Abkhazia (Abkhaz: Аҧсны (Apsny), Georgian: აფხაზეთი, Russian: Абхазия) is a mostly unrecognized country that seceded from — but is still claimed by — Georgia. It lies mainly on the eastern shores of the Black Sea in the Caucasus region. To its northwest, across the Psou River (Псоу река) is Russia; the Russian city of Sochi is nearby. To its east, across the Enguri River, lies Northwestern Georgia. The Greater Caucasus mountain range occupies its northern territory. The coastal lowlands have a subtropical climate. In Abkhazia's small area snow-covered mountains meet beaches, caves and lakes. A long human history has left an architectural and cultural legacy that complements its natural beauty.
Abkhazia was a popular tourist destination back in a Soviet days because of its mild climate, its beaches and interesting nature. The country's tourism infrastructure has been developing again, but so far, it is frequented mainly by tourists from Russia and other CIS countries.
Despite suffering a similar history to South Ossetia, Abkhazia is much more accessible and open to travel. While not many Westerners make it, it has always been a popular destination for Soviet, and now Russian, tourists.
Abkhazia was long part of or related to various Georgian kingdoms until its annexation into the Russian Empire in 1864. When the Democratic Republic of Georgia declared its independence from the empire in 1918, Abkhazia obtained autonomy within the new Georgian republic. After the Soviet annexation of Georgia in 1921, and the formation of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was included into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1931 as an autonomous republic. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Soviet Union was undermined by strong nationalist feelings among its various peoples. The Abkhaz people feared domination by the emerging independent Georgia and sought their own independence. Violent clashes culminated in full-scale war in 1992: 3,000 Georgian troops overtook Abkhazia and dismantled the separatist government. In response the Abkhaz and Russian paramilitaries mounted a major offensive and by 1993 they had driven the Georgians out and had massacred thousands that remained.
After the civil war most of Abkhazia, except a few villages in Kodori Gorge, was out of Georgian control. During the 2008 South Ossetian war Abkhaz forces overtook these few remaining villages.
Its status as an independent state is internationally recognized only by Russia, Nauru, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Syria (as well as the other unrecognized states in the Caucasus region. including South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Artsakh). The Georgian government, United Nations and the majority of the world's governments consider Abkhazia a part of Georgia's territory. Under Georgia's official designation, it is an autonomous republic with a Tbilisi-recognized autonomous government in exile. Tbilisi does not recognize the legality of the Sukhumi-based Abkhazian government.
Abkhazia very much depends on Russian support and funding, and has an uncertain political situation similar to that of South Ossetia.
Abkhazia is south of the Caucasus on the north coast of the Black Sea west of the river Enguri in Georgia. With the exception of a narrow agricultural coastal strip it is a highly mountainous country reaching heights of over 4,000 m.
There is also the Voronya Cave in the Arabica Massif. At 2,190 m deep, it's the deepest known cave in the world.
Thanks to the protection of the mountain ranges, the coastal strip has a subtropical climate, which made Abkhazia a popular resort in the Soviet era. The mild climate promotes the cultivation of tobacco, tea, wine and fruit and agriculture, food and beverage industries are among the most important economic sectors of Abkhazia.
Very hot and humid summer. It can stay quite warm up until the end of October.
The average temperature in January is between 2–4°C. The average temperature in August varies from 22–24°C. The average annual temperature is 15°C.
Abkhazia has long been inhabited mainly by the eponymous people of Abkhazia, which represented in 1886 about 85% of the residents of Abkhazia (half of which were Georgianized Abkhazians at the time) on a total population of less than 70,000. There were also small Greek, Armenian and Russian minorities as well as several thousands of Georgians. However, the number of Georgians increased since the 1880s. During the Ottoman-Russian war between 1864 and 1883, a grand migration took place, when large numbers of Muslim Abkhazians emigrated to the Ottoman empire with other Muslim populations of the Caucasus, such as Circassians. Large numbers of Georgians settled on the vacated lands and properties under Russian Tsarist rule. By 1917, Abkhazia counted 167,832 residents, of which 42% Georgian and 21% Abkhaz. This proportion between the ethnic minorities was roughly maintained throughout the Soviet Union era. The last Soviet census of 1989 identified a population of approximately 525,000, of which almost 46% were Georgians and 18% Abkhazians. The rest of the population consisted of Armenians (14.6%), Russians (14.3%), Greeks (2.8%) and some smaller minorities. During all this time, also many Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians settled in the region. The Abkhazians therefore were already a minority in their land at the beginning of the 20th century.
During the Civil War, there was ethnic cleansing and forced displacement. Approximately 250,000 inhabitants (including approximately 200,000 Georgians) left the region. Some other citizens emigrated later on due to the difficult economic situation. In 2003 the population was only of about 215,000 people. However, since 2008 the situation in Abkhazia continuously improves and the population increases again. According to 2011 census, the country had about 241,000 inhabitants: 50.8% Abkhazians, 19.3% Georgians, 17.3% Armenian, 9.2% Russians, 0.7% Ukrainians, 0.6% Greeks and about 0.8% of other minorities.
A large part of the population has Russian passports, since Abkhaz passports are unrecognized by almost every other state. Many ethnic Georgian residents of Abkhazia are Georgian citizens without Abkhaz citizenship. They are mainly concentrated in the south of the country: in Gal district, they constitute 98.2% of the population; in Tkuartschal district 62.4%; and in Rajon Otschamtschyra district, about 9.5%. In all other parts of the country, the percentage of Georgians is well below 5%.
Abkhaz, in the Northwest Caucasian linguistic family, is related to the Abkhaz-Adyghe language group in the same family. There are two official languages: Abkhaz and Russian. Russian is convenient for inter-cultural communication since Abkhazia is a multi-ethnic state. Russian is universally understood and the most convenient language for the traveller. In the cities one also can use English for basic communication.
The Georgian language is not particularly widespread in the country. The Government of Abkhazia has not approved Georgian as an official language, and many Abkhazians find it offensive to be addressed in Georgian because of the war, but many ethnic Georgians living in the south of the country speak it.
There are three types of Abkhaz visa: Single-entry (10 days - US$10, 30 days - US$20, 3 months - US$30, 1 year - US$40), Multi-entry (from US$30) and Transit (US$5-50). Official information is available online.
Visa applications are submitted and processed via email. Visas are issued by the Consular Service department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (21 ulitsa Lakoba, Sukhumi, +7 840 226-3948). Download the appropriate form; once completed, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out the online form. Within seven working days you should receive an Entry Permit via email or fax. The consular staff may be slack and you may need to chase them up with a phone call, so don't leave applying to the last minute.
Within three working days of your arrival in Abkhazia, go to the Ministry of Repatriation (33 ulitsa Sakharova, Sukhum, +7 840 226-70-69, normal office hours with lunch break from 13:00 to 14:00).
The process here is unexpectedly unbureaucratic: enter room 3 in the ground floor (knock at the door and then enter if not told otherwise), the official will ask you a few questions in Russian or English, you pay in rubles on the spot (400 руб for a ten-day stay in August 2018) and will have your visa handed to you.
Entering from Russia is more "user-friendly". This border is crossed by hundreds of people every day. However, you will need a double-entry Russian visa.
In addition, crossing the Russian-Abkhazian border is considered a criminal offence by Georgia: an illegal entrance onto Georgian territory without passing a Georgian immigration checkpoint. This is punishable by a fine, or even prison sentence, which in effect means you cannot transit through Abkhazia from Russia to Georgia, but should instead leave Abkhazia via Russia. While some travellers reported that entering Abkhazia from Georgia and continuing the trip to Russia is viable, it's not recommended, because you may be arrested the next time you visit Georgia, since Georgia never registered your exit.
Take note not to leave traces in the passport of a visit to Abkhazia via Psou (Russia).
There are no exchange facilities or ATMs at the border. Get sufficient rubles in Zugdidi (or, if you arrive straight from Tbilisi, from there), otherwise it may be difficult or overly expensive to obtain transport in Abkhazia.
Like Russia, but unlike Georgia, Abkhazia does not do Summer Time, leading to an effective one-hour time difference in Summer which mobile phones may not automatically pick up on.
From the Zugdidi railway station, take a marshrutka (1 lari, Aug 2018) or taxi (10 lari, which can be negotiated down to 8) to the Enguri bridge, get your passport checked by the Georgian police checkpoint and walk across the several hundred metres long, dilapidated bridge to the border checkpoint on the Abkhazian side.
The Georgian police station has to call Tbilisi to get permission, the office there doesn't open before 10:00 (Aug 2018), so you may have to wait if your arrive early. On the Abkhazian side, there are at least two checkpoints. Present your letter of permission (see below), answer any questions and wait patiently until you are allowed in. The border guards may demand a cursory glance through your luggage.
On the Abkhazian side you can find taxis (350-400 руб, Oct 2013), marshrutkas (50 руб) and occasionally a bus to Gal. In Gal you can change to a marshrutka to the capital Sukhumi (250 руб, Aug 2018, roughly hourly departures) or share a taxi there which can be negotiated to 1,200 руб for 4; however, a cartel of sorts seems to be in operation, so without knowledge of Russian this may be difficult. Gal's marshrutka station is outside the town, which makes getting a quick look inconvenient. Some marshrutkas continue all the way from the Ingur to Sukhumi. Going back from Sukhum to Ingur (Ингур), direct marshrutkas leave the train station at 09:10 and 11:10, but are often packed and won't take anybody with too much luggage.
There is a year-round daily train from Moscow's Kursky Rail Station to Sukhumi. Every second day the train extends to St. Petersburg. From Moscow, it takes less than two days and passes through Adler at about 08:00 and arrives in Sukhumi about two hours later. The return journey starts at about 14:00. In addition there are some local services per day between Sukhumi and Adler stopping at Novy Afon and Gagra. Alternatively, marshrutkas run from Adler railway station, with better connections to the border.
If crossing the border on foot from Russia, prepare for long waits in summer (1½–2 hr are not uncommon) and bring enough water. Frequent (ancient Ikarus) busses and marshrutkas leave from the parking lot once you have cleared customs.
A high-speed, seasonal daily boat service [dead link] (running between 10 June and 1 October) links Sochi with Gagra, where it is possible to enter Abkhazia being in possession of a Clearance (see above) indicating the Psou border crossing. The boat leaves at 10 am from Sochi's Morskiy vokzal (sea port) (boarding time: 08:30) and arrives at 11:30. In the other direction, it leaves from Gagra at 19:00 (boarding at 18:30), a one-way ticket costs 500 руб, in Sochi it has to be bought at least one day before leaving, for the way back though, it can be bought on board. From the Gagra port, just walk 100 m ahead to the main road to catch a bus for traveling onwards.
Abkhazia is partially under a naval blockade by the Georgian Coast Guard, and its waters are patrolled by Russian Border Guards' Coast Guard. If you are caught by the Georgians, the Georgian authorities will probably investigate whether you are involved in any economic activity, and if they find that you are, you might be prosecuted for unauthorized economic activity with Abkhazia. You may be penalized with a prison term and a heavy fine.
There are frequent buses and marshrutkas along the coastal road. You will find a bus timetable at the Sukhum Bus Station (in front of the train station).
Visitors may also use taxis for travel within the country. Many taxi companies provide special rates for sightseeing. There are a number of travel agencies providing excursions to the mountains using jeeps / four wheel drive cars.
One interesting destination for travellers is to visit Novi Afon (Новый Афон) or New Athos; a Christian Orthodox Cathedral, which is 20 min drive from Sukhumi. It is famous not only as a cathedral and living legacy of Christianity but also as a cave; where there are 7-8 enormously large halls with thousands of wonderful of stalagmites and stalactites. A special train takes you to the depths. There are also historical places like the village of Moqua with its beautiful cathedral, and Ilor Church near Ochamchira.
Another attraction is Lake Ritsa, high in the mountains and about 1 hour drive from the main road (M-27). On the other side of the lake, Stalin's Dacha (summer cottage) can be found. The shortest way is by boat, but access is also possible by road (5 km). The cottage is open for tourists in the peak season but pulling out a camera will probably occasion a firm warning. Even further up in the mountains is Lake Msui, a bit more off the beaten track; some tour operators offer trips. Weekly local flights from Sukhumi airport can take you to the remote village of Pskhu, where tourists may enjoy fantastic views of mountains and enjoy local produce such as honey and meat.
Abkhazia is one of the oldest Christian countries (Andrew and Simon the Zealot preached here in the 1st century AD). Therefore a number of medieval churches exist. Most notable of them are the temples in the villages Lykhny, Kaman, Otkhara.
It's the largest and the oldest (more than a thousand years old) village of Abkhazia which can boast of ruins of a 6th-7th century Christian temple (located on the outskirts of the village), princes palace and Church of the Assumption of Our Lady. Lykhny village is located 5 km (3 mi) north of the city Gudaut.
- Glade Lyhnashta, village Lykhny (In the center of the village). Abkhazians performed nationwide gatherings, annual equestrian events, national celebration here from the old times. There is also a picturesque ruins of the palace of the ruling princes of Abkhazia Chachba-Shervashidze. Palace was founded in the 11th century and then destroyed in 1866.
- Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, village Lykhny (Next to the glade). Acting church. Built in the 14th century. You can see there fragments of frescoes of the 14th century, tomb of the last ruler of Abkhazia - Prince George Chachba-Shervashidze (died 1818) before it became part of the Russian Empire in 1810.
Christian legend states that the holy martyr Basiliscus (308 AD) and St. John Chrysostom (407 AD) died and were buried in this village. Here you can find the ruins of early medieval Christian church, the tomb of the holy martyr Basiliscus, Orthodox Monastery (operating since 2002). Kaman village located 15 km (9 mi) from the city of Sukhumi.
Dens of a medieval monastery can be found here.
Abkhazia offers a wide variety of activities such as eco-tourism, gastro-tourism, rafting and extreme sports, mountain jogging and snowboarding, diving and sky gliding, hunting, and cultural and religious tourism. Beach season in Abkhazia lasts from May to November.
These are some things a traveller should try before leaving Abkhazia:
- Visit the Abkhaz Drama Theatre, Botanic Garden and Monkey Park in Sukhumi.
- Dine at the famous "Gagripsh" restaurant in Gagra.
- Take a boat trip from Gagra to Sukhumi.
- Visit the small cave of St. Simon the Zealot and the cave in the village Abrskila Otap.
- Visit the village of Kaman near Sukhumi.
- Village of Lykhny with its historic churches and dome of Abkhaz Kings.
Exchange rates for Russian ruble
As of January 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
Abkhazia uses the Russian ruble (RUB or ₽) as its currency.
Abkhazia now has ATMs that accept Visa, Mastercard and Maestro cards, they are usually installed near bank branches in all major cities. If the Abkhazian banks do not accept your card try the foreign (i.e. Russian) banks like Sberbank. Upscale shops and restaurants also accept cards.
Dollars and euros are accepted in official exchange offices which can be found at most tourist areas—normal banking hours apply. Sometimes, visitors may pay with dollars and euros directly, though at a lower rate.
There are some 24-hour shops in the villages. Sukhumi has a new shopping center on the outskirts of the city. Otherwise goods can be found in small shops, mini markets and numerous kiosks. The largest grocers in Gagra is called "Continent".
Dominant in Abkhazia are the Mediterranean influenced Caucasian and Russian cuisine. It has Mediterranean characteristics due to the abundance of subtropical fruits, vegetables and seafood. Kebabs are offered almost everywhere.
You should try Abkhazian local dishes including Akud (bean sauce) and Abista (corn porridge with cheese) and a variety of meat and fresh greens. Most dishes are usually spicy.
Abkhazia is also a wine region. Local wines are a must try; Apsny, Ashta, Buque, Dioskuria (ancient Greek name of Sukhumi), Gumsta, Lykhni, Psou, Chegem and Radeda.
Local spirits distilled from a dry wine and fruit mash are very diverse and cause stormy enthusiasm among tourists.
In the past, Abkhazia has witnessed military confrontations between Georgian armed forces and the Russian-supported local independence groups. For the common traveller the country is relatively safe, but you should make sure to avoid any place near the border to Georgia. Some minor unregistered minefields are reported near the border, an additional reason to steer well clear of it. Keep in mind that Abkhazia is, in the view of international law, still a part of Georgia. Further military confrontations are unlikely but you should closely follow the international and independent news in case the situation changes.
While many travellers cross the border with Georgia proper back and forth with no problems, keep in mind that the southeastern areas of Abkhazia on the way, around Gali and Ochamchira more specifically, are the most impoverished parts of a country already not doing so well, so the time spent there should be kept no longer than is necessary. The Abkhaz side of the actual border zone at Enguri/Ingur seems safe as long as the militia is there—but note that they leave the place as soon as the crossing gets shut by 19:00, and there is at least one report of a traveller being a victim of a violent mugging which took place there after the militia left.
If you are not from the few countries that recognize Abkhazia, being in a conflict zone means that you are left stranded with absolutely no consular support should you lose your passport for some reason. In such a case, a traveller reportedly could make it back to Georgia only after the involvement of the Red Cross delegation (48 Inal-Ipa St, Sukhumi) and some high-ranking Abkhaz officials, which may not be available next time. Thus it is recommended to make a copy of the passport and any appropriate visas before entering Abkhazia.
Finding directions might be challenging as all signs are mainly in Cyrillic only.
The basic precautions for travellers are those recommended in all tourist destinations:
- Watch your bag or purse in public, e.g. buses, trains and meetings. Keep your car locked with valuables out of view and do not leave your valuables like cameras, jewellery or mobile phones on the beach when you go for a swim.
- If your mobile phone is stolen, the local cell phone company may help you to track it and in most cases telephones could be found if resold anywhere in Abkhazia.
- Don't hesitate to report crimes to the local police. If you report a theft, people are generally helpful.
Boil or sterilize tap water before drinking.
Abkhazia is a traditional and conservative country, so dress modestly. Clothing which exposes too much skin will give you a bad image from the local people, and you will thereby get unwelcome attention and less respect.
It is possible to send post from Abkhazia abroad via Russia. However, the main post office in Sukhum (Aiaaira st. 108) burned down in January 2012, and hasn't been rebuilt (Aug 2018). Reportedly, the post office is temporarily located in the Sukhum telephone exchange (Jul 2017). Other towns with post offices are (Jul 2017) Gagra (Ardzinba st. 147), Gudauta (Heroes ave. 3), Gulrypsh (Constitution st. 4), Ochamchira (Shinkuba st. 62), Gal (Leon st. 3), Tkuarchal (Adyghe st. 4), New Athos (Kharazia st. 2). Otherwise, the nearest post office for international mail is in Adler, Russia. Abkhazian post offices also usually allow making international telephone calls at costs of about 10-16 руб per minute.
Landline phone numbers have the format of
+7 840 XXX-XX-XX.
There are 2 local mobile operators A-Mobile and Aquafon, the latest one being the largest and having bigger coverage. Their mobile numbers follow the next format
+7 940 XXX-XX-XX. A SIM card costs about 200 руб, incl. 150 руб credit, and there are special rates for travelers, no ID is required for card purchase and almost all available tariff plans are prepaid ones. Both operators offer 4G which is available almost in all towns. Foreign SIM cards usually do not work with the exception of Russian branded operators MTS, Beeline, Megafon.
It is common for telephone numbers not to be recognised, and therefore it is worth redialing many times.
- Georgia with its beautiful and mysterious mountain region of Svaneti in Northwestern Georgia close by (if you are allowed through the border).
- Russia — The border with Russia is now open for all visitors.