Azerbaijan and Georgia Tour
Link to Pictures Azerbaijan as hosted on my Flickr page
Link to Pictures Georgia as hosted on my Flickr page
This tour followed immediately after my 2-country tour of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in first half of September / and end of August, 2022. My travel there had been inspired by lock down readings of the Persians and Mongols which prompted further reading on what had been “here” before and after. That exploration had been fascinating for me. Now that I was in the “area”, I was curious to visit somewhere else, somewhere close.
The Caucuses are rich in history and culture too, having endured the conquests and campaigns from the Persians, Ottomans and Russians and in-between developing and nurturing their own rulers. For reasons of time, I skipped out Armenia allowing me to select a 10-day tour with the same tour company of Intrepid I have used since 2016. These 2 countries would represent my 5th tour with Intrepid in that time.
Arriving 15th September from Tashkent in the early hours of that morning and after a legendary 5 course dinner meal courtesy of airline at about 4.30am and allowing for time change, my mind was all over the place in the fancy airport of Baku which was itself largely at sleep in the darkness of early morning. The flight itself was only 3 hours and landed before 6am. From a close to the front of place position on that “Azerbaijan Airlines” flight I galloped through the crypt like stillness ahead of my mostly pilgrim travellers who had kindly applauded the Pilot or a Deity of their faith for that uneventful flight, as we touched down. Immigration was fast and my bag emerged as #4 or so on the carousel. There were so few people at all at all in this building. Taxi pick up present and correct, and off through the city which was eerily fast asleep. No early deliveries, no all-night shops, scant traffic.
After a brief rest and shut eye at my city centre hotel of modest proportions and hidden up a side street, it was time for a walkabout that morning towards the Caspian Sea and its collection of heavy metal oil rigs filling the skyline gap between blue sea and blue sky. It’s a “Sea” and not really a sea as some name callers decided it tasted salty and like the “Med” it too must have access to the oceans of the world. It is however the largest lake on the planet.
The morning traffic busy as it had now emerged post breakfast and skirts the “old city” and clings affectionately to the shoreline, like an umbilical cord of its vast sea-based oil wealth. North and south, the city skyscape presented its latest oil wealth and also its 19th century oil boom. This first oil boom before the 20th c had awoken and prompted an import of European and French architects. The end of 20th c oil boom gave it the chance for glassy buildings including the flame towers and an upturned crescent and other bold items of status, that snobs called extravagances of nouveau riche whilst those living there, associate as symbols of joining the “1st world”.
The carpet museum is in the shape of a rolled-up carpet because a rectangle box would be silly, proved a serious introduction to regional variations in the country’s rugs and carpets. After an hour or so my eyes were tired of the artificial light of the building and the endless carpets. An official tour guide might have presented a “top 20” of what to see, especially as the intricacies of carpet making are best seen close up. A nearby shopping centre looked like some architect’s imaginative sketches. And everything was so clean and graffiti free. The marble clad under-road walkways were clean enough to dine from.
Day 1 of my Tour
Started a few hours later when we met our Russian Tour Leader Svetlana and my single fellow traveller, Sue from Australia. Admin rudimentaries out of the way we arranged a meet up with our local guide for 3pm for a tour of the “Old City”. The use of a Russian tour leader was to provide a seamless transfer between the 2 countries. Neither country allow the nationals of the other country to do tourist work in its border. Intrepid use either Russian or Ukrainian nationals. Complementing the “leader” are local guides in each country or city to give a local flavour. I like the approach.
Our “Old City” walking tour was and started conveniently close to our city centre hotel. We entered the walled city via the southern Shamakhi gate and headed to the 15th c Palace of Shirvanshahs which is very pretty from the outside. A large collection of interior rooms it was stretching what the image of a “palace” might be in the 19th c that we may be more familiar with. However, its age gives context to appreciating what it may have meant 500 years ago.
From there it was a walkaround of the old town, its vibrant and neat street art (see photos). We finished our tour at the circular and easily accessible Maiden tower dating to the 12th c although there may be older roots and which at 97 feet in height presented a great view of the city skyline, and adjacent Sea. We also visited the 15th c “Caravanserai” which was what a hotel was called back in ancient time here. Over 2 storeys the accommodation to outside walls and facing on to a shared courtyard, it’s now a restaurant. We dined elsewhere that evening soaking up the charm of history, and the pleasantness of autumn warmth.
Trip south of Baku to, soothing to view very cool and cool to view “Mud Volcanoes”. Situated upon a lunar type of landscape or a scene from a horror movie depending on one’s imagination these mounds of earth hold pools of mud of varying size, gentle and slowly bubbling away. The mud is not hot, the pattern of bubbles irregular. Our Guide did try to ignite one or 2 without success. Yes, it’s all linked to the gas and oil.
More cerebral were the large number of Petroglyphs aged upwards of 12,000 years. Situated atop a range of hills, they oversee the Caspian about a mile away but which over time has approached and later receded from these hills. A mix of human and animal sketches have withstood time.
Returning to Baku mid-afternoon and time to ourselves, Sue and I headed up to the Flame towers on foot. Pedestrian crossings on the hillside were a test of nerves. Nothing strange other than I was just over 1 days in a new country and there were few pedestrians to observe and test the compliance to rules of stopping the car once a foot was upon the strip. There was no viewer platform at the top and only an evening restaurant which might provide a raised view of the coastline We adjourned for a cocktail in a nearby restaurant which was nearly deserted that evening.
Returning down to coastline level we went for an evening meal out in New city where I enjoyed some “Lavangi” walnuts fried fruit and onions stuffed inside some chicken. I loved the expansiveness of the area, with its water fountains in clever and varied designs, the seating where the lower section at the end of a “seat/ bench” was represented by a face. There was a large number of young people relative to older walking and dining that evening. It was lively and vibrant without been rowdy.
Day 3; departing Baku for a journey by private minibus to “Lahic”
Stopping off firstly on the northern to Baku City “Absheron” peninsula area we visited the 12th c Mardakan castle situated down some twisty residential back streets. In good condition and looked after by a volunteer.
Onwards to the Yanardagh Fire Mountain which is not really a mountain on fire but a long strip of earth about 30 foot in length and 4 foot in height which was burning and nearby was a quasi-defiant sign “no smoking”. Clearly the gas is not “trained”.
Also on the same peninsula is Zoroastrian inspired Ateshgah fire temple built around an eternal flame in the 17th c by Indian traders. It’s said to be eternal.
Peninsula sights sighted we head off westwards into rolling hills bare of trees and silent of agriculture with little road traffic. Passing through this zone, the hills flattened, and agriculture took life,
Yoghurt and Butter making skills were observed and then practised in the town of Shamakhi where I received instructions from the eldest woman in a 3 generation family. Her yoghurt was tastier than mine. The town itself has been identified in history back to the 1st century by a Greek traveller.
The Juma mosque from the 8th c has survived 11 earthquakes which in varying degrees have destroyed this town and from which the people have rebuilt.
Gradually throughout the day, the Caucuses appeared to North (where you would expect them). They make north south travel very difficult and there are few roads running on that axis. An exception is the village of Lahic where we were to stay one night. Arriving at sunset we checked in to a local family run homestay. Distinctively chillier that evening. Posters in the village of young men who had died in a recently erupted and ongoing at the time territorial conflict with Armenia. Personal safety never felt like a risk but throughout these former countries of the Russian and Soviet empire, the historical border area remains unresolved and potential sparks for war.
We enjoyed a morning walkabout in the village of Lahic, including a visit to a Copper making workshop under the ownership of a craftsman and from where I bought a couple of plates. I tried my hand a metal work too. There were several touristy shops along the single street, and it was apparent that the end of tourist season was fast approaching and a slight chill where the sun had not yet shun.
We headed “out” from the Caucuses and along the westwardly road to Sheki
We stopped at Albanian Church from the first century in the village of Kish village followed by tea cake in a nearby homely business. It was a “home” with several benches and tables for customers in the garden
Day 5 Sheki
We visited a Glass workshop where a craftsman specialises in stained glass without glue or nails using imported glass.
We also visited the town centre Market small – busy and squeezed between bricked buildings with the typical range of household and food items. On spur of the moment, I bought a lotto ticket (using our Guide to translate), won a nominal sum and realised I was centre of attention from passer-by’s. I should have spent my winnings on another ticket but preferred to make my getaway into the maze of stalls
Of course, there was a local Khans palace and fort to visit and admire the interior decor
Another drive westwards followed by the border crossing to Georgia. Only truck drivers and foreign tourists are allowed to cross. Such is the silliness of the conflicts (this one diplomatic rather than military) between these countries. There was a 700 metre walk between border posts which was a relatively poor path for wheeled bags and not a challenge to my backpack, these might get renovated in due course.
We had a stop for lunch. Jugs of red and white wine (I normally avoid at lunch) and water. Sue expressed a preference for the white and the red was all mine. Courses of food appeared (see end of this tale for more on some foods of Georgia) and as we finished one course after another. A nearby table with 2 blokes having enquired our nationalities “toasted" us and then we reciprocated. This was definitely livelier than lunches in all 3 of my other countries.
Refreshed, we headed off to Kakheti Gremi complex which consists of a castle and Church from the 16th c. in good condition and with slow renovations in progress. An isolated hill with a clear view of all the neighbouring lands.
A scheduled wine tasting with “Simoni” an independent wine producer as well as his grape spirits. Eastern Georgia (where we travelled) is renowned in wine circles for its “Kakheti” technique where the skins stay with the grapes and are allowed to ferment in what traditionally were large clay posts buried in the ground to help control temperature The clay being coated with beeswax to preserve integrity of container. More modern methods have replaced the clay amphorae with metal. Most of the wine making is family / small scale giving rise to a lot of variety in the wines.
Our overnight stop was at Telavi a former residential bath house from soviet times. More food and wine and needless to say a good night’s sleep.
Day 7 of our Tour and
after a typical breakfast of cold and hot dishes took us off to the local market. It had a typical market range of produce from near on 100% alcohol (in photos) to meat and another local snack which is line of nuts threaded on a piece of string and coated in grape resin of varying flavours. Non alcoholic, it’s a great snack food provided you remove the string prior to eating.
Outwards from Telavi we stopped at the Alaverdi cathedral founded 6th c with big rebuild 11thc and multiple conquests over time both my man and mother nature of earthquakes.
A second official wine tasting tour at the Tsinvandali estate which is a European style home from 19th c as museum now and which is set in a pretty gardens and only slightly touristy. My memories of Cape wine tasting is that they were far better organised and more fun i.e. more drinking opportunities. Not getting the formula right.
Our road journey to continued to the mountainous and right up amongst the Caucuses of Gudauri via Gombori pass. Picturesque, road side stops and a reservoir. Lengthy truck queues for the border crossing some 40km further north although not continuous were testimony to the business of trades as squeezed between Med and Caspian. We were told that a major road had been blocked causing the spill over of traffic to this route. It now rained heavily on and off for about a day and a half and during our time here we witnessed emergency repairs to a mountain clinging road whose lower sides had just been washed away. A combination of weather, heavy and frequent loads. A Chinese construction company was busy with a new road including lengthy tunnels.
Facts of Gudauri is that its at an elevation of 2,200m with lifts upwards to 3,300m and claims to have 57km of slopes.
We stayed for 2 nights at a very homely guest house managed by a son with his mother in the kitchen and a log burning fireplace.
Great food and an appreciated fireplace to warm and chat by.
By end October I read its started getting light snow.
A morning excursion to Gergeti Trinity church up the road towards Russia pass the snaking intermittent queue of truck. Its a 14th c church at an elevation of 2170m. We were offered opportunity to hike, not the full 2,000 metres but enough to encourage me to opt for a 4x4 drive up an alternative road to the washed away road. It was beautiful and cold up there and the pictures reflect that fairly.
Drive to Tbilisi was quick that morning and we were there for lunchtime allowing enough for a walkabout before our final meal together.
Some of my favourite foods
Khachapuri bread stuffed with cheese.
Khinkali dumplings: where a hardened bit of the dough is the grip as in a Cornish pasty (genuine) and a gentle bite to open the parcel following which a loud sucking sound is encouraged to get access to juice first and then the contents, generally meat. Fun and social and tasty.
Churchkhela- string of nuts wrapped in a grape resin—popular snacking food.
Day 10 End of tour
with breakfast moved to my choice hotel on the Eastern side of the river which is flatter than where the cheaper hotels are on the west back, strung along a hill where the expensive rooms may!! provide a good view
11-13 for myself and to chill and relax
Cable car up to Kartlis Deda a 20m high aluminium statue to her good self holding a sword and wine cup. Along the crest to the Narikala fortress which was started in 4th c as a Persian citadel, rebuilt in 8th c by Arab Emirs. After that the Georgians Turks and Persians exchanged ownership until a major explosion of Russian munition in 1827 basically destroyed it.
Near the start of the cable car is the Metekhi church. This was where Gorgasali built his palace in the 5th c and the current church dates late 13th c.
The oldest church in Tbilisi is the Anchiskhati church is very pretty and not showing too much its age from 6th c.
The Sioni cathedral stated in the 6th c and substantially rebuilt in the 13th c
National Museum, National Gallery and the Museum of Modern art were wonderful to enjoy on a lazy Sunday, situated closed together in city centre
Bridge Market was fun to peruse, lots of stuff 2nd hand and older
Day 14 Early start to return home with 5am flight via Istanbul and midday at Manchester from where a train home- Some 20 hours of travel door to door. Yes it would be simpler if the UK had direct flights to Tbilisi.
Concluding Thoughts of this 2 country tour and the whole holiday
Azerbaijan was split between a double oil boom city which had spent some of its wealth on buildings both 19thc and then in late 20th c. How much wealth gets to the people was sadly demonstrated by the relative backwardness of its rural hinterlands. Bright lights of Baku attracted the best of its youth in my opinion.
Georgia was indeed the party capital of the 4 countries visited. It was the most westward looking, perhaps because of its Christian roots compared to the other 3 countries Islamic history with great varied food and wine.
All 4 countries had emerged from Russian empire and soviet rules but with different trajectories styled by political leadership. Kyrgyzstan was so pretty to visit, but an economic backwater compared to Uzbekistan. Azerbaijan was styling itself using its oil wealth and I do not know enough as to how that is distributed other than my comparison of city and countryside which reflects inequality.
I loved my experiences of these 4 countries and more so as I write this up, a month after my return. I could return to all but Azerbaijan knowing there would be more to see and experience. Happy travels!