I feel attracted to the more controversial places. When I told my friends I was going to the Caucasus (surprisingly most of them didn’t even know where it was), they told me I’m crazy. Let alone when I later announced I’d also visit Abkhazia. Abkhazia is most known for its war, controversial status and poverty. Reason enough for me to visit.
After the fall of the Soviet Union the tension in Abkhazia increased and led to war and several violent events until Abkhazia claimed independence in August 2008. Russia was the first to recognize Abkhazia’s independence, followed by Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. Also the unrecognized republic Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh and the leaders of Hamas and North Cyprus recognized Abkhazia’s independence. Vanuatu en Tuvalu used to recognize Abkhazia as well, but revoked their decisions in 2013 and 2014. The rest of the world either don’t take position in the conflict or consider Abkhazia as part of Georgia. Abkhazia is still an unstable country, but after reading a few other travel blogs I was confident it was safe for visiting. Although the tension in Abkhazia rose again in spring, 3 months before I’d visit, it didn’t seem to be a potential danger. But IF something would happen, I knew I would be in serious trouble. As the Netherlands don’t recognize Abkhazia, the government could hardly help me and I would be all on my own.
Because of political reasons the only way to enter for non-CIS citizens is from Georgia. As Abkhazia considers themselves a independent country, it means you’ll have to pass customs and apply for a visa. The process seems pretty straightforward. You send an form with some basic information about yourself to the Abkhaz ministry of foreign affairs by e-mail and they’ll send you an entry permit. After arrival in Abkhazia you can easily pick up your visa for approx. 10 euro.
In reality the process of entering Abkhazia was not as easy as I thought it would be. I sent my visa application to the e-mail address that was mentioned on the Abkhaz website . I waited one week, I waited two weeks, but with no result. I thought I may have done something wrong and sent my application form again, but again with no result. I was about to give up when I decided to contact Megan Starr, who wrote a very useful article about traveling to Abkhazia. She got me in touch with the Abkhaz minister of foreign affairs and a short Twitter conversation later the minister promised me to speed up my visa application process if I would send my application form again, this time to another e-mail address. Within a few days I was the proud owner of an entry permit to Abkhazia. I still can’t believe I got my visa by a Twitter conversation with the minister of foreign affairs!
Most visitors of Abkhazia take the overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, the city nearest to the border and then get to the border crossing by marshrutka early morning. I took an overnight train three times before and twice I was locked inside the cabin, so this time I preferred other means of transport. I took a marshrutka to Zugdidi and stayed there overnight in a hostel. Zugdidi is a popular hub for travelers going to Svaneti. When I told the owner I was going to Abkhazia the next day she was shocked. She explained Georgia is still in war with Abkhazia, supported by Russia, and I still doubt if she was disappointed that I wanted to visit their enemy. Every time I called a city in Russian (In Georgian an i is added at the end of each name of a city), she was a bit upset and corrected me. My goal was to reach the capital Sukhum the next day. To get there I’d had to change marshrutka in Gal. The owner told me that Gal, the border town on Abkhaz side, was very dangerous. Robbery and violence would happen often. Therefore she told me I MUST leave Zugdidi no later than 10 am, so that I’d have a fast connection with no need to stay long in Gal.
The border crossing process went smoothly. As Georgia doesn’t recognize Abkhazia, you only pass 2 checkpoints on the Abkhaz side by foot. At the first checkpoint they checked my passport and took my entry permit. At the second checkpoint my passport was checked again and I think the officer wanted to question me, so he asked me if I spoke Russian. Since I didn’t, he joked if I perhaps spoke the Abkhaz language instead. When he realised we had some communication problems, he quickly told the address where I had to pick up my visa. The border guard made me feel welcome to his country.
After I crossed the border I didn’t feel unsafe at all. I had to wait some time for the marshrutka to fill up to leave for Gal. The marshrutka was a former vehicle of the Flemish Red Cross, so I decided to take a picture. The driver warned me that I couldn’t take any picture with the number plate or the direction sign on it, but was ok when I told him it was about the Flemish Red Cross sign. Upon arrival at the bus station in Gal I decided to try to get no attention. Not that it’s possible as ginger in this region of the world, walking around with a trolley. It took seconds before locals offered me their help and they guided me to the bus to Sukhum. I was told the bus would leave in only 1,5 hours. I would have loved to take some pictures at the picturesque bus station and stroll around the city, but although I felt safe, I decided to stay near the bus with the safety warnings in mind.
As Hostels and Couchsurfing are basically non existing in Abkhazia and the cheapest guest houses were already sold out, I booked a hotel for the first night. Anonymously I got off the bus, paid the same fair as the locals did without saying anything (hoping that he didn’t recognize me as a tourist and charge more) and got my bag. I then asked the driver for directions to my hotel. It is known as a luxurious hotel, so I was sure he would know where it is located. Instead of giving me directions, he started to shout out loudly “TERRORIST! TERRORIST!” Not a very nice welcome to Sukhum. Fortunately the bus driver was the only one who seemed not to be eager to see a western tourist. Later some more random people asked me if I was from the USA, but it didn’t seem threatening. Although my English skills weren’t useful, people were very approachable. In fact, I felt very safe.
Only when I moved to a guesthouse at the edge of the city the next day, my safety concerns increased. The guys working there were very concerned and warned me a million times that I should be very careful. I should lock the door behind me all the time when I’m inside, never open the door when someone knocks on the door and be discrete. They told me if people in the area would find out some “rich” western guy was staying here, they may rob me and possibly kill me. Neither should I take my smartphone or passport at anytime. The boss also gave me a local mobile phone so that I could call if something would happen anywhere in the city. If you consider that the road leading to the guesthouse was unlit, you may understand I didn’t feel all too comfortable any more. At this moment I was glad I already spent one day in the city without any problem and fortunately nothing terrible has happened during my stay.
Instead of murderers, I found the people in Abkhazia curious when they realized I was western. When I took some pictures of the former government building one of the skaters tried to ask me not to take any picture from a certain point of view. When I made clear I didn’t understand him and told him I only speak English, he just stared at me for a moment like he had never seen a non-Russian foreigner before. Also, the guy from the guesthouse was very curious. Every time I got back to the guesthouse he showed up with his dictionary and tried to start a conversation. He made me realise that I can be a bit narrow minded sometimes, although I claim to be the opposite.
My trip to Abkhazia was an epic one. Due to the recent war and conflicts Abkhazia doesn’t have a positive image in the west. Both the events that happened in spring and mainly the stories from locals made me a little concerned, although I was convinced I would be fine. Apart from the little concerns the locals caused, I never felt unsafe. After all, including Abkhazia in my South Caucasus trip was the best choice I could make. I would recommend everyone else to do the same. It’s not only one of the best places in the world to witness the scars of a recent conflict, there’s also a reason that Abkhazia is a popular destination for beach holidays by Russians.