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Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan
Tallinn, 17 June 2004
As Maris wanted to practice teaching for 2 months in Estonia and spend some time with her family, I decided to travel alone during that time to areas that are somewhat off the beaten track and rejoin her in Estonia when her teaching practice was over.
My original plan was to visit the following 5 countries which I had never before set foot on: Moldova, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. It could be summarized by this phrase: "Traveling on the fringes of the former Russian empire."
Preparations became complicated by the fact that every country seemed to require a prearranged visa. Furthermore, as these are not popular destination, there were no cheap flights let alone, one way flights, that I could find in Holland.
The weather is what made me decide to start as much to the south as possible and work my way northwards as spring would be advancing. In other words: the Caucasus would come first, while Moldova and Ukraine would come last.
But how would I get there? The answer was to fly to Turkey and travel overland to Georgia. This would have the added advantage that I could visit my University time friend Kaya, who now lives in Istanbul.
I arrived in Istanbul late on a Friday, so that we could spend the weekend together and that I could prevent him from working another weekend!
Istanbul, is a what I would call a real city. Very diverse, very alive. There are many things to visit, so much that you probably need several weeks to see all of it. The Sultanahmet mosque and the Aya Sofya are just starters on the menu of what Istanbul has to offer. Istanbul is very westernized, it may come as a surprise to most people, but finding a woman wearing a headscarf in a busy shopping street in central Istanbul is not that easy!
I was curious as to why street dogs in Istanbul wear ear tags. Apparently street dogs are vaccinated and re-released. People like their street dogs. In the area where I stayed, some people have even constructed dog houses on the street for them. This seems to me much more humane than the western habit of euthanizing stray animals that are not adopted.
On Monday and Tuesday I tried to arrange my trip to the Southern Caucasus. The Georgian consulate gave me a double entry visa. But as the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is closed and the border between Turkey and Armenia is as well, I would need to cross Georgia 3 times, at least if I wanted to visit all three countries. This being more than twice, I decided to fly to Baku, which had the added advantage that Azerbaijan issued visas at the airport (which it apparently does not at land borders).
Going through the Azeri visa application took at least 1 hour, and luggage was x-rayed to enter the country! But once inside the country I was finally in another world for as much as Istanbul was still western, this place was not.
Policemen in Baku wear the typical Soviet uniforms, and everybody, except me of course, was dressed in dark clothes. Spotting the foreigner must have been very easy for them! Besides budget travelers seem to be rare here, as most foreigners come for work, mostly related to the oil industry.
Many buildings are gray and run down except for some in the center. A stroll along the Caspian sea is far from romantic as you can see the oil and excrement literally float around in it! I cannot image that anybody would want to swim in this sea, let alone eat anything that comes out of it!
On the positive side, there seems to be an outdoor culture, a large number of people are strolling around all through the center. Many cellars have also been changed into bars and restaurants, which much reminded me of similar developments in Tallinn.
The old town itself still has most of its old medieval city wall. The two most famous sights are the Virgin tower and the palace of Shirvan-Shahk. But all this can easily be seen in half a day. South of the city you can admire the blessings of 80 years of communism: an endless landscape of rusting, sometimes still functioning, oil wells soaking in lakes of oil. Needless to say that nothing green can be detected there.
I took the night train from Baku to Tbilisi, a genuine Soviet experience, not only in the negative sense. The positive side: you get your own bed in a 4 bed compartment, you can get a good night's sleep, for the same price as a cheap hotel. The other people in my compartment where very friendly and did their best to speak some English, so it is a pleasant way to meat locals.
On the negative side, the toilet is dirty and dysfunctional. The border guards wake you up and then wait more than half an hour to come back to check your passport. Then they start to complain that you went back to sleep! The concept that you may not speak Russian is also entirely foreign to them. The Azerbaijani custom officer kept on nagging about Dollars, fortunately I had declared all my western currency when entering the country and showing him this declaration made him shut up and go away.
As no affordable accommodation seems to be available in Tbilisi, I opted for a family stay, this has the added advantage that you also meet local people. It turned out to be a very good idea as it made my stay in Tbilisi rather pleasant, not only because I talked a lot with the family and learnt a lot about Georgia and the Georgian language and alphabet, but also because Manuel, a German student, was staying there as well. I visited several of the sights in Georgia and had several dinners and nights out in town with him.
In all three republics good accommodation comes with ridiculous price tags. People seem to think that every westerner can easily spend 200 USD per night on hotels! The taxi driver that brought me from Baku airport to the center, could not imagine that I did not want a "good" hotel. I wonder where this illusion comes from? Unfortunately it does not make those countries attractive tourist destinations, because the hotels are simply not worth what they charge.
They argue that a hotel in New York or London is just as expensive, but forget that you do not need a torchlight to return to your hotel in New York or London at night to avoid stepping in the potholes of unlit streets! Also water and electricity are not always available in the Caucasus, so the likelihood of actually being able to take a warm shower is rather low. Hence the price tag should accordingly be brought down significantly.
A second irritant is driving behavior, in Georgia and in the other two republics, manhood seems to be defined by how little respect you have for other traffic participants, especially for those "losers" who go on foot. A pedestrian crossing is also a perfect place to stop your car, or slowly move forward on while pedestrians are crossing. In Tbilisi, numerous convoys, honking and speeding, endanger your life! There is a lot of traffic police, but traffic safety, and traffic rules enforcement is not their main concern, instead this unfortunately is filling their own pockets!
Two girls that I talked with in Tbilisi, told me their view of Georgian men, which I would like to quote here, because they were rather direct: "Women in Georgia are basically slaves, they have to serve men with food, while the men grow fat and watch TV." and another interesting quote: "Women are expected to go into marriage as virgins, while no such thing is expected of men of course." Both girls said, they were not yet married, because they could not find any good man.
The men I talked with disagreed with the above assessment.
A rusting TV tower overlooks Tbilisi, the center is run down, but still many strikingly beautiful buildings exist. Many churches and the Narikala fortress on a hill top are all well worth a visit. As Georgia emerges from 13 years of post Soviet chaos under the new and extremely popular president Saakashvili, who happens to be married to a Dutch woman called Sandra Roelofs, things might start to change for the better. A lot of renovation and some affordable accommodation could change this town into a popular tourist attraction.
Saakashvili also faces the big challenge of trying to reunite his country, as 3 regions, Adjaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have, with support of the Russian military, achieved de facto independence from Georgia. Several weeks after I left Georgia, Saakashvili managed to regain control over Adjaria thanks to popular support of the inhabitants of the region. Fed up with their region's Russian backed "president", they forced him to flee to Russia.
The best known Georgian, is undoubtedly Joseph Stalin, born in Gori, where a Stalin Museum and Stalin's first home are still preserved, as is the only remaining public statue of Stalin (at least that is what I was told).
Some aspects of Georgia were not unknown to me, as my favorite wines are Georgian: Kvanchkara and Kindzmarauli. The latter is also said to have been Stalin's favorite wine... but don't worry I have not started any political party yet!
I have been introduced to these wines in Estonia, I buy them each time I am there. Strangely they taste even better in Georgia! Georgians claim that Bulgarians and Moldovans copy their wine for export. This could be true as the wine I used to buy in Estonia was bottled in Bulgaria.
A definite highlight in Georgia is the David Gareja (also spelled as Davit Gareji) cave monasteries in the side of a mountain. Some are still beautifully decorated, though a lot of graffiti has defaced many of these decorations. I am afraid this jewel might not survive another decade of graffiti terrorism. The setting is also amazing, fantastic views and gorgeous landscape. It is very difficult to reach, best would be a 4 wheel drive. We convinced a taxi driver to drive us there, but I fear it damaged his car quite a bit.
The next country I wanted to visit was Armenia. The embassy told me I had to wait 3 days for a visa and that it would cost 76 USD or that I could get a 3 day transit visa at the border for 30 USD. So I planned to go in and out of Armenia within 3 days.
Imagine my surprise however when the border guards offered me a tourist visa, valid for 21 days, for 30 USD, receipt and all. Very official in other words. Apparently the embassy needs our dollars as it is their only meaningful source of income.
This changed my plans. I stayed longer in Armenia and managed to visit some of the highlights, like: Geghard, Garni and Khor Virap. Yerevan also positively surprised me. The impression that I had gotten from the latest issue of National Geographic was that it was rather gray and desolate. Not so! Yerevan is the safest capital of the three republics and not at all as gray. It is also nice to walk around the town, where everything is within walking distance.
I was again fortunate to stay with a family, with Rafik and Gohar, both in their 70s. A welcoming and very attentive couple, that made me feel at home. As retirement pensions in Armenia are barely 20 USD per month, they have found a nice way to make some extra income and meet people from all over the world. Another visitor staying in their apartment was Rasool, a fellow Dutchman of Iraqi Kurdish origin.
I was surprised to find out that Russian is still widely understood in all three republics. Some basic knowledge of Russian helps, though my knowledge is very basic. I had attempted to learn some of the Georgian alphabet. After a few days I could read about half of the letters, which was practical to catch buses. But in Armenia I never got further than a few letters, as learning (part of) a second totally different alphabet within days of each other was too much.
One of the national dishes that I ate in Armenia is called "tolma". Interestingly I had eaten nearly the exact same dish, also called "tolma", in Azerbaijan where it was also said to be a national dish. Tolma is usually meat wrapped in vine leaves!
Armenia has many historical monuments. The Geghard cave monastery has several large underground chambers. Garni has a restored Hellenistic temple. Khor Virap is a monastery located on the border with Turkey. My guidebook, the 4 year old Lonely Planet, told me that doves were sold at the entrance Khor Virap for ritual sacrifice, so I bought one. But sacrificing is not what I had in mind, instead I released the white dove over the Turkish-Armenian border in the hope that one day there may be peace between these two neighbors.
Closer to Yerevan is Echmiadzin, one of the holiest places for Armenians. Unfortunately the museum was closed. Yerevan itself is proud of its library, where many ancient manuscripts are on display.
The impressive mount Ararat, located in present day Turkey, has special significance for Armenians and is considered by Armenians to be an Armenian mountain. With mount Ararat dominating the city on every clear day, Armenians are constantly reminded of their loss to the Turks.
My first full day in Armenia also happened to coincide with the Armenian Genocide Remembrance day, when Armenians in their tens of thousands flock past the genocide memorial monument. A day when Armenians remember that Turkey killed more than 1 million Armenians in 1915.
It is a politically thorny issue that constantly hangs over Armenian-Turkish relations, as the Armenian version of events is strongly denied by Turkey who has its own version of events, claiming that there was an Armenian uprising with Russian support against Turkish rule while the western allies (United Kingdom, France, Australia and New Zealand) attacked Ottoman Turkey from the west. The ensuing civil war according to the Turkish version left many people dead on both sides of the conflict.
On a side note, the attack from the west was defeated by Turkey, a victory for Turkey accredited to a then still unknown Kemal Ataturk, later to become president and founder of the secular Turkish state as we now know it. The western defeat is still widely remembered in Australia and New Zealand as ANZAC day.
One result of this conflict over history (though it is also related to the Armenian-Azerbaijan war over Nagorno-Karabakh) is that there are still no diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey. The border between the two countries is permanently closed, so I was very surprised that there was a flight from Yerevan to Istanbul.
The overland route I would otherwise have had to take passed through the Georgian region of Adjaria, where a Russian backed separatist "president" had control while the new Georgian president wanted to regain control. Tensions were mounting. The flight to Istanbul therefore seemed a good alternative.
The flight however was in the middle of the night. Unfortunately they never switched off the lights during the flight, but instead played a movie dubbed in Russian with the sound blaring over the loudspeakers. Sleep was definitely impossible!
The next part of the trip did not go as planned, as I became seriously ill, more about that in the next update.
If you would like to be notified or no longer want to be notified of travel updates send me an e-mail.
e-mail Otto de Voogd
To my knowledge the information provided here was accurate at the time of our visit. However time passes and things can change.
Turkey: upon arrival at Istanbul airport for 10 USD (or 10 EUR, so take 10 USD with you), multiple entry valid for 3 months.
Azerbaijan: upon arrival at Baku airport for 40 USD, single entry, 30 days. An invitation was not asked, but is said to be officially necessary, instead I filled in the address of the hotel I planned to stay at. Declare all your valuables, including cash upon entry as they will ask when leaving the country (this is an old Soviet habit).
Georgia: obtainable at consulate (in Istanbul for 90 USD), double entry valid for a total of 14 days over a 3 month period. The visa was issued the same day, within 2 hours.
Armenia: a 21 day tourist visa is obtainable at the (land)border for 30 USD. According to the embassy in Tbilisi they only issue transit visas at the border, while the embassy charges 76 USD for the same tourist visa and has a 3 day waiting period. This is a lie they tell, because they need your dollars at the embassy.
Turkey seems to have a competitive airline market offering cheap flights inside Turkey, as well as to Northern Cyprus and many destinations in Western Europe:
In Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia minibuses, called marshrutkas, go regularly between most cities. They are cheap.
Going from Azerbaijan to Georgia the overnight train seems to be the best option however. Tickets are best purchased a day or more before departure at the train station. But from Tbilisi to Yerevan minibuses are best, they leave each morning at 08:00, 09:00 and 10:00.
Turkey: All ATMs work for Cirrus/Maestro and many other networks. Exchanging US Dollars and Euros is possible everywhere at competitive rates, as are some other currencies.
Azerbaijan: ATMs available everywhere in Baku showing the right logos, but I did not use them. Exchanging US Dollars and Euros is possible everywhere, nearly every big street in the center has a few exchange offices. The rates are pretty good. Some also exchange British pounds and Russian Rubles.
Georgia: Several ATMs available, but seem to be for credit cards only. I did not use them. Exchanging US Dollars and Euros is possible everywhere, the exchange rates are acceptable. Some prices (such as accommodation) are in US Dollars.
Armenia: Many ATMs available, some with the correct logos, and they work. Exchanging US Dollars and Euros is possible at pretty good rates. Russian Rubles and Georgian Lari can also be exchanged, but rates are not as good.
Turkey - Lira, approx. rates: 1 USD = 1,350,000 TRL, 1 EUR = 1,600,000 TRL
Flight: Amsterdam -> Istanbul with Turkish Airlines: 140 EUR excl. tax. one way.
Azerbaijan - Manats, approx. rates: 1 USD = 4900 AZM, 1 EUR = 5900 AZM
Baku: taxi from Airport to City: 10 USD, they ask 20 USD, threaten to take the bus, since 10 USD is a more normal price.
Georgia - Lari, approx. rates: 1 USD = 1.97 GEL, 1 EUR = 2.38 GEL
Tbilisi - room in private house: 15 USD.
Armenia - Dram, approx. rates: 1 USD = 550 AMD, 1 EUR = 655 AMD
Yerevan - family stay: 15 USD per night. David at Levon Travel, 10 Sayat-Nova
Ave. still arranges it (as my 4 year old Lonely Planet guide says).
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