Treasures of the South Caucasus: Through Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan

Treasures of the South Caucasus: Through Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan

Follow along with MIR Corporation Tour Manager Devin Connolly as she accompanies MIR clients on MIR’s Treasures of the South Caucasus small group tour.

  • Arrival in Baku

    September 29, 2008

    I arrived into Baku from Moscow on “Azal” – Azerbaijan Airlines. After gathering up my things, I deboarded the plane and made my way down two corridors to passport control. The only real challenge in arrivals procedures at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Internatinal Airport is keeping your place in line for passport control – Azeris seem to have their own set of confusing line etiquette that rewards the quick and the wily. I waited in a line for citizens of Azerbaijan because the control window for foreigners was closed. A look at the passports of my fellow arriving passengers assured me that I wasn’t the only non-Azeri in line. I finally reached the booth and slid my passport across the counter to the woman seated behind the glass panel. She paid special attention to my two Armenian visas from earlier this year, but ultimately stamped the book and handed it back to me. While I waited for the baggage carousel to rev up, I stole a glance at a few of the other folks standing around. The crowd at the baggage carousel was an interesting mix of people: anxious Azeri men smoking and obviously eager to go, young Azeri women traveling alone, and foreign men in company garb: in town on oil business I guessed.

    Once I claimed my bag from the carousel, I made my way toward the arrivals hall. Awaiting me there was my transfer agent, a polite young man named Ibrahim, who carried my bag and chatted with me in Russian about the flight as he led me out of the airport. It’s quite a drive from the airport to the center of Baku. Without traffic, the journey takes at least 40 minutes. Since it was already late in the evening, I couldn’t see the Caspian Sea, but the vast blackness out of the car’s left window assured me it was there. During the long, dark drive into the city, I took in as many sights as I could and tried not to be too alarmed by the aggressive Azeri drivers – one thing about this part of the world I’ll never get used to. We reached the Hyatt Regency about 45 minutes after we left the airport and I checked in to rest up for the full touring schedule that awaited our group the next day.

  • Baku

    September 30, 2008

    In the morning, I met our group at breakfast and welcomed them to the Caucasus. On the bus, I gave them an overview of the tour itself and introduced them to our local guide, Gurban, who greeted everyone and launched right into a very informative talk about his homeland. Our first stop in Baku was at a city park that overlooks the Caspian Sea. This park is a favorite of mine because it offers beautiful, sweeping views of the Caspian Sea and especially Baku. The chance to view Baku at a quiet distance without the honking car horns or construction site sounds is rare, so I like to take a long look whenever I’m here.

    Next we took a tour of Baku’s Old City, including the emblematic Maiden Tower. Some believe the temple was built for Zoroastrian fire rituals, or for defensive purposes. Though Azerbaijan is a secular country today, its connection with its Zoroastrian past is visible in many of the nation’s symbols. Azerbaijan’s coat of arms features a red flame at the center and three flames can be found on the city seal of Baku, but my favorite example of fire symbolism is on the nation’s flag. The flag of Azerbaijan is comprised of three stripes with a crescent and eight-pointed star in the middle band. From top to bottom, the stripes are blue, red and green to symbolize the sky above, the earth below and fire at the heart of the nation. The word “Azerbaijan” itself is derived from an Old Persian word meaning “protected by fire.” The majority of Azeris today are Shi’ite Muslims, but they are not especially strict in their observance of Islamic law. Drinking is commonplace and Azeri women do not cover their heads in public. In fact, there is a statue in the center of Baku of a woman removing her veil as a symbol of liberation.

    We returned to the hotel to rest up before our welcome dinner, which was at a restaurant in Baku’s Old City. The dinner was lovely: several courses of local food, Azeri wine, entertainment…it was a most festive welcome to the Caucasus!

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Statues in Baku

    Caspian Sea & the Baku skyline

    Azeri carpets

    Zoroastrian ruins in Baku

    Statue in Baku


  • Gobustan, Sheki

    October 1-2, 2008

    There are a few long driving days in this itinerary, and today is one of them. We began our journey to Sheki this morning with a slight detour by driving one hour south of Baku to Gobustan State Reserve, site of thousands of ancient rock carvings and petroglyphs. One of my favorite things about being at Gobustan is that the site offers a completely different view of the Caspian than the view from Baku. Without a large city on the horizon, the vastness of the sea is much more apparent. And as we learned on our excursion, the carvings and mineral deposits in the stone at higher ground give reason to believe that the Caspian Sea used to be even larger.

    Having explored Gobustan, we continued on the road to Sheki. There are two main east-west roads in Azerbaijan, and we decided to take the lower, as it was recently renovated and in much better shape than the upper road. This route enabled us to watch how the scenery and people change as our distance from the capital increased. One thing that did not change was the prevalence of posters and billboards dedicated to Heydar Aliyev, former president of Azerbaijan. Though he is no longer alive, his image continues to thrive throughout the country. It seems like nearly everything in Azerbaijan is named after Heydar Aliyev: parks, museums, roads, the international airport, and on top of all this, nearly every town has a large billboard with a picture of Heydar Aliyev, often alongside the text of a quote attributed to him.

    We arrived at our hotel in Sheki just before dinner. Our accommodations, called Sheki Saray, were located right on the town’s main square. I helped the group get checked in and gave everybody some time to freshen up a bit before we got back on the bus for the brief drive to the authentic Silk Road-era caravanserai up the hill where we had reservations. We ate indoors on the second floor of the caravanserai and were serenaded by a trio of local musicians during the meal. By the time we got back to the hotel, everyone was ready for a good night’s sleep. The funny thing about long driving days is that even though they require the least amount of walking, they can also be among the most tiring days of a tour!

    The following morning, we met after breakfast for a full-day tour of Sheki. We stopped in at the local market before making the brief drive out to Kish Village. The main attraction in Kish is the 5th-6th century Albanian church, which was formerly a pagan temple. The church is situated atop a steep, rocky hill that our coach couldn’t access, so we walked up as a group. In Kish, much more than in Sheki, there is a distinct feeling of being in a remote mountain village. We passed several homes on our walk up to the church and we could see what they were growing in their gardens, the laundry they hung out to dry and the smoke from their chimneys rising up above the hills. We met some locals along the road and a few of them tried to engage us in conversation, which consisted mostly of pantomiming and a lot of smiles.

    Later, we did a bit of strolling in Sheki. Some folks bought halvah at a local sweet shop, others browsed the souvenir shops – all two of them! Azerbaijan is definitely not a shopping highlight of the itinerary. We had dinner at a hillside restaurant with a panoramic view of Sheki, which was great, because Sheki is at its most beautiful at dusk. At dinner, we discussed the border procedures for the next day’s crossing into Georgia and enjoyed our meal as we watched our last Azeri sunset.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Ancient petroglyphs in Gobustan

    Ancient rock carvings in Gobustan

    Azeri billboard

    Azeri architecture

    Azeri artwork in Sheki

    Sheki landscapes

  • Crossing into Georgia, Gurjaani, Signagi

    October 3, 2008

    The border crossing from Azerbaijan to Georgia is not the most relaxing experience, but everyone in our group used their common sense and the procedure took less than an hour – that’s pretty good time for a group of 16. We began our drive toward Tbilisi, enjoying beautiful views of the Georgian countryside along the way. The difference between Azerbaijan and Georgia is felt immediately. I don’t like to play favorites, but Georgia is noticeably more lush and prosperous than its southeastern neighbor. There are vineyards everywhere and people seem to spend more time outdoors, which is quite refreshing to see.

    Our first stop in Georgia was in Gurjaani, where we ate lunch in the home of a local winemaker. The vintner gave us an explanation of Georgian winemaking, followed by a tasting and then an enormous “Georgian Table” lunch complete with music from a male vocal quartet, who serenaded us with Georgian folk songs. Full of sumptuous food and wine, we boarded the bus again and made one more stop in the small town of Signagi. It is a common destination for wedding parties to celebrate and take photographs and we watched as bridal parties streamed through the town square at regular intervals, each with a huge entourage of friends and family members in tow. We arrived into Tbilisi just before dinner, glad to be off the road after a long day of driving.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Georgian folk music

    Georgia by night

  • Tbilisi, Gudauri, Kazbegi

    October 4-6, 2008

    The following morning, rested and ready for a full day’s exploration of Tbilsi, we set off to see the sights. We caught several of the capital’s highlights, then we made our way to the Dry Bridge Market to view some more modern treasures. The Dry Bridge is an outdoor art market with an attached flea market offering a multitude of used goods. Though there is beautiful art to be found at the market, the flea market is my favorite part. Strolling down the rows of vendors, I feel like I could find just about anything for sale. There are vendors who sell nothing but used TV remotes, others have stalls stocked with rusty samovars and musical instruments, and still others who offer incomplete tea sets and all kinds of old books. Laden with Dry Bridge purchases, our group boarded the bus and headed back to the hotel to enjoy some down time before going out to dinner that evening.

    We departed Tbilisi the following morning for a trip up the Georgian Military Highway and a one-night sojourn in the Caucasus Mountains. We stopped for the night in Gudauri, a ski resort town about halfway between Tbilisi and the Russian border. Gudauri bursts at the seams with skiers during the winter months, but it’s eerily quiet when there isn’t any snow on the ground. I went for a walk up the long, steep hill behind our hotel and took in views of the Greater Caucasus Mountains before the sun set behind them.

    The next segment of our journey had been modified due to the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia. While our previous Trans-Caucasus tours had returned to Tbilisi by way of a western detour to the town of Gori, we headed even further up the Georgian Military Highway to Kazbegi, a mountain town just 11 miles south of the Russian border. Though the town has now reverted to its original name, Stepanstsminda, it is still popularly known as Kazbegi. Despite the recent upset in neighboring South Ossetia, Kazbegi felt remarkably quiet and unassuming. Upon arrival, we immediately set off for the hilltop church of Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity), also known as Gergeti Church. At an altitude of over 7,000 feet, the views from Tsminda Sameba are remarkable. But the best feeling comes from making the descent back to Kazbegi, looking back up at the frighteningly high church and saying, “we were just there!”

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Tbilisi equestrian statue

    Georgian landscape

    Georgian architecture

    King David the Builder, on of Georgia’s heroes

    Georgian landscape

    Caucasus mountains

  • Tbilisi

    October 7-8, 2008

    That same day, we returned to Tbilisi. A relaxed evening allowed us to recover from the long day of driving, and to prepare for the next day’s main touring stop: the David Gareja Monastery complex. Of the 15 monasteries in the complex, we visited two: Lavra and Udabno. The 6th century Lavra Monastery is easy to access on foot and offers beautiful views, at a lower level than Udabno – I call it the non-hikers’ monastery. Udabno, on the other hand, is only for the fit. To get to the upper monastery, one must walk up a steep, uneven trail for 1-1.5 hours and then walk back down for 45-60 minutes. It’s a serious hike, but very rewarding, as Udabno Monastery is famous for its cave frescoes. The upper caves are not inhabited, so hikers are allowed to enter the cave and wander freely throughout the monastery. About half of our group made the trip to Udabno Monastery, the other half went back to Tbilisi in a separate bus, stopping en route for a picnic lunch. It is said that visiting David Gareja three times is equal to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Since this was my third trip to David Gareja, I felt a bit holier than I had the previous day. That evening, we enjoyed a “farewell to Georgia” dinner with wine and live music. There was beautiful Georgian singing again, not to mention toasts upon toasts.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    David Gareja cave monastery

    Equestrian statue in Tbilsi

    Georgian monastery complex

    Equestrian statue in Tbilsi

  • Yerevan, Echmiadzin

    October 9-11, 2008

    The first Armenian province we entered was called Tavush. After about 30 minutes of driving, we crossed over into Lori Province, my favorite part of Armenia. Most of the road through Lori follows the Debed River Canyon along high, rocky hills dotted with green shrubs and trees. But in the midst of all this natural beauty, we pass the occasional abandoned Soviet factory, reminding us of Armenia’s recent past. We made several stops on the way to Yerevan, the most noteworthy of which was at the 10th century Haghpat Monastery. The drive from the border to Yerevan is a long one, and we reached the capital just in time for dinner. Checking in at the last hotel on our itinerary, there was a sense in the group of the trip winding down. That may have been true, but we still had plenty of adventures in store for us.

    Our travels throughout Armenia over the next few days were a series of day trips radiating out in spokes from the capital. On our first full day in the country, we visited Echmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apistolic Church. As we drove westward toward Armenia’s Vatican City, all of Mt. Ararat was visible in the distance – a rare occurrence!

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Haghpat Monastery in Armenia

    Haghpat Monastery in Armenia

    Armenian alphabet sculptures

    Inside Haghpat Monastery in Armenia

    Haghpat Monastery in Armenia

    Day7_6-armenian manuscript

    Armenian manuscript at Haghpat Monastery

  • Khor Virap, Garni, Geghard, Lake Sevan

    October 12-14, 2008

    The next day, we headed due south, almost to the Turkish border, to visit Khor Virap Monastery. This is the closest we would get to Mt. Ararat on our journey, so the fact that it was once again out from behind the clouds was especially fortunate for us. On our way back to Yerevan, we stopped at Tashir, my favorite market in the Caucasus. Located in a large building that resembles a hangar, Tashir is a vibrant market with vendors of all kinds coexisting under one roof; fruit and vegetable growers, lavash (flatbread) makers, butchers, bulk food and dried fruit sellers all call out for passers-by to pay attention to their wares. The vendors are all quite friendly and many offer samples, if appropriate. Though we tried to be mindful of the fact that our next stop was for lunch, it was hard to resist the temptation of candied peanuts, dried apricots and bulk chocolate as we nibbled our way through Tashir.

    View of Mt. Ararat from the Temple of Garni

    View of Mt. Ararat

    We returned to Yerevan to reset our course, now heading east to the town of Garni to visit the 1st century pagan temple of the same name. The Temple of Garni is a Hellenic structure that sits atop the Avan Gorge, with a ruined Roman bath house right next door. While on the grounds, we were treated to a private, a capella vocal performance by a quartet of female Armenian singers. They sang several songs, some religious and some folk, with their beautiful voices echoing off the temple walls. Just beyond Garni, we visited Geghard Monastery, featuring a church that had been carved out of rock in the 13th century. The rock church is a two-level structure, and the acoustics in the upper chamber are phenomenal. There’s a cold, eerie feeling in the church that stands in stark contrast to the brightness and warmth outside – it’s otherworldly, and that’s one of the many things I love about Geghard.

    The following day was Sunday, which meant the best day to visit the Vernisage outdoor market in the center of Yerevan. Just like the Dry Bridge Market in Tbilisi, there is an art market component and a flea market component to the Vernisage. The one noticable difference is that the Vernisage offers far more souvenirs than its Georgian counterpart, and a better range of them. Of the three countries on this itinerary, Armenia is the clear winner in terms of souvenir availability, quality and range. In Azerbaijan, traditional souvenirs are virtually nonexistent, and though souvenirs are available in Georgia, they are not nearly as prevalent or plentiful as in Armenia. Travelers often express disappointment at the lack of souvenirs in the Caucasus, that is, until they get to the Vernisage.

    Armenian flea market

    Armenian flea market.

    Our shopping urges satisfied, we continued our day’s touring with a trip north to Saghmosavank Monastery, followed by Ohanavank Monastery. Some people joked about feeling “churched out” by this point in the journey. It’s a fair observation, and a reality that people should be ready for when visiting the Caucasus, or at least Georgia and Armenia: there are hundreds of churches and monasteries and one can be overwhelmed by the amount of church stops that are made. Heading south again toward Yerevan, we stopped in the town of Ashtarak for dinner at a local resort. With an outdoor mainstage, a collection of wild animals and a sprawling, well-maintained property with adjoining hotel and banquet facilities, this restaurant was anything but ordinary. The Kasakh River cut through the property and though we ate indoors, the atrium-style dining room and surrounding tall trees made us feel like we were outdoors.

    The next morning, we boarded the bus for our last full day in Armenia. Heading northeast of the city, we made our way to Dilijan, a town the locals like to call the “Switzerland of Armenia,” as it was once a popular spa destination and the architecture there resembles that of Swiss chalets. On the way back to Yerevan, we stopped for lunch at a peninsula on Lake Sevan, a high-altitude lake and popular summer resort for locals. Quite appropriately, our main course for lunch was fresh fish from the lake, which was a huge hit. After lunch, we wandered around the peninsula for a while, taking pictures and enjoying the fresh air until it was time to return to the capital. That evening, we left for an early dinner, but before arriving at the restaurant, we stopped for a tour of the Sergey Parajanov House Museum. A director and artist best known for his 1968 film, The Color of Pomegranates, Parajanov spent the last years of his life in Yerevan and remains a controversial figure in art and cinema today. At the Parajanov Museum, we enjoyed a private tour followed by a champagne reception in the courtyard. We thanked our hosts and continued onward to enjoy our final meal together at a restaurant in the center of Yerevan. Over dinner, we gave toasts to a successful journey through the Caucasus and wished each other luck in our future travels.

    Photos from this leg of the tour: 

    Mt. Ararat

    Women with carved stone khachkar