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Two Weeks in the South Caucasus: From Armenia to Azerbaijan by Way of Georgia

Two Weeks in the South Caucasus: From Armenia to Azerbaijan by Way of Georgia

Old May 26th, 2019, 11:55 AM
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Thanks so much for the report! Interested to read that the land crossing from Georgia may be problematic.
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Old May 27th, 2019, 02:41 AM
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Thank you so much TP, I await the final instalment. You’ve piqued my interest in the south Caucasus.
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Old May 27th, 2019, 01:09 PM
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Thursdaysd: You’re welcome. There was limited reliable information about the border crossing when I did my research. In speaking with folks on the ground, including those who’ve done it, it is doable and not too difficult assuming you have the entry visa in place if you need it.

Sartoric: You’re welcome. I appreciate the reports you share and the inspiration you provide as well. I hope to get my final installment up later this week, with additional photos coming later today or tomorrow.
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Old May 27th, 2019, 03:07 PM
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Still enjoying your report and photos. Not sure if I will make it to this part of the world, so I enjoy being an armchair traveler!
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Old May 28th, 2019, 11:25 AM
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KarenWoo: Glad you are enjoying. I thank you and others here for giving me the opportunity to play armchair traveler too; sometimes it's just as fun.

And here are photos from my last two days in Azerbaijan.



Diri Baba Mausoleum

Friday Mosque in Shemakhi

Lahij's Main Street

Mud Volcano in Gobustan

Petroglyph in Gobustan

Gobustan Landscape

Yanardag Burning Mountain

Ateshgah Temple
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Old May 31st, 2019, 12:55 PM
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The Trip Home

The check-in counters at Baku Airport, for the most part, do not open until 2 hours before scheduled departure. This meant we had about 2 hours to kill before we were able to check out bags and proceed through immigration. There's not much to do on the unsecured side of the airport, so we simply waited. Once check-in opened and we were sorted, we proceeded through immigration and security. Immigration was straight-forward, but security not so much. We bought a few articles during our travels over the past 2 weeks, including items from all three countries. When inquired about our purchases, the security agent decided to call over a couple of his colleagues, who called over their superiors. Even though we did not understand Azerbaijani, I understood from their conversation among themselves that they were searching through our carry-on items for good purchased in Armenia, specifically in Artsakh / Nagorno-Karabakh. This took all of 20 minutes, before they were satisfied that we didn't step foot in let alone purchased items from the contested territory.

Similar to the unsecured side of the airport, there was not much airside. The airport is small, with a handful of gates with the same duty-free stores you find in every airport around the world. We did use the lounge briefly, but it was small and crowded. Soon enough, our boarding time arrived and we were off to Doha. The flight to Doha was only half full, so we had more room to ourselves, but the flight from Doha to New York was packed. We flew on the new A350-1000, which we had looked forward to, only to find out that it was much more cramped in economy and less comfortable than the 777. Nevertheless, the flight was uneventful and we arrived in New York on time. Our connection to DC was also on time and uneventful.

Accommodations

We enjoy nice hotels during our travels. We typically stay at 4- and 5-star hotels, although we much more prefer a boutique hotel to your run-of-the-mill business hotel. On this trip, though, we mostly stayed at the latter.

Yerevan - Tufenkian Historic Hotel: The hotel is housed in a historic building just off Republic Square. The rooms were nice and spacious, with comfortable beds, although it did not have a functioning work space. Our rate included breakfast, which was simple but offered a good selection. The staff was nice and helpful. We encountered a couple of smaller tour groups during our stay, and they all showed up at breakfast one morning; other than that, we didn't see them much.

Tbilisi - Biltmore Hotel: Regarded by some as the best business hotel in the city, the Biltmore is well-situated on Rustaveli Avenue. The hotel is close of a handful of restaurants and cafes, although crossing Rustaveli is not enjoyable. Our corner rooms offer expansive floor-to-ceiling views of the city and the river. The beds were comfortable, the desk area functionable, and the bathrooms elegant and spacious. I enjoyed its soaking tub. We only ate breakfast at the hotel once, and it was nothing to write about (standard hotel buffet). The hotel is attached to a casino, but it was off to the side enough that we didn't have to step foot in it.

Kazbegi - Rooms Hotel: Situated on top of a hill overlooking the town of Kazbegi, the hotel has a lot of character. I like the log cabin feel of the hotel. The rooms are spacious with a large bed and decent-sized bathroom. The desk space was not the best as there were no electrical outlets nearby for me to plug in my computer. We had booked rooms on the side overlooking Mount Kazbek, and enjoyed sitting on the balcony and enjoying the views - even when the peak didn't show. My largest complaint is the staff. While there were language barriers with the staff, they were not helpful. Every question asked was met with a sigh and a sign of annoyance. Again, it could be language issues, but even when we understood each other, they did not seem eager to help.

Tsinandali - Radisson Collection: This is a new property located next door to Tsinandali Estate and about 10 miles away from the city of Telavi. While the hotel itself is nice, the location was not ideal. We could not walk into town and there are no shops and restaurants around the hotel, which meant eating most meals at the one restaurant that was open. This restaurant was only the only one we encountered on this trip that charged U.S. prices.

Baku - Fairmont Flame Towers - The towers are an icon of Baku and of Azerbaijan. While a business hotel in every way, the rooms were spacious and comfortable. There were two downsides. One was the lack of air conditioning in public areas. The other was its location, a bit removed from the city center without easy access other than a taxi.

Final Thoughts

Each of the three countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan exceeded my expectations. The culture and landscape were far more varied and interesting than I had anticipated - and a lot less Soviet. We thought we made a good decision to visit all three countries, as the nuances helped us appreciate each country and the overall region a bit more. The food was most delicious in Georgia - oh, I miss the food. There was so much variety. The people were most gracious and hospitable in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis went out of the way to greet us, ask us about our well-being, and expressed thanks for our visit to their country. While tourism is starting to develop, and in the case of Georgia grow and expand, much of the region is still relatively untouched. That said, the infrastructure was decent and made travel easier.
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Old May 31st, 2019, 01:58 PM
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Thanks for the report. Glad you had a good trip. Sounds like the hotel scene has advanced considerably since I was there, although I wonder about the availability of mid-range options which were essentially nonexistent in 2009.
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Old May 31st, 2019, 04:09 PM
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Thursdaysd: You're welcome. Georgia has the most available in terms of mid-range hotel options - all ranges for that matter. This is true not only in Tbilisi but Kazbegi had lots of choices and Telavi had a good share. Yerevan also had a good share of hotels on different levels. Where I didn't see much other than higher-end hotels in Baku.
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Old Jun 1st, 2019, 12:51 AM
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Thanks for posting this. A friend and I are planning to go to Georgia and, possibly, Armenia. This will prove invaluable for planning.
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Old Jun 1st, 2019, 11:43 AM
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Gottravel: You're welcome. If you have any questions as you plan, please don't hesitate to ask. There are still not as much information available on these countries online or in print.
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Old Jan 9th, 2020, 08:34 AM
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Thank you so much for your detailed account. I'm visiting Istanbul, Baku and Tbilisi in May and am looking forward to it even more now that I've seen your description and photos of the area - and there's some really useful information in there as well. Thank you again.
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Old Feb 24th, 2020, 10:35 PM
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trip planner - Thank you for a concise and fascinating trip report. I assume you were the master mind behind the trip. You did a fantastic job of planning. I like the way you strategically chose bases for day trips, such that you did not have to change hotels too much. I am in the process of planning a trip to the same region for May of 2021. I have two questions for you:

1. If you had to change your itinerary, knowing what you know now, what would you change? I was thinking of having us spend more time in Armenia with a visit to the disputed region, but it concerns me that you were not thrilled with Armenia. Why was that?

2. I just contacted an Armenia driver that was a referral, and the guy wants $250 per day just for driving, and full payment a year in advance. I think that's outrageous. Do you remember how much your drivers were per day, approximately?

Thanks so much.

thursdays - You were wondering about mid-range hotels in the Caucuses, and I can say that there are many in the three capitals. In fact, I am considering the Hyatt Place in Yerevan. The rates are about $100, including breakfast. We stayed at a Hyatt Place in Florida, and it's a great new concept. No fancy concierge service or lobby, but the rooms are sleek and modern. BTW, I saw some notes on your blog, but did you ever write a full trip report anywhere?


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Old Feb 25th, 2020, 06:15 AM
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Hi CaliforniaLady - good choice! Glad to hear the hotel scene has improved since 2009.

There is indeed a full report on my blog. Go here and then use the links at the top of the page: https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com...ttered-batumi/

That price for a driver seems ridiculous. You would be better off negotiating with a taxi when you get there, at least in Georgia (the Armenian taxi drivers insisted on the meter). Did you check Hyur Travel?

Note that if you want to go to both Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh you need to go to Azerbaijan first or you won't get a visa.

Oh, and add me to the "preferred Georgia" column. Although I think Yerevan has changed a good bit since I was there, at least they have finished the Cascade. Tbilisi seems to have done a good bit of building, too.

Last edited by thursdaysd; Feb 25th, 2020 at 06:22 AM.
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Old Feb 25th, 2020, 01:10 PM
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Fascinating read and great photos. Thanks for posting!
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Old Feb 25th, 2020, 03:52 PM
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CaliforniaLady, glad you are looking at the South Caucasus. Yes, I did do most of the planning and was largely happy with the outcome.

1. I did not NOT like Armenia. In fact, I very much enjoyed the city as well as the day trips we took. I just liked Georgia better. Tbilisi is more interesting, complex, and varied in my opinion. What I would change if I could? More time. We only saw small portions of the countries we visited and felt we had a good sample. With more time, I would have wanted more time in the Caucasus mountains and also exploring the western parts of Armenia and Georgia. Thursdaysd is absolutely right about starting in Azerbaijan if you have intentions of visiting Nagorno-Karabakh / Artsakh. You would not be allowed into Azerbaijan if the authorities know you visited disputed the region; even possessing articles from the region may cause problems.

2. What you were quoted is outrageous. We used Hyur Travel, and paid about USD60-70 for a full day with private car and driver. I recall paying between USD100-150 to drive from Yerevan to Tbilisi, with touring enroute. Each of the drivers were professional and knowledgeable, and the vehicles were clean and safe.
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Old Feb 25th, 2020, 08:08 PM
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tripplanner and thursdays - Thank you both for your great responses. I am going to continue to study the information you both posted, and come up with an itinerary. Yes, I am aware that we should go to Azerbaijan first, the flights work out better that way anyway. I was originally intending for us to visit the Nagorno-Karabakh area, but I just looked at the US State Department warning, and I decided to ax it.

There are indeed so many sites in the three countries, and I am having trouble getting my itinerary down to two weeks or so. I just heard from the head Rabbi in Baku, and he said that it's possible to visit the Jewish mountain town, and there is a five star hotel nearby. This will add at least two nights.

tripplanner, here are my final questions, at least for now:

1. Why did you decide to fly from Tbilisi to Baku, rather than take the overnight train?

2. I will contact your travel agency regarding drivers once I get an itinerary set. Didn't you mention that you were not happy with one of the drivers? Did they require you to send money in advance?

Thanks!
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Old Feb 25th, 2020, 08:42 PM
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Glad things are beginning to take shape.

1. It came down to personal preference. We prefer to be able to shower and sleep in a real bed when we travel, which is why we opted to fly. If we had more time, we would have hired a car and driver to take us from Kakheti, our last stop in Georgia, over the border to Sheki, to spend a night or two, and then onwards to Baku.

2. I used Gamarjoba Tours in Georgia and did not like any of the guides, as they were not responsive to our requests and seemed to want to do their own things. The drivers were fine. I liked all of our guides and drivers in Armenia and in Azerbaijan.
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Old Feb 25th, 2020, 09:10 PM
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Thank you tripplanner, very helpful, indeed.
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Old Feb 25th, 2020, 09:35 PM
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Of course. Happy to offer additional feedback as able as you continue your planning.
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