Monuments, monasteries and mountains – a well-guided journey through the Caucasus

By: Mark Nelson
This article appears on page 43 of the June 2016 issue.
Noranvank Monastery — Vayots Dzor, Armemia.

Having traveled much of the civilized world on all seven continents, I hungered to journey someplace that would open my eyes to new cultures. The Silk Road, traversing the Caucasus and five of the ’Stans in Central Asia, offered a rich blend of architecture, people, philosophies, history, landscapes and food.

Many travelers take either a Caucasus tour or a ’Stans tour, but I was able to enjoy both destinations on back-to-back tours in September-October 2015. After several years of research comparing itineraries and prices, I found that the best combination — and the friendliest, most responsive customer service — was offered by JMG Tibet Tours (Lauderhill, FL; 866/548-4238,

The company

In addition to using outstanding in-country guides, JMG’s owner, Jeff Garrett, also personally accompanies each group as the tour leader. This was an important factor in my choosing JMG Tibet Tours. 

I especially appreciated how Jeff made the trip preparation easy by booking my international and domestic flights and handling the complex logistics of obtaining visas and letters of entry. I didn’t have to deal with large tour office staffs or governmental bureaucracies. All I had to do was reach out to Jeff, and he responded personally and promptly. That responsive touch set JMG apart from all other operators I considered for my Silk Road adventure. 

Jeff has traveled through the Caucasus and ’Stans many times and is very familiar with the places, processes and people, and he has a wealth of knowledge — not to mention travel stories that entertain and delight. 

The Caucasus

Our Caucasus tour (the details of which I will share in this article) started in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where we spent two full days exploring the city and its environs. Many other operators spend only one day in this fascinating place, but that is just not enough time. 

Baku’s entire Old City, surrounded by medieval walls, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to its picturesque old streets lined with art galleries, cafés and museums (including a museum of miniature books), one highlight was the 12th-century Maiden Tower. It was originally a Zoroastrian temple and later became one of the main fortifications in the city wall. 

Climbing to the top, we had great views of Baku’s old and modern sections and of the Bayil Fortress, swallowed by the Caspian Sea. 

Inside the ancient city walls were several caravanserais where, long ago, traders would stop while traveling along the Silk Road. 

The highlights of Baku are almost too many to enumerate, but we still had ample time to explore Martyrs’ Lane, set below the beautiful, modern Flame Towers. Martyrs’ Lane is lined by the graves of local heroes who gave their lives during the 1990 revolution for independence from the Soviet Union. Faces of the fallen are etched in black marble sepulchers, some wrapped in ribbon and others adorned with shards of broken mirrors, representing broken lives. 

Our local guide, who lived through the fighting, described the battles with such detail and passion that I could almost hear the whiz of bullets and the cries of the martyrs. She whispered the local wisdom to visit Martyrs’ Lane on a Thursday, the day that angels descend to honor the dead.

More city sights

The Silk Road was not only a conduit of trade, it was a channel for ideas and beliefs to flow between East and West. With that in mind, we explored the Ateshgah Zoroastrian Fire Temple on the northern outskirts of Baku. In the center, a flame still burns surrounded by rock-walled rooms filled with artifacts, handicrafts and life-size figures of ancient ascetics with matted hair, loincloths and arms and legs held in awkward positions to show piety. 

Ananuri Castle on the Aragvi River in Georgia.

In Baku we stayed at the Central Park Hotel, within easy walking distance of the pedestrian-only Nizami Street, which leads to the city’s famous Fountains Square, home to many cafés and restaurants. 

A highlight was the Nargiz Restaurant, with its grotto/wine-cellar décor, where we had a scrumptious meal. Jeff, along with his excellent guides, handpicked all of the restaurants at which we ate, and each had outstanding food and a charming atmosphere. 

Throughout the tour, Jeff and the local guides worked diligently to accommodate everyone’s dietary preferences and needs. The fresh fruit and vegetables were so delicious, I came back with a few extra pounds around my waist. 

One evening, our guide took us on a stroll along the Bulvar, Baku’s beautiful seaside walkway, where we enjoyed the park and the nighttime lights of the city.

Into the mountains

On our third day, we drove to the mountain town of Sheki. On the way, we stopped at the Yeddi Gumbez necropolis, where many important members of the Shirvan dynasty are buried in domed brown-earth mausoleums. Over the centuries, earthquakes have created a mysterious atmosphere there, with many disheveled tombstones and dark obelisks tilting at various angles like bent fingers pushing up through the soil toward the clouds. 

In the late afternoon, we arrived in Sheki and leisurely checked into the charming Sheki Saray Hotel. We ate all of our meals during our stay in the hotel restaurant, considered one of the two best eating establishments in town. The other, Calabi Xan Restaurant, was closed temporarily for renovation. 

All of the hotel choices on this tour were excellent, clean, comfortable and in great locations, with English-speaking staff. Each hotel offered Wi-Fi and a complimentary, delicious breakfast of local and Western food. 

Mark Nelson in front of the Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan.

That afternoon we visited Sheki’s main attraction, the 18th-century Khan’s Palace, in the medieval city. Afterward we toured the huge, 2-story caravanserai, where Silk Road travelers found lodging for themselves and their camels. It was a beautiful reminder of how the Silk Road passed this way in medieval times. 


The following morning we set off to Georgia. The border was only about an hour away and, with help from Jamila and Jeff, the border crossing was easy. No visa is required to enter Georgia. 

On the other side of the border, Giorgi, our giant Georgian guide, greeted our group with warm smiles in anticipation of our spending seven full days together. 

After a short drive through rolling green countryside, we arrived in the mountain village of Sighnaghi. Considered to be the prettiest town in the region, it offered broad vistas across the farmlands below. 

We had lunch in a charming mountainside restaurant and winery called Pheasant’s Tears. The meal included wine tasting, as Georgia is noted for its wines. (It is worth noting that this establishment probably had the nicest Western-style public bathroom we enjoyed during the entire journey. Five stars!) 

After lunch, we had ample time to walk the cobblestone streets and squares around the 18th- and 19th-century buildings. I sat in a quiet, sunny spot on top of a stone watchtower, listened to music and felt transported back to medieval times. 

Tbilisi and beyond

Soon we were on our way to Tbilisi, only about 70 miles away. Jeff’s lodging of choice there was the Laerton Hotel. After check-in, we relaxed for a while, then went to In the Shadow of Metekhi, another fine restaurant popular with locals and visitors. It had an ideal location overlooking the Mtkvari River and Tbilisi. 

Over the next few days in Georgia, we enjoyed one great highlight after another. 

First, there was a day excursion through the countryside grasslands to the gorgeous David Gareja Monastery, set in an idyllic, remote area with chapels carved into the cliff sides. Regardless of a person’s religious beliefs, the place was inspiringly beautiful. 

The next day we enjoyed exploring Tbilisi, a city with countless wonders. We began at the Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, which sits high atop the city. Though a contemporary structure consecrated in 2004, it is a massive, beautiful cathedral built in traditional Georgian style that stands as a symbol of religious revival after the country’s many years under Soviet rule. The melancholic chanting of monks and the scent of candles added a rich blend to the ambiance. 

Then we visited the Metekhi Church of the Assumption, perched above the Mtkvari River, with breathtaking views of Tbilisi’s Old City as well as modern structures like the Rike Park Theater and Exhibition Hall, which looked like two silver trumpets poking out of the hillside toward the river. 

From the great Narikala Fortress, which stood guard above Tbilisi, we wandered down through the Old City, with Giorgi directing our attention to botanical gardens, monuments and other points of interest. We visited an old Jewish synagogue, where a rabbi greeted us like old friends and showed us around, even treating us to the rich call of a shofar made from a ram’s horn. 

In the evening we enjoyed a delicious dinner at the Georgian House Restaurant before heading to the train station to board our night sleeper train to Zugdidi. The gentle rocking of the train and the clicking of the rails made it easy to sleep.

The next morning we arrived early in Zugdidi, where our vehicle was waiting to take us to Mestia, in the heart of the Upper Svaneti region (a UNESCO World Heritage Centre) nestled beneath the Caucasus Mountains. A picturesque drive delivered us to Mestia by noon. There we had lunch and checked into Hotel Tetnuldi

The hotel restaurant’s terrace offered an incredible view of the entire Mestia area, with its 200 or more medieval watchtowers, dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries, framed by the Caucasus Mountains in the background. As far as I am aware, JMG is the only tour operator that offers Mestia as a regular part of its itinerary. 

View of Mestia, Georgia.

In Mestia proper, there is a fascinating museum with artifacts of the Svaneti area and its people. The Svans are an ethnic subgroup that used to worship the sun and fire and even had their own language. Many of their traditions still survive today, and some consider this area to be a living ethnographic museum.

We enjoyed lunch at the Feel Georgian Food Restaurant, where I had my first experience eating a Svaneti dish called tashmujabi, consisting of a heart-stopping amount of mashed potatoes and melted cheese. Don’t tell my cardiologist.

Last day in Georgia

On our last day in Georgia we drove by South Ossetia, still occupied by Russian forces looking out from watchtowers above barbed wire, and stopped in Gori at the Stalin House, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Full of Stalin memorabilia from his entire life, including his death mask, this museum was fascinating. 

We also visited the unbelievable ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe. This fortress flourished until it was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century. 

Among the many rock-hewn structures were dwellings, halls, pagan places of sacrifice, prisons, cellars and even an amphitheater. In its heyday, 20,000 citizens lived in Uplistsikhe.

As the sun dipped toward the horizon, our day of touring was not yet finished. After some relaxation, we had our final Georgian dinner at the impressive Kings Place Restaurant in Tbilisi’s Old Town. 

We were entertained by Georgian dancers who performed several cultural numbers in traditional dress. Georgi brought his charming wife to the dinner, and, as an extra touch, Jeff took a video of the performance and later sent all the tour members DVDs of this and many other events on the journey along with many photos of the group at various sites along the way. 

On to Armenia

The next morning we drove from Tbilisi to the Armenian border. After another smooth crossing, we met our Armenian guide, Arthur. 

We would conveniently stay the last five nights of the tour in Yerevan. In addition to visiting the city, itself, we took day trips to the impressive sites of the country. 

On our way to Yerevan, we enjoyed the two UNESCO-recognized monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin. Both were founded in the 10th century and are considered masterpieces of religious architecture. 

Though they’ve suffered some damage over the centuries from earthquakes and unrest, most of the structures are still intact and stand today without much alteration. The details and relief work on the facades and interiors were extraordinary. 

In the main stone chapel of the Sanahin Monastery, a woman and two men started singing and chanting. It was like a soaring fountain of beautiful sound echoing off the thick walls.

As the sun set, we arrived in Yerevan and checked into the lovely Imperial Palace Hotel, located near the center of town and within easy walking distance of the Cascade, a beautiful park filled with unusual sculptures plus cafés and restaurants. The hotel was also near the famous Matenadaran, which includes a museum complex that holds thousands of fascinating ancient Armenian manuscripts. 

Another museum of great interest was the somber Armenian Genocide Museum. Illustrating man’s inhumanity to man, this museum is an important must for anyone visiting Yerevan. 

It is smartly laid out chronologically, with detailed explanations and heart-rending photographs. At the eternal flame of remembrance, a group of high-school-age students held vigil and wept for lost ancestors.

One day, we went to the iconic Khor Virap Monastery, located on the border with Turkey. Behind the monastery sits the huge, snowcapped mass of Mount Ararat, seemingly within walking distance. 

Several people in our group engaged in the meaningful ritual of purchasing a white dove, climbing to a high spot in the monastery, facing Mt. Ararat, making a heartfelt wish or prayer and releasing the bird of peace to carry the petition into the heavens. 

After a great dinner at Baklachoff Restoracia, with an abundance of kabobs, vegetables and mashed potatoes, we joined hundreds of local families, couples and children entranced by the light-and-music show at the Singing Fountains in Republic Square.

Also on our itinerary was a visit to the Mother Armenia Monument, towering over Yerevan. The 70-foot-high statue of a woman in traditional dress holding a sword, symbolizing peace through strength, replaced an earlier monument of Stalin. 

Mother Armenia sits atop a museum dedicated to WWII and the Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Around the monument are tanks, jets and other military equipment left from the Soviet era. From this vantage point, the views of the city were magnificent, with Mount Ararat again looming clearly in the background. 

Picking up on my interest in military history, our local guide, Arthur, took me back to the museum on a different day and graciously gave me a private, unscheduled bonus tour of the facility. Arthur translated frontline action stories told by our mild-mannered driver, who had fought during the Karabakh War (1988-1994). 

On our last day in Yerevan, the group elected to have free time. Jeff made sure everyone was well taken care of. 

Looking back

Most international flights from Yerevan leave in the early morning, so we had our farewell dinner in the Imperial Palace Hotel, then relaxed and packed for our early flights. Thankfully, JMG arranged for us to keep our rooms until we departed for the airport in the middle of the night. 

While the rest of the group flew home, Jeff, his wife and I departed for Astana, Kazakhstan, to start our 5-country Central Asia tour, which also included Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. (That’s a story for another day.)

I was so touched by the warmth and kindness of the people in the Caucasus. Everyone was helpful and friendly, reinforcing one of my personal travel mantras: “There I go by the goodness of strangers and the grace of God.”

One of the meaningful things about a tour to this less-visited destination is that it attracts seasoned travelers. While the journey is fine for folks with all levels of experience, in the Caucasus and ’Stans you are likely to find citizens of the world with many stamps in their passports. 

Everyone in my group shared fascinating experiences of living and traveling abroad, which enriched the journey.

Throughout the tour, the transportation was first class all the way. The vehicles were well maintained and air-conditioned and allowed plenty of room to be comfortable. Jeff made sure that everyone received a bottle of water each day. 

The schedule was full but not hectic. There were regular comfort stops and plenty of food. I was pleasantly surprised at how many meals were included in the very reasonable base tour price. Even then, Jeff generously threw in extra dinners, delicacies and side excursions at no additional cost. 

The 17-day tour cost $4,395 plus an $895 single supplement. (Jeff always offers to find a roommate for anyone who wants to share accommodations.) 

All of the local guides spoke excellent English and went the extra mile to meet everyone’s interests and needs. 

The whole experience was probably best summed up by one fellow traveler who lavished praise on JMG, saying that the tour was like a “magic carpet ride.” Every day we would climb on board, and all our needs would be met as we were smoothly transported from one amazing adventure to another.