No, not mine. Since I have three children, travelling anywhere can be somewhat complicated. But luckily I can live vicariously through my brother. He and his girlfriend visited China a few years ago. The year after that, they visited Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran. This post only includes three of these countries as Iran will be discussed in the next post.
After our visit to China it was obvious to us that the next trip can by no means be confined to Europe. For a long time we were undecided as to where we should go exactly, but after I finished my corporate internship and decided it wasn’t really all that full of potential we sat down to look for cheap air tickets and found out that WizzAir was apparently flying from Warsaw to Georgia now. It took us less than an hour to make our choice and buy tickets to Kutaisi. The plan called for a classical (in our case at least) circle from Georgia to Georgia through Azerbeijan and Armenia with a small detour to north-western Iran.
Before the trip
Obtaining visas for Iran and Azerbaijan turned out to be quite troublesome. The Azerbaijani visa was somewhat easier to get but very expensive and came in the form of a pdf file attached to an e-mail. It continuously confounded Azeri border guards who had no idea what to do with it and whether I was joking or not by trying to get through with such a ridiculous paper.
This time we were much smarter than during our previous trip (carrying two heavy trunks through every possible set of stairs in China is not a very pleasant memory, however manly that made me feel) and bought some fancy tourist backpacks. It now occurred to me that bringing less stuff would have been a much better idea.
We landed in Kutaisi and boarded a bus to Tbilisi hoping to get on the night train to Baku on that same day. However, you quickly learn in the Caucasus that a short distance on the map might require much more time to get through than you think. We ended up missing the train and were forced to spend the night in Tbilisi.
We arrived at Baku in the morning and proceeded to look for our hotel in the Iceri Seher (Old Town). This was quite difficult because all the small streets endlessly twisting each and every way. The city itself was beautiful and all money Azerbaijan has been making from oil was obvious here. It was also evident in the prices – we were simply shocked to pay for everything as much as we would expect to pay in the Netherlands.
Enjoying Baku’s Flame Towers
We visited a few landmarks, including 3000+ years old petroglyphs of dancing people, took evening walks around the city and finally boarded a minibus to Lankaran, a city close to the Iranian border. Gosia even managed to befriend the driver – her knowledge of Russian proved useful everywhere in the Caucasus.
These dancers are 32 centuries old!
We went for a swim in the Caspian Sea there, because water pollution there is way smaller than around Baku. Still, swimming there felt somewhat hazardous, as there was a LOT of concrete and metal remains on the seabed.
The next Caucasus country on our route was Armenia. After crossing into it from Iran at Norduz/Agorak we got into a taxi (public transit is virtually non-existent as hardly anybody travels between Armenia and Iran) to go to Kapan, the first real city this side of the border.
The ride was… interesting, to say the least. We were driven in an old, black Mercedes and the driver didn’t seem to care for braking on narrow mountain roads, causing his tyres to screech at every turn. Somewhat winded, but extremely happy to finally be out of the car, we arrived at Kapan. The city turned out to be completely different from what we expected- instead of a typical, alpine city we found large, soviet-style tower blocks, often connected with special lines for drying laundry- its colours made a comical combination with the grey colour of buildings.
Drying laundry, soviet style
Gosia in Kaban
The next day we boarded a shared taxi and travelled the panoramic Kapan-Yerevan road whilst being treated to Russian disco music. Even though finding our hostel in Yerevan proved to be very difficult and required the assistance of at least three local people, Yerevan was the nicest place we stayed in during the whole, four-week trip. Armenia’s limited size allowed us to keep our base of operations in the capital while arranging one-day trips to numerous national attractions. Among these were Sevan Lake (called Armenia’s sea), the coldest water basin I have ever went into, Etchmiadzin – the center of Armenia’s national religion (its church is actually the one of oldest Christian churches!), the Temple of Garni, Geghard monastery as well as the picturesque views of Khor Virap.
Khor Virap (Armenia) to the right, Ararat (Turkey) to the left
The most efficient way to see Armenia
One of the most enchanting places in Yerevan itself was The Cascade, a giant stairway which forms the main axis of the city, descending from one of the hills to the opera building and hiding the Cafesjian Museum of Art inside. We loved spending our evenings there, especially since there was always something interesting going on. Once we even run into a concert played by refugees from Syria (Armenians used to be unbelievably widely dispersed across the Middle East). After a few days in the capital we boarded a night train (one of the defining features of all post-soviet countries) to Tbilisi.
The thing we loved the most about Georgia after three weeks of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran was the food. In these three countries getting anything to eat other than kebab was usually impossible (although we did find some blini in Baku). It is worth noticing that kebab meat in these areas is served separately from the bread- usually on long, metal skewers. Georgian food is much more diversified and closer to Polish cuisine than to the rest of the region. Just as in Poland (and most of the Eastern Europe countries), it is based on bread and cheese in different forms (although the cheese in question is usually made with goat rather than cow’s milk). The specialties of Georgian cuisine include khachapuri in many different forms (our favourite was the Adjaruli one- with egg on top!), khinkali (somewhat similar to polish pierogi, but prepared in a different way) and of course some Russian classics like pelmeni.
Khachapuri Adjaruli- a feast for five!
The most memorable visit for us was the one to David Gareja– it’s an old monastery on the Azerbaijani border. It is actually a subject of an ongoing border dispute, which led to us meeting border guards from both countries while walking around the place. Despite their Kalashnikovs, they seemed friendly enough both towards us and each other. The view you can see when you climb the hill this monastery is build upon is breathtaking- it looks towards Azerbaijan and looks more like Mars than Earth- so dry and out-of-this-world.
Looking out towards Mars (or Azerbaijan?)
Another obligatory trip for us (due to my passion for history) was of course Gori– the birthplace of Stalin and quite possibly one of the last places where he is still being worshipped. You exit the bus on Stalin’s Square, walk on the Stalin Avenue in order to reach Stalin Museum- with some really priceless gems hidden inside, including letters from the communist dictator and many historical photographs- it is worth noting though, that you will miss most of the fun there, if you don’t read and understand Russian. Just a few steps away from the entrance there’s also the rail car Stalin used to travel everywhere (even to the conference in Tehran in 1943!) because he was so paranoid about flying.
We always like to plan a “chillout” phase at the end of our trips. This time it meant Batumi, the dream-resort of soviet times. After taking another night train there we spent the last three days on the Black Sea Coast hoping for some sunbathing and swimming, but we only got good weather for one day. Other than that, it was raining most of the time, so except for walking around and, naturally, visiting the chacha fountain (chacha is a 70% strong Georgian alcohol) and lying on a stony beach (not very comfy if you ask me!), we didn’t get to do much there. The day before our flight we boarded a bus to Kutaisi and spent the last night in this rather uninteresting city before taking the Wizzair flight home.
Sunset over the Black Sea
All in all, the Caucasus turned out to be a very safe and friendly place. It feels like people will continuously try to befriend you without any agenda of their own (unlike in many tourist countries I had visited). The only problem (if it’s a problem at all) is transportation, which always seems to take more time than planned and – except for the night trains – is not very comfortable.
Most of the kilometers you ride will be in marshrutkas– small, usually overcrowded buses that are,a standard transportation mode for many developing countries. They fullfil the role of public transport in the whole region, going anywhere, be it 5 or 500 km. Especially in Georgia it is also quite easy to hitch a ride- although we did not try that option out, my friends who were in the region concurrently reported fantastic experiences with hitchhiking, which included getting totally drunk on chacha with the driver after the ride.
Please show my brother some love – and get excited for part 2: Iran!