<<  Armenia, 13-May-2014  >>

Armenian roadtrip

Deep into Armenia: Mt. Ararat, into the badlands, high up to the mountains and Lake Sevan and back. In Lada Niva.

Fancy a roadtrip through Armenia? Then do it in style: in old Soviet “jeep” Lada Niva!

It’s not Lada Niva was cheaper to rent than other, modern cars. The key points in deciding for Lada were that unlike the western cars in the same price category it was the only one with 4x4 drive and with high-clearance (and knowing what to expect from Armenian roads I figured out that it would be indispensable) and that it’s so common car in Armenia that if it breaks down, every car mechanic anywhere around the country would be able to fix it (and I didn’t expect that this could actually really happen, but yes, finally also this point was indispensable). And the last point, yes I cannot deny it, was indeed the excitement of driving an old Soviet jeep!

Out of Yerevan, the first stop: Khor Virap, ancient monastery right under Mt. Ararat.
Too bad I was so excited that I forgot to gas up the empty tank in Yerevan, so we almost didn’t make it even to our first destination :-)
The monastery is Armenia’s oldest, and was built by a guy, ehm a monk, who “brought” Christianity to Armenia. Back then in 4th century, the monk was imprisoned by a pagan king who sentenced him to spend his life in a well, and he indeed spent unbelievable 12 years living in a well! At least so the legend claims. After those 12 years the king was stricken by madness and in an attempt to recover, after everything else failed, he turned to the monk, took him out of the well, and the monk, backed by limitless powers of Jehovah healed his madness and the king, now seeing that Christian God is the real God converted to Christianity and declared Armenia the first Christian country in the world. One might ask why did Jehovah with limitless powers let his beloved monk rot in a well for 12 years and saved his limitless powers for healing the cruel king… but let’s not be skeptic and faithless and let’s ignore the historians’ version of the story that the king converted just to gain political support of even growing Christian community in Armenia…
Khor Virap is as close as you can get to Mt. Ararat in Armenia, everything closer is part of hated Turkey. Silhouette of Mt. Ararat, just about to be covered by clouds (as it almost always is), was crowning this beautifully situated monastery (the monk’s well is still there, now right under the main hall of the church erected by the king and the monk), and as soon as we arrived to the place it disappeared into its typical cloudy disguise.

From Khor Virap we headed south, soon entering the semi-desert badlands and red-lands. Surrounding scenery reminded me a lot of Arizona and Utah and naturally, I soon began falling in love with Armenia. It’s places like these where you don’t need too much to be able to imagine prophets of Old Testament walking around and striking miracles all around and smashing golden calves. We drove on and on until we arrived right to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Azerbaijan has 2 parts – the “mainland” situated to the east from Armenia, and Nakhchivan, which is a territory landlocked between Armenia and Iran, not touching the rest of Azerbaijan. It was this part of Azerbaijan that we arrived to. If you didn’t know it, Armenia and Azerbaijan are in permanent state of cold war occasionally erupting into hot war, due to infamous Kagorno Karabakh, which is formally part of Azerbaijan but majority of citizens are Armenians and which has been occupied by Armenian military for 20 years or so, ever since the collapse of Soviet Union. Of course close relationships between Azerbaijan and hated Turkey (and practically the same DNA) do not really help to cool things down. As we were driving down the road, suddenly the road ended in a huge pile of sandbags with a machinegun station right in the middle. And so we knew that we arrived to the border :-) and that for sure the guy who sat there was not gonna issue tourist visa for us. The only thing he might have issued for us was a nice load from the machinegun. I didn’t dare to drive closer than 200 meters or to take a photo and then we turned around and drove deeper into Armenia. Deeper actually means higher, because soon our Lada Niva was tortured by a steep climb into a high mountain plateau that forms most of Armenia. The red-lands slowly started turning into green-lands and hot blasting sun was replaced by chilly weather. It was here that we made a little side trip to a spectacularly located monastery, smack right into a red canyon that could be imported from Utah. Armenian and Georgian talent for building monasteries in drop dead gorgeous locations cannot be disputed!

Finally mountains of Nagorno Karabakh lined the horizon but we did not go there. It’s anyway not so easy, as Nagorno Karabakh is a self-proclaimed country and requires you to get a sort of visa. Anyway venturing out into cold civil war… thanks not right now, maybe later.

As we stopped in a town where I was praying for an ATM (once again due to our excited departure from Yerevan we left without cash, so we hardly had enough to pay for the gas before and deep Armenia is not a place dotted ATMs (haven’t seen a single one in 300km). Luckily we found one, and left this unspectacular town for a tiny village where we wanted to sleep. As we were going there we stopped in a sort of restaurant (which also don’t dot deep Armenia too much) and as we were trying to decode the menu a man asked if he could help us. As he could see that my Russian was non-existent he suddenly shocked by asking in Spanish if we spoke Spanish! And so for the first time and at last, Irene could communicate with someone in this region! :-) In Tbilisi and Yerevan of course some people do speak English, but out of the cities the situation is usually hopeless, and now someone spoke Spanish!?! He turned out to be from Nagorno Karabakh and learned Spanish himself from books and audiotapes and he insisted that he would pay our lunch and was utterly insulted when we tried to refuse. So he did, he paid our lunch. But he didn’t even eat with us, he just helped us to order, talked with us for a while, paid our lunch and left. Unseen level of hospitality from someone who comes from a place with a civil war. Or maybe exactly because of that. The funny thing is that when we were leaving the waiter brought us a bill. As we were not sure whether the guy had paid or not we paid the bill, but then when we were leaving we asked if the guy who invited us hadn’t paid for us and the boss of the restaurant who appeared there said that yes of course, he started screaming and the waiter and gave us back all our money, and actually more, because when we paid they brought us the change, but now they simply gave us back all the banknotes we gave them, ignoring the fact that they already gave us the change. We tried to return the change but the owner didn’t want to hear anything about that and refused to take it. Now this was a once in a lifetime experience: we went for a lunch in middle of nowhere in Armenia, got invited by an unknown person, and finally we left the restaurant with more money than we had when we entered!

We spend the night in a small village with a huge tourist resort, completely out of proportions for such a place. It looked exactly as one of those places build from money from European development funds: 100 empty cottages and rooms, ridiculous fountains and decoration and… a swimming pool! Yes, a swimming pool. And so for 15 EUR per person or so, we had a private accommodation, 2 course dinner and fun in a swimming pool (of course we were the only ones there).

Unfortunately during the night it started to rain and the morning didn’t seem very promising either for an intended walk in the nature, so we took our Lada Niva and drove on a muddy unsealed country road 2 villages further into the hills instead. I was damn glad we had 4x4 with high clearance. As we got to the last village, abandoned, heavy rain rushed in and we quickly turned around, because it was clear that if we wouldn’t return to the tourist resort, where the sealed road ended in 15 minutes, we would be totally fucked because the country road will be unpassable even by 4x4. God, how much I love off road driving! I had a lot of fun driving through the pounding rain, flying mud and through puddles so deep that we caused a tsunami when we drove through them. But shit happens and soon I noticed that something was wrong, and no we did not hit rock or anything. The car was slowly dying – the motor lost all its strength and it would only work in very high rotations. Luckily it happened only shortly before the highest point of the country road and so soon we were just going downhill and the broken motor didn’t stop us. But the situation got worse and worse and soon after we were back on the sealed road the car was hardly moving. It was obvious we couldn’t continue through the mountains as we intended and so we slowly drove back in above 4000rpm rotations to the” ATM town” hoping to find a mechanic. We found him, but guess what? There was a “bit” of communication barrier. My Slovak which I pretended to be Russian reached its limits and of course no one spoke English, and surprisingly neither Spanish. As I was trying to describe the situation I turned to theater: I was making sounds of a motor in high rotations and gestures of wheels not turning and then making a sound of dead motor. It was like one of those games in summer camp when you are supposed to explain something without talking. Of course I looked like a complete idiot. The root cause was soon identified, and luckily some words in Armenian are same as in English: injector :-)
Unfortunately they didn’t seem to know what to do with it. So we called our car rental company (whose staff did speak English) and asked them to communicate the situation with them, but nothing seemed to be happening, until after 20 minutes the staff call me back and told me to go elsewhere in the town to an electrician next to a military unit. This guy opened the hood, did something for 20 seconds, closed the hood and said, without trying anything out: “OK”. I asked “OK?” and he confirmed “OK”. I started the car and guess what? It was OK! The guy was not kidding! A true professional who knows his trade! I figured out that the only thing we did was restarting all electronic circuits or something like that, because the clock and odometer were zeroed out (digital clock and odometer seemed to be the only modern enhancements of Lada Niva). We asked how much we pay, and guess what? Nothing! Everything was “OK”. I love this country! Everything is for free!!! :-)

Situation being “OK” we continued our trip, across the mountains, reaching a mountain pass 2300 meters above the sea, with ruins of an ancient caravanserai and there we were at the central volcanic plateau some 2000m above the sea, with snow covered mountain tops. Totally beautiful scenery with flowers blooming and almost no civilization. By that time I was already completely persuaded about Armenia’s beauty.

We continued towards Lake Sevan and did some sightseeing around it. In one of the villages there is a beautiful old cemetery and there was one 200 years or so old women selling winter hats. I didn’t need any hat but pity overcame me and I bought one, even without bargaining :-) In return I asked if I could take a photo of her, she agreed and so I took it and then I wanted to show it to her, so she sees how nice it was, upon which we just indicated that she was almost blind and couldn’t see anything. What a life that poor woman has. At age 100 years, almost blind, she still works and sells handicraft at a cemetery a place which soon enough will be her home. I’m not sure if I would like to spend the last years of my life at cemetery… I felt really sorry for the lady.

Last stop of the day: Garni temple. This is a place I had been to with Jirka as it’s close from Yerevan. It’s a Greek-style temple in perfect condition. Obviously, it had been partially reconstructed (something that European archaeologists would never allow), but still feels very authentic and sits, as always, at a beautiful location, and so allows you to see and feel how all those Greek temples must had looked like.

Next early morning the very last stop of the roadtrip – Gheghard rock-carved monastery with its mind blowing acoustics (the main hall is dug out of rock) and back to Yerevan, to catch marshutka back to Tbilisi.

Very nice roadtrip through very untouristed country. Thumbs up and Amen.

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     MARCEL STRBAK | www.strbak.com | www.facebook.com/marcel.strbak