How to Travel to Abkhazia; My Experience
If you’ve never heard of Abkhazia, don’t worry. Most people haven’t. Abkhazia is one of those ‘countries’ that isn’t officially a country, lost in the Caucasus between Russia and Georgia. If you followed my journey to every country in the world, you’ll know that from a technical standpoint the answer to ‘how many countries in the world‘ is 197. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. There are a handful of places that are almost countries, and Abkhazia is one of those. I’ll explain more about it, and how to travel to Abkhazia below:
Is Abkhazia a country?
In short, no. Abkhazia is recognised internationally as part of Georgia. And Georgia considers it under military occupation by Russia. Abkhazia, however, has declared themselves independent after the war with Georgia in 1993. The UN denies acknowledgement categorically, and Russia does the opposite. But the only countries that recognise Abkhazia as an independent country are Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Syria and Vanuatu. An interesting group.
Where is Abkhazia?
In the Caucasus region. It’s on the east coast of the Black Sea. East of Turkey, and wedged between Georgia proper and Russia.
How to Get to Abkhazia?
You can enter Abkhazia from both Russia and from Georgia. However, whichever country you enter from you MUST leave the country the same way. If you enter from Georgia to Abkhazia, you have to return to Georgia. You can’t go from Georgia, Abkhazia, to Russia. That’s illegal. And will result in denial, detention and possible imprisonment.
From a travel perspective, because of the difficulties and cost of Russian visas, it’s MUCH easier to fly to Georgia, then go to Abkhazia, and return to Georgia. If you enter from Russia, you need a double-entry Russian visa (which can be a headache). However, if you’re on a trip to all disputed territories, which many people who visit Abkhazia are, then it makes sense on a map to also visit South Ossetia. South Ossetia can only be visited from the Russian side, so the best way, if you’re visiting both, is from Russia. So Russia to Abkhazia to Russia. Then to South Ossetia, and back to Russia.
How to get to Abkhazia from Georgia:
If you’re coming to Abkhazia from Georgia (as I did), then you need to get to the Georgian town of Zugdidi. From Zugdidi, take a taxi to Enguri bridge ($3, 20 minutes). From here the process:
The border officially opens at 8am, but no movement occurs until 10am (I had to wait for 2.5 hours). The Georgian police check your passport, and you walk across the bridge to the Abkhazian border point. The walk takes about 15 minutes, it’s about 1km. Here the Abkhazian police check your passport and the Abkhazia Visa (more on that below). All being well, you continue to the security check-point (I had a problem and was stuck here for 2 more hours). At the security point, there are often queues and bag checks. I waited another hour here, had my bags checked and was interviewed about why I was visiting Abkhazia. Quite intimidating, photos of Putin everywhere etc.
After that’s finished, you’re free! 5 minute walk to the next smattering of people. There you can either hop in a mini-van and wait for it to fill. It will take you to Sukhum/Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. Or you can take a private taxi, in a rundown Russian car, for about $30 (2000 Rubles). Sukhumi is about 90km, and 90 minutes drive. Finally, your trip to Abkhazia can start!
How to get to Abkhazia from Russia:
If you’re coming to Abkhazia from Russia, then you need to get to the Russian city town of Sochi. It’s a large hub and has an international airport and a huge train station.
This border crossing is much easier than the Georgia side, as Abkhazia is a common holiday destination for Russians. Just make sure you have your double- or multi-entry Russian Visa, and your Abkhazia Visa. From Russia, you can get your Abkhazia visa at the border now (Since 2017!). That’s super easy! Also, you can take an overnight train from Moscow, all the way to Abkhazia, which is pretty cool. If you don’t want to do that, fly to Sochi, you can take a bus from Sochi to Sukumi (3 hours, 250km).
The Abkhazia Map from Google Maps above is easier to see ‘where’ Abkhazia is on a global. But the Abkhazia Map below shows where Abkhazia is in relation to Georgia, Russia and South Ossetia.
Abkhazia Visa; How to get it?
EVERYONE needs a visa for Abkhazia. But it depends on which side you’re entering from as to how difficult it is.
Abkhazia visa from the Russian side:
Super easy. Show up at the Russia/Abkhazia border, and go to a small office, pay for the visa, and it’s issued there and then (no stamp in your passport, just a piece of paper). Just note, you DO NEED a Russian double or multi-entry. Without that, they won’t let you into Abkhazia!
Abkhazia visa from the Georgia side:
You need to organise your visa in advance, via email. It took weeks and weeks for mine, so do it a couple of months in advance. My mum did hers, and they replied within a day. But give yourself time. You need to organise it through the official channel HERE. This is their email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The visa is free, and all done electronically.
Is it safe to travel to Abkhazia?
Yes, is the short answer. I took my mum on holiday here, so that should say it’s pretty safe (although I also took her to Afghanistan on holiday once, so maybe not!). Historically, there has been skirmished between Russian and Georgian forces, and there are some minefields in the outskirts of the country, but if you’re in Sukhumi, yes it’s safe. Keep your passport, and visas with you at all times, and be polite and friendly to all security and police forces.
Things to do in Abkhazia
Abkhazia is beautiful. It’s in the Caucasus, and everywhere in that region is beautiful. Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the opportunity to climb Mount Elbrus (Europe’s highest mountain) are all in the Caucasus. Gorgeous mountain ranges, lakes, and that friendly mountain-people vibe. So, of course, there are some fun things to do in Abkhazia. Check them out:
Spent a couple of days in the Capital, Sukhumi
Lake Ritsa; The most popular spot in the country.
Swim in the Black Sea; Both Gagra and Sukhumi have beaches on the Black Sea
Urban exploring in the abandoned buildings; A fascinating reflection on the recent turmoil in Abkhazia
Gagra; The main ‘tourist’ town in Abkhazia, catering for Russian tourists
The ancient town of New Athos; The 3rd most famous town in Abkhazia, home to a famous Monastery and Fortress
Visit the DEEPEST cave in the world – Krubera Cave! Organised through day tours from Gagra or Sukhumi
Traveling in Abkhazia; My Personal Experience
I had finished my journey to every country in the world. But there were still places I hadn’t visited, and I felt I was cheating myself. So I went about fixing that – Greenland, Faroe Islands, French Polynesia, South Ossetia. And of course Abkhazia. Georgia is honestly one of the coolest countries in the world to travel (and to live to be honest). Friendly, beautiful, historic, cool, and cheap. I had traveled there before en route to every country, but I wanted to visit Abkhazia. And the easiest way is via Georgia. So I asked my mum did she want to join me to beautiful Georgia (her 50th country!) and then onto the disputed territory of Abkhazia. YES! She loves all that crazy travel, and joined me to Yemen, Syria, and Iraq since!
So we flew to Tbilisi, and spent a few days in Georgia’s Capital. On day 1, we went to the train station and booked 2 tickets on the 2nd class sleeper train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi. We left around 8pm a couple of days later, and pulled into Zugdidi early, around 6am the following morning. I had already organised our visas to Abkhazia a month or so ago, so I wasn’t expecting any problems. I was wrong.
First of all, the border opens at 8am officially. We were there around 7am. But there was no movement until 10am. Not a great start, but when it did open, we finally got the all-clear from the Georgian side and walked the 20 or 30 minutes across the bridge to the Abkhazian border point. Another wait. We submitted our passports and waited for about an hour. My mum got hers back, with permission to enter Abkhazia. Mine? Rejected! WTF? All my paperwork was correct, but they rejected me for no reason. Odd. I kicked up a bit of a friendly-fuss, explaining I can’t let my 70yo mother go without me blah blah. No luck. I begged, pleaded and waiting. 2 more hours passed. I resorted to Instagram, asking anyone for help. Suddenly there was movement. Someone had contacted immigration and granted me additional permission. Strange, but ecstatic, we went.
Another couple of hundred metres and we joined another queue in a military compound. They took our backpacks from us and told us to join another queue. Bagless, and another 30 minutes or so later, we were summoned to a military bunker. My mum and I were ordered to sit down and wait for the commander. HUGE posters of Putin adorned every corner, mini Russian flag sat on top of the 70s-syle desk, and all the olive-green document cabinets.
Eventually, someone came in to interview us, along with 2 soldiers. “Why are you visiting Abkhazia”. Cold, Russian accent. “Why were you in Georgia”. “Where will you go next”. “Why do you have so many stamps in your passport”. “Why were you in Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Angola, Paraguay”. I explained about my life, and he started to warm. He found out we were Irish, joked about whiskey, and my mum and him shared stories about their love for James Joyce. He completely changed, “Welcome to Abkhazia, do this an that and this and that, ENJOY”. Our bags were returned to is and off we went.
Getting to Sukhumi
We had nothing booked. No transport, no activities, no accommodation. And no way to get to Sukhumi. So there we were with our bags back, and our passports back, and no idea what to do next. I just started walking away from immigration, hoping someone could give us a lift to the city. We saw a marshrutka (old school Russian minivans) and asked where they were going. Sukhumi. Leaving now. $5 (in Rubles).
Ok, and we hopped in. No movement. Wait a little longer. Ask him when we’re leaving. Now. No movement. I asked for my money back and then went to speak to an old Russian guy. I don’t speak Russian of course, and nor he English. But withdrawing imaginary numbers on our palms, we negotiated 1500 Rubles ($25) and he’d take us right now to Sukhumi. And so he did, about 90 minutes we pulled in and found a hotel.
The next 3 days we spent in Sukhumi. Exploring the city, reading and learning about the recent Russia-Georgia war. Visiting the abandoned buildings. Walking the promenade, sampling the local food, and plenty of the local beers and wine. I love traveling in places like this, and sharing these crazy experiences with my mum makes it even better. The thing that struck me most about Sukhumi, aside from the war-torn buildings, was how ‘Russian’ it felt. Like Russia, but 50 years ago. It’s had to explain. But local fairground rides, like from the 50s or 60s. Cotton candy stalls, fairground games. And it was cheap, super cheap. I had such a fun time with my mum, but I had a flight booked out of Tbilisi, Georgia to go to the Faroe Islands, which meant we only had 3 nights. That meant no Lake Ritsa, and no Gagra.
On day 2, I went to the police station to register that we were there. As soon as my mum and I sat down outside the office. A man summons us in. “Ah, you must be Mr Ward”, “Some problems at the border I hear?”. “You have a friend who helped, you owe him a thanks”. One stamp, conversation over. A very weird experience that one!
Next time! We didn’t use a guide for our time in Sukhumi, but the handful of people who speak English are only more than happy to come and talk with you. It’s a lovely atmosphere. And if you want to visit any of the main sites (Lake Ritsa, Gagra, or New Athos), there are plenty of Russian tour companies that’ll take you for the day. Don’t expect English speaking guides though!
And with that, we headed back to Zugdidi. Leaving Abkhazia is much easier than entering. A quick passport check and you’re on your way. We took the day train from Zugdidi back to Tbilisi, getting into Tbilisi late, and checking into your hotel 4 days after we left. Such a fun trip. Can’t wait to go back and explore the rest of Abkhazia (And the rest of Georgia for that matter!)
Suggest Abkhazia Itinerary (3-5 days)
When I return to Abkhazia (I might actually organise a OneStep4Ward trip there next year to be honest, it’s a cool place), this is the itinerary I’ll use for sure.
DAY 0: Night train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi.
DAY 1: Arrive at the border, go through the border crossing stuff, and connect to Sukhumi around 3pm. Evening dinner on the coast of the Black Sea.
DAY 2: Explore Sukhumi, and the abandoned buildings. Sleep in Sukhumi
DAY 3: Day trip to New Athos (Akhali Atoni) and the monastery. Sleep in Sukhumi.
DAY 4: Connect to Gagra. Gagra is a beach resort, so get a nice hotel and swim in the Black Sea. Sample the local beers, and relax.
DAY 5: Lake Ritsa Day-trip (or multi-day trip if you want to camp and hike). These trips are easily organised in Gagra.
DAY 6, or 7: Connect back to Zugdidi in Georgia.
Final thoughts on traveling to Abkhazia
This is real travel. I often remark how it’s difficult to find true travel experiences in the era of Instagram, YouTube and travel blogs (sorry!). But if you look hard enough, it’s still possible. And Abkhazia is certainly that. Taking a night train from Tbilisi to the border, crossing into a disputed territory. Spending a few days in a place where guidebooks, and google, doesn’t help so much. It’s wonderful. Like traveling 30 years ago. So yes, I couldn’t recommend traveling to Abkhazia highly enough. Do it!
What other places are similar to Abkhazia?
In terms of places that are almost countries, but not quite. There are a few. Here they are:
- South Ossetia
- Western Sahara (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic)
- Nagorno-Karabakh ( Republic of Artsakh)
- Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
- (Iraqi) Kurdistan
Then there are also countries who have vied for independence but due to political pressures, have been denied for one reason or another. Other places that are ‘almost’ countries, but aren’t, are:
Final things to remember when traveling to Abkhazia
- You need Georgian Lari for the Georgia side and Russian Rubles for the Abkhazia side
- Be prepared to get interviewed quite harshly when entering Abkhazia, and don’t mention anything about politics, Georgia ‘owning’ Abkhazia etc.
- Make sure you have your Abkhazian visa before you attempt to cross
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