May 112017

Woke up around 8am, since we wanted to be at breakfast at 830 right when it opened. We had asked our driver to meet us at 9am, and hoped he would be on time. Well, when we got to breakfast he was already there, and it was the same driver who brought us from Sochi two days prior. I guess he changed his mind and decided to make the trip after all! I never did ask him why he changed his mind, as he’d likely had to leave Sochi very early in order to come get us.

Quick breakfast with him waiting, and I noticed he was chatting with the lady at the front desk. She had kindly already explained to him we needed to make a quick stop at the Ministry of Repatriation on the way out of town to get the visa, and he was ok with that. On the way, I think we almost got hit two or three times, which launched him into a long tirade about the quality of drivers in Abkhazia. Found the ministry by 905a, and luckily they were already open.

Found the room where visas were issued, and there was no wait. We were invited in, the good bureaucrat started writing down all of our information, asked if we would pay together, and then asked for a credit card – never telling us the amount. Based on information I found online, they usually keep your passport, tell you how much the visa is, and then you have to go a couple blocks away to the bank to pay for it. Seems now, as long as you pay with credit card, you can pay on the spot. One problem, I told him, American credit cards won’t work in Abkhazia. He insisted on trying, and it went through no problem on the first try. All told, we were maybe there five minutes, and left with shiny new Abkhazia visas (which incidentally, were never checked after all.)

Not much to say about the drive to the border. We’d made most of the drive twice already, and it was completely uneventful this morning as well.

Got to the border, and were sent out of Abkhazia without much more than a 5 second glance at our passports. Same routine as before on the Russia side. Driver takes the car through, and we walk over to the passenger processing building and queue in line. I went first, and after a few questions from the junior-looking FSB agent (clearly stated on his uniform) he asked me to go have a seat and wait. A few minutes later, Ian got the same treatment. Now, entering Russia from an unrecognized country on a US passport probably isn’t something they see every day, so I figured we were just waiting for a more senior agent to check his work. This was confirmed 10 minutes later when a guy with more stars on his uniform came in, handed us our passports, and said thank you for waiting. Just like that, we were in.

One note: Russia does not stamp you in or out at this border, so there is no documentation of your visit to Abkhazia. Similarly, Abkhazia does not paste the visa in your passport, and they do not stamp your passport. Thus, no problems with getting into Georgia later.

Back in Sochi, and a minute later we drove past some of the Olympics stadiums:


Made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and check-in was a relative breeze as well. Unfortunately, the Aeroflot agent was having absolutely none of me, and insisted my rolling bag was going to be checked today. Decided not to fight it too hard, and just go with it. After grabbing my first decent coffee in a couple of days, we decided to sit down for some lunch before the flight. Delicious borshch with fresh garlic cloves and meat and a dark russian beer:


After that, it was through security, where they had the best giftshop ever. I wish I’d been thinking a bit clearer, because I definitely would have bought a few more things. I mean, check out these t-shirts:


Shapkas, magnets, and even strangely Philadelphia Flyers magnets for some reason. Because…Russia!


I picked up a couple of magnets for my fridge:


Unfortunately, Ian got the last one of these:


We got to the gate just as they were boarding the buses to our plane. For some reason, they had subbed in a 777 on this route a week before this flight, and based on the seatmap online and the buses, it didn’t look like it was even close to a full flight today!

Aeroflot flight 6552 operated by Rossiya
Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER) to Moscow Vnukovo, Russia (VKO)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:20
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration EI-UNP, Manufactured 1998, Seat 61A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,412,030

The plane was parked at an international gate, which is apparently why we had to take a bus to it. When we got there, Putin’s leopard friend was smiling at us:


Last row of the plane! I had no idea row numbers even went up this high!


Yup, it was definitely a light load today, way under half full, and in the back there was pretty much nobody except us!


Goodbye Sochi!


Good view of the Olympic venues as we flew out over the Black Sea:


Only water and a “snack” were offered. Still not sure what this was – one was some sort of chocolate meringue thing, and the other was vanilla.


Uneventful flight, and with all the space it was almost a pleasant flight as well.

Meow, our plane saying goodbye to us in Moscow:


After retrieving my bag (which thanks to the elite bagtag actually did come off the plane first) I found the best cafe ever. Coffee and Beer House! My two favourite things (excluding champagne) in one place! We had to stop while waiting on the next Aeroexpress train to the city to arrive.


After a quick espresso and beer, it was off on the train to enjoy our one night in Moscow!

May 072017

Was nice to sleep in a bit (seriously, what kind of hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 830? that’s kinda awesome) and headed down to meet Ian at breakfast. Only choice offered was coffee or tea, and then breakfast started arriving, one piece at a time. First came porridge, then bread, then a special easter roll, then eggs, then a meat/cheese plate, it was absolutely insane – tried to eat as much as possible not to offend, but it was crazy. Fortunately, they insisted we take the Easter rolls to go, haha. Did I mention how great service was at this hotel?


We hadn’t booked our driver until 11am, just in case we really needed the sleep, so had a bit of time to walk around in the morning first. First stop was the Ministry of Repatriation to try and get the visa, but nope, we did find a security guard outside who told us they were still closed for Easter – try back tomorrow. Hopefully we could get the visa on the way out of town!

Still had some time, so decided to stop for some “real” coffee at the place we went the day before that made decent ice lattes. On the way, we walked by the somewhat odd “Monument to the Victims of Political Repression.” Looked like a rock with some barbed wire around it…but who am I to judge “art”…


After coffee, our driver picked us up. There was a new receptionist at the front desk of the hotel today, but the one from the previous day had clearly filled her in. She spoke excellent English as well, and apologized for not only the visa office not being open, but also for the fact our driver did not speak a word of English. No problem at all – free Russian lessons on top of being a driver!

We told him the things we wanted to see, and we were off. First stop was in the town of New Athos (Novij Afon) where the big attraction is the giant cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s in an enclosed courtyard, which makes getting a good picture of the entire thing a little difficult:


One of the smaller towers around the courtyard:


Back when I was taking Russian lessons, there were those words in the textbook you never knew you’d have a use for. Like “female crane operator” or “old lady.” Well, this nice old lady was soliciting money outside the monastery, so I had to wish her “good morning, old lady!” She just smiled a (mostly toothless) grin back at me.


The monastery was located up on a hill overlooking the town and Black Sea:


Panoramic of the area:


Cat on a hot monastery ledge:


The other big sight in town is a really deep cave complex, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays in the “off season” so we wouldn’t be able to see that. Our driver suggested we go see a waterfall instead:


Soviet era hydropower station on the waterfall:


Nice lake at the top of the waterfall:


Water rushing down from above:


I am king of the waterfall!


After the waterfall, our driver said we also had to go see a nice park nearby. Definitely a nice, calm place that you could sit for hours and read a book on a nice day like today:


…and there were ostriches in the park. Naturally, lol


We got in the car/van, and had driven no more than a minute from the park when we spotted a guy walking with a bear down the road. No leash, just a guy out walking his bear. Because…Abkhazia. We asked the driver to stop, and we asked the guy if we might take a picture of the bear. Fully expected him to ask for money, but nope, he was just happy to let people see his bear. Look at those claws!


We asked, and he informed us the bear’s name was Masha. Hi Masha! “Masha and the Bear” was also the name of a popular kid’s tv program in Russia.


Masha loved having her tummy rubbed too:


She also took quite a liking to Ian. This was definitely one of the most random travel encounters I’ve ever had. You know, just a guy out walking his bear down the street in the afternoon. We asked him what he would do when she gets bigger, and his response was “oh, I already have a bigger one at home.” Of course you do. Abkhazia.


We continued the drive north to Gagra, which was up near the border with Russia. Our driver knew an overlook point on the city, so up, up we went for a panoramic view:


The “beach” in Gagra. Not very appealing, but supposedly packed with Russian tourists in the summer:


Right next to the beach was the Al Capone Pasta, Sushi, and Pizza restaurant. Uhhh, ok. We were getting hungry at this point, TripAdvisor said it was good, so we had to check it out.


We ordered, and then the waitress brought over some props. “You have to take a picture with the hat and guns!” Of course we do. Because…Abkhazia. So incredibly random. Let’s just assume they weren’t loaded…ok?


After a tasty lunch, we headed out on the drive to the final part of the day, the Lake Ritsa park up in the mountains. On the way, there was an “I love Abkhazia” bridge for the obligatory photo op. It was maybe 65 degrees at this point as we headed up into the mountains:


Finally we made it up to Lake Ritsa, and were rewarded with fantastic views:


Lots of snow on the mountains. Stalin also had his summer dacha on this lake, but unfortunately it was also not open to visitors in the off-season. It was much colder up by the lake, maybe 50 degrees or so.


The lake from one of the empty cafes overlooking it. You could tell that this place is really popular in the summer, but in the winter there was nobody around, despite the amazing views with the snow-capped mountains:


Obligatory photo op in front of the lake and mountains:


One more shot of the lake with the hills and mountains in the background. Notice the little bit of snow still on the ground:


It was late afternoon at this point, and time to begin the drive back to Sukhumi. It was about a two hour drive back, and we made it back in time to have a relaxing evening. We wanted to make sure that we got to the restaurant from the night before with enough time to have a proper meal and still call it an early night.

I had submitted a booking request with again, and they had confirmed, so it was good to know that our driver would be ready the next morning at 9am right after breakfast to take us back to Sochi and to the airport in time for our flight. Hopefully he wouldn’t mind a 15 minute stop by the visa office on the way so we could get the visa, and hopefully they would be open on time!

Dinner was super tasty with khatchapuri again (only this time, the smaller version) and some beef stroganoff which was rather tasty. The main street was much more happening this evening, with lots of families out strolling around, and the restaurant was packed with people having dinner.

Early to bed after a couple of drinks at the hotel’s nice outdoor patio bar, and ready for the drive back to Sochi.

May 062017

Our driver had a bit of a difficult time locating our hotel, but after a couple minutes of searching we found it. We had booked the Leon Boutique Hotel based on TripAdvisor reviews and when we arrived it was quiet – and almost deserted looking. However, the lady working the reception desk was super pleasant, spoke excellent English, and had us quickly on the way to our rooms. Unfortunately, the bar and restaurant were closed because of Easter, but other than that no problems.

My room was a short walk up the staircase from reception, which I thought might make it a bit noisy, but that was never a problem…since breakfast didn’t start until 8:30 anyways and the bar closed down quite early. Room was rather small, but very comfortable with everything needed, and had excellent air conditioning. All in all, a great value for the price.

We headed out for a walk and to get a bit to eat, but first asked the helpful lady at the front desk about finding a driver for the next day to see some sites outside of the city. She of course had a friend who was a driver, and she would call him and check while we were out. Super helpful.

Short walk along the Black Sea waterfront, trying to find a cafe which had been recommended called Cafe Penguin. First attraction was a waterfront statue called “Nika and the Record Player.” Supposedly it is about a girl whose lover is out to see, and she frequently gets records that remind her of him…


Pier jutting out into the Black Sea:


We finally found Cafe Penguin, but it was closed for Easter. Ian had to have a conversation with the penguin statue to make sure it really was closed….


If only I spoke Abkhaz, I might know who this was on the side of a building with the Abkhaz flag…it doesn’t LOOK like the President Raul Khajimba


yes Sukhum! Posing with the name of the city on the waterfront.


We finally found a place that was open called Barrista Coffee which made a pretty decent iced latte and rather tasty cheese varenyky:


After sitting and having lunch, we wandered through the super quiet city, trying to find the office where we had to go and purchase the Abkhazia visa before leaving the country. We figured it wouldn’t be open on Easter Sunday, but best to know where it was so we could find it on Monday. On the walk, this place encouraged us to just take some coffee. I think they mean takeaway…


Another political poster…not sure who this guy is either…


We did manage to find the visa office…I mean the “Ministry of Repatriation” and then walked towards what looked like a large burned out building on the edge of the city centre. This was formerly the Council of Ministers for the Abkhaz Autonomous SSR in Soviet Times, and after independence was taken over by Georgia. After war broke out (over fears by Abkhazia that under a Georgian state they would lose their autonomy and be treated harshly by the Georgians) in 1992 the local Abkhazis were largely supported by Russia and other autonomous groups in the Caucuses against the Georgians.

Long story short, after multiple violated ceasefires by both sides, the last battle of Sukhumi was fought in September 1993. Eduard Shevardnadze was even still in town, and barely managed to escape. The Georgian forces/government retreated to this government building and after a campaign and hundreds were killed by the separatists when they arrived. The building still stands, burned out and scarred:


Flag of Abkhazia flies atop the building…


After nearly 25 years, lots of vegetation is growing inside the first floor.


Staircase to the second floor that has seen better days. Of course we went up.


Nothing left on the second floor except lots of rubble and graffiti.


Bullet holes in the staircase.


Posing on the second floor.


Pro-Moscow graffiti.


Outside of the building. There were some kids on the roof, but no idea how they got up there. The staircases from the second floor were all welded shut, and the lifts had long ago been looted.


After exploring for a bit, we headed back to the hotel the long way. The Nefertiti beauty salon was also closed…


After a quick rest up at the hotel, we headed out to try and find dinner. First, the helpful lady at reception informed us her driver could take us on a group tour, but we would only see what was on the itinerary, for about $30. For $60 for the whole day, we could have a car to ourselves, and the driver would take us anywhere we wanted. Easy decision! Plus, this meant not leaving on a schedule, and being able to head out at 10am when we wanted – sleeping in and having breakfast.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the restaurant at 730, we were informed that the kitchen was closed because it was Easter. Seeing how bummed we were, she offered that “the khatchapuri oven is still open. You can have that.” After a bit of back and forth (do you want an egg on it maybe?) we also asked if we could get some Abkhaz wine…since we have heard how good it is. That seemed to please her, and after asking “dry or sweet” we got a respectable bottle of dry red wine, and delicious khatchapuri with egg. Yes, they were as big as they look, and enough for a meal.


After eating, the guy at the next table and his companion started chatting us up in very broken English. In a mixture of English and Russian we had a nearly hour long chat with them. Seems she was Russian, and has a visa to visit the US, but doesn’t know now if she wants to come because of Trump. Him? Supposedly he’s a big-deal Abkhaz filmmaker, but can’t leave Abkhazia because there are no jobs. The whole conversation was surreal…until he started telling us what a big fan of Omar Bradley he was. It was definitely one of those unique travel experiences. Back to the hotel and crash, big day of driving the next day!