This is purely an account of my personal experience of entering Abkhazia. My knowledge of Russian is very limited but I am an experienced and confident traveller in the South Caucasus. If you’re reading this for travel advice, I would recommend you do not make this crossing if you are making your first trip to the region.
Before attempting to visit Abkhazia, you must obtain a ‘clearance letter’ from the Abkhaz authorities. The only legal crossing is the Inguri Bridge crossing from Georgia. Entry into Abkhazia from Russia is illegal entry into Georgia and punishable by a two year prison sentence.
As with most people who visit Abkhazia, I spent the night in Zugdidi before making the long journey across the ‘line of occupation’ to Abkhazia.
Having spent a rather uncomfortable night in a hostel (for more on this click here) I was up and ready to go at 06:30, some ninety minutes before the Inguri River crossing opens to allow crossings from Georgia to Abkhaz-held territory. I climbed out of the top bunk, quietly packed away my belongings and headed down to the communal dining room where the hostel owner ordered me a taxi to the bridge.
Given that I only had Georgian Lari and US Dollars on me, I asked the taxi driver to stop off at a Bureau de Change en route on that I could get enough Russian Roubles to last me through the next few days. It may be possible to change Georgian money in Abkhazia but I didn’t see anywhere advertising the ability to do so. Having been caught out trying to change Serbian Dinars for Euros in Kosovo – a similarly highly-charged region when it comes to ethnic politics – I didn’t want to run the risk of being on the wrong side of the border and penniless!
After changing money, I arrived at the ‘line of occupation’ at about 07:45.
Crossing the ‘line of occupation’
There is relatively little notable at the Georgian side of the border other than the presence of an enormous flag that was still visible from the Abkhaz check point on the other side of the river. After the taxi dropped me off I simply presented my clearance letter from the Abkhaz administration to the Georgian guards who wrote down my details and then pointed me towards the bridge.
Walking from the Georgian-controlled territory to occupied Abkhazia will, I think, always rank as one of the strangest experiences of my life.
Before coming to the bridge, you begin by walking through a tree-lined thicket for about 400 metres or so, passing a bizarre statue of a gun with its barrel tied shut, pointing in the direction of Abkhazia. I can only think this statue is an artistic gesture on the part of Georgia that it has no violent intentions towards its separatist territory.
After passing through the thicket, you come to the Inguri Bridge itself. I had expected, given that the bridge is roughly 800 metres long, that it would have a fast flowing and powerful river below it but all it appeared to cover was a swamp. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there for Georgian/Abkhaz relations. The bridge itself is in a horribly dilapidated condition, full of potholes that had filled up with rain water in the storm that had taken place several hours before.
Given that the rain was still spitting, I arrived on the Abkhaz side of the bridge drenched, with my trousers covered in mud.
On first impressions, the Abkhaz side of the ‘line of occupation’ was significantly more militaristic than the Georgian side. Shortly after I crossed I came to a small hut staffed by an ageing army officer. I had to wait about twenty minutes in the rain while he waved through those holding Abkhazian or Russian passports who were also crossing from Georgia. Interestingly, I saw several elderly people using what appeared to be battered old USSR passports, suggesting Soviet-era documents are still accepted by the Abkhaz authorities.
Eventually, the officer came to me. I was expecting the Spanish Inquisition but, in honest, he just took a cursory look at my passport and clearance permit and waved me through to a second checkpoint about one hundred metres away down a barbed wire-lined tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, I reached a checkpoint with one-way glass and a small hatch. I didn’t exchange words with whoever was behind the glass and just slotted my passport and clearance letter through. After about five minutes of fiddling around, my passport was passed back through the slot.
After this there was an airport-style baggage scanner but the young soldiers operating it didn’t appear to have any interest in scanning my bag. In Russian firstly and then in broken English, one of them enquired as to my nationality. After I answered I was British, I encounter the same question I’ve been asked in places as diverse as Paraguay and the Palestinian Authority: “you like Manchester United, yes?”. I nodded, smiled, uttered a quick “spasibo” and walked on.
It had taken a while – but I was in Abkhazia.
Getting to Sukhumi
I had never been particularly concerned about the process of crossing the ‘line of occupation’ as I knew it would be administered in a fairly formal and legalistic way. If they didn’t want to let me into Abkhazia, it would have been fairly easy to walk back over the bridge to the safety of Georgia. One you’re through, however, there’s no turning back – at least until you have collected your visa from the oddly-named ‘Ministry for Repatriation’ in Sukhumi, some 120 kilometres away.
It is well known that the area immediately surrounding the ‘line of occupation’ is a dangerous one with Abkhaz troops and various bandits extracting bribes from visitors to the territory with relative impunity. The LonelyPlanet forums are full of examples of cases where tourists have faced threats and violence at the border.
You have two options when you have through customs – taxi or bus. If you opt for the bus (as I did) then the most usual way to travel to Sukhumi is to go from Inguri up to the town of Gali where buses then connect on to Sukhumi.
Gali is now the only truly multi-ethnic part of Abkhazia and is home to the majority of the 40,000 (out of 250,000) Georgians who have returned to their homes since the end of fighting. The town is also dirt poor and entirely overlooked by the ethnic Abkhaz administration; full of shattered and bombed-out buildings and riven with organised crime. As a non-Russian speaker, I was as keen as anything to avoid having to loiter in Gali to pick up a connecting bus so was delighted when a bus running directly Sukhumi turned up.
Speaking subsequently to some Georgian friends in Zugdidi, they told me that my decision to make an early start was a wise one as muggings and hold-ups in Inguri are at their lowest in the morning, increasing steadily until the Abkhaz close the ‘line of occupation’ at 19:00. You are apparently most likely to find a direct service to Sukhumi if you are there when the border opens at 08:00.
Given that even a direct service from Inguri to Sukhumi takes at least two hours, I have also been advised that those returning to the Georgian side make an early start so as to avoid potential hold-ups such as bogus document checks in Gali that could see you stranded in the dangerous border area after 19:00.
The drive to Sukhumi is beautiful and depressing in equal measure.
For the first half hour of the drive there are very few signs of any kind of visible population beyond the odd military or Abkhaz police vehicle patrolling the area. The streets are lined with destroyed houses, most of which have become overgrown with vegetation in the twenty years since the war and the only signs of a commerce are rusted old signs advertising cafes, restaurants and vehicle repair businesses which have long since ceased operating.
Despite the tales of human tragedy all around you, the landscape remains incredibly stunning. In the first hour of the journey we crossed at least five bridges, below which were fast-flowing, turquoise-coloured rivers. In the distance, you can always make out mountain ranges lush with vegetation. Given Abkhazia’s tropical climate, palm trees are everywhere.
It’s only when you get to Sukhumi and its environs that you begin to see signs of development and relative prosperity. I won’t address my impressions of Sukhumi here – I’ll do that in a later blog post – but the drive from Inguri was enough to solidify in my mind an impression of Abkhazia as a place where those living in ethnic Abkhaz towns are the “haves” and those in towns such as Gali the “have nots”.
Getting your visa
After arriving in Sukhumi, I dumped by bags at my hotel (the dull but clean and safe InterSukhum Hotel, if you ask) and headed to obtain my Abhaz visa. I am told you must collect the visa within three days of arriving but thought it was sensible to get the process out of the way as quickly as possible.
My hotel was very familiar with the visa process and arranged a taxi to take me to the office to pick it up for 100 Roubles (roughly £2). Annoyingly, I arrived during the Visa Office’s lunch break which runs from 12:00 to 13:00 each day.
I waited in the lobby until the it reopened, only be told that I needed to pay for my visa at the local branch of Sberbank before they would process if. The fact you need to pay for the visa in one place and then go to another to have it issued seemed to me to be the perfect example of the Soviet mentality that appears to pervade much of day to day life in Abkhazia!
Thankfully, Sberbank’s office was relatively easy to find. I simply needed to walk 600 metres or so down the road the Visa Office was on towards the sea, making a right turn at the derelict sea port. The office was located in a quiet courtyard located immediately to the left of a giant red mural of a man riding a horse.
I walked into the office, handed over $US10 and was issued with a receipt. I walked back to the Visa Office, handed over the receipt and was handed my visa for Abkhazia within five minutes.
I was keen to heed the warnings of those who had made the trip many times before that I should set off from Sukhumi as early as possible so as to avoid any delays at the ‘line of occupation’.
I woke up not long after 0730 and, noticing that there was torrential rain outside decided there wasn’t much point in me staying in Sukhumi any later than I really needed to. I packed my bags, ate a quick breakfast (comprised of various deep fried monstrosities that Russians seem to find delicious) and headed by taxi to the main bus station.
I had hoped that I would be able to shoot straight through to the Inguri Bridge as I had done before but was told in no uncertain terms that my only option was to go to Gali and change – something I was as keen as possible to avoid. Nevertheless, I had no option and managed to sleep the majority of the two hour journey to Gali, occasionally waking up when the bus stopped to pick up more passengers at various dilapidated towns along the route.
The driver threw me off the bus quite abruptly when we arrived in Gali, depositing me in a crumbling car park on what appeared to be the edge of the city. It was just about 10:00 and there weren’t a huge number of people around but I managed to find a couple of elderly ladies who were also loitering in the car park and asked them in broken Russian if this was the right place to wait for bus. They nodded.
A couple of minutes later, another old lady joined them and they muttered “gaumarjoba” at her – the Georgian word for “hello”. If immediately dawned on me that these elderly ladies were Georgian returnees to Gali who would be taking the same bus as me across to the Inguri Bridge.
About twenty minutes later, our bus arrived and after waiting around half an hour to fill up with people, it started moving. We were going no more than five minutes when the bus was stopped at a road block and we were each told to hand over our identification papers. In fairness, the checks I received were fairly cordial but the numerous Georgians on the bus appeared to have to hand over reams of documentation in order to satisfy the Abkhaz guards. They weren’t openly aggressive or threatening but it was very clear to me that this bureaucracy was part of a gradual chipping away at and undermining of Georgian returnees. There’s nothing I hate more than seeing people be rude or discourteous to the elderly but, in this situation, I was powerless to do anything.
We eventually reached the ‘line of occupation’. I handed over my passport and was waved through customs very quickly. I had thought that would be the end of it and I would be free to return to Georgia but, after walking about twenty metres from the customs booth, I was stopped by a wiry Abkhaz solider who spoke perfect English and ushered into a meeting room for what can only accurately be described as a “meeting without coffee”.
It’s clear something had made him suspicious of me – but I can’t put my finger on exactly what. The questions began fairly pleasantly but gradually degenerated into more and more aggressive probing. I can’t remember everything I was asked but the flow of the conversation was roughly as follows:
“What was the purpose of your trip to Abkhazia?”
“Tourism. I was just looking around for a few days”
“What did you see in Abkhazia?”
”Oh Sukhumi, the beautiful church at Novy Afon and some of the beaches near Gagra”
He then thumbed my passport and muttered something along the lines of “oh, you travel a lot… have you ever been to Russia?”
I answered that I had but not for a number of years and he then subjected me to detailed questions about what I had been done in various places I have stamps for in my passport. The guard was particularly interested in what I had done in Kosovo, Ukraine and Macedonia. He also appeared rather confused as to why I had so many stamps for Brazil in my passport but I decided not to complicate matters by explaining.
He then moved on to a series of questions about my views on Georgia – whether I had a Georgian friends, which towns I had visited in Georgia, whether I had any business with the Georgian government etc. He also probed my professional activities, asking which media organisations I had had contact with.
Rather predictably, he also asked me to describe what the Georgian border posts looked like on the other side of the river and the type of uniforms the police officers there were wearing. I was in no mood to assist his military intelligence-gathering activities so gave responses so bland he must surely have known I was being uncooperative.
I was disappointed but not surprised when he asked to look through my camera and BlackBerry but knew what was coming. Sadly, he deleted the majority of the most interesting photos I had taken during my trip but I had thankfully emailed myself a number of the best ones the evening before.
In honesty, I went to Abkhazia with no agenda other than to see the landscape, meet some people and soak up the atmosphere. The guard appeared to somehow know that I wasn’t your garden-variety sightseeing tourist. I think he suspected I was a hostile journalist but he had nothing concrete to accuse me of – because I hadn’t actually done anything.
After twenty minutes of sitting in the room alone, the guard came back in, asked me if I had any plans to visit Abkhazia in the future (“yes, it’s a beautiful country”) and told me I was free to go. Rather strangely, he returned to ask one more question, enquiring if I had plans to visit the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year. I answered honestly: “no”.
I was slightly annoyed that they had removed the loose Abkhaz visa from my passport and asked for it back, only to be fairly forcefully told that would not be possible. His tone suggested I should not pursue this one.
I decided to get out of there while the going was good and dashed back across the bridge to Georgia, democracy and the rule of law.
I’ve written up further thoughts about my trip and what I saw in Abkhazia here.