Welcome to Abkhazia! - An Introduction

Sokhumi Travel Blog

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Abkhaz President and Flag, Sokhumi

The breakaway Republic of Abkhazia is located in the northwestern corner of Georgia, wedged between the Caucasus mountains, the Black Sea and Russia, home to just under a quarter of a million people. When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Abkhazia found itself part of Georgia, and soon a devastating war broke out between the Georgian army and Abkhaz separatists who declared independence. War raged for over a year, ending in 1993 with an uneasy peace settlement that left Abkhazia isolated and most of the cities in ruins, over half the population living as refugees over the new border in Georgia.


Before the war, the situation was very different. Known to be one of the most beautiful regions in the Soviet Union, with a stunning coastline and the best climate, Abkhazia was a favoured holiday resort for thousands who flocked to its Black Sea beaches and snow capped mountains.

An Abkhaz numberplate
My Georgian friends have fond memories of summers spent in Sokhumi, Pitsunda and Gagra, and lament the fact that they have lost access to their most beautiful piece of coastline.


In 2008, Georgia and Russia went to war, a war which resulted in Russia and a handful of other nations recognising the independence of Abkhazia. Since then, Russian tourists have returned to the resorts in droves, infrastructure has improved and new hotels, bars, restaurants and businesses have sprung up amid the ruins.

So what brought me to Abkhazia? Well, I'd been to Georgia twice before and fallen in love with the country, but Abkhazia always stared back at me from the map, a region that was inaccessible to all but a few aid workers on my previous visits.

My Abkhaz visa
Having heard about the region's beauty from my friends, and being intrigued by breakaway regions (previous trips were to Transnistria, Western Sahara, Northern Cyprus, Kosovo), I'd always had an idea to go back to Georgia and visit Abkhazia, but for one reason or another, that never came to fruition. Then I happened on the website for Wizzair and noticed new flight links to the Georgian city of Kutaisi, so a plan began to form. It became reality when the BBC covered the CONIFA football tournament for unrecognised states being held in Abkhazia, which led me to seriously look into the idea of going to Abkhazia.

First stop was to get a visa, an easier process than expected, which involved emailing a ministry in Sokhumi with my passport details and an online form in English.

Sokhumi Seafront
A reply came within a week, when I was sent a letter in Russian to allow me to pass the "border" between Georgia and Abkhazia. Soon after, I was on a night train trundling through the Georgian countryside on my way to Zugdidi, the closest city to the crossing over the Ingur river.

Slightly apprehensive and bleary eyed at some stupid hour of the morning, I took a taxi to Inguri, registered my presence with the Georgian police, and set off on foot through no man's land across a long bridge to the Abkhaz side. Far from being deserted, the bridge was busy with locals crossing in both directions. Since the end of hostilities, a large number of Georgian refugees from the southern provinces of Abkhazia have returned to their houses, and a surprising number of people cross the "border" every day.

Sokhumi
Reaching the Abkhaz side, I queued up with about 50 others in the already hot sun waiting for the Abkhaz officials to arrive.

A few questions about my intentions and a quick phone call to the ministry in Sokhumi, and I was allowed in with a "welcome to Abkhazia" from one of the officials. A bus to Sokhumi, the capital, sat empty with just one other passenger hanging around outside. I'd read that the border area is not a place to linger, and it's easy to find an online report of a traveller being mugged at gunpoint a few years ago. With no British or EU representation within Abkhazia, and government warnings against all travel to the region, I was very keen to get moving.

The bus driver finally decided no more passengers were going to come, so we crawled out of the border zone and shortly afterwards, pulled up in Gali, the first town over the border.

Psirtskha Railway Station in Novy Afon
Gali is 90% Georgian, mostly people who left as refugees and have recently returned. Being Georgian in Abkhazia is not an easy thing, and there are all sorts of issues surrounding the issuance of passports and the use of language in schools. Fighting in Gali had been especially intense, so for every building that looked inhabited, there was another that was burnt out or riddled with bullet holes. A depressing city if ever there was one, and according to online reports from other travellers, another place not to linger. The driver had other ideas, and we parked in the market area for an hour until enough passengers had turned up. It didn't seem threatening, with mostly women and children going about their shopping, but I was happy when the driver set off again for Sokhumi.

Sokhumi was very different.

Novy Afon Monastery
Of course there are still abandoned buildings with war damage, but among the ruins are trendy cafes, lively bars, brand new hotels, upmarket boutiques. Hundreds of tourists from Russia and Belarus dressed for the beach gave the place a resort feel. I checked into the Hotel Dioskuria that I'd booked online (yes, that was a surprise!), found an ATM which accepted foreign cards (another surprise and a big relief), and went to the ministry to collect my visa.

Outside, it was hot and humid. I felt like a walking sponge as I began my explorations. The obvious starting point was the huge government building in the main square, an impressive structure until you get close enough to see that it is abandoned, a casualty of the war and left as a macabre reminder of the past. A strange collection of flags flutter in the wind in the little park opposite: Abkhazia, Russia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru.

Coffee made the Abkhaz way on hot sand, in Novy Afon
..the only places to have recognised Abkhaz independence (although someone needs to let them know that Vanuatu has since rescinded their recognition).

Heading down the main streets, the buildings a mix of restored, brand new and dilapidated, I reached the seafront, the focal point of the city. Rusting piers jut out into the brownish waters of Sokhumi harbour, families parade up and down eating ice cream and popcorn, old men play chess in the shade of palm trees, art is for sale opposite an abandoned hotel, teenagers on hoverboards float past toddlers on remote control cars. It was a cheerful place, and very attractive, especially at sunset. I wandered along the seafront to the beach, a stretch of pebbles with clear blue water, backed by a lively promenade and a shady park.

Gagra beach
In between the sunbathers, decrepit and rusting breakwaters acted as diving boards and fishing platforms, the cranes of Sokhumi's inactive port silently decaying in the background...a very odd scene, but a very Abkhaz one that I was to see quite a lot during my stay.

Over the next few days, I explored Sokhumi, using it as a base to visit other towns along the coast by marshrutka. First was Novy Afon, another resort clustered around an impressive multicoloured 19th century monastery hidden in the lush green hillsides alongside Stalin's former summer house, a cave church, a waterfall, and an impossibly beautiful abandoned train station by a lake. Then came Gagra, the premier resort in Soviet times where the mountains seem to drop right into the sea. Just over the border from Sochi in Russia, the town was packed with beachgoers, and hotels and souvenir stalls stretched for kilometres behind the pebbly beaches.

Lake Ritsa

The highlight of Abkhazia is undoubtedly Lake Ritsa, deep in the mountains, and tours are advertised all over Sokhumi and Gagra. It not being possible to visit by public transport, I did what I normally never do...I signed up for a day trip. The Russian speaking guide was somewhat taken aback to have a foreigner to deal with, but with the help of an English speaking Russian and many hand gestures, she eventually relaxed and seemed to relish the idea of guiding someone not from Russia. Just south of Gagra, the minibus turned inland up a steep sided valley. Rickety rope bridges crossed a raging mountain river, and snow capped peaks were soon visible in the distance. This wasn't just a bus to the lake, it involved multiple stops...a honey-tasting session at a farm, a mini waterfall, a narrow canyon, a tiny blue lake with peacocks waiting for tourist photos, wine tasting, a zip line across the river, another waterfall, and a meal at a restaurant.

Bzyb Valley
Lake Ritsa, when we finally got there, was just as beautiful as all the photos I'd seen, but crowded...I was not expecting so many tour groups, but tourism is a well-oiled machine here.

Would I recommend a visit to Abkhazia? Well, if you're from Russia, it will be very easy...who knows, you've probably already been as half of Russia seemed to be there in July! If you're not from Russia, then Abkhazia is a bit more of a challenge. The visa application process, the slightly unnerving entry point, the drivers who speed along bumpy roads trying to avoid the cows lazing in the middle, the language barrier (a very good tip is to learn a few words of Abkhaz...more about that in a tip), the risk of something happening in a region with no diplomatic representation from anywhere but Russia, going against government travel warnings, the almost total lack of information for travellers.

Wine tasting in the Bzyb Valley
..

So, yes, it's a challenge, but a rewarding challenge. The scenery is stunning, the Abkhaz people friendly and welcoming (especially if you surprise them with a word in Abkhaz), the food tasty, the beer good. Just being in an unrecognised country so cut off from most other places, and somewhere that hardly anyone has heard of let alone visited...well, that's another reason to go. I didn't see all of Abkhazia...there are still several towns on the coast to visit, and aside from the touristy route up to Lake Ritsa, I didn't see much of the mountains. What I did see was more than enough to persuade me to make a return trip at some point.

Anyway, now that I've introduced Abkhazia, I'll rewind the clocks to the 4th July 2016, the day I crossed the Ingur River and arrived in Sokhumi.

Sokhumskoye beer
.. (see next blog entry)

(In case this sounds familiar, I ought to say that this is an edited version of a page I made on the soon-to-be-demolished VirtualTourist.com)

planxty says:
I must congratulate you on this whole blog, Michael. I have just spent about three hours reading every word, looking at every picture and thoroughly enjoying every moment of it. It is so brilliantly researched and written that I dread to think how long it must have taken you to put together.

I really cannot wait to read more when I have time.
Posted on: Mar 26, 2017
Suusj says:
Congrats on the feature :)
Posted on: Feb 01, 2017
HORSCHECK says:
Michael, congrats on your featured blog. Well deserved.
Posted on: Feb 01, 2017
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Abkhaz President and Flag, Sokhumi
Abkhaz President and Flag, Sokhumi
An Abkhaz numberplate
An Abkhaz numberplate
My Abkhaz visa
My Abkhaz visa
Sokhumi Seafront
Sokhumi Seafront
Sokhumi
Sokhumi
Psirtskha Railway Station in Novy …
Psirtskha Railway Station in Novy…
Novy Afon Monastery
Novy Afon Monastery
Coffee made the Abkhaz way on hot …
Coffee made the Abkhaz way on hot…
Gagra beach
Gagra beach
Lake Ritsa
Lake Ritsa
Bzyb Valley
Bzyb Valley
Wine tasting in the Bzyb Valley
Wine tasting in the Bzyb Valley
Sokhumskoye beer
Sokhumskoye beer
Sokhumi Seafront
Sokhumi Seafront
Flags of countries recognising Abk…
Flags of countries recognising Ab…
Sokhumi
Sokhumi
Gagra
Gagra
Burnt out former government buildi…
Burnt out former government build…
Sokhumi General Tips & Advice review
Ingur Border Crossing
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 Zugdid… read entire review
Sokhumi General Tips & Advice review
Abkhaz visas
Unless you are from Russia or a former Soviet Union country (except Georgia and the Baltic States) or one of the handful of countries that recognises … read entire review
Sokhumi General Tips & Advice review
Is it safe?
This is not an easy question to answer. I spent 6 days in Abkhazia, travelling for the most part independently, and aside from one weird incident at t… read entire review
Sokhumi Restaurants, Cafes & Food review
What to Eat and Drink in Abkhazia
Traditional Abkhaz food is not that easy to find in the restaurants of Sokhumi (maybe it is elsewhere, but as I stayed in Sokhumi, I only ate out ther… read entire review
Sokhumi General Tips & Advice review
Abkhaz Language and other languages
English is not widely spoken in Abkhazia. Staff in the first hotel I stayed in knew a few words, and made every effort to communicate with me using si… read entire review
Sokhumi
photo by: maykal