Georgia and Armenia trip report - September 2012
Replies: 10 - Last Post: Oct 6, 2012 5:16 AM Last Post By: brakke
Sep 22, 2012 10:20 AM
Georgia and Armenia trip report - September 2012Having been helped hugely by the similar reports on here while planning my own trip to the Caucasus, I thought I’d add some comments of my own in case it is helpful to anyone. I spent 13 days in the Georgia and Armenia, travelling alone.
I spent 3 nights in Tbilisi, then took the night train to Yerevan, where I spent 3 nights. After that I travelled to Tbilisi, and took the night train to Zugdidi, and on to Mestia. I spent one night in Mestia, then returned to Tbilisi for 3 nights.
I used the Bradt guidebooks for the two countries. The Georgian one was very helpful, and almost always correct on times and costs of trains and marshrutkas, with often quite good information on where they went from. The Armenian one contained the same good information on the sites themselves as the Georgian guide, but was very thin on how to get around, which was rather frustrating.
Just to mention, as I hadn’t thought of this before, planes from Istanbul fly to Batumi in western Georgia, and also to Trabzon, Samsun, Van, Kars and Erzurum. Flying to one of these might have helped me avoid a trip which seemed to pass in and out of Tbilisi quite a lot.
-Arriving at the airport, the 37 bus is the best way into the centre, leaving from right outside arrivals. On entering the bus, you need to pay 50 tetri (in 5/10/20/50 tetri coins) into one of the boxes by the doors to receive your ticket, but of course you won’t have one of these tiny coins, having just arrived at the airport, and the driver doesn’t have money. I don’t know how this conundrum is best resolved – I was lucky enough that a Georgian paid for me, and then escorted me to my hostel (a regular theme of Georgian helpfulness over this trip).
-I stayed for my first 3 nights here in the ‘Why Not? Tbilisi Legend Hostel’. This was a nicely laid back place, with a friendly reception/common room area in the centre of the hostel, so always with people moving through. The fact that breakfast began at 9:15 perhaps indicates the relaxed traveller ethos of the hostel! The positive tripadvisor comments about this hostel’s vibe are well placed, therefore. On the downsides, it was relatively dirty, with quite simple showering/toilet facilities.
-By contrast, on my final 3 nights in Tbilisi I stayed at the Envoy Hostel (having enjoyed the Yerevan branch of this). This was far cleaner, with better beds, proper toilet facilities, and a solid breakfast. It also had an amazing large veranda with views over the whole Old Town, a great place to sit out in the evenings. Various expats (eg Peace Corps) came to stay here for the weekend, making it a good place to meet people with insight into the country. Unfortunately, it was notably quieter than the Why Not? hostel. Not sure if this was a result of mid-September end of season drop-off, or perhaps a hostel still new and establishing reputation. It certainly didn’t deserve to be quiet, given its good qualities. I personally preferred the Envoy Hostel, but in a sense they are catering to tourists with different expectations, rather than directly competing with each other.
-I greatly enjoyed the ethnographic museum, which has a range of houses from across Georgia on a picturesque hillside. The state museum’s treasury is very impressive.
-I took a trip on my first day to Kazbegi. The bus leaves from Didube. Do ask the hostel reception to write down in Georgian the destination you want – it took me quite a time at the bus station to find the right bus, and having the Georgian name was very helpful in being able to thrust a piece of paper into bystanders’ hands when asking directions.
-I met up with 3 Estonians on the marshrutka up. When there, we paid 50 lari in total for a taxi up to the church. It would have been a fair walk up, so I felt the taxi was a good idea. We then took up the taxi driver’s offer of 50 lari to visit (a) the Russian border (b) a monastery on the border (c) 2 waterfalls nearby. I was very glad we did this, as the scenery in the 12 miles north of Kazbegi to the border is in a dramatic gorge, rather different to what you see south of there, and scenery I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
-On returning to Kazbegi, we were able through the driver to get a taxi driver to drive us to Tbilisi for 10 lari each – the same price as the marshrutka. Although slower, this was great in that we were able to stop off at a few viewing places along the route which we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
-Certainly worth a visit, for a half day.
Night train Tbilisi to Yerevan
-I turned up at the station at 5pm, and was able to get a bed for that night’s train to Yerevan. The station is then quite a good place to wait around in, with free wifi on the top floor and various cafes there (though I ate in a nice restaurant on the left hand side in the road which leads directly away from the station towards the centre of town).
-Having read some comments about problems for foreigners using the train who needed visas at the border (ie hadn’t bought one online before), I was worried about what might happen, but it was all very well organised. My passport was taken by police as the train left Tbilisi, to be returned 20 minutes later with an exit stamp. Then, as we neared the border at 12:30am, all the foreigners were ushered into one carriage, so that when the train pulled up we were all marched out to the police headquarters, where it took about 30 minutes to process all our visas. Payment for the visa was accepted in lari. The view of Mount Ararat in the early morning sun from the right-hand side of the train as we reached Yerevan was sublime.
-In Yerevan I stayed in the Envoy Hostel. I thoroughly enjoyed this: it had very helpful staff, good facilities and was very well located. I was also perhaps fortunate in that, given it was the weekend when I visited, there were a lot of expats (Peace Corps, NGO workers etc) staying for a break from their village placements, who were good fun to hang out with.
-Yerevan itself was a cool city to spend 2 or 3 days in, with a very active feeling, lots of outdoor cafes, and a site (the Cascades) with good modern art and museums.
Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery
-I spent half a day exploring these sites, and both were well worth the visit. Ask the hostel carefully how to find the marshrutka to Garni. You need to take a marshrutka to Masiv. The marshrutka then leaves from a small yard, situated just off the main road, and on the Yerevan-side of a huge fruit market that goes on there. Even locals I asked, though, seemed confused about where exactly it went from, so this took some time.
-Teaming up with 2 Poles, we paid 2000AMD total for a taxi from Garni to Geghard and back, including one hour’s wait. We then took the marshrutka back to Yerevan.
Noravank and Tatev
-It struck me that exploring Armenia under my own steam would be rather tricky, particularly as many of the tourist sites are monasteries not so accessible by marshrutka. I was very glad I took the Saturday tour from Hyurservice.com of Noravank and Tatev monasteries and Karahunj. While Karahunj was dull, the monasteries were well worth the visit, and I would definitely recommend the 5.7km long cablecar you take to reach Tatev. Although it’s a 12 hour day with a lot of driving, that meant I got to enjoy a lot of the country’s scenery at once.
-I took a marshrutka from Yerevan to Tbilisi, which took 5 hours, then took the night train to Zugdidi (which I’d booked a few days before). Try to ask for a bottom bunk if you can, as the bed lifts up to reveal a secure storage box, so if you have the bottom bunk you can fall asleep knowing your stuff is far safer than if just in the open. The marshrutka to Mestia from Zugdidi was 15GEL. I paid 15GEL for a room only in a homestay. Two tourists I met paid 35GEL each for a room with food higher up the village.
-I have mixed feelings about Mestia. It was beautiful in a classical Alpine way, and had the stunning towers. I enjoyed the 6 hour return walk I did to the glacier (map from the tourist office). However, the centre of the town was heavily refurbished in a rather soulless way. Also, as a lone traveller who likes to meet others, I found Mestia lent itself less to this.
-So, I left Mestia after one day. Note that the marshrutkas leave Mestia at 6am!
-I took a Tbilisi-bound marshrutka and got off at Kutaisi. This leg took 6 hours and cost 25GEL.
-I then took the bus to Gelati monastery. This was beautiful, and I’m glad I visited this site. It only takes about half an hour to look round, though, so don’t base an entire day around it. The Bradt guide didn’t mention it, but I caught a return bus which came at 16:00 (I was expecting the next one at 17:30, and was getting a bit bored). I was then able to catch a bus to Tbilisi from Kutaisi (10GEL), arriving in Tbilisi about 9pm.
-I was glad I visited the Stalin museum in Gori (especially as an ex-teacher of history). The town is nicer than the Bradt guide indicates, though is probably best managed as a day trip from Tbilisi. The marshrutka costs 4GEL, and leaves from the far right hand side of Didube bus station.
Sep 22, 2012 12:35 PM
Sep 23, 2012 10:35 AM
Sep 23, 2012 8:29 PM
3Thanks for all the great info. I'm heading to Georgia last month, and while I was considering heading to Mestia, I was a little worried that I might feel pretty isolated as as solo traveler. Although I'd love to see it, your description kind of confirmed what I've been afraid of, and I think I might plan a trip to Yerevan for a few nights instead.
Sep 26, 2012 9:43 AM
4The train was fine. I was able to buy my ticket through the help of an English-speaking Georgian who was able to translate for me to the lady at the ticket desk. The lady at the ticket desk typed my name in Cyrillic letters onto my ticket just to avoid problems at the border if the guards didn't read Latin script (though I doubt this would have been a problem to be honest). I upgraded to 'coupe' class, though I'm not sure exactly how this was better from the basic class. I was very fortunate with the one other guy in my compartment of 4 beds - a very cool Georgian who had grown up in Krakow and knew great English. Safety simply did not feel an issue for me on the train, though I guess peoples' feelings on this will almost entirely depend on who was in their compartment.
The only specific hint I'd be able to give is a repeat of what I said for the Tbilisi-Zugdidi train - the bottom bunks had a storage compartment underneath so were far better for keeping bags safe.
Sep 26, 2012 2:45 PM
Sep 27, 2012 6:27 AM
Sep 30, 2012 11:39 AM
7This is a great report. I will spent 10 days in Georgia-Armenia and this is very helpfull. I was planning to take a bus all the way from Tbilisi to Mestia, which although very long (11-12 hours) they say it is a very picturesque journey. Anyone knows if it is really worth it? or just take the night train?
I am travelling solo, anyone interested in pairing up for the trip to Svaneti or Armenia? I will be there starting Oct 11.
Sep 30, 2012 12:18 PM
Oct 1, 2012 11:26 AM
Oct 6, 2012 5:16 AM
10Currently every 2 days there is a train leaving at 20:20 at Tbilisi, arriving at 07:00 in Yerevan.
I paid around 51 Lari one way in a four bed but we were only with 2 in it. There were also some kind of dorm-style carriers which will be cheaper.
You can pay in Lari, Euro, Dollar,... at the border. In Lari it will be 15Lari, in Euro it is 6 (they don't accept coins!)
(3 star Hotel)
From US$118.64 per night
(0 star Hotel)
From US$15.77 per night
(4 star Hotel)
From US$136.53 per night