THE CAUCASUS CONCLUDES // Baku, Azerbaijan

Finally, two months after returning from our holiday, I have finished going through all my photos and writing the corresponding blog posts! These pictures are from our relatively laid back final days in Baku.

The most important photos first – more delicious Azeri food in gloriously tacky underground restaurants, completed with local wine and bread. I am hungry just looking at this!

We spent our last night being awfully touristy, and taking in the stunning night time views of Baku from atop the Hilton in their rotating bar. Admittedly when Chris suggested we check it out, I was a bit unsure, but it ended up being great fun. Entry was free, and drinks were not ridiculously expensive (around $6 AUD for a beer). Even if you came up and brought a can of soft drink it would be worth it for the views of the city on a clear day or night. Plus, they gave out free pringles with drinks purchased!

Our last day saw us with the morning to kill before our afternoon flight back to Australia, so we fit in one last walk into the city centre.

We walked from our hotel up to Şəhidlər Xiyabanı, a cemetery come park located near the Flame Towers that offers great views over Baku.

The park is quite interesting to explore as well, featuring memorials to public figures and an eternal flame.

The park also offers views over the suburb our hotel was staying in – as you can see, nowhere near as glamorous as the city centre!

Eventually the sun came out to treat us for a few hours, as we walked along the boulevard overlooking the Caspian Sea.

Chess is incredibly popular in the Caucasus, so it was not uncommon to find sets established in public spaces, and a small crowd standing on watching a match.

Chris complained that I took approximately 100 different photos of the Flame Towers. But hey, it isn’t my fault they were so photogenic!

And that brings this long-winded recounting of our adventures through the UAE, Oman, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan to an end! It was such an amazing holiday, taking us through some countries I would never have ever imagined previously visiting, but I am so glad that we did. From the desert in Oman, to the mountain tops of Georgia, and the high rises of Dubai – I truly feel so lucky to be able to travel this world.

– Reanna

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PETROGLYPHS & VOLCANOES // Gobustan, Azerbaijan

Despite our short two nights in Azerbaijan, we were able to fit in a small tour outside of Baku. The most popular day trip from the city is to visit Gobustan (also spelt Qobustan), a historic national park located about 60km away from the city.

A few notes on visiting Gobustan:

  • Getting there: A tour is the best way to visit the area. We used Bag Baku, a local tour company that be easily contacted and arrange tours. Despite being convenient, we had a pretty average experience with our guide. Our tour took us to the Gobustan museum, and arranged a taxi to take us out to the mud volcanoes.
  • Facilities: Bring snacks! There is little else out in the area other than the natural attractions and some smaller villages.

Our first stop was the Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve, a UNESCO- listed area showcasing thousands of stone engravings dating back 12,000 years.

After a quick tour around the museum and learning about the history of people in the area, our guide took us along a walking track to explore the engravings in the thousands of rocks. It was admittedly very poor weather conditions when we were visiting, due to freezing cold wind, but we were able to spend some time spotting the petroglyphs and deciphering what they depicted.

Some of the petroglyphs were incredibly clear – for instance, the horse in the above photo (bottom right).

The reserve is located at the top of a very square mountain, which usually offers views of the surrounding countryside and nearby Caspian Sea – but we weren’t in such luck!

The second part of Gobustan that is a must see is a collection of very strange mud volcanoes. Getting there was a mission in itself – we were ushered from our relatively modern car into the awaiting 100 year old taxi, driven by a toothless driver of a similar age. The track to the volcanoes is essentially a muddy trail, which definitely required a 4WD, but our driver took it all in his stride and thought my gasps and panicked exclamations to Chris were positively hilarious.

Yes, that was our taxi! How we survived this trip, I will never know.

The volcanoes themselves are an unassuming and strange collection of small muddy mounds, that when approached reveal bubbling grey mud at the top. The mud is cold and can be touched, and occassionally volcanoes would ‘erupt’ and have mud slide out of the top. Over half of such volcanoes in the world are located in this area in Azerbaijan!

It honestly felt like being on another planet in this eerie place!

Eventually the cold wind became to much to handle, and we climbed back into our taxi for another terrifying drive back to town.

Due to the poor weather our tour ended up taking only half a day, though it could be extended a bit longer if the weather was nicer and allowed for more exploration. Neither of the sites we saw were what I anticipated seeing in Azerbaijan, but it goes to show that one should never set their expectations early!

– Reanna

OLD & NEW, EAST & WEST // Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku – this city can only be described as a place of constant contradictions, with different things to see around every corner. It is at once modern, yet still crumbling in places. It is technically European, but feels Asian. Our tour guide challenged us to make up our own mind about Azerbaijan and its place in either the East or West as we spent a few hours exploring this city.

We arrive in Baku in the late morning, after catching a very long overnight train, which featured a rather stressful border crossing (as a consequence of us having Armenian stamps in our passport – but that is a story for another day!).

We unwittingly booked a very bad hotel that was a few kilometres out of the city centre. It was walkable, and we enjoyed walking through the rather grey and Soviet area we found ourselves staying in.

It wasn’t long before the iconic flame towers of Azerbaijan appeared.

Our first stop was lunch. Almost all of the restaurants we ate in were cavernous underground affairs that were decorated quite extensively. Despite looking tacky, all of the food we ate in Azerbaijan was excellent, with a far broader variety of options than anticipated.

We joined a free walking tour, which took us through the ‘old city’ of Baku. Our tour guide was excellent, and offered many insights into the complexity of Azerbaijan’s identity. The above statute represents the competing ideals of European and Asian culture in how Azerbaijan sees itself.

The old city is a walled area within the city centre, with meandering laneways and older, traditional buildings. The former palace of kings past remains, in addition to mosques, sulphur baths, and rather colourful terrace buildings.

The contrast in architecture further exemplifies the cultural clashes of Azerbaijan.

Parts of Baku feel incredibly European, at times giving the feeling that one could be walking down a Parisian street. Our guide told us that once the oil boom brought wealth to Azeris, their children would study abroad in Europe and bring back grand ideas about how the city should look.

After an afternoon of explorations, it was of course time for more Azeri food. One of our favourite dishes was sadj, a kind of hot plate that comes out still sizzling. We typically order the vegetarian one, though meat options were available. Oh, and bread and dolma were obviously mandatory with every meal.

The city centre of Baku was easy to explore in half a day, with extended stops for food. It was amazing to walk around the city and be walking along a modern shopping mall in one moment, the passing by a mosque, before turning down a European street, which ended near a Soviet building. You can sense so much of the history of this nation just from walking around and taking in your surroundings.

– Reanna

THE HEART OF GEORGIA // Mtskheta, Georgia

During our final day in Tbilisi we managed to squeeze in one final adventure before boarding our very, very long overnight train to Azerbaijan.

Mtskheta (don’t ask me how to pronounce it – I still have truly no idea) is the former capital of Georgia, and is located a mere 20km north of Tbilisi. It is regarded as the spiritual heart of Georgia due to its long history, and features a number of beautiful churches, and is well worth a quick visit if you find yourself with half a day to spare in Tbilisi.

A few notes on visiting Mtskheta:

  • Getting there: Marshrutky from Tbilisi depart from near Didube metro, leave every 15 minutes and talk half an hour. From the metro, exit into the market place and walk straight until you reach a parking lot full of vans to your right (see below image). Turn right and walk past the shed, until you see a small ticket office where you can buy a ticket for 1 lari (50 cents AUD), before boarding the van. The marshrutka to Mtskheta may not be marked in English, so make sure you can identify the Georgian characters. Return marshrutky depart from the bus stop near Samtavro Church.
  • Getting around: The town is small and easily walkable.
  • Jvari Monastery: located on the top of a nearby hill, visiting this monastery will require a taxi ride. The visitor centre can organise a taxi, with a set rate of 20 lari per car return. The taxi will wait for you at the top for around half an hour.

The busy marshrutky station near Didube metro. An essential Georgian experience!

Our first stop in Mtskheta was the Samtavro Church, which we could see as soon as we arrived in town. Now a nunnery, the church was free to explore.

The biggest church – or rather, cathedral – in town is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Surrounded by walls, the church dates back to the 11th century.

The towering inside hall features painted ceilings, typical of Georgian Orthodox churches, and paintings adorned with gold.

Christ’s robe is said to be buried in part of the church, in a small, dark room to the side of the main wall. Looking down the dark tunnel to the ground below, we couldn’t see anything remotely resembling a robe, but the cathedral is worth a visit.

Mtskheta was by far the busiest part of Georgia in terms of tourism that we visited outside of Tbilisi old town. The small laneways near the main cathedral are lined with stalls selling souvenirs and churchkela. There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes around.

Our final stop was Jvari Monastery, which can be seen a few kilometres out of town atop a hill. As mentioned above, it requires a short taxi ride to visit.

This church is considered one of the holiest in Georgia, and features a simple wooden cross inside.

Our taxi driver provided us a with a hot tip on how to get the best view of the church – rather than follow the main path from the car park, climb the small hill opposite the church behind the stalls.

Not being a particularly religious individual, the main draw card to visiting Jvari for me was the stunning views down the valley to Mtskheta, and the merging of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers below.

After yet another delicious Georgian lunch (sadly, our last for the trip!) we jumped onto another marshrutky back to Tbilisi – and it was standing room only! No one seemed particularly phased about this, whilst Chris and I clung on for dear life as the van hurtled through the traffic in Tbilisi.

And next, the final country of our jaunt around the Caucasus – Azerbaijan!

– Reanna

BACK IN THE CITY // Tbilisi, Georgia

Throughout our week in Georgia, we spent three nights in the capital, Tbilisi. However, these were all non-consecutive and broken up between our trips to Sighnaghi and Kazbegi. Each night, we stayed in a completely different area of the city, allowing up to explore more of the local neighbourhoods with our short time frames in the city.

To see what to explore in the Old Town of Tbilisi, please see my first post here.

These photos are a random collection of other sites we saw during our various stays in Tbilisi, and offer a bit of an insight into the diversity of this beautiful city.

During our second stay in Tbilisi, we spent the night in a small Airbnb that was basically on the door step of the beautiful Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. Also known as Sameba, this building is the main cathedral for the Georgian Orthodox Church. It is a relatively recent build, having been constructed between 1995 and 2004, and is filled to the brim with elaborate paintings and gold furnishings. We unwittingly visited on Sunday and found the cathedral quite full.

On our third stay in the city, we stayed right on David Agmashenebeli Avenue, one of the main avenues and stopping strips in the historic area of Tbilisi north of the Old Town, across the river. Part of the street is for pedestrians only, and is lined with cafes and colourful buildings.

Almost every blog I read about visiting Tbilisi raved about Fabrika, a former Soviet factory that has been transformed into a hostel, co-working space, and painfully hipster collection of bars, cafes, and art shops. We did not stay at the hostel as it was quite pricey for a private room, but we did visit the shops for semi-decent coffee. I spent one sunny afternoon drinking ridiculous cheap beers whilst Chris decided to get his hair cut at the resident barber shop.

As with Yerevan, the remains of the Soviet era were constantly visible throughout Tbilsi, with grey buildings, rickety metros, and old cars.

We also returned to the Old Town to visit a sulphur bath in the Abanotubani district. It had taken some convincing to win Chris over to the idea, but after a freezing cold few days in Kazbegi, the thought of a hot bath finally prevailed. After being turned away from a number of bath houses that were either full or overpriced, we eventually stumbled into a shadowy looking place and were able to book a private room for an hour for about 30 lari ($15 AUD).

The room was incredibly… un-glamourous? Reminiscent of Soviet dungeons? Either way, it was an experience and we had a bit of fun floating in the hot sulphur water.

And last, but not least – our ultimate Tbilisi goal had to be fulfilled. Our eyes were set on the Georgian delicacy of khachapuri, and specifically the below variety which is essentially a vessel of bread filled with cheese, baked, and served with a slab of butter and a raw egg. It is safe to say that my arteries will never recover.

Tbilisi, you were grand!

– Reanna

WATERFALLS & WINDING ROADS // Kazbegi, Georgia

Whilst traveling to the mountains in Georgia during winter can limit how much of the area you can explore, one could argue that it is worth it for the beauty of the snow-capped peaks and misty valleys.

On our second day in Kazbegi (see this post for more information on getting to the region), we were unsure where we could actually visit due to the snow, so Chris and I made our way down to the town square to see what was on offer from the local drivers. We had only been looking at the information board and map for a few moments before we were approached by a driver. Being probably quite clueless about negotiating prices we took up the first offer we were given – a trip to the Gveleti Waterfall.

The waterfall is located a short drive out of Kazbegi, along the Georgian Military Highway. If we had thought taking a wild ride along this road the day before on the masrhrutka, we were wrong. Our driver directed us into his awaiting Lada which was definitely from Soviet times! After a flying around the bends, we were soon turning off the road and taking on some serious 4WD tracks, before pulling up to the base of a walking track. We were directed up the hill, so off we went.

The waterfall was only a short 10 minute walk away, and it was simply stunning. Despite the surrounding snow, it was still flowing strongly.

Our view back down the valley was fairly spectacular as well!

I couldn’y resist snapping a photo of our car ride back, whilst gripping for dear life in the back seat. A car ride I will never forget!

After a leisurely lunch back in town, we wandered up to visit the Rooms Hotel, a rather fancy set up with a modern cafe that can be visited by outside guests. The coffee was mediocre, but the views were well worth it – though we were still weren’t willing to pay the price to stay the night!

The streets of Kazbegi felt eerily quiet given the cold conditions.

Can we also please take a moment to appreciate the beautiful collection of stray doggos in Kazbegi? I mean, these dogs looked nothing like to flea-ridden dogs roaming the streets of India, and they did love attention!

Eager to explore more of the area and stretch our legs, we spent the afternoon walking along the valley away from the town. I still can’t get over those views!

The track we were following took us through what appeared to be a paddock occupied by a variety of horses and cows, who seemed relatively unfazed by our presence.

Our explorations eventually ended at the small village of Pansheti, where a few old rusted information signs pointed out the remnants of former watchtowers and original stone fencing.

What I would give to be back here!

Visiting the mountains in winter was absolutely worth it, though visiting in summer would provide an opportunity to explore further afield in the region. Perhaps we will just have to schedule a trip back?

– Reanna

HIKING TO GERGETI TRINITY CHURCH // Kazbegi, Georgia

If you have googled Georgia at all, chances are an image of a small church atop a hill surrounded by a picturesque backdrop of mountains has popped up among the images. This iconic Georgian location is the Gergeti Trinity Church (or Holy Trinity Church), nestled at the base of Mt Kazbek in the Caucasus Mountains. Located a few hours north of Tbilisi, the church and the nearby town of Kazbegi (officially called Stepantsminda) is absolutely worth a visit, and was one of the highlights of our trip.

A few notes on visiting Kazbegi (Stepansminda):

  • Getting there: Taking a local minibus, marshrutky, is the best option to get to the area. Marshrutky depart Tbilisi every hour from the bustling bus station located near Didube metro. Finding the bus can be a bit difficult – exit the metro to the main market, ignore all the private drivers that approach you, and go straight ahead through the market, looking for carpark full of buses on your right, where marshrukty to Kazbegi are signed. The journey takes about three hours, and costs 10 lari (5 AUD) which is paid before departure on the bus. Return marshrukty depart in the main square of Kazbegi, with times written on the sign.
  • Accommodation: Whilst day tours run to the region, it is a three hour journey each way. Staying at least one night gives you more time to explore the area. There are plenty of guesthouses, a couple of hostels, and very large, very fancy (and every expensive) hotel.
  • Getting around: There are numerous taxis and drivers hanging around the main town square waiting to drive visitors to local destinations. Be prepared to haggle for prices. We visited in winter, so many facilities in town were closed. Tour companies operate in the summer months.

The road to Kazbegi is a long and winding one, following the ancient Georgian Military Highway up from the city to the Caucasus mountains, leading to the Russian border. Despite being in the back of the small, cramped marshrutka, I was enthralled by the beautiful views of the surrounding countryside.

After passing through ski resorts, villages, and tunnels carved through the very hills, we arrived in the small town of Kazbegi. We had a guesthouse booked slightly away from the main town in the village of Gergeti, which was only a short (but steep!) walk away. The view from our balcony was 100% the journey to get there!

Given we were in the region during winter, we wanted to make the most of the blue skies on our arrival, so after a quick rest at our guesthouse we rugged up and made our way towards that iconic church!

There are a number of tracks one can take up to the church (in addition to catching a taxi). We followed the directions from the Lonely Planet and managed to reach the peak in about 30 minutes. The entire hike was approximately 5km return, but was very steep going up.

The track we followed led us around the back of the church, before eventually disappearing altogether and leaving us to pick our way through mud and melting snow to the church above.

Dating back to the 14th century, the church is said to have housed a variety of previous relics, including St Ninos Cross. Nowadays, it is an active Georgian Orthodox church, but predominately a tourist attraction. With the stunning views of the surrounding mountains, you can appreciate why!

The views were so good that Chris even gave in and requested a photo. Unheard of?!

The town of Kazbegi far below us – you can see how steep the climb was.

Looking  in the other direction to Kazbegi reveals the summit of Mt Kazbek, the third highest mountain in Georgia. Eager trekkers can summit the mountain and explore nearby glaciers.

We spent the evening back in town, indulging in more delicious Georgian cuisine and local beer. The above photos is a view of the church and Mt Kazbek from the town. I could have stared at this for hours!

We had two nights in Kazbegi, so there are many more photos of this gorgeous mountain town to come. I am certainly wishing I could be back here now, instead of drowning in emails and deadlines at work!

– Reanna