a trip to the ‘capital’ Sukhumi is mandatory for visa purposes. Head to the Consular Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located in the center of town at 33 Sakharova Street, or opposite the Maestro Restaurant. There are many near-identical government buildings and so ‘Res-ta-ran Mae-stro’ (in Russian) is the easier landmark to identify. There you’ll find several fluent, albeit stern, English speaking employees who will direct you to the nearby bank and give you details on how to pay the visa fee. Take the slip the bank clerk gives you back to the Consular Service and you’re legal!
In the deep end
Now you’re in the proud republic or separatist territory, depending on
your allegiance, there is plenty to see and do. There’s the usual Russian-style beach experience and promenade, and plenty of quaint little “ma ‘n pa” style restaurants just off the main drag. Older people asked for souvenirs, like coins from the UK. A worrying number of children try to sell cigarettes. Locals in Sukhumi were
welcoming and chatty, once the ice was broken.
For a more somber experience in Sukhumi, check out what I call the Dacha of Dr Moreau. Stalin allegedly ordered his scientists to try to cross breed humans and apes at a research center in Sukhumi. His space monkeys were also trained at the institute, and their descendants still inhabit the grim facility.
The old parliament building can’t be missed, along with the abandoned train station. Both fell victim to the brutal war, and are a stark reminder of the city’s more recent tragic history.
1. Decide entry point
2. Determine if you need a Russian or Georgian visa
3. Book accommodation
4. Complete and return visa forms
5. Print off returned visa form (!!!!)
6. Buy Rubles
7. Book trains in/out
8. Visit Foreign Ministry building (within 3 days)
9. Pay visa fee at local bank
10. Return bank slip to get a visa!