Georgia is the dividing line between Asia and Europe. Once the ancient kingdoms of Colchis and Kartli-Iberia, they were invaded by the Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongolians, and the Ottomans before being forcibly absorbed into Russia in the nineteenth century. After seventy years of communism, independence was declared by Georgia in 1991.
The landscape is mountainous and rugged; the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains lie in the north and south respectively. Largely agricultural, Georgia is famed for its wines. It has been a cultural melting pot for thousands of years and this is evident in Georgia’s culture and food.
Although the economy is slowly recovering and Tbilisi is well set up for tourists, traveling outside of the capital is not so easy. As a traveler you must be very up-to-date with the current situation with Russia. Separatist terrorism means that landmines and kidnappings are not unusual along the border. Do not travel alone or after dark, however, this should not deter you from visiting this cultural and gastronomic gem.
For up to date currency information, check the Currency Converter.
The currency in Georgia is the Lari, but US dollars and Russian rubles are also useful to have on you. They can be exchanged in shops in the larger cities. Traveler’s checks and credit cards are useless.
1GBP = approx. 3.5 GEL
1USD = approx. 2 GEL
1 Euro = approx. 2.5 GEL
The Currency in Armenia is the Dram. Exchange traveler’s checks and US dollars either at the Arm-econobank in the capital city, Yerevan, or through market traders. There are no ATMs and very few exchange booths in Armenia.
1 GBP = approx. 1000 AMD
1 USD = approx. 500 AMD
1 Euro = approx. 600 AMD
The currency in Azerbaijan is the Azerbaijani Manat. US dollars are also widely accepted. In Baku, traveler’s checks and credit cards may be useful. Some restaurants will give cash advances on cards. Accommodation is still state run and as a result is very basic.
1 GBD = approx.10,000 AZM
1 USD = approx.5,000 AZM
1 Euro = approx.6,000 AZM
For per diem living expenses in all three countries, expect to budget for $20 to $50 a day, although in most places $25 a day will be realistic.
Georgia has a population of five million people, largely Georgian (70%), with 20% of the population come from the neighboring countries of Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan and the other 10% comprised of other immigrants. The Republic of Armenia is 93% Armenian, while there are also communities of Azeris, Russians, and Kurds living in the country. Although geographically tiny, the Republic of Azerbaijan has the biggest population at nearly 8.5 million. 90% of the people are Azeri, whilst 10% are Russian and Dagestani nationals.
Georgia and Armenia are mostly Orthodox countries, although an Armenian Apostolic community can be found in Georgia, while Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. Remember to be respectful and cover up in religious buildings.
When traveling in Georgia, it’s probably wise to use a combination of air travel, hire car (but beware of car jacking), and train, depending on where you are traveling to and from. Assess the situation once you are there. Travel is made more difficult due to bad road markings and conflict zones. In Armenia, traveling by bus is your best bet or hire a car. All transport is very expensive, however, due to the fuel blockade by Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, taking the bus makes the most sense; it’s cheap and quick. When in Baku, do be aware that the state of the subway leaves a lot to be desired and taxis may be a safer option for getting around the city.
This part of Central Asia does not pose any particular health risks for the traveler, unless venturing into the border areas where there is currently conflict; be warned that bombings, kidnappings, car jacking and petty crime (such as muggings and pick pocketing) is not uncommon. Georgia is considered one of the most lawless countries in the world and a Brit was recently assassinated there. Research the current situation carefully.
As former Soviet states, Russian is spoken in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In Georgia, all three of the region’s tongues are also spoken. In Armenia, Azeri and Kurdish are spoken in addition to Armenian and Russian. Russian and Azeri are the only languages spoken in Azerbaijan.
Climate and When to Go
May to October is the best time to travel through this part of Central Asia. There will be less snow on the ground in Georgia, Armenia will be carpeted with beautiful wild flowers (although if you’re a skier January or February is a better time to go), and Azerbaijan will be hot – possibly as hot as 38C in peak summer. Avoid Azerbaijan during Ramadan at the end of the year if you’re not Muslim, finding food and coping with the sundown rush home will be difficult. Hordes of tourists are not something you’ll encounter at any time of year in these countries. Visit Georgia in September to October when the Harvest Festival is a big countrywide event and you will see many traditional marriage celebrations taking place.
Georgia is renowned for its food; a combination of spices, herbs, garlic, meat, fruit, nuts, and vegetables characterizes the national dishes like example satsivi and chanakhi. Dinner is accompanied by complicated traditions and customs that are led by a tamada (toastmaster). This is often the environment in which disputes are settled peacefully. Georgians are also well known for their wine – head to Kahketi to sample wine at the vineyards.
If you are lucky enough to be invited into someone’s home in Armenia you will not be disappointed with the food. The table will be piled high with dishes – all served at the same time. It is considered a bad reflection on the cook’s culinary skills to refuse to taste anything. Unfortunately, eating at restaurants is usually a very different experience and the many faceted recipes developed over thousands of years have been reduced to grilled meats. A better bet is to cook your own meals by visiting a shuka – a fresh food market where you can buy the freshest fruit, vegetables, and nuts. You will be overwhelmed by how many varieties of everything are available, and to see that peaches and apricots come from Armenia.
Azerbaijani food is influenced by Turkey, Georgia, and other Central Asian cultures with lamb as the main ingredient. In Azerbaijan, the food is much more heavily spiced, commonly with saffron, mint, fennel, and coriander. Dishes are also heavy on meat and meaty soups made with sheep fat are common. Whatever you eat you’ll be drinking black tea with it.
Visas for Armenia and Azerbaijan can be obtained on arrival. Visas for Georgia should be arranged before you depart from your home country from the Georgian Embassy, although Commonwealth Independent States (former U.S.S.R.) only require a valid passport.
Guide by Faye Welborn
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