Across the South Caucasus by Private Train: Eastbound
Photo credit: Ann Schneider
From Batumi to Baku Aboard the Tsar’s Gold
Georgia and Azerbaijan, in the mountains of the South Caucasus, are both spectacularly vibrant destinations. While one is Christian and the other Muslim, these distant nations are often surprisingly similar thanks to close geography and deep historical connections. Explore this diverse landscape, traveling by rail from the Black Sea to the Caspian, making your way from Batumi, Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan. Take in five UNESCO sites as you wind through the mountains and plains of the region, sampling the the delicious cuisine and wines of Georgia and experiencing the warm people and Zoroastrian heritage of Azerbaijan.
An optional pre-tour to Armenia introduces you to the oldest Christian nation in the world, where you visit a stunning alpine lake and a tiny Greco-Roman temple.
- Westbound Baku to Batumi departures are also available.
Travels to: Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan
Photos and details: Discover what life is like aboard the Tsar’s Gold.
Days 1-3: Batumi (Georgia), Kutaisi
Arrive in Batumi and check in to your centrally located hotel before meeting your fellow passengers for a welcome dinner. Batumi is the capital of the autonomous region of Ajara and the most important port and resort city on this section of the Black Sea Coast. It is a lovely town with broad tree-lined streets and a leisurely pace where the locals drink coffee (considered the best in Georgia) at street side cafes. Visit the city’s seaside park and promenade; the Old Town with its shops, churches, and cafés shaded by palms and painted in pastels; and the Botanical Gardens, founded in the early 20th century and home to over 5,000 types of plants and over a thousand species of roses. Then board the Tsar’s Gold private train to set off for Kutaisi for a tour of the Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery.
- Stroll the tree-lined streets of the port city of Batumi, located on the Black Sea coast
- Visit the Botanical Gardens in Batumi
- Visit the 11th Century Bagrati Cathedral and UNESCO-listed Gelati Monastery in Kutaisi
Days 4-5: Borjomi, Akhaltsikhe, Vardzia, Gori, Uplistsikhe
Continue your journey through some of Georgia’s most beautiful contryside today. Stop in Borjomi, a resort town in the beautiful Borjomi Gorge known for its mineral water, and head towards southwestern Georgia near the Turkish border to check out the small city of Akhaltsikhe and its renovated old town (Rabati). Then head south for a visit to the Vardzia cave complex, begun in the 12th century as a stronghold against the Turks. The next day set off for Gori, best known as the birthplace of Stalin, and enjoy a visit to the cave town of Uplistikhe before arriving in Tbilisi.
- Stop in the resort town of Borjomi, known for its mineral water which is still bottled and sold throughout the region
- Explore Akhaltsikhe’s renovated old town, Rabati
- Tour the 12th Century cave monastery of Vardzia
- Discover the cave town of Uplistsikhe, once one of the most important towns along the trade route linking Byzantium with India and China
- Enjoy a wine tasting at a historic wine house
Days 6-7: Tbilisi, Kazbegi, Mtskheta
Beginning in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, embark on an exploration of the hidden treasures along the Georgian Military Highway. The spectacular highway runs from Tbilisi through rolling green hills and steep arid mountains dotted with ancient stone defensive towers, then over the Krestovy Pass at almost 8,000 feet. Along the way, herds of sheep may spill across the road and old fortress-like churches watch over the villages. Make a stop for a view of the feudal stronghold of Ananuri on the way to Kazbegi. After an overnight in the mountains, head back down to Tbilisi with a stop in Mtskheta en route.
- Ride along the Georgian Military Highway, the only north-south route through the Greater Caucasus mountains from Russia to Georgia
- Optional Jeep excursion to the 14th Century Holy Trinity Church in Kazbegi located at about 7,120 feet
- UNESCO-listed Mtskheta with the Jvari Monastery
Day 8: Ganja (Azerbaijan), Goygol, Sheki
After crossing the Georgia-Azerbaijan border, continue on towards Ganja and enjoy stops in Goygol and Sheki. Goygol was settled in the 1830s by German winemakers, infusing it with German culture, architecture, and a requisite Lutheran church and cemetery. Sheki is one of the oldest towns in Azerbaijan, claiming to have been founded some 2,700 years ago at the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountains.
- Visit the UNESCO-listed mosaic-covered Khan’s Summer Palace in Sheki, with its brilliant stained-glass work
- Wander the local crafts market in Sheki
Days 9-11: Baku, Gobustan
Upon arrival in Baku, say goodbye to your private train and start exploring the city with a tour of the historical center. Take in the stunning skyline views on a nighttime introduction to the capital, and venture outside the city to view the petroglyphs at Gobustan. Toast to a successful journey during a delicious farewell dinner before departing Azerbaijan.
- Tour Baku’s UNESCO-listed Old Town (Icheri Sheher), with the Maiden Tower and the Shirvan Shah Palace complex
- Introductory tour of Baku, with the Flame Towers lit up at night
- View the ancient petroglyphs at UNESCO-listed Gobustan
- Optional excursion to the Absheron Peninsula and Yanardag, a small burning hill fed by underground natural gas
- Toast to a fabulous journey during a farewell dinner
Optional Pre-tour Days 1-2: Yerevan (Armenia), Garni, Geghard
Extend your stay in the South Caucasus with an optional pre-tour visit to Armenia. Spend the next few days exploring some of Armenia’s most important and historical sights, including the UNESCO-listed Matenadaran, the 1st Century Garni Temple, and the UNESCO-listed Geghard Monastery.
- Tour the UNESCO-listed Matenadaran, a vast collection of more than 17,000 manuscripts and nearly 300,000 archival documents
- Head out to Garni Gorge for a visit to the Temple of Garni and nearby UNESCO-listed Geghard Monastery.
- Additional touring on arrival day including the Cascade Complex, UNESCO-listed Echmiadzin, and UNESCO-listed Zvartnots Cathedral
Please note: Travelers flying in from Europe and those with morning or late morning flight arrivals will have the opportunity for group sightseeing in Yerevan on arrival day. Most travelers flying from the U.S. tend to arrive in Yerevan very early in the morning. Please consult with your MIR Tour Specialist if you’re interested in adding a night or early check-in at the hotel in order to rest up before taking advantage of this touring.
Optional Pre-tour Days 3-4: Lake Sevan, Dilijan, Gyumri
Depart for Gyumri with stops in Dilijan and Lake Sevan en route. After an overnight in Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, cross the Armenia-Georgia border and continue on through the Lesser Caucasus mountains until you reach Batumi on the spectacular Black Sea coast, where you will join the main tour.
- Pay a visit to the Sevan Monastery, towering over blue-green Lake Sevan on a peninsula that was once an island on the lake
- Stop in the small mountain resort town of Dilijan, with its refurbished Sharambeyan Street lined with craftsmen’s workshops, typical stone houses, a gallery, and a historical museum
- Overnight in Gyumri, with its czarist-era city center that has retained some of its better-constructed historic buildings
Dates & Prices
Minimum group size: Minimums vary – call for confirmation status
Land Tour Price for Main Tour, Per Person. Please call for pricing for the optional pre-tour.
Call for dates and prices
- Accommodations, as noted in the detailed itinerary. There will be a total of 6 nights at hotels along the way during the main trip, and an additional 3 nights if adding the pre-tour.
- Most meals, as noted in the itinerary.
- Arrival/departure transfers, provided you arrive and depart on the tour start/end dates and in the tour start/end cities.
- All guided off-train tours, as outlined in the itinerary.
- Services of an experienced Train Tour Manager as well as local guides for scheduled off-train tours.
- Complimentary tea, coffee, and mineral water from your car attendant at all times while on board the train.
- Baggage handling at all railway stations.
- Complete pre-departure information, including country-specific information, suggested packing list, suggested reading list, and more..
- Assistance booking your custom flight arrangements, on request. (Please note that international airfare is not included in the land tour cost.)
- International airfare, including taxes/fuel surcharges, and surface transport to the point of joining/leaving the tour. MIR is able to assist with arrangements, as detailed in the itinerary.
- Meals and drinks not specified as included in the itinerary.
- Single supplement (difference between double rate and single occupancy rate) if requested or required.
- Optional pre- or post-tour extensions.
- Expenses incurred as a result of delay, modification, or extension of a tour due to causes beyond MIR’s control.
- Visa fees, excess baggage charges, airport departure taxes, vaccination and other medical costs.
- Travel insurance, including cancellation, medical, and evacuation insurance.
- Items of a personal nature, such as phone calls, email, laundry, and alcohol.
- Gratuities not specified as included in the itinerary.
- Baggage handling not specified as included in the itinerary.
Level 2: Moderate
This rail journey by private train features significant touring on foot, throughout which travelers are expected to keep up with other group members. Travelers on the train will likely number 120-180 passengers, comprising travelers from English and non-English speaking countries. Walking during touring days will be on a variety of surfaces, with many streets and sidewalks being uneven and elevators generally not available during touring excursions, leading to some stair climbing. Challenges on board the train include long onboard distances with heavy doors, as well as steep steps and gaps to navigate while embarking and disembarking. Only those willing to accept local standards of amenities and services should consider joining this program.
Travelers must be able to walk a mile per day keeping up with other group members. Streets and sidewalks can be uneven or unexpected surfaces, and handrails are not always present. Steps, which may be required due to lack of elevators, may be steep and/or uneven, and may also lack handrails. The distance on board the train between sleeping and dining carriages may be significant, and there are many heavy doors to navigate when moving throughout the train. Getting on and off the train involves navigating steep steps, low platforms, and possible gaps between the train and the platform. Navigating rail stations may also involve traveling up and over steep steps/footbridges to cross tracks, or steep steps and dark tunnels to cross under to/from the train station. Although porterage is provided where possible, you may have to carry your baggage for short distances.
General shortcomings of the tourism infrastructure may include problems with bureaucratic service and availability and quality of public restrooms when not on board the train.