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Abkhazia – travels in an unrecognized republic

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia has made international headlines precisely twice. Firstly, in 1992-3 during the civil war when the Abkhaz Republic tried to break away from Georgia, and then again in 2008 following Russia’s brief foray into Georgia to ‘liberate’ South Ossetia.

The larger neighbour recognized both territories as full nation states, despite international condemnation, and was only joined in doing so by Venezuela at the time, and later Nicaragua and Nauru. But both republics had been de-facto independent since Georgia itself became a sovereign country in 1991, but it wasn’t always like that; in fact Abkhazia was where much of the Soviet elite (read: those who were more equal than others) would enjoy their summer holidays during the time of the USSR, at spas and sanatoria along the Black Sea coast.

Abkhaz nationalists are keen to argue that Abkhazia has never been a part of Georgia, and was only incorporated forcefully in 1918 following the October revolution the previous year when Soviet demography rarely paid much attention to who lived where when lines were drawn. In fairness to the Abkhaz, the Soviet government actively encouraged Georgian and Russian immigration to the region whilst suppressing local traditions – especially under Stalin – to the extent that the Abkhaz had become a minority in their own region.

Yet even during the difficult years following the collapse of communism, Russian continued to flock to the beaches of Abkhazia, lured by the low prices and the nostalgia, or perhaps habit, of years gone by. Foreigners, however, were a rarity.

Today non-CIS citizens require a visa which cannot be obtained at the border with Russia – the border with Georgia on the other side is pretty firmly shut, but with no Embassies abroad to issue them, there is a cumbersome process of obtaining official permission from the interior ministry in the capital Sukhumi by downloading various application forms, faxing a packet of documents, cutting out some special offers and sticking your underpants on your head, then a week later hopefully receiving a positive reply, by fax, which you present at the border and which allows you in.

However, that’s not all. You then need to proceed to the capital and apply for the visa itself at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (open weekdays only) which lets you leave the country again. Of course, this being the former Soviet Union, there are normally ways to ease this process, but be warned – new laws from Tbilisi mean the very presence of an Abkhaz visa in your passport if you enter Georgia is an imprisonable offence which will likely see you deported – approximately $1,000 the poorer.

Any hotel near Russian Black Sea resort and 2014 Winter Olympic host city Sochi area can arrange a day trip to Abkhazia, and hawkers on the streets will happily book you up, too. We made it clear that we weren’t Russian and were told that we’d be fine. It’s an early start; expect the bus to pick you up around 7:30 to make the short trip to the border. Our fellow passengers looked more like shuttle traders than touristy day-trippers. Since we were the only non-Russians on the almost full bus we were given some rather bemused looks to begin with. Our Abkhaz guide introduced himself and facilitated our walk across the border (passengers debark for the short stroll across the Psou river which doubles as the border between Russia and Abkhazia (which strangely is called Apsny in the Abkhaz language, which uses a version of Cyrillic, although Russian is spoken by all).

Once the border guards had spent a few minutes shaking hands with each other whilst studying our passports and had established that we were on an organized tour for the day, they were happy to let us through adding “when you go back to your England, tell your Prime Minister to recognize our independence”.

The first stop was the port of Gagra, which even in the morning mist looked like it had definitely seen better days. We quickly moved on to the resort of Pitsunda for a breakfast of tasty, warm khachapuri and coffee which overshadowed the empty accommodation blocks against a backdrop of Spring drizzle. March is definitely the low season for tourism so we had the place to ourselves for visiting the impressive New Athos Orthodox Monastery where we arrived after a wine and cognac-tasting session at a nearby winery. Some had been excellent and a few a bit on ropey side, but they ‘got us there’! And with more wine over an excellent shashlik lunch, we were ready for what was probably the high-point of the trip.

The Krubera caves are the deepest in the world at over 2,000m from the highest to lowest explored points and are reached by an underground train that resembles the Moscow Metro. Russians refer to them as the Voronya, or Crows Caves, but whatever you call them, they are a spectacular sight full of stalactites and stalagmites glistening from the dripping water in the artificial light, and it take a good hour to walk through all the main areas. For the truly claustrophobic they’re not, but there’s plenty of space inside and you wouldn’t do Abkhazia justice without coming here. And there were souvenir shops so you can prove to those back home that you’ve actually been here (your passport won’t necessarily be stamped on the Abkhaz side) and the Russian rouble is the currency in use.

We didn’t make it as far as the capital, you’ll need an overnight stop for that. Time will tell whether Abkhazia begins to attract tourists from outside of the CIS, although since for a one-day trip you’ll need a double, or multi-entry, Russian visa it may take a while. Flights are from the nearby Sochi/Adler airport, and there’s no way around this for now. But with decent investment this place could certainly become a worthwhile alternative destination.

Luc Jones is a British-Canadian based in Moscow, after stints in Warsaw, Minsk and a series of bleak Eastern European cities which possibly inspired his love of the world’s travel backwaters. Luc has travelled to 88 countries, including Abkhazia, which for this reason he is happy to recognize as independent.

Luc Jones