Entering Abkhazia from Georgia

  based on 1 review   write a review

Ingur Crossing, Sokhumi, Georgia

Entering Abkhazia from Georgia Sokhumi Reviews

maykal maykal
85 reviews
Ingur Border Crossing Jul 04, 2016
There are currently two ways to enter Abkhazia: from Russia via the Psou border crossing near Sochi, or from Georgia at the Ingur crossing near Zugdidi. You must leave Abkhazia the same way you entered, as the Georgian authorities see Abkhazia as part of Georgia so entering via the Psou crossing is considered an illegal entry to Georgia. This means that you cannot make the trip from Russia to Georgia by transiting Abkhazia. Theoretically, the same is true in the opposite direction, although how strict the Russian and Abkhaz authorities are about this I don't know...you wouldn't have a Georgian exit stamp however, which could cause problems if you intend to visit Georgia at a later date.

From Georgia, the first thing to do is head to Zugdidi, the largest city nearest the crossing point. From there, it is a ten minute drive to the crossing at Inguri (Ingur or Engur in Abkhaz). The crossing opens at 8am Abkhaz time, which in summer means 9am Georgian time as Abkhazia follows Moscow time. I arrived in Zugdidi on the night train from Tbilisi, and was keen to cross early, believing Abkhazia was an hour ahead (as many online reports have stated), and was stuck with nothing but barking dogs for company in the village of Rikhe which doesn't wake up until about 8.

To cross, you first have to chat to the Georgian police, who check your visa letter and passport, and register you on their computer. This is important, as when you leave they will check to see if you used that crossing on entry...if you're not on the computer, you're in trouble! They are friendly, speak limited English, and don't really ask many questions. Then you set off on the long walk through no man's land, passing the final army checkpoint (they don't check anything, just stare at you as you walk past). The last thing on the Georgian side is a sculpture of a large gun pointing towards Abkhazia with the barrel tied in a knot and pointed upwards...a symbol of peace? If you don't want to walk, a few enterprising locals are on hand to take you across on a horse and cart for a couple of lari.

At the end of a long bridge over the Ingur River, you reach the first Abkhaz checkpoint. Plenty locals were waiting for the checkpoint to open, but the soldiers spotted me, an obvious foreigner, and pulled me to the front of the queue. They read my letter of approval and my passport, and rang the ministry to check I was expected. Then I stood with the other crossers in the hot sun (it was just before 8am, but already steaming and humid), until we were allowed to proceed through a fenced off passage to the main checkpoint. There, it was a long wait to be seen by the immigration officials. Most people crossing either have Abkhaz or Russian documents, so my passport caused a bit of confusion, and an English speaking guard was fetched to question me about my trip. He was concerned by the stamps in my passport from Arab countries, Algeria in particular (not sure why), and it turned out he knew some Arabic, so we had quite a bizarre conversation! Deeming me to be no threat, I was handed my passport. A final passport check by a high up official, and I was allowed entry with a "welcome in Abkhazia!"

Just by the gates are a collection of shops where taxis and marshrutkas wait. A marshrutka is a minibus which leaves when it has enough passengers. A marshrutka marked Sukhum in Cyrillic stood waiting, so I climbed on board with one other passenger, a lady who proved to be useful a few minutes later when the Arabic speaking border guard reappeared. "Come, mister, follow me please!" he said in English, pointing to the woods behind the shops. I asked why, and was told it was for more questions. I said he could ask me any questions he wanted by the marshrutka, and was adamant I would not follow him to the woods. The lady sensed what was going on and barked something at him in Russian. He asked a few irrelevant questions about my job, my marital status, my intentions in Abkhazia, why I had my eyebrow pierced, and other non official questions, and my fear was that what he really wanted was to take me into the woods and rob me. That might sound a bit too suspicious, but all the blogs about Abkhazia, the Lonely Planet guidebook and various forums state that this area is not a particularly safe place to linger, and a traveller has been mugged in the area before. So I was glad when the lady on the marshrutka started shouting at him again, and he went back to the checkpoint.

Once we got moving, it wasn't long before we arrived in Gali, the first major town in Abkhazia. Gali is almost entirely a Georgian town, populated by returning refugees from the conflict in the 1990s. It saw heavy fighting in the war and in a subsequent outbreak of violence a few years later, and is in a very sorry state, with every other building in ruins. As a Georgian town in Abkhazia, the town has not seen anything like the amount of investment that Sokhumi and the coastal towns have enjoyed, and it's quite a depressing place. Again, reports from other travellers said this was not a place to linger, but linger we did, as the driver wanted to fill his vehicle with passengers before setting off for Sokhumi. The road isn't particularly great, but it improves nearer Sokhumi, and the total driving time was about 2 hours, not including a lot of waiting time.

The marshrutka goes to the main bus station which is by the train station, a long distance from central Sokhumi, but drives through the centre first.

On the way back, there are buses every two hours or so from Sokhumi to Gali, and these are met by marshrutkas or taxis for the onward journey to Ingur. It's important to cross early in the day, as once the guards at the border leave the checkpoints in the late afternoon, it's reported to be quite a lawless place, and not somewhere you want to be with foreign face and a backpack full of cameras and money. Crossing back into Georgia, I was expecting questions and bag searches (other travellers had reported being interrogated, having photos deleted, items confiscated), but it was very simple. They checked my passport, took my visa away, and said goodbye. I noticed a few EU monitors on the bridge, so maybe the Abkhaz side were on their best behaviour that day, or maybe they have changed for the better.

On the Georgian side, they scanned my passport, and had trouble finding me on the database, so they were initially a bit suspicious of whether I had entered from Russia or not, until they realised that my passport number had been copied down wrongly. A minibus was waiting by the police station to take me and plenty other passengers the short distance into Zugdidi, from where I found a marshrutka heading to Tbilisi.

I'm told that crossing to/from Russia is a less intense experience, although summer crowds make it a slow one. The crossing is at Psou, between Sochi in Russia and Gagra in Abkhazia. Plenty buses serve the coastal highway between Sokhumi and Psou, many more than buses heading south to Gali, so transport shouldn't be an issue, and safety wise I don't think there are any issues.

There are apparently direct trains between Sokhumi and Russia (someone told me to Moscow, although that would be a very long ride indeed...but to Sochi would be a definite). I've also read reports that ferries operate between Sochi and Gagra in the summer months, which may be a very pleasant way to arrive.

However you arrive from Russia, you'll need to return to Russia afterwards, so you'll need to have a double entry visa for Russia, something the ministry ask for proof of if you state you intend to enter at Psou.

There is an airport in Sokhumi, but there are currently no flights anywhere.
Welcome to Abkhazia!
1 / 1 TravBuddies found this review helpful/trustworthy
Link
planxty says:
You really have done your research on this, haven't you. Another brilliant tip.
Posted on: Mar 26, 2017
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Sokhumi Map
Sokhumi
photo by: maykal