What’s that saying about the journey being more important than the destination? I decided to make my time in Armenia a hitchhiking adventure, taking the long way around, choosing mountain passes over main roads, spending my days on the road rather than in towns, and what a journey it has been.
DAY ONE: Tbilisi, Georgia – Alaverdi, Armenia
I took a bus south out of the city and started hitching, which just involved standing on the side of the road waiting for a ride – this is by far the easiest hitching I have ever done. I never waited too long, but did catch six rides the 80km to the Armenian border. My first ride was with two young guys driving gangster style; one old man drove me only 3km down the road in his rattling Lada minivan; and two grey-haired men piled me into their truck with their fishing rods and then invited me along on their fly fishing outing.
Crossing the border into Armenia was a funny experience. I don’t think the border guards had ever seen a South African passport and I had to do a lot of explaining – in a mix of English, Russian, Armenian and sign language – who I was and where I was going. I finally managed to buy my visa which took up a whole page of my passport before another guard scrutinised the stamps to see where I had been before, in between telling me I was beautiful.
On the other side of the border I caught my last ride of the day, with another traveller heading to Armenia’s capital Yerevan. Allan has been travelling overland for the last 18 months and has been growing his sandy coloured moustache for that long too. I have yet to see such an epic tash on anyone younger than 65!
My bed for the night was with two Polish volunteers in Alaverdi, a grimy, depressing-looking town overshadowed by a copper mine on the mountainside. A pipe runs to the top of the mountain, spewing out thick, grey smoke; a modern day Mordor polluting the countryside with its evil.
DAY TWO: Alaverdi – Sinahin monastery – Sepanavan
I started the day with a detour up the mountain to Sanahin, more to see the view from the mountaintop than for its monastery. My rides up and down the steep, curving road were with taxi drivers who took me regardless of me saying I had no money.
Back in Alaverdi I waited for a ride to Sepanavan to the west. My plan was to detour off the main road, but my driver and I missed the turn so I stuck with him to Vanadzor, Armenia’s third largest city. And just as well because we drove through the spectacular Debed Canyon. The road winds along next to the river, the sides of the forested canyon rising steeply up alongside.
In Vanadzor I waited on the road out of town with three other locals, and we all eventually piled into a small van together. The road led us into the mountains, and then through them via a long, dark tunnel. The tunnels here look like they’ve just been blasted: the walls are bare rock, they are seldom lit and there is no walkway. My favourite part of the drive was along the road coming in to Sepanavan. Bare trees lined the quiet road and mown fields stretched out on either side.
Sepanavan doesn’t bear mention: torn up roads, a low hanging cloud of wood smoke and a hotel room that stank of stale smoke. In Armenia, like in Georgia, Turkey and the Balkans, smoking is almost as necessary as breathing. However, here people smoke inside public spaces. It’s horrible. I don’t like it that my clothes stink from other people’s cigarettes.
DAY THREE: Sepanavan – Gyulagarak – Dilijan
Another day on the road and I am getting better at hailing lifts, and better at explaining where I want to go with some minimal Armenian/Russian words.
Just north of Sepanavan is the Gyulagarak State Sanctuary, and the road (according to Google maps) winds wonderfully all the way up the mountain. I got to the village of Gyulagarak with a concerned local who phoned his friend who could speak English and translated for us. I walked through the village under the curious stares of idle village men, crossed the river and kept walking. The road became a rutted track and led away into the mountains, peaks rising up from one another. It was me and the road. And not a single car.
I could walk, I thought. I could cover a fair distance, I thought. But what then? What happens when it starts getting cold and dark? I only have two naartjies and some lavash. Sense started kicking in, so I listened, stopped, hooked a right and struck out over the fields back to the highway. There will be other mountain passes, I thought.
The mountains I did see on the way to Dilijan were snow covered and glorious in the afternoon sunshine. It was another night in a quiet town, this time hugging the radiator after my brief foray out into the cold night for dinner accompanied by cigarette smoke.
More stories of magical interactions on Armenia’s roads in Part Two.