Planning a Trip to Abkhazia
You may be forgiven for never having heard of Abkhazia, even if you’re great at geography, unless you’re Russian of course in which case you might have spent a summer or two exploring the breakaway region within the country of Georgia. Abkhazia is a self-declared (and de-facto) independent country controlled by a separatist government whose status is recognised only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru (as of October 2016). In this post we shall explain how to plan your trip to Abkhazia, all that you need to know regarding the procedure for crossing into Abkhazia and any precautions you should wish to take.
Planning a Trip to Abkhazia
Abkhazia has a distinct ethnic population, its own language, military, government, a national bank and even its own passport although this can only be used to travel internationally to the few countries which actually recognise Abkhazia’s independence – travel to other countries requires the use of a different passport. We first heard about Abkhazia when planning our trip to Georgia and I excitedly included it on our itinerary within seconds just because I wanted to visit a territory that seemed to be relatively unknown. Nikki, as usual, was more cautious wanting to check out the safety implications first. Abkhazia can be accessed via two land borders – that with Russia (the Adler-Psou border which is the more popular one), and that with Georgia at the the Enguri bridge. Travel to Abkhazia requires a visa issued by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia. It is very important to note that you shouldn’t try to leave Abkhazia via a different border to the one which you entered from. Trying to travel from Russia to Georgia via Abkhazia will land you into a whole lot of trouble, as Georgia doesn’t recognise the Russia-Abkhazia border and considers such a crossing to be an illegal entry into Georgian territory. There are reports of travelling from Georgia to Russia via Abkhazia but this is not recommended since it is very likely that you will not be able to re-visit Georgia, at least not with the same passport and possibly not ever.
For most westerners, a trip to Abkhazia through Russia requires a double/multiple-entry visa to Russia. Always check your visa requirements when planning travel outside of your home country. We crossed into Abkhazia through Georgia and, because we hold EU passports, we did not need a visa for travelling in Georgia.When travelling to Abkhazia, your first consideration should be an evaluation of the risk involved. Although you may be allowed entry into the region, the fact that it is unrecognised by most of the world’s countries means that there are very few embassies or consulates, so effectively, if anything happens to you, you will probably receive no diplomatic help at all.
This is especially true in cases of passport loss or theft – hold tight to it because if for some reason this happens, it is very likely that you will be unable to get out of the region for a while thus becoming a diplomatic nightmare for your home country. In fact most western travel advisories issue a “do not travel” advisory for Abkhazia. It is also very likely that you will not be covered by your travel insurance policy in case of any theft, medical emergencies or any other claim that you might wish to make when travelling within the region.
It is good practice to keep an eye on the current news in or around the region before planning your trip to Abkhazia. The territory is very volatile and relations between Georgia and Abkhazia are tense. Needless to say, in case of any ongoing violence and or clashes, travelling to Abkhazia may not be such a good idea. All this however did not deter us from travelling there!
If you DO decide to travel to Abkhazia, here’s a step by step guide to getting there:
1. Apply for your visa clearance letter.
The application form can be downloaded from Abkhazia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website and the sections within the application form are explained in both Russian and English except for questions 14, 15 and 16 which for some reason are in Russian only (as of October 2016). They refer to marital status and request details pertaining to any potential spouse. Even if you do translate them accurately, there is no text box on the application sheet in which to write your details so we left the questions blank and wrote in the relevant details in the accompanying email. The application form together with a copy of your passport needs to be sent to the email address stated on the website. The first time we sent in our application (two months before our arrival date), we received a response stating that it was too early to process the application and that we could only apply one month before the arrival date. When we did that, we received our clearance letter within three working days. The website states that it takes the consular service seven working days to process an application. We were in touch with one other person whose application was rejected on the basis of the border being closed at the time – so yes, that happens sometimes. You need to specify your dates of travel on the application form and these will be included in your clearance letter as well as in your actual visa document.
2. Translate (unless you read Russian) and check your clearance letter.
This is important because the letter contains your full name, date of birth, passport number, dates of travel and point of entry, all of which will be checked by Abkhazian border control. You will very likely be denied entry if the details are incorrect.
3. Buy or download a Russian phrasebook or learn some basic Russian.
Do not underestimate this as we did; it is really difficult to communicate and figure out what’s going on when travelling to Abkhazia without some basic knowledge of Russian especially when trying to understand directions, ordering food or negotiating prices. The people at border control know some basic English but that’s it. It is still possible to travel around of course (we did), but communication is almost impossible and sign language can only get you so far – at some point it all becomes very tiring. You’ll find that downloading the Google Translate app with the Russian language offline package will turn out to be very helpful.
4. Have some Russian currency handy before entering Abkhazia.
You can procure this from your home country or from exchange offices in Georgia. We did not see any currency exchange offices or ATMs at the Abkhazia border (although there are plenty in Sukhumi) and you will want to pay for your initial transport in Russian roubles, the official currency of Abkhazia.
5. Crossing the border from Georgia, where your trip to Abkhazia starts!
If staying in or arriving to Zugdidi, the border town on the Georgian side, a taxi will take you to the border for about 10-15 lari (depending on how much time you would like to spend negotiating the price). It is highly recommended that you try to arrive there as early as possible, since the crossing might take a while, and late afternoons/evenings may not be particularly safe. Remember that Abkhazia follows Moscow time which is an hour behind Georgia time. The border is open between 8am and 7pm Abkhazian time. We first got through Georgian border control where our passports were checked and our details noted down on a sheet of paper. We were not asked any questions as to why we wanted to visit Abkhazia as has been reported in other blogs. You can then walk the length of the Enguri bridge to the Abkhazian side or you can join other people in a horse-drawn cart for a few lari. Although it is not far to walk, we wanted to experience the cart ride. We were the only foreigners in the cart; the rest of the passengers (all of whom were elderly Abkhaz women wearing black) grinned at us with obvious surprise as we politely smiled at them. The front part of an ancient car had been placed in the middle of the cart and we all held onto it during the ride otherwise it would have toppled onto us! We couldn’t understand to which old woman it belonged but it was unloaded together with everyone’s bags on the Abkhaz side. Do not take any photos during the border crossing – it is not allowed and you will be told off if you attempt to do so. Once we got to the Abkhazian side, an officer at the first checkpoint checked our passport and clearance letter after which we were sent to a second checkpoint where our documents were properly scrutinized, discussions about us were had and phone calls were made. Since we couldn’t understand what was being said, we were a little nervous about being let in but although the procedure was lengthy, we were finally waved off with a smile. Sukhumi can be reached using public transport but since we were travelling in a party of four and were short on time, it made more sense to get a taxi which cost 2000 roubles for the four of us.
6. Obtain your visa from Sukhumi.
Once you enter Abkhazia, you need to head to Sukhumi to get your visa from the consular service office in 33, Sakharova street. The visa is a single passport size sheet of paper. It is not attached to your passport and will be taken away by Abkhazian border control once you exit Abkhazia. We had read reports of applicants being sent to pay for their visa at a nearby bank but we actually paid at the consular office using a credit card. The visa cost 350 roubles each.
7. Exiting Abkhazia.
This is very straightforward and you basically go through the border control formalities in reverse. Your visa document is taken away at the Abkhazian side and you can walk or get the horse and car to the Georgian side. We opted for the cart once more because it was pouring. We were not asked any questions at the Georgian side but our passport details were again jotted down on a sheet of paper. Taxis can be found waiting just beyond the border.