Indeed, this was one of the longest and strangest routes I have ever taken. From Almaty to Astana, then Istanbul to Yerevan; four airports, two airlines and 13.5 hours of flight.
Arrival in Yerevan:
Yerevan International Airport was smaller than I expected, but after 13 hours of flights and boarding three separate planes, it felt like the world’s biggest airport. However, the surprise was just waiting for me at passport control… The officer started checking and double checking my Iranian passport, inspecting my Schengen visa with a magnifying glasses and sniffing the document to make sure it was not fake. Well, as an Iranian who bears an Iranian passport (Islamic Republic of Iran) it is always a challenge to cross any border. Beyond our country’s lines, we are frequently judged by our passports.
Farhad, my good friend, was already in Yerevan. His flight landed several hours before and he was there waiting at 2:30 am. After two years, it was really nice to see him. A true friend but with too great a distance between us. We went directly to the hostel and I dragged my near-dead, fatigued body up to the top bunk in our dormitory.
Next Morning we made a plan which has changed 5 times during this trip; we decided to hit the road and go to Gyumri.
Beyond our country’s lines, we are frequently judged by our passports.
Yerevan to Gyumri, The City of Black and Red Stones:
We took the train from Yerevan to Gyumri. It was an old Soviet train with wooden benches for seats. Nothing fancy, affordable for nearly everyone. It was an amazing, yet short trip, giving me a quick glimpse of Armenia. I had an opportunity to see it from an unexpected angle. I found Armenia blessed and very fertile. Fruit trees stretched from the railroad tracks to the edge of the horizon. We saw a farmer taking his harvests to Gyumri to sell. A mother and young daughter, trying to secretly watch us, waiting for the opportunity to start a conversation. For them, it was so unusual to see strangers on that train and I could say that they were so curious to know who we are and where we go.
Staring out the window, watching the country pass, I couldn’t help but notice the strange repeating picture… nests atop every utility pole. Storks. Can you believe it? Storks, couples, everywhere! Then we met this guy who took his bicycle with him to the train. “Are you from Iran?” he asked. “Do you know this singer?” He passed his Smartphone with headphones attached. I listened. Yes, of course! It turned out he was in love with this old Iranian song by Googoosh, but had no idea who she was.
We had only a few hours in Gyumri so we decided to be productive and use every minute of our time and visit different places. Vlad, the man from the train with his bicycle, promised to help us discover the city. The City of Black and Red Stones, every building is built on these natural volcanic stones which are either black or red, basically, you don’t see anyone using those ugly concrete bricks. Vlad was a nice, knowledgeable guy who loved foreigners and always helped them, he is a host on Couchsurfing and hosted some Iranian backpackers before. He knew the history very well, not only the history of the city and Armenia but general world history. He showed us the city and told us almost everything about Gyumri.
Gyumri is the second largest city in Armenia and the capital of the Shirak Province in the northwestern part of the country. By the end of the 19th century, when the city was known as Alexandropol, it was one of the largest cities of Russian-ruled Eastern Armenia with a population similar to that of Yerevan. It was renamed to Leninakan during the Soviet period.
Although I am a proud Persian, proud of my country and our history. I wanted to tell him… Dude I am so, so sorry that your people were killed by my people in 484 AD =).
Vlad also showed us the Memorial to the Battle of Avarayr, a bloody battle between the Armenian army and Sassanid Persia (Iran) under King Yazdgerd III. It was considered one of the first battles in history fought to defend the Christian faith.
Although the Persians were victorious on the battlefield, the battle proved to be a major strategic victory for Armenians, as Avarayr paved the way to the Nvarsak Treaty of 484 AD, which affirmed Armenia’s right to practice Christianity freely.
The whole time Vlad was telling us this story I kinda felt bad and was trying to tell him that I am not supporting any kind of war, although I am a proud Persian, proud of my country and our history. I wanted to tell him… Dude I am so, so sorry that your people were killed by my people in 484 AD =).
It was time to say goodbye to Vlad and hit the road to the next city, Vanadzor.
We had planned to go to Dilijan after Gyumri, but after spending about 5 hours wandering around the city, we realized it was late and we missed the last chance to go to Dilijan. We had to either stay in Gyumri overnight or hit the road again to a different place closer, Vanadzor. This time we chose to board a bus, a very old, old Soviet bus with very kind, kind people. The bus driver was so worried that we might not find a place to stay, but he did not know that we love to travel with no plan and we love adventure.
That old bus was an opportunity to learn more about Armenia, see more of it, experience it. This was a chance to be with true Armenian people with no filter, no retouching needed. The bus had stopped many times, and every time we had new people getting on. A woman who was taking her cherries to the next city to sell and gave us a full handful. The bus smelled like the village, like it was home-made alongside bread and cheese. To the other passengers, it was a daily or a weekly routine. All of their eyes kept gravitating toward us, two handsome misplaced strangers with mustaches.
Besides the bus driver, who was so worried, we met a woman on the bus who was also so worried. How could we be traveling with a plan of where to sleep tonight? She took immediate action and called a friend in Vanadzor who had a big house. In addition to finding us shelter for the night, she also arranged for her son to meet us in Vanadzor and escort us to her friend that night.
Anahit was waiting for us at her doorway, a beautiful garden and a table full of food and fruits were ready for us. An amazing hostess, a musician and very kind. If by any chance you go to Vanadzor, stay at her place and say hi from me )
We had just that evening in Vanadzor. Farhad and I went out to discover and found not much of anything. The highlights of this town were breathing in and seeing the nature… and staying with Anahit, of course. That night, her family came by the house and invited us to their table for coffee, watermelon, and hours of conversation.
The next morning, the bus lady (I can’t remember her name) came to Anahit’s house to visit us, she even arranged the bus for us to go to the next city, Dilijan. We left Vadnazor with a beautiful memory of very kind people who care about strangers and their backpacks.
The bus to Dilijan was unique and unforgettable; these are vintage-type buses modified by locals by putting some gas cylinders on the roof, essentially the bus is powered by gas.
Dilijan, The City of Spas:
It is commonly referred to as Little Switzerland or the Armenian-Switzerland by locals. Dilijan is a very touristy city, more expensive when compared to other Armenian cities, even bread is more expensive. A very laid-back and forested and it is a home to many famous musicians, artists, and filmmakers. In general, Dilijan is all about nature. It also has some old beautiful buildings with a remarkable design.
Dilijan is the third-largest city in Armenia and the capital of the Lori Province in the northern part of the country. It is located around 128 kilometers (80 miles) north of the capital Yerevan. The city is in a picturesque setting, with an attractive planned town center. Mostly crumbling Soviet-era chemical factories dominate much of the valley below the city. Our accommodation choice was homestay, we stayed at GREEN DILIJAN, a carpenter’s house.
In general, Dilijan is good for hiking. The city has a lot to offer to its tourists; plenty of monasteries, a national park, and two beautiful lakes. We passed much of our time on Sharambeyan Street, the old preserved town. Armenia is a big open-air museum. And one those open-air spaces is the city cemetery… yes, you heard it right. I believe not many visitors go there as it is very on the hill and out of sight. And of course, it is a cemetery and not touristy) but believe me, that is a must-go place in Dilijan.
We spent one day in Dilijan and did not have enough time and energy to see everything, two to three days is recommended. It was time to say goodbye to our hosts and go to our next destination, Sevan and its famous lake where we had the most adventurous part of this trip.
Sevan, The lake
Of course, we missed the Marshrutka (minivan) to Sevan and had to wait an hour for the bus. It was a very short trip and we reached our destination by being dumped on the side of the road between cities. Immediately, we could see the lake but it was kind of tricky to navigate our way. After walking for about 30 minutes through a small valley, we still hadn’t reached the water but our peaceful trek was interrupted by a crowd. The first thing that came out of our mouth was, “Oh shit…NO…!” It was the saddest moment of the trip, the peace and serenity of nature destroyed by tourists, local people trying to sell some wares or trinkets; the entire thing was an awful picture. There were lots of cars, tour buses and plenty of sellers hidden under their ugly tents.
We were so disappointed and decided to skip all that chaos and go up the hill toward the monastery instead. If we bypass the huge number of the people on the top of the hill around the monastery, then I can say that it was an amazing lake view from the there, just amazing. Armenia, in general, is full of monasteries, so what can I say. The monastery was actually closed, it was just about the view. The beautiful blue lake from the top hypnotized us and in just a blink we found ourselves in the lake. Even the cold freezing water did not stop us and we had to swim. In that rocky lake. It was a really fast swim and we had to leave that disappointing place as soon as possible.
Considering the fact that we are at a mid-point in the road, partway between Dilijan and Sevan, our only option for travel was the usual, expensive and strategically parked taxi driver who was pretty sure that we will pay him. Well, he was so wrong because I brought my black marker with me, now all we needed was a piece of cardboard. And would you believe, we found an empty wine box next to a restaurant be the road. Yes… hitchhiking, my dream which was supported by Farhad. We have never done it before and this was the perfect opportunity) We had to write the name of our destination and cross our fingers, hope that drivers will understand we are hitchhikers (not a potential customers) The taxi driver was looking at us and had no idea what we are doing until he saw the cardboard: YEREVAN…!
It took us like 20 minutes to have an old BMW stop for us and…YESSS, to YEREVAN like a BOSS. The face of that taxi driver was spectacular. Two young Armenians heading back to Yerevan from the Lake decided to take us. In less than 2 hours, we were back to Yerevan, thanks to those young gentlemen.
Back to Yerevan:
Hungry like hell, we decided to go to our friend who makes the best doner kebab in the town near our hostel. We were so tired and decided to stay in Yerevan and rest. We were running out of time and energy, so we checked what is nearby and chose several half-day trips that will bring us back to Yeveran for sleeping and stay in the hostel.
Our next stops were Etchmiadzin, Garni Temple, Monastery of Geghard, Genocide Museum and Attend the Water War in Yerevan.
Garni Temple and the Monastery of Geghard
Both of these historical places were in one area and not so far from each other, however, the problem was the transportation. A serious problem in Armenia, transportation. If you buy a tour and pay a handful of money to the tour agencies, then you are fine; but if you are a backpacker, then it is not that easy… especially if you don’t speak Armenian or Russian. English is definitely not enough. Luckily, I speak Russian and we could find our way to Garni temple with a Marshrutka and buses; it was a long and not pleasant trip but we arrived at the destination. The beautiful pre-Christian Armenia and the only standing Greco-Roman temple at the edge of a triangular cliff gives you the best view of the Azat River and the Gegham mountains. We spent about two hours around the temple, mostly photographing and posing around the temple. Next was the Monastery of Geghard, around 30-minute drive up the hill, and guess what; there is no public transportation. Two teenagers sitting in an old Mercedes were so happy to earn money and take us to the Monastery, at this point we completely forgot about coming back and our main goal was to get to the Monastery. A narrow road in the mountain took us to the peak where the monastery and big cross were showing off.
That was it, the most beautiful Monastery I have ever seen. Armenia is full of monasteries but this one was very unique and you could feel the holy atmosphere in it. The Gerhard monastery is heaven for photographers, it was a pity that we did not have a professional camera, but we did our best with our smartphones.
A 4th-century monastery carved out of the mountain tickles your senses and makes you think what humans are capable of. We could not be satisfied with photos, the more you shoot, the more you want.
It was a very hot day and we were thirsty and hungry, a restaurant near the monastery had a nice view and delicious kabab. But now the problem was how to get back home? We tried to do another hitchhike, but we failed as every car was full. We spent around two hours standing by the road in the middle of nowhere hoping someone with taking us to Garni at least, so we could get the Marshrutka again to Yerevan. After two hours of attempting to hitchhike, one of the restaurant employees who had been watching us the whole time agreed to take us to the Marshrutka station for money and we said YESSS.
Etchmiadzin and the Water Fight
A sunny Sunday in the most religious city of Armenia, Etchmiadzin was an amazing experience for non-religious guys like us. A huge cathedral stands as a very important place in town, especially on Sundays. The holy day of weekly prayer and rituals leaves the cathedral unbelievably crowded. Mostly stuffed full of tourists with their fancy cameras and smartphones. The cathedral itself is a masterpiece and breathtaking in terms of architecture and design. The church service was also interesting but I will skip commenting on it since I am not religious and don’t really want to offend anyone.
We headed back to Yerevan for lunch and attend the water fight (or the Vartavar Water Festival). Vartavar’s history dates back to Pagan times and the festival is traditionally associated with Astghik, the goddess of water, beauty, love, and fertility. The celebration of this religious observance of Astghik is called “Vartavar” because Armenians offered her roses as a celebration (vart means “rose” in Armenian and var mean “rise”), this being the reason it is celebrated at harvest time.
No matter who you are and what you are doing in Yerevan on this day, you will get wet! It will be either someone on the street splashing water on you or coming down from a balcony. There is one rule; you have to get wet and you cannot be offended/mad for getting drenched, you just smile at each other and pass or splash back. In the center of Yerevan, around the main square, there is a big pool. Here at this square, Vardavar gets more serious, I mean really serious. It is a fight. There is even a massive firefighting truck next to the pool splashing water with high pressure on the people. Every single person, all kids, and adults, young and old, have a bucket or water gun and there is no mercy. It was a fun time after a hot sunny day in a very serious atmosphere of the cathedral.
Genocide Museum and the Current War:
One of the saddest and most touching parts of this trip was visiting the Genocide Museum. It documented the dark footsteps of the Ottoman in Armenia’s history though it is still not recognized by Turkey. The genocide is also known as the Armenian Holocaust. In 2016, after more than 80 years, the first ever mention of this event was publicised in the film, The Promise, It hit theatre screens on April 21—just three days before the 102nd anniversary of the Turkish government’s military campaign in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed.
The museum was beautiful but not well cared for. Armenia is still mourning the genocide to this day and deep sorrow is still visible in the face of the country. Armenia is currently involved in another war with its neighbor, Azerbaijan. There are mothers waiting for their sons to comeback from the war zone. While we were staying in the hostel, Yura who recently finished serving in the army told us a story about the war zone and conflict; how he lost his friend in the war and how he saw another friend off when departing for the war zone. Due to the war with Azerbaijan and denial of the Genocide by the Turkish government, all the borders crossing with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed. This means tough restrictions and limitations. The only open borders for both tourists and trades are Iran and Georgia.
Time to Say Farewell:
Well, all good things come to an end. It was really nice to see Farhad again, I think I have to write a separate post about him and our friendship 😉 Armenia was a beautiful country and I enjoyed my trip, especially the hitchhiking part… but also living in a dorm and the water fight (totally unforgettable).
My greatest dream is to drop everything and travel the world with a van. I aspire to document all of it with video blogging (Vlog). Ah, one day!
I accompanied Farhad to the airport in the morning then came back to the dorm and spent another day in Yerevan. I mostly walked the city and rested in the hostel. I had a long return flight back to Kazakhstan, 13 hours of the same exact airports and airlines.
There will be more posts about Armenia, short posts and more of information and guides. So you can look forward to that when you are ready to plan your Armenia adventure. Contact me for advice, answers, and recommendations.
The Airport Reviews:
*Almaty International Airport (ALA): Small and unorganized
*Astana Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport (TSE) : Domestic (T1) and International (T2) Airports are separate buildings beside each other. You have to walk out of T1 and Enter T2, not very convenient if you have short layover like me )
*Istanbul Ataturk International Airport (IST): Crazy crazy. The airport itself is big and nice but if you have a connecting flight then you have a problem. Not very organized and it is so messy and confusing between terminals.
*Yerevan Zvartnotsn International Airport (EVN) : Tiny airport of Soviet heritage with unprofessional staff.
*Review: Nice plane, good food, and very friendly, professional staff.
AtlasGlobal, named Atlasjet until March 2015, a Turkish airline headquartered in Istanbul.
*Review: Considering the fact that this is a budget airline, it was an expectedly uncomfortable flight but with the worst landing and takeoff of my life. Their aircrafts are small and second-hand.