Caucasus

What is the Caucasus?

 

The Caucasus, surrounding the mountain range of the same name, lies on what is often considered to be the land border of Europe and Asia and is situated between the Black and Caspian seas.

The Caucasus mountain range, which contains Europe’s highest peak Mount Elbrus, cuts between the two seas and marks the political division between the northern parts, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation, and the southern independent states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Map of the Caucasus wikicommons

The southern Caucasus contains three diverse countries simply crying out to be explored with each offering any traveller a variety of landscapes and people so diverse yet touchingly welcoming that you will be sure to want to come again.

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Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia
Flag of Azerbaijan Flag of Armenia Flag of Georgia

click on the flag to go directly to country guide

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Major Destinations

People enjoying Swan Lake Park at night - Yerevan, Armenia
Yerevan — Armenia’s capital is the Caucasus’ coolest capital and most laid back city. Cafe culture and communist grind live side-by-side in this most unexpectedly hip place.

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Haghpat Monastery, Lori Province, Armenia (15)
Sanahin & Haghpat Monastery — the UNESCO listed monasteries incorporate beautifully preserved Medieval architecture with stunning mountainous surroundings and awe-inspiring views.

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Nizami raion with strollers, bathed in light - Baku by night – Bakı, Azerbaijan (6)
Baku — oil rich Baku is the the region’s largest city, an international oil hub, and ancient capital of Azerbaijan. Worth seeing for the amazing contrast between new build money and ramshackle poverty alone.

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One of the many Mud Volcanoes in Gobustan National Park - Gobustan National Park, Azerbaijan (7)Mud volcanoes of Gobustan — Everyone knows volcanoes, but have you ever seen a volcano which instead of hot lava spits out cold gooey mud? These can be found near Gobustan (Qobustan), a settlement situated 64km southwest of Baku, Azerbaijan.

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The façade of the Sulphur baths, taken from Abano Street - Tbilisi, Georgia Tbilisi — is in many ways the heart and soul of Caucasus, Georgia’s vibrant capital boats amazing architecture, it is surrounded by luscious green mountains, and packed full with good food, wine and times. it is even has the region’s most unique tourist attraction: the Sulphur Baths Tbilisi.

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David Gareja monastery complex, Kakheti region, Georgia (10)
Davit Gareja Monastery — the rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery complex contains hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters all painstakingly hollowed out of the rock face.

Visa Requirements

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Flag of ArmeniaArmenia has a rather liberal visa policy. EU citizens, as well as former CIS nationals don’t require visas. Visas for citizens of most other countries can be requested upon arrival and for a 21 day visa you would only pay 3000 dram (€6). For specific visa information for your country check here or here.

Flag of AzerbaijanAzerbaijan has a strict visa policy for citizens of European and North American countries. Visas must be purchased in advance from an Azerbaijani diplomatic missions. The price can be anywhere between 60-110 € depending on your nationality and where you do it. More information here.

Flag of GeorgiaGeorgia has a liberal visa policy. Citizens of most countries do not require visas for a stay of up to 90 days and citizens of all other countries, who do require a visa, are given one on entry for 30 days. For specific visa information for your country check here or here.

The Georgia-Azerbaijan border crossing - Matsimi, Georgia

Georgian-Azerbaijani border crossing in Matsimi. Entering Azerbaijan? “Good luck” :)

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Hitch-Hiking

Hitch-hiking in the Caucasus can vary from the extremely annoying to the laughably easy, but on the whole it is a very good area for hitchhiking. In Armenia and Georgia, cars perform screeching stops in order to drive you to your destination, which is hundreds of kilometres past where your driver was heading. People buy you food, invite you back to their houses and generally are extremely kind and hospitable.

In Azerbaijan, it is a little more difficult. Some people simply don’t understand the concept while others want money in return. Make sure that it is extremely clear that you have no money or are not willing to pay at the beginning of the ride. Refuse the lift if necessary.

History

The tides of history have ebbed and flowed across the Caucasus region and the three states we know today – Armenia, Georgia & Azerbaijan are just the latest in a long line of kingdoms, khanates, emirates and republics that have claimed control of the region across human history.

Early states

As early as 669-627 BC the Assyrian Empire marked its borders by The Caucasus Mountains, sharing the space with other tribes including Armenia, Albania, Colchis and Iberia. These were soon swallowed up by various Iranian empires, including the Media and Achaemenid Empires, and subsequently the Parthia, and Sassanid Empires.

Christian Kingdoms

Around 300 A.D. Christianity began to overtake Zoroastrianism as the dominant religion in the region and the Christian kingdoms of Armenia, the Georgian kingdom of Kartli and the Albania tribe in modern day Azerbaijan embraced the new religion. Armenia became the first country in the world to establish Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD.

Arrival of Islam

Following the Muslim conquest of Persia in 7th century, the region came under the rule of the Arabs, and the Emirates of Tbilisi and later Armenia were formed. It was during this time that the first Armenian diaspora left their homeland in opposition to the Muslim conversion, as well as the introduction of Islam to Azerbaijan: a fact that would diverge the coarse of the nation from the Orthodox Armenia and Georgia. The Seljuk Turks, originating from central Asia, were the next tribe to try their luck in the Caucasus but were driven out by the Georgian monarchs David the Builder & Queen Tamar who ushered in the medieval golden age of Georgia culture.

Foreign Invaders

The next invading force to sweep across the Caucasus in the 13th century were the Mongol hordes, quickly followed by their ruthless descendent – the Asian conqueror Timur (Tamarand). The newly resurgent Ottoman Turks, fresh from the conquest of Constantinople, were next to gain control, claiming over half of Georgia, and all of Armenia (most of which it would keep to the present day).

Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower, Baku, Azerbaijan

Russia arrives

The great push south, which had been instigated by Russia in the early 18th century, soon saw the lands of Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Armenian parts not under Ottoman control incorporated into the Russian empire. The people of Georgia and Armenia, then predominantly Christian, accepted Russian hegemony as the lesser of two evils, offering protection from Turkish persecution. In Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and the historic region of Circassia where the people were largely Muslim, the bitter fight against Russian penetration continued for a good many years.

Russian Revolution

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Trancaucasia declared independence from Moscow, both ethnic and religious differences saw it split into 3 republics: Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. The region was subsequently invaded by Turkish armies but they were sent packing by a south-marching Red Army and the states were again thrown into an uneasy union, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

Independence

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia became independent states. Since then, the Caucasus region has been subject to various territorial disputes, leading to the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988–1994), the Ossetian-Ingush conflict (1989–1991), the War in Abkhazia (1992–93), the First Chechen War (1994–1996), the Second Chechen War (1999–2009), and the 2008 South Ossetia War.

People protesting on Freedom Square, Yerevan, Armenia

Food & Drink of the Caucasus

Caucasus cuisine is extremely varied but there are a number of common traits that run through each nation’s culinary culture. There are many Turkish and Persian influences present in the region, with meals typically coming in small portions spread across a number of dishes. Ingredients tend to be locally produced and common elements often include lamb, aubergine, and savoury herbs. Grilled skewered meat is particularly popular and is known as khorovats in Armenia, kebap in Azerbaijan, and mtsvadi in Georgia. The most common drink in the Caucasus is coffee, normally prepared in the Turkish style, but there are also a number of very interesting local tipples to try.

Flag of ArmeniaFood in Armenia is based around the ever present lamb, either as grilled shashlik which is then served with flat bread, or in soup (there are many varieties, but bozbash is very popular) or as a stew, often combined with fruit and nuts. There is also typical a spread of peppers and vine leaves stuffed with rice and meat, pickled and fresh vegetables and various kinds of cured meats (basturma) as a starter. Armenian cognac (brandy) is well known throughout the old Soviet Union, and a must try. Armenian wine is perhaps a little less known internationally but the Pomegranate variety in particular is delicious.

Flag of AzerbaijanLamb is the staple ingredient, and is present in many common dishes, and is typically seasoned with saffron, cinnamon and fresh coriander. Cabbage, grape leaves, and eggplant wrapped meat (kelem, yarpaq, badimjan = dolmasi), kebab (kabab) and rice with different variety of toppings (plov), are some of the many national dishes.

Flag of GeorgiaGeorgians pride themselves as being the food connoisseurs of the former Soviet Union and with some justification. The ever present khachapuri (a cheese filled bread, resembling a kind of cheese pie) is a locals favourite but can get a little sickly over time. khinkali (minced, spiced meat in a dumpling, served in enormous quantities) and mtsvadi, grilled chunks of marinaded pork or veal served on sticks with onions, are staple dishes, and a very good cheap eat option. For a quick snack ghvezeli (pastry) comes stuffed with meat, potatoes, cheese, or other ingredients and is sold in markets and by street side vendors. Georgian wine is rich and sweet, is usually served cold and plays a huge part in the traditional supra feasts, where a drinking horn is passed around to ensure constant drinking. Try the reds: Saperavi & Mukuzani and the whites: Kakheti, Tbilisuri and Tsinandali and experience the Georgian way of drinking!

Clay jars in Seki, Azerbaijan

Accommodation in the Caucasus

The choice of accommodation is not as abundant as it is in other parts of the world, although it is growing steadily as new visitors discovery the joys of this beautiful region. On the whole, high-range hotel are only present in the capital cities (Yerevan, Baku & Tbilisi). Hostels are, also, predominately available in the big cities only and organised camp sites are very rare indeed. If you are looking to camp, ask people if you can stay in their gardens, they are normally more than happy to oblige. Soviet-era hotels are dotted around the region in various states of disrepair, some lie abandoned whilst others have been converted into private hotels of generally very poor quality. The majority of the accommodation is privately offered homestays, B&Bs, guesthouses or pensions. Often these include a hot meal and mostly very warm hosts, although conditions vary and can be a bit Spartan at times.

 

A unique place to spend the night, try the caravanserai in Sheki, Azerbaijan. This elegant former road side inn, is a little pricey but might just be worth it for the décor itself.

Shaki Caravanserai, Azerbaijan

Flag of ArmeniaArmenia

Flag of AzerbaijanAzerbaijan

Flag of GeorgiaGeorgia

Hotel

11,000 – 34,000 AMD

50 – 86 AZD

96 – 244 GEL

Hostel

4,500 – 11,000 AMD

16 – 33 AZD

10 – 38 GEL

Homestay

7,000 – 12,000 AMD

16 – 25 AZD

36 – 60 GEL

Language

The Caucasus area is a hotbed of different language groups, languages and dialects. The Turkic Azeri, the Indo-European Armenia and the Caucasian Georgian are all extremely varied and carry no understanding from one to the other. Russian is the Lingua Franca of the region and is used and spoken by almost all natives when meeting a tourist. Learning a few words of the native tongue will not harm you one bit, however.

Flag of ArmeniaThe Armenian language (հայերեն [hɑjɛˈɾɛn] hayeren) is an Indo-European language spoken by Armenians throughout the region and by the Armenian diaspora beyond. The language has its own Armenian alphabet, invented in 405–406 AD and is rich in tricky consonant clusters. There are, in fact, today two, not always mutually intelligible, variants of Armenian, spoken in the world today: Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian, the latter being spoken by the Armenian diaspora.

Flag of AzerbaijanAzerbaijani or Azeri (Azərbaycanca, Azərbaycan dili) is a language belonging to the Turkic language family and is divided into two varieties: Northern Azerbaijani and Southern Azerbaijani. It is predominately written in the western Latin script although with a few additional letters.

Flag of GeorgiaThe Georgian language (ქართული [kʰartʰuli] kartuli) is a Kartvelian language with its own unique alphabet, the Georgian script. Its closest cousins are the minority languages of Svan, Megrelian and Laz and it itself consists of many different dialects. It contains a fiendishly difficult verb system and is prone to consonant clusters. There is also no distinguishing pronouns for he, she or it. Due to its history at the crossroads of competing cultures, the language has absorbed many loan words from Persian, Greek, Turkish and Russian.

McDonald's in Tbilisi, Georgia

Travel Costs

lari banknotes

Flag of ArmeniaArmenia

Flag of AzerbaijanAzerbaijan

Flag of GeorgiaGeorgia

Restaurants
Meal, Inexpensive Restaurant
3,000 AMD 8.00 AZD 12.24 GEL
3-course meal for 2, Mid-range Restaurant
10,000 AMD 31.19 AZD 40.00 GEL
Combo meal at fast food restaurant 2,069 AMD 7.00 AZD 12.00 GEL
Beer (0.5l draught) 584.87 AMD 2.43 AZD 2.00 GEL
Cappuccino (regular) 725.65 AMD 3.04 AZD 3.63 GEL
Water (0.33l bottle) 166.75 AMD 0.36 AZD 1.57 GEL
Markets
Loaf of Fresh White Bread (500g) 225.07 AMD 0.36 AZD 0.76 GEL
Rice (white), (1kg)
562.24 AMD 1.57 AZD 3.03 GEL
Local Cheese (1kg)
2,356.22 AMD 5.30 AZD 7.78 GEL
Chicken Breast, (1kg)
1,955.83 AMD 4.42 AZD 8.24 GEL
Oranges (1kg)
731.87 AMD 2.10 AZD 2.45 GEL
Water (1.5l)
266.66 AMD 0.67 AZD 1.09 GEL
Bottle of Wine (Mid-Range)
2,000.00 AMD 8.00 AZD 9.00 GEL
Beer (0.5l)
381.92 AMD 1.26 AZD 1.73 GEL
Pack of Cigarettes (Marlboro)
600.00 AMD 2.00 AZD 3.00 GEL
Transportation
One-way Ticket (Local Transport) 100.00 AMD 0.20 AZD 0.51 GEL
Taxi Start (Normal Tariff)
600.00 AMD 1.09 AZD 2.00 GEL
Taxi 1km (Normal Tariff)
103.50 AMD 0.76 AZD 0.65 GEL
Petrol (1l)
505.86 AMD 0.65 AZD 2.17 GEL

Backpackijng and Hitchhiking in the Caucasus

written by: Jon

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