Abkhazia, a country that doesn’t exist but yet it is there. Small territory on the coast of the Black Sea, bordered by palm trees and Caucasus mountains at its background, formerly the Soviet Riviera where leaders of the USSR used to spend their vacations, and populated by Abkhazians haunted by the fear of losing their own identity.
Since the war of 1992-1993, you will see everywhere destroyed and abandoned houses, bullet holes on the walls, in the exact same state for 28 years, due to a lack of money and international recognition. Traveling in Abkhazia is discovering a small nation in search of recognition and a piece of land at the center of the great geopolitical game of the Caucasus.
Whether you like Urbex, geopolitics, little-known people, hiking in the mountains or you are nostalgic of Soviet times you never even knew, Abkhazia is for you. I give you here all the usefull and necessary informations to travel in this self-proclaimed country, out of the beaten track.
Quick history of Abkhazia
Abkhazia was part of the Kingdom of Colchis until the 6th century. In the 9th century the Byzantine Empire took control of the region, a kingdom of Abkhazia was created, united with the Georgian kingdom of Imeretia.
In 1810 it united more or less with the Russian Empire, which ended up completely controlling the region at the end of the conquest of the Caucasus in 1864. Repression of the Muslims began, who then represented 60% of the population. They emigrated massively to the Ottoman Empire (like the Circassians in the North).
From there the versions diverge : The Abkhazians will tell you that at this period the region being emptied of a large part of its population, Armenians and Russians moved in.
The Georgians claim that the Svanes and Mingrelians have been there since Antiquity … There may be some truth in both.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, Abkhazia was part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic or Transcaucasian SFSR (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). Later Stalin made it part of the Georgian SSR. The Georgians closed the Abkhaz schools , and the language was written with the Georgian Alphabet.
The Georgians settled there in numbers, protests of the Abkhazians against this “colonization” begun … According to the datas, the Abkhazians represent only 17% of the population and 44% of Georgians in the early 1990s.
In 1991, Abkhazia took part in the referendum to stay part of the USSR while Georgia boycotted it. A very large majority of Abkhaz people vote in favor. Another referendum took place in Georgia for this time the separation from the USSR and was mostly boycotted by the Abkhazians.
At the beginning of 1992, Ardzinba, an Abkhaz then president of the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia formed a National Guard exclusively composed of ethnic Abkhazians who came for some from other regions of the USSR.
At the end of the war with South Ossetia, Tbilisi takes full charge of the Abkhaz case.
The Deputies of Abkhazia set back up the constitution of 1929 which declared Abkhazia an independent and sovereign state.
In August 92, the war began with a first Georgian launching an attack, followed by a short ceased fire obtained by the Russians present at that time in the regio. Fights started again a few days later. The Abkhaz National Guard backed up by the Russian army, North Caucasian volunteer fighters (including Chamyl Basayev who was the leader of the Chechen battalions) and Cossacks.
In July 1993 a first agreement was signed under the aegis of Moscow, and others later until 1995 under the aegis of the UN and of the OSCE.
The region had a little more than 500,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 90s.
Datas after the war :
– 7,000 dead on the Georgian side. 100,000 refugees expelled from Abkhazia.
– 6,000 dead on the Abkhaz side and around 200,000 Abkhaz, Russians and Armenians alike have left the region.
The situation has been frozen for almost 30 years and Abkhazia is a de facto state, independent but still unrecognized by the vast majority of the international community.
Capital : Sukhum (in Abkhaz “Аҟәа” – in Russian “Сухум”)
Population : About 240 000 inhabitants
Languages : Abkhaz and Russian are the official languages.
The Abkhaz language has been written over time with the Greek, Arabic and then Georgian alphabet but since 1954 Cyrillic has been used. It has 64 letters including 26 of the Russian alphabet. The language is very close to the Circassian languages in general and particularly to Abaza. If you speak Russian you will notice the Abkhaz letters easily!
Religions : Orthodoxy and Islam. There is apparently also a very small Ashkenazi Jewish community and a synagogue in Sukhum.
Money : The Russian Ruble is used. Do not try to use your Georgian Lari GEL or even have them changed elsewhere than in Gal where there is a Georgian minority. You will find Sberbank ATMs (Сбербанк – Russian Bank) quite easily but Abkhazia is completely dependant on the Russian bank system and therefore is affected by the sanctions too. You will not be able to use your Visa or Mastercard.
If you’re coming from Georgia, you can get Russian Rubles in Tbilissi’s exchange offices. I didn’t see nor heard of currency exchange places, or random strangers in street corners changing Euros or US Dollars in Abkhazia. Your best shot might be around the market in Sukhum but I’d be careful if I were you (change a small amount and don’t display your pile of foreign cash).
There is an Abkhazian currency, the Apsar (аҧсар) since 2008. In theory it is legal tender in Abkhazia, elsewhere it’s worth as much as the Transnistrian ruble or Monopoly money … In practice it is mainly used only by collectors.
Phone : Aquafon (Megafon) is the main operator in the country. Coming from Russia, just after the border you will find a shop on the left to buy a sim card. You will find them in the main cities. If you are coming from Russia your sim card will unfortunately work as if you were abroad. The second mobile operator in the country is A-mobile (Beeline). Note that it is a little more expensive than in Russia.
“Celebration” days to remember :
May 21, commemorations to honor the memory of the Caucasian War of 1864 and the mountain peoples forced into exile.
September 30, celebration of the liberation of Abkhazia and the departure of Georgian forces.
Flag : It was created in 1991. The 7 green and white bands represent the mountain republics of the Caucasus after the 1st world war : Dagestan, Chechnya-Ingushetia, Ossetia, Abkhazia, Kabardia, Adygea and Karachay-Balkaria
The colors represent the coexistence of Islam and Christianity, the red rectangle with the open palm represents the emblem of the medieval Abkhazian kingdom (This part is also the flag of the Abaza of Karachayevo – Cherkessia today).
Finally, the 7 stars (yes, the number 7 is sacred to them) represent the 7 historical regions of the country: Abzhywa, Bzyp, Dal-Tsabal, Gumaa, Pskhuy-Aibga , Sadzen and Samurzaqan which more or less correspond to today’s region with parts in Russian and Georgian territories.
Borders and visa
Visa : If you are not a citizen of Russia, Nicaragua or South Ossetia for example, you will need a visa. You will first have to apply for a permit to cross the Russian or Georgian border, it’s a kind of laissez-passer, invitation letter, call it what you want but without it, they won’t let you in.
To request it is very simple and free, just apply through the official site of the Abkhaz government (in English). You will get a response within a week or two, or less if it’s not your first visit.
Pay attention to the border post you select , if it is written Psu on your permit, they will not let you cross the Ingur border from Georgia!
Print this permit-letter in several copies for the Georgian border, they can keep it. One copy should be enough for the Russian border but never know.
This permit is not a visa, nor it means that they will necessarily let you cross the border. If the officer is in a bad mood or your passport looks dodgy with Central Asian visas (as an example) you probably going to get interviewed. Remain polite and kindly answer questions. Normally they should let you through. I have never heard of foreign travelers being refused entry to Abkhazia with this permit.
Ingur border | Georgia : If you are entering Abkhazia through this border, it is better to exit at this one too. You will not have a problem entering Russia (admitting you have a visa if needed) but if you wish to return to Georgia in the future you will never have officially left the country as they do not stamp/register your passport when leaving to Abkhazia. For them you are still in Georgia … You’re following? But then if you don’t care to ever come back to Tbilissi one day, no worries, continue towards the North Caucasus.
You have 3 days to purchase your visa from the Abkhaz authorities, directly in Sukhum at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You can pay cash but also by credit card.
Psu border | Russia : Georgia considers this border and entry into Abkhazia, aka officially its territory, as illegal because it does not control it. Be sure to have at least a Russian double entry visa because you cannot continue to Georgia afterwards. Well, unless you want to end up in jail … You will have to get out of Abkhazia as you came, through Russia.
The Russians do not stamp your passport at the Abkhaz border, neither to enter nor to leave, but you are registered out of the Federation, so no need to count your stay in Abkhazia on your Russian visa period.
You can buy your Abkhaz visa directly after border control, on the right there is a small counter with a sign Visa – ВИЗА . The price is according to duration of the visa, so a three-day visa will be cheaper than a three-week visa .
The nice man there gave me a discount even though I hadn’t asked for anything !
The visa won’t be stuck in your passport but left as a loose paper. You will also be able to keep it as a souvenir, they don’t take it away at the Psou border when you leave. They do at the Ingur border.
Price : Approximately 5 to 6 € for 1 week to a month depending of the Russian ruble’s rate at that time. And for around 80 € you can even apply for a one-year visa if you want !
The Georgians will tell you that it is super dangerous, the Russians that there is no problem! The region is still quite famous for its crime rate in the south, around Gal, near the Georgian border. Better not to hang out in abandoned buildings alone and/or in the evening etc. The basic rules actually.
Regarding military operations between Abkhazia (+ Russia) and Georgia, it’s in my opinion rather unlikely to happen. Georgia will surely do everything to avoid it and not scare away its thousands of annual tourists.
Note however that if there was an escalation between the two during your stay in Abkhazia, the Ingur border could be closed, and you get stuck in this small country unrecognized by the international community, with no embassy or consulate to help you.
The HALO trust (NGO specialized in mine clearance) declared Abkhazia mine-free in 2011. But they apparently remain explosives and others unexploded items, hidden and forgotten by people in some houses, gardens, fields and ammunition stores …
Houses and other abandoned buildings are a paradise for URBEX fans, but be careful, none were checked by the authorities, there are no signs prohibiting or warning at the entrance. You enter at your own risk.
Last but not least, Abkhazians drive a bit like crazy … So watch out when crossing the road.
Solo female traveler : I went alone, twice, to Abkhazia. The first time in the spring, when there were few to no tourist. I strongly advise you not to hitchhike, especially if you are not used to it. I myself have a lot of experience but I stopped after 2 days because I did not feel comfortable and safe with my drivers, most of whom were young men.
My second time, in the middle of the tourist season, I’ve tried again and I had no problems with wide range of different drivers, all very nice: 50+ years old Abkhaz men, Russian women, families etc
There are Russian trains coming directly from Moscow through Sochi. (The website might not work without a VPN depending on your country).
Collective taxi from Gal to the Georgian border or vice versa, bus or marshrutka to and from the Russian border. In general, you can find marshrutka (unreliable and no schedules) almost anywhere on the main roads of the country. Hitchhiking works quite well.
There are a lot of Russian tourists in the summer, and hardly anyone the rest of the year (my first visit in March 2017 and the country was really empty). There are a lot of rooms to rent with locals, most of them are listed on Ostrovok, the best alternative to Booking.com in high season but do not appear on the site the rest of the year.
If you come out of season, look directly in the street for signs on the houses saying “сдаются комнаты” or “сдается комната” which basically means room to rent. You will of course find real hotels. Prices vary from 6€ to 50€ per night.
I personally stayed at the Roza guesthouse in Sukhum, a family with very nice old cats and dogs.
RusAmra in Gragra, the lady-owner is lovely!
Guesthouse Polyana Chasha in Otchamtchira, a wonderful babushka and her sons / grandsons !
Good to know
I have not read any English books about Georgian Geopolitics nor the Abkhazian war. If you have any to recommend, please feel free to share in the comments.
There you have it all to travel to this existing non-existent country !
Now you may wonder “So Abkhazia, does it feel more Russian or Georgian?”
I have traveled all around the region, north and south of the Caucasus for many months. To me, Abkhazia is neither Russian or Georgian, but Abkhazian. It feels like being in a different country. It has that “wild” side that you only find in other regions of the North Caucasus, a national pride and ancient customs really visible if you take the time.
Abkhazia has so much more to offer than just “dark tourism” in a “non-existent country”. Enjoy your trip !