The mountains of the Caucasus
One Comtourist objective is to visit every Soviet republic before 2015. In October 2011 we managed to remove three countries from our list after visiting the Caucasian republics. A four week journey took us through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and finally Nagorno-Karabakh. The countries of the Caucasus are great places to visit with beautiful cities and landscapes, delicious food, friendly people, a turbulent history and a challenging future.
The Caucasus is probably the least travelled region of the former Soviet Union. Minorities fighting for independence, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the recent wars between Russia and Georgia leave the impression that the Caucasus is a dangerous region. This fear is probably justified for some parts of the region like Dagestan, Chechnya (both in Russia) and South Ossetia. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and even Nagorno-Karabakh are generally very safe countries however, so this is no reason for not going to the Caucasus. We really enjoyed our journey and recommend a trip to the Caucasus to all our readers.
Planning the journey
Traveling through the countries of the Caucasus in not as straight forward as it looks on the map. The Russian - Georgian and Armenian - Azeri borders are closed. Azerbaijan cannot be entered with a Visa of Nagorno-Karabakh in the passport so a trip needs to be well planned. We choose to start in Azerbaijan, then travel through Georgia and finish in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Visa are required for all countries but Georgia, the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh visa can be bought upon entering the country, getting the Armenian visa in advance saves time at the border however. We bought the plane tickets to Baku and from Yerevan via a cheap ticket website surprisingly cheap, flying with Aeroflot via Moscow. We did decide to book most hotels, transfers and excursions ahead although this would not have been strictly necessary.
The Azeri capital Baku was the starting point of our Caucasus journey taking us through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. The famous Oil Rocks, a maze of oil drilling stations and other structures build by the Soviets in the late 1940’s are a spectacular sight from the air on the approach to Baku. Baku is a booming city fuelled by the Gas and Oil reserves that Azerbaijan extracts from the Caspian Sea. Baku is a great place to spend a couple of days relaxing on the Sea Side boulevard and strolling through this buzzling city. Many of the main tourist attractions of Azerbaijan can be done by daytrips from Baku.
The Absheron Peninsula close to Baku was one of the places in the world where Oil was extracted on an industrial scale, the Nobel Brother actually set up their first business here. The Peninsula is still a major Oil field where thousands of pumpjacks and oil derricks are producing gas and oil. Interesting sights on Absheron are Mardakan Castle dating back to the year 1187, the 17th century Zoroastrian Fire Temple and Yanar Dag a natural gas fire that blazes continuously on a hillside. The dry dessert area of Gobustan is also close to Baku and well worth a day trip. The famous Gobustan Cave complex with more than 6.000 prehistoric petroglyphs dates back to 10.000 BC. Many mud vulcanoes can be found in the same and are a rare sight. The famous James Bond oil fields where parts of “The World is Not Enough” were recorded and the Sahil Sangachal Terminal that is the starting point of two oil pipelines to Europe can both be seen on the route from Baku to Gobustan.
From Baku we moved on to Sheki with stops at the Diri Baba Mosque in Mereze and the Yeddi Gumbez cemetery in Shamakhy. Sheki is an old Silk Road town in the North East of the Azerbaijan close to the Georgian border. We stayed in the original Caravanserai dating back to the Silk Road times and now converted to a hotel. Highlights of Sheki are the 18th century Khans Palace, the Bazaar and the local history museum that has lost none of its Soviet glory. From Sheki we left Georgia crossing the border at Balakan. More: Story Azerbaijan, Photos Azerbaijan
Georgia has been going through a rough time recent years. Spirits were high after the Rose Revolution of 2003 when the former communists lead by Eduard Shevardnadze were removed from power and Saakashvili became the new president. The Georgian economy grew and the country even dreamt of joining NATO in the future. Things turned bad when Saakashvili overplayed his hand and provoked Russia by violently supressing the autonomous regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The 2008 war with Russia en the subsequent boycott have brought the economy to a standstill and public morale at rock bottom.
The next place we visited was Gori, the birth town of Joseph Stalin that still had a statue in his honour until 2010. The Stalin Museum that has hardly been changed after de-Stalinization and later the end of the USSR is the absolute highlight of Gori. The central square still shows the scars from the Russian Cluster bomb attack during the war between Georgia and Russia in 2008. We stayed in a Hotel in Kutaisi where we also visited the Gelati Monastery. In Batumi, Georgia’s most famous Black Sea resort it was time for some relaxation on the beach.
The Georgian capital Tbilisi was our final destination in Georgia before moving on to Armenia. Tbilisi is a beautiful city build on the banks of the Kura River surrounded by mountains Tbilisi has been an important city throughout history thanks to its location on the crossroad of important trade routes. The importance of the city has left an interesting mix of Medival, Classical and Soviet structures. There are two building that will surely make the Soviet Top 10 architecture list; the Wedding Palace and the Ministry of Transportation. More: Story Georgia, Photos Georgia, Gori Stalin Museum
We entered Armenia in the Lori province two hours driving from Tbilisi. Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries near the industrial town Alaverdi are not restored like most Georgian religious buildings and have a real authentic atmosphere. The Mikoyan brothers Museum close to the Sanahin Monastery is great Museum Soviet era Museum. We spend the night with a family in the village of Odzun. A homestay is a good way to experience daily life in Armenia, the food and drinks on the table were all made with home grown products and truly delicious.
From Lori we drove to Lake Sevan with a stop in Dilijan,a great place for hiking in the surrounding hills and mountains but old town is not more than a street that seems to be very new. Lake Sevan at 3000M is the highest mountain lake in the world. Interesting sights are the House of Artists, a classis peace of communist architecture, Sevanavank Monastary and the Noratus Cemetery.
De journey by car from Sevan to Goris in Eastern Armenia was a fantastic drive through the rough mountainous Armenian landscape. Stops underway at the Selim Caravanserai and Noravank Monastery added to the experience. From Goris we made a two day trip into Nagorno Karabakh before we would head for the Armenian capital Yerevan. On the way to Yerevan we made stops at the Tatev Monastery, the Areni Wine Factory and Khor Virap famous for location close to Mount Ararat the symbol of Armenia.
The final destination of our Caucasus journey was the Armenian capital Yerevan. All three of the Caucasian capitals are great places to hang out but Yerevan tops our list ahead of Baku and Tbilisi. During summer time people eat and drink at the many terraces, walk around at the boulevards or enjoy the many fountains in the city centre. Yerevan boasts both many ancient and communist era monuments, architecture and stores offering something for everybody, Mount Ararat completes the scene on clear days. Our Caucasus trip got a suitable end at Zwartnots Airport with a communist era terminal building that is a sure top 10 candidate for the list of top Soviet architecture. More: Story Armenia, Photos Armenia, Mikoyan Brothers Museum, Yerevan Military Museum
Mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh called Artsakh by the locals became world news in 1991 when the suppressed Armenian majority rose up against their Azeri rulers. Over 90% of the population were ethnic Armenians but Stalin decided to give the region to Azerbaijan when the Caucasian countries became Soviet Republics. Armenia came too their brothers aid and a bloody war over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted. Armenia managed to defeat Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh was declared an autonomous region under protection of Armenia. Escalation and renewed fighting is always around the corner but Nagorno-Karabakh has been quiet and for the last couple of years.
We entered Karabakh by car from Goris in Armenia, registration was required at a border checkpoint, visas can be obtained at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert. Hotel Armenia where we stayed is located adjacent to the National Assembly on the square with all the major government buildings. Highlights of Stepanakert are the Soviet era “We are the mountains” monument, the Bazaar, Memorial for the fallen soldiers and the Stepan Shahumyan statue on the main town square.
The town of Sushi used to be populated by the Azeri minority and was heavily fought over during the war. The Azeri population has fled and a large part of the town exists of deserted ruins. A successful Armenian business man has adopted the town of Vank building all kind of kitsch including a Titanic themed hotel. Vank monastery on top of a hill is one of the most important religious buildings of Karabakh. We did not visit the ghost town Agdam on the Azeri border where shots are being fired from both sides on a regular base. We learned that taxi drivers are willing to drive tourists here on their own risk. More: Story Nagorno Karabakh, Photos Nagorno Karabakh