On our first day trip, we hoped to get a feel of the old Armenia, with its churches and monasteries, whilst also finding some of the newer sights.
I used Yandex to take a taxi from the hostel to the “central” bus station, which is a few kilometres south of the centre, and only paid 300 dram (£0.50)!
This morning Mount Ararat is hidden by thick mist but the glacier is shining out of the top like a beacon.
Seb and I caught the 519 bus to Byurakan at 10:30am to kick off our adventures out West. It only cost 400 dram (£0.65) each and we only had to share the comfy, spacious old bus with one woman. The 50-minute ride to the town was absolutely fine and as we approached the pins I have dropped on the map, we hopped off the bus.
However. I made a mistake… I was firmly under the impression that the Armenian Alphabet Monument was here, in Byurakan (as it says on Atlas Obscura). It is not!! It’s over 20 kilometres from this place!
The aptly named Byurakan Observatory, however, is in the town, and we went for a fairly nice walk past lots of crazy domes in various degrees of disrepair. We walked towards the largest and shiniest dome, thinking there would be an information display.
We waited less than a minute on the main road and the first car to come around the corner stopped for us. It’s the cutest, most beaten up old Soviet car ever and the couple misunderstood thinking we wanted them to take us miles out of their way.
Two other cars stopped and some American-Armenians came over to help and they were absolutely lovely. The old man walked over waving a knife which he was using to cut up an apple and asked if anything was wrong, which made me laugh so much because there was nothing at all wrong until the knife!! They couldn’t take us as the cars were full but he gave us some apple and told us not to complain. The couple were only going as far as the village so we jumped in and the man had to roll back down the hill to bump start it. The car is so cool, it’s falling to pieces so you can see how everything works.
The couple stopped off in the town and said they are driving to the next village so they are able to take us with them. They stopped to buy food from a store and then jumped back in and had to push the car to get it started. The manual choke is broken so when he speeds up sometimes it kicks in and the car almost stalls.
They dropped us off outside their house and pointed to make sure we knew where to go then we walked up the hill for a while as there wasn’t much traffic. A couple of cars passed and were too full but then a fairly modern car with actual air conditioning stopped and I asked if we could catch a ride for 6km with them. An Armenian father and daughter are showing around two guests from Russia so we are six crammed in the car. The daughter, Anna, speaks English which is great as now they have offered to take us to the Amberd Fortress, which we thought we would have to give a miss, and then drop us at the junction to hitch to the alphabet Monument.
The views as we climb the mountain road are absolutely unbelievable and we can see lots of radar dishes and observatories across the landscape – the 300+ clear days per year certainly mean something for stargazing and research!
The landscape is scrubby and parched but apparently in spring it is lush green.
We reached a crazy place where the road looks like it is uphill but things roll up it!!! It was a mad optical illusion. Even the water flows uphill. Our driver got out of the car and we watched it roll away. Both from up close and further away it looks like a pretty steep uphill but it’s an optical illusion. Stop near the farmstead to try it out.
There was an enormous flock of sheep being driven down the road. Hilarious to see. Every shade of cream and brown.
Shortly after, we reached the ruined Amberd Fortress and it’s just amazing up on the hill with a beautiful Armenian church in front of it jutting out into the valley. There’s no entrance fee but there’s a gate and a little cafe so it’s probably not open late. We all walked around to the church and Anna’s dad bought us prayer candles to light in the chapel. How sweet.
Amberd Fortress was destroyed in the 13th century by the Mongols and the ruins cling to the lower slopes of the highest mountain in Armenia – Mount Aragats, which was hidden in the cloud.
The road took us back the same way past the gravity-defying hill and Anna’s dad was so taken with it that we had another go at rolling the car. It’s so crazy!!
We were dropped off at the intersection between the tiny main road and an even smaller mountain road that heads East up and over to another main road.
This driver doesn’t speak any English which is totally fine but he keeps looking into the back seat to have a proper look at my legs. It seems harmless probably. The front footwell is jam packed with moonshine vodka which we have been offered along with cigarettes. It does seem fairly innocent.
Ok now we are walking again. The dude stopped in a pretty random place and was turning round to talk to me about something that I didn’t understand and he put his hand on my knee and tried to hold my hand so I had to tell him not to. We went our separate ways at that point.
It’s a gorgeous day with a beautiful view so walking is fine for now. We’ve got 8.4km to the monument so worst case we can walk there in under two hours.
I got a bit bored of the slow pace pretty quickly so we jogged for a while and then walked some more.
Eventually a white mercedes picked us up and the dude had to move his police uniform from the back seat so we could sit here.
They took us 5km to the Alphabet Monument and then showed us the first letter from our names. We bumped into some more American-Armenians at the monument and they were friendly too. Everybody seems really taken aback that we are here in Armenia.
The policeman took us onward to Ashtarak, the next major town, so that we could find a lift to Vagharshapat which is the former capital of Armenia with the world’s oldest cathedral.
Aww this is so cute. On the way, he asked if we wanted anything to eat and he has just stopped at a convenience store to buy us some snacks! There was so many snacks and water too. We were overwhelmed.
We were dropped at a motorway junction and we took the exit towards Vagharshapat and walked through part of the town and didn’t get any rides for a while but we had lots of people stop and then say they weren’t going our way.
A truck stopped and we were about to hop in the back when someone who had previously said he couldn’t help. Artur had rushed home to drop off food for his children and then shot back to pick us up in his air-conditioned Audi. Artur is an angel and he has offered that if we come to Ashtarak we can stay in his second home!
He stopped a few times to ask for directions so he could take us all the way to the Etchmiadzin and he makes a good point that it’s better to ask for directions once too many times.
When we arrived, we invited him to join us as he hadn’t been for 25 years. He even bought us a prayer candle each but shortly afterwards he had to shoot off home. What a star.
Seb and I bought tickets to the museum in the church (1500/300 dram adult/student) and had less than 10 minutes to explore, which was absolutely fine with us. The first room is vestments but the second room holds lots of famous relics and a piece of Noah’s Ark! It’s framed in gold and the woman running the museum told us that it’s petrified.
I’ve not seen reliquaries before and the were pretty cool.
The church is under scaffolding (of course). I suppose that doesn’t make much sense, but to the people who have known me for a while will know that I’ve got a whole album dedicated to world monuments that are under scaffolding when I visit.
We walked towards another church where we could hear men singing. There were about 40 men singing prayers in Armenian: powerful and beautiful.
We bought our initials in the Armenian script at the gift shop and then walked to the church of St Gayane which is another of the really important churches in the Armenian Apostolic faith, named after one of the first recorded martyrs.
The final church of the big three we wanted to visit was St Hripsime which was a couple of kilometres away so we hopped in a Yandex taxi and paid 300 dram (£0.50) for the ride. The gate we walked to was locked but a priest came over and let us in. It was an absolutely lovely place. This year the church is celebrating its 1400th birthday!
I decided to head through an archway and I discovered a passageway that led behind the altar and down into an amazing space underground which contained the relics of a female saint.
We fancied food before we hit the road back to Yerevan and spotted a traditional tavern on the map, not too far past a huge sculpture of Saint Gregory’s right hand.
The sunset was absolutely beautiful and the sun sent rays all the way across the sky. The sunsets have been beautiful here.
We arrived at Tteni Tavern and ordered kebabs and fries and I ordered an eggplant salad. The other guests were a wedding party and they went from absolutely silent to so noisy we couldn’t hear ourselves think!
The food was strange. We walked away satisfied but in the eggplant salad was the hottest chili I have ever had in my whole life. It felt like a prank. I didn’t cry; they didn’t deserve it.
We ordered a taxi to take us back to Yerevan at about 8:30pm and paid 1,700 dram (£2.70) for 18 kilometres. I can’t get over how cheap that is!
After a quick turnaround we walked to Republic Square to watch the fountains, lights and music with Casiana, Oliver and two guys they met on a tour today, Simon from Aberdeen and Fabien from Austria. The show was really nice with a mix of classical and Armenian music and the fountains shot higher than I’ve ever seen.
Afterwards we went for a couple of drinks. Simon made me laugh so much with his strong accent ordering wine.