Why visit Abkhazia?
Country counters are always on the lookout for opportunities to add to their total, hence a visit to Abkhazia is on many a bucket list. It’s no longer an active conflict zone, though banditry at the border is reportedly still an issue, particularly after dark. Gal, the scruffy border town near the Enguri crossing, still bears the scars of war in the form of burnt out and abandoned homes, but though it does have something of a reputation, I didn’t feel unsafe as I travelled through. Sukhumi, the capital, is also only part way through reconstruction. The hulking Government Palace is the most noticeable landmark to await renovation, overgrown with weeds inside and riddled with concrete cancer. I visited a couple of hours after a summer thunderstorm and the sound of percolating rain water only added to the atmosphere.
But the Botanical Gardens were pleasant and down by the waterfront of this Black Sea resort, you’ll find pavement cafes and ice cream sellers with plenty of family-friendly attractions to keep the kids happy. Many of those who visit Sukhumi are Russians, coming across the border from nearby Sochi. Arriving from Georgia, I was the only visible tourist. Most of those crossing are local. Some are returning to Abkhazia with purchases from Zugdidi – I saw one rotund lady struggling in the heat pushing a trolley loaded with a refrigerator. Others cross daily for work.
Securing a visa
At least a week or so before your planned visit, you’ll need to apply for a visa. No payment will be necessary at this stage. It’s a simple form and can be downloaded from this website:
The only thing to be careful about is specifying exactly which dates you intend to travel as these will be fixed. You don’t get an open-ended month long visa for example. Email off the form together with a scan of your passport. In about a week, you should receive a letter of invitation. You may need to check your spam folder; the email that popped up into my inbox was headed simply “clearance” with the sender’s name in Russian and I almost deleted it. You’ll need to print off a copy of this letter and carry it with you. Some bloggers suggest you might require two copies but I needed only one.
Getting to the border
The easiest route to the Enguri border is by taxi from Zugdidi which should cost you 10 GEL (Georgian Lari, about £3.30 at current exchange rates). It’s also possible to travel by marshrutka. I speak no Georgian or Russian and taxi drivers didn’t see to understand border or even Abkhazia. Drop into the tourist information office on Rustaveli Street and pick up a regional map; you can then point to the border if necessary.
Before you set off, stop at one of the exchange places on Kostava Street to get some rubles. They don’t all stock rubles and again you might have trouble being understood; I ended up taking a photograph of a sign marked “Rub” and showing that. $100 was plenty to cover mid-range accommodation, food and transport for a couple of days. I didn’t see anyone obviously changing rubles at the border and you’ll need small notes (50s and 100s) to pay the marshrutka drivers once you arrive.
At the border
I made the mistake of arriving early, figuring that as I had read online about lengthy waits at both ends of the bridge, I should give myself plenty of time. There was a flaw with this plan and that was that the Georgian police official who could authorise my transit didn’t arrive until 10am. From 8.20am when I arrived, I was given a frosty but polite welcome by the police manning the exit booth. I was held for around an hour and a half. Technically. In practice, what this meant was that they waved me in to sit and wait in their office where they were watching Ultraviolet, a really bad Milla Jojovich vampire movie. Fortunately, they also had unsecured WiFi so the time passed quickly. When the boss arrived, I was processed without a single question and pointing to the door, pronounced good to go.
The walk across the bridge took around 15 minutes, as I had luggage, it was hot and I made frequent photo stops. Mostly no one seemed to mind that I was taking pictures. There are horse and carts which can be hired, but no one seemed to be that bothered about picking up a fare so shanks’ pony it was.
At the other side, a cheery official in army fatigues studied my passport and on learning I spoke no Russian, ushered me to sit down on what looked like it had once been a 1970s British bus seat. Lots of smiles, lots of “Hello, American? ensued” Ten minutes later, another soldier arrived, this time he knew some English. I was asked where I was from, my job, how long I planned to stay in Abkhazia and what I wanted to visit. I made sure I was very positive, smiled a lot and concentrated on the places rather than the politics. Satisfied with my answers, I was passed to the customs hut who processed me with a minimum of fuss.
It was then time to find a marshrutka heading for Sukhumi. I’d read that you could get a direct minibus but the only labelled marshrutka was for Gal. The name is easily recognisable in the Cyrillic: a back to front 7 followed by an A and a 3. The minibus was nearly full and left almost immediately, charging me 50 rubles theoretically but in practice, as I had no change, 100 rubles in practice. It took just half an hour or so, maybe less, to reach Gal and then circle around dropping people off, picking up flour and then, eventually, handing me over to a minibus driver bound for Sukhumi. The ride to the capital took under two hours, by which time the heavens had opened and I stepped out into torrential rain. That ride cost me 200 rubles. I was let out in the centre, saving me the fare from the train station where the marshrutkas terminate.
After the rain eased, and not before I was soaked to the skin waiting for my hotel owner to deign to come to the gate or answer the phone, I headed down to get my visa. For this, I needed to visit 33 Sakharov Street, an easy to find building set in a small but well maintained garden.
Inside, there was a gloomy corridor with a sign for consular services which led to a poky office. I was seen right away. Not only could I process the letter here, but I could also pay. The official asked if I wished to pay with a credit card and the chip and pin machine accepted my British Visa card with no problems. My overnight visa cost 350 rubles, though I’m not sure if a longer stay would necessitate a higher price.
Having thoroughly explored, I caught a taxi to the train station (150 rubles) in time to get me there for 11am, about the time my Lonely Planet said the border-bound marshrutka would leave. In fact, it was scheduled for 12.30pm. A shared taxi took a group of about six of us to the border. The fares were the same, 250 rubles in total. Crossing the border was much quicker than before. A few questions from the Abkhazian authorities about where I’d been and much smiling as I said I’d very much enjoyed Sukhumi and I was on my way. Aside from being asked to turn back and use the pedestrian path rather than the road the other side of the wire fence, it went without a hitch and after a cursory inspection from the Georgian police, I was back in. Another 10 GEL taxi ride took me to the centre of Zugdidi from where I was to catch my overnight train to Tbilisi.
If you’re thinking of visiting Abkhazia yourself and have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.
It’s been a long journey involving an overnight train and a four hour ride in a marshrutka, but I’ve finally reached Svaneti. My base is in Mestia and I’m writing this holed up on the hotel balcony overlooking three of the famous towers that dot the village. The birds are chirruping and the neighbour’s dog is letting me know if anyone walks up the rutted and very steep road that joins us to the main drag. The sun is valiantly making an attempt to break through today’s persistent low cloud, but tomorrow’s forecast promises sunshine and blue skies.
I spent yesterday travelling along the Georgian Military Highway, the route linking Tbilisi to the Russian border. The epithet “military” conjures up all manner of images, but you won’t see tanks or soldiers, just great scenery. I travelled with Envoy Tours in the capable hands of their guide Beqa. He was great fun, doing everything he could to ensure my Singaporean travelling companion and I had a fun day. From tour guide to chef to toastmaster, there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.
Our first stop was on the edge of the Zhinvali reservoir built in the 1980s to supply water to Tbilisi. It’s a picturesque addition to the landscape, though one that necessitated drowning several villages. The water level was high enough to conceal them yesterday, but when the water level is low, sometimes the tops of churches can be revealed.
We skirted the edge of the reservoir to reach the fortress complex of Ananuri, where they were selling these fabulous sheepskin hats. Once, there was just a tower here on a hillside; now there’s a cluster of buildings with defensive towers and a 17th century church featuring ornate carvings.
It was the first time I’d been asked to wear a skirt over my trousers as well as the headscarf I’d been expecting. Not the most elegant of looks, of course, but when you’re in someone else’s country you play by their rules. Inside the church walls bear a few faded but interesting frescoes. When Georgia was under Russian rule the frescoes were whitewashed and are slowly being restored.
While the tallest tower was off limits, it was possible to climb the smaller one. I’ve no head for heights, so the narrow, worn steps missing a handrail had my heart missing a beat. With plenty of encouragement, my two younger companions got me to the top. Inside, each level was surprisingly spacious, with a fireplace and plenty of room to live. These towers would have been hiding places when the area was under attack. The castle’s dungeon was quite claustrophobic in comparison.
Heading north from Ananuri, the road took us past the ski resort of Gudauri and over the 2379m Jvari Pass. Next stop was the Georgia-Russia Friendship Balcony.
Our guide, no fan of Russia, was quick to point out that it was built in 1983 when Russia was still in charge and Georgian independence was eight years off. Despite its name, the monument was very tastefully done and its multiple balconies were perfect for capturing a shot of the dramatic mountain scenery which formed its backdrop.
Our last port of call was right near the Russian border near the town of Kazbegi in a little place called Gergeti. Lunch had been arranged: my first experience of a Georgian stupa or feast. First, though, we had to make the local dumplings known as khinkali. Pastry had already been made and rolled; a spicy lamb filling had been preformed. All we had to do was assemble it, which involved lots of pinching of pastry and some rather dodgy looking shapes. Our hostess demonstrated a far higher level of skill, putting together a double decker khinkali quicker than we could pick up our cameras. They were delicious, though I resorted to using a fork instead of eating them the traditional way – bite off the top, drink the juice and then munch on what’s left. Beqa proved to be a good toastmaster too, ordering us to raise our glasses at regular intervals through the meal to God, peace, ancestors and women.
A hike had been planned. The Tsminda Sameba church, also referred to as Holy Trinity, is perched high on the mountain pastures above Kazbegi. Apparently there was once a cable car (those Russians again!) but the locals were none too impressed at having a sacred place defiled so they tore it down. A bumpy road led up to the church, but, said Beqa, it didn’t take much longer to walk up. Yeah right, if you were a goat maybe. The others walked, but told me later – as I’d suspected – that the path was pretty much straight up to the church and not an easy hike.
I took the minibus option, to my later relief, though that in itself was a hair-raising experience. Deep ruts characterised the gravel track for much of its length. In a couple of places the road had fallen away altogether. At the top, heavy rain made the pastures soft. I held my breath as we screamed across the grass, deep in some other vehicle’s tracks. How we didn’t get bogged down I don’t know. That fate was to befall someone else later, much to everyone else’s amusement.
The church was as impressive as its setting, though cloud obscured the 5047m Mount Kazbek which can be seen on a clear day. Inside simple candles stood in sand illuminated the icons and other works of art that adorn this simple church. Despite the constant tramping of tourists’ feet (including mine, of course) it had a spiritual feeling, perhaps not surprising as it is a working church to this day. The forecast rain that had held off all day materialised while we were at the church and so we all headed down by minibus. Come down on foot when it’s slippery like that and you may as well be on a toboggan.
For more information on Envoy Tours and to book this Embracing Georgia tour, please visit their website:
I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different. The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas. I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:
It’s outside my comfort zone. Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel. I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary. Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.
The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus. I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week. This is firmly within my comfort zone. This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.
The former is a departure from my usual travelling style. Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport. There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy. I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip. The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research. I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas. Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.
In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging. I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read. I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka. I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms. I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal. I really must look that up. A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too. I’m happy. Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.
It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas. Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place. It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen. And that’s a shame.