This trip occurred in May 2018.
Baku is the capital and the largest city of Azerbaijan. The city is built about 28 meters under the sea level and interestingly, this makes it the lowest capital in the world.
We were lucky when we were there as the temperature was perfect and there was almost no wind. This is important to know as Baku is derived from the persian words Bād-kube, literraly meaning “Wind-pounded city.”
The city is rich but the wealth comes almost entirely from the oil production. They started drilling for oil around 1850 and they reached a point where half of the oil sold in international markets was being extracted in Baku. At present Baku produces close to one-fifth of the international oil.
The city is built in a desert but the wealth is palpable. The old town is perfectly preserved and is a must see. It used to be a small village bordering the Caspian see before the oil boom. The city expanded around that fortified village and a feeling of authenticity and history is present in those small alleys. Also, in the 20th century, as wealthy families came back from their education in Europe, they felt Europeen and decided to create a ”small Paris” around the old city. The clash is stunning!
However, the more recent parts of the city has a ”Dubai” feeling to it. Money is abundant and modern skyscrapers, monuments and buildings are taking over rapidly but there doesn’t seem to be any soul to it. As if people don’t really live there and that those neighborhoods haven’t been created properly for citizens but more for showing off the wealth of the city to international visitors.
Fact remains, I strongly recommend visiting this city for 2-3 days and the food was delicious.
Night train from Baku to Tbilisi
The night train is an experience itself. We brought our ticket the previous day and after spending a couple of hours at Baku train station drinking some beer with a view, we made our way to train. Tickets in first class allow you to have a two person room (you both get a bed.) The way we saw it is that even if it’s more expensive than the second class (4 people) since it’s a night train we are saving on the accommodation anyway.
Train rides have something comforting and relaxing to them. As you leave the train station, you can see that Baku is all light up at night and modern buildings are colored in LED lights. Things get pretty dark once you exit the city itself.
When you wake up in the morning, the views are interesting and you eventually cross the border – we waited about 1 hour for the police border to scan everyone – the good part is that you can stay in your wagon and there is no need to go out. The train kept going all the way to Tbilisi as we looked at the view with our Turkish coffee and ”had to enjoy” the loud music of our train neighbor who never heard of earbuds.
Tbilisi – A warm location
The name Tbilisi derives from Old Georgiant′bilisi (თბილისი), and further from tpili (თბილი, “warm”). The name T′bili or T′bilisi (literally, “warm location”) was therefore given to the city because of the area’s numerous sulphuric springs.
Tbilisi had a soul, it was a noisy, a bit chaotic and lively. A very old city with a caste on top of the hill that survived through the ages.
What I liked the most was just how friendly the locals were. It’s part of their culture to make sure that guests are well taken care of and to show their hospitality. They have a saying that “a guest is a gift from God” and they show it.
We explored the city, visited the castle on the hill and the botanical gardens on the other side of that hill.
Telavi & the wine region
The Georgians are proud to be the first wine-makers. They are well known for the different high quality wines and local grapes that can’t be found elsewhere. I tasted a lot of Saperavi wines during the trip and I was glad to go through the core of the wine regions of this country.
While going through the wine-region that is found east of Tbilisi, we stopped at a monastery for a stroll and to enjoy a nice view on the valley below.
We spent our afternoon at Sighnaghi a charming city with several wineries and restaurants to visit. You feel as if you traveled several hundred years in the past as you share the city with the locals who are rooted in traditions.
We finished our day at Telavi, an ancient city built in the valleys, that was once the capital of a kingdom.
Ananouri to Juta
Goin from Telavi to Ananouri was a hell of a driv. The dirt roads in the mountains were completely destroyed and some holes could be several feet deep and dodging them was not always possible. It took us more than 2 hours for 25 kilometers crossing a mountain range.
While on those dirt roads, we decided to take a break and follow a small path since we wanted a view. We ended up in what used to be an ancient monastery. Although it was all abandoned and seems to have been so for a long time, the small chapel was still in a perfect condition in the middle of the ruins. This felt like otherworldly and it was a great experience to walk these ruins alone with my friend.
We stopped near the Zhinvali Reservoir for a quick leg break and also the Ananuri Fortress.
Ananuri was a castle and seat of the eristavis of Aragvi, a feudal dynasty which ruled the area from the 13th century. The castle was the scene of numerous battles.
There are several view points on the way to Stepantsminda. The tea culture is strong and you can always find people selling some. This region was very touristic during he Soviet era and these installations were made for the Russian visitors.
An intersting sight to the road was the Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument.
The Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument or Treaty of Georgievsk Monument is a monument built in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk and the ongoing friendship between Soviet Georgia and Soviet Russia. Located on the Georgian Military Highway Inside the monument is a large tile mural that spans the whole circumference of the structure and depicts scenes of Georgian and Russian history.
Stepantsminda and Kazbegi
We woke with this view and we knew we had to climb to that monastery. We got some provisions and a hefty breakfast before hitting the trails.
The trail to the monastery took more than an hour and part of the trail is the dirt road the tourists take. The monastery is packed with 4×4 and many people in the valley live from the pilgrimages and hikers.
We decided to venture as far up as we could near mount Kazbek. With it’s snowy peak and it’s 5033 meters it is one of the nice hikes I had the chance to do.
Mount Kazbek, is a dormant stratovolcano and one of the major mountains of the Caucasus located on the border of Georgia’s Kazbegi District and Russia’s Republic of North Ossetia–Alania. It is the third-highest peak in Georgia and the seventh-highest summit in the Caucasus Mountains.
We made it to 3000 meters before having to turn back due to the snow. We got caught in a rainstorm on our way down and hitched a ride in a 4×4 once we made it to the monastery.
Horse Riding in Kazbegi
The next day, we were very sore and my back problems became all too real. We decided to go around the valley on horses. The guides did not give us a lot of latitude with the horses and mine was extremely lazy and unwilling to go anything faster than strict minimum. We visited a church, a riverbed and a forest.
The road to Svaneti
Svaneti is another remote mountain region and we had three days of road to get there from Stepantsminda.
We started the next morning with Uplistsikhe is identified by archaeologists as one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia Uplistsikhe s an ancient rock-hewn town built on a high rocky bank.
Uplistsikhe contains various structures dating from the Early Iron Age to the Late Middle Ages, and is notable for the unique combination of various styles of rock-cut cultures from Anatolia and Iran, as well as the co-existence of pagan and Christian architecture.
After a lot of road, we also visited and slept at Kutaisi. The city has a modern hipste vibe to it and the Rioni river is impressive. It is worth the stop.
We crossed a region where the Russian influence was very strong from an architectural stand-point. The russian
Once we left Kutaisi, nature quickly took over and we crossed villages once in while during those hours on the road. There were numerous rainfalls and Aleks managed to drive like a pro in difficult conditions. We stopped several times to enjoy the stunning views.
Later that day
We screwed up our planning as our goal was to reach Ushguli but our rented car wasn’t allowed to go there, and a GPS chip was embed in our car.
Mestia was actually stunning and worth exploring, I would have stayed longer as the medieval feeling is still strong although the tourist industry has boomed. The Svan are a very different cultural group than the rest of the Georgian and they are known for their honesty.
The town has several stone defensive towers. A typical Svan fortified dwelling consisted of a tower, an adjacent house (machub) and some other household structures encircled by a defensive wall.
We also also did two different days of hiking. One day to the Chalaati Glacier – an easy hike with a rewarding view on a glacier surrounded by massive peaks.
Our other hike was a bit harder due to the snow and started at the village of Mazeri. Several waterfalls were waiting for us at the end of the trail and beyond the ice-field.
We spent that night at Grand Hotel Ushba were we ate like kings, played ping-pong with a million dollar view and slept like babies after those two days of hiking.
Our last day in the Svaneti was spent horse riding. Our host at Hotel Ushba knew who to contact and we got a guide that took us far in the mountain to see some ruins and enjoy some views. The perfect way to finish our visit in the Svaneti.
I do not think I will go back to Gerogia but the only reason I see myself returning is to spend more time in the Svaneti ; enjoying the mountains and outdoor activities.
Going back to Tbilisi
Going back towards Tbilisi took some time. The cows roaming the highway makes those roads not too efficient.
We stopped at some wineries.
We visited Gori Castle.
The last days in Tbilisi
As we walked the streets, we came to a conclusion that a festival of some sort was going on as the street were packed with singers and activities. It turns out that Gerogia was celebrating their 100 years of independence on May 26 2018.
The military display was interesting although not very impressive when you know it’s Russia they are trying to send a message to.
Tbilisi has several museums and the Georgian National Museum was very interesting has had several anthropology expositions due to the fact that Georgia is so ancient.
We decided to finish the trip by relaxing at the Royal Bathouse in Tbilisi where we reserved the royal room. This was an incredible experience and also came with a scrubbing massage.