Getting to Abkhazia from Sochi, Russia

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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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All You Need to Know About Traveling to AbkhaziaMr. CooljohnRapid Travel ChaiBRGs, Best cities for free, Manufactured Spending Tournament, Club Carlson, Abkhazia, Free Stopovers with Niacin, Urban Free Climbing,Mexican Drug Lords, Kangbashi at Ordos | TravelBloggerBuzz Recent comment authors

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[…] Getting to Sukhumi from Sochi, Russia […]

Mr. Cool
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Mr. Cool

@john .damn. pretty exotic

john
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john
Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@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
Guest
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.… Read more »

Mr. Cool
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Mr. Cool

@john ..that shit is wild. photos?

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

john
Guest
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… Read more »

Mr. Cool
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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

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[…] Getting to Abkhazia from Sochi, Russia. By Rapid Travel Chai. I don’t know about you but I prefer to read blog posts about fascinating places instead of  getting hit upside the head constantly by bloggers pumping their affiliate and referral links NON STOP EVERY FREAKING DAY. Take a stand!  He followed up with more from Sukhumi, Abkhazia. […]

Mr. Cool
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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

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

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/

Rapid Travel Chai
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@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
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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

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@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… Read more »

Mr. Cool
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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.

Nick @ PFDigest
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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.

Joey
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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… Read more »

NYBanker
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NYBanker

You are an intrepid traveler, Stefan.