Meet me in Tbilisi

T-Bill I See

One of the things I noticed when I began researching our upcoming trip to Tbilisi, Georgia and Yerevan, Armenia were the home cities of travelers posting hotel reviews on Trip Advisior.com.

A few were Europeans living in Poland or Ireland or Sweden or the United Kingdom. More common were postings from people visiting Tbilisi and Yerevan from Baku, Baghdad, Dubai, Estonia or Kiev. Among 20 reviews for the the hotel I choose in Tbilisi's old town, one was written by an American.

The little cartoon above says a lot about why we'll be exploring a bit of the South Caucasus region this spring. We're hooked on the adventure of visiting cities nobody has ever heard of, in countries that formerly didn't exist, in places nobody can point to on a map (let alone spell).

Maybe it's the languages. 

A sample of written Georgian: ძალა ერთობაშია 

A sample of written Armenian: Հայաստանի Հանրապետություն 

Maybe it's the food, especially the Georgian khinkali, little volcano-shaped dumplings, best enjoyed by sucking out the juices before taking the first bite, and discarding the tops so everyone can see how many you've eaten. 

Maybe it's the chance for quirky discoveries. For instance...

*Tbilisi has a George W. Bush Avenue  (as does Albania where we visited a few years ago). 

*Armenia has the world's oldest shoe, a 5,500-year-old leather moccasin found in a cave a few years ago. 

*There are traffic jams around the Tbilisi airport at 4 a.m. because most international flights leave or arrive in the middle of the morning. 

Tom found some interesting descriptions of landmarks while researching locations online. Apple Maps lists an artwork outside the airport as "Big Grape.'' Well...Georgia is one of the oldest wine-making regions in the world, with 520 original varieties of grapes. Since our flight arrives in Tbilisi at 2:40 a.m., we should have plenty of time to discover which one warrants its own sculpture piece. 

So where in the world will we be exactly? Tom has posted a map on my Caucasus blog. Technically, we'll be in Southwestern, Asia, called the Caucasus because the area is surrounded by the Caucasus mountains, in a part of the world that shares a history, cultural, culinary and religious traditions with neighboring Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Georgia borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia, the Black Sea and Azerbaijan. Armenia, in the highlands surrounding the Ararat mountains where biblical references place Noah's Ark after the flood, borders Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran and Turkey. 

Keeping track of a long history of conflict in this region is difficult. Everyone, of course, is watching how the Russian separatist movement in the Ukraine is unfolding. Most Georgians support integration with Europe, given that the country is among the most progressive and economically stable of the former Soviet republics. The Ukraine conflict is reminiscent of Georgia's five-day war with Russia in 2008 when the country lost two break-away territories - Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Thousands of people were uprooted from their homes and relocated to other parts of Georgia. 

Land borders between Turkey and Armenia remain closed (Anyone wanting to travel between the two countries must go through Georgia first) over Turkey's refusal to acknowledge what's become known as Armenian Genocide during World War I. And Armenia and Azerbaijan are in dispute over the status Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated region, assigned to Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s by Moscow. 

All reasons to travel and learn more about this part of the world.

We're bookending our trip with a few days in Marseille in France, where I have a freelance assignment, and some time in Istanbul at the end. That's three weeks in four countries, with four currencies and four languages.

Logistics

A lot of people ask how we go about planning our trips. Flying "Open Jaw,'' meaning you fly into one city and out of another, often costs the same or even less than flying round-trip, and you get the bonus of getting to experience another city. So instead of flying round-trip between Seattle and Tbilisi, I booked a Delta ticket into Marseille (via a connection in Amsterdam) and out of Istanbul via Paris to Seattle. The total ticket price was $1,100 each.

We're using Pegasus Airlines, a discount Turkish carrier, to get between Marseille and Tbilisi and Tbilisi and Istanbul. These little airlines are able to charge less because they bid for cheaper landing slots at airports. The Pegasus flights in and out of Tbilisi, for instance, arrive and leave very early in the morning. Our flight gets in at 2:40 a.m., so I booked our hotel for the day before so we would have a place to sleep when we arrive.  Normally, we'd take a bus from the airport (Airporter buses run 24 hours a day in Tbilisi), but given the odd arrival hour and language barrier, we booked an airport pick-up service through out hotel. 

Hotels

We usually look for smaller, family-owned hotels or B and Bs. The Silver Hotel in Tbilisi's Old Town looked good from the reviews I found online. I booked through Booking.com which many of the hotels seem to prefer, then followed up with an e-mail directly to reconfirm and make sure everything was in order. The rate is about $90 per night, with breakfast, cash only. No deposit required. I also used Booking.com to book the Town Palace ($84 a night, with breakfast) in Yerevan, Armenia. It's a fairly new hotel in a renovated historic building with the conveniences that make traveling easier in a country where the language is difficult - English-speaking staff, free Wi-Fi, 24-hour reception desk etc. For one more night in Tbilisi on our way back from Yerevan, we splurged on the British House, a classy boutique hotel  near the embassies and government offices. At $117, it's a bit over our usual budget, but sounds worth it, given we have to be at the airport in time for a 4 a.m. flight to Istanbul. 

Visas by e-mail 

Both Armenia and Turkey require U.S. citizens to have visas. Turkey is phasing out its visa-on-arrival system, so we obtained ours' online, a quick and easy process that cost $20 each. We also applied for our Armenian visas online ($10 each), but ran into a scary snag when an e-mail came saying we were rejected! I panicked and e-mailed the Armenian embassy in Washington D.C. The phone rang a few minutes later. It was an embassy official calling to explain that we had applied to early - more than 60 days in advance of our trip. Whew! I waited a few weeks and reapplied with no problems. 

Packing

Carry-on only. With all these connections, no way we're risking losing our luggage or wasting previous travel time waiting around at baggage claim. Most people are surprised how much they can fit into a regulation carry-on size suitcase. I'm taking two pairs of shoes, five pants (black pants and nice tops sub for a skirt since taking a skirt would require more shoes), 7-8 tops, 11 socks and underwear (enough to wear and wash once), two scarves, a warm vest, camera, small hair dryer, liquids/cosmetics, iPad, fold-out keyboard, notebooks, phone, charges, adapter plugs, some printed reference materials and torn out pages of guidebooks. As usual, we plan to either do or have some laundry done along the way.

Touring around

There are so many options these days for independent travelers who like to poke around on their own without joining a big tour group. In Tbilisi and Yerevan, we plan to take several walks and day trips with Envoy Hostels, two hostels that offer cool day and evening walking tours around town and trips into the countryside with English-speaking guides. In Yerevan, for instance, we signed up for a day trip that includes a hike, a village visit, lunch with a family and a meeting with a musician who makes traditional instruments. Cost is around $40 per person. In Marseille, we'll spend part of a day exploring with two volunteers from the Marseille/Provence Greeters, part of the Global Greeters Network, a worldwide organization that connects visitors with locals. Finally,  it never hurts to put the word out on Facebook to friends with contacts. Thanks to friends here in Seattle and in London, we have plans to meet up with a journalist living in Yerevan and another friend of a friend living in Tbilisi. 

Check back here or on my Caucasus blog for reports on the people we meet, the food we eat, the politics, the history, and the story of the Big Grape and the Old Shoe, and other mysteries yet to unfold.

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