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Abkhazia

Geplaatst op: 10 February 2014 | Geen reacties
Van de countries-that-dont-exist redactie

Abkhazia: one of the many beautiful views

Abkhazia: one of the many beautiful views

Map of Abkhazia. Source: NYT

Map of Abkhazia. Source: NYT

With the Olympic games currently taking place in Sochi, I thought it would be a late but good moment to write about my visit to Abkhazia in 2011. “What and where is Abkhazia?”, is the first question most people ask. Abkhazia is a disputed and de-facto independent state bordering Russia near Sochi (see map). Its recognition is limited: almost all countries, including The Netherlands, consider Abkhazia as part of Georgia. Russia is one of the few countries that recognises their independence since 2008, that was proclaimed after the Russian-Georgian in that period. Throughout history, the Abkhazian region has been part of other regions and states as well as independent (until 1991 as the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, for example). Tensions led to the bloody Abkhaz-Georgian war in ’92-’93 with ethnic cleansing as the result. Russia has a large influence in the region and also has military presence through a large CIS peacekeeping mission, that mainly consists of Russian troops. I won’t dive deeper in the history and the issue of independence, as the complexity of the topic demands more research before saying something about it. The point is that nowadays Abkhazia is independent, at least from a practical travellers point of view, and that is what I will write about here.

My trip started with a train journey to the south of Russia. First a 33-hour train ride Moscow-Krasnodar, followed by a 12-hour overnight train to the Adler trainstation (near Sochi) a few days later, that provides you with a beautiful view on the Black Sea when approaching Sochi. The indirect train ride is not needed (unless you plan for a stop in Krasnodar), as there are plenty of direct Moscow-Adler trains, and due to upgrades of the infrastructure and trains last year there are faster trains that only take 25 hours. After arriving in Adler, a short marshrutka ride took us to the ‘Psou’ border crossing. After an hour of queueing and clearly being the only foreigner there, my passport was carefully and page-by-page examined by a Russian border guard. Once we passed that, only the (way more choatic) Abkhaz border point was left. The Abkhaz guard walked away with my passport and was nowhere to be seen for 10 min, perhaps checking things with his superior. Waving with my passport and shouting my name, he appeared again and I was free to continue.

Abkhazian militsia, local police

Abkhazian militsia, local police

There are some things you need to organise and take into account if you plan to go there. First of all, you need an invitation letter, issued by the Abkhaz MFA, to enter. You can obtain this letter by filling in an application form and sending this, together with a scan of your passport, to the gmail address of the ministry 🙂 After a week or so you will receive this letter as PDF. This letter is in Russian, but you should verify if your passport details are listed correctly to avoid troubles at the border. Mine were not correct, and it took a few emails and days to correct this (if you can write in Russian, as only my last email in Russian was effective). After you arrive in Abkhazia you need to obtain a visa at the MFA in Sukhumi within three days to be able to exit again. The building of the MFA, turns out the be the building of áll ministries of the country 🙂 The MFA was literally next door neighbour with the Ministry of Finance and – exactly how I imagined it – the consular department consisted of just two guys with desks, phone and laptop that process your visa. They will provide you with some payment information and you will need to go to a local bank first to do the payment. I had exactly $10 with me for the visa fee, but the lady at the bank converted this on her calculator to Russian Rubles and I had to change this first to Rubles at the bank in order to do the payment 🙂 In other words, don’t go through the trouble of acquiring dollars first. The visa was then provided directly as a separate paper instead of being glued into your passport – which is only a good thing I guess to save you from potential issues in travels afterwards. Besides the documents for Abkhazia you need a doubly entry visa for Russia. I don’t know about the current situation, but in 2011 it was not possible to continue to Georgia through Abkhazia, as the Georgians would consider your entry to Abkhazia as an illegal entry of Georgia. Hence, you need to return to Russia and for that you need a double entry visa. Russian tourist visas are normally single entry only and it was not clear on what grounds a double entry visa would be possible. I applied for the tourist visa at the embassy in my country (with a tourist invitation obtained online), where I attached the invitation letter for Abkhazia and explained the need for a double entry instead of single entry in the application. It all went without problems, but I would recommend doing this in a similar way and moreover, early enough to have some extra time in case issues arise.

One of the many interesting places to visit: monastery near New Athos

One of the many interesting places to visit: monastery near New Athos

Abkhazia turned out to be a truly fascinating travel destination. Beautiful nature, the warm Black Sea, mountains, great cuisine and interesting sights. It felt like a magical place! Monastries near Novy Afon and the Lake Ritsa in the mountains (where you can visit one of Stalin’s dachas) are some of the things I can recommend. The capital Sukhumi has some nice places to see but it’s also the place where traces of war are still clearly visible, such as the abandoned former parliament building that created a rather bizarre appearances in the middle of the city. Tourists are scarce but growing (the beaches are still empty – fantastic), mainly Russians and the Russian Ruble is also adopted as currency. Although the region has been part of a conflict, the situation in the last years has been fairly stable and from that point of view it is safe. Of course, it is perhaps an odd sight to see a Russian navy ship patrolling in front of the coast while taking a swim 🙂 , but in general I perceived it as safe, especially in the tourist regions. Bear in mind though, that there is no consular support for most countries, so if you get into trouble or loose your passport you can have a serious problem. Also, I’ve read some reports that crossing into Abkhazia from Georgia can be a bit risky because of local lawlessness and bandits near that border. Travelling together with someone and having some knowledge of Russian is in general advisable.

If you want to read some more about the tourism possibilities, take a look at the government’s tourism website. If you are in Sochi right now during the Winter Olympics, note that it will not be possible to go for a trip now as the border is closed for security reasons. Take a look at the beautiful journalism project ‘The Sochi Project‘ by two Dutch journalists about Sochi and the surrounding area, including Abkhazia. They also created a photo book about Abkhazia ‘Empty land, Promised land, Forbidden land‘. And of course, take a look at some of my photos:

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