ISTANBUL TO BAKU The Ottoman Empire and the Caucasus
Dates: September 04 – 29, 2016
Length: 26 days
Countries to be visited: Turkey – Armenia – Georgia – Azerbaijan
Total distance: ±4400 km
Per person price: USD$12750 (based on twin-share)
USD$2990 (single room supplement)
Day 01, Sunday, September 04 Istanbul
Arrive Istanbul. Transfer to hotel and rest. Welcome dinner.
D Seven Hills Hotel or Sultanahmed Palace Hotel
Day 02, Monday, September 05 Istanbul
Tour Istanbul for the day.
In the morning visit the Blue Mosque, built in 1616 unequalled for its mosaics, and the Haghia Sophia dedicated in 536 AD during the reign of Justinian, we will also visit Topkapi Palace, which was built by Mehmed the Conqueror.
This evening we shall have a memorable dinner on a boat cruising along the Bosphorous.
B/L/D Seven Hills Hotel or Sultanahmed Palace Hotel
Day 03, Tuesday, September 06 Istanbul – Ankara (driving distance: 580 km)
This morning there will be an orientation session with our Land Rover Discovery before we start to drive to Ankara, the capital. Arrive in late afternoon. We will spend two nights at a boutique hotel near the old city of Ankara.
B/L/ D Divan Çukurhan Hotel
Day 04, Wednesday, September 07 Ankara
Today, we visit the historical remains in the city, the old citadel "Hisar", where according to legend, an anchor was found while it was being constructed, from which the city took its name "Ancyra". Inside its walls it contains examples of old Turkish houses alongside the ancient ruins. There is also a covered bazaar, called "bedesten", close to the gate "Hisar Kapisi".
After lunch, visit the very fine Museum of Anatolian Civilizations which details the ebb and flow of cultures that have passed through the area, from the Hittites, the Phrygians, Lydians and Persians to the Galatians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks and Ottomans.
B/L/ D Divan Çukurhan Hotel
Day 05, Thursday, September 08 Ankara – Cappadocia (driving distance: 530 km)
Drive to Cappadocia. En route, we will stop at Şereflikoçhisar and visit the Salt Lake (Lake Tuz).
This is the second largest lake in Turkey with its 1,665 sq. km surface area and one of the largest hypersaline lakes in the world. It is occupying a tectonic depression in the central plateau of Turkey, fed by two major streams, groundwater, and surface water, but has no outlet. Brackish marshes have formed where channels and streams enter the lake. Arable fields surround the lake, except in the south and southwest where extensive seasonally flooded salt-steppe occurs.
We will have lunch en route and arrive in our cave hotel in a small village of Cappadocia.
B/L/D Cappadocia Cave Suites Hotel
Day 06, Friday, September 09 Cappadocia
Optional hot-air balloon tour is available for the ones can get up very early in the morning (weather permits).
Full day tour in Cappadocia. Visit to the enchanting "fairy chimneys" (conical and unusual rock formations) in Devrent Valley. We continue to the Goreme Open Air Museum, where we will see the finest examples of religious frescoes in rock-cut churches from the 10th to the 13th centuries.
Enjoy Pasabag Valley, and then continue to Avanos, centre of terra cotta work. Afternoon visit Derin kuyu underground city.
B/L/D Cappadocia Cave Suites Hotel
Day 07, Saturday, September 10 Cappadocia – Mt. Nemrut (driving distance: 543 km)
After breakfast, drive eastbound towards Mt. Nemrut region. After the city of Adiyaman, we will enter the mountain and arrive our hotel just before supper time. Need to go to bed early tonight.
B/L/D Euphrat Hotel
Day 08, Sunday, September 11 Mt. Nemrut
This morning, we will get up around 4:30 am and climb Mt. Nemrut. We shall summit the mountain at sunrise to visit the magnificent ruins and stone statues. After spending some time at the site, return to hotel to have breakfast.
During the day, we will visit a local Kurdish family in a village nearby. In the afternoon, drive to visit the ruins of the arsemia Roman bridge of Cendere and Royal Tomb of Karakus. Return to hotel for supper. B/L/D Euphrat Hotel
Day 09, Monday, September 12 Mt. Nemrut – Gobekli Tepe – Şanlıurfa
(driving distance: 191 km)
Leaving the mountain, we will first visit Gobekli Tepe, the site of World’s first temple.
Gobekli Tepe, a mysterious Neolithic temple complex on a remote hilltop near Urfa, predates the pyramids at Giza by 7,000 years. This is the oldest known instance of a religious structure. The site consists of megalithic T-shaped pillars that resemble human figures arranged in dozens of giant circles. These cleanly cut limestone forms rise up to 18 feet tall and weigh up to 16 tons. Carved on their surface are reliefs of snakes, boars, spiders, vultures, and other wild beasts. The site covers a sprawling 22 acres, only a small fraction of which has been excavated to date.
When archaeologist Klaus Schmidt from the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul was called out to investigate some strange stones found by a wandering shepherd in Eastern Turkey in 1994, he quickly realized that he was dealing with something of immense importance. He also realized that if he did not turn and walk away at that very moment, he would spend the rest of his life amongst the incredible stones of Göbekli Tepe. Dr. Schmidt is still excavating Göbekli Tepe, and he has decided to take things very slowly for fear of damaging the site in rushing to find the ancient truth of this special place, as many archaeologists have done at other important sites.
After exploring the amazing site, we will drive to Şanlıurfa.
In the afternoon, we will walk around the city of Sanliurfa (“Glorious Urfa”), centers around its Old City market and a calm wondrous pleasure garden surrounding Abraham’s Fish Lakes and his traditional Birth Cave. Legends of Abraham abound in this region, where Kurdish, Turkish, Arab and Alevi villages dot the dry plains.
B/L/D Manici Hotel
Day 10, Tuesday, September 13 Şanlıurfa – Hasankeyf – Van (driving distance: 669 km)
Today’s drive is long. First, we drive to Hasankeyf.
Hasankeyf is an ancient city, and has been identified with the Ilanṣura of the Mari Tablet (c. 1800 BC). The Romans had built the Cephe fortress on the site and the city became the Kiphas fortress and a bishopric under the Byzantine Empire. It was conquered by the Arabs, in ca. 640, renamed Hisn Kayf. In the 12th century, the city was successively captured by the Artukids as their capital. During this period, Hasankeyf's golden age, the Artukids and Ayyubids built the Old Tigris Bridge, the Small Palace and the Great Palace. The infrastructure, location and significance of the city helped increase trade and made Hasankeyf a staging post on the Silk Road.
Afternoon, drive through some beautiful landscape to reach Lake Van.
Arrive Van in the evening.
B/L/D Merit Sahmaran Hotel
Day 11, Wednesday, September 14 Van
In the morning, we will take the boat to cross the lake and visit the Akdamar church, which is built on an island in the lake by the Armenians.
Lake Van was the center of the ancient kingdom called Urartu by the Assyrians that flourished in the ninth to eighth centuries B.C. The Urartu called themselves the Biaini, which may be the origin of Van. It was an important culture, excelling in the casting and sculpturing of bronzes, many of which were exported to the West, including mainland Greece and Italy. The Armenians, who may have been related to the Phrygians of central Anatolia, migrated into the Van region in about the sixth century B.C.
After the boat ride, we will pass the old city of Van, which lay at the foot of the rock of Van (the ancient citadel of the Urartu) was obliterated in a fire as the retreating Russians left their Armenian allies to the mercies of the advancing Turks, at the close of World War I. From the rock, one can make out in the surrounding green fields the outlines of the old neighborhoods and see the ruins of about half a dozen mosques.
After lunch visit Van Fortress.
The Van Fortress is a massive stone fortification built by the ancient kingdom of Urartu during the 9th to 7th centuries BC, and is the largest example of its kind. It overlooks the ruins of Tushpa the ancient Urartian capital during the 9th century which was centered upon the steep-sided bluff where the fortress now sits. A number of similar fortifications were built throughout the Urartian kingdom, usually cut into hillsides and outcrops in places where modern-day Armenia, Turkey and Iran meet. Successive groups such as the Medes, Achaemenids, Armenians, Parthians, Romans, Sassanid Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Seljuks, Safavids, Afsharids, Ottomans and Russians each controlled the fortress at one time or another.
B/L/D Merit Sahmaran Hotel
Day 12, Thursday, September 15 Van – Dogubayazit – Kars (driving distance: 190 km)
Today we leave Van in the morning and head to the Muradiye Waterfalls, a short drive will take us to the border town of Dogubayazit dominated by the towering peak of Mount Ararat.
The old town of Dogubayazit was once an important staging post on the Silk Road. Visit the Ishak Pasa Palace. If the sky is clear, we will have a chance to enjoy the nice view of Ararat.
After Ishak Pasa Palace visit, a beautiful drive northbound will bring us to Kars.
En route, we will drive by some amazing volcano ground formation.
Upon arrival in Kars, check into hotel.
B/L/D Cheltikov Hotel
Day 13, Friday, September 16 Kars
45 km outside of Kars, we will drive to visit the Ani ruins , with its impressive fortified walls still encircling the ruins of numerous churches, mosques and caravanserays. Ani historical site is one of the most imprressive one on the ancient Silk Road.
Upon returning to Kars, we will visit the city castle, a 12th-century Seljuk fortress and Kumbet camii, which was originally built as a Church of Apostles in the 10th century.Today is our last day in Turkey.
B/L/D Cheltikov Hotel
Day 14, Saturday, September 17 Kars – Akhalkalaki, Georgia (driving distance: 180 km) Today we will cross the border entering Georgia. Drive along the mountain road to overnight at the city of Akhalkalaki. This city is the centre of a historical region called Samtskhe-Dzhavakhetia located in the utmost southwest of Georgia . It is a high-mountainous area of subalpine and Alpine meadows with many crystal water springs and brine wells.
The city of Akhalkalaki , according to historians, was founded in the 11th century. In the 15th century it was almost completely destroyed and in the 17th -18th centuries rebuilt by Turks and transformed into a powerful fortress. We shall visit an old fortress en route.
B/L/D Ararat Guesthouse
Day 15, Sunday, September 18 Akhalkalaki – Yerevan, Armenia (driving distance: 80 km) Drive to Georgia/Armenia border in the morning and process the border-crossing formalities. Then drive to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Enjoy some leisure time in the city.
B/L/D Golden Tulip Hotel or Ani Plaza Hotel
Day 16, Monday, September 19 Yerevan (driving distance: 65 km)
Today visit two major sites near Yerevan.
The Church of St. John (St. Hovanes), also known as Mastara Church, in Mastara, Armenia dates from the 5th century. It features a variation of the cruciform plan and central cupola'd church. In accordance with its square plan, the four projecting apses, inward-facing circular and outward facing polygonal, offer the requisite supports to hold up the imposing polygonal cupola.
In the afternoon, drive through the picturesque Avan Canyon, skirting formidable cliffs and passing exotic-looking gorges until a green plateau by the Azat River comes into view. Here, in the harmony of the relief and the virgin nature you will see the pagan Garni architectural complex of the 1st century and feel the spirit of ancient ages. Another ten minutes ride through the gorge will take you to the cave monastery of Geghard.
B/L/D Golden Tulip Hotel or Ani Plaza
Day 17, Tuesday, September 20 Yerevan – Sevan Lake – Dilizhan(driving distance: 325 km)
Today we will trace the ancient Silk Road through Southern Armenia driving towards the town of Ararat. We will have a wonder view of the Caucasus Mountain range and visit one of the old Caravanserais.
Also visit the Hayravank Monastery and Noraduz Village close to the town of Gavar where lies the famous Noeaduz Cemetery.
After some bumpy road driving, we will reach Dilizhan by the Lake Sevan and spend two nights at a local family house.
B/L/D Ana and Edward’s Guesthouse
Day 18, Wednesday, September 21 Dilizhan (driving distance: 80 km)
Dilizhan area of Armenia is affectionately known as the "Little Switzerland".
Hidden in forest inside of Dilizhan National Park, there lies a handsome monastery from the century XII (Haghartsin means "dance of the eagles"). Enjoy the drive and tour, then some hiking by the Lake Sevan.
This evening, we will visit a Molokans family in a hidden village.
During the 19th Century, Tsarist officials instituted policies designed to force Molokans from Central Russia to the periphery of the empire. Accordingly, Molokan communities developed in Caucasus and Central Asia.
One Molokan community in Armenia is located near Dilizhan, a village with a population of about 1,500. This is one of the nine Molokan communities in Armenia, with a total population of about 5,000. About a decade ago there were an estimate 12,000 Molokans in Armenia. The rapid reduction in numbers is in part connected with the struggling Armenian economy.
The community we visit has the feel of an ethnic Russian village. Conversations heard around town are conducted entirely in Russian, and villagers live according to long-held traditions, eschewing many modern conveniences. For example, women rely on devices called pakhtalkas, or butter churns. The primary source of revenue is production of cabbage. We will enjoy a dinner with the family.
B/L/DAna and Edward’s Guesthouse
Day 19, Thursday, September 22 Sevan Lake – Tbilisi, Georgia (driving distance: 170 km)
Today we will drive north-bound towards Georgia border. En route we will visit a very interesting village of the Russian Molokan people.
Russian Tsar Nikolai I in 1830 signed a decree prohibiting “Molokans” to live in the central areas of Russia. This made them resettle in Transcaucasus. The villages of the Molokans are still existing in Northern Armenia. Molokans live in complete harmony with nature. They preserve not only the fields, but also the forests. They collect wild berries, pears and grow cabbages. Their home-made jams, cheese and pickles are fantastic.
There will be some border-crossing formality from the Armenia side and then enter Georgia.
Arrive Tbilisi in the afternoon.
B/L/D Courtyard by Marriott
Day 20, Friday, September 23 Tbilisi
Full day of sightseeing in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.
The city was found in the 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali. We will take a walk around the old town, Kala, which developed within the walls of a citadel and reached the bank of the river Mtkvari; visit centuries old churches, treasuries of museums and other important cultural and religious sites.
B/L/D Courtyard by Marriott
Day 21, Saturday, September 24 Tbilisi – Sighnaghi (driving distance: 111 km)
Drive eastbound to the city of Sighnaghi.
Explore picturesque and the most fertile part of Georgia - Kakheti, which borders the Great Caucasus range from the north Alazani Valley, summits of which are over 3,000 m.
This region is known as a birthplace of viticulture and wine-making. The rich land, burning sun and hard work have developed about 500 varieties of wine in Georgia. The history, culture and lifestyle of Georgians are embodied in Georgian wine. It is a symbol of Georgian hospitality, friendship, tolerance and a key to the mystery of Georgian longevity. Enjoy breathtaking views of Kizikhi area and unusual Charm of Signagi Royal Town. Take a walk in narrow streets of the town in shadow of wooden balconies richly decorated with the lace of carved ornaments.
B/L/D Hotel Solomoni
Day 22, Sunday, September 25 Sighnaghi – Sheki, Azerbaijan (driving distance: 161 km)
Today we cross the border to enter Azerbaijan. We will cross the border at the Lagodekhi border post, and continue on to Sheki, about 160 km from the border.
Upon arrival, we will check into a hotel converted from an ancient karavansarai. Enjoy some home-made wine and food at a local family.
B/L/D Karavansarai Hotel
Day 23, Monday, September 26 Sheki
One of the most ancient settlements and cultural centres of Azerbaijan, Sheki was founded more than 2700 years ago at the southern slopes of the Major Caucasus Mountains Chain (370 kilometres to the north-west from Baku). During its millennial historical the town used to be devastated many times, so the most part of the historic and architectural monuments currently preserved are dated to the 16th-19th centuries.
Magnificent Royal Palace of Sheki Khans (Kings) constructed in 1762 without a single nail is one of the most marvellous monuments of its epoch, which the Shekians are particularly proud…
In the afternoon, we will drive to a village 40 km outside of Sheki to trek up to an ancient fortress in the mountain.
B/L/D Karavansarai Hotel
Day 24, Tuesday, September 27 Shaki – Baku (driving distance: 300 km)
Today we will depart Sheki for Baku.
Drive through the Muganly Mountain Pass. Photo stops on the most beautiful viewpoints on the mountains.
En route, we will visit to Diri Baba mausoleum in Maraza village.
The highlight of the day would be the exploration of the live mud volcano before we reach Baku.
Arrive Baku and check into hotel in late afternoon.
B/L/D Central Park Hotel
Day 25, Wednesday, September 28 Baku
Baku sightseeing for the day. Visit to Memory Alley – “Shehidler Khiyabany”, panoramic view of Baku city from the park. Visit to the State Carpets museum. Visit to medieval fortress of Old Baku – “Icheri Sheher” and “Maiden Tower”, the complex of Shirvan Shahs Palace, medieval Caravansaray and so on.
B/L/D Central Park Hotel
Day 26, Thursday, September 29 Depart Baku
Today we will be at leisure until the time for boarding the Caspian ferry.
This is the end of Section II.
Those who leave the group from Baku, will be transferred to airport for your homebound flight.
The Caspian Crossing
All cross-Caspian journeys are conducted by cargo ships with space for passengers. Do not expect a comfortable ride! Because of the nature of the trips, there is no set schedule for when ship arrive and depart, and crossings in this area are often only accessible with local knowledge and luck. Information about these journeys is sparse on the internet.
The only routes available at this time on the Caspian are from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, and Baku to Aktau, Kazakhstan.
These ship don't have any fixed departure and arrival schedule. It depends a lot on the weather, and they leave when they're full. We can only find out about departures by calling or visiting the ticket office daily or twice daily. Buying tickets is only possible on the day the ship leaves. We need to have our visa for Turkmenistan in advance. Tickets only let us onto the boat, having food, staying in a cabin, getting bedding and towels would cost extra.
Azerbaijan is the most common destination (or source) for passengers crossing the Caspian. Ships mostly depart from Baku, however, starting from last year, more ships dock in Alat, 70km south of the capital. Departures from Baku only take trucks and cars, and departures from Alat take trains, passengers, and private cars.
Baku –Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan (the route we usually take)
The Baku-Turkmenbashi service normally leaves every day or so, and takes 17 hours, in theory.
The Turkmenbashi service is more reliable than the Aktau service, however Turkmenbashi's port is sometimes too jammed up, making ship anchor outside until they are allowed in. This could take a day or two, but a wait of three days has been experienced in 2014.
The procedure to buy tickets is the same for either port; arrive at the office in Baku in the morning, if there is a boat, buy the ticket, and go to the port to board the ship.
The ticket office changes location from time to time. We need to find out where the tickets are being issued on the day we depart, go there and buy our tickets.
Baku –Aktau, Kazakhstan (the route we took in 2015 due to Turkmenistan’s refusal of entry)
2015 was the only year we had to go through Kazakhstan. We drove to Alat around 8 pm and waited in parking lot till 3 am before we were called to board the ship. The sailing takes longer than Baku – Turkmenbashi route, should be around 25 hours however, we had to wait on board for one extra day due to the port’s traffic jam.
Azeri customs do not allow passengers on board without having the visa of their destination in their passport. European and North American passport holders do not need visa for Kazakhstan, but Turkmenistan visa is definitely required.
Cargo is loaded before the passengers, so we will have to wait. Customs officers will ask to see proof that we will not be turned back once we arrive, like a visa or an invitation letter. On board, someone will want to see your passport and, in Turkmenbashi, they will collect the ticket. It is safe to give them our passports as they need to record the details of each passenger. When the ship docks at the destination, we need to line up and go to the captain’s cabin to re-claim our passports.
The views of the Turkmen and Azeri coasts are beautiful. We might be able to spot Neft Daşları, an oil city of 2000 people built upon the foundations of oil platforms 55km away from the shore. The sunsets of the Caspian are stunning.
We are free to wander around the ship during sailing, into the hall, the machine room or the bridge.
The cabins are nothing special. Hygiene standards are mostly low, for example shower and toilet facilities are in the same place, and are usually not too clean. There are public toilets elsewhere. Bring sleeping bag, sheet and pillowcases as your supplied mattress and pillows do not look very attractive.
Though it may not be necessary, but bring some food to be safe. The kitchen on board might fry us up some chicken for a few manat or dollars, or sell some beers, vodka and cigarettes, but once the food runs out, we will be on our own. It would be wise to pack some food and drink given the risk of being stuck in harbour for days.
Customs and border formalities can take a substantial chunk of time after leaving the ship, especially when we have the cars. We might get stuck for hours in customs. Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan can take from 1 to even 5 hours, but Aktau is the worst, in 2015 we were stuck there for almost a whole day with our vehicles. Also, customs only appears to operate from 9-5 in Aktau, so although foot passengers can get off the ferry in the middle of the night, drivers can’t.
Regardless all the above, crossing the Caspian is a very special experience. We have done it 5 times, and just like giving birth, all pains and frustrations are fading away, only joyful and triumphant feelings left in memory.
What’s included in AAST’s services:
- 4WD vehicle throughout the journey (3-4 people per vehicle).
- Petrol charges, toll fees, maintenance and repair of the vehicle.
- Leadership of experienced group leaders including mechanical support.
- Local sightseeing tours with entrance fees (sometimes via chartered van or coach).
- Accommodation: 3 & 4-star hotels in major cities, local guest houses or best available in remote areas.
- Basic cabin accommodation on board of cross-Caspian cargo ship. Passenger ticket and vehicle charges.
- Hotel taxes and service charges.
- Meals which are indicated in the day-by-day itinerary (B=breakfast; L=lunch; D=dinner)
- Arrival and departure transfers.
- All cross-border handling.
- Banquets, parties and special events.
- Travel manual and educational materials.
- Use of travel accessories (GPS, maps, GMRS Radio Walkie-Talkie, tools, general emergency kit)
What would be your extra cost:
- Your international flights and related taxes.
- Personal travel insurance (mandatory) .
- Visa fees.
- Vaccinations (not mandatory).
- Items of a personal nature such as telephone calls, use of internet, laundry, shopping.
- Cash payment (5 euro or 6 dollars per traveller, per day). This will cover all gratuities and incidentals. The group leader will collect this cash payment at your trip’s starting point.
- Note: on the cross-Caspian ship, please prepare some small bills in USD or in Azari Monat to pay for food and water.