The Long Way Round Armenia

My hitchhiker’s guide to this beautiful country filled with so many friendly people. This is one of my favourite trips to reminisce about already.

Seb and I hitchhiked our way around Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh for around a week. It was awesome! We spent time with so many lovely people and had some really different experiences.

Through the Envoy Hostel in Yerevan we arranged a shared taxi to Tatev Monastery, a journey of 240 kilometres, for 6,500 dram (£10.30). The only strange part was that we could be picked up any time between 9am and 10am but the guy at the hostel told us to be ready from 8:30 so we had to get up fairly early. We thought it was going to be a minibus but it turned out to be a Mercedes estate so it was far more luxurious!

We were joined by a police officer and it took me a moment to realise he was a passenger and then we collected a woman from her house and were on our way. It’s unusual to have a whole car seat to myself for such a long journey!

The driver isn’t bad, although just after we stopped for fuel (with a spectacular view of Ararat), he slammed on the brakes on the motorway and reversed, without looking, for about 200m so he could visit a fruit vendor.

We took a stunning mountain pass road and after being jostled around in the back and having the driver spend a significant amount of time on the wrong side of the road, we passed a sign saying “Dangerous road, use engine braking”. Not sure what to expect next.

The whole journey to the Wings of Tatev aerial tramway (cable car) in Halidzor took 4 hours, not 6 as we were told! Tickets to Tatev cost 3,500 dram one-way or 5,000 return and it is the longest two-way cable car in the world! It’s over 5.7 kilometres and takes 15 minutes.

The tannoy announces cool places to look at left and right along the ride which is helpful and the views are amazing!!

Arriving at Tatev Monastery was great. It’s hard to see just how precariously perched on the edge of a cliff the building is until you explore the building and find one of the windows that hangs precipitously in thin air.

There are some hiking trails you can do but it is probably best to arrive earlier in the day.

We took a taxi back to the main road because it was cheaper than getting the cable car. We had hoped to be able to hitchhike but nobody drives to the monastery because everyone takes the cable car! No worries; it was great to see it from the air and land!

Haha that said, now we are driving at about 30 kilometres per hour on a piece of road that seems pretty flat, not sure why but the car sounds (and smells) like it’s struggling.

Seb is learning some Russian from me (I don’t know much so it’s pretty limited) and I just noticed now that for the last few days he must have been saying thank you as “spa-cee-blah” rather than “spa-cee-bah”. Love it.

We got out of the taxi and hitched a ride within a minute towards Goris.

The guys were funny, didn’t speak to us but they did drop us off eventually at the very top of the town. We didn’t realise quite how large a town Goris is so we started asking for accommodation prices and then I found a really cheap, amazing place on Airbnb. Sadly the woman never got back to me so I don’t know if it’s as incredible as it sounds. It is apparently built into a cave in Goris and it’s listed on the app as Caving Armenia.

We decided to walk around to look at the view; there are amazing rock formations around the town on the hillside and tonnes of caves so it’s fascinating to see. At the same time we were just following our feet to see if there was any accommodation around.

A woman came out of her house and asked if we were looking for a hotel so we asked how much to stay for the night and she said yes quite a few times and we managed to agree that the two of us could stay for 7,000 dram (£11) including breakfast, which was cheaper than the places on but still more than the cave. The woman beckoned us into the house so we decided to give it a look.

The balcony has an unbelievable view of the hillside so we just went for it. It’s a strange situation so a little tough to explain from here on. The woman, Mane, and her mother, Hasmik, live here. They showed us an enormous room at the front of the house filled with vintage furniture – a couple of beds, a dining table, a piano and a sideboard full of fancy glasses but when they found out we weren’t a couple, they had to put us in different rooms, which wasn’t a problem, it was just an awful lot of fast-paced Armenian discussion and them being certain that we didn’t understand what was going on. But anyway. When I’m in my room, both Mane and Hasmik tend to walk in with me, which is interesting. They are being so very friendly.

I wanted to sit and enjoy the view so I went back to the balcony and Hasmik offered me some coffee, which was as hot as lava when she handed it to me. Seb joined me and then the women started putting food in front of him. It started with some fried potatoes and then bread, shredded cabbage, cucumber and cheese and then they kept producing more food. We even had some BBQ pork, peppers, tomatoes, fresh herbs and homemade apricot jam. The women brought chairs over and they sat with us but they didn’t really eat anything, they just kept giving us instructions on what went with what and what certainly didn’t go together.

I used Google translate lots and they did a lot of trying to teach me the Armenian word if I knew the Russian word, which just wasn’t going well. I said that we were hoping to go for a walk in the town but by the time the women had stopped feeding us it was dark and Mane said we shouldn’t go out. She said that bedtime was at 9pm, I’m not sure if that’s when she wanted the door to be locked or if she meant something else and I just didn’t understand.

She was being friendly and I said thank you in lots of different ways and she seemed very humbled whenever I said it. We had a few laughs but it also did feel uncomfortable, like I was being kidnapped with kindness. It was a strange experience and it wasn’t overall negative, but it felt like I was under pressure to accept more hospitality and food than I perhaps needed and I felt like I was being judged a little bit because I am so different to them and didn’t know that cabbage goes into the bread but cucumber doesn’t. I found tonight to be a very interesting experience and I wonder if this reads as ungrateful.
The extra hospitality was made a bit tough with the language barrier – I feel as if having zero ability to understand the words might have been a bit easier, because we ended up spending a lot of time trying to speak and it ended up with lots of translating from Armenian which was much harder than if we were just using pigeon Russian.

I did want to go for a stroll after being served tea that was 50:50 tea and sugar, or I figured I wouldn’t sleep. Seb and I walked out along the main road and did a bit of a loop of a small part of the town. Shame we didn’t get out to the rocks but I heard it can be unsafe after dark because of wolves.

Super early night tonight, we got back before 9pm and it was evidently bed time as the woman was suggesting my light could stay off, and it is bedtime now, at 9:30pm.

I think Goris is a nice place, we are just a bit unlucky today with getting dropped off so far out of the centre so we didn’t know that there were good options for places to stay. There are hostels and there’s quite a nice hotel near where we stayed called Hotel Goris.

I didn’t sleep for hours but I was relaxing so I’m surprised how tired I feel this morning. I don’t remember feeling this achy before. I came out for breakfast and Mane showed me their chickens then I went to wash my face and when I came back she blocked my path and insisted I sat down.

It was strange to be fussed over every moment that I wasn’t in my room.

Then I was invited to have breakfast in the kitchen and they weren’t fussed that I wanted to wait for Seb so I was having food loaded onto my plate. Hasmik brought me some tea and I watched her put one huge teaspoon of sugar in (which was about 3 times more than I would have used) and I thought we were done, but she proceeded, despite my minor protest, to put a total of 4 huge heaped teaspoons of sugar in, and genuinely overflow the cup. I was so confused; did she think I wanted that?!

Breakfast was fairly nice and we bought a little cheese from the women to have for lunch and then they gave us some more bread and eggs to go with it.

There was some confusion over getting a taxi, mainly because Mane was trying to speak a mixture of English and Russian. I said we wanted to use Yandex and she said it was twice the price of a normal taxi so by the time I showed her that it was 35% cheaper for the journey, had taken my phone to have a look and then the only Yandex in town became unavailable. So we let her call for a taxi, who told her to use Yandex, and we had an entire minute of Mane saying only these words: yes, no, taxi, Yandex. And she was sure she was making sense but she uses the word “yes” so often that it’s hard to understand what is going on.

We finally ordered a Yandex and went to wait outside and Mane spotted the car and kept saying “go” so we started to walk and she said “yes, no” lots of times and I think she meant “here it is” or something but she kept saying it so we just waited. Sadly it was quite a relief to get in the taxi. They only meant well.

The taxi dropped us off in Khndzoresk at the top of the hill and we walked to the edge of the gorge to get beautiful panoramic views of hundreds of caves all over the other side.

We walked down a few hundred steps to reach the House Museum, which is a cave with some traditional furniture and tools that you can look around for free.

Then we got to cross the Swinging Bridge to the caves across the valley. We climbed up the steep slope on the far side and explored some of the caves.

The place was fascinating and it was great to be free to roam around and find paths to overgrown cave dwellings.

We worked our way around the valley and out to the road, spending about 2 hours there in total.

On our way up the steep valley, we found a chapel built into the rock which we popped into.

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Within a minute of is reaching the road, an old guy in an ancient Lada picked us up and drove us to the main road. The rear footwells were full of bottles of vodka.

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On the main road we were picked up by a lovely old couple and I sat in the back with the wife and some beautiful bunches of flowers. We are trying to have a conversation and the old man is really nice and asking us questions about where we have been and where were are going. It’s such a wonderful experience. The couple took us two villages down the road.

We walked for a while down the road out of the village and very shortly an English and American couple, Stuart and Elizabeth picked us up on their way to Stepanakert in the disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It was the nice to be offered such long lift. The road was in very good condition compared to the rest of the Armenian roads we have seen and we soon passed a sign with red writing which we believed stated that we were entering the shoulder zone, the buffer between Armenia and the disputed territory.

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Soon enough we came down the hill to the river and we found a checkpoint where we handed over our passports but were then given the address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital city, Stepanakert which we have to visit to get a visa.

Stuart apologised for his slow driving – it was such a refreshing difference not to be holding on for dear life!! I loved meeting them, they were so interesting, both linguists and musicians and they have travelled so much!

We stopped in a town called Shushi for a coffee and to visit the church and the two mosques. One of which, the Upper Mosque, built in 1883, is being nicely restored.

We drove on to reach Stepanakert and to register ourselves at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building before they close at 4pm.

It was a really simple process, with a simple form to fill out. It asks where you are staying and as we hadn’t booked anywhere, I just wrote “hostel in Stepanakert” and that worked just fine. The nice man in the office took our passports and the completed forms to the office and the officer asked for 3,000 dram per person (£4.70) and checked whether we wanted the visa to be stuck in our passports or kept separately. It is essential that you keep the visa separate if you want to visit Azerbaijan in the future. And we will be there in less than a week so…

We said goodbye to Stuart and Elizabeth and walked into the town to find somewhere with WiFi (because our SIM cards don’t work in this region) lto scope out places to stay.

I steered us to Art Cafe Remark but it wasn’t serving because they were setting up for a birthday party. Turns out they are a hostel as well though, so we got beds for 2000 dram (£3.15) for the night and went out to see the town.

Seb and I walked 2.5km down the main road out of town so that we could see a monument called We Are Our Mountains. It’s a lovely monument that has become the symbol of the nation; a centenarian couple in traditional dress whose heads grow directly out of the mound that they grow on.

Then we went for a beer at the main roundabout in town which has a statue of Stepan Shahumyan (an ethnic Armenian leader) and fountains. The roundabout is surrounded by cafés and restaurants and is a nice place to hang out.

I found a recommendation online for a cafe/restaurant called The Roots so we headed there for stone baked pizzas and I finally got to drink as much red wine as I wanted.

To get to the Gandsazar Monastery this morning we have opted to take a public bus from the bus station (a stone’s throw from our hostel). The bus leaves at 9am and costs 400 dram (£0.60) per person.

The funny part is that it’s like something out of Wacky Races because there are so many passengers. We keep stopping to pick up more people and there are already three people sharing every pair of seats and 6 people standing.

I read a bit more of the history of the region in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and on my (Azerbaijan) app this morning. The beautiful town called Shushi that we visited yesterday was used as an Azeri artillery base for the bombardment of Stepanakert city which left almost no building untouched.

The bus wound it’s way around the valleys along the main road, picking people up and then also dropping them off. I dozed off despite being crammed into my seat and I could still hear the driver constantly talking really loudly at the front the whole way. We approached a town called Vank and I saw some cool statues lining the road. The photo isn’t great but was a worth a shot while I was so squashed against the wall.

The bus ditched us a few seconds later in Vank which was 3km from where we expected. So we bought some chocolate and then started up the hill.

Two Armenian men in a Mercedes picked us up a few minutes later and drove us up to the Gandsazar Monastery at the top of the hill. They said they will be going to Dadivank Monastery and then back into Armenia to Lake Sevan of we want a lift with them. The driver is called Gagit but I haven’t caught his friend’s name.

The Gandsazar Monastery is beautiful and nicely restored. Inside, there was a man singing and it sounded so peaceful. There were two main rooms and little chapels plus some interesting stairs that made it seem like MC Escher may have been involved. Gandsazar means “treasure mountain” in Armenian.

Gagit gave me a candle to light in the monastery; it’s such a nice gesture that so many people have done that for us.

I ran down the hill to get a shot of the monastery from below and then they picked me up and we drove down the hill and then went to the other attraction in the area – I am so pleased they took us because to walk it would have added about 9km to our day!!

The attraction is a giant lion built out of rock and emerging with one paw from the ground. It’s so cool to see it!

That street also has some other cool art installations.

Then we got back on the road to visit Dadivank Monastery. We stopped for lunch at a junction with a nice cafe. I had coffee, a beer and a delicious kebab, the best I’ve had in Armenia or Georgia. And we tried to pay but our generous hosts were having none of it!

We were going plenty fast when the sign for the monastery appeared from around the corner and the dude drifted up the slope to make the turn, which was fun. Made me miss my Subaru Impreza even more than usual. Dadivank Monastery was great and we could walk around into lots of different chapels. Gagit gave us another candle so I lit it and thought of the people I miss in my life as I usually do. Gagit bought me a fridge magnet from the gift shop! So sweet.

Then it was back to the main road for the last leg to the lake. We had been listening to a mix of Armenian, Russian and Spanish songs and there’s even a screen in the front so we can see the videos, then Gagit said he wanted to listen to some of our music, so we’ve been driving along this stunning canyon listening to EDM.

Lake Sevan was beautiful. We stopped by the shore and had a leg stretch and enjoyed the afternoon sun.

When we reached a town called Martuni we hopped out, waving goodbye to our most generous hosts so far. I had a terrible headache so it was really pleasant to be out of the car for a while – I treated myself to a whole litre of apple Mirinda.

We walked through the town and most cars weren’t leaving the town so we expected that we would have to walk to the other side before finding a ride but a really kind man offered to drive us 3km and ended up taking us about 10km onto the plain between the mountains. After about 10 minutes of walking we were picked up in another beaten up old Lada with a HUGE crack in the windscreen and Garik said they were driving to Yeghegnadzor which is about 50km from here. Perfect. We might stay there for the night but I just spotted somewhere which is further away but in a better location to kick off tomorrow morning with a visit to Areni-1 cave.

The mountain pass road was one of the best I’ve ever been on.

I took a screenshot of the road but it doesn’t come close to showing how twisty the road was. It was a little nerve-wracking for one as the driver wasn’t very good at not braking on corners so we didn’t always go in the same direction as the wheels…

We steamed our way down the mountain to the junction for Yeghegnadzor and we made really good time so I suggested we go for another hop to reach Areni.

It took us a while to get a ride on this main road. Strangely. The more cars there are, the less people individually take care of you (although that is a very well-known psychological phenomenon). We caught a ride with a couple of Armenians headed back to Yerevan with a Lada full of apples. It was a 10km ride and we had to tell them where to stop because the “hotel” is just off the highway.

I used Airbnb to book Khoren Park Hotel for £9, next to a lake and very close to the Areni-1 cave.

Annoyingly the place was closed despite taking our booking so when we got out of our ride we reached two locked gates. There was a nice looking restaurant over the road so we had dinner there while we waited for the guesthouse to get in touch. We have had kebabs so many times in Armenia that I can’t remember eating anything else. But they were nice and the salad was great.

I waited while Seb jumped the fence to see whether there was anyone at the guesthouse and he said that there were a couple of staff there but they said the place was shut. So I’m not hugely happy that I can’t get a refund… But anyway.

We hitched a lift to Areni village as it got dark and managed to find a nice B&B which was closer to Areni-1 cave near the main road so we walked there and a man came out to meet us.

The place was absolutely lovely! Spotless with a nice bathroom and the one of the hosts speaks English which was quite a difference. I was given a whole plate of fresh fruit including delicious peaches and I watched a documentary about Armenia before having a lovely shower and then an early night.

We were walking to the cave as it was only around a kilometre from where we stayed but an awesome girl from Yerevan driving a red Mini slammed on her brakes and was already rearranging her car to let us in by the time we reached her. Lilit is absolutely lovely and it was such a shame not to be able to hang out for longer.

The cave was still shut when we arrived at 9:30am so we began to walk down the breathtaking canyon to the Noravank Monastery. It is 8km each way and thankfully, most of the canyon is in the shade until past 11am so we walked a fair way just enjoying the view. I believe there are wild goats with crazy horns that live here but I think they are rare and elusive.

Eventually we were picked up by a pair of locals and they took us to the bottom of the monastery hill and then turned back – I’ve no idea where they were going for them to end up turning back around but it was nice for them to give us a lift.

We hiked up the hill to the monastery and it’s another good one. I’m amazed that I’m really not bored of looking around monasteries as we have seen so many, but they are all important and different in their own way.

This one, Noravank Monastery, is one of my favourites. I climbed up some crazy sketchy stairs to reach the upper floor of the two-storey church and later found out that I took the hard route, which leads to paradise, rather than going straight into the ground floor which is much less testing. The upstairs room is airy and has a large dome and a hanging bell. One of the side chapels has a strange lion carving in the ceiling overlooking a shrine with candles and the main door is ornately carved wood.

Outside in the courtyard I found a circular hole, like a well but there was a ladder going down into the darkness so I ditched my bag and climbed in. It was PITCH BLACK down at the bottom and I could tell that there was a cave or tunnel to my right but I couldn’t see anything at all so I went back up for a torch and then found that there was a small cavern with a grave stone and a black ceiling. Spooky.

The stone carving here is some of the best in Armenia! There is a little chapel tucked away around the back of the second church and inside here you can see traces of ancient red paint which was made from Cochineal beetles and has survived the rest of time.

We hitched back to the Areni-1 cave with an awesome Austrian guy who just hits the road in his kitted out jealousy-inducing van for weeks or months at a time. He was so interesting and it was a shame the ride was only 8km because I would have loved to just go with him for the day to hear his stories.

The cave was alright, but I felt that it was really nothing special to see. It is an important archeological site (with possibly the world’s oldest wine discovery) which was uncovered in 2007.

After the cave we visited the winery in Areni village where we took a tour and then did a wine tasting for 1000 dram each. The tour was brief and the process is western and fairly boring but the wine tasted nice and overall coming in at less than £2 it was worth it for the wine and cheese. I wrote down lots of facts about the winery but it wasn’t overly interesting. They have 32 hectares of vineyard around the village and they produce 150,000 bottles of wine per year but mainly in batches on demand. They use two endemic grapes, found nowhere else – Hin Areni for red and Voshkehat for white.

Lunch consisted of another traditional Armenian dish – I’m finally beginning to try them. I had Dolma, filled vegetables and cabbage leaves. I liked it. I prefer stuffed vegetables to stuffed vine leaves, and both are traditional here.

After lunch, we were picked up by the 10-15th car and it was a beaten up old 4×4 Lada with the oldest Armenians we have seen. When I asked if they were going to Armash or Khor Virap the old man said yes but I guess he didn’t understand what hitchhiking was.

I made the mistake of sitting in the front and the old man nonstop shouted things that I didn’t understand at me and then insisted on taking us to his house instead of dropping us off at the junction where I asked if we could get out. He offered us drinks and it turned out that he was fairly drunk. Every now and again he MASSIVELY overreacted to going slightly off course and then it felt like he was going to roll the car. The woman in the back was shouting horrible gutteral noises when he swerved and it was all quite scary.

We arrived at their house and were welcomed in, both feeling very sheepish as we were just expecting to be on our way. There were people everywhere; 17 family members including 6 children, and one of the children, Nane, speaks very good English and has been acting valiantly as translator the whole time. The table in front of us was laden with food and we were handed lots of fruit. Another unbelievably generous gesture, though we were smiling through being quite uncomfortable, from not understanding anything that was going on for most of the time.

We found out that the family is getting together today to go and lay flowers at the grandmother’s grave so eventually we were invited along with them. Then one of the aunts, Nune, is driving past Khor Virap, which is our next stop, and she has offered us a lift.

This was another memorable life experience. We got in the back in Nune and the two little children and then another older lady squeezed into the back seat with us and I had to sit up on her lap. The little girl and I were squeezed up against the front seats for the journey which lasted about an hour and a half along twisty mountain passes. Thankfully the dad was a good driver! We did our best to communicate and it’s a good job that I can write down Russian words in my translator or it would have been a very quiet ride, but as it was, it was perfect.

The kids were funny, Davit was a little cheeky character who genuinely slapped his sister full in the face and she shocked Seb and I by laughing. Elena is so smart. She is really different to other kids her age and she is very independent. We played some games to pass the time in the car and I taught them the “Round and Round the Garden” nursery rhyme. We were given lots of car snacks and the kids were being generous by sharing them around until Davit sneezed and wet crumbs flew everywhere, putting an end to the snacks.

The family were super sweet, instead of dropping us off at the junction as we had expected, they drove us the 4.2km down to the Khor Virap Monastery and said they would come with us and then drop us off later in Yerevan!!

The view as we drove down the straight road towards the monastery is just beautiful – the monastery was silhouetted against Mount Ararat with the gorgeous sunset to the right. We parked and all walked up to the monastery. I bought some candles and we went to light them in one of the chapels.

Then we stood at the viewpoint and admired the mountains. The old woman said to me that the mountains are theirs (Armenia’s) but they are now in Turkey. A bit sad.

The last place we visited blew my mind. In a simple looking square chapel there was a ladder to the right of the altar and another to the right of the door. Nune called me over from the pit by the door and took my bag so I could go down the ladder.

I can’t believe this place. The metal ladder was 27 steps vertically down into a round chamber with a really high ceiling and almost no airflow. There were some wall carvings and an altar down there too.

I climbed back out, genuinely feeling nervous about the ladder falling away from the wall and me being stuck down there with the lights going out. It’s like something out of a horror movie!

As darkness fell, we continued our drive to towards Artashat, where the family lives and I suggested that perhaps Seb and I could get a bus back to Yerevan.

They took us to the Artashat bus station, found out the correct bus and delivered us to it. There were hugs all round and I was sad to see the little kids go. The bus ride was absolutely fine and we ended up at the “Central” bus station, where it was simple to get a Yandex and head back to good old Envoy Hostel.

After a great hitchhiking trip we decided to treat ourselves to a Chinese meal at a restaurant near the hostel. It was a great decision! The place was excellent and the woman serving us was super friendly.

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