Visiting Armenia from Republic of Georgia was a no brainer since the two capital cities are connected by cheap public transportation. We originally decided to hop over to Yerevan from Tbilisi and just hang out in the capital city, but after doing a quick search on the highlights of Armenia, we decided to hire a driver to take us around the entire country.
12 April – Our Armenia driver, Gagik, was originally supposed to pick us up in Tbilisi but two days before we were scheduled to depart, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan grew more heated and we got a last minute surprise email that he was refusing to cross the border in Georgia due to “sniper fire” and could we meet him at the Sadakhlo border crossing instead? It was almost a show stopper as now we had to figure out how in the hell to get from Tbilisi to Sadakhlo. The whole reason we were hiring Gagik was for the convenience factor and now we had to deal with trying to crack the code on how to get to a very specific location via marshrutka. Not cool, not cool at all. But thank God for Sofi and Khvicha. They immediately got on their phones and started making furious phone calls throughout their network of friends and coordinated for us to get to Sadakhlo via marshrutka for a mere 5 Lari each. What on earth would we have done without them?
Crossing the border was a fairly simple process. Our passports were heavily scrutinized at the Armenian checkpoint…perhaps the official was looking for evidence of travel to Azerbaijan? In any case, after fruitlessly scanning our passports several times, we were quickly stamped in and pounced upon by several over eager taxi drivers. Gagik was waiting as promised and rescued us from the mob of taxi drivers. The weather had been pleasant in Georgia, but as soon as we crossed into Armenia, we were surrounded by dark clouds. The weather forecast had been for constant rain but we were keeping our fingers crossed that it would improve later in the week. Our first stop in Northern Armenia was to the UNESCO world heritage site of Haghpat Monastery in Debed Canyon. The views from here are supposed to be stunning but the low slung clouds coupled with rain dampened our enthusiasm for this visit. The monastery itself was pretty impressive, with a bell tower, carved khachkars (Armenian cross-stones, carved stele bearing a cross, often with intricate designs), and a scriptorium, which had holes built into the floor to hide scrolls during times of peril. Lars was suckered by a kind old lady to use the bathroom (he thought it was free) but once he exited, she hit him up for some money so he cheekily gave her some Lari coins! From Haghpat, we made our way over to another UNESCO church of Sanahin. With the crap weather, it was impossible to appreciate how pretty the Debed Canyon is…very frustrating that the visibility here was so poor. Sanahin is a 10th century monastery, and its name translates to “This one is older than that one”, referring to nearby Haghpat. There were lots of arches within the church and tombs on the ground, as well as several khachkars. Just down the hill from Sanahin was the Mikoyan Brothers MIG Museum, where one of the first MIGs ever built was on display next to a statue of its inventor.
After Sanahin, Gagik drove us directly to Dilijan (“Switzerland of Armenia’). He seemed keen to be on his way but we were a bit confused because it was only 2 pm and we were unceremoniously dropped off like hot potatoes at the Hotel Minimo (18,000 Dram for 3 including breakfast…definitely super pricey compared to Georgia). We kept insisting on being taken to an ATM machine but Gagik kept telling us we could pay him in US dollars and we were arguing that we needed Dram in order to eat, pay for the hotel, etc. It felt like a back and forth battle before he finally reluctantly agreed to drive us downtown to a nearby ATM with instructions to eat nearby and walk the 2 km trek uphill to Hotel Minimo. Fine by us, but jeez, all 3 of us felt like we had overpaid for a glorified pick up at the border. This was our first impression on Armenia and it was a pretty negative one because it felt like it was bad value. We decided that we needed to have a “come to Jesus” moment with Gagik tomorrow to set the right expectations for all parties concerned. Especially since he had gotten away with suggesting a super late pick up tomorrow of 10:30 am! We hate starting our day off that late because it feels like half the morning has already been wasted.
Our late lunch was at the restaurant co-owned by our hotel, the Cafe Minimo. As we scanned the menu, a disgruntled man asked us if we got suckered into coming to this shithole village as well. He was definitely one unhappy camper and super pissed off he was stuck in rainy Dilijan! We laughed, ordered lunch and decided to make the best of the rest of our afternoon. The only highlight to note in this sleepy town was a walk to Sharambeyan Street, the Dilijan Historic Center which has been well restored to look like it belongs in the Alps. On our return walk up to the hotel, we picked up some cheap alcohol at a supermarket (0.5 liters of vodka for under $2) and we hung out in our massive apartment complex while the rain pummeled down for the remainder of the afternoon. Cost of today’s drive: 34,000 Dram.
13 April – Breakfast of barley and hot dogs…umm, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! Breakfast was interesting…we ate because it was free but it was a unique meal to be sure. Gagik showed up at 10:30 am and Robby immediately had a discussion with him to go over our itinerary and express our displeasure for yesterday’s rather abbreviated schedule. After getting it partially hashed out, we left Dilijan and visited Haghartsin Monastery (recently renovated with funding provided by a Muslim from the UAE). Because of the renovations, the churches at this complex look fairly new even though Haghartsin dates from the 13th century.
Our next stop was to Goshavank Monastery. To be honest, at this point all the monasteries were starting to blend into one another. This one had a fantastic khachkar. Outside the complex there was a Judgment statue and a souvenir shop. From Goshavank, we drove onward to Lake Sevan where we hiked up to Sevanavank monastic complex (up some steep steps, past a bakery). The complex had two intact churches and two ruined churches, and a nice green khachkar in the courtyard. Inside one of the churches, there was an intricately carved khachkar of Jesus which looked amazing in the dim light. Climbing back down to the Lake, the bakery lured us in and we bought some sweet bread which ended up having a weird sweet filling. The stray dogs immediately became friendly…they obviously know that tourists will give them sweet bread if they behave themselves. Lars took a dip in the lake while our guard dog looked on approvingly. He was so well behaved that we felt obligated to give him a nice meal of our leftovers. The weather today was surprisingly good…it didn’t rain at all! We felt lucky considering the weather forecast had predicted thunderstorms for today.
After Sevanavank, we had a quick stop at Hayravank Monastery, where Becky witnessed a chicken slaying. The family then slathered chicken blood on their forehead in the shape of a cross and because she was the witness, Becky got a chicken blood cross smeared on her forehead as well! This monastery had magnificent khachkars overlooking Lake Sevan.
Our last stop of the day was a last minute add of Noratus (Noraduz). Gagik asked for an extra 5,000 Dram to include this sight since we hadn’t negotiated it beforehand and we agreed. The site was not to be missed with its magnificent tombstones and khachkars. It blew all the other khachkars away! An old lady was selling hand knit socks, gloves and hats and Becky felt bad for her since there were literally no other tourists on site. So she bought a hat and to her surprise, the old lady blessed Becky over and over again…2000 Dram will definitely go a long way for her!
Gagik had been kind enough to invite us to stay at his apartment in Abovyan. His wife made a nice dinner of trout, roasted chicken, salad, and a huge range of desserts…yum! We got to play with his well behaved children (Sona and Daniel) and taught them how to count from 1 to 20. The family all slept in the master bedroom and let us sleep on the foldaway couch while Lars crashed on the couch. Our Armenian homestay was a nice surprise and all of us enjoyed the experience. (Today’s drive rate: 40,000)
14 April – Woke up and played with Daniel who was super excited to have company to play with. Gagik’s wife prepared breakfast and we were able to sit down and eat together before the kids had to head off to school and Gagik’s wife had to go to work (nurse). We were ready to go by 9 am, and our first stop of the day was the impressive Khor Virap Monastery. Due to its close proximity to Yerevan, Khor Virap gets crowded with tourists. The background story of this unique monastery is that King Trdat III imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator for 12 years in a well here. However, the King became afflicted with a strange disease where he sprouted a pig’s nose and ears. All remedies throughout the kingdom failed, so at long last, the King hailed St Gregory from his prison to see if he could assist. Lo and behold, St Greg cured the King of the pig disease and as a result, the King immediately converted to Christianity. Needless to say, we climbed down into the well to check out St Greg’s digs for the long 12 years of imprisonment. Also hiked around Khor Virap for some nice views of the monastery. There were loads of tour groups here…Gagik told us that the South is immensely more popular than the North of Armenia and that was especially evident during this stop.
After Khor Virap, we drove past the Armash Fish Ponds (about 25 km south) on our way to Noravank monastery. It rained heavily upon our arrival, and eventually eased up. Noravank is insanely popular with the large tour groups but due to the rain, we had brief moments where we had the entire site to ourselves. 14th century Surp Astvatsatsin Church is double storied, with a nice carving of Christ, Peter and Paul. The other thing to note here is a tombstone with a half lion/half human form. Noravank definitely impressed, and its easy to see why its so firmly entrenched on every visitors’ itinerary. From Noravank, we head downhill to the Areni-1 cave, where the world’s oldest shoe (3500 BC) was discovered just a few years ago. Officially, the site is closed to causal visitors because it is still undergoing excavations, but for 1000 Dram each, the caretaker led us on a personal tour.
Our last sight of the day is more commonly referred to as the ‘Armenian Stonehenge”, or Zorats Karer (Karahundj). This obscure site near Sisian is an ancient observatory with an astronomical design most evident during solstices and equinoxes (through holes made in massive rocks). The weather took a turn for the worse while we were here, so we didn’t linger too long.
From Zorats Karer, we drove to Goris where we stayed for the night. Robby had found a budget triple room for a mere $18 online (booking.com) and Gagik managed to find the Nar Var hotel. However, the owner wanted 18,000 Drams, so Robby just threatened to book it online to secure the cheaper price. Negotiations went back and forth (15,000 Drams…no? OK, 13,000 Drams). Finally, we agreed to settle on about 10,000 Drams. After Gagik took off, the owner explained why the price was so fluid…Gagik had demanded a cut for taking us to this particular hotel and the owner had to shell out 1,000 Drams from the price. We kind of figured that was the case but to have it confirmed put things into perspective. Dinner was at the very forgettable Prince Cafe, which seemed to be the only option in this sleepy town. Our dinner of a whole roasted chicken and fries was incredible and good value at 4000 Drams, but Lars got stuck with shit pizza for 2000 Drams and went to bed extremely disgruntled, ha.