It was around 18h00 when we finally passed the border. The scenery around us was a large expanses of grassy hills with herds of cow pasturing here and there punctuated by small villages. We had been told that the roads in Armenia were of dismal quality but we were still on decent pavement. The sun was setting and light was transitioning towards orange.
The first large city we passed through was Gyumri. On both sides of the road were old socialist style apartment blocks, one after the other and nothing else except for some large trees. It was gloomy. Once we had passed Gyumri we started encountering large abandoned industrial complexes, relics of a bygone era of Soviet Armenia. I was aching to visit one but given the hour an my companion unwillingness, I had to let go of that project.
Some more barren scenery of earth, pastures and industrial left overs and we arrived in Yegenadzor, another large city which given the diminishing light, appeared as gloomier than is previous counterparts. Careful not to generalize that impression to the rest of Armenia, we had however came to the conclusion that the country was much much poorer than it’s neighbors. Given the hardships of passing the border and my companion having fell ill the night before, this certainly did not set an uplifting mood. Anyway, we arrived quite late in Dilijan, which even at night, looked a lot more inviting than other cities in the region. After a good meal provided by the guesthouse, she went to sleep while I did some catching up on the writing.
At breakfast, we met an Austrian couple traveling within the region. That morning, they wanted to check out the two nearby monasteries, Haghartsin and Goshavank. Thinking it was a great idea, we offered our car in exchange for their companionship. Monasteries are the thing in Georgia in Armenia, they’re on almost every iconic picture of the region and always numerous in whatever region you may be. Though Armenia’s monasteries are slightly different than Georgia’s, we were not exactly thrilled of visiting yet another one but we felt we had to make the effort. The first monastery was nothing really picturesque but to our pleasant surprise, there was a priest in the chapel who decided to gave us blessings during a quick ceremony where we were given grapes and an a printed icon of Jesus Christ. At the second monastery, which offered us a more interesting visit due to having been restored more recently, was a family which according to the most plausible theory we came up with, was baptizing a newcomer to their circle. They had a sheep on leash, which again according to our analysis, would be eaten later on in the day during the ensuing celebrations. We did not stuck around long enough to witness the fate of the animal.
So we dropped off our Austrian friends at a nearby lake and hit the road towards Lake Sevan, Armenia’s only sizable body of water and a popular destination for Yerevan’s inhabitants during hot summer days. One mountain pass and a bit of highway later, we had reached it. Not much time was spent there: we drove around, stopped for a grossly overpriced meal at a crappy restaurant and got the hell out. The Lonely Planet guide had made the place sound like a perfect spot for taking an afternoon off, but it was filthy and overcrowded. Every inch of coast was monopolized by a restaurant or bar competing with one another for the loudest sound system. There was so little room that people were forced to bathe in the boat launch.
Again on the road, going around the lake, we were hoping for pretty views of the landscape around but it was just an endless stream of poverty. Having not eaten enough in Sevan, we attempted to get some food at a supermarket but only got out with two bottles of wine to take back home. What we did also get was a good laugh at all the kitschy merchandise the place was selling and the gross incompetency of the staff working there. Our next objective was the Yeghegis valley, seemingly a nice place with plenty of ruins to check out and we arrived in the middle of the afternoon after an amazing drive in spectacular plateaus, mountains and canyons. To our amazement, the roads in Armenia were much better than we had expected. Bumpy, certainly, but at least continuously paved, wide and travelable at a good speed. With less truck traffic than Georgia, we were actually eating kilometers at a greater rate than up north, we the road system was supposedly better. At least this was true for the major roads, which I think were being financed by international aid as every other piece of public infrastructure was crumbling.
The Yeghegis valley held many sights but not wanting to be off-roading again with a compact car, we could only reach two of them: a church and a mysterious Jewish cemetery. Having had enough time, it would have been worth settling there for a day of two and explore the place on foot of with bikes. Far from any large agglomeration, the people inhabiting the small villages we passed were quick to give us directions and some even offered us freshly picked fruits. A pleasant departure from the general rudeness we had been exposed to so far. This seems to a rule that is true everywhere: the smaller and more remote the place, the nicer the people are. The original plan had been to spend the night there but with enough daylight to drive for two more hours but not to visit more sights, we pushed to Yerevan, the capital at which we arrived around 21h00 but not without passing the impressive mount Ararat, towering 5 kilometers over the city.
While having our morning Armenian coffee (a Turkish coffee really), we read the guide and came up with a list of things we each wanted to visit in the city. First a visit of the nearby mosque (the only one remaining in Yerevan), then, we proceeded to a quick tour of the contemporary art museum and after, we walked across the river to the Ararat Brandy distillery, which I really wanted to check out. Visits were normally by appointment only, but we managed to insert ourselves in an afternoon English tour. I did not know what to expect, it would either be a stupid museum of an actual visit of the installations. Regrettably, it was the former, with no chance of witnessing the actual brandy making process. It sort of reminded me of the Heineken museum in Amsterdam, which my brother really insisted we visit, but which I was certain would be a waste of time and money. The Ararat distillery was not as bad, but I was hoping for a lot more: I really really don’t give a damn about the evolution of the design your bottle, I want to see rows of casks, pipes, fermenters and alembics.
Next up was the cathedral and a metro ride (also build soviet style) through the city to check out the Cascade, but not before having coffee in one of the numerous parks in downtown Yerevan. With its circular layout, the core of the city is belted by a large longitudinal park and dotted with other smaller green spaces. It is clean and well maintained and is obviously the focus all the investments as other districts are depressingly poor and run down. For that reason, Yerevan feels very different than the rest of Armenia. High-end restaurants, luxury cars, fashion outlets even we could not afford, it is an island of wealth in a sea of poverty. The cascade, a gigantic staircase decorated with recessed fountains sort of exemplifies the Yerevan reality.
Started in the 90s under Soviet rule, the project was halted for several years and then brought to a state of semi-completion though a donation from a rich Armenian. It’s a spectacular piece of urban architecture and from the bottom, it looks finished. The top part however, still a tangle of rebar and concrete littered with soviet machinery, has not been touched since the 90s. At the top of the stairs sits a run down monument celebrating 50 years of Soviet Armenia which offers a nice view of the city with mount Ararat in the background.
The day after, we had to get back in Georgia so to celebrate the end of the Armenian portion of the road-trip, we had dinner at a upper-class French-Armenian fusion restaurant. Several glasses of wine, appetizers and entrées costed us no more than your average meal out in Canada. They had truffles on the menu so upon asking if I could try one at a decent price, they offered me a slice of the black and the white variety free of charge. Afterwards, we had a beer at the hostel and that was it, we had to leave early the next morning.
Out on the road around nine, we again passed through Lake Sevan and Dilijan and at noon we found ourselves near the border at a small roadside restaurant, having a meal of kebab, shashlik and salad. Afterwards, we visited the Sanahrin monastery which was highly recommended in the guide and frankly worth the detour and then reached the border an hour later. There, we still had to go through the mysterious custom broker employees to get our paperwork in order, but overall it was a lot simpler than on the way in. In line with us numerous poor souls trying to navigate Armenia’s border control bureaucratic mess. The weather was hot and so were the tempers. Thankfully, we were in and out quite fast. On the Georgian side : a quick glance at our passports, a stamp and the friendly border guard wished us « Welcome back to Georgia! »
Armenia was beautiful, intriguing ( I would have loved to explore all this abandoned infrastructure and delve deeper in the country’s Soviet past), but somewhat depressing so we had mixed feelings about our short time there. We found everyone we interacted with unpleasant and the food did nothing to compensate for that. Then again, Armenians are sort of excused. They have suffered many hardships in recent history, have very limited access to resources, an economy in ruins and a limited ability to grow things due to their country being very mountainous and dry. Evidently, we were grateful for having had the opportunity to visit, but we both felt like contrary to other countries in the region, there was not much there that would entice us to come back.