Sandwiched between the Caspian Sea and Black Sea lies Georgia, a country steeped in centuries of history offering intrepid adventurers a variety of terrain to explore.
In the west along the shores of the Black Sea, you’ll find stunning resorts, popular with locals. Two great attractions here are the ancient Roman fortress of Gonio on the Chorokhi River, where the grave of the Apostle Matthias is believed to be located; as well as Kvariati, a resort town flanked by the Black Sea on one side and verdant hills on the other.
Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, has its share of sights making one or two nights’ stay in the city a must. These include: the monument-filled Freedom Square; the city’s main thoroughfare of Rustaveli Avenue with its wealth of beautiful architecture, both old and new; the Narikala fortress overlooking the city; as well as Abanotubani, the historic district where visitors can enjoy bathhouses and public pools with hot waters rich in therapeutic sulphur.
For memorable mountaineering, there’s the eastern Tusheti National Park (above) where you can traverse the Pirikiti valley, as well as the sparsely populated and tranquil Artkhmo gorge. In the south, head to the Javakheti region where you can discover impressive megaliths and beautiful lakes, such as the Tabatskuri and Levani lakes.
Uzbekistan’s three quintessential Silk Road cities– Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva – are the nation’s greatest highlights offering visitors a fascinating glimpse into the famed trading route. In all three cities, you’ll find impressive Islamic architecture, with towering minarets, domes and mosaics defining these structures.
In Samarkand, Gur-e-Amir, the mausoleum of a 14th-century Mongol ruler Timur, is an absolute must-see. Bukhara’s most iconic landmark is the Poi Kalyan mosque complex (above), centred around the Kalyan minaret, an imposing structure built in the early 12th century and so remarkable that Genghis Khan is said to have marvelled at its beauty.
Another memorable Uzbekistan experience would be to visit an Uzbek bazaar. In the centre of the capital, Tashkent, you’ll find Chorsu Bazaar. It’s a vast open-air market where a heady array of different goods awaits. From fruits and spices to crafts and clothing, you’ll find almost anything here. Don’t forget to haggle!
Points of interest in Dushanbe, the largest city and capital of Tajikistan, include impressive architecture, such as the Tajikistan National Museum and Monument of Amir Ismail Samani. A number of beautiful parks can also be found in the capital, most notably the hilltop Victory Park, the large Botanical Gardens and Rudaki Park (below), where you can find a statue of Rudaki, a revered Persian poet, as well as the Tajik flagpole, the world’s second tallest free-standing flagpole (the current tallest is the Jeddah Flagpole).
For journeys through Tajikistan’s natural treasures, head to the Sughd Region, a mountainous section of the country ideal for hiking and mountaineering adventures. Iskanderkul, a gorgeous glacial lake surrounded by the majestic peaks of the Fann Mountains, is a good launch pad from where to begin your excursions.
Another thrilling Tajikistan adventure is crossing the renowned Pamir Highway (above). A part of the famed Silk Road, it snakes its way around the high-altitude peaks with hair-raising drops around every corner.
Along the western shores of the Caspian Sea lies Azerbaijan, a country at the crossroads of east and west. Due to its location, the country’s history, culture, architecture and cuisine exhibit an alluring blend of both eastern and western influences.
In the capital Baku, you’ll find a number of iconic buildings, structures and monuments, both old and new. The Flame Towers (above) are probably the city’s most recognisable and you’ll definitely want to snap a selfie. Other Baku points of interest include historical monuments like the 12th-century Maiden Tower and the 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshahs. Both are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List of Historical Monuments.
Another of Azerbaijan’s must-visit cities is Sheki, in the country’s north. Famed for its picturesque setting among the Southern Caucasus forested, snow-capped peaks, the town is known for its fascinating history, beautiful architecture and, of course, excellent hiking. A third settlement popular with tourists is Lahij, about midway between Baku and Sheki. This small village gives visitors a charming look at the traditional Azerbaijani way of life, through its cobbled streets, old houses and copper workshops (above).
A final noteworthy part of Azerbaijan journey would be the delicious local cuisine, featuring an abundance of fresh produce, spices, herbs, Caspian Sea fish, mutton and beef. Local delicacies to try include bozbash (lamb soup), plov (rice cooked in seasoned broth), qutab (thin flatbread stuffed with fillings) and dushbara (meat dumplings served in broth).
While Kyrgyzstan certainly offers its fair share of cultural and historic highlights, like Tash Rabat, a caravanserai from the Silk Road era, the glittering jewel in the crown of Kyrgyzstan tourism is its expansive swathes of untouched nature.
Characterised by glistening lakes and majestic mountain ranges, this is a destination for avid hikers, mountaineers and nature lovers.
Issyk-Kul (above), a large lake in the north-east, is one of the country’s most popular tourist spots, with several resorts dotted along its shores. It also offers the perfect springboard from where to begin your Kyrgyz excursions. To the south lies the Karakol valley (below), a region blessed with magnificent mountains, forested slopes and never-ending vistas.
Additional regions to be explored are the hills around the cities of Naryn and Osh (including Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Altyn Arashan valley, located near Issuk-Kul and offering visitors hot springs, sulphur pools and opportunities to spot snow leopards and bears in the Arashan State Nature Reserve.
Other Kyrgyzstan must-dos include spending a night in a traditional Kyrgyz yurt, and visiting the famous Saimaluu-Tash petroglyphs – remote rock carvings found in the western Jalal-Abad Region, which date as far back as 3000 BC.
– TEXT BY SAUL LIPCHIK
PHOTOS: 123RF.COM, INSTAGRAM, FLICKR USER EMERSON LIU (LAHIJ COPPER WORKSHOP)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.