Abkhazia (Abkhaz: Аҧсны, Russian: Абхазия) is a country in the Caucasus. It considers itself an independent state, but is recognized by few countries. The state is situated on the eastern bank of the Black Sea, bordered on the northwest by Russia on the Psou River, near the city of Sochi, and on the east with Georgia at the Ingur River, with the Grand Caucasian Range of mountains on the north. A subtropical climate and snow covered mountains combined with beaches, caves, lakes and mountains and its architectural and religious legacy of churches makes Abkhazia a wonder to a tourist.
After the war with Georgia in 1992-1993, Abkhazia survived in spite of an immense embargo and blockade imposed by Georgia. Despite having most of its infrastructure destroyed, Abkhazia managed to redevelop its main economic pillars which are tourism and agriculture. Though many efforts were taken to rehabilitate the territory after the war with Georgia, there still remains destruction across the territory. The unsolved conflict with Georgia is a burden for the future development of the territory.
In August 2008, there was fighting again during the South Ossetia War, which was followed by the formal recognition of Abkhazia by Russia, the annulment of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and the termination of the UN and CIS missions.
Its status as an independent state is internationally recognized only by Nauru, Nicaragua, Russia, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Venezuela. Abkhazia highly depends on Russian support, currency and has an uncertain political situation similar to that of Ossetia or Kosovo. From a travel perspective it is for all intents and purposes an independent territory.
Abkhaz, in the Northwest Caucasian linguistic family, is related to the Abkhaz-Adyghe language group in the same family. There are two official languages: Abkhaz and Russian. Russian is convenient for intercultural communication since Abkhazia is a multi-ethnic state. Russian is universally understood and the most convenient language for the traveller. In the cities one also can use English for basic communication.
As of 2012, there are two viable land crossings into Abkhazia: one is from Sochi in Russia, the other one is from Enguri bridge (near Zugdidi), Georgia. Entering is more "user-friendly" from Russia, as this border crossing is used by hundreds of Russian visitors every day, however, the need of a double-entry Russian visa makes it challenging for most westerners (see details below). If you enter from Georgia, take a taxi from Zugdidi to Enguri bridge (GEL10),or a minibus for GEL1 (yes, there are). check your passport with the Georgian military checkpoint and walk across the several hundred metre long, dilapidated Enguri bridge to the Russian military checkpoint at the Abkhazian side. Alternatively, horse carriages also run between the two checkpoints (GEL1); at the Abkhazian side you find taxis, marshrutkas and coaches to Gal and Sokhumi.
July 2013 taxi prices: From border to Sukhumi or back: RUB1,500.
A water border crossing point to Russia in Gagra was also opened in 2011 (see below).
Please note that after your trip you should go back where you came from: it is not allowed to transit through Abkhazia from Russia to Georgia or vice versa. While some travellers reported that visiting Abkhazia from Georgia and continuing the trip to Russia is viable, it's clearly not recommended. Visitors who go to Georgia after visiting Abkhazia through Russia may be subject to a punishment and fines by Georgian customs since they consider it a violation of the Georgian border regime.
Visa to Abkhazia
There are three types of visas for Abkhazia: Single-entry, Multi-entry and Transit visas; Tourists entering Abkhazia should fill out and send a Visa application form directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia. People living in Canada have to pay CAD50 for visa and additional tax - not more than CAD5 is added, and the application form is available here. A double entry Russian visa is mandatory for non-Russian citizens to be able to enter and exit the territory of Abkhazia from/to Russia. For other nationals, more information about visa application is available here. Citizens of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan-(Commonwealth Independent States) and Nicaragua do not need visas to enter Abkhazia.
Once at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi, you might be asked to pay the visa fees at the Sberbank — which is located a bit hidden near the Tzentralnaya Jolka. There is a tiny sign, not to be confused with the Russian bank with the same name. Staff is helpful — you might just as well go there first, pay the fee and continue to the MFA instead of moving back and forth. However, as of summer 2012, consular officers at the MFA allow you to pay the visa fee on the spot in Russian roubles. July 2013 prices for EU citizens USD10 or RUB350 and it's easier than before.
For those who travel to Abkhazia via Russia, the transit, double entry or multiple entry Russian visa is required in order to be eligible to re-enter the Russian Federation after visiting Abkhazia. The Russian guards do not stamp your passport at this border and sometimes questions about having already used up your double-entry visa can occur — so it helps to save the Abkhaz visa or any other piece of evidence about the length of your stay.
Suburban trains (Elektritschkas) leave twice daily from Adler but they run only as far as Gagra. Additionally there is a train from Moscow to Sukhumi in Summer — even though it doesn't seem to appear in the Russian timetables. It leaves Adler at about 08:00, returning from Sukhumi at about 14:00. Alternatively, there are marshrutkas from Adler to the Russian side of the border leaving from in front of the train station.
Buses to Sukhumi run from Sochi and Rostov-on-the-Don, Russia, at least in summer. Buses and marshrutkas to Gali and Sukhumi also run from the Enguri bridge crossing, near the Georgian border; a trip to Sukhumi shouldn't cost more than RUB150, although drivers may try to charge you the double. Don't let them scam you.
If crossing the border on foot from Russia, prepare for long waits in summer (2-3 hours are not uncommon) and bring enough water. Frequent (ancient Ikarus) buses and marshrutkas leave from the parking lot once you have cleared customs. Entering from Georgia will involve at least 15 minutes walking between the two military checkpoints, but apart the paperwork which can be somewhat lengthy, this is a straightforward process.
The airspace of Abkhazia is crossed by three international airways but due to the conflict with Georgia there are capacity limits on the utilization of airspace.
Sukhumi Dranda Airport (IATA: SUI) is recognized as one of the most technically advanced airports in the territory of the CIS countries, thanks to its facilities, and was permitted 24-hour operation. Sukhumi Airport is not operational yet though the Government has interests to launch flights in the near future but as for now the airport serves flights to a village and the United Nations Observer Mission flights. Abkhazian airspace is controlled mostly by the Russian Air Force, but also by the fledgling Abkhaz Air Force, and unauthorized aircraft entering it, especially from Georgia, may be shot down.
A high-speed, seasonal daily boat service (running between 10 June and 1 October) was introduced in 2011 linking Sochi with Gagra, where it is possible to enter Abkhazia being in possession of a Clearance (see above) indicating the Psou border crossing. The boat leaves at 09:00 from Sochi's Morskiy vokzal (sea port) (boarding time: 08:00) and arrives at 10:30. In the other direction, it leaves from Gagra at 19:00 (boarding at 18:00), a one-way ticket costs RUB500, in Sochi it has to be bought at least one day before leaving, for the way back though, it can be bought on board. From the Gagra port, just walk 100m ahead to the main road to catch a bus for travelling onwards.
Abkhazia is partially under a naval blockade by the Georgian Coast Guard, and its waters are patrolled by Russian Border Guards' Coast Guard. If you are caught by the Georgians, the Georgian authorities will probably investigate whether you are involved in any economic activity, and if they find that you are, you might be prosecuted for unauthorized economic activity with Abkhazia. You may be penalized with a prison term and a heavy fine.
There are frequent buses and marshrutkas along the coastal road between Psou and Sukhumi. You will find a detailed bus timetable at the Sukhumi Bus Station (in front of the train station). Twice daily suburban trains run from Gagra to Psou and on to Adler.
Visitors may also use taxis for travel within the country. Many taxi companies provide special rates for sightseeing. There are a number of travel agencies providing excursions to the mountains using jeeps / four wheel drive cars.
One interesting destination for travelers is to visit Novi Afon or New Athos (Новый Афон); a Christian Orthodox Cathedral, which is 20min drive from Sukhumi. It is famous not only as a cathedral and living legacy of Christianity but also as a cave; where there are 7-8 enormously large halls with thousands of wonderful of stalagmites and stalagtites. A special train takes you to the depths. There are also historical places like the village of Moqua with its beautiful cathedral, and Ilor Church near Ochamchira.
Another attraction is Lake Ritsa, high in the mountains and about one hour's drive from the main road (M-27). On the other side of the lake Stalin's Dacha (summer cottage) can be found. The shortest way is by boat, but access is also possible by road (5km). The cottage is open for tourists in the peak season. Even further up in the mountains is Lake Msui, a bit more off the beaten track; some tour operators offer trips. Weekly local flights from Sukhum airport can take you to the remote village of Pskhu, where tourists may enjoy fantastic views of mountains and enjoy local produce such as honey and meat.
The city of Gagra and Pitsunda is the most popular tourist destination, offering a wide range of activities for a vacation.
Abkhazia offers a wide variety of activities such as ecotourism, gastro tourism, rafting and extreme sports, mountain jogging and snowboarding, diving and sky gliding, hunting, and cultural and religious tourism.
These are things a traveler should try before leaving Abkhazia
Due to economic sanctions, credit cards are not accepted in Abkhazia. Dollars and Euros are accepted in official exchange offices which can be easily found in most tourist areas. Sometimes, visitors may pay with dollars and euros directly, though at a lower rate.
Must try Abkhazian local dishes include Akud (bean sauce) and Abista (corn porridge with cheese) and a variety of meat and fresh greens, most dishes are usually spicy.
Local wines are a must try; Apsny, Ashta, Buque, Dioskuria (ancient Greek name of Sukhumi), Gumsta, Lykhni, Psou, and Radeda.
In the past, Abkhazia has witnessed military confrontations between Georgian armed forces and the Russian-supported local independence groups. For the common traveller the country is relatively safe, but you should make sure to avoid any place near the border to Georgia. Some minor unregistered minefields are reported near the border, an additional reason to steer well clear of it. Keep in mind that Abkhazia is, in the view of international law, still a part of Georgia. Further military confrontations are unlikely but you should closely follow the international and independent news in case the situation changes. Travellers who have visited Abkhazia and intend to visit Georgia can be questioned, refused entry to Georgia or in the worst case be imprisoned by Georgian immigration officers, as entry to Abkhazia is seen as illegal immigration.
The basic precautions for travellers are those recommended in all tourist destinations:
Abkhazia is a traditional and conservative country, so dress modestly. Clothing which exposes too much skin will give you a bad image from the local people, and you will thereby get unwelcome attention and less respect.