PLEASE READ THE COMMENTS BELOW, AS MANY OF THEM HAVE GIVEN UPDATES ON THE PROCESS! THANKS!
Lately, it has been taking me nearly six months to write about places I have recently traveled to! But, upon my return from Abkhazia just yesterday, I have received three emails asking how I got the visa and how I crossed the border.
**Please do note that this is 100% my experience. If you follow exactly how I did things, you should not have a problem (as I did not). I am also a female and I was traveling alone. Not saying that it makes things easier in terms of a border crossing, but I feel like people were possibly more accommodating and watching my back as they thought it was ‘not the usual’ to see a female traveling to Abkhazia alone.**
APPLYING FOR A VISA TO ABKHAZIA:
If you plan on traveling to Abkhazia, the first thing you must do is apply for the visa. You can do that at this website (application is in English). This is the website for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Abkhazia and they will handle all of the visa information. There are also people working there that speak English. On previous accounts I’ve read about, the person stated that they had to hound the Ministry to get their clearance letter and they then had issues at the border. I experienced no such thing. I sent my letter to the MFA on April 2nd and received my clearance letter as an attachment via email on April 9. They will have it sent to you at least five days prior to your expected visit to Abkhazia. Print three copies…just in case! This is what a printed copy of the clearance letter looks like:
GETTING TO AND THROUGH THE BORDER:
I crossed the Inguri/Ingur border from Georgia. I can only write on behalf of my experience from that border, not the Russian one (which is apparently easier). I was coming from Tbilisi so I found it the most convenient to take the night train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi (Georgian city close to the border). This train departs Tbilisi at 2305 and arrives in Zugdidi at around 0705. Be sure to purchase tickets at the train station in Tbilisi a few days prior as this train fills up and fills up fast! I purchased mine the day before I was set to travel and they had no sleeper cabins available. I paid 14 Lari for a seat and it was actually pretty comfortable and I slept just fine.
Once I arrived in Zugdidi, i was hounded by taxi drivers and was just eager to get to the border, so I had one of them drive me instead of finding a marshrutka. I have heard that there are marshrutkas that will take you straight to the border. For me to take a taxi, I paid 10 Lari (I suspect a marshrutka is around 3-5 Lari).
After arriving at the border, I checked in with the Georgian police (pink building to the left of the street) and they took my passport and asked me numerous questions about why I wanted to travel to Abkhazia. DO NOT MENTION THAT IT IS ITS OWN COUNTRY (which most countries do not even recognize anyways). Just simply state, “If I’m going to see all of Georgia, I can’t leave out the Abkhazia region”. They spoke poor English but did speak Russian. They’ll also ask you your profession.
Once they take down your information, you are permitted to walk over the river, which more or less constitutes the Georgia-Abkhazia border. There are horse and buggy carriages that can take you over. I heard the walk was 1.5 miles, so I opted for this. HUGE MISTAKE. I walked on the way back and it was not that far at all. And the horse and buggy is so bumpy that you think you’re going to fall over the entire time. I paid 10 Lari for this (was only supposed to be 5 Lari, but the man didn’t have change and told me at the start and I just said, “Whatever” and took it anyways).
You will arrive on the other side of the river and will see a small metal shack on the right side with an Abkhazian (or maybe Russian?) official inside. Have your passport and clearance letter ready for him. He will check it and wave you through. But, the border on that side does not open until 8am. So you may have to wait 20 minutes like I did.
After you are permitted to go through, you can just walk straight until you see another office on the right-hand side. You will be unable to see through the windows at who is sitting behind them, but you can just pass them over your passport and clearance letter. They’ll analyze you for a few moments, all while the rest of the guards are smoking and trying to use the few words of English they know with you (few words= you’re beautiful, smile, good luck, where you from?, I love Amereeeeca). Once you’re through, you continue to a baggage scanner. Send your stuff through and you’re good to go!
GETTING TO SUKHUM:
The nearest city to the border is Gal. I was under the impression that I needed to take a marshrutka from the border to Gal, and then another from Gal to Sukhum. I actually found a marshrutka at the border that went straight to Sukhum. For those of you who do not know Cyrillic, it will have a sign like this:
I sat in the marshrutka for a good hour before it took off. Apparently, it needed to fill up from having one person to the two it had when we took off. We also made a stop in Gal to pick up more people. It took roughly two hours to get from Gal to Sukhum. I read somewhere that someone said it took a total of 30 minutes from the border to Sukhum. Seriously…not true. Even if you rented a private taxi or your own vehicle. It is a pretty substantial distance. All in all, I paid 300 roubles for the marshrutka from the border to Sukhum. This was the same price the locals paid. (The price is the same if you take a marshrutka from the border to Gal and then pick up a marshrutka from there to Sukhum).
PICKING UP YOUR VISA IN SUKHUM:
Once in Sukhum, you have about two days to get to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office and grab your visa (three days if you’re staying for more than three days).
This office is located at Lakoba 21 and can’t be missed as it is massive and very official looking. Once you go in, head to reception and ask for “Konsulskaya” (she speaks no English). It is on the second floor to the left. I was just told that you must go to 33 Sakharova, which is 6 blocks west and 1 block north of the MFA from a very reliable source.
Above photo courtesy of Amos Chapple (check out his FB page for more incredible photos!)
When I went there, they sent me to the bank, which was on Lakoba. They also gave me the price of my visa as information to give to the person at the bank (it was $10). Walk down Lakoba until you see this building:
And while this may look like the bank, you’ll need to cross the street and head to the smaller branch right across the street. They have an English speaker there who should be able to assist (and she is super friendly). She will take your payment and fill out a receipt for you to take back to the MFA office. Go back to the MFA office with this and you’ll be presented with your visa…which will NOT be attached or stamped into your passport.
TO LEAVE ABKHAZIA:
Simply take a taxi or walk to the abandoned Sukhum railway station. I did this at around 1000. From there I found the bus to Gal and hopped on (200 roubles). From Gal, I was able to easily find a bus to the border (or Inguri). This costs 100 roubles. Very, very easy.
Once I got to the border, I checked out from Abkhazia (and they did not take the visa…so be sure to hide it away so the Georgian officials do not see it!), I walked across the bridge and back into Georgian territory. I went back to the pink police station and they asked me countless questions. Some of which included:
“Where did you go?” to which I answered, “Just Sukhumi”.
“Why did you go there?” and I responded with, “If I am going to see Georgia, I want to see it in its entirety”.
“Where is your visa?” and I said, “They took it at the border”.
From this area, I was planning to take a marshrutka to Zugdidi and hope to find a marshrutka back to Tbilisi. Just my luck, there was a bus waiting to take people from the border directly to Tbilisi. Excellent! And it only costs 15 Lari.
1) Have Russian roubles with you prior to traveling to Abkhazia. That is the currency they use and I have heard the banks and ATMs do not take international cards. Also, try to break down the denominations to small ones. It will be very hard to find someone with change for a 5,000.
2) If you don’t speak Russian, bring a phrasebook with you. I never really needed mine, but locals wanted to communicate with me, so they would take the phrasebook and attempt making conversation with me.
3) Bring toilet paper or tissues. Most all toilets are squatters throughout the trip from Georgia to Abkhazia and of course none will provide you toilet paper…or air worth breathing.
4) Bring lots of water and food for the day. The process of me getting from Zugdidi to Sukhum took around 5 hours total.
5) Don’t be afraid to say what people want to hear. In Georgia, they don’t want to hear that you are wanting to visit Abkhazia because it’s a different country. And in Abkhazia, they don’t want to hear you’re visiting Abkhazia to see another part of Georgia. Use common sense.
In conclusion, despite how long this post is, the process was fairly easy. You just need to be super patient. And do not believe all the hype you may have found on other websites about how difficult the process was. It was easy, from my experience.
And well worth it.