© Emily Lush 2017

12 Things You Should Know Before Travelling to The Caucasus

The Trans-Caucasus countries (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) are still relatively unknown to the majority of tourists. Ninety percent of people I talk to about the region couldn’t pinpoint it on a map, let alone shed light on what it’s like to travel or live there.

I certainly knew very little about the Caucasus before we decided to go (up until a few years ago, I would have had no hope of locating it on a map either). Honestly, my ignorance was a big part of the reason I wanted to travel there in the first place. It was challenging at times, but overall it was hugely rewarding to go in with very few expectations and figure things out as we went along.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises or deprive you of that same sense of discovery—but I do think it helps to have a few pointers. To help you on your way, I’ve put together this list based on some of the common questions readers and friends ask me about travelling in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Here are the 12 things I think you should know before visiting the Caucasus.

 


 

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1 The region is incredibly diverse.

 

It’s tempting to lump Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan together, but the three countries are very distinct. For starters, each one has its own language, culture and religion. There’s a certain amount of overlap between Georgia and Armenia because the two countries share a long history and similar belief systems. Azerbaijan is more distinct from its neighbours.

Travelling to all three countries as part of the one trip (like we did) makes sense logistically—and I’d go as far as to say that you really need to experience all three in order to get a balanced overview of the region. Don’t make the mistake of skipping Yerevan ‘because you’ve already seen Tbilisi’—it doesn’t work like that.

There’s a huge amount of variety within each country, too. Azerbaijan, for example, supports nine out of the world’s 11 climatic zones and has an incredibly diverse landscape. The Caucasus is second only to Papua New Guinea in terms of its linguistic diversity. One of the best things you can do is visit and learn about the ancient tribes and clans of the Northern Caucasus mountains, who know no state borders.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
Republic Square, Yerevan.

 

2 It feels a lot more like Europe than Asia.

 

The Caucasus has always been defined by its mix of cultural influences due to its position at the crossroads of East and West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all three countries moved to distance themselves from Russia and fixed their gaze firmly on the West. This is especially true of Georgia, which is currently pushing for membership in the EU.

Whether the Caucasus is part of Europe or Asia seems to be a point of ongoing contention. All three countries are technically on the Asian continent; but overall, the region feels a lot more European, especially in the cities. All three capitals—Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku—are characterised by their classical architecture, parks, fountains and boulevards. To me, it definitely felt like I was travelling in Europe, albeit a slightly grungier version.

 

3Just because two countries are neighbours doesn’t mean they’re friends.

 

I was surprised to learn that there are still a number of active conflicts going on in the Caucasus. I think it’s important to understand a little bit about diplomatic relations between bordering countries—at the very least, it could have practical implications for your itinerary.

The most severe conflict is probably the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It centres on the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) region, a breakaway territory sandwiched between the two republics, which has been a site of skirmish since the 1980s. The war in Nagorno-Karabakh officially ended in 1994, but landmines and gun snipers are still a part of the everyday reality there.

It’s possible to travel to Nagorno-Karabakh, but only from the Armenian side of the border. And if you do, you forfeit your chance to travel to Azerbaijan—Azeri immigration won’t permit you to enter the country if they find any evidence that you’ve been to the disputed zone. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains closed, so it’s necessary to pass back through Georgia if you’re travelling between the two countries overland.

Armenia has a tumultuous history with neighbouring Turkey, so the Armenian/Turkish border is also impassable. Relations between Armenia and Iran, by contrast, are blossoming—the two neighbours recently established a visa-free travel agreement for their citizens. (You’ll see a lot of Iranian tourists in Yerevan—our tour guide there went as far as to suggest that one in three people you see on the street at any given time is Iranian.) Muslim-majority Azerbaijan is closer with Turkey than any of its other neighbours. Although the two states no longer share a land border, many aspects of their culture and language overlap.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
Soldiers on the streets of Yerevan, Armenia.

In the midst of all this, Georgia is sort of a ‘neutral’ state. Its borders with Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia are all open. Georgia shares a long history with Armenia (much of Tbilisi’s old town was historically Armenian), and today the two countries have something of a friendly sibling rivalry (both claim to be the birthplace of viticulture and the inventor of the churchkhela). Georgians have much more in common with Armenians, while Azerbaijan is sort of viewed as the ‘outsider’ of the group.

Russia’s most recent forceful encroachment onto Georgian territory is still fresh in the memory of people as young as me. This has fostered an anti-Russian sentiment in the minds of many Georgians. One woman described to us an attitude she sees as prevalent among Russians—that Georgia is still part of Russia and shouldn’t be an independent state. There are many Russians visiting and living in Georgia despite the divides along political lines. The breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are located within Georgia’s borders, but are technically controlled by Russia. Both require special permission in the form of a visa if you want to enter.

 

4The history will break your heart.

 

Ongoing border disputes are evidence of the fact that Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are all young republics with a long, often troubling, history. This is something to be aware of, but I strongly believe that learning about events like the Armenian Genocide is best saved until you arrive in-country. One of the most confronting things for me was the fact that I had never really heard of the Armenian Genocide before I set foot in the Yerevan.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
Kond, Yerevan’s oldest district.

5Poverty is a big issue.

 

One thing all three Caucasus countries share is a common legacy of Sovietism. Coming from the West, I had a lot of preconceptions about the Soviet Union, which I generally consider to be a period of oppression and misery. But talking to people on the ground (especially older generations), I was surprised to learn that not everyone looks back on Soviet times as ‘dark days’. For some, life was easier under the Soviet Union because they had everything they needed. Georgia and Armenia both suffered huge economic losses after the Union dissolved; Azerbaijan survived on its oil money.

This all unfolded in the 1990s, which really wasn’t that long ago, and you still see a lot of poverty in all three countries today as a result. Armenia has one of the highest rates of migration in the world; young people especially are leaving in droves to escape the flagging economy.

Having travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, I’m used to seeing poverty. If you’re not so familiar with it, you best brace yourself for some pretty confronting scenes, especially in rural areas. You should also be prepared to deal with professional beggars in the bigger cities, especially in Tbilisi.

 

6The cities are incredibly safe.

 

Ok—so there is a certain degree of ongoing political conflict and urban poverty is definitely an issue in the Caucasus, but for the average tourist, it’s still an incredibly safe place to visit. By some measures, Georgia is one of the safest countries in the world. One of the coolest things about Tbilisi is how the city cares for its stray animals—all street dogs are tagged and vaccinated by the state, and they are relatively friendly (the same does not go for dogs in rural areas, especially Caucasian mountain dogs).

Armenia is trying hard to shake off its reputation for corruption by putting anti-bribery measures in place at border crossings. I know this is a sweeping generalisation, but in my experience, people in the Caucasus are generally very trustworthy and community-minded. Pick-pocketing and petty crime are rare in all three cities, and we certainly didn’t experience trouble of any kind.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
A train station in Georgia.

7Public transport is the best way to get around.

 

I’m a huge advocate of road trips, but I really wouldn’t bother with hiring or buying a car in the Caucasus. All three countries have top-notch inter-city transport networks, including trains and buses. Inter-country travel is also straightforward and affordable if you travel by overnight train.

Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan all have metro systems (in the Soviet Union, any city with a population of one million people automatically qualified for a line), public buses and ride-sharing services. (The first time I ever used Uber was for a Lada ride to the bus station in Baku.) In my experience, public transport in the cities is cheap and generally reliable—plus, you can use Google Maps for route planning.

Trust me, you will learn to love the humble marshrutka! These ubiquitous minivans are the best way to get around the Caucasus—I think we had more than 30 marshrutka rides in total. For a full break down of the public transport we used on our trip (including travel times and prices), check out our full itinerary.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
An Adjarian feast in Batumi, Georgia.

8The food (and wine) will redefine your idea of ‘delicious’.

 

I knew I was going to like Georgian food, but I wasn’t expecting there to be quite so much variety (or to be honest, so much flavour). After a year in Cambodia, all I wanted to do was pig out on cheese, bread and wine. I certainly did that—but I also got to eat some of the tastiest, freshest, healthiest meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. I can confidently say that Georgian cooking changed what ‘delicious’ means to me—and what food should taste like in general. I’ve previously written about Georgian food here and here. (The food in Armenia and Azerbaijan was also good, but Georgia definitely wins in the culinary stakes.)

I would be remiss not to add a little something about wine. Viticulture was pioneered in present-day Georgia and Armenia, and both countries (especially Georgia) now produce incredible vino. Kakheti is Georgia’s wine-producing region and well worth a visit. If you want to take a bottle home with you, pick up a few Tiki Wine Bags in Tbilisi.

 

9English is widely spoken.

 

Since learning Russian in school is no longer compulsory, many young people in the Caucasus now choose to learn English instead. Like anywhere else these days, English is viewed as an essential skill for the new economy. It’s always handy to know a few phrases (and a good habit to absorb as much of the local language as possible), but you certainly won’t have any trouble getting around if you only speak English.

Of the three countries, Azerbaijan had the least spoken English—but it all balanced out. Unlike the Georgian and Armenian alphabets which are beautiful but undecipherable, the Azeri alphabet is based on Turkic characters, which are easy enough to read.

 

© Emily Lush 2015
Mtskheta, Georgia.

10Religion is critical.

 

Did you know that Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion? I didn’t. But after spending Easter Sunday in Yerevan, I got a taste for how deeply-rooted Armenian Orthodoxy is in the country.

Georgia, too, is a very religious country. It’s not uncommon to see people on the bus or in cars cross themselves as they pass by a church (I know this happens in other Orthodox countries, too). Both Georgia and Armenia are famous for their impressive cave monasteries, churches and cathedrals.

Azerbaijan—ever the odd one out—is 99 percent Muslim, with most believers adhering to an orthodox Ithna Ashari school of Shi’a Islam. From what I’ve read and experienced, Muslim identity in Azerbaijan is more about culture and ethnicity than religious belief.

It’s kind of miraculous that all three countries held onto such strong belief systems throughout Soviet times. There’s no doubt that religion is part of the fabric of all three nations; but overall, I would say that personal ideas of devotion are mixed. I wouldn’t particularly describe any of these countries as conservative, either—we only saw a handful of women wearing the hijab in Azerbaijan, for example. Contrary to some other travellers’ reports, public buses and trains in the country are no longer sex segregated.

It goes without saying that as a tourist, you’ll be expected to dress and behave in certain ways when you’re inside a place of worship. Head scarves and wrap-around skirts are available for women to borrow at all Orthodox churches.

 

11The kindness of strangers will restore your faith in humanity.

 

Hospitality and tolerance is a huge part of Caucasian culture, and people will honestly do just about anything they can to make you feel welcome. Georgians in particular are infamous for their stony exterior; but underneath the brusqueness, we found so much warmth. I’ve written a whole post about the small gestures of kindness that shaped my overwhelmingly positive view of the Caucasus. It contains a few anecdotes which you might enjoy reading before you visit the country.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
Sheki, Azerbaijan.

 

12The Caucasus is already a popular destination.

 

Just because you haven’t heard much about the Caucasus doesn’t mean it’s not a popular tourist destination. We travelled during shoulder season (March to May) and didn’t encounter too many crowds—but I can only think of one or two occasions when we were the only tourists around. If you’re travelling during the high season (summer, June to August), I would recommend booking at least some of your accommodation and transportation in advance.

Armenia, as I mentioned, is a popular spot for Iranian tourists, and Georgia too is gaining a reputation among travellers from the region (largely thanks to cheap Wizz Air flights that now service Kutaisi). Most of the other travellers we met on the road in Georgia were Ukrainian or Polish.

On one hand, this is a good things, because tourist infrastructure is already pretty well developed to cater to local markets. At the same time, you still feel like you’re somewhat off the mainstream tourist track—especially if you’re from Australia (we’re still a bit of a novelty in these parts). One of the best things about travelling in the Caucasus is the chance to connect with tourists from countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In my opinion, it’s way more interesting to meet a traveller from Kazakhstan than to share a bus ride with a hoard of American tourists.

I’ve no doubt that the Caucasus region will one day earn the recognition it deserves among tourists of all stripes—and I sincerely hope that tourism will be a positive force in the lives of the people who live there.

 

Have you travelled in Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan? Or maybe you’re planning your own trip? If you have any tips for fellow travellers, please leave them here in the comments!

 


 

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2 comments on “12 Things You Should Know Before Travelling to The Caucasus

  1. Edith A Colon

    Thank you so much for all this valuable information! I currently live in Kazakhstan and we are planning a December trip to the Caucasus region. After reading all your wonderful blogs, we’ve decided to give each country the time it deserves to fully embrace their beauty and uniqueness. I can’t wait to explore the region!

    • Edith, I’m so happy to hear that! You are going to love the Caucasus! Enjoy your trip planning and please feel free to contact me if there’s anything I can help with. Thanks so much for reading!

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