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Our first encounter with the Caucasus
Goris (Armenia) to Sighnaghi (Georgia), April 2014

Never before we visited the Caucasus. This part of Europe, or should we say Asia, was completely unknown to us. All that we knew from the region, were the stories on the news channels about the violence and misery that has plagued the area in recent decades. Names of regions such as Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan are connected to misery. These are all areas in the Caucasus, which in some way struggle to pursue some kind of an autonomy. It is an area with a great diversity of peoples and cultures, who somehow have to learn to live with each other. However, the reality is different: you may come to the quick conclusion that the current situation in the area isn’t very hopeful.

If we talk about the Caucasus, most people probably think about the three ‘typical’ Caucasus countries, namely Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. These three countries are safe now and have a lot to offer to travellers However, north of the Caucasus Mountains, lie the problem areas that belong to Russia. Think of Dagestan, North Ossetia, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. All these regions provide a decent headache for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and none of the regions is currently safe to visit. So we don’t. However, the South Caucasus is safe. So it’s no problem to steer our jeep through Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Home made wine for sale in Coca Cola bottles along an Armenian road

Armenia is the poorest country of the three, and for this reason this may also be the most interesting country to visit. The years seem to have stood still here so you quickly get the feeling to be landed in the Soviet Union of the past. Bad roads, old Russian cars, poor villages and Soviet-style buildings dominate the country. However, the scenery is beautiful and the rich history of the country results in an interesting mix of sights. Highly recommended! If you cross the border with Georgia, then you immediately notice that you are in another country. The old cars from the Soviet era have largely disappeared and the roads are often in good condition. The villages and towns look much wealthier. That in itself is remarkable, because the Gross National Product per capita, only differs one hundred U.S. dollars per year between the two countries (US$ 5600 for Georgia and US$ 5500 for Armenia [in 2011]). Georgia probably has its state finances better in order so that they can significantly invest more in public facilities.

Georgia also is a wonderful country to visit and the most popular holiday destination in the South Caucasus. The beautiful Black Sea coast, great national parks, old churches and forts, good wine, friendly people and a sublime landscape in the northern part of the country make Georgia a popular destination. Eventually we had to decide whether we would also bring a visit to the third country of the South Caucasus: Azerbaijan. After deliberation, we decided not to go. There are a number of reasons for this decision. First of all, Azerbaijan is a relatively expensive country. It is blessed with plenty of oil and that resulted in the prices to rise considerably in recent years. Finding a room in an areas of interest, for under fifty Euro per night, is quite a task. In addition, Azerbaijan is a nightmare for drivers of private vehicles. Corrupt police officers are very active to fine drivers of vehicles with foreign license plates and ‘motivate’ them to pay a bribe to quicken the whole process. Also the rules concerning the temporary import of a car in Azerbaijan are not clear and unambiguous. Some drivers had to pay a hefty deposit at the border, while others were required to pay substantial amounts for a 'road tax'. All in all, some Azeri people do not hesitate to ‘earn’ some money from foreigners if possible. Then after quite some reading about the sights in the country, we concluded to skip this destination.

A road in bad condition in the northern part of Armenia

What is our plan for the near future? Firstly, we want to stay for a few more weeks in Georgia. Some mountain passes in the higher Caucasus Mountain regions are not open yet due to the snow. In the first half of May this seems to change. We also keep a close eye on the news because we wish to travel through Russia to Kazakhstan. However, our fear is that the frictions between Russia and Europe, concerning Ukraine, will lead to a deterioration of the situation in the region, making travelling in Russia with a car with European license plates probably unwise. And because travelling through Russia is also the only cheap option is to get the car back from Central Asia to Europe somewhere in the summer, we are very interested in the relations between Europe and Russia. But for now we stay for some weeks more in Georgia, and time will tell what the next step will be.

Us and our host in a small guesthouse in Vardzia (Georgia)
A train carriage used as bridge near Ninotsminda in southern Georgia
Yes, it is still driving
A view over Tbilisi, Georgia's capital city
A cow that didn't survive the harsh winter
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