Hitchhiking to deserts, volcanoes and more in Armenia

We travelled from Georgia to Armenia in a shared taxi that drove like an absolute nutter. He was driving so fast that the police pulled him over and the first thing the driver asked was “skull ka?” which means how much? Who knows if it was a bribe or an official fine. We found a bus that our guidebook said would take us to the city centre but it didn’t leave for awhile so I double checked with a passenger and to my delight she spoke English. Not only that but she was so kind and helpful and escorted us off the bus to show us the correct one – and with a big smile too!! Wow, what a great start to Armenia. Our hostel was very simple, our room was comfy and clean but the shared bathroom was rather grim at times.

Our first stop in the city was Cascade Yerevan where we had a tough walk up 750 steps for a view of the volcanos behind the city. The weather wasn’t on our side with rain and storms rolling in so the view wasn’t great. We enjoyed Mexican food for dinner, along with a stray dog who took on the role as security and barked at anyone who looked suspicious. We also checked out the mosque which is the only one in the entire country as the others were all destroyed during the rule of Russian and Armenia was actually the first country to make Christianity it’s state religion. The mosque was beautiful, like a slice of Central Asia in Georgia with beautiful mosaics and a big turquoise dome.

The next day we wanted to visit Garni and Geghard Monastery which are a popular day trip from the city. To get there we hopped on a tram which was extremely slow. We were following the route on my map and it seemed to turn the wrong way so we headed up the front and said “Gai?” to the driver as that was where we needed to get to. Turns out it was just taking an absurdly convoluted route there. When we went to pay the drive passed us half our money back…it was just 10 cents per person for the 8km journey and the driver gave us some happy honks as he drove off.

We eventually made it to Geghard Monastery but it was a big disappointment actually. It was under construction so scaffolding ruined the view and it was unbelievably busy – silly us visited on a Sunday so it was packed with locals. It was really dark inside, the only light was from two tables covered in yellow candles. The scenery surrounding the monastery was lovely though with interesting rocky pinnacles and peaks but after thirty minutes we were ready to go. We decided to hitchhike to Gori and had great success with a couple of Armenians who now live in California. Gori temple looked ok in the photos but not wow enough for me to pay an entrance fee, we just don’t appreciate historical sights much. Instead I had a plan to do a walk to a natural wonder nearby which was totally free to visit.

It was called the Symphony of Stones and the whole cliff face was covered in bizarre hexagonal rocks pillars that were about a hundred meters tall. It was fascinating to see as they were the exact same rock formations as the Giants Casueway in Northern Ireland. Some areas the rocks had crumbled and collapsed with rough little hexagonal stones laying on the floor. It was a really interesting sight and we even got a view of Garni for free on our walk up.

We decided we were happy using Yerevan as our base and doing day trips so today we were heading to Noravank, a beautiful church set in a red rock gorge. The Marshrutka’s don’t run very often so we ended up having to wait an hour and a half for it to fill all the seats before it would leave. The road was close to the Turkish border for most of the journey and at one point we were near Iran and Azerbaijan too. Once we were dropped off at the junction we tried to hitch a ride for the final 7km. A sweet couple picked us up, they didn’t speak any English so we all just enjoyed the view through a pretty gorge.

The church wasn’t what I expected, there was a door on the second story which was accessed by some extremely narrow steps that led up each side of the wall, forming a neat triangle. A little rope along the wall was the only thing to hold onto but it was low-down and awkward to use. We wouldn’t of considered going up had we not seen other people doing so but it seemed like the thing to do so up we went. It was quite scary actually as the steps were so narrow so I got a bit of vertigo.

Afterwards we took some photos from the bottom when I suddenly heard someone shout and as I looked up a man was falling from the top steps!! It wasn’t a crazy height, but it was still 3 or 4 meters and he slammed into the stone ground. He didn’t make any noises or screams so we didn’t think he was too badly injured but when we saw a squirt of blood a couple meters from where he’d fallen we knew it must be bad and I quickly got the lady we hitchhiked with to call an ambulance. When I got back, just 30 seconds later his foot was already dripping with blood. We always carry a medical kit with us so we quickly grabbed our bandage and roll of tape. Luckily a man had come over to help the wife so he used the bandage to create a tourniquet to stop the blood flow as it was getting worse and worse. Every time I looked over the pool of blood on the floor was expanding, from the size of a drink coaster to a dinner plate in a matter of minutes. The colour all drained from the mans face, and his wife’s lovely green outfit was covered in blood. There wasn’t anything more we could do, I love a good horror movie but I’m not good with blood in real life so I’m very happy that someone else was around to help. We didn’t know how long an ambulance would take to arrive as it was quite a remote area so the situation felt even scarier.

Our hitchhiking friend came over to us and put her arm around me to see if I was ok as I was the only one who saw it happen. She escorted us to a water fountain and then down to the carpark where her husband was and he said “Yerevan!” and we realised they were planning on driving us all the way back to Yerevan with them (over two hours away). It was so sweet that they offered to take us back but we actually had plans to do a hike in the area so we politely declined and bid them farewell.

I felt so sick afterwards, before the accident I’d asked Craig to go back up the steps for a video, it could of happened to him, or me, or even the couple we hitchhiked with…we offered them a photo together at the top and the thought makes me shudder now. I’d be riddled with guilt if one of them fell. We realised our hike went past the church so we walked back and they seemed to of moved the man onto a bench where they could put his leg up high. He was beginning to groan in pain now, I think the adrenaline was wearing off. Below the steps was his pool of blood and a lone flip flop and it was kind of strange because new tourists were turning up and I wonder what they’d of thought when they saw that. Luckily after about 30 minutes we saw an ambulance driving up the road. Hopefully it’s just a broken bone but with that much blood loss I suspect he’s burst a blood vessel or something? I’m no doctor mind you.

The hike was unbearably hot actually, like being in a scorching desert, but we trudged our way uphill. On the way a big snake slithered right past us and into the scrubs. We didn’t meet anyone else on the hike, it appears most people just visit the church and head off straight away but for us the red rock scenery was much more impressive. It was like a slice of Sedona, Arizona but in Armenia. We went up to a viewpoint area with a shaded picnic table which offered us a great view of the scenery and a place to cool down before we hiked back down. We passed a snake skin on the way and seconds later I realised a live snake was right beside!! The views were much better on the way back as the sun was shining onto the rocks and enhancing the deep red colour.

We hitchhiked back to the main road and to our surprise a tour van pulled up which was very sweet of them. Then a father and son picked us up, an old guy with a fancy beige leather interior to his car and finally a chap in a workers vans who took us to the metro stop in Yerevan. How lovely!

The following day trip was to Khor Virap church, but not so much to see the church, instead we visited for the impressive backdrop of the snow capped Mount Ararat across the border in Turkey. Our day didn’t go quite to plan though, we had to catch the subway to a spot in the south of the city for a Marshrutka but after a few stops Craig realised he’d left all his money at the hostel. So he ran back to the hostel but came back empty handed saying “I forgot I put it all in your wallet last night”. How annoying. And because of that delay we missed our Marshrutka by a mere 4 minutes. I was fuming. I was pretty exhausted as we’ve been really busy lately and every evening I’m spending all my time researching what to do the following day. The next bus wasn’t for 5 hours and I couldn’t be bothered to figure out how to get there so I told Craig he’d have to sort it out on his own…I was in a pretty bad mood. His method was poor, getting on a random bus and finding out it turned the wrong direction so we’d have to get off after just a few hundred meters. This happened 3 times until we found a tram and caught that to the edge of the city. From there we had to walk to the main road south and stick our thumbs out. Within a minute a red van pulled up, inside was a policeman who offered us a ride. Craig sat in the front and I was in the back which didn’t have a proper seat so I awkwardly sat on the metal floor thinking that’s where he wanted me to go but the officer quickly told me to sit on the broken bench. He was a nice chap and phoned someone who spoke English so they could translate for us. After about 20km we reached the policeman’s turnoff and hopped out. Within a couple of minutes a new car pulled up and this time the driver was a paramedic. He was such a cute, giggly guy that chuckled a lot at the language barrier.

When we arrived at Khor Virap the snowy volcano was already engulfed in cloud and the photo was crap. It’s regularly cloud-covered but the morning is the best time to see it and because we were running late I obviously blamed the cloud on Craig delaying us. We got some nice photos of the smaller pyramid shaped volcano and then set off up the road.

Seeing as the day was still young we decided to try and hitchhike to Azat Reservoir to the south east of Yerevan. We knew there wasn’t any public transport so we figured we’d see if we could hitchhike our way there. While we waited at the roadside a man gave us some free apricots from his stall, they were so good that we bought a bag of them and soon after a monk picked us up. He understood where we were aiming to go and made sure to drop us off in a place that would be good for our next ride. We were soon picked up by another policeman in a beautiful old lada, I just love old cars and Armenia is full of them so it often feels like we’ve been teleported back into the 50s. The policeman dropped us off at a village where he was turning off and then three young lads picked us up. After awhile they turned left so we asked them to stop as we needed to continue straight and instead of letting us out they did a three point turn up a rough track and turned around, making sure we were dropped off in a good location again, Armenia’s are so kind!! Then a family took us a few kilometres up the road and a lone guy took us to the top of the lake, we finally made it! It wasn’t a touristy place, we were the only people there so we followed a dirt track for a better view. The lake was a lovely blue colour and it was surrounded by desert looking hills that were stripped with tinges of red and orange. We enjoyed the view with our apricots before making our way back to the road. A couple were farming their apricots and the chap walked up to us with a handful as a gift. I can’t even describe how good they were, when an apricot is perfectly ripe and flavourful like this it’s my favourite fruit! We eventually made it back to Yerevan after taking 10 different rides throughout the day. Everyone was so kind to us, we always felt safe however the final drive to Yerevan was with a bit of a Schumacher wannabe. I think Armenians are up there with some of the friendliest people in the world, we got such a good vibe and it makes a huge difference to my enjoyment of a country.

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