Caucasus (July-August, 2013): Itinerary and practical advice

In summer 2013, we had a month long tour around Caucasus, including its Northern Russian part, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and Azerbaijan with their lovely people, yummy food and incredible stories. Some people assume that these are dangerous countries, but they are not unless you do certain things. This post is about what to keep in mind when traveling in Caucasus, and how to plan the trip.

We started the journey from Riga (which we reached from Tallinn by Ecolines 4,5 hours bus). One flight Riga-Baku cost 118 euros per person (by Airbaltic), and coming back from Sochi to Minsk was 140 euros extra (each, Belavia).

This is the map of the places we aimed to visit:
So all in all the route was the following (sorry, google map doesn’t fit it): Riga – Baku (including Janardag, Gobustan and mad vulcanoes) – Shaki – Balaken – Lagodekhi – Telavi – Signakhi – Tbilisi – Yerevan – Garni- Gegard – Yerevan – Khor Virap – Naravank – border with Nagorno Karabakh – Tatev – Yerevan – Sevan – Dilijan – Erevan – Tbilisi – Gori – Zugdidi – Mestia – Ushguli – Mestia – Zugdidi – Batumi – Gonio – Tbilisi – Stepantsminda – Vladikavkaz – Nalchik – Terskol (Elbrus) – Mineralnye vody – Sochi – Abkhazia – Sochi – Minsk

The detailed day-by-day plan of the trip with the references to posts about every day
1. Baku-Yanardag-Baku
2. Baku-Gobustan-Baku, night train to Shaki
3. Half a day in Shaki, then Sheki-Belaken-Bakurtsikhe-Telavi
4. Telavi and around Kakheti
5. Tbilisi, night train to Yerevan
6. Yerevan-Khor Virap-Tatev
7. Tatev – Carahunge – Noravank – Yerevan (Armenia)
8. On Armenian hospitality (a lot) and Kloster Geghard (a bit)
9. Mountain lake Sevan, Dilizhan and Molokan village Fioletovo (Armenia)
10. Brandy company “Noah” in Yerevan: about the right way to drink Armenian cognac
11. How to get from Yerevan to Tbilisi
12. Gori (Georgia) – Stalin’s Motherland
13. Uplistsikhe, ancient town in a rock in Georgia
14. Mestia – the capital of mountainous Svaneti (Georgia)
15. Ushguli – Svaneti mountain settmenent
16. Georgian Beach Getaway: Gonio
17. Batumi
18. Kazbegi, Georgia
19. Elbrus surroundings: what to see and how to get there
20. Mount Elbrus – One of the Seven Summits
21. Resting on the Beach in Abkhazia: Practicalities
22. Sightseeing in Abkhazia: our impressions

Basically, we followed this route, and we still think in many ways it is the best route around Caucasus, because:
1. The border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is closed, so if you want to go to both countries you have to go through Georgia. First go to Azerbaijan, as Internet is full of unpleasant stories on what happens if you do vice versa – the border guards of Azerbaijan noticing Armenian stamps in you passport can create a variety of problems: arresting, prohibiting to enter the country, etc. While you are in Azerbaijan it is better not to mention that you are heading to Armenia, and not to mention Armenia at all.
2. There is the same trouble with Abkhazia: you can enter in only from Russia, as Georgia does not recognize Abkhazia as a legally sovereign country and have the border with it closed.
3. If you decide to go to Nagorno Karabakh, check the visa requirements and their relationship with Azerbaijan. It is likely that you will have to register on the arrival. Don’t talk about the war and don’t make any pictures of military machines or soldiers.

The precautions about what to say and what not to say may be too serious, but highly recommended: the relationship between different peoples in Caucasus may be complicated.

If you do not have a month for Caucasus, we would recommend at least 2-3 week trip
Baku, Gobustan, mud volcanoes (2 days are enough)
Kakheti – Telavi and around (2 days)
Yerevan, at least to visit restaurant “Kavkaz”!
Gori (1 day)
Khor Virap or Noravank, you may choose
Tatev, but only in case you stay in the place we recommend and do what we recommend in the post about Tatev. Otherwise it is too far
Mestia, Ushguli – 2 days
Batumi and surroundings in case you want some time at the sea – we recommend prefer it to Abkhazia!
Kazbegi, Elbrus – keep in mind that the weather in the mountain may be cloudy and it will be the waste of time. Check the weather forecast in advance and have some alternative in your head.

NB! You will hardly avoid hitchhiking, unless you buy tours. Public transport is a problem – even if it exists, it often doesn’t have any timetable, but you’ll love hitchhiking along with adorable Caucasians, as hitchhiking is the first sign of their unbelievable empbracing hospitality.

Language: Russian will be extremely helpful, however, many young people, guest house keepers, and tour organizers speak English.

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