So….17 days until I leave LA for 17 days, to visit Serbia et al. I’ll be flying into/out of Budapest because the flights were a lot cheaper. Right now I’m a little stalled out on my trip- I am waiting to hear back whether or not I’ll have the opportunity to meet with famed trumpeter Demiran Ceremovic in Vranje. I’ve half a mind to head down there anyway, it’s supposed to be beautiful, and so much of the best Serbian music comes from South Serbia anyway.
In the meantime I am researching other stuff I want to do. I definitely am going to try to visit Studenica Monastery, and hopefully Stari Ras and Sopocani which are not very far from there. At that point it really depends. Go straight to Vranje via Niš? Head through Kosovo and hit some more monasteries? Head through Kosovo OR southeast Serbia, visit Skopje, then visit Vranje? Skip that altogether, back to Belgrade, and maybe an extra couple days in Hungary? It’s all up in the air and not usually the way I like to travel. What I’ve been doing is collecting info on bus and train schedules so I can at least know my options and about how long they’ll take.
So in order to alleviate my indecision, I decided to work on an itinerary for a trip I’d like to take next summer, perhaps during my summer break at the end of August. It’s inspired by a conversation I used to have with my former bandmates of Galata Ensemble, about how we were going to visit “roots”, and go to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. I’ve caught up a smidgen with the guys (one of whom is Turkish and the other who is Azeri heritage, from Iran), since I spent a week in Turkey this past New Year’s. It’s a start, at least.
So here goes! Maybe this will help you plan a brief-ish budget trip to the Caucasus.
Need: 65,000 United miles, + $100ish for flights (potentially excepting Istanbul-Baku, Batumi or Sochi-Istanbul. Have to do some research to see if I could make it happen with miles instead of cash. Cash, probably $200 for this if bought ahead of time)
Land costs: I’m gonna estimate a very conservative $50/day. Food is uber cheap, transport is uber cheap, hostels/hotels/homestays more expensive. Do your research here. I’m hoping to stay with some friends of friends in major cities, and maybe couchsurf here and there to help with costs. Better to have more money than less.
Azerbaijan: $160 (yikes!) BUTTTTT…according to the US Dept of Gov site, if you book accomodation through a licensed operator, it’s only $20. BIG difference. I will look into this for sure if I actually go!
Georgia: no visa needed, yay! Just a valid passport for travel of up to 360 days in length
Armenia: Single entry visa at port of entry is about $8 currently. It’s valid for 21 days. You can purchase longer ones for a higher price.
Turkey (in case you spend any time there after flying to Istanbul, or at the end of your trip): $20 US at port of entry. I did this in December, super straightforward @ Ataturk airport.
Day 0: Fly to Istanbul, fly to Baku, Azerbaijan
Baku, Azerbaijan (2 days) Visit city bazaar (UNESCO), Gobustan outside the city (UNESCO- bubbling mud volcanoes!!!), Atesgah of Baku (old Zoroastrian fire temple). Hobnob with corrupt oil magnates and chill by the Caspian. Don’t mention you like Greg Palast.
Sheki, Azerbaijan (2 days) Stay in old Caravanserai, which has been converted to a hotel. Or try a local homestay. Visit the Khan’s Palace and do some amazing hiking. There’s apparently some “cold springs” nearby, waterfalls, etc. More info, see here: http://wikitravel.org/en/A_Week_in_Sheki
Travel to Georgia (1/2 to one day, I don’t press my luck)- Marshrutka to Balakan (1-2 hr); Taxi to border (1-2 Euros, quick); Walk 4km across border, or take taxi, to Georgian town of Lagodekhi; Minibus to Sighnaghi (1-2 hr?). “rest” evening in Sighnaghi, get some good food and wine!
Sighnaghi (1 day) Wine tasting and local folkloric life. Take minibus to Tbilisi either late (last one is at 5 or 6pm) or 1st thing the next morning.
Tbilisi (2 days) Lotta stuff to do here. Ton of museums, sulfur baths, hiking, ruins (especially Mtskheta outside the city- UNESCO). If you need to get your Asian/American/Indian etc food fix, this is the place to do it. Buy amazing goodies at the market.
Yerevan, Armenia (2 days). Couple UNESCO sites near the city, monasteries. I love the work of Alan Hovhaness so I would love to perform some of that there, maybe find some church ruin and jump right in. If you had a car, you could potentially drive from Tbilisi to Yerevan, stopping at some more monasteries on the way back (Haghpat and Sanahin, near the Georgia-Armenia border. Both are UNESCO and reported to be stunning, and still in use!)
–overnight train back to Tbilisi–
–flight to Mestia, in Svaneti region–
Mestia, in Svaneti mountainous region, Georgia (2-3 days at least). This area is reported to be beautiful. Amazing, amazing hiking. The highest human settlement in Europe is located here. The entire region is a UNESCO area.
–fun flight on the way back! On Saturdays the Georgian military runs a flight from Mestia to Kutaisi. It’s a short flight and only costs $15. I’d check to make sure it was running- more info on Wikitravel’s Mestia page http://wikitravel.org/en/Mestia. It would save a lot of time if you can plan it for Saturday!
Kutaisi (1 day) Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery are both UNESCO sites located here
Batumi (1-2 days) express train leaves 9am, takes 3 hrs. Chill at the beach.
Add-ons to trip, that I’m not sure are entirely possible:
@ beginning: Start from as far as Astrakhan, Russia. Come down the Caspian coast to Daghestan, visiting the UNESCO ruins of Derbent (a 5,000 old city that’s reportedly the oldest in Russia). There is so much diversity in Daghestan, it sounds super cool. Except for the civil unrest, and the uncertainty of whether or not you can actually cross the border into Azerbaijan. Oops.
OR, start in Iran, visiting sites in the Azeri province in the NW of the country. As a US citizen I would have to get a tour organized for me, and fly into the country rather than the train. I wouldn’t be doing it on this trip since I probably wouldn’t have the most time, besides all the hassle. And I think the more secular states of Georgia and Azerbaijan sound a lot more fun for where I’m at at this point of my travel career. Just too much uncertainty there which is too bad. If you were a citizen of a country that’s on better terms w/Iran, and especially if you were a guy, could be a couple of interesting days to add on.
@ end of trip:
There’s apparently a ferry to Sochi, Russia, another resort town similar to Batumi. The Russian Caucasus mountains are reportedly also unbelievably beautiful, and also a UNESCO site. Facilities should be great next summer, because of the olympics next winter. Also a quick/cheap flight back to Istanbul. Double check on that ferry since it’s unclear whether or not it’s actually running! Bad news though: visas to Russia are expensive and a pain in the a$$. Will they continue to loosen requirements for travelers, especially post-Olympics? We shall see…
Visit eastern Turkey (I’m interested in Kars (one of Gurdjieff’s home towns), Lake Van, and Kurdistan). I don’t think I’ll be able to fit it in on that trip either.
***BONUS POINTS TRAVEL HACK***
North America to Europe costs 60,000 United miles in economy. If your “destination” is North Asia, South Asia, or Japan, it’s only 5,000 miles more! Just “stopover” in Europe (here, Istanbul). Yes, your stopover can be longer than the destination! I’m looking at Indonesia though I haven’t gotten it to price yet. You might have to call, and have better luck.
Indonesia is cheap. Visa on arrival is $25. Lots of amazing food, beaches, UNESCO sites, hiking. What more can you ask for? Estimated budget per day is $20-25.