Despite its ancient cultural heritage, Armenia feels like an unfinished country at times, probably due to its relatively recent independence from the former Soviet Union. But more importantly, it is at times unspoiled and it is there and then when its true beauty comes out.
The Georgian side of the border was just a few pot holes down the road from our improvised camping spot. This crossing is a quiet one and half an hour later we were let go.
The short path that separates both borders was under construction, a premonition perhaps of what we were about to experience for the next two days. The passport check at the Armenian gate was quick as well and for a moment we thought this was going to be our lucky day. Wrong. Almost 2 hours and 60 Euros later we were finally allowed in.
Car insurance is mandatory in Armenia and can be purchased just after the border. The chap at the booth asked for 55 Euros but we managed to negotiate it down to 20 Euros, 20 Georgian Laris and 2 cigarettes in a very friendly atmosphere. Welcome to Armenia 🙂
The roads – ouch!
Finding out which vehicles are the most popular in each country is turning out to be one of the most interesting parts of this road trip. In Armenia, there are plenty of old Russian trucks but without a doubt, the king of the road here is the Lada (similar to the Seat 124 and Fiat 124)
The roads are work in progress. Aside from the numerous pot holes, at times it feels as if you were constantly driving over speed bumps. The difficult terrain probably does not help keeping the roads in good shape. And these are quiet roads and when they give you a break, you get to see things like this:
With such a beautiful preview we set out to cross the country, north to south, while trying to stop at some of those wonderful monasteries. Did anyone know that the oldest cathedral in the world is not far from Yerevan?
Unfortunately, this time improvising the route did not pay off: Echmiadzin Cathedral was going under some needed refurbishment and Zvartnots Cathedral was already closed by the time we got there. With temperatures getting dangerously close to 40C we stopped at Saint Hripsime Church and then headed further south.
A friendly local explained to us that the huge peak that overlooked much of Western Armenia was the one and only Mount Ararat, with 5137 metres. Despite being Armenia’s national symbol, this volcano now lies in Turkey’s territory and as you can imagine, that does not sit well with Armenians.
All those stops for pictures and yet more awful road conditions meant we ended up driving through the night once again. But it had to be done, there was a monastery tucked away in the mountains waiting for us.
Armenia gets better
We woke up at the doorstep of Noravank Monastery and what a beautiful sight it was. This was by far our favourite monastery, full of details, beautifully craved doors and offering stunning views of the valley that lied beneath.
After realising that our tank was not going to last all the way to Iran it was time to fill it up. No problem – we thought – diesel is cheap in Armenia. If you can find it that is. Most petrol stations only stock petrol for those Lada’s and diesel is nowhere to be found. But, as we have learnt before, sign language and smiles go a long way. In the tiny village of Tatev and with only a few litres left in the tank, we found a kind man, with a house full of cows… and some diesel to sell.
Relieved after feeding our trusted companion, we went to check out Tatev Monastery. For miles, road signs announce a flamboyant cable car that takes tourists across the valley and into the doorstep of the monastery. One wonders whether the money that cost this cable car could not have been used on other, more useful things (like fixing those roads!).
Looking at the map, the last stretch of the M2 leading into the Iranian border looked suspiciously full of twists and turns which could only meant yet another mountain pass. And with the road conditions that we had seen in the last two days, not a pleasant one. With still some daylight left, we started climbing the road that would lead us to the very top. Surprisingly, the tarmac was perfect, sign that it had been laid out recently. But the best surprise was waiting for us a few miles ahead: once we reached the last turn and at 2500 metres, the views were breathtaking: to the east and west, Azerbaijan’s territories. To the north and south, Armenia of course. And further south, Iran. Armenia wanted to put on a show at the very end, like its neighbour did before, and what a show it was.
After sleeping at a not very glamorous construction site we finally cross into one of the countries we were most looking forward to: Iran