Friday, 21 July 2017

ABKHAZIA: Keep Your Car Locked With Valuables Out Of View

Abkhazia is a partially recognised state controlled by a separatist government on the eastern coast of the Black Sea and the south-western flank of the Caucasus, in the Caucasus and a very popular destination for Russian tourists. It considers itself an independent state, but is recognized by few countries. Despite its controversial status it is still a popular place to spend summer vacation among Russians.

The state is situated on the eastern bank of the Black Sea, bordered on the northwest by Russia on the Psou River, near the city of Sochi, and on the east with Georgia at the Ingur River and with the Grand Caucasian Range of mountains on the north. A subtropical climate and snow covered mountains combined with beaches, caves, lakes and mountains as well as architectural and religious legacy of churches makes Abkhazia a wonder to a tourist.

After the war with Georgia in 1992-1993, Abkhazia survived in spite of an immense embargo and blockade imposed by Georgia. Despite having most of its infrastructure destroyed, Abkhazia managed to redevelop its main economic pillars which are tourism and agriculture. Though many efforts were taken to rehabilitate the territory after the war with Georgia, there still remains destruction across the territory. The unsolved conflict with Georgia is a burden for the future development of the territory.

In August 2008, there was fighting again during the South Ossetia War, which was followed by the formal recognition of Abkhazia by Russia, the annulment of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and the termination of the UN and CIS missions.

Its status as an independent state is internationally recognized only by Nauru, Nicaragua, Russia and Venezuela. Abkhazia highly depends on Russian support, currency and has an uncertain political situation similar to that of South Ossetia or Kosovo. From a travel perspective it is for all intents and purposes an independent territory.

Prior to the 1992 War, Georgians made up nearly half of Abkhazia's population, while less than one-fifth of the population was Abkhaz.As the war progressed, confronted with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians who were unwilling to leave their homes, the Abkhaz separatists implemented the process of ethnic cleansing in order to expel and eliminate the Georgian ethnic population in Abkhazia.

The exact number of those killed during the ethnic cleansing is disputed, however, it ranges from 8,000 to 10,000 people, not including the civilians who were killed in 1998 during the separatist onslaught on Gali region.Roughly up to 250,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled from their homes. Slightly over 200,000 Georgians remain displaced in Georgia proper.

The campaign ethnic cleansing also included Russians, Armenians, Greeks, moderate Abkhaz and other minor ethnic groups living in Abkhazia. More than 20,000 houses owned by ethnic Georgians were destroyed. Hundreds of Schools, kindergartens, churches, hospitals, historical monuments were pillaged and destroyed.Following a process of ethnic cleansing and mass expulsion, the population of Abkhazia has been reduced to 216,000, from 525,000.

Of about 250,000 Georgian refugees, some 60,000 Georgian refugees subsequently returned to Abkhazia's Gali district between 1994 and 1998, but tens of thousands were displaced again when fighting resumed in the Gali district in 1998. Nevertheless, between 40,000 and 60,000 refugees have returned to the Gali district since 1998, including persons commuting daily across the ceasefire line and those migrating seasonally in accordance with agricultural cycles.

The human rights situation remained precarious for a while in the Georgian-populated areas of the Gali district. The United Nations and other international organisations have been fruitlessly urging the Abkhaz de facto authorities to refrain from adopting measures incompatible with the right to return and with international human rights standards, such as discriminatory legislation and to cooperate in the establishment of a permanent international human rights office in Gali and to admit United Nations civilian police without further delay.

Key officials of the Gali district are virtually all ethnic Abkhaz, though their support staff are ethnic Georgian.

The economy of Abkhazia is heavily integrated with Russia and uses the Russian ruble as its currency. Abkhazia has experienced a modest economic upswing since the 2008 South Ossetia war and Russia's subsequent recognition of Abkhazia's independence. About half of Abkhazia's state budget is financed with aid money from Russia.

Tourism is a key industry and, according to Abkhazia's authorities, almost a million tourists mainly from Russia came to Abkhazia. Abkhazia also enjoys fertile lands and an abundance of agricultural products, including tea, tobacco, wine and fruits especially tangerines and hazelnuts. Electricity is largely supplied by the Inguri hydroelectric power station located on the Inguri River between Abkhazia and Georgia (proper) and operated jointly by both parties.


Towns And Cities

- Sukhumi — capital city

- Agudzera

- Gudauta

- Gagra

- Gal

- Gyachripsh

- Pitsunda

- New Athos (Novy Afon)

- Ochamchira

- Tquarchal

Other destinations

Lake Ritsa

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 intercultural 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.

There are two known land crossings into Abkhazia: one is from Sochi in Russia, the other one is from Enguri bridge (near Zugdidi), Georgia. Entering is more user-friendly from Russia, as this border crossing is used by hundreds of Russian tourists every day, however, the need of a double-entry Russian visa makes it challenging for most westerners. If you enter from Georgia, take a taxi from Zugdidi to Enguri bridge (GEL10),or a minibus for GEL1,yes, there are. Check your passport with the Georgian military checkpoint and walk across the several hundred metre long, dilapidated Enguri bridge to the Russian military checkpoint at the Abkhazian side.

Alternatively, horse carriages also run between the two checkpoints (GEL1); at the Abkhazian side you find taxis, marshrutkas and coaches to Gal and Sokhumi.

A water border crossing point to Russia in Gagra was also opened in 2011.

Please note that after your trip you should go back where you came from: it is not allowed to transit through Abkhazia from Russia to Georgia or vice versa. While some travellers reported that visiting Abkhazia from Georgia and continuing the trip to Russia is viable, it's clearly not recommended. Visitors who go to Georgia after visiting Abkhazia through Russia may be subject to a punishment and fines by Georgian customs since they consider it a violation of the Georgian border regime.

There are three types of visas for Abkhazia: Single-entry, Multi-entry and Transit visas; Tourists entering Abkhazia should fill out and send a Visa application form directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia. A double entry Russian visa is mandatory for non-Russian citizens to be able to enter and exit the territory of Abkhazia from/to Russia. Citizens of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan-(Commonwealth Independent States) and Nicaragua do not need visas to enter Abkhazia.

As of July 2017, it is possible to obtain a visa-on-arrival for short 'excursions' into the country at the Psou border crossing near Adler/Sochi in Russia. After going through the checkpoint on the Russian side of the border, you will be directed to an office on the Abkhaz side of the border where Russian guards will once again examine your passport and inquire as to why you are visiting Abkhazia.

After a short time, Abkhaz authorities will take you to a small building where you pay for your Abkhaz visa. They will then hand you the visa without placing it into your passport and you are free to go. It should be noted that trying to mail your visa application form to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and/or calling the office will not result in a reply as the visa-on-arrival scheme has now been implemented. Additionally, as you have already obtained and paid for your visa, it is not necessary to visit the Consular Department of the MFA in Sukhumi .

On receiving duly submitted documents, the Consular Service usually needs 5 working days to process the request. As soon as Clearance is ready the applicant will be contacted by the consular officer and an entry permit letter will be sent to him/her by fax or e-mail. The Entry Permit Letter (Clearance letter) only serves as an entrance permit to Abkhazia. Print out 2 copies, since one of them may be taken by boarder guards, but you need the entrance permit in bank.

Please note that after you enter the Republic of Abkhazia you need to proceed to the Consular Department of the MFA of Abkhazia to obtain the actual visa which will serve as an exit permit document. If there is some information missing or application is not filled fully the Consular Service does not guarantee that a visa will be granted.

Once at the Consular Department of Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi (Uliza Sakharova 33) you hand in your entry permit and pay the fee on the spot. Visa will be handed out immediately.

For those who travel to Abkhazia via Russia, a transit, double entry or multiple entry Russian visa is required in order to be eligible to re-enter the Russian Federation after visiting Abkhazia. The Russian guards do not stamp your passport at this border and sometimes questions about having already used up your double-entry visa can occur so it helps to save the Abkhaz visa or any other piece of evidence about the length of your stay.

There are several trains,numbers 010, 479, and 306 between Moscow and Sukhumi with several daily departures in either direction in Summer and around two times a week during the winter. The 480ะก goes from Sukhumi to Saint Petersburg five times a week in summer and, and other trains can connect you throughout Russia from hubs that all above trains pass through, like Sochi or Rostov-on-Don. You can find the timetable on the official site of RZD or on the Yandex timetable sevice. No trains leave Abkhazia for Georgia proper.

Buses to Sukhumi run from Sochi and Rostov-on-the-Don, Russia daily. Buses and marshrutkas to Gali and Sukhumi also run from the Enguri bridge crossing, near the Georgian border; a trip to Sukhumi shouldn't cost more than RUB150, although drivers may try to charge you the double. Don't let them scam you.

If you are crossing the border on foot from Russia, prepare for long waits in summer touristic season,2-3 hours are not uncommon and bring enough water. Entering from Georgia will involve at least 15 minutes walking between the two military checkpoints, but apart the paperwork which can be somewhat lengthy, this is a straightforward process.

Sukhumi Dranda Airport (IATA: SUI) is not operational yet though the Government has interests to launch flights in the near future but as for now the airport serves irregular flights to the Pskhu village and the United Nations Observer Mission flights. Abkhazian airspace is jointly controlled by the Russian Air Force, and the fledgling Abkhaz Air Force, so unauthorized aircraft entering it, especially from Georgia, may be shot down.

There are frequent buses and marshrutkas along the coastal road between Psou and Sukhumi. You will find a detailed bus timetable at the Sukhumi Bus Station,small cabine near the restored section of the destroyed railway terminal.

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.

Many local excursional companies making tours to the most of the famous sites of Abkhazia.The most popular are:lake Ritza,New Athos(Noviy Afon) cave and monastery,varios horse,jeeps and quad bikes tours. You can easily buy the excursion by the tour companies agents who are usually sitting behind the tables along the embarkments and beaches.Agent usually needs your address and phone number,then he usually give an exursional ticket and add your name in a list.Next morning the tour minibus usually Mercedes Sprinter, will stop near your apartments. The same operation you can do with your apartments owner who usually have contacts or even have his own tour company.

Attractions

One interesting destination for travelers is to visit Novi Afon or New Athos; a Christian Orthodox Cathedral, which is 20min 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 stalagmites and stalagtites. 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 one hour's 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 (5km). The cottage is open for tourists in the peak season. 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 Sukhum 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.

The city of Gagra and Pitsunda is the most popular tourist destination, offering a wide range of activities for a vacation.

Activities

Abkhazia offers a wide variety of activities such as ecotourism, gastro tourism, rafting and extreme sports, mountain jogging and snowboarding, diving and sky gliding, hunting, abandoned buildings and Soviet remains visits and cultural and religious tourism.

Try these before leaving Abkhazia:

- Visit the Abkhaz Drama Theatre, Botanic garden, Monkey Park and Parliament Building in Sukhumi.

- Visit Narta Restaurant in Sukhum by the beach and enjoy original Abkhazian cuisine along with Abkhazian Wine.

- Recommended beaches are located in Sukhumi for relaxation and Pitsunda for water activities and leisure.

- Dine at the famous "Gagripsh" restaurant in Gagra.

- Visit the main historic church in Novi Afon.

- Visit the fascinating abandoned sanitarium in Guleripsh.

- Visit the small cave of Saint Simon the Zealot.

- Visit the village of Kaman near Sukhumi.

- Village of Lykhny with its historic churches and dome of Abkhaz Kings.

ATMs are widespread in Abkhazia in recent times. Dollars and Euros are accepted in official exchange offices which can be easily found in most tourist areas. Sometimes, visitors may pay with dollars and euros directly, though at a lower rate.

Wine & Dine

Must try Abkhazian local dishes include Akud (bean sauce) and Abista (corn porridge with cheese) and a variety of meat and fresh greens, most dishes are usually spicy. Shashlik kebabs and another Caucasian dishes are popular in Abkhazia. Food is extremely cheap here but you need to be careful: wash fruits and vegetables, be careful with cheap street food; it is strongly recommended to buy food in shops and supermarkets instead of buying it on the streets and beaches.

Local wines are a must try; Apsny, Ashta, Buque, Dioskuria (ancient Greek name of Sukhumi), Gumsta, Lykhni, Psou, and Radeda.

Safety

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. Travellers who have visited Abkhazia from Russia and intend to visit Georgia can be questioned, refused entry to Georgia or in the worst case be imprisoned by Georgian immigration officers, as entry to Abkhazia is seen as illegal immigration.

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, jewelry 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.

Occassionally,if security services FSB/KGB suspect you are a foreigner ,it is not unheard of to stop you and question you.Just claim you dont know Russian,even if you do,it will make your life easier.Passport or copy of a passport will also help you,saving you hassle.

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.

The border with Russia is now open for all visitors.

Enjoy Your Journey



Tourism Observer
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