Persistence pays off for a visit to Abkhazia

This article appears on page 20 of the December 2008 issue.
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Lake Ritsa, site of Stalin’s summer home.

by Thomas Flannigan, Chicago, IL

Many a journey begins with a dream, a moment when you realize you want to visit some distant land. I had never even heard of Abkhazia until 1972, when I was working on a college paper about Uzbekistan. It was around 2 in the morning when I stumbled upon a brief description of Abkhazia in one of the library books piled on my desk. My dream of visiting this place started there, and I finally realized that dream in July ’08 when I visited with my wife and two small daughters.

Some history

One of the reasons it took so long for me to get there was a terrible war.

A once-independent Abkhazia was merged with Georgia by Stalin in 1931. In 1991, Georgia seceded from the former USSR and then Abkhazia seceded from Georgia, triggering a ghastly war which left many cities littered with burned-out buildings and few remaining residents. Ethnic Georgians were exiled to Georgia, and Russia stepped in to preserve the declaration of independence. Thus, the Republic of Abkhazia was born.

Our visit took place three weeks before Georgia attacked South Ossetia, triggering a Russian military operation there and in Abkhazia. Russia has since recognized the independence of Abkhazia while the United States continues to support Georgia’s efforts to reclaim it.

Red tape

Visas issued by the Republic of Abkhazia are required for visitors and they are not easy to get. In March ’08 I applied for tourist visas through the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry via e-mail. They called back, pointing out that one of the passport numbers was wrong; I had to resubmit my application.

Soon it was April and I started calling Sukhum (Sukhumi), the capital. I was told the application was lost and to submit it a third time. I did so and kept calling.

Soon they recognized my voice on the phone at the Foreign Ministry in Sukhum: “Is this Tom?”

In June we embarked on a 32-day journey around the world that included plans to travel overland from Tokyo to Moscow with the help of the Turk-Sib railway and Trans-Siberian Railroad. In Novosibirsk I sent one final e-mail to Sukhum. Within 24 hours my inbox had “clearance letters” in Russian that would allow us to enter Abkhazia.

Border crossing

Old building in downtown Sukhum.

In Moscow I was able to buy four round-trip tickets to Sochi on Siberia Airlines. From there, packed marshrutkas (minivans) got us to the Abkhazian border, where we walked past numerous checkpoints and a duty-free shop into Abkhazia. The Russian and Abkhazian border police were stunned to see American passports. They acted like they were passports from Venus.

After the final checkpoint was passed, the Abkhazian border police surrounded us with smiles, peppering us with questions in Russian and chattering among themselves in Abkhaz, which sounded to me like bees buzzing in a pantry. Another minivan got us to Sukhum by late afternoon.

It was easy to see why everyone from Stalin to modern oligarchs loved this place so much. Dramatic, snowcapped peaks loomed in the distance, and palm trees lined tidy beaches. In between, there were dozens of charming little hamlets perched atop green mountains.

Sukhum

The road went through Gagra, which is just south of the border, down Sukhum way. Gagra was all dolled up and had many Russian tourists but apparently no tourists from other countries. 

In Sukhum we visited a travel agency and the Foreign Ministry, where we had to pay 2,400 rubles ($104) to get four visas. We also produced a bank receipt showing we had exchanged dollars, not really necessary because the ruble is convertible these days and there is no black market, but old habits die hard in Stalin’s shadow.

Our two daughters bathing in the Black Sea in Sukhum.

We were told we were the first American tourists to visit in two years and they would like to see more. Some thought we were UN observers, as UN vans can occasionally be seen on the road in Abkhazia. Others asked how we could take two little kids to a war zone.

But Sukhum is not a war zone. It’s a laid-back town on the Black Sea where many old buildings are being fixed up with an eye to the future. The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, and Abkhazians are banking on an economic boom that will rebuild their economy.

Sukhum has four hotels, with more on the way. Our suite in the brand-new Hotel Yasmina cost $105 per night — a much better deal than anything we found in Russia.

We visited Novi Afon, a spectacular Russian Orthodox church complex built as a backup for Mount Athos in Greece. The highlight, perhaps, was a day trip past waterfalls and mountain passes to Lake Ritsa, with a mountain view as pretty as any I have seen in Switzerland or New Zealand.

We had lunch at an Abkhazian restaurant that offered unusual food and cold beer to day-trippers on bus tours from Sochi. The food, which included a dried cheese and cold porridge, was delicious and unlike anything I had had on prior journeys to Georgia. Lunch for four cost 800 rubles ($35). The scenery alone was worth 40 dollars!

Planning a visit

Abkhazia has no civilian airport. With the Georgian border effectively closed, the only way in and out of Abkhazia is via Sochi, Russia, taking a minivan or bus from there and walking across the bridge at Psou. Sochi is well served by plane, train and car ferries from neighboring cities on the Black Sea such as Istanbul and Odessa. Sochi even has a direct flight from London, although it is expensive. Siberia Airlines has a round-trip flight to Sochi from Moscow for about $250.

The airport at Sochi is near Psou, so a morning arrival could get you to Sukhum by nightfall. We stayed at the old Intourist Hotel in Sochi, Hotel Moskva (http://en.moskva-hotel.ru), for around $130 for a double room.

From Sochi’s train station you can take marshrutkas to Psou. Some are direct; others require a transfer. It costs about $2 and takes about 80 minutes. The marshrutka station in Psou is 1½ kilometers from the border checkpoint. Some vans go all the way to the border.

Few people speak English, but it is safe to cross this way. We did it with our two little girls.

You have your passports inspected at both sides. The whole process takes less than an hour.

There are buses and marshrutkas available on the other side. We were charged 170 rubles ($7.30) for the 90-minute ride to Sukhum.

The State Bank of Abkhazia is one of many banks that exchange dollars for rubles at the bank rate. ATMs that dispense rubles or dollars can be easily found in Sochi.

We were sorry to leave this sleepy, strange kingdom. The crowds and rudeness in Russia were shocking after the kind curiosity in Abkhazia. It is one of those places you want to go back to, but you quickly realize it will not be the same when you do. Abkhazia will change quickly; Russian money is pouring in and Abkhazia wants to be part of the Olympic vortex. But, for now, smiles are everywhere and tourist T-shirts have not put down roots.

Getting a visa for Abkhazia

To visit Abkhazia, you’ll need to get a double-entry tourist visa to Russia. This will require that the invitation and voucher also specify double entry. We used waytorussia.com, which charged around $50 for the invitation and voucher. (The Russian Embassy in DC charges $131 for a 30-day visa.)

You must specify an entry date to Russia. You can enter after that date but not before.

Next, visit the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia (www.mfaabkhazia.org/Eng/Consular%20Service.htm). Send an e-mail with the required form attached plus a scan of your passport and a photo. Note in the e-mail why you want to go there (sound upbeat). The Russian Foreign Ministry must be copied on the e-mail, as described on the website.

You will be e-mailed a clearance letter but not earlier than about 10 days before your stated entry date. E-mail or call the office in Sukhum (phone +99544 265792) to verify that everything is okay. When I called Sukhum, they often thought it was a wrong number and hung up. Lasha at the Foreign Ministry speaks good English and will help.

In Sukhum, you must go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with your passport and clearance letter to get your visa. This will involve a trek to the only bank in town that will change money for you and give you the exchange certificate for 600 rubles. This means being in Sukhum on a business day. (Note: they close for lunch.) English is spoken well there and the people are nice.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Lake Ritsa, site of Stalin’s summer home.

by Thomas Flannigan, Chicago, IL

Many a journey begins with a dream, a moment when you realize you want to visit some distant land. I had never even heard of Abkhazia until 1972, when I was working on a college paper about Uzbekistan. It was around 2 in the morning when I stumbled upon a brief description of Abkhazia in one of the library books piled on my desk. My dream of visiting this place started there, and I finally realized that dream in July ’08 when I visited with my wife and two small daughters.

Some history

One of the reasons it took so long for me to get there was a terrible war.

A once-independent Abkhazia was merged with Georgia by Stalin in 1931. In 1991, Georgia seceded from the former USSR and then Abkhazia seceded from Georgia, triggering a ghastly war which left many cities littered with burned-out buildings and few remaining residents. Ethnic Georgians were exiled to Georgia, and Russia stepped in to preserve the declaration of independence. Thus, the Republic of Abkhazia was born.

Our visit took place three weeks before Georgia attacked South Ossetia, triggering a Russian military operation there and in Abkhazia. Russia has since recognized the independence of Abkhazia while the United States continues to support Georgia’s efforts to reclaim it.

Red tape

Visas issued by the Republic of Abkhazia are required for visitors and they are not easy to get. In March ’08 I applied for tourist visas through the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry via e-mail. They called back, pointing out that one of the passport numbers was wrong; I had to resubmit my application.

Soon it was April and I started calling Sukhum (Sukhumi), the capital. I was told the application was lost and to submit it a third time. I did so and kept calling.

Soon they recognized my voice on the phone at the Foreign Ministry in Sukhum: “Is this Tom?”

In June we embarked on a 32-day journey around the world that included plans to travel overland from Tokyo to Moscow with the help of the Turk-Sib railway and Trans-Siberian Railroad. In Novosibirsk I sent one final e-mail to Sukhum. Within 24 hours my inbox had “clearance letters” in Russian that would allow us to enter Abkhazia.

Border crossing

Old building in downtown Sukhum.

In Moscow I was able to buy four round-trip tickets to Sochi on Siberia Airlines. From there, packed marshrutkas (minivans) got us to the Abkhazian border, where we walked past numerous checkpoints and a duty-free shop into Abkhazia. The Russian and Abkhazian border police were stunned to see American passports. They acted like they were passports from Venus.

After the final checkpoint was passed, the Abkhazian border police surrounded us with smiles, peppering us with questions in Russian and chattering among themselves in Abkhaz, which sounded to me like bees buzzing in a pantry. Another minivan got us to Sukhum by late afternoon.

It was easy to see why everyone from Stalin to modern oligarchs loved this place so much. Dramatic, snowcapped peaks loomed in the distance, and palm trees lined tidy beaches. In between, there were dozens of charming little hamlets perched atop green mountains.

Sukhum

The road went through Gagra, which is just south of the border, down Sukhum way. Gagra was all dolled up and had many Russian tourists but apparently no tourists from other countries. 

In Sukhum we visited a travel agency and the Foreign Ministry, where we had to pay 2,400 rubles ($104) to get four visas. We also produced a bank receipt showing we had exchanged dollars, not really necessary because the ruble is convertible these days and there is no black market, but old habits die hard in Stalin’s shadow.

Our two daughters bathing in the Black Sea in Sukhum.

We were told we were the first American tourists to visit in two years and they would like to see more. Some thought we were UN observers, as UN vans can occasionally be seen on the road in Abkhazia. Others asked how we could take two little kids to a war zone.

But Sukhum is not a war zone. It’s a laid-back town on the Black Sea where many old buildings are being fixed up with an eye to the future. The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, and Abkhazians are banking on an economic boom that will rebuild their economy.

Sukhum has four hotels, with more on the way. Our suite in the brand-new Hotel Yasmina cost $105 per night — a much better deal than anything we found in Russia.

We visited Novi Afon, a spectacular Russian Orthodox church complex built as a backup for Mount Athos in Greece. The highlight, perhaps, was a day trip past waterfalls and mountain passes to Lake Ritsa, with a mountain view as pretty as any I have seen in Switzerland or New Zealand.

We had lunch at an Abkhazian restaurant that offered unusual food and cold beer to day-trippers on bus tours from Sochi. The food, which included a dried cheese and cold porridge, was delicious and unlike anything I had had on prior journeys to Georgia. Lunch for four cost 800 rubles ($35). The scenery alone was worth 40 dollars!

Planning a visit

Abkhazia has no civilian airport. With the Georgian border effectively closed, the only way in and out of Abkhazia is via Sochi, Russia, taking a minivan or bus from there and walking across the bridge at Psou. Sochi is well served by plane, train and car ferries from neighboring cities on the Black Sea such as Istanbul and Odessa. Sochi even has a direct flight from London, although it is expensive. Siberia Airlines has a round-trip flight to Sochi from Moscow for about $250.

The airport at Sochi is near Psou, so a morning arrival could get you to Sukhum by nightfall. We stayed at the old Intourist Hotel in Sochi, Hotel Moskva (http://en.moskva-hotel.ru), for around $130 for a double room.

From Sochi’s train station you can take marshrutkas to Psou. Some are direct; others require a transfer. It costs about $2 and takes about 80 minutes. The marshrutka station in Psou is 1½ kilometers from the border checkpoint. Some vans go all the way to the border.

Few people speak English, but it is safe to cross this way. We did it with our two little girls.

You have your passports inspected at both sides. The whole process takes less than an hour.

There are buses and marshrutkas available on the other side. We were charged 170 rubles ($7.30) for the 90-minute ride to Sukhum.

The State Bank of Abkhazia is one of many banks that exchange dollars for rubles at the bank rate. ATMs that dispense rubles or dollars can be easily found in Sochi.

We were sorry to leave this sleepy, strange kingdom. The crowds and rudeness in Russia were shocking after the kind curiosity in Abkhazia. It is one of those places you want to go back to, but you quickly realize it will not be the same when you do. Abkhazia will change quickly; Russian money is pouring in and Abkhazia wants to be part of the Olympic vortex. But, for now, smiles are everywhere and tourist T-shirts have not put down roots.

Getting a visa for Abkhazia

To visit Abkhazia, you’ll need to get a double-entry tourist visa to Russia. This will require that the invitation and voucher also specify double entry. We used waytorussia.com, which charged around $50 for the invitation and voucher. (The Russian Embassy in DC charges $131 for a 30-day visa.)

You must specify an entry date to Russia. You can enter after that date but not before.

Next, visit the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia (www.mfaabkhazia.org/Eng/Consular%20Service.htm). Send an e-mail with the required form attached plus a scan of your passport and a photo. Note in the e-mail why you want to go there (sound upbeat). The Russian Foreign Ministry must be copied on the e-mail, as described on the website.

You will be e-mailed a clearance letter but not earlier than about 10 days before your stated entry date. E-mail or call the office in Sukhum (phone +99544 265792) to verify that everything is okay. When I called Sukhum, they often thought it was a wrong number and hung up. Lasha at the Foreign Ministry speaks good English and will help.

In Sukhum, you must go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with your passport and clearance letter to get your visa. This will involve a trek to the only bank in town that will change money for you and give you the exchange certificate for 600 rubles. This means being in Sukhum on a business day. (Note: they close for lunch.) English is spoken well there and the people are nice.