Getting to Abkhazia from Sochi, Russia

In peaceful times Black Sea holiday resorts would stretch from Sochi down through Georgia. Abkhazia, considered a breakaway region by Georgia, is recognized by only six countries, Russia included. It sits in an uneasy stalemate between Russia and the territory controlled by Georgia since war in 1993.

Abkhazia Border 01

Border shut tight, elderly man sneaking a peek

The Winter Olympics brought expectations that the Russian border, just a few miles from the Olympics Coastal Cluster, would be closed entirely. Instead, it was closed to vehicular and train traffic, but not pedestrian, and extra Russian security was added, as reported by The Globe and Mail in Sochi’s forgotten neighbour snubbed by Olympics crowd. The waiver of visa requirements except the $12 fee did not tempt many visitors to brave the crossing.

Understandable. It was hard enough when I visited in October. This is primarily for Russian speakers (I am not) and experienced travelers. A pity, since my trip some years earlier to Georgia was one of my favorites. Russia is really tough for non-Russian speakers. I did not even know my flight to Sochi had been diverted 500-km away. And I had traveled the Russian Far East and Siberia a few years ago.

The Georgian government permits entry from Georgian-controlled territory, however considers entry from Russia to be illegal so under no circumstances should someone attempt entry to Abkhazia from Russia and then continue into Georgian-controlled territory. With a double-entry visa, Russia permits exit to Abkhazia and re-entry to Russia. Exit where you entered is the best approach, from either side.

Under regular circumstance the self-declared Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues Letters of Invitation sufficient to leave Russia and enter Abkhazia. Instructions are here. They even respond to email in about a week and have an official tourism website! Upon arrival, visitors must then obtain the actual visa within 3 working days by visiting the visa section on 33 Sakharova Street in Sukhumi. Those who enter and exit on a weekend are exempted. There is a thread on Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, How to get to Abkhazia (if you so desire) that provides the most active discussion in English.

My experience was a breeze for everything on the Abkhaz side and a major hassle on the Russian side.

I arrived Sochi with a mutiple-entry visa and headed for the border midday on a Saturday, following a visit to Stalin’s Dacha. The public bus dropped me about 1km from the actual border, at the start of a street jammed with cars and merchants selling various Russian staples. When the Russia border came into view I saw a huge, unmoving crowd. As I best I could understand, the border was closed by the Russians and no one knew when it would open. I waited around about an hour and headed back to Sochi, spending the afternoon touring the work in progress Olympics Coastal Cluster and Radisson Blu Resort & Congress Center, Sochi.

Abkhazia Border 03

Border shops

Abkhazia Border 02

Climbing the Russian border post for a look

I went back about 8 pm to find the border open and crowds much reduced. Each person took 5-10 minutes to pass Russian exit immigration. I took 45 minutes. If the Russian agents hadn’t found a young women with a bit of English I don’t know if they would have let me cross. As best I could asertain there was no issue with my Abkhaz invitation letter.

The first issue was that my Russian visa, one of the relatively new 3-year multiple-entry tourist visas issued under a bilateral agreement between Russia and the U.S., had a blank for “Invited by.” An artifact of the Soviet era, all visas require an invitation letter, which are now obtained from hotels or travel agencies. This is only needed for the first entry on the visa, so for perhaps that reason, the Russian Consulate in New York did not list my tour agency. The immigration agents kept wanting to know who invited me.

This led to the second issue, in which I just played dumb, not hard with the very little English we could exchange. In order, I hoped, to not attract attention, or delay my visa, I had gotten my invitation letter and visa by only submitting an itinerary for Moscow. It was too much hassle to try to get confirmations and everything for all my stops (Moscow, Sochi, Abkhazia, St. Petersburg, and Kaliningrad), and I hoped not necessary. So I couldn’t pull out my Russian invitation letter to show them. I played dumb and outlasted them. The young woman with a little English said, “It is ok, they say they will let you back in.” That made me a tad nervous. Heading the other way to a Georgian jail was not appealing.

I was already stamped out of Russia so I carried on. When I reached the Abkhaz border guards they took a quick look at my documents and waived me through and I made sure to take the same Sukhumi-bound minibus as the young woman and her friends.

I’ll save my midnight wandering around Sukhumi with the drunks for the companion post and focus on practicalities.

The next morning I headed to the visa section, was greeted warmly and given the slip to walk around the corner to Amra Bank to pay for my visa. Crisp US bills did the trick at the bank, staffed by friendly women with a bit of English. I headed back to the visa section and collected my visa. Took all of about 20 minutes and before 9 am I was back out on the streets of Sukhumi.

Abkhazia Visa Section

Visa section in here

Amra Bank Abkhazia

Bank in here

Fast forward to my afternoon return to Russia. No surprise I breezed out of Abkhazia and then faced a bunch of questions and stern looks to enter Russia. Only took 20 minutes of scrutiny this time.

From there it was on to the Olympic Mountain Cluster and Sochi/Adler International Airport.

Next posts on Sukhumi and monastery Novy Afon. Biggest regret in the border closure-shortened trip? I never got a khachapuri.

Abkhazia Billboard

Welcome to Abkhazia

Disclaimer: I do not take a position on the Abkhazia conflict. I do not know enough about about this complex issue to make any public pronouncements. I visited in a private capacity.

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  • NYBanker

    You are an intrepid traveler, Stefan.

  • Joey

    We thought about going to Abkhazia for a daytrip while we were in Sochi for the olympics but decided not to. We had an event every day and it just wouldn’t do justice to go to Abkhazia for half-day. Perhaps another time! What was interesting is how all the Russians we spoke to told us Abkhazia is a different country (obviously USA still recognizes the territory as part of Georgia.) Anyway, just like you, I do not know enough about the conflict to have an opinion on it.
    I do agree with you it is hard for non-Russian speakers to travel around in Russia. However, I believe it is also hard for non-English speakers to travel around the USA! 😉

  • Great stuff! I read an interesting book a long time ago called “Eastward to Tartary” by Robert Kaplan which discusses some of the more obscure areas and conflicts of the Caucasus.

  • Mr. Cool

    impressive. im Russian, but havent really thought about kavkaz travel… though the food is good!
    any other upcoming post-soviet plans?

    ps.. you can get decent hachepuri in brighton in NYC. & in rego park you can find some very quality uzbek food AND they speak english..sometimes

  • @Mr. Cool – no other post-Soviet plans at the moment, all I have left high on the wish list ends in -stan and the Soviets never took it.

    Last time I slogged out to Brighton, with my nieces for the NY Aquarium, we tried a Uyghur place called Kashgar that was pretty good. That journey is so long, especially with weekend subway slowness, or I would more readily go. I have heard somewhere in Jersey City there are some Uzbek places that at least I could get some plov. Rego Park I can see as an E train stop on the way to/from JFK.

  • Mr. Cool

    some of those stans are rough, but the post-soviet one are pretty tame i feel. im sure youve been to a couple at least.

    this is my fave uzbek place in NYC. close to LGA.
    “tandoori” bit.ly/1ete8Wl gotta try the soups. another place 2 blocks away called “salut” is also very good.

  • @Mr Cool – a place near LGA is great, I will check it out.

    The 5 ex-Soviet stans was perhaps my favorite trip. Each I loved, though, the rugged beauty of Tajikistan and the wacky megalomania and Gates of Hell of Turkmenistan were my top favorites.

    Af-Pak are the ones where the travel decision is really tough for me.

  • Mr. Cool

    yeah, let me know how you like it.

    you did all 5 stans at once? any photos you can share?
    yeah, thats pretty exotic.
    ive only done UZ, but i feel it has an eclectic mix of cultures + the horse meat!

    af- probably fine in the north, but outside of what i would personally deem reasonable.
    pak- no way. unless it was heavily proctored like this guy bit.ly/1ehqlSt

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  • Here is the set from my 5 ‘stans trip, did it pre-blog so no posts about it: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rapidtravelchai/sets/72157627532432756/

  • john

    Glad you had a good time in Abkhazia and glad its still possible to visit. I had similar experiences. Russians are unpleasant but the folks in Abkhazia were very very welcoming and friendly. Yes, being able to communicate in Russian makes a huge difference.
    I crossed from Georgia to Russia and the Georgian border, guarded by Russian soldiers was rather interesting. Then the Abkhazians got my invitation backwards (russia to georgia travel) but they let me through anyway.
    Sukhumi is fantastic! I wish I would have spent more time there.
    Got to the Russian border and they took me into a shack and questioned me for twenty minutes. I think my crappy Russian really helped them let me through.

    As for Pakistan, its kind of like Abkhazia. They dont get many tourists and are very welcoming (its part of their culture). Sure you can get unlucky and something may happen, but overall its just another place (ie dont get too caught up in the new coverage). I had a great time crossing the country from India to Iran. No issues even in Quetta and the western border regions.

  • Mr. Cool

    Stefan- thanks for the photos, ill check em out

    John- ive heard that pashtuns were known to be hospitable, but traveling to PAK just seem so unpredictable..not in a good way. mad respect for doing it though

  • @john – I appreciate the points on Pakistan. I want the full story of your trip, sounds incredible.

  • john

    sure, this was back in 2006. Was west bound and had to cross Pakistan. I had much trepidation about this and would not have gone there otherwise.

    Walked across the line from Attari and immediately things were more low key. Kind of a deserted desert crossing. Border guard eventually shows up and asks me “Whiskey?” “uhhh no thanks.” ten seconds later I realize he probably was making sure I aint got none.

    Shit, only taxis no buses. Usual trepidation on such a situation after crossing into a new country. Take the taxi into Lahore. Half hour trip, streets are empty. Oh its ramadan. Taxi takes me to a hostel. A bit below my standards. Everyone seems to be talking about going to/coming from Kandahar. Thats a bit too adventurous for me.

    Walk out and find a decent hotel. Damn, Im hungry. EVERYTHING is closed (even McDonalds the perennial last resort).
    Beautiful mosque. No one there, unlike the Delhi experience. At prayer time everyone starts praying in the street. whoa! a lot of shops are guarded by old dudes with rifles. whoa! haha.

    Go to pizza hut after sundown. Have a fruit cup. Heavily spiced. It doesnt taste like back home heh.

    Read about a sufi prayer place in the LP. Went to visit with much trepidation (religious places always make me uncomfortable). Arrive and they take my shoes. Its in the basement of a community center type place. Lots of scary looking guys hahaha. I sit in the back and watch them do their thing. Really cool and everyone is welcoming. Go back out and get my shoes. Guy wants a tip. OK. Hey no one is trying to rip me off here. Thats interesting.

    Train to Islamabad. Friendly guy in the train invites me to his place to break the fast. (I read that often invitations are just to be polite and they dont really mean it). I say what the heck and I go check it out. Milk with Sprite! and some chips and stuff. Milk with Sprite!! it wasnt really bad….
    Cool mosque in town. Again pleasant walk through.
    Back to the station in Rawalpindi. This feels like the subcontinent again. mmm no train for half a day!? Shit now what. Maybe Ill leave my crap in a fleabag hotel and chill. Your visa says not allowed in military zones. This is a military zone. no bed for you! what? the whole city is a military zone! But I just want it for a few hours. Ok thatll be <$10 (I forget). Hah! talk about a fleabag place. No running water or electricity. hah. Walk the streets. Yep this is the subcontinent.

    Train to peshawar. Arrive in the evening. trepidation as this is the wild west. normal place; decent hotel. Next day give the place a walk. Through the markets. Very cool. Lots of burqas, even got some pictures without getting shot. Old market, simple town. Rather pleasant. Very friendly.
    Next day, time for the khyber pass. easily get a decent price on a jeep driver and guard. Go pick up the guard. Sits up front with an AK. Drive out of town and into the pass. Gets more rural and start to pass through several villages. high walled compounds. People like you see in the movies and stuff. Eventually we rise higher and reach the pass. They have a viewing place built. Look thats Afghanistan over there. They have mountains too! imagine that! Pictures all around. Smiling guard with AK. Back to town and tip for guard.

    Time for the train to Quetta. Leaves around noon. Its a coupe type train. Spend the day with some folks. Gets to Lahore at sixish and they add different cars. Really just different coupes but more secure. Score one and lock myself in. Sun goes down and we chug out of town. I wake up in the deserts. Spend the day crossing the emptiness. Glad I brought food because there is simply nothing. Don't unlock the door even when they knock and try to get in. I am OK alone and rather scaredy (we are going to Quetta after all; isnt that where Osama lives?). Damn the sun is starting to go down! I hope we get there soon so I can catch the evening bus to the border.
    Finally arrive and dash for a taxi to the bus office. Bus is gone, you are sleeping here. Fine, take me to a hotel. Damn, now its dark and I have to go find some food. Wander around some empty unlit streets and enter a restaurant. Smiles all around. Everyone is very friendly. I get fed.
    Sleep. Now I have all day to kill in Quetta before the next bus to taftan. Give the place a walk. Normal town. even have internet… hah.

    Evening bus is of course a rather simple Tata model. Somehow I get a bench to myself and we are off. Some stops with pretty scenery. Then its night and we go and go and go. Doze off finally. Suddenly awaken and basically told this is the place get out. umm what?! its still dark out there where are we?
    ummm shit, before I know it I am out. bus leaves. Luckily I am not alone. Seems to be a rest stop. people lounging around. sleeping. resting. Somehow (man it was a miracle) I talk to someone and they tell me that this is indeed the border and everyone is waiting because its still closed. The border is a couple KM that way. So I go check it out. Wow. its like an industrial wasteland. The border is at the end of a scrapyard/garbage dump. Definitely deserted and theres a fence. The other side looks different. Like a meeting of two worlds. Damn I still have three hours to kill. Wander around some more and by the time I get back theres a long line of course. Eventually I get my stamp at the Pakistani shack and they even let me through the fence. Modernish border facility. Well aint this somethin.

    All in all, I had a lot of trepidation about crossing Pakistan. However, everyone was very friendly. They were not attempting to rip me off every instant. I experienced no issues. Its really one of those places that makes me think that anywhere you go, the vast majority of the folks are just trying to live their lives. As a low key, and respectful tourist, I never felt as a target. Sure things can happen. They can happen anywhere. Even if you decide to stay home.

  • Mr. Cool

    @john ..that shit is wild. photos?

  • @john – thank you so much for sharing. The whole of Rawalpindi as a military zone brought a big smile to me, think of similar times in western China. I love your wrap up, I feel exactly the same way. Dinner on me next time you brave the crossing of Manhattan.

  • john
  • Mr. Cool

    @john .damn. pretty exotic

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