Abkhazia and Sochi

The last several days have been incredibly interesting for me. I came up from Israel for a night in Moscow and a late night tour of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin. I then headed down to Sochi to catch a car to Abkhazia which was my 299th Travelers Century Club country. Abkhazia was added to the TCC list a few years ago after the most recent conflict in the Caucusus Region. Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is the closest airport and would also be a place I would spend a few days. As I now have had a chance to sleep a bit and reflect, I still cannot believe that Sochi will host an Olympics and Abkhazia was one of the more interesting and beautiful places around.

The independent status of the gorgeous Black Sea Republic of Abkhazia is the central issue of the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict. The two formed part of the Soviet Union until 1991. As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate towards the end of the 1980s, ethnic tensions grew between Abkhaz and Georgians over Georgia’s moves towards independence. This led to the 1992–93 War in Abkhazia that resulted in a Georgian military defeat, de facto independence of Abkhazia and the mass exodus and ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population from Abkhazia. In spite of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and years of tense negotiations, the status dispute has not been resolved. Also, despite the long-term presence of a UN monitoring force and a Russian peacekeeping operation, the conflict has flared up on several occasions. In August 2008 you may recall, the sides again fought during the South Ossetia War.

Russia and Nicaragua officially recognized Abkhazia after the 2008 South Ossetia War. Venezuela recognized Abkhazia in September 2009. In December 2009, the powerful nation of Nauru recognized Abkhazia, reportedly in return for $50 million in humanitarian aid from Russia. The unrecognized Republic of Transnistria, which is a lovely place, and the partially recognized Republic of South Ossetia have recognized Abkhazia since 2006. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria all belong to the Community for Democracy and Human Rights, a group that attempts to further the cause of unrecognized states that came from the former Soviet Union. Abkhazia is also a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Check out that list sometime, it’s kind of cool.

Politics and tensions aside, Abkhazia is an interesting and beautiful place with a lot of pride and much to see and do. It’s location along the gorgeous Black Sea is breathtaking and made even more spectacular by the backdrop of rolling green mountains and a perfect blue sky. Crossing the border from Adler, site of the Sochi airport and all the stadium venues for the Winter Olympic Games was a breeze assuming you have the correct documentation.
In order to get into Abkhazia, you have to email their Ministry of Tourism. In theory, they are supposed to send you a letter of permission to enter within 5 days. This is false and you have to harass them plenty to actually get the letter. In fact, the reason I got mine so easily, well so quickly, was because after not hearing anything for weeks after applying 6 weeks or so before my scheduled trip, I wrote something on my Facebook fan page about it. My fan page is connected to Twitter and someone in the Abkhazia Ministry apparently follows me on Twitter and emailed me immediately to write him and email and CC the Ministry head. So I did and I had my letter the next day, it was kind of awesome actually, the power of social media.
Entering the north of Abkhazia is great because you get to see the whole Republic as you wind down to Sukhumi, the capital. You first pass through Gagra, which is a lovely little beach town that I almost stayed a night in but decided that it would have nothing to do once the sun went down. So I went all the way down 100km or so passing beautiful natural scenery and a cool monastery to Sukhumi.
I stayed at the Inter Sukhum Hotel which is located right off the main boardwalk area along the waterfront promenade. That sounds really nice and all but the truth is the hotel sucked, it was overpriced and filthy and so was the promenade. Although, it did have a nice sunset and was a nice place to walk at night although it wasn’t well lit and people do carry guns in Abkhazia openly.
All the restaurants, meaning the 3 or so, are located about a mile or so from my hotel near an abandoned building in the harbor, which is odd. The main and best restaurant called Nartaa (loosely translated/spelled in English from Russian) specializing in local Abkhaz specialties was excellent. The house favorite in this handmade chimichurri bread dripping in cheese and butter. Good for the heart it’s not, but good in general it is! After dinner it is off to bed as there is nothing that I need to get involved with in Abkhazia after dark.

After getting the visas and necessary documentation at the Ministry the next day and seeing that there wasn’t too much to do other than hike around and see the natural scenery, we decided to spend the day in Abkhazia then head up into Sochi for the next two days. There is more to offer and do up there. Plus I was eager to see how it was possible that this town I had never heard of until they got the Olympics in 2007, got them. Well obviously there was some money exchanging hands and a little help from a certain Mr. Putin but I’ll get to that.
Sochi is a beach town. That is what it is; it’s an old school Soviet style Black Sea resort that Russians love but the rest of us would hate. It is old, crumbling, gross and is mind blowing to me that it will be hosting a Winter Olympics in 2.5 years. Nobody speaks English; the signs are all in Russian; the traffic on a one lane road is appalling; all the public toilets are pay squat toilets and in terrible and smelly condition; the hotels are overpriced and crappy; the beaches are all rocks-literally; and the Boardwalk if you want to call it that is full of crappy carnival games, fast food places and fake merchandise stores selling all kinds of junk again like Atlantic City. Sochi doesn’t even sell official Olympics tee shirts. I don’t think that anyone in Sochi actually knows they will be hosting an Olympics in a few years. It was really shocking to me. The other thing is Sochi won’t actually host any events.

All the event stadium venues for the opening ceremonies, hockey etc are being built in Adler, the site of the depressing airport and about a kilometer or so north of the Abkhazia border. They seem to be about half way done with the main stadium venues in Adler and the alpine events are all going to be in another mountain town about 2 hours away from Sochi. Sochi will just be the base in name and for hotels. However, again the hotels are way overpriced and anything reasonable is absolutely filthy especially if you’re paying some $120 at the Hotel Primorskaya like I had to below. The sheets were nasty, the bathrooms and shower was filthy and the hallways were scary big, cold and Soviet. The place had style if you like 1930’s Soviet bland where an axe murderer might jump out and kill you but if you’re not a masochist then you’d probably be appalled.
I kept laughing that if a bunch of yuppie type Americans, French, Swiss or some other rich country came to Sochi for the Olympics expecting some Winter playground like Aspen, Chamonix or St. Moritz then they’d have a heart attack on site at the state of Sochi. The traffic right now is abysmal. From the airport to Sochi will take anywhere from 1-3 hours depending on the time of day. They are not expanding the roads, they are building a railway connecting Sochi and Adler and Adler and the mountain town that is hosting the alpine events. This will be a disaster….trust me. I am predicting right now that Sochi 2014 will be the worst Winter Olympics ever in terms of attendance and overall satisfaction for visitors.
There is no way this town that is essentially a village with a carnival beach boardwalk should be hosting the Olympics. I think everyone knows that Vladimir Putin had his hand and his country’s oil money working to get the bid won. There is no way that should have happened after what I just saw. The restaurants are terrible and again, nobody speaks English, French, Spanish or anything but Russian. If you cannot read Cyrillic which luckily I can after sounding the words out like a pre-kindergartener and my friend speaks fluent Russian, you are really screwed because nothing is written in English letters. Even China wrote signs in English for Beijing 2008! Anyway, it should be interesting.

The positive of Sochi is when the sun goes down, the moon light lights up the Black Sea and creates a gorgeous setting to have some wine or a beer and it’s a good place to get a tan but not in the Winter it won’t be. Honestly though that’s really all I can think of. The beaches are not nice and packed with big, fat Russian men in little Speedos and fat women in bikinis no matter how fat they are and I’m talking orca fat! It’s funny because a waitress said to my friend and I that we ordered too much food after we each ordered our own individual pizza at lunch one day. I am thinking to myself, they are small, I’ll probably have to get something else on top of the mini pizza.

She then made a joke to my friend in Russian that American’s eat so much. My friend and I are looking at each other like we must be taking crazy pills because all the Russians we saw on the beach were enormous. It was pretty funny but not as funny as the one normal sized woman we saw getting a water pumped butt massage on the beach below. I had never seen that before and was thoroughly entertained!
Anyway, it was a great eye opening experience in Abkhazia and Sochi along with Adler and some other small towns we saw. I likely won’t be heading back ever again to Sochi unless I do decide to see what the final result of the 2014 preparations are come time for the games. We shall see. Either way, I am glad I went and am now sitting rested after a nightmare overnight connection through Turkey in Bucharest, Romania. Check back with me soon.

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  1. LOL too funny about the fat Russians!

  2. Great account of your time, thanks a lot for making me laugh!

  3. Guess I’m not going to the Olympics in 2014!

  4. Not really what I was expecting Sochi to be like as I’d heard in some travel articles that it was like the Davos of Russia…yeah, apparently not so much in reality. Cool you got to experience there and Abkhazia though as very few Americans actually have. Good report and funny pics.

  5. That’s crazy about the city of Sochi, I always thought it was weird they go the bid too. You hit the nail on the head with Putin and the oil money buying that bid. I’m sure it was the same for the World Cup 2018 too. Thanks for being honest as you always are.

  6. Great post, made me laugh too. I am shocked that Sochi is not that nice. That bathroom looks filthy as you said. I am shocked that bathroom comes in a $120 a night hotel. I will pass on the 2014 Olympics also!

  7. Great pic from the ABkhazia border which I had never heard of before reading this. Sochi doesn’t sound like a nice place but I am sure Bob Costas will make it sound like paradise when he does the games in ’14!

  8. Thanks guys and yes was just trying to be honest about my experience and my time there along with what I saw as I always am. I still cannot believe, as I said, that they will be an Olympic city. There is nothing Davos about Sochi. It is clearly a Russian resort town and Russian tastes are generally different than most other peoples. It will be interesting but I am telling you, the traffic, hotel and bathroom situations need to be addressed or people are going to bitch like crazy come 2014.

    Also, apparently they will rip down the stadium venues in Adler and make a Formula One track or so I was told, I forgot to mention that in the story.

  9. Russians are tough to deal with I agree. I spent a year living in Moscow and then another three in different southern towns including Sochi. I am also surprised they will be hosting an Olympics but I haven’t seen it in years. The Atalntic City comparison is funny because that’s pretty accurate with all the carnival games and cheap clothes and gadgets. Safe travels and good luck.

  10. I am planning to visit Sochi during Olympic Games in 2014. I look forward even more now because of how you have described the city and like to see the changes implemented at that year. Thank you.

  11. Lee,

    I almost did not recognize the town you wrote about. I live in Sochi and Sochi is not the city that you describe:

    1) Adler is part of Sochi. Sochi has several districts and Adler is one. By the way, for readers interested, the airport is beautiful. Take a look at pictures on my blog:

    2) Construction in Adler for the Olympic venues is ahead of schedule. It has been reviewed as one of the best Olympic Villages ever, with all skating venues in walking distance. No less than Jean-Claude Killy has praised facilities effusively.

    3) Everyone in Sochi knows about the Olympics in Sochi. If you spoke Russian, you would know how proud they are of it.

    4) Like all places, there are overweight people. However, seasoned travelers usually remark on the beauty of the Russian women. Don’t believe me? Come to the Blonde Festival in Sochi! Or walk up and down the boardwalk or head to Platforma….

    5) You represent Sochi as an ugly place. That does not coincide with the mountains, beaches, the Dendrarium and the parks of the city I know. The first thing most people notice about Sochi is that it is a “city of trees and flowers”. Sadly you focused on some toilets. Guessing there are some bad ones in almost any city.

    6) You state that the alpine events will be held 2 1/2 hours away from Sochi. Again not accurate. Due to the high speed rail, it will be about 25 minutes from the airport or the Olympic Village to get to Krasnaya Polyana (site of the alpine events). In a car it is about 45 minutes.

    7) Wow. You really did not take the time to investigate the city. Sochi has one of the most beautiful concert venues in the world. There are several music festivals and a Russian film festival in Sochi. In addition, Sochi hosts an Economic Forum of international renown. The Dendrarium is a world-famous park with over 1,700 species of plants and trees. Sochi has an art museum and for history buffs has one of the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin’s homes.

    8) They are not “ripping down the stadium” after the Olympics. The Formula 1 course runs around the Olympic Village. The stadium will host World Cup soccer matches in 2018.

  12. Hey Bruce, thanks a lot for the great and detailed comment and it sounds like you should’ve been my tour guide! Everything I wrote about was what I saw and experienced and was told through my friend I was with who does speak Russian based on what people we spoke to, taxi drivers and hotel workers told us.

    I did see the concert venue but didn’t go inside, it looked nice enough as you said. Sochi is not ugly aesthetically with regards to the mountains surrounding it you are correct. Also the parks I visited were quite nice especially the one with the statue of Lenin but the city itself, especially down on the boardwalk area is not that nice in my view which is where I’d imagine most visitors would spend much of their time as I did in Sochi proper.

    I was told by the hotel people and the cab drivers we had that Krasnaya Polyana was 2+ hours away. It’s too bad because I would’ve liked to have visited it…perhaps next time. I did see the train being built as I said and I am sure it’ll be fine once it’s done but taking a train is a pain and that certainly didn’t help the traffic currently as I am sure you’d agree if you live there.

    There were beautiful women of course in Russia but in Sochi we didn’t see too many (unfortunately!), in fact we didn’t see many young people at all. Most people on the beaches, around town and at the hotel were all old Russian tourists and they happened to be heavy.

    With regards to the venues, I passed by them twice as you obviously aren’t allowed into them and they looked as I said getting finished and I am sure they will be nice. The drivers who guided us said they should be done on time but he also said they would be replacing them with a Formula One track when the games are finished.

    Also, there is no official store for the Olympics, all we were told they had was that Bosco store that I went to see what they had and it and the ugly non official shirts were $150US…no joke!

    That aside, all the people we spoke to and heard from were not excited about the games. Obviously, if you live there you have a better idea than me who was only there for 3 days but that was the feeling we got and what we were told.

    Again Bruce, thanks for the great comment and take care. If I do come back for the Olympics, I will be sure to consult with you! But I surely will not be staying at the Hotel Primorskaya!!!

  13. Lee,

    You have also accused the IOC and the Russian Government of corrupt practices in the Olympic selection. I was not there, but I heard that Mr. Putin made a very compelling speech before the vote. And there seems to be no concern about Russia being able to perform, in the way that several recent and future hosts have or are struggling.

  14. Bruce, I have no doubt it was a compelling speech!

  15. Careful Lee, you might be turned back at the border next time, if you keeping pissing off Bruce..

  16. Ken Jennings says

    Lee, I know you’re traveling, but I’m a writer working on a Slate.com piece about “country collecting” and other kinds of systematic travel. Reading your site has made me want to ask you a couple questions before my Friday deadline.

    I sent an inquiry to your Yahoo account, but thought you might see this first.

    Thanks in advance!

  17. Lee,

    you may be interested to know that your story “Abkhazia and Sochi” was copied today by the most popular site of Sochi called “PrivetSochi” (which means “HelloSochi”).

    And people here in Sochi are very disappointed by your negative and even scornful attitude towards their city. It’s a real pity you have failed to see anything good in it.

    It’s a lovely place and we are doing our best to make it even better for the Games. And I am predicting right now that Sochi 2014 will be the best Winter Olympics ever in all terms.

    Want to make a bet? 🙂

  18. Hi Olga and thanks a lot for sharing with the Sochi Russian community as now I am getting a ton of emails yelling at me. I wasn’t hating on the city or the people, I was simply reporting my experiences based on my time there and what I did, saw and was told by the people I met and dealt with. And yes I am very sarcastic by nature so I may have been a little over the top on certain things but that’s me and my sense of humor. But all I wrote is what I saw, experienced and heard.

    I don’t need to bet you because I hope Sochi pulls it off, they still have 2.5 years or so. Again, I love Russia and I look forward to likely coming back for the Olympics in 2014 and seeing all the changes that are in the process now, being completed.

  19. Hi, Lee
    It’s not me who deserves any thanks for sharing your story with the Sochi Russian community 🙂
    Anyway, now “Abkhazia and Sochi” is the most discussed story in the city.
    And – yes, yelling was the first reaction. If you could read russian… or, no – it’s good you don’t read russian… For who would bear his beloved city to be subjected to such sharp criticism…even if it was telling …

    Hope you’ll be back for the Olympics in 2014 and have an opportunity to change your attitude towards Sochi. Or even come to love it as much as we do.

  20. Haha…it’s one man’s opinion Olga based on experience…Sochi will be subject to a lot of criticism and opinions coming up for the Olympics…I hope they pull it off…enjoy the rest of your trip.

  21. Do the Russians think that nobody will criticize the way they handle the Olympics or even the lead up?! The whole world will be watching and forming opinions, they shouldn’t get offended, that’s ridiculous.

  22. We were in Abkhazia last year; you’ll be pleased to know that the border crossing/immigration procedures now seem to be formalized and went very smoothly. The drill now is to go to the Abkhazia MFA site, fill in the application form, send it and a scan of your passport by email, they reply around 5 days later with an invitation letter. You then print this off and take it to the border (the guards take it from you and keep it, but we made copies just in case) and then go to the MFA building in Sukhumi at any time within the next 3 days to get your actual visa ($30). The guards at the border take your visa on the way out, so no chance of keeping it as a souvenir (I did ask). We crossed at the Ingur border (with Georgia)- the main challenge here is transport. If coming from Georgia, you must cross the border early otherwise you’ll be left at the mercy of the taxi drivers. Similarly, there are no buses from Sukhumi to Ingur after mid-morning. All in all, we enjoyed Abkhazia but found it overpriced and not as friendly as Georgia- plus inconvenient as there are no working ATMs for foreign cards. We much preferred Cafe Lika to Nartaa- run by a really friendly lady (Lika), with cheap, good food and a nice homely feel. Novy Afon was the highlight of our trip- a very beautiful monastery/waterfall complex….the lowlight was the monkey facility in Sukhumi which was extremely depressing (this is where the Soviet Union raised and trained the monkeys they sent into space).

  23. omer emre says

    I am 45 year old Abkhazian man who lives in Turkey..i have never been in Abkhazia.nor i speak very little of abkhazian.But thanks a lot for your reports..Abkhazian(in Turkish Abhaz or Abaza)I hope many more states recognise Abkhazia too..Especially Turkey…..

  24. Sounds like Sochi will have similar problems as Vancouver in hosting in the Winter Olympics (i.e. the temperate climate). Knowing Russia, though, they will pull it off. Funny how when you were here at the time, this “anti-Gay” legislation wasn’t in place. That will probably get the most attention at these Games most likely versus what your greatest concerns were.

    On a side note, Sochi is also one of the main host cities for the 2018 World Cup! Will be interesting to see how they also pull off that event, as well!

  25. You got that wrong with Sochi. Were good games after all. Now also Formula 1 in Sochi. Amazing what you can do with money nowadays.

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