Armenia is so close, but I hadn’t managed to make the trip until this spring. It had always been one thing and then another, but this time I had decided, and (despite putting off the trip for a week because I came down with another cold), even my travel buddies backing out didn’t stop me. So I was off on a solo 2-day trip to Yerevan!
My research told me that from Avlabari metro station, you can take either a marshrutka or a shared taxi to Yerevan. I went the night before to change money and make sure that was the case, and was told there were only marshrutkas, and no taxis. Though I have seen the taxi parked there many times in the past, it wasn’t around that day. The next morning, I had a Georgian come with me to see me off, and he was told the same thing (making me feel better about my communication skills, if not about the details of the trip). I’m not sure if the system has changed, or someone was just on vacation that particular week. The “marshrutka” that I took though wasn’t the usual marshrutka, though, it was a mini-van, so maybe it’s just a big taxi? The important thing is that it got me to Yerevan in relative comfort.
At the land border, you leave your vehicle and go through the border on foot. First, you show your passport and leave Georgia (FYI, there are public restrooms on the Georgian side), then you cross the river, and show your passport to enter Armenia. Armenian visa rules have changed a lot in the time I’ve been in Georgia, but I didn’t need a visa at all, yay! If you need one (check online for your country before you go), the visa-on-arrival office is pretty easy to spot–a bit before the border off the left side of the road. The Armenian border guard was quite suspicious of the extra pages added to my passport, and called his supervisor, who recognized it as normal and let me right through. Made me a bit nervous, though. One of the fellow passengers in my marshrutka (who had been very nicely making sure I went to the right place and did the right thing) had some trouble with his dual Georgian and Armenian passports, and had to pay a fine before he could enter, so we got a bit held up waiting for him. We did wait, though I have heard horror stories of marshrutkas just taking off without any passengers who were taking too long.
It seems there isn’t one direct major road into Yerevan, so there are many possible routes. Friends have told me that they went through Spitak and saw the ruins from the 1988 earthquake. While I suppose that’s interesting in it’s own way, I think I lucked out with the route my marshrutka took. We took an Eastern route through Tavush province, and it has some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen–craggy and spiky, but with lush green vegetation. We went through a pass, and I was surprised to see Lake Sevan on the other side; it looks like a lovely place to go and relax. There was still snow in the mountains surrounding it, which lead to really impressive scenery. It was also a perfect sunny spring day, which helped to leave a good impression. In one of the towns along the road, the van was pulled over by the police for speeding, and the driver may have been asked for a bribe (he neither confirmed nor denied when the other passengers asked him). That was a first.
We arrived at the Yerevan bus station at about 2:30 and I had to find my way to the hostel. My friend who used to spend a lot of time in Yerevan had told me that it shouldn’t be more than 1000 dram to take a taxi anywhere within the city, so when I was accosted with taxi drivers offering to take me for just 3000 dram, I knew to refuse. They eventually went down to 1500, but I stuck to my guns and went elsewhere to find a cab. My friend had also warned me to take the officially registered taxis with yellow plates, not the ones with white plates, and it took me a while to flag down one of those. When I did, I had a very pleasant driver take me to my destination for just 700 dram on the meter, but it did take a while, and might have been worth it to save the time and pay more.
I stayed at Envoy Hostel, which I found deserving of its stellar reputation. It’s a standard hostel, but they’ve thought of all the little details to make it easy: lockers in the rooms, shelves in the bunks, a place to hang clothes in the shower. The staff were really helpful, and created an atmosphere where other guests were friendly but not over-bearing. And the shower was great and the bed was comfy.
After dropping off my backpack, I headed first to the National History Museum which was pretty good–I particularly liked the exhibit on textiles that had lots of gorgeous carpets. Of course I knew that Armenia, like Georgia, was part of the ancient world and had contact with the major civilizations, but I didn’t realize quite how much. The museum has a series of cuneiform tablets that were pretty amazing to see in person. (The exhibit of stone phalli was oddly extensive). Then I headed to the Matenadaran Manuscript Museum, but they were closing when I arrived, so I didn’t make it in. I’ve heard it’s one of the most interesting tourist attractions, though. On my walk there, I experienced something amazing. As I was nervously trying to cross six lanes of traffic with no signal or underpass in sight, all the cars stopped to let me cross! It was an incredible experience after being in Tbilisi. I wanted to go back and do it again!
Then I walked over to the Cascade, and looked at the statues. I’m a sucker for good public art.
I had been told that “West Armenian” food was basically Middle Eastern (as opposed to regular Armenian food). So I excitedly went to a random West Armenian restaurant for dinner. The hummus was great, but the sandwich the waitress recommended was just a glorified and marked-up shawarma, which was fine but not what I wanted. I wandered the city a bit in the dark, and celebrated the lovely spring weather with an ice cream cone. I returned worn-out to the hostel, and chatted with my roommate for some advice on the next day’s adventures. It turned out that many of the museums and tourist attractions were closed on Sundays. Oops. Missed that in my pre-trip research.
I woke up that morning, and set off to see the city from Mother Armenia, but I didn’t find the right road before it started raining. I happened to be at the Cascade and next to the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, so I decided to wait out the storm by checking out the collection. Some of the exhibits were paid, and some were free. Honestly, the free exhibits were the ones I found most interesting, but nonetheless the small entry fee didn’t feel like a waste. The set-up is a bit strange, though. To reach certain galleries you have to take the escalator up to a certain elevator, which you then take down to the gallery. It was strange at first, but I got the hang of it quickly. Some of the galleries also required walking across a courtyard. When the rain let up, I went to the Vernissage Market, like my roommate had recommended. It’s not unlike the Dry Bridge here in Tbilisi, but I think it’s a bit bigger. Some of the souvenir handcrafts are pretty similar, but there are also clearly country-specific specialties. In particular, they still make carpets in Armenia, and the carpet section of the market is a really impressive sight. I then went to try to find some food (lots of restaurants were closed, too!). My final stop was a grocery store for “souvenirs”: prepared hummus, cognac, and Armenian chocolates. The hostel had very helpfully arranged to have the taxi/marshrutka (same type of vehicle, but this time they called it a taxi) pick me up at the hostel. We took the same route back, and arrived back to Avlabari at about 8 on Sunday.
If I go back, I would visit the Matenadaran and the Armenian Genocide Memorial/Museum. I would recommend the stops I made, with those additions. It’s possible to see Yerevan in a weekend from Tbilisi–I don’t think I didn’t get a true taste of the city, but a three-day weekend would give you more flexibility, particularly since so many things are closed on Sundays.