Exploring the mountains, glaciers, and ancient architecture of Eurasia with expert Rob Smurr
Join MTS Senior Guide and Evergreen Professor Rob Smurr on this fabulous journey from the Azerbaijan to Georgia! As one of the first cradles of civilization, the Caucasus Mountains have served as an important crossroads on the ancient trade routes between East and West. This area weaves a complex tapestry of cultures, languages, and histories that is as abundant in historical monuments as it is in magnificent natural landscapes. Immerse yourself through several eras of history with guided tours of three of the Caucasus’ most important cities— Baku, Sheki, and Tbilisi. Hike through magnificent alpine landscapes, and see the majestic Mt. Ushba, “the Matterhorn of the Caucasus.” Walk along babbling brooks and heather glades, and explore scenic, medieval villages. Visit the ancient cave monasteries of Vardzia, taste the distinctly rich wine of Kakheti, and take a breathtaking flight over dramatic peaks. Reward yourself after a 3-day trekking and camping adventure on the beaches of the Black Sea. Ancient mosques, snowcapped peaks, 11th century watchtowers, crackling glaciers, rolling vineyards, and friendly people make this one of the most surprising adventure destinations you’ll ever experience.
5 Days of moderate hiking on uneven terrain with 10 Days easy walking and cultural touring, 14 nights in hotels, and 2 nights camping.
- Explore this ancient cradle of civilization from the Black to the Caspian Sea with MTS Senior Guide and regional expert, Evergreen Professor Rob Smurr!
- Immerse yourself in several eras of history with guided tours of Baku, Sheki, and Tbilisi
- Hike along magnificent alpine landscapes, glaciers, and heather glades, and through scenic, medieval villages
- Visit the ancient cave town of Vardzia, taste the wine of Kakheti, and take a breathtaking flight over the dramatic Caucasus Mountains
- Reward yourself after a 3-day trekking and camping adventure with a full day of sun and fun on the beaches of the Black Sea
- Ancient mosques, snowcapped peaks, 11th century watchtowers, crackling glaciers, rolling vineyards, and friendly people make this one of the most surprising adventure destinations you’ll ever experience.
Duration: 17 days Start Location: Baku, Azerbaijan End Location: Tbilisi, GeorgiaDownload Detailed Itinerary
Day 1 : Arrive in Azerbaijan
Arrive in Baku, Azerbaijan, and transfer to our hotel in town. Tonight we will enjoy a festive welcome dinner with our guide and the rest of our group.
Day 2 : City Tour in Baku and Surroundings
There has been one settlement or another around Baku since at least the 5th Century. The city has been run by Arabs, Turks, Persians, the Azeri Shirvanshahs, and finally the Russians, temporarily in the 1720's and permanently from 1806 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.
Virtually all of Baku's current wealth is a result of the abundance of oil which exists here. With the large scale oil extraction that began in the 1870's, Baku saw an undisciplined explosion of growth and wealth. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country and although it may at times seem like an extension of Soviet Central Asia, it is, ethnically and linguistically, Turkie with the inhabitants speaking Azeri Turkish.
We'll explore the Old Town which is a medieval fortress town that was strong enough to withstand a long Mongol Tatar siege in the 13th century. We'll enter through the Shemakha Gate and wander through narrow streets stopping at the 12th century Lezgi Mosque. Continue on to the oldest monument in Baku - the minaret of the Mohammed Mosque - the Sinik Kala - a delicate edifice whose inscription states that it was built in 1093. Beyond the minaret is the 15th century Palace of the Shirvan rulers. It houses the Historical and Architectural Museum of Azerbaijan and consists of several buildings and courtyards.
We'll enjoy lunch at a caravanserai built in the 16th century during the time of the Shirvan shahs for traders coming from Bukhara in Central Asia. 19-miles from the center of Baku, on the southeastern outskirts of the village of Surakhany on Absheron Peninsula is the temple of Zoroastrians — Ateshgah (literally "The House of Fire", "The Place of Fire"). The territory of the temple is reknown for its unique natural phenomenon — the burning of natural gas (gas, breaking onto the surface, lights up after contacting oxygen). The present temple was built in the 17th —18th centuries, but the history of the place dates back much further to roughly the beginning of our era the territory hosted the sanctuary of Zoroastrians.
The temple was inhabited by the fire-worshipers burning everything that could prevent the triumph of good. They led an ascetic way of life, ay times laying on lime, or wrapping themselves in chains weighing up to 65lbs. In the middle of the 19th century, in connection with the displacement of the earth, natural gas ceased to seep outside there. The pilgrims took it as a punishment of the gods and left for India. As a place of worship, Ateshgah existed until 1880 until the last priest left the temple. After the restoration works in 1975 the temple was opened to the public as a branch of the State Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve and was named the Shirvanshah's Palace Complex. Afterwards, we'll eturn to our hotel in Baku.
Day 3 : Sheki
We'll depart early this morning and drive north-west on roughly paved roads to Sheki which is located on the southern slopes of the Caucasus. Along the way, we'll stop at the town of Shemakha which was a major trading center and the capital of the Shirvan Shahs from the 6th century until they moved to Baku. Among the surviving buildings are a 10th century mosque and a royal mausoleum.
We'll then continue on to Sheki which is one of the major cultural centers in Azerbiajan and wonderfully situated, surrounded by mountains and huge oak forests. In the 18th century, the town was declared the center of a new khanate by a local ruler. At the time Sheki had, and still has, a large silk industry and was on a trade route to Astrakhan. As a result there were a number of caravanserais and bazaars and the Hotel Karavan Saray, where the party will be staying tonight, as the name suggests, a former caravanserai.
Day 4 : Sheki to Telavi, Georgia
We'll start with a morning tour in Sheki, with observation of the streets, and and excursion to Khans Palace (18th c.). Still intact are the stained glass windows from the palace which were made from Venetian glass that was traded for silk. The fine frescoes that line the walls of the palace depict court life and the khans' heroic deeds.
We'll then continue on a spectacular drive to Georgia. Cross border to Georgia and drive to the town Sighnaghi with its 29 towers along the city wall. This was the path of some of the most important trade routes linking Asia and Europe and one can see all along the road and in the hills, the ruins of medieval watchtowers and customs houses. Many of these date from as early as the 12th century. From the tolls collected, towns would accumulate their wealth and flourish and as a consequence, this region which is part of the province of Kakheti, is one of the Georgian provinces richest in historic monuments.
Georgia's economic decline during the 16th century was not as dramatic here as in other parts of the country. This was because its proximity to the silk route enabled the region to participate in trade of more international dimensions. During this period Jewish, Armenian, and Persian colonies sprang up in Kakheti and enlarged the market towns. When the Turks and the Persians signed the Peace of Amasa in 1555, regions of Georgia were divided between the two powers. Kakheti fell under the rule of the Safavids of Persia. Despite continual attempts to free themselves from Persian domination, Kakhetian kings ruled only by the grace of Isfahan until the Russian annexation of Georgia 245 years later. It is still possible to see this Persian influence in many of the buildings in Kakheti.
We'll then continue driving to Telavi. From 1616 until the late 18th century Telavi was the capital of Kakheti region. Tonight, we'll enjoy dinner at our hotel in Telavi.
Day 5 : Telavi
We'll start our tour visiting "Batonistsikhe" - the former residence of the Kakhetinian kings. King Irakli II was born there. The palace was built in the mid-18th century and reflects a definite Persian architectural style with stained-glass panels and low doorways that forced anyone entering to bow his head.
Next on our agenda is a visit to Alaverdi Cathedral (11th c.), a holy site since pagan times and the tallest church in Georgia, and the Ikalto (5th c.) and Shuamta (5th-17th c.) monastery complexes.
Kakheti is the chief grape-growing district of the country. We will have a chance to taste some delightful local wines at the Telavi Wine Cellar, founded in 1915. The winery adheres to ancient winemaking methods while incorporating modern technology. We'll then return to Tbilisi for the night.
Day 6 : Tbilisi City Sightseeing
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, was founded in the 5th century by the Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasali. In the 11-12th centuries Tbilisi became one of the important political, economic and cultural centers of the Caucasus and the Middle East, commanding the route between east and west Transcaucasia. In 1271, Marco Polo admired Tbilisi as a "magnificent and powerful city".
Major rulers like David the Builder, Tamara and Irakli II based themselves here. Tbilisi changed hands between the Persians and Turks countless times in the 16th to 18th centuries, and the Persians burned it down one last time in 1795.
The city lies in a bowl surrounded by hills with the Kura River (Mtkvari in Georgian) flowing through it from north-west to south -east. Tbilisi was founded at the strategic spot where Kura flows through a narrow gap between two hills. That is the oldest part of the city. The Old Town is famous for its numerous churches and historical monuments, museums, wooden houses with open, carved balconies, sulpher bathhouses and Oriental markets.
Mtatsminda (Holy Mountain) dominates the center of the city, 1,312-feet above the Kura. Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main street, is always full of life. The museums, churches, art galleries, and theatres are situated along the street.
After breakfast we'll have a city tour and visit the Old Town, including the Anchiskhati Church (6th century), Sioni Cathedral (14th c.), Narikala Fortress, Mtatsminda Pantheon, the Funicular, Metekhi Temple (12th c.), and Rustaveli Avenue. After lunch we'll have some free time to explore the city.
Day 7 : Scenic flight to Mezeri and Mt. Ushba
We'll start the day with a short transfer to the airport for a short (1 hour) and incredibly scenic flight from Georgia’s lowland capital of Tbilisi to the Caucasus mountain range’s most spectacular high alpine town of Mestia. We'll see nearly one hundred 9th– 12thcentury stone towers both from the air, and then from the ground. After landing in Mestia, we will drive through the town to the neighboring Dolra Valley and find our lodge in the village of Mezeri. Mezeri‘s Hotel Ushba is located amidst wild meadows at the base of Mt. Ushba (15,387’), one of the world’s most stunning peaks. Because the valley itself is ringed by towering 14,000’ – 15,000’ glaciated peaks, the solitude and serenity of our few nights there will be unforgettable. Tonight we'll overnight at the Hotel Ushba in Mezeri.
Day 8 : Hike to the Ushba Glacier
Today, we will hike along the Dolra Valley to the Ushba Glacier. This relatively relaxed valley hike will give us a closer view of Peak Ushba and its adjacent glacier, and it will also permit us to view one of Peak Ushba’s most magnificent neighbors, Mt. Shkhelda (14,331’). We will have plenty of time to wander during this leisurely day hike, after which we return to relax in Hotel Ushba and enjoy there yet another delicious dinner of the region’s local cuisine.
Day 9 : Hike in the Shadows of Mt. Ushba
A morning trek leads us along a path to the Guli Glacier, and from this destination we will be able to view the entire South face of Mt. Ushba, a peak so astonishing that it is frequently called “The Matterhorn of the Caucasus.” We will the hike back to Mazeri for lunch and then drive to Mestia and settle into our hotel there for the night. The evening will give us time to explore this endlessly fascinating town and its regional towers on foot. (Total hiking approx. 5 hours)
Day 10 : Hike to Adishi
This morning we'll begin a short three day trek. First we drive to Mulakhi, the last village in our former glaciated valley, and then we begin our hike by ascending a low pass from which we will have fine views in many directions. After a break (and lunch) on the pass, we will continue hiking for a few more hours across heather glades, through deep forests, and along clear brooks until we reach the incredibly medieval-looking village of Adishi, isolated in a high alpine valley but enchanted with its dozen 11th century towers mirroring the powerful peaks that surround them. We'll hike through the village and camp in the river valley after another ½ hour of easy hiking. (Total hiking approx. 6 hours)
Day 11 : Hike to the Khalde Valley
We begin this morning by hiking along the river valley to its head. Almost in the shadow of nearby glaciated peaks we cross the river and then begin our ascent of the Chkhunteri Pass. Spectacular views of nearby towering peaks as well as several valleys await us at the top of this pass, as will our picnic lunch. After a relaxing break on the pass, we make a gradual descent to the Khalde Valley. From our high valley campsite we will enjoy fantastic views of the south face of the Caucasian Range's highest section. Tonight we'll camp in the valley. (Total hiking approx. 5 hours)
Day 12 : Hike to Kala – Return to Mestia
Today, we'll have an easy descent of the Khalde Valley to the village of Kala. Here we meet our transport and drive back to Mestia. If we arrive in Mestia in time, we will visit the museum of the most famous Georgian climber, Mikhail Khergiani. If not, we still will have time to explore the town some more after we check into our hotel.
Day 13 : Batumi
Today will give you a wonderful perception of the diversity of Georgian geography, for we shall leave a remarkably isolated high alpine region in the morning and spend our early evening in the semi-tropical environment of southern Georgia’s Black Sea coastal town of Batumi. We will bid a hearty farewell to our sturdy mountain vans halfway to Batumi in the bustling city of Zugdidi. Beaches, restaurants, promenade, and a vibrant seaside environment (this time on the Black, not the Caspian Sea) will be a wonderful way to bookend our Caucasus Trek.
Day 14 : Free Day in Batumi – Beaches and Promenades
Today is a day for you to explore Batumi, its beaches, shops, museums, and endlessly fascinating side streets on your own or with your MTS guide. You have earned your downtime, so consider simply relaxing on the beach and eating the endlessly delicious and diverse Georgian treats.
Day 15 : Vardzia – Borjomi
We'll depart Batumi this morning for the grandiose cave town of Vardzia. A 4-hour drive will place us in the center of Vardzia, an extraordinary example of Georgia’s 12th century Renaissance. Two of the most notable heroes from Georgia are associated with this site, Queen Tamara and Shota Rustaveli, Georgia’s 12th century national poet and author of the epic The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. The main Assumption Church has fresco portraits of Queen Tamara and King George III. After our guided excursion here, we will drive to the town of Borjomi and stay there for the night.
Day 16 : Mtskheta – Tbilisi
Today, we'll return to Tbilisi, but en route we visit the town of Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia. Here King Mirian accepted Christianity in the 4th century and Mtskheta has remained the Headquarters of the Georgian Church ever since. We will visit he Svetiskhoveli Cathedral (11th c.) and the Jvari Monastery (6th c.), both of which are considered the most significant monuments of Georgian architecture and history. We will also visit the stunning Samtavro Temple (11th c.) and then drive the remaining ½ hour to our hotel in Tbilisi. Farewell Dinner in Tbilisi.
Day 17 : Depart from Tbilisi, Georgia
After breakfast, we'll transfer to the airport for departure flights home.
DATES: Best time to go: August - September Departures: Aug 26, 2013 - Sep 11, 2013 Sep 11 - 27, 2013
Properties shown are representative of the accommodations we use on this trip, may not be inclusive of all accommodations we use, and are subject to change.
Expert leadership is the key to an exciting, unforgettable experience. Our trips feature gifted leaders for whom leading trips is a true vocation. Besides showing you wonders you’d never find on your own, they make sure everything runs smoothly and safely without a hitch. They are knowledgeable about all aspects of your trip, and take great pleasure in sharing their insights with you. More than just guides, they positively elevate your experience by being teachers, companions, and the best of friends. You’ll be in good hands with them every step of the way.
Rob is both a professor of Russian and Environmental History at Washington’s Evergreen State College and an experienced outdoor guide in the former Soviet Union. He spent two seasons leading climbs on Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe (in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia) and several more seasons leading numerous treks in the Pamir, Tian Shan, and Altai mountains in Central Asia. Rob has excellent Russian language skills. He served as a U.S. Department of State interpreter in Leningrad and Moscow and studied at such places as the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and the University of St. Petersburg in Russia. He obtained an M.A. in International Studies and a Ph.D. in Russian History at the University of Washington. Rob’s outdoor skills include mountaineering (he has summited peaks like Aconcagua and Mont Blanc), rock climbing (5.10), and advanced (Class V) whitewater kayaking. Rob is also a triathlete.