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