Armenia – better than The Kardashians
When we excitedly told our friends and family that we would be travelling to Armenia, the most common reaction was “oh isn’t that where the Kardashians are from?” often followed by “but is Armenia actually in Europe?”. In all fairness, we knew very little about the country ourselves and only considered travelling there because of its proximity to Georgia, the main destination on our Caucasus roadtrip.
Armenia is a land-locked former Soviet republic in the Caucasus region bordered by the larger nations of Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. It is known for being the cradle of Christianity (the world’s first Christian country) and its strong religious culture is evidenced by the infinite number of churches and monasteries often found in spectacular locations such a caves, cliffs and canyons.
… so much better than The Kardashians
We were often greeted in the Russian language since the few tourists visiting the country are almost exclusively from Russia, and most locals were taken aback each time we answered “ne russkij!” (not russian!). We met very few people who spoke English outside of Yerevan, but road signage and points of interest are indicated in both the Armenian and the Latin script (unlike Abkhazia where only the Russian script is used) so we got around without too much trouble (bar the hopelessly surfaced roads). The mysterious Armenian script looks like a lots of U’s joined together and was completely indecipherable to us.
Armenia itself is gorgeous – though drier and more arid than the neighbouring lush Georgian slopes, it is home to several canyons and is surrounded by snow-topped mountains. Driving through the country, across mountain roads and through the gorges was a definite highlight of our visit, and although the pot-holed roads leave much to be desired, the dramatic landscape more than makes up for the sorry state of the roads. Read about our favourite spots in Armenia.
Some Practical Tips for Travelling to Armenia
Crossing the border with Georgia
we crossed the main border between Georgia and Armenia (Sadakhlo – Bagratashen) which is also the main artery linking Tbilisi and Yerevan. Georgian border formalities are easy although car passengers need to get out of the car and go through border control inside the terminal whilst the car drivers get their passports checked separately along with the car documents (have these handy). The formalities on the Armenian side are more complicated – our passports were checked, after which we were sent to customs where we first asked to pay 2000 dram. There’s a small currency exchange booth inside the customs building where you can exchange some of the cash you are carrying (we had Euro and Georgian Lari) to Armenian dram in order to pay your customs fee. We were not allowed to change much more than that though. On our way out we were told to buy car insurance and several brokerage representatives all carrying calculators came running to our car to lead us to their shops found right outside the border gate. The guy in the first shop we went to quoted 12,000 dram and insisted that this was a fair price but after shopping around a little we soon found a broker (100 meters down the road) who agreed to insure our car fully for 5000 dram. Truth be told, we have no idea what we actually paid for since all the documents were in Armenian and none of the brokers spoke English, but supposedly, it was a fully comprehensive cover for vehicle, passengers and third parties.
Safety in Armenia
We never experienced safety issues in Armenia however do keep in mind that many parts of the country are unlit at night and driving in the dark is best avoided. Watch out for all sorts of animals crossing your path when walking or driving in the countryside. Running over a cow will likely cause more damage to you than to the cow. A 4×4 or SUV is absolutely necessary.
People of Armenia
The people of Armenia are extremely friendly and hospitable; very often they would do their best to explain not only directions, but also cultural and historical events despite the obvious language barrier. Armenian elderly women in particular seemed to take a liking to Nikki and made it their mission to feed him (because of his skeletal look of course!) – one guesthouse owner even baked him a cake one morning!
The local currency is the Armenian dram
Accommodation and service
We used guesthouses and budget hotels throughout our stay and service was generally good. Tsaghkunk Guesthouse (close to Lake Sevan) and Hotel Mira in Goris deserve a special mention – super-friendly hosts and clean, comfortable rooms. When included, the home-cooked breakfasts were plentiful and delicious usually including hot, cold and sweet dishes and lots of eggs. If you are a coffee drinker, keep in mind that coffee is not served at breakfast although most owners made turkish-style brewed coffee when I asked. Forget your morning latte though! I eventually became accustomed to carrying sachets of instant coffee around so as to make things easier.
Driving in Armenia
Rural Armenia is spectacular and some of the most beautiful and fascinating sights in the country are not well connected to the main towns, so we quickly confirmed that driving our own car across the country was the best way to get around. Many of the secondary roads are in pretty bad state so a 4×4 is essential – we were driving a Landrover that we had rented in Georgia but most locals in rural areas get around using a Lada 4×4. Gas stations are plentiful in the main cities but less so in the rural parts of the country so keep this in mind! Also be sure to carry a detailed roadmap with you.
For some baffling reason, large herds livestock (accompanied by shepherds on horses and dogs) walk the motorways in Armenia forcing the cars to go off road, so be prepared for lots of animal traffic especially in the southern parts of the country. Unfortunately there’s also lots of rubbish and junk thrown around the countryside heavily tainting the otherwise beautifully raw landscape.
Be aware that road signs are not very frequent and it is often difficult to gauge the speed limit since cars might either whiz past you or drive carefully behind you in no consistent manner. We were once stopped by a traffic police officer who spoke no English and proceeded to wave us off with a handshake and a recommendation that we did not understand; we had no idea what he was on about so we just smiled at him the whole time and thanked him after he stopped talking .
All guesthouses, cafes and restaurants had pretty good wifi. Many gas stations also provided free wifi and so did some of the more popular tourist destinations such as the Garni temple!
Armenia is truly a nation of smokers and although smoking indoors is supposedly banned, this is clearly not enforced. If you find cigarette smoke annoying, be prepared to boycott most cafes, bars and eateries!