Trans Eurasia travel

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Abkhazia was the jewel of the Soviet Riviera, the mountainous coastal paradise where many of the supreme Soviets had their dachas, and is now relatively straightforward to visit, safe and the only land route at present from the South Caucasus (GE, AM, AZ) into Russia.

It's stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful, the people are warm and overjoyed to see foreigners, and, best of all, it has a quirky Soviet feel as very, very little has changed since 1991. Of course, it is the site of one of the bitter civil wars following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and a major thorn in the foot of Georgia / Russia relations. But it's safe and has opened up to western travellers.

Once the jewel of the ‘Soviet Riviera’ along the Black Sea coast, today this de facto independent republic is still struggling to recover from the devastation of the 1992–93 war and Russian-Geiorgian conflict of 2008, recognised only by Russia and couple of tiny states and with only about one-third of its prewar population of 535,000.

Russian recognition has changed the place dramatically. Particularly around Sukhum, the houses of the dead or displaced were just left to ruin - nobody renovated their neighbour's house for fear that the neighbour would ultimately re-appear as part of some political settlement. Now Russian investors have the confidence to move into vacant properties trusting the Russian army to resolve any property disputes in their favour.

The snowcapped peaks of the high Caucasus give way to lush, rolling hills of deciduous jungle, lapped by a the Black Sea, which is a nice turquoise, and full of dolphins. Also, it's fascinating for it's timelessness.

There's plenty to see in the little country, though anything off the main road or Lake Ritsa road will soon become an off-road adventure. Highlights are:

- Sukhumi: Interesting, part grandiose, part derelict city, very Soviet bazaar.
- Lake Ritsa: Gorgeous mountain lake at 900m, reached by a stunning, winding mountain road.
- Pitsunda: Timeless Soviet holiday resort off the main road where you step back into the 1980s.

As well as the typical sights (Sokhum, Novy Afon, Lake Ritsa) a traveler can visit places further off the beaten track, including the charming church in Lykhny and the cave monastery in Otxara. You can bath in natural hot water springs in Kyndyg and Markula. Or take a time to explore some of the ghost towns in Eastern Abkhazia, such as Ochamchira, which were mostly Georgian before the 1993 conflict.

You can enter Abkhazia from either Georgia (Inguri Bridge) or Russia (Adler / Psou). To enter from Russia you need a multiple entry Russian visa, and you CANNOT proceed into Georgia. To enter from Georgia you also, theoretically need a multiple entry visa. The reason for this is that they do NOT stamp your passport when you enter / leave Russia, which could cause problems with a single entry visa. I don't know how strictly enforced this is. Note that if you exit Abkhazia to Russia, you will have no exit stamp for Georgia, so it's unlikely you'll be able to visit Georgia again with the same passport.

So all that's on offer for tourists goes along the traditional Soviet understanding of what makes tourism: prebooked package arrangements, local excursion buses to the sights, rather large groups with guides, wine tasting halls, scheduled shashlik stops, off-limits sanatorium areas, full-board accommodation, local travel agents for every activity....

Thus Abkhazia is a 100% touristic monoculture, all in Russian only, no English menus, all rubles (very few money changers !).
There a throngs of beach tourists and sun lovers from all over the Russian Federation. You may be very likely the only Western tourist, but definitely not the only visitor.

Do not expect tourist guides, banana pancakes, beach massages, ladies hair braiding, hammocks, bicycle or scooter rentals, the lady with the cooler-box at the beach or other more westernised ideas of what makes beach tourism.

Finance: This is a cash economy, take as much as you need, do not rely on your ATM cards. Rouble is the best option; in Sukhumi you can exchange EUR and USD. In Gagra it is a bit harder to find exchanger.

In Sukhumi the best rates are at the Seaport (Морской Вокзал) at the former "ticket office". If you are looking for some adventure, exchange it at the local market. Heading towards the main building in the middle, walk in the market on the right side and having reached the the cigarette stands, walk between the two lines and find the lady on the left side. Her rate is often better than at the Seaport.

About travelling: Gagra is very popular, but now a bit deserted. Russian tourist mostly left.

Ritza Lake and Stalin`s dacha (cottage beside the lake). This is situated in a National Park, entrance fee 250 RUB (10 USD). Beautiful landscape on the road to the lake, it is worth stopping a few times.

Novi Afon (New Athos) Cathedral, Cave nearby, going down by a special underground railway line. Inside many halls. Entrance fee 300 RUB.

The seaside in NA and Gagra is nice, but don`t expect European quality, and the prices are also far below the normal holiday resort level.

In Tkvarcheli (Ткварчал), while enjoying the landscape, you can imagine what a nice place could it be with some political settlement in the region. Only one objection against travelling there, it is close to the conflict region.

In Sukhumi you have to go the Botanical Garden. It is still very nice, although I heard that it is not the one it used to be in the 80`s.

In Sukhumi there is an huge offer of private rooms. When you arrive from Gali ask the driver to stop in the ulitsa Akirtava, in the southern outskirts of the town. From here you reach the best beachs of Sukhumi. The street is even full of cheap restaurants and you will find everywhere the inscription "Сдается комната" (Sdaetsia komnata, rent a room). The standard price is R400. If you want more comfort go in the town center (20min. walk, marshrutka nr. 5 or bus) and in the main road, ulitsa Lakoba, you will find two new hotels, where a single room cost about R1.800 (60$).

The sea is anyway more beautiful in the small town of Gagra, that you can reach from the bus station of Sukhumi with a bus or a marshrutka (R150, 1,30h). To arrive at the bus station you can take the marshrutka nr. 1 (R10): here you will find a connection almost every hour, because all the bus for the Russian border (Psou) are stopping in Gagra.

If you want to stay in Gagra, you have just to walk along the main road (Prospekt Nartaa) to look for a private room. Here the price are generally cheaper. In the northern side of Gagra, up to the hills, you will find the oldest area of the town.

Sukhumi and Gagra are full of nice restaurants and cafes. You have just to walk on the beach promenade in Sukhumi (Naberezhnye Dioskurov) or along the ulitsa Akirtava (on the east side of the town, where the offering is bettrer) and you will find a lot of lovely "stolovaya" with live music and a great menu. The Russian love to go out for a dinner, so don't worry.