What about Abkhazia?

I am just back from a trip around Morocco and some of the countries which used to be part of the Persian Empire at some stage in the past – Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Georgia, Armenia.

For information I used Lonely Planet: Morocco; Middle East; Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan. These three books. The latter also covered Abkhazia. I uploaded the electronic version to Google Play Books and saved the weight of real books. They served their purpose pretty well. I bought them when on special, which LP does quite often.

For each country I’ll be writing of one good and one bad experience. And then include some hints and a few photos of the country. But in the case of Abkhazia I will do this a bit differently, as there are not many non-Georgian / non-Russian tourists visiting this country. I saw no other tourists there, except for one tour group, which appeared to be Russian. So I will tell of my experience, which could help anyone else who wants to go. And give my hints and advice.

As for bad and good – food was expensive and it was hard to find reasonably priced restaurants; alcohol was cheap and easy to find.

Oh, and few people speak English, although some will understand a few basic words.  They do speak Russian, however, if that helps.

If you want to enter the country, first you need to obtain permission, which you do by downloading a government form from their web site, filling it out and emailing to them.  In about 10 days I got the permission letter back.  One of the questions on the form is the range of dates you wish to stay there, and I made the mistake of only applying for dates covering five days.  These were the dates I had permission to enter.  That was my first mistake. If you want greater flexibility ask for a much longer period.

The bureaucrats often make mistakes – and they did on mypermission letter, which caused me grief. I had checked it – it’s all in Russian, and wasn’t sure of part of it – and that was where the mistake was. So use Google Translate (photo function) to translate the Russian on the forms and also approval letter you receive to ensure you make no mistakes, and that the bureaucrat hasn’t. If they have, get it corrected before you travel there.  Obviously you take this permission letter with you, but I found it useful to also take the forms I filled out and emailed to the MFA as well.

Once you have entered the country you need to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within three working days (if memory serves) to apply for your visa. If not, you won’t be able to leave the country, apparently. The MFA is in the capital, Sukhumi.

Before you go, buy roubles.  It’s easy to do in Tbilisi, or in Zugdidi. Small notes are more convenient, if you can get them.  If you plan to arrive in Abkhazia on the weekend, be aware that you are unlikely to find a money changer open until Monday.  (I’ll later mention the one I did finally find open).  Lonely Planet (LP) wrote that you couldn’t use ATM’s with a western card.  Actually I found that I could, but it would only dispense small amounts, and charged large fees. But you won’t find any ATM’s anywhere convenient until you reach Sukhumi.

I entered the country on a Saturday.  I think one would find it more convenient to enter on a weekday as money changers and shops are open, and you can also go to the MFA for your visa ASAP. Once you have the visa you are free to leave.

I entered the country from Georgia. I don’t know anything about entering from Russia – except LP said that you’d need a double entry visa for Russia as you would have to return there after and can’t continue on to Georgia.

It appears you can get a minibus / marshrutka directly to the Enguri Bridge border from the central railway station in Tbilisi. I did the reverse direction.  It’s pretty uncomfortable because it’s cramped and only stops once, halfway through the seven hour journey.  But it is convenient and relatively fast.  Or you can get the train to Zugdidi and then a taxi to the border. This is much more comfortable. LP said it was a 20 minute drive and cost  GEL10 to Enguri Bridge from Zugdidi station.  I was charged 15, but it was less than 10 minutes, so I think  I overpaid in that case, and 10 would be realistic.

As they don’t want anyone photographing border regions, army barracks etc. I have no photos until further into the country.  Here is my account of crossing the border from Georgia to Abkhazia at Enguri Bridge.

First, by the side of the road is the Georgian police checkpoint, where they pointed out the paperwork error on my permission form. But they let me continue.  By the way, should you want to use a toilet, ask the police and they’ll let you use theirs. Then you walk across the bridge, which takes about 10 minutes.  You can pay for a horse and cart to take you if you wish. Once across you go to a pillbox.  The Russian soldier found the same error in my letter. I showed the original forms I’d filled out to show I’d done it correctly.  Also he had a big book of lists of people, and on my entry the data was also correct. After a few phone calls he let me proceed. Next was an office where they went through the same procedure. I was guarded by soldiers, who seemed very severe and unfriendly at first, but after a few minutes became friendly and curious. The official (soldier) asked me if I could speak German, and then we could communicate. Finally they said it was ok and I walked out into Abkhazia.

There were no money changers across the border. Just the bus and taxis.

I a saw bus, and asked if it was going to Gali. It was, so I got on. It left after a while, and it took about 20 minutes to get there. You pay when you get off. About R40. I got off at the bus station, which is on the right just past the centre. A lady on the bus pointed it out. I found a bus going to Sukhumi and waited. About 45 minutes later we left.   The scenery was quite barren as it’s the end of winter, but white and pink peach blossoms were out, and some citrus farms were around. I asked the driver to drop me sort of near the hotel. It took about 2 hours. There was very little traffic.

I stayed in what Lonely Planet described as the top hotel in town.  The Ritz. Well, Hotel Ritsa. View of the Black Sea, promenade, fountains, palm trees etc., and with the beach just across the car-free promenade. The hotel is 104 years old, so it’s charm is somewhat faded, but it’s comfortable, has good WiFi, and the price is in roubles, making it far cheaper than the dive I stayed in in Tehran. One reason for staying there was that I hoped they’d speak English and would be able to help me a bit.  That worked to an extent.

The Ritsa Hotel’s winter rates and the low rouble meant that a room with a view was about €30. But they wanted to be paid upfront. Not having that many roubles I spent a lot of time looking for money exchange but couldn’t find one. LP said ATM’s wouldn’t work, but I found they did but issued only about € 60 worth of roubles, meaning a large loss in fees. The hotel finally said I could pay on Monday. So I had enough money to eat, but could find very few restaurants. One was fully booked, and this was an expensive restaurant. It seems here alcohol and public transport is cheap, but food is expensive. I walked to the train station, but it looked closed. I found out later that trains run from there to Russia, but otherwise there are no trains. However, it is the long distance bus station. I saw kind of gathering of buses there. I caught a passing bus back as it was a long walk. R10 for the bus and you pay on exit.

I went out several times in different directions trying to find a restaurant, and finally I did, but it was close to €10 for something very simple that cost me about GEL 6 that morning in Zugdidi. There are so many expensive new cars. Streets  are quite empty mostly and drivers treat them like a racetrack.

In this hotel, breakfast was run on a different system to which I was accustomed.  You choose from a menu, and there was an allowance of R300 after which you paid the rest.  They had an English menu.  On another morning the waitress denied they had one, but I insisted as I’d had it the previous day, so she produced it.

The hotel receptionist wrote directions on how to get to Novo Afon, a resort up the coast.

First I took a local bus, then showed her directions to the teenage girl who was sitting next to me. Almost no-one here speaks English. She spoke some English, and said she’d show me.  We got off at the market and she showed me the next bus, that goes to the station. She was also catching this one, so I went with her. But I found a money exchange right there. Finally. I’d searched for hours the previous day with no luck. So try the market if you need a money changer on the weekend.

The girl was from Donetsk, and came here with her family. But her mother is still there. She said her mother and her friends were somewhere safe.  She’d like to go back if it’s safe. She said she’d show me the minibus I needed to go the rest of the way.  This bus doubled back most of the way to the first bus stop I got on, and then went on to the station.

So bear in mind that locals’ directions are not necessarily logical. I could have easily walked to the bus stop the second bus stopped at, and save a small expense but quite a lot of time.

The girl showed me the bus and soon it departed. This was going too​ easily. We drove on for 20 minutes or so. Just 10 more minutes and we’d be there. And the bus broke down. Some tried to hitchhike, some caught a passing taxi. The rest of us waited and in about 15 minutes we were rescued and taken the rest of the way by another minibus.

First I wandered through the gardens across the road from the beach. Then it was uphill to the cave. There, when I tried to purchase a ticket, which was expensive at R500, the attendant insisted I needed two, and had to wait over an hour to use them. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to get for this, but that’s over half the price of my hotel room, so I declined. It was time to tackle the fort, climbing steep streets to get there.

From the fort I, along with others, took shortcuts to avoid the long winding path down. Then it was down the road. Halfway down I was offered a lift by a Russian couple. She’s from Moscow, and he from Kamchatka. They’d driven from Russia.  In the end they drive me to my next stop, the monastery, saving me perhaps 45 minutes walk, which was useful as the day was becoming a little late and transport starts to dry up. The monastery was amazing. Then it was a few minutes walk down the hill and when I found the correct spot for flagging minibuses, another 10 minutes to get one that brought me to the station, from where I took a local bus, which I already understood.

Getting a visa is all part of the travel experience.  This trip required two. Iran and Abkhazia. All the others were VOA, or no visa was required.

On Monday morning I came to the Abkhazian consular office which I’d looked for and found the previous day. The address in LP was incorrect, but the one on the MFA web site was correct.  I tried for 9am, but got a little confused with streets, and it was 9.20. The office had a sign in English. But no information desk or reception.  People are just waiting in a room. They look like manual workers. Already 12 people there. No idea what is best to do. Employees pass through the room occasionally. More people came. A few women, too. Some go into the office through the closed door and soon come back out. I would have thought that printing up some information would save the employees being annoyed all the time.

As I was just a tourist and didn’t need any complicated kind of visa I thought I’d better make myself known as they might sort me out quickly. Thus I went to another part of the office and talked – well, said “visa” to an employee who showed me through the waiting room to an office and indicated to sit down. Seemed good. But then a woman soon came in and asked me politely but severely in English to wait outside. She said the guy was coming in 10 minutes. Which would be 10am. Pity. I had made a bit of progress, but at least I got noticed. And now it’s after 10 and no one has come.  More people are waiting, though. Over 20. They come and go out and come back in.

Someone strode in looking like he was late, and one guy went in and stayed. Soon the severe women came out and said that I was welcome.  The other guy who went in and stayed had a bunch of green passports. They were being processed by the guy who’d strode in and was now sitting behind the desk. I sat in front of his desk. In a minute or two he picked up my passport and asked me if I had a credit card. Then he asked me how long I was staying. He gave me exactly how long I asked for. A sticker was printed but left loose. This was my visa. And he put the credit card in the machine.  It was all done in two minutes. It was 10.22.

So Lonely Planet’s info is out of date. The address for consular services is Sakharova (Street) 33. You can now pay by credit card and don’t need to go to the bank to make a draft. The fee was also a lot less than LP said. 350 Roubles.

The building is open at 9am, the office seems to open at 9.30, and perhaps the official starts at 10. It’s probably important to inoffensively make your presence as a tourist known. Otherwise you could wait a long time. I didn’t feel bad jumping the queue because I just wanted a simple tourist visa, and it seemed most or all of the others were after a residence or working visa, which should require much documentation and checking.

My room at the hotel hadn’t been made up yet, despite the sign on the door. Then I went out, went to the museum, had a coffee R25 and then to the Botanical Gardens at 250. The gardens were small, but had a very relaxing feel about them.

Back to the hotel, and my room was still not made up. Then I went out to walk along the Black Sea shore.  Paddled in the water, mislaid a sock and found it, then walked in the other direction. Sat on a bench and dozed a bit. Returned to the hotel. The maid had done almost nothing. Gave me a new soap. I did a bit more planning and research.

Then out for dinner. At the same place I’d found near the MFA and at which I’d eaten the previous evening. And after to the cathedral, which was still open.

On Tuesday I planned to return to Tbilisi.

I tried to get reception to write down on paper “to bus station” in Russian. After 10 minutes I gave up and used their Google translate to write it myself.  They watched me do this, but still didn’t help. After breakfast grabbed my bag and left.

I figure that it would be possible to flag the minivan down very near the hotel. I knew where. But they all insisted I should go to the bus station. Which is the wrong direction.  I know a better way to get there than they say, too. So I walked to the bus stop and when the bus came one minute later got on the front to show my paper to the driver to ensure it was going he right direction. He was just rude and shouted at me to get on the back, I suppose. I gave up and thought it was probably the right bus, but maybe a 50-50 chance. If not I’d get off. It was fine.

I got to station and I asked which minivan to Gari, using my paper with that in Russian on it.  This driver was friendly.

And I was right, a couple of people flagged him down.  I could have just caught it near the hotel. So much for the locals’ advice.

I thought it terminated at Gari. We got there much faster than I expected. But he was a good driver.  I almost alighted, but learnt it went on to the border at Enguri.  Another 15 minutes or so. R 300 fare.

There was a long queue for passport checks. 60 people. They let through 20 and then you wait a long time.  They gave me special attention when it was finally my turn, which just meant they asked a bunch of other soldiers and then let me through. Next was another queue for the same kind of check, and this time he took my visa paper. And that was it. I guess the whole thing took 45 minutes. I probably arrived in Enguri around 11. And I was through the border and crossed the bridge to the Georgia police around 12 Abkhazian time / 1300 Georgia time. Oh yes, there is a one hour time difference.

A guy asked me if I wanted a marshrutka to Tbilisi. I said no as I’d been thinking I’d need to get transport to Zugdidi, and then wait a few hours for the train.  But I asked the price, and after how many minutes it was leaving, the answer to both being 15.  This would be so easy compared to my plan. He collected the fare before we left at about 1330 with a full vehicle. I’d be in Tbilisi many hours before I would if I caught the train. The van had patchy WiFi. I gave up on it and used the mobile Internet. Limit how much you drink before catching minibuses as comfort stops are few and far between.  Very nice scenery on the way.

So I left the hotel in Sukhumi at around 9am and by 12.30pm Abkhazian  / 1.30pm Georgian time I was on a minibus to Tbilisi. Very good.

So that’s my experience and my hints.

Was it worth the effort to visit?  It was for me.  There wasn’t so much to see, and I expect that the scenery would be lusher as spring progressed into summer, but it was quite a different experience, and not particularly expensive to visit or difficult to arrange. The relatively minor inconveniences I suffered won’t affect anyone who heeds the hints I give here, and they’d have a smoother visit.

I couldn’t take photos near the border, but I could of the MFA building as I asked them if it was OK first.  I thought it would help others identify it.  So here are some photos, including the MFA building.

the bus from Gali to Sukhumi

the bus station at Gali

in the bus to Sukhumi

lots of trees blossoming

one of many rivers with snow-capped mountains in the distance

Sukhumi

the Black Sea at Sukhumi

Sukhumi water front

Hotel Ritsa in the centre of Sukhumi on the main promenade

the main promenade, opposite Hotel Ritsa

there are many small parks

a meal I tracked down

really delicious sweets

a local bus

the lake in the park at Novo Afon

the fort, Novo Afon

map

walking up to the fort

the chapel in the fort

the chapel in the fort

there is still snow on the mountains

view of the park and the Black Sea from the fort

view of St. Apostle Simon the Zealot from the fort

St. Apostle Simon the Zealot

St. Apostle Simon the Zealot

on the way back to Sukhumi

another meal – I never really knew what anything was as no one spoke English

the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – where you go for your visa

the beach at Sukhumi

part of the promenade

old fort on the promenade

another meal

cathedral in Sukhumi

Hotel Ritsa at night

back at Gali bus station returning to the border

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