georgia & armenia

adventures in the lands Where Europe meets asia

journey profile

Where: Tbilisi, Gori, Yerevan, Aragatson, Sanahin, Haghpat 
Georgia & Armenia, Eastern Europe and Western Asia
When: August 2012
What: Stalin Museum, Stalin’s Death Mask, Freedom Bridge, Kura River Cable Car, Soviet Architecture, Hiking, Visiting Armenian Nomads, Mount Aragatsotn, Tbilisi Clock Tower, Hilltop Armenian Monasteries.
How: International flights, Hostel transfer, Walking, Taxi, Cable Car, Marashutka.
Counter: 2 countries
Illnesses or mishaps: Being taken prisoner by a Georgian street child who took to linking her arms around my heels and refused to let go.


Georgia and Armenia reside on the borderline of western Asia and the extremities of eastern Europe. Small countries and two of three tightly-packed neighbours making up the trio of the Caucasus countries along with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's visa requirements proved to be too complex and expensive and thus the third of the Caucasus countries was relegated to, perhaps, a visit in the future. Ironic, considering our flight to Tbilisi from London travelled via Baku - the capital of Azerbaijan. We were not allowed to leave the plane at Baku but, on the return leg of the journey, I had the very lucky experience of seeing Baku's city skyline with its Flame skyscrapers and TV Tower. I first got a taste of Azerbaijan, like most people in Europe I would imagine, from this year's Eurovision, hosted from Baku's newly-built Crystal Hall. I can't claim to have been to Azerbaijan, and it's a shame we couldn't include it in our trip around this Europe/Asia crossroads experience, but I did get to see a rather spectacular sight - albeit from seat 16E of the aircraft.

The Caucasus is a region bedevilled with in-fighting and squabbling over scraps of land. If we were able to travel to Azerbaijan, we would have had to visit them in a certain order: Azerbaijan and Armenia are 'at war'. This means that Georgia acts as the 'link' country. We would have had to travel from Georgia to Azerbaijan, then back through Georgia to get into Armenia. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed and is the scene of regular violent skirmishes. Indeed, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises travellers to avoid these areas. Oh, and we would have to ensure there was no Armenian passport stamp in our passports when entering Azerbaijan - this has the potential to result in a refusal of entry by the Azeries. This situation effectively doubles your travel time - the three countries cannot be visited in any sort of circuit. Georgia is stuck in the middle of what is a very troubled region - tensions stoked by Russia which borders the northern edge of Georgia. Russia has recognised the break-away regions of South Ossettia and Ngorno-Karabakh. South Ossettia declared independence from Georgia - and Georgia wants the region back. Ngorno-Karabakh is full of Armenians but is slap bang in the middle of Azerbaijan. The frozen conflict means that the Caucasus is an unstable and fractious region. Each country has chosen a larger country to back it: Georgia with America; Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey; Armenia by Russia. What could be interpreted as a localised war has, because of these partnerships, real potential to spill over into something much more significant. So, just Georgia and Armenia it was to be. A foolish assumption would be that, as neighbours, these countries would have a lot in common. Culturally (in music and diet) they do. You will notice sunflower seed shells on the ground wherever you go. Both Georgians and Armenians eat these by the bucket load. Our Armenian guide says this dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union when people lost their jobs and sat around in their gardens and fields eating these seeds to pass the time. Everything else contrasts vividly. The two countries have strained political relations: Georgia wants to be part of the EU and NATO and is constantly courting diplomatic relations with the US, whilst Armenia allies itself with its old Soviet heavyweight, Russia. It does not need stating that the US and Russia are, let's say, on different pages.

Of course, this backdrop makes the region a fascinating place to visit. The 'frozen' nature of the tensions in this region mean it is a relatively safe place for travellers providing you steer clear from disputed territories. Crime is virtually non-existent in these countries - and both countries have made strides to move on from the darker days of Soviet rule, although both countries are struggling to find their own roles in a global arena. Both countries appear physically different; Georgia's capital is full of old town charm characterised by cobbled streets and verandahs, whereas Yerevan in Armenia is characterised by imposing pink stone buildings and huge boulevards. One capital embraces its Soviet past, the other is trying desperately to build itself away from it. Both countries are awash with churches and monasteries perched on high cliff edges which make for stunning views for a budding photographer like me. Also, both countries have some pretty poor people. Scenes outside of the capital cities consist of half-built and abandoned single story dwellings, rusting metal - in all its forms, everywhere. Outside of the capital cities and away from urbanites, many live as subsistence farmers surviving only on what they can grow. A common sight was to see makeshift stalls selling fruit and vegetables along the countrys' highways. It was very humbling to see just how poor some people are here. I even spotted horses and carts on a couple of occasions.

I felt our presence in Georgia turned heads - people watched us, eyeing us up and down. This was the case, but to a lesser extent, in Armenia too. It wasn't until the final day of our trip that we learned that wearing shorts is perceived to be odd, even a little offensive. Rewinding our trip in my mind I realised that very few, if any, Armenians or Georgians - despite temperatures reaching the late thirties, wore shorts. Wow. How strange. The only people wearing the aforementioned offending garment appeared to be tourists. Us included. I'm not sure having known this before we set off would have made any difference. Whilst I know you should try to be respectful when in another country, there is no way I could have coped with the heat in jeans or trousers. I would have worn shorts anyway. It does go to show that you can take nothing for granted when abroad. It was the trip where we kept losing things too - camera cases, credit cards, important tickets. A point to note when travelling to the Caucasus - cash machines work the other way round. They dispense the cash and then there is a long delay before releasing your card. In Britain your card is released first. Not a problem? Actually, yes it was because your mind is trained to walk away after you get your cash - meaning you walk away leaving your card in the machine. This happened to the man in front of us at the airport cash machine, it happened to Ben (he lost the card completely) and it happened to me when I needed to get Armenian Dinars out at the Georgia/Armenia border. Luckily for me, a border guard came running after me and, after a quick verbal skirmish about where we were from (London "Ah, Olympics" came his reply) I was safely on my way - with my travel credit card thankfully in tow.

Georgia and Armenia are interesting to visit in themselves, but are even more so when taken together as part of the same trip such are their contrasting characters. Expect lots of glum-looking and cold faces on your travels, but this is deeply rooted in the culture, so don't take it personally if the smiles you see are few and far between.




at the very edge of europe

Georgia has made great strides since independence from the USSR in 1991. It is a small country constantly under threat and intimidation by Russia which dominates its northern border. Georgia is firmly looking West-ward for its inspiration and future development. The current President, Mikhail Saakashvili, ousted Eduard Shevaardnadze (Grobachev's old Foreign Minister) in what was called the 'Rose Revolution' in 2003 - so named because it was a peaceful revolution when people stormed the Parliament in Tbilisi waving red roses. You can watch the dramatic storming of the parliament, here. Saakashvili sacked the entire police force in Georgia soon after taking power because it was corrupt and replaced it with young, newly-appointed officers. In 2008, when I was visiting Russia, Georgia and Russia went to war over South Ossettia - the Russians came to within miles of the capital Tbilisi. Georgia was forced into a humiliating climbdown against the brute force of Russia's military. Saakashvili pleaded, live on television hiding in the bunker beneath his palace perched on the hills of Tbilisi, for the Americans to help free what had become, not for the first time, a Russian-occupied Georgia. The US refrained from getting involved in what could spill over into a serious conflict between two world superpowers. Many Georgians are now anxious - worried about what Russia's next move will be. They fear that Russia will try to take control, by force or some other clandestine means, of Georgia once again, just as in Soviet days. The imprint of occupation from Soviet days is now even more indelibly etched in the minds of many Georgians.

A local delicacy in Georgia are cheese pasties. There are whole shops dedicated to them. Different shapes and sizes denote different cheeses or other contents. We ate these rather happily - tasty and ridiculously cheap considering the sheer size of them. One of these pasties would do for lunch. Lunch for 40p. Sorted. Another local delicacy in Georgia is, erm, the language. Unique to Georgia, the letters are a world away from anything I have seen before, looking like worms wriggling on lines. It is one crazy, but interesting-looking, language which adds to the overall sense of difference in this part of the world and genuinely points towards Asia and not Europe. Indeed, 'thank you' is 'Mad-lo-ba' in Georgian, which looks something like this: მადლობა.



the fairytale georgian capital

Tbilisi is a pastel-coloured place where old buildings crumble gracefully in pinks, blues and greens in a kind of fairytale poverty. Wooden verandahs and balconies draped with ivy defy gravity as the walls supporting them crack and split. The city's magic is furthered by the distinctly Georgian Orthodox churches and cathedrals scattered across the capital. Tbilisi is beautiful.

Unfortunately, interrupting this magic, are building works. Virtually every pavement and road is being dug up. There are huge piles of bricks and stones everywhere. The road where our hotel was located had a huge gorge running up the centre of it - workmen were re-laying drains (this meant that our hotel on the last night of the trip had no water). It is a building frenzy which should, in a few years, make Tbilisi look rather amazing and a great tourist destination. Georgia is off the beaten track as a tourist destination at the moment, but the country knows that a lot of its commercial success in coming years will be heavily influenced by tourism - this explains this level of investment in the capital. Some of this investment has resulted in rather impressive achievements like the Bridge of Peace, which lights up with LEDs inside the glass panels, as well as the new cable car taking you from the banks of the River Kura up to the hillside and old fortifications overlooking the city. A journey on this thing costs just 30p. Another development, still to be completed, is the Rike Park along the banks of the River Kura comprising of modern ergonomically-shaped seating, fountains and landscaped gardens. Very modern - and points in the Western direction where many Georgians see their future fortunes. And it will need all of the tourism it can get. Whilst taking in the Stalin palace architecture of the Academy of Sciences building, I became attached to a little girl who'd decided to link her arms around my ankles and then refused to let go. Clearly this was a ruse to show she was a desperate orphan so hungry she clings onto the nearest Westerner. It was weird. Even shouting at her did nothing. My only option was to walk away - dragging her with me. After two metres' worth of free transportation the little skank let go and I was able to resume my holiday.


The wavy shapes of Tbilisi's Bridge of Peace with the TV tower in the background.


Stunning sunset views over Tbilisi's new park, an evening rendevous point for Tbilisians in the evenings and, right, the park's red rose pattern - no doubt signalling to people of the investment and improvements brought by the Rose Revolution?


Tbilisi's crazy tin roofs as seen from the top of Narikala hill overlooking the capital and, right, the wooden verandas of Tbilisi - a key feature of the Georgian architectural landscape.


Soviet Tbilisi: Soviet geometric concrete designs now ripe for demolition and, right, the Stalin Place style of the Academy of Sciences building.


Soviet Tbilisi: The amazing Soviet criss-cross concrete structure of the old Ministry of Transport, now home to the Bank of Georgia and, right, the elegant white shapes of eastern Tbilisi's Wedding Palace building. Another Soviet experiment in concrete. 


The bizarre clock of Tbilisi Old Town. Its collapsing shape has been designed to mimic the collapsing buildings of the Old Town and, right, the Tbilisi Broadcasting Tower lit up at night. It flashes crazily. The Georgians love a bit of excess and bling. Georgian = exuberant.


Georgian balconies (1): Ivy-covered and ornate verandas are ubiquitous in Tbilisi.


Georgian balconies (2): A key part of the Old Town's architectural heritage.


The view from the top of Narikala Fort overlooking Tbilisi.


The gravity-defying dereliction in Tbilisi's Old Town. Honestly, it was a miracle so many of these were still standing. It is one thing to have old buildings close to collapse - it is entirely another to see people living in them. I have never seen such extreme examples of decay. These buildings are profoundly dangerous. I did notice on a few occasions that we were not the only foreigners to gasp at these sights.


The blue mosaics of Tbilisi mosque encroached upon by colourful embellished verandas and, right, the  spaghetti junction of gas and electricity pipes above ground is a common feature of Tbilisi suburbs.


Mother Georgia looks caringly on Tbilisi below.


The view over the Kura River as seen from our hotel's breakfast room. In this shot you can make out the TV tower on the hill to the right, Old Metekhi Church  and the Old Fort to the left. It's a rather lovely sight to wake up to.


The view over the Kura River as seen from our hotel's breakfast room. In this shot you can make out the TV tower on the hill to the right, Old Metekhi Church  and the Old Fort to the left. It's a rather lovely sight to wake up to.


The common sight of melons for sale along roadsides, August is the season and these are everywhere and, right, sitting in Tbilisi's new city centre park - Rike Park.


Two examples of Georgian church architecture in the capital.


The wonderful Sioni Cathedral.


The Holy Trinity Cathedral with its golden hat seen from Narikala Fortress Hill and, right, the Georgian Parliament - scene of the Rose Revolution and now with its Soviet hammer and sickle symbol chiselled off.


Hazy sunset view of Tbilisi skyline with the turret of the Academy of Sciences in the centre. A wonderful view of layered pastel colours.




the infamous stalin homeland of central georgia

Kyrgyzstan is famous for its horse riding, its Yurts and its stunning landscapes. It was our second 'Stan and relatively easy to get to from Almaty. Our journey to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, started at Sairan bus station on the edge of Almaty. Minibuses run regularly when they are full and, for 1800KZT (around £5), you get to travel the 200km in a minibus with a bunch of locals. It's about as authentic a travel experience as you can get. Kyrgyzstan has over a million tourists visiting every year, mainly attracting those interested in outdoor experiences like hiking, yurt stays or horse riding. It has a rich heritage rooted in a nomadic tribal culture - and horses play a central part of this tradition: "Horses are our wings" goes the Kyrgyz saying. The danger with Kyrgyzstan is that many a traveller might mistakenly dismiss it as a destination not worth the time or trouble to get to it. Anyone travelling to Kyrgyzstan has to get out into the mountains amongst yaks and shepherds, yurts and goats as this is the true beating heart of Kyrgyzstan. The capital is far less rewarding.

As with many countries in the USSR, Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991 and, after several revolutions since where the president has been overthrown (the last was in 2010), the country is a fair way along the road to becoming a sort-of stable and increasingly democratic country. Kyrgyzstan's Soviet history means that anyone with an interest in Soviet architecture and design will have plenty to enjoy here. Many USSR hallmarks, culturally and physically, are alive and kicking in Kyrgyzstan. There are, of course, horror stories which run parallel to this optimistic narrative: bride kidnappings, reports of plague, deadly plants and ticks and corrupt police officers shaking down tourists for a bribe are the main ones you will come across in any research you do on the country. These tales of potential woe are not exactly unfounded, and it would be unwise to ignore them, but do not let them put you off visiting a country with a hell of a lot to offer.

Having been crammed into hot, sweaty queues at the Kazazkh border, we walked around a small slice of no-man's land before getting to the Kyrgyzs border entry point. With a stamp in my passport, we entered into Kyrgyzstan - my 58th country‎ - our entry made all the more quicker by a driver who kept bursting into fits of laughter with his little sister as they endeavoured, with the help of a cheap sat nav, battered car and regular miscommunications, to get us to our hotel in the capital. Which they did. But only just.


Getting the marashrutka to Gori and, right, a boulevard, the most prominent in the town named after Stalin.


The Soviet-esque Hero statue. Like much in Gori, it is tired and down at heel and, right, the crazy-looking Georgian language points decidedly towards Asia. I think it looks rather superb.


Gori street scene: a characterful shop selling bottles of fizzy drinks.


The religious-like Stalin museum with its arches and columns -Gori's biggest (and only) tourist attraction.


The USSR crest on Stalin's armoured train carriage in the grounds of the museum and, right, the train seen through Soviet-era metal fencing with wheat motif.


Stalin's death mask, taken from an imprint of his face after his death in 1953. A really grim sight and deemed by some to be the 'centrepiece' or climax of a trip to the museum.




heading into western asia

Armenia is very poor. There are two Armenias - the capital city of Yerevan with its cafe culture and shopping boulevards. Then there is the large chunk of the population which lives in poverty out in more rural areas. Many Armenians consider themselves to be more Asian than European, although street culture in the capital, with its high-end boutiques, gestures firmly towards a western way of doing things. Something you will spot instantly in Armenia is that everything is peach-coloured. Many buildings have been tiled in the country's pink stone. The symbol of Armenia is the apricot - fitting as much of the landscape and buildings appear apricot-coloured. The blistering heat in August (which reached 37° during our trip) adds to the orangey haze of the place. Another point of difference is the prevalence of Lada cars - everywhere. Famous for being the Soviet car of choice during USSR times, it appears that many in Armenia are so poor they have not yet been able to ditch their Ladas and replace it with something better. The Armenian language is even more incomprehensible than Georgian, once again firmly gesturing towards Asia, rather than a European language using the Latin or Cyrillic alphabets. Indeed, 'Thank You' in Armenian is 'Shnorhakalootyoon' and looks like this: շնորհակալ եմ.

Whereas Georgia is striving to shrug off its Soviet history, Armenia almost hankers after it. Many in Armenia will tell you, as our tour guide did out on our trip out to the mountains, that many miss the security and employment which the USSR offered. It has been replaced with a market economy which has brought unemployment and uncertainty for the majority of Armenians who have little chance at making the market economy approach work for them. Interestingly, the large Stalin-palace-like building in Yerevan sports both the Armenian and Russian flags. Twenty years after independence, Armenians still look to Russia for stability and support. USSR symbols remain on key public buildings in Yerevan's Republic Square - no effort has been made to remove them as has happened in other former communist countries.

Our first impressions of Armenia were not exactly positive. Having exited the Georgian border, walked through about 200 metres of no-man's land and arrived at the official Armenian border, there was organised chaos. There were lots of army-style camouflage-wearing uniform men (smoking and patting each other on the back) who weren't really doing anything useful. Queues were backing up and, in the blistering heat, it was rather a unpleasant experience. Some countries should realise that having army personnel at a border does not elicit a warm welcome nor instil confidence in the tourist. Considering Armenia is officially still at war with Azerbaijan, I suppose this is, in the end, unsurprising. What a contrast with the air conditioned professionalism of the Georgian border. After receiving another two stamps on my passport (one for exciting Georgia and one for entering Armenia) we were on our way, zooming into the Armenian countryside and zooming towards the next leg of our Caucasus adventure.


Setting off on our leg from Georgia to Armenia in the tour van courtesy of the Envoy Hostel in central Yerevan. Right, leaving Georgia and crossing no-man's land.




the rose coloured capital of armenia

Yerevan has the name 'The Rose City' because many of its buildings have been constructed using local red stone. Many of the city's newest buildings have imitated this style, giving the place a very monotonous and overbearing feel. Huge boulevards were often mostly deserted during the heat of the day, but came to life once the intense heat had subsided, revealing a very western style street culture of eating ice-creams, sitting in parks drinking coffee and shopping in Giorgio Armani. Yerevan has some interesting and unique sights including the nearly-finished Cascades installation offering fantastic views of downtown Yerevan, as well as the fountain light display in Republic Square set to classical music - this we caught by pure chance following a tip-off from a man in a restaurant.

There were some bizarre sights too, such as the old Soviet cinema building, built out of concrete in the shape of the two peaked Ararat mountains. Armenians are obessed by the Ararat Mountains, the name is everywhere. 'Ararat Restaurant', 'Araratabank', 'Ararat Cafe' - the name is all over the country. This Armenian obsession is slightly ironic considering the mountain is actually in Turkey. It was, however, once part of Armenia. For Soviet memorabilia hunters, Armenia has plenty to offer. It is not uncommon to see Armenia's apartment blocks and closed underground shop units still displaying Armenia's very own take on the hammer and sickle motif - the symbol but with added wings! Aside from the more obvious signs of a communist past, arguably its past is all around, in every brick and every pavement, in every face and every statue. The place reeks of a Soviet past and, if just for this reason alone, Yerevan is a fascinating place to visit.


The patchwork-like reds and burnt orange colours of Yerevan's Republic Square. In the photograph bottom right you can see an embellishment containing the unmistakable symbolism of the USSR: wheat, stars and the hammer and sickle. This square was, in Soviet times, named Lenin Square. Despite its change in name, the square retains its hold to be the main gathering place for Yerevanians.


Some of the intriguing and wonderful geometric stone shapes of the Cascades fountains.


The wonderful sight of viewing the Yerevan skyline behind some of the statues and installations of the Cascades.


Yerevan's circular Opera House.


The old Soviet cinema concreted into the two peaks of the Ararat Mountains in Turkey (which used to be in Armenia). I love this building because of its sheer ugliness. We travelled several miles away from the city centre to see it.


Concrete, concrete everywhere - did no one stop to think? Much of the outskirts of Yerevan is characterised by drab and truly awful Soviet era buildings.


A cluster of monstrous apartment blocks - nothing unusual about them, except that from the air the blocks spell the letters 'CCCP' - or at least they would have, if the USSR had not fallen during their construction. CCCP is, therefore, only half spelt out. Right, a rusting Soviet symbol (with wings) graces the top of an apartment block.


The Stalin Palace of Yerevan's railway station built in 1956 with classic Soviet features including the five-sided star top. Notice this Armenian station carries the Russian flag!


The  recently built Surp Grigor Church whose angular domes are interrupted by the red and white stripes of the broadcasting tower behind. 


Two examples of some of the weird and intriguing cosmic concrete constructions to be found in and around Yerevan: arches and stars being popular Soviet shapes.


Mother Armenia surveys Yerevan below. This statue replaces the Stalin statue which used to stand on this pedestal. Right, the Christian monument at the top of the Cascades surveys downtown Yerevan.


The Yerevan Metro system (photography strictly prohibited) showing similarities between this and those in other Eastern Bloc countries. These designs were often influenced by Soviet successes in the space race, giving them a cosmic, science-fiction, quality. I think this architectural style is rather splendid, although more frequently than not, cheaply executed.



haghpat & sanahin

Exploring Northern Armenia's Hilltop Monasteries

Haghpat and Sanahin are two monasteries in the Lori province of northern Armenia. Armenians are very proud of their monasteries, many of which are perched high on hillsides for reasons of isolation and protection and which were built around a thousand years ago. As part of our tour taking us down into Yerevan from Tbilisi in Georgia, we stopped off at Haghpat monastery, which dates back to the tenth century and which overlooks the Debed River. Sanahin monastery is six kilometres away on an opposite hillside and is slightly older (indeed, the name 'Sanahin' translates as 'older than the other one' - meaning older than the other monastery at Haghpat - I kid you not). The buildings, when viewed in their rugged mountainous locations, look rather stunning and are a photographer's dream. Our whistle-stop tour of northern Armenia was a clever combination of the need to travel from Tbilisi to Yerevan and the desire to splice it with a bit of sightseeing, too. It was a deal we'd struck with a hostel back in Yerevan and was a chance to see a couple of key sights in a part of the country we would have just whizzed through in a van. At a cost of 20,000AMD (or £30) I think it was well worth it - we will only have the chance to see these hilltop monasteries once - and they are rather central to Armenian culture and heritage and so it would have been rude to refuse.


Stopping off for water using one of the natural springs. Travellers beware: do not drink from these and, right, the rugged Armenian countryside.


Haghpat Monastery literally built into the hillside. These monasteries all have remote locations because they were intended to be humble, solitary places for quiet reflection. Many religious buildings are brash and highly conspicuous. These monasteries were deliberately intended to blend in to the landscape. Their high positioning on mountaintops were also about quiet seclusion.


The mountains seen through one of the arches at Haghpat Monastery and, right, with a grassy roof. 


The mountains seen through one of the arches at Haghpat Monastery and, right, with a grassy roof. 


An Armenian rock lizard keeps a very close eye on what I'm doing with my camera before scurrying off. Right, the Sanahin Monastery's arches.


Two ecclesiastical cross stones at Haghpat Monastery and, right, the monastery's dramatic entrance.




mountain adventures with armenian nomads

The main sights in Yerevan can essentially be ticked off in a day depending on how big your list is. This left us a spare day and a chance to do something a little bit different - and a cha nce to escape the blistering heat of the capital. We opted for the 'Embracing Armenia' tour run by the Envoy Hostel in Yerevan. For 13,000AMD (£20), we were taken to the top of Mount Aragats - the tallest mountain in Armenia which still had snow on its four peaks. Just how high we were above sea level (3200m) was felt in how cold it was on the mountain, as well as the fact that my ears kept popping! We saw Lake Kari nestled in amongst the peaks before meeting the Yezdies family, a nomadic family living on the slopes of Mount Aragats. We were introduced to a one-day-old goat which bleated constantly during our brief stay, as well as Nashi the puppy (Nashi meaning 'decorated' in Armenian owing to his patterned coat). The family were really kind and had absolutely wonderful, smiling, characterful faces.

I also opted, despite the heat, to do the hike from Amberd to Byurakan village via the gorge at Kasakh, seeing some strange looking (and apparently rare) wild plants and flowers on my way. The trip around Aragatsotn concluded with lunch with a local family in their home - all made from local produce as well as meeting an internationally recognised musician who hand makes traditional Armenian instruments like the 'Duduk'. The cutlery we ate with during the meal was made in the USSR, stamped with the 'CCCP' letters on the handles (click here to view). The tour around Aragatsotn, meeting local nomads and hiking up the Kasakh gorge was a real highlight of the whole trip to Georgia and Armenia. It gave us a chance to see rural Armenia instead of just urban centres which can be a little superficial and manicured. We travelled with a wonderful Armenian guide called Maria (whose English was almost better than mine) and a couple now living in Italy (Cindy and Ricardo). Boarding the coach I had no idea whether I would be doing the hiking (which was optional) but decided to because, as my old travel mantra goes, we will only be there once and so might as well. I also hoped that there would be some good photo opportunities along the way, too. There were...


The Armenian Alphabet Monument in the Byurakan area commemorating 1600 years of the language. In commemoration, it was given a gift of 39 giant, carved Armenian letters, strategically placed near the final resting place of the man who created the alphabet, Mesrop Mashtots.


The view of Lake Kari nestled in the middle of the peaks of Mount Aragats. This photograph was taken 3200 metres above sea level. Notice the last dregs of snow still clinging to the peaks.


The Yezdies make their own cheeses which we tasted when there. The fire is lit by using cow dung (which you can see under white sheeting in the background). Here they are stirring a vat of it.


Gorge view during hike.


Amberd Fortress and Temple of Amberd overlooks the gorge and, right, starting our hike down into the gorge and up again.


The Aragatsotn region of Armenia is world renowned for having some very rare and odd looking plants and flowers. Here are some I managed to snap during my hike through the gorge. I love the lilac spiky plant far right. It positively glowed.


Grapes growing in Byurakan village, part of a sustainable community approach to food where different neighbours specialise in one type of food and then sell them to each other. Right, overlooking the gorge gives you a sense of the mountains' interlocking nature - rather spectacular views which were well worth the battle with the heat and nettle/insect stings.




The fountain show in Yerevan's Republic Square.

The view of Tbilisi.



travel tips

  • Consider your route carefully if you are wanting to travel to all three countries. Georgia is the transit country for both Azerbaijan and Armenia because, technically, both of these countries are at war. You can get into Armenia with an Azeri stamp, but not the other way round. Plan out the order of your trip carefully.
  • Be mindful when wearing shorts - some in Georgia find these too informal for public spaces.
  • You simply must try one the the huge Georgian cheese pasties. They are delicious and cheap.
  • The Envoy Hostel in Yerevan offers the opportunity of mixing transfers between Armenia and Georgia with the chance to stop-off and do a bit of tourism along the way - a great way of maximising your journey and a chance to see things you would otherwise miss as you wizz by. Prices are reasonable.


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