I now look back at this map of my whereabouts during the three weeks I spent backpacking in the Caucasus over summer and think:
“No wonder I was so tired“.
And even now, after a month or so of recovery, I start to feel fatigued at the mere thought that I’d managed to do four countries in 24 hours via six forms of transport (Armenia-Georgia-Turkey-England). But why Armenia? The simple answer being that I’m pretty sure it’s Europe’s best kept secret.
As we hurtled at great speed downhill for what seemed like forever into Yerevan, bad driving was on display everywhere in the form of mangled cars, and things were seemingly more chaotic than in Tbilisi. We had taken the marshtruka from Georgia to Yerevan, which you can read all about here, and were kicked out at a random station (the name of which I can’t recall, but it wasn’t Kaliki Station as should have been the case). We were greeted by a large man in a medium-sized taxi who was very insistent that we should, in Nelly style, take a ride with him, but we first had business to attend to and asked him to wait. We’d run out of toothpaste and so scampered over to what can only be described as an ‘odds and sods’ shop, only to come out with shaving foam. Good start.
I already feel like a terrible linguist most the time, just because (with the exception of Korean) I don’t think I really have an aptitude for learning languages per say. These moments not only magnify this feeling, but they also highlight my general inability to complete basic human tasks, such as to not clean one’s teeth with shaving foam. Anyway, it’s useful to know that in Yerevan a taxi will cost you 600 Drams for the first 4km and 100 Drams per km thereafter, but sadly we weren’t privy to this information (it was about 650 to the £ when we were there). We were heading out of the city to Goght, which was about 35km away, but our driver insisted that we must pay him 40,000! Let’s face it though, whether you go in the world, there’s always somebody waiting with a cab to rip you off, hoping you have no idea how i) currency and ii) laws surrounding licensed taxis work. Negotiations were tense and I was tired and groggy, so didn’t really want to deal with his games, but managed to haggle him down to 11,000. Although given that the journey should have totalled 3,700 and for 40,000 you can get two people from Georgia to Armenia, that wasn’t a great deal. I couldn’t stay mad at him though. The way he insisted on making conversation in broken English/Russian with us all the way there was quite lovely. He was also a terrible driver, which was heightened by the fact he insisted on Skyping his daughter to show off his new friends as he navigated the winding roads, tires screeching at every turn. Despite this, the drive itself was pretty phenomenal. In fact, I am quite sure I am going to need to swallow a thesaurus to be able to describe the way I felt about the scenery in Armenia, as I am going to run out of words of adoration.
There are very few countries I have been to in the world where I could literally just drive around and consider it an activity in itself because it’s just that darn pretty. For me, Armenia now sits on that list with New Zealand, Austria and Norway. Anyway, we arrived in Goght mid-afternoon to catch the remainder of the sun.
Bed & Breakfast 3 Gs
We stayed at Bed & Breakfast 3 Gs,which was insanely good! It’s a camp site, but also has four rooms in the B&B. The pool area was to die for, with views overlooking the village:
The hosts, Marty and Sandra, were wonderful and they were kind enough to give us an upgrade to the Deluxe Room which also overlooked some pretty epic scenery.
Breakfast was served out on the balcony with a bunch of locally made jams and homemade juices. If you’re a fan of cherries, you should definitely visit this area as it’s known for having really good quality cherries, and you can pick them up in all manner of funky colours – the orange cherries were particularly sweet and juicy. I can’t recommend this place enough! I think I could easily spend a week by the pool unwinding with a book and be pretty content. Most people tend to visit Goght as it is slap-bang in the middle of Geghard and Garni, two must-sees for those with a love of all things historical, which, if that’s not you, I don’t know why you’re in Armenia in the first place because it’s effectively an open-air museum.
We decided to hike to Geghard as it’s only around an hour on foot.
The hike itself was very scenic, but in the end we actually ended up catching a ride with a girl from Moscow and some dude because it was pretty scorchio. Once known as the ecclesiastical centre of Armenia, the monastery itself dates back to medieval times and has been designated a UNESCO World heritage site. It was founded by Gregory the Illuminator, whose name, unsurprisingly, featured a lot throughout the trip, and is situated at the mouth of a valley where many of the churches and tombs, as well as dwellings for clergymen, are built into the rocks. Oh and if you don’t know who Gregory is, he’s kind of a big deal. He’s credited with the conversion of Armenia from Paganism to Christianity, crowning them the world’s first Christian nation…
You can dedicate a couple of hours to this place. Not only is it aesthetically quite pleasing, but it’s also surrounded by a lot of nature where you can head off into the greenery to find some of the caves. There are a myriad of nooks and crannies to explore, and having done so we attempted to hitchhike back to the village, but failed miserably, leaving us drenched in sweat. Back to the pool.
Upon arriving back in Yerevan and having spoken to a few people, it soon became clear that most backpackers were only there for the simple fact that it acts as a gateway to Iran. Whilst many were held up in the city waiting for a visa and going completely insane with boredom, others were just on their way through. But either way, there seemed to be this general consensus that Yerevan is an obscure capital city in that there’s just not much going on. I, however, thought this assessment was largely unfair. With it being stiflingly hot, we soon found ourselves soaking up, what seemed to be, the city’s newly curated café culture in the form of mystery £2 cocktails with no English translation and an inexplicable level of potency. And I’m quite sure it’s a recent thing because you trip over cafes that go by ridiculous, western names such as ‘Cheesy Café’, where the bragging point is that it’s been around ‘since 2017’. Nice. The main pedestrianised shopping street, Northern Avenue, was incredibly modern and teeming with international flagship stores.
It’s quite nice to stroll down at night as there are street performers doing their thing, as well as musicians (including a man singing Ed Sheeran songs in Armenian, which I found deeply upsetting), but I didn’t dedicate much of my time to this. The side streets away from Northern Avenue are well worth an amble, which led to us passing all sorts of slightly out of place gems along the way, such as this:
I loved this place. Neighbouring both Swan Lake and the Opera Theatre, this symbol of democracy couldn’t have a more appropriate name. It was like something that had fallen out the mind of an overzealous nine year old. Toy cars and bikes to blaze around the square in. Candyfloss on tap. Men making balloon animals. Games. Basically, walking through it is like entering an assault course, and there’s a good chance you may get struck down by a moving vehicle being driven by somebody who can’t yet tie their shoelaces. It’s a cool area though at the heart of the city and is, once again, brimming with snazzy outdoor bars and cafes.
Construction of this humungous limestone stairway began back in Soviet times and is still yet to be completed. The structure is home to a plethora of modern sculptures which keep watch over the city below. Climbing to the very top took me around five minutes, but that was without stopping to eyeball the artwork, as I was chasing the sunset.
From the top (if you’re lucky) you’ll be rewarded with unobstructed views of Mount Ararat. I’d really recommend coming here at sunrise as that’s when the best vistas can be had, but the sparkling city at night is still a worthy prize for your ascent.
I really liked Armenian food. Persian and Turkish cuisines had clearly collided some time ago and concluded that they quite liked being together so just cracked on. Although, after three weeks I broke on the last night and requested a table for one in order to have a secret Mexican meal, but if you want local eats and don’t feel like practicing your Armenian, a couple of places I would recommend are Lahmajun Gaidz and Araks:
They were both incredibly cheap (I’m talking the equivalent of £1 for a delicious falafel wrap). One thing I digged in particular in the the third restaurant we went to – a western Armenian place called Anteb – was ‘goujav’, which as far as I could tell was a posh name for a beef stew with tomatoes and cheese.
I also ate my fair share of delicious kebabs and literally boat-loads of hummus and muhammara daily – the dips were just so fresh and pumping with flavour! One take-home from this trip is that I now know for certain what the most disgusting food on earth is – tabbouleh. I couldn’t believe I’d gone 27 years without trying it, but will now happily go another 27 years without it in my life. I also discovered that I highly dislike dill and parsley on this trip, as they were sprinkled on literally everything, much to my displeasure.
In terms of where’s good to drink, there are a host of underground dives you could go for, but we ended up at Calumet, a popular haunt amongst backpackers and locals alike. It was chocker with humans and cloudy with cigarette smoke. You sit on beanbags on the floor and music blares at the exact volume where the sentence “Where are you based?” could easily sound like “You’ve a hairy face” and lead to utter confusion. But beers are cheap and the barman is able to keep up with the seemingly overly complicated bar tab system, despite things not being written down at any point. The environment can get a bit much, and we ended up buying some beer from Burger King (“what?!” and “wow, classy” are both legitimate responses) to drink down at ‘Swan Lake’ – an artificial pool of water that does not attract swans and more like a big pool.
Armenia’s history is both fascinating and deeply sobering in equal measure, and not spoken of enough. Immersing yourself in what the museum has to offer will give context to everything you see and do during your time there. I spent most of my time absorbing linguistic nuggets, but there is a plethora of significant artefacts, including the recently discovered ‘world’s oldest shoe’, across the Archaeology, Numismatics, Ethnography, Modern History and Restoration departments to be enjoyed.
Republic Square Fountain Show:
I seem to have a talent for catching shoddy outdoor light and fountain shows when I am travelling. I’d managed to see Tbilisi’s the week previous and was (un)lucky enough to witness the most over-exaggerated, lights show I’d ever seen in Yerevan.
Intricately timed to splurging fountains, it was set to the backdrop of the history museum where illuminated water swayed to the words:
“Time to say goodbye
Paesi che non ho mai
Veduto e vissuto con te
Adesso si li vivro
Con te partiro
Su navi per mari
Che, io lo so
No, no, non esistono piu
It’s time to say goodbye”
Of course this wasn’t the only track, there were many which were equally as inappropriate, but this seemed like the most ridiculous. The highlight being when everyone got soaked and it ended.
The three places I stayed in Yerevan all had their quirks. Perhaps my judgement has been skewed by living amid the peculiarities of Cambridge for a year, but the first place, Noy Hostel, was one of the most Soviet-looking buildings I have ever seen, and was set in a bit of a rough-looking area on the outskirts of the centre. The rooms were absolutely ginormous, with two comedy-sized beds in the middle, looking incredibly sad. I don’t mind if places don’t have air con, but I do mind a lack of lock!
There was a giant window, but this let in noise from the neighbouring rooftop party that went on until 3am, where children danced and sang to the macarena until their (bad) parents bothered to pick them up. The second place went by an imaginative name; Yerevan Hostel. This sufficed in terms of location, but was full of creepy guys loitering outside our room. The third and final place I stayed at, Yerevan Inn Hostel (so, slightly more adventurous namewise than the previous), resulted in some good, restful slumber. I had booked a bed in a six-person dorm, however he told me they’d ‘run out’ and that I could instead have a double private room (still no ensuite, but I was fine with this). I quickly realised that the door did not lock and he hadn’t even given me a key. This was pretty common throughout Armenia and Georgia I noticed – people just don’t seem to give you keys to your room! I complained to the man and he seemed flustered to the point where he just panicked himself into giving me a private room for four people, with an ensuite, for the sum of six English pounds. Victory.
Lake Sevan is located around 65km north east of the capital city and is an iconic landmark in this landlocked country. The total surface area of its basin is a whopping 5,000 km2 and, unsurprisingly, it is the source of 90% of Armenia’s fish. Our journey to Sevan was slightly marred by a 1:30am finish the previous night, which made schlepping to Yerevan’s Northern Station all the more painful. It’s not in the centre, but this is where you’ll need to go if you want to head to Dilijan or Sevan. The taxi cost around 1000 Dram between us, so hardly broke the bank. The marshtrukas supposedly go every hour, but we were hanging around for quite some time until it filled up. There’s not much at the station:
There was half a bench to sit on, which we shared with a wide man, and a small bakery selling mystery sandwiches and pastries, which obviously I got straight on board with. The marshtruka to Sevan was only 500 Dram each and the journey itself took less than an hour. We were kicked off the bus in the centre of Sevan. It was seemed to be a pretty grim town, I won’t lie. It didn’t seem like there was much going on, and I wasn’t inclined to find out if my intuitions were right, so we grabbed our rucksacks and headed off downhill out towards the highway as our ‘hotel’ was supposedly located on the side of it.
We walked in the blazing heat for around 25 minutes, guided by the oracle that is Maps.me towards our pin, only to arrive at a stretch of barren land.
This definitely wasn’t it.
We re-consulted both our maps and decided that we were definitely in the right spot. Something had gone wrong. We hiked down the dusty highway against the oncoming speeding traffic. This was when we invented the game where we guessed how many times we might get honked at in 60 seconds. If you’re interested – it was a lot. We eventually arrived at civilisation in the form of a random hotel. Language barrier – check. No internet access – check. Our skin slowly baking as we stood in the midday heat – check. After some careful back and forth for a good ten minutes, I managed to negotiate access to their wifi so I could figure out what an earth had happened. I asked if she would call the hotel for me, which she did, only to find out that it was a 2km walk up the highway. Somebody had ballsed up here. Big time. And, for the record, it wasn’t us. Booking.com had misplaced the pin on the map.
Will we make it?! What’s going to happen?! Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon…