Greetings from Baku, Azerbaijan! It’s been a while since I last wrote a brief update from the road, I thought it’s about time to update you guys on my adventures.
I’m currently writing to you from the Caucasus, where I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks. The Caucasus is an intriguing region of Eurasia that’s affordable, safe and easy to reach (from both Europe and Asia), but strangely not very popular among travelers. When I told my friends I was coming to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, most people didn’t know where it’s located.
You know how some places often described as where “East meets West”. The Caucasus IS truly where East meets West. Etched between Turkey and Russia, it stands at the crossroads of the two continents and thus is a compelling blend of European and Asian cultures and heritage, packed full of stunning, natural landscapes that can rival that of neighboring Central Asia (the Stans).
On this trip, I’m accompanied by one of my best friends from home. I usually travel solo or with my husband Alberto and Baby Kaleya, so it’s really refreshing to have a good friend travel with me. We’ve known each other for almost 20 years now and have traveled together several times before. But those trips were a long time ago, and we forgot how fun it is to travel together. We’ve just been having the best time goofing around, talking about silly stuff, seeing new things and exploring!
Our Itinerary in the Caucasus
For those who are wondering where the Caucasus is, here’s a look at it on a world map. It’s lodged between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, with Europe to the west and Asia to the east. The Caucasus is made up of six countries: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Russia. I’d been to Turkey, Iran and Russia on previous trips — with Iran being one of my favorite countries in the world, so I was really curious about the rest of the Caucasus and wanted to explore deeper.
Photo credit: Bouricchon via Wikipedia
We started our trip in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where it sadly rained almost the entire time we were there. It was freakish weather as it’s usually sunny at this time of the year. Regardless, we didn’t let the rain spoil our trip and still had a great time exploring. Because we only had two weeks for the whole trip, we used the capital cities as our base and did a few day trips from there. As all three countries are quite small and the distance between them are short, so most people choose to travel the three countries on on trip. From the capital cities, you can usually see most of the country’s major sights within a few hours’ drive.
From Tbilisi, we took a half-day trip to nearby Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia, and also visited the Jvari Monastery, perched on a hilltop overlooking Mtskheta. We did another day trip to Kazbegi National Park, a high-mountain region in the northern part of the country that covered with snow when we visited. The day trip included a 4×4 trip up to the hard-to-reach Gergeti Monastery, poised on top of a peak and backdropped by the highest mountain in Georgia, Mount Kazbeg. That was definitely the highlight of my entire Caucasus trip. We wished we had more time there as it was just absolutely spectacular.
We then crossed overland to Armenia, weaving our way through several monasteries in the northern part of the country to get to Yerevan. On the way, we saw the beautiful Akhtala Monastery that had frescoes painted all over its interior. We experienced the atmosphere in the famous Haghpat Monastery. And we drove along the rims of the Debed Canyon, the deepest canyon in Armenia. After spending some time exploring Yerevan, we went on a day trip to the Tsaghkadzor ski resort area and nearby Kecharis Monastery. We also went to the picturesque Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in Eurasia.
Eventually I made my way to Azerbaijan alone (while my friend headed home) for a short three-day visit. I spent most of my time exploring Baku, its capital city, trying to unravel its layers and understand a bit more of its character beyond the fancy skyscrapers. I also did a day trip to the area around Baku, including Gobustan National Park, home to over 6,000 rock art sites that date back to the neolithic era (40,000 years ago), the Ateshgar Fire Temple to explore its Zoroastrian temple and “eternal fire” site, as well as the (ugly) oil fields where a James Bond movie was filmed.
My Impression of Travel in the Caucasus
Most people who have traveled the Caucasus like Georgia best, out of the three, and I can see why. In general, Georgia is more European. It has retained its historical heritage rather well, and the country has a larger variety of landscapes. As a mountainous country, it’s got the pristine and rugged slopes that many outdoor lovers seek. I absolutely loved Kazbegi National Park in the north. The Great Caucasus Mountain Range are extremely dramatic there. The drive through the winding valleys and steep slopes is just stunning and the backcountry just makes me want to stay and explore more.
Georgia also has a bounty of interesting architecture and Orthodox churches for culture buffs, and amazing food and wineries for those who love to indulge (it’s said to have invented wine). Of all the churches and monasteries we visited, my favorite has got to be the 14th century Ananuri Fortress. It overlooks the Aragvi River and backed by the Great Caucasus Mountain Range. Georgian food is another main draw of the country, with very rich flavors and lots of variety to choose from. Traditional staples such as khachapuri (baked bread with cheese and egg on top) and khinkali (meat dumpling) are cheap and easy to get everywhere.
In contrast, Armenia has got a more Middle Eastern feel and is just different to anywhere else I’ve been. I usually like the underdogs, perhaps that’s why Armenia was my favorite of the three. It’s just a whole world of its own. Nothing like neighboring Georgia (just similarities in their food and some Soviet history, but not architecture nor language) or Azerbaijan (in fact, they’re at war at the moment). It’s got its own alphabets, own ethnicity, and cultural identity.
For me, the main draw of Armenia is its history — over 2 million Armenians were killed or displaced by the Turks during the genocide (dubbed the first genocide in history). It was a shame that the Yerevan Genocide Memorial and Museum were closed off for special guests during our visit (I heard Putin was in town, so maybe it was him!) as I was really curious to learn more there. But speaking to young Armenians I met, it seems that they’ve put the past behind them and moved ahead. Now they’re having issues with Azerbaijan and most people are more concerned with this.
Yerevan itself is strangely rather modern and prosperous, with high energy and lots of neon lights (which reminded me of cities in Iran). Sadly most buildings were constructed after the Genocide, during the Soviet era (which meant rather ugly architecture), and those older than that have been torn down, so the city lacks some history and character.
The most memorable part of our time in Armenia was the Lori region in the northern corner. The landscapes here are punctuated by centuries-old monasteries (there are over 1,000 of them in the country) and there seem to be so many stories behind each of these churches and monasteries.
The most different of the three is Azerbaijan, which is extremely modern and has a well-developed tourism infrastructure (you’ll see English signs everywhere pointing to tourist attractions). Unlike Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan is a Muslim country (albeit a secular one), which explains the difference in terms of architecture and traditions. Its language and roots are closer to that of Turkey’s, so there are definitely some similarities between Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Because of its oil-generated wealth, the capital city Baku is very developed, and has an odd mix of old and new. The only part of the city I really liked was the old town of Baku, which is surprisingly well-preserved but also artificially restored in some parts. It reminds me of ancient cities like Khiva in Uzbekistan and Urgup in Turkey with sandstone buildings and cobblestoned streets.
Once you’re outside of Baku though, you’ll see all the ugly oil fields, drills and industries. Poverty is still evident from the suburbs and rural areas, which the government has funnily blocked out of sight to visitors using big fences along the highways (seriously!). Azerbaijan isn’t my favorite country in the world, but I can see how others would enjoy it.
Would I Recommend the Caucasus?
In general, the Caucasus is an interesting melange of Eurasian culture and highly worth a visit for the curious traveler. Being relatively developed and easy to access, travel in the Caucasus is perfect for those who are interested in less-visited parts of the world but not quite ready to venture further off the path.
Travel in the Caucasus is generally very easy. All three countries are relatively developed and have good tourism infrastructure. You can easily get public transport around the cities and beyond. Lots of companies do affordable day trips that cost between $10 to $30. All three countries are also very cheap to travel in, especially Armenia, with a good meal for around US$5-10 and budget hotel for $30 per room/night.
Most people in the Caucasus only speak their native language and Russian, with very little English spoken. But as long as you pick up a few local words and use body language, you shouldn’t face too much problems communicating with locals here.
Safety wise, I felt absolutely safe my whole time in the three countries. I was traveling with my best friend (female) in Georgia and Armenia, and solo in Azerbaijan. The conflicted areas are mainly along the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but as long as you avoid the area, you will be fine. You will not feel any tension in the cities, small towns or tourist sights at all.
I visited during the low season (in October), so the entire region was pretty much void of tourists (museums/sights were empty and no long lines at border crossings). That said, even during peak season, this region doesn’t get quite as many tourists as neighboring Turkey and Russia do.
The weather wasn’t great though. It was raining quite a bit and the skies were gloomy during my entire trip (we only had a day or two of sun). I would recommend traveling the Caucasus a month earlier, perhaps in September. Temperatures aren’t quite as high as in summer and the weather is still sunny and pleasant.
With just two weeks to see the three countries, I definitely felt like I was tight on time and rushing from one place to another. I would have much preferred to have two weeks to see Georgia and another two to explore Armenia. If you’re short on time, I would recommend focusing only on Georgia and Armenia and forgoing Azerbaijan.
For those who like traveling off the beaten path (like myself), travel in the Caucasus is definitely a great place to explore.
Read more: Caucasus Travel Guide