The Silk Road Challenge

15 November 2011

For those intrepid travellers that may already know the Silk Road route, it has been famous for centuries as the 12,000 km trade route and was recorded back in 100BC when a Chinese expedition set off West to purchases horses in Central Asia, where they learned that silk was highly prized in the bazaars. UNWTO revived the Silk Road as a tourism route and project in 1993 which includes 25 countries.
There were 20 bloggers who signed up for the Silk Road Ch@llenge which involved going to visit the stands at World Travel Market (WTM) of five of these countries on the Silk Road: Albania, Armenia,Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan.  I opted to visit the stands of the first four of these countries and wanted to know the top three reasons why I should visit. I received the friendliest welcome from the Georgia stand who took the time to explain some of the many things I could do during my stay. I explained my knowledge of the country was limited but I remembered it had some great singers and delicious breads based in part on a friend who used to sing in a Georgian choir in London. It appears that they have put aside their differences with Russia and are keen to build their tourism industry.
I learned that the country has a reputation for great wine as they have over 547 different types of grape and have some of the oldest vineyards anywhere and they offer wine tours to the wine region of Kakheti and Sighnaghi. It also has one of the highest mountains in Europe at 5,400m and you can climb it although it’s quite technical so you need some crampons and good climbing gear. The other big draw for jazz aficionados is that it has two big jazz festivals, one on the coast at Batumi in June/July,  a 6 hour drive from the capital Tbilisi, which also has a jazz festival in September/October time. There are also spa resorts at Tskaltubo and Borjomi. Georgia has 12 national parks for trekking, kayaking, mountain biking and even canyoning and late Spring and late Summer are recommended times to visit. There are direct flights from Heathrow to Tbilisi with BMI and it takes about 8 hours with a stop in Azerbaijan. It’s definitely going on my list for a future visit.  
I also visited the Armenia stand and persuaded Christina to share some information on the country’s main attractions. The landscapes, history, food and hospitality were the first things mentioned and she recommended a visit during May-June or during September-October. There are cultural concerts in late Summer with films, classical concerts and opera and they have a famous Gregorian Christian ceremony called the blowing of the candles and a foot washing ceremony.
The one attraction that definitely appealed was the longest cable car in the world which is over 5km long and takes one and a half hours to reach a monastery and appeared to go through a stunning gorge. The country is a bit easier to reach from London and takes 5 hours from Heathrow on a direct daily flight with BMI to the capital of Yerevan. Christina was quick to tell me that the government does not provide any support to their tourism industry, although they had a very attractive stand with some stunning pictures of Mount Arafat and the surrounding countryside. This could be a contender for a trip next year during our special Jubilee public holiday around  4th and 5th June 2012.
I also dropped by the Azerbaijan stand and was again encouraged to visit to see some of their old petroglyphs and rock paintings at Gobustan, enjoy their hospitality and traditional music and handicrafts. This country is famous for hunting and fishing in the Caspian Sea. The wine and the pomegranate festivals were also mentioned and I was given a very colourful comprehensive guide on why I should even live and work in Azerbaijan. BMI offers 5 hour flights from Heathrow to their capital Baku and March-April and September-October were recommended as good months to come for a visit.
The last stand of Albania had some stunning photos as a backdrop and I spent some time with Andi to discover that the top three attractions of this country are the cultural heritage, its nature and the fact that it’s low cost. You can apparently enjoy 3-4 star hotels for 60-70 euros. Again Spring and Autumn were recommended as the best time to visit and it has 3 UNESCO heritage sites including the ancient city of Butrint, and the orthodox old churches of Korce. Albania has 15 national parks for hiking and 12 days were recommended for a visit to see all the sights. The country has a lot of tourists from Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro who come for their “sun and sea product” but Andi recommended the following itinerary for a much more varied trip Tirana – Berat, Gjrokastra, Sarande, Butrint (with short ferry hop to Corfu) the Ionian cost, Shkoder and Korce. Albania can be reached in 4 hours 20 minutes from Stansted to Tirana with Belleair.
The winning blogger was Sophie Collard who blogs at She visited all of the five stands but chose to write about an encounter on the Kazakhstan stand. She sampled some horse meat delicacies, even shooting a short video to accompany her post, and met “two buff guys” in local dress from the country. You can read about her Silk Road Ch@llenge here.
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