Throughout the years, I’ve come to realize that some of the most rewarding travel experiences are those which you approach with no expectations. Too often a guidebook will glamorize a particular site, writing about all of the charm but neglecting to mention the throngs of tourists, maze of souvenir stalls, or exorbitant prices. Needing a cheap flight from St. Petersburg, we flew to Baku with the intent of exploring the Caucasus with little knowledge of the region itself.
Sandwiched between the Black and Caspian Sea, and bordered by the powerful nations of Iran, Russia and Turkey lie the Caucasus, three small nations of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia with distinctly different cultures, cuisines and languages, but with a common characteristic of some of the warmest, most hospitable people on the planet.
Our first stop was in Baku, where we were fortunate enough to meet up with our Iranian friend Ali, who had guided us during our time in Iran and we had remained in touch with. To be honest, I thought that Baku would be a ‘little Dubai’ and quite conservative, but this was the first of many instances in the Caucasus where my ignorance of the region was on prominent display. In Baku we found a charming city with just the right combination of old world charm and new world foresight, clean and welcoming, with interesting food and architecture. The people themselves were far more liberal in their ideals than I had anticipated, their views were basically that God exists, and how you wish to find him is your own business. It was a wonderful place to begin our journey.
From Baku we took an overnight train to Tbilisi in Georgia. In actuality we barely made the train after sitting in complete standstill traffic for thirty minutes, panicking to grab our bags and sprint the opposite direction down a one-way street, diving into a second cab giving the driver no option but to take us, then arriving, sweat pouring down our faces as we showed the ticket to the conductor and jumped on board right as the train began to pull out of the station. Oh, the joys of travel. The few travelers that we have met along the road who had been to Georgia absolutely raved about it, and we wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Rather than stay in the city we decided to take a taxi from the train station and head out to Sighnaghi, east of Tbilisi and the gateway to the wine region of Georgia. Another thing you repeatedly hear about Georgia is that the drivers are insane, and our cab driver quickly showed us that this was the case, feverishly accelerating through traffic with mere inches to spare, slamming on the brakes and altogether generating an extremely anxiety ridden experience. At last we finally arrived in Sighnaghi and were grateful to get the hell out of the car in one piece.
It is said that Georgian’s have been making wine for 8000 years. I wasn’t sure whether that amount of practice would lead to quality, or merely quantity. You quickly come to realize that Georgians taken their wine very seriously. Everyone has an opinion on the best regions, the best grapes, and the best way to make wine. One thing every Georgian seems to agree on is that the best vintages come from fermentation in a kvevri – large earthenware pots that stored under the ground and allow the wine to age. We spent a day in a taxi exploring the wine regions, and I must say, the kvevri wines in Georgia hold up to some of the best bottles I’ve had in France, Italy, or anywhere in the world. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, very little of it is exported as it’s generally small batch, so you’ll have to travel there to try for yourself.
After spending three days in a general alcoholic haze we returned to Tbilisi and said goodbye to Ali as we wanted to head north into the towering Caucus Mountains to the town of Kazbegi. In order to get there you have to take the Georgian Military Road, aptly described as both ‘one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world’ or ‘one of the most dangerous roads in the world’ depending upon who you ask. Only a few days prior the road had been closed down due to intense winds and weather conditions, but the forecast was sunny so we figured what the hell. The distance itself is only about 150km, but winding through towering, snow peaked mountains and skirting precipitous drops down steep mountain passes. The scenery itself truly is breathtaking, the bright sun cascading on the snow lighting a blindingly beautiful scene. The worst part for me was the fact that it’s a single lane road that you are sharing with transport trucks traveling both directions from Georgia to Russia, and there were a few instances that we were stuck in long, pitch black tunnels, claustrophobia kicking in and wondering whether we were going to get out before the fumes from the carbon monoxide became too strong.
Alas, we arrived in one piece and were immediately overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the Cacaus Mountains – towering giants standing tall in a 360 degree panorama of sheer awesomeness. A big draw in Kazbegi is Gergeti Trinity Church – a beautiful 14th century religious structure perched at 2170 metres directly within the shadow of Mount Kazbegi, 5033 metres tall and dominating the landscape. To visit the church there are two options – taking a Jeep up the mountain or a three hour steep hike up the mountain itself. We opted for the latter and I can honestly say that the hike provided some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring moments of the entire trip.
From Georgia it was on to Armenia. The one thing I knew (albeit, not well) of Armenia was of the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians following World War I at the hands of the Ottomans. A visit to Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian genocide memorial, was first up on our list of things to do in Yerevan. It’s a heavy, moving, heart-wrenching experience, but one that everyone should read up on, I won’t even try to give justice to the magnitude of the suffering here.
Using Yerevan as a base we decided to spend a day exploring the Armenian countryside. As in Georgia, Armenia is rich with a wealth of diverse landscapes, and because the seasons had advanced further there, everything was blanketed in the rich, vibrant greens of spring, the trees exploding in cherry blossoms. It was an amazing day for the senses.
The more you travel, the more you seek to get ‘off the beaten track’, and subsequently the more you realize that this is becoming increasingly difficult to do. With the rise of social media and comparative ease of travel, fewer places offer that element of surprise. I am here to tell you that the Caucausus provide not only that – but also at an extremely reasonable price tag. I encourage you to go and visit for yourself while this is still the case.