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Armenian AAdventure - DUS-DME-EVN

Armenian AAdventure - DUS-DME-EVN

Old Jul 4, 13, 8:43 pm
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Armenian AAdventure - DUS-DME-EVN

After almost cleaning out my account for a trip back to the US, I had 20,988 Aadvantage points and a break coming up in my very busy MBA program. American offers a "saver" award where you can theoretically make an internal flight in Europe for 20,000 points. However, these are hard to actually use because British Airways is the primary Oneworld (OW) partner, and the fuel surcharge (YQ) is usually equal to (or more than) the cost of just buying a ticket.

Still, there were some options. I am studying in Rotterdam, and it's 19 euros (and about 3 1/2 hours) on the train to DUS. This makes airBerlin an option, which doesn't result in the hated fuel surcharge. I'd just be trying to travel on a saver award, booked 2 weeks in advance, immediately at the start of the summer break with every university student in Europe (along with families of high school students) all going on vacation at once. I'm sure that going somewhere would be easy.

How about Mallorca? "You must be kidding." Bulgaria? "Impossible." Moldova? I found out through ExpertFlyer it was possible with (of all things) SkyPesos but with a fuel surcharge that was about half the cost of buying a ticket, and besides, Moldova isn't high on my list, it's just on my list. Cyprus? Not an option, airBerlin doesn't go there. Malta in the high season? Not happening.

OK, conventional destinations are out. They usually are when I want to use miles. How about unconventional destinations? I checked what countries were actually considered to be Europe. Georgia and Arrmenia were on the list. And wait a minute, S7 is a OW partner? Maybe there were options after all.

I called the reservations center again. They didn't know my voice yet, and I reached one of those rare representatives who thinks that sending you somewhere unusual is really cool, and is happy to try to do it. Why yes, airBerlin could get me from DUS to DME and connect me to S7 through to EVN right on the peak travel days immediately during the university break. The only catch is that I'd have to transit a Russian airport with an American passport and no transit visa in what turned out to be the middle of the Edward Snowden standoff and deal with a really long layover--more than 8 hours. How bad could that be? I booked it. $75 express booking fee (my own fault, I got this brilliant idea too late) plus around $115 in taxes. Visas to Armenia can be purchased on arrival, or e-visas are available online for $10 through the Armenian consulate. Although it costs about $1 less to get one on arrival, I figured already having a visa might allow me to skip the crowd on arrival.

Oh yeah, and I got clearance from the "Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia" to enter some rebel-held territory between Russia and Georgia. So, there is the potential on this trip to enter two self-declared states with very limited international recognition, although I'll have to see whether this is truly practical based on conditions on the ground.

Well, I'm sitting in a very crowded Domodedovo airport now. This *really* isn't a good place for long layovers. There is nowhere to sleep at all, water is extortionately priced at about $3.50 per bottle (don't drink the tap water), and the airport is very busy with flights departing round the clock. No ATM or currency exchange, there is no way to get rubles if you want to buy anything from the vending machines, and credit card machines seem to require chip and PIN. Want to know your gate? Hope you can read Cyrillic:

There is a business lounge, but there's a complicated process to buy a pass and that costs 60 euro anyway--I have no income right now so lounges are not in the budget. Domodedovo is where the former Soviet Union meets Moscow, with lots of Soviet-era aircraft from airlines such as "Uzbekistan Airlines" held together with duct tape and baling wire. And what might possibly be Putin's plane:

My Armenia adventure starts later today, after I catch my connecting flight from Domodedovo. I booked an apartment in central Yerevan for two days, and it turns out one of our alumni is from Armenia and her husband already lives there, so he's going to pick me up at the airport (this is really nice of him). I downloaded the Lonely Planet and have some ideas of things to see. I'll rent a car, and this will give me the opportunity to go to Georgia.

Last edited by TProphet; Jan 13, 15 at 12:56 am Reason: added pictures
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Old Jul 6, 13, 2:53 am
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The boarding time couldn't roll around quickly enough, and it finally did. However, I'd noticed that Domodedevo posts some additional information about boarding times. You need to be at the gate 25 minutes before the published departure time, because you're bused to the gate. This means that what is printed on your boarding pass may not be right if it was issued at another airport. In my case, it absolutely wasn't right, and if I had followed that, I would have been late.

Like many places around the world, boarding is a full-contact scrum at Domodedevo. I was well-positioned though, and managed to hold my place. The agent scanned my boarding pass, the computer made a strange beep, and she frowned. Then she pulled up a seat map of the airplane, which was a sea of red. "This can't be good," I thought. She did something with the computer, crossed out my seat number, wrote on my ticket and handed it back. "Your seat change," she said, "Now you sit 1A." I smiled, nodded, said "thank you" and went to the plane. Op-up was just fine with me.

The flight was on an S7 Airlines A321 and there are 8 seats in first class. They were all full. Nothing special, the cabin is laid out more or less like any cabin on a US domestic flight. We were greeted on the ground with either juice or water, and once airborne I was offered "breakfast." This consisted of a three course meal served on real china (sorry I didn't take pictures) - the first course was some Russian cold meats garnished with red and yellow peppers, bread, some blue cheese and a piece of fruit served with a sprig of spruce. For the second course, I had a choice of three hot meals which resembled an international economy meal - I chose beef with rice, but there was also a vegetarian option (pasta) and a fish option. The third course was a choice of coffee or tea served with a Russian dessert. I also could have had my choice of over a dozen alcoholic beverages but having had no sleep I was more in the mood for coffee than anything else. Needless to say I got plenty to eat, and didn't need lunch; mind you this was only a 3 hour flight.

A hard landing in Yerevan (too high and too fast), and we taxied to the brand new airport. Everything is new, shiny and modern, and looks like a modern Chinese airport in a third tier city (keep in mind this is a compliment, Chinese airports are generally very nice). Jet bridge in Yerevan, no bus service required. The immigration agent wasn't sure what to do with my e-visa (which I'd obtained online), since they do not get very many of these. However, after consulting with a colleague, it only took a moment to stamp me in, saying "Welcome to Armenia!" Baggage was a snap, Customs just waved me through, and I was out into the lobby to meet the husband of one of my classmates, Vahan.

Vahan already had a taxi lined up, and brought me into town. Apparently there is a taxi mafia at the airport so it's actually cheaper to bring a taxi to the airport from the city round-trip than it is to use an airport taxi. Fares are always negotiable, there are no meters, and at the airport they go up for foreigners. In town, you'll pay a little higher price than a local if you're a foreigner, but I'm told outright scams are relatively rare. The taxi dropped us off near a room I'd rented on airbnb, and we waited for Anna to come meet us.

I got the keys to the place. The building is probably pretty scary to most Western people, but to me - it's just like a Chinese apartment building. China adopted a lot of city planning and construction methods from the former Soviet Union so actually a lot of things here (apartment layout, fixtures, plumbing, city layout and design) are really similar to China. The laundry detergent, however, is uniquely local:

Other Chinese similarities at first glance? The generally high level of organization (in its own way), enjoyment of large children's exhibitions (there was a huge children's exhibition for Constitution Day), an affinity for luxury products (all the major brands are represented here), and Armenians love KTV! I suppose I should not be surprised to see some Chinese influence here, since Armenia was on the old Silk Road. Still, after living in China for three years, Armenia feels really comfortable relative to the Netherlands. People are on the street, streets are a jam of taxis and buses and minibus taxis and cars, the food is familiar (it's somewhere between Turkish and Xinjiang food), and there are even Chinese cars here. One big difference? Everyone so far has been really friendly, and it's genuine. They're curious why I am here, whether I like Armenia (I tell them "a lot" and this seems to be the right answer), whether I know any Armenians in America ("No, but I know one in Holland!") and where I plan to travel. Not having any specific plan is something of a surprise--just like it would be in China or Russia, both societies with a relatively lower tolerance for ambiguity than American society. "You know Americans," I reply, "We don't really like to make a plan, we just make things up as we go along."

Yesterday, I had an early night, after taking in a Constitution Day parade and exhibition, enjoying some local food, and exploring a lot of the city center on foot. Today, I plan to spend some more time in Yerevan soaking up the city culture, and I will rent a car tomorrow to head out of town. After already spending one day of exploration so far, I look forward to exploring more of this incredible country!

Last edited by TProphet; Jan 13, 15 at 12:59 am Reason: added pictures
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Old Jul 7, 13, 2:20 pm
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Having had very little sleep on the trip so far, I slept pretty late the next morning. The first order of business was to get breakfast, so I walked to Artbridge Cafe and Books. I saw a foursquare recommendation for the French toast, and the recommendation is for a good reason. It's amazing! I also tried the Armenian coffee. It is like Turkish coffee, but not quite as sweet, served in little cups. You need to be careful not to drink to the bottom, because this becomes a heavy slurry of coffee grounds. It's kind of weird if you drink it, because then there's no coffee to wash away the grit. I didn't quite get the hang of it the first time, so I had to order another one. This nearly led to a third (just because I liked it so much), but I had to stop there.

I walked into the city center, along a different route than I'd taken during the previous day's explorations. There was some sort of TV news interview taking place on the sidewalk, which was kind of cool. My route led me to a central traffic circle, which is the official city center. It is ringed by the Marriott (dingy and badly in need of updating--I'm really glad I didn't stay there), the central government, the central post office, and the Armenian history museum. The whole square has free Wi-Fi and some really nice fountains. Since the museum was open and I didn't know much about Armenian history, I went inside.

One exhibit (a "special exhibit") is for free, and this was the most interesting exhibit at the museum. It covered the pre-Christianity times of Armenia, dating back the Stone Age. Most of this time, the country has been variously occupied by the region's great powers. Armenians worshiped Greek and Roman gods before Christian times, which was surprising to me, and a lot of Roman-era history has been well-preserved. The museum is really very well done, and the entrance fee (should you wish to see the whole thing) is about $1. Also, like many other government services in Armenia, the museum is open on Sundays!

I then stopped by the post office to buy stamps. If you go to Yerevan, I really recommend a visit, if not to buy stamps, just to see the building. It's absolutely incredible, and is built in a style more reminiscent of a cathedral than something as mundane as a post office. There are gorgeous stained glass pieces and to top it all off, the mailing rates are reasonable and they even have EMS service. Open 7 days a week!

One travel rule I follow is that five-star Western hotels always have free, Western-style toilets with working plumbing. If you just walk into a property like you own the place then everyone assumes you are staying there if you're a foreigner (this works especially well in places where I "look" foreign and where there aren't so many foreigners). The Marriott did, in fact, have working plumbing, but I was surprised how dingy and run-down the facilities are. The hotel is badly in need of updating and a poor value at rates near $200 per night.

I had overheard some Americans talking to each other about a nearby market so I set off to find it, finally getting directions from a friendly Armenian who made me a delicious smoothie from fresh raspberries, yogurt, milk and ice at a ridiculously low price. Yerevan has a subway line, and the market was near the Metro station. I normally avoid flea markets of this type but I really wanted to buy a T-shirt stylized like the Armenian flag (similar to the type that all the kids performing had been wearing the previous day), and figured that of all places, the market might have one. They didn't, but there was a ton of old Soviet-era stuff, everything from multiple volumes of regulatory tomes in the Russian language to medal collections.

After the market, I wanted to cool off--temperatures were pushing 95 degrees in Yerevan. It doesn't actually feel that hot in the shade (there is a dramatic difference) due to the elevation. Where is a good place to cool off? The subway, which provides natural air conditioning! Yerevan has a subway with one line, which is similar in construction and design to the Pyongyang metro (which I have also ridden). It's really uncanny how similar--stations look much the same, the subway cars are nearly identical, and it's unbelievably deep (which was probably done so the subway could double as a bomb shelter in the days prior to bunker-busting nukes). The subway cars are spotless, and so are the stations. Everything is well maintained and in perfect working order. Most signage is in Armenian and Russian, but some is only in Russian. There is a very slight bow to capitalism since there were discreet Nescafe ads on the train, but--like Beijing--only minimal advertising seems to be tolerated on the subway.

I don't know Yerevan well, so I took the train all the way to the end of the line. This dropped me nowhere in particular, so I followed a main street downhill for no reason other than it was downhill and that was easier walking. Random discoveries are one of my most favorite things to do when traveling and to my delight, I was able to see many more beautiful murals that are painted on the entrance to communities. These, as you may recall, consist of multi-story apartment buildings organized in a square with a large courtyard in the middle. To enter the community, you walk through "portals" on each side, and these are decorated with some of the most beautiful, artistic murals you'll ever see. This one was my favorite:

Finally, I came to the end of the road. It was a bridge over a river. There was a staircase leading down, but it was covered in trash and the farther down I got, the more it smelled like sewage. In the shadows, some sketchy guy under the bridge kept sneaking around pillars to peer at me from the darkness. And then I noticed the giant pipes with a rushing sound and fetid drip: it was the sewage outfall for the city of Yerevan. No wonder the locals were surprised I'd visit! Obviously this wasn't a riverfront I wanted to see, so I headed back upstairs. I was really tired after so much walking and wanted to catch a cab back--but not just any cab. It had to be a special one, but just then, one made a U-turn at the bridge. It was my lucky day, and after a bit of negotiation to explain the destination (I don't speak Armenian or Russian which makes most things difficult), I was on my way in a Lada!

I'd never ridden in a Lada before, and the experience is awesome. They rattle and shake and sputter and just keep running no matter what. The fuel quality in Yerevan is absolutely terrible (fuel comes from Dubai and Iran), even worse than Chinese fuel. Because of this, Russian LADA cars are popular. The design of the LADA Riva is simple, and basically didn't change for 40 years until production was phased out in 2012. These cars are absolute tanks, will run on anything (it's said they will even run on vodka if that's all you have), and you see them everywhere in Armenia.

It was time for dinner, so I grabbed a sandwich at the local shop and walked up the famous Yerevan Cascade. I will save the details for another post.

Last edited by TProphet; Jan 13, 15 at 1:06 am
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Old Jul 7, 13, 3:32 pm
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As a person who has Armenia on his list of places to visit, I found your report very interesting.

By the way, "Barf" is an Iranian brand of detergent. The name means snow in Persian.
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Old Jul 7, 13, 9:51 pm
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Originally Posted by TProphet
The subway cars are spotless, and so are the stations. Everything is well maintained and in perfect working order. Most signage is in Armenian and Russian, but some is only in Russian. There is a very slight bow to capitalism since there were discreet Nescafe ads on the train, but--like Beijing--only minimal advertising seems to be tolerated on the subway.
Great report; I'm loving it thus far, and await further installments.

Just FYI, there is no shortage of advertising on Beijing subways any more; Focus Media and its ilk bombard riders from every possible angle.
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Old Jul 10, 13, 2:17 am
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On Sunday, I picked up the rental car that I had reserved. I figured two days should be enough in Yerevan, and if you want to travel both comfortably and independently in Armenia a car is pretty much required. Knowing that road conditions would probably be rough, I reserved a "crossover SUV" - it's a hatchback that is higher clearance than a normal vehicle, has some SUV features, but isn't a full-size SUV and doesn't have 4WD. Basically, it's a high clearance statino wagon. Using a local company on the recommendation of an Armenian friend, I drove away in a 2007 Kia Cerato. And, in a fit of seemingly common sense that I later came to have a love-hate relationship with, I also rented a Garmin GPS.

I left Yerevan fairly late, never being one to get an early start on anything. My destination was Lake Sevan. Yerevan is a very small city, and I was almost immediately in the countryside. This isn't a major transit route to or from anywhere (it could be a major east-west transit route like it was in the Silk Road times, but the borders are closed with both Turkey and Azerbaijan), so there are a surprisingly small number of large vehicles on the road. Most of the traffic is Lada cars and 4x4s; Lada has even bigger popularity in Armenia that Chevrolet does in the US. Actually, a lot of Russian products are still very popular in Armenia, a holdover from Soviet times.

After 90 minutes or so, I came to Lake Sevan! It is the largest lake in the region, and certainly the largest in Armenia. I was delighted, but also a little disappointed. It's like Klamath Lake in Oregon--a high desert lake with a muddy shore. There are beaches here and there, but the scene is very low-key, just like the Pacific Northwest. Armenians drive their Ladas out to the lake with a bunch of friends and have big picnics, cookouts, and barbecues. Kids swim in the lake, the usual family vacation spot. This is *totally* the kind of place where you can haul a generator, a pile of speakers, some DJ equipment and a couple of hundred of your closest friends and have a really fun beach party. By yourself, though... might as well keep driving and see the scenery along with other things.

I'm interested in abandoned things and urban exploration. For example, I have visited Adak and explored the majority of the old Naval Air Station. Old abandoned Soviet stuff was everywhere. Some of it is still active. There are abandoned factories, giant radio arrays of some kind, all sorts of crazy stuff. Here are a couple of examples:

I had a vague plan that I would drive all the way around the lake, but the road isn't a modern superhighway where you can travel 100km/hr. I didn't make good time, accidentally making a detour up a side road. I stopped in a village to buy some snacks at the local shop, and immediately attracted a crowd of curious children. They couldn't communicate with me, but were friendly and even though they were shy, they eventually let me take a picture:

Finally, I arrived at Vardenis (near the southern side of the lake) tired and hungry. Just as I was driving around looking for a restaurant, a police car came up behind me. I was being stopped! I pulled over, and then the car drove up next to me. The policeman casually leaned out and said something to me in Russian. "Nyet Russki" I said, "Amerikanski." Crestfallen, both police got out of the car, and tried to communicate with me. It was immediately clear that I wasn't in trouble at all, I just looked lost, so they were trying to help me find my way. I said "restaurant," which is basically the same word in English and Russian, but there wasn't one. Then I said "hotel," and there wasn't one of those either. However, after conferring among themselves, the police figured out what I was after... one pantomimed sleep, the other pantomimed eating. It was hard to keep from laughing at the ridiculous game of charades we were playing but these were police and I didn't want to get on their bad side, so I nodded. "Da, da!" Huge smiles from both and they motioned me to follow them. They drove me to a place a few blocks away and pointed to a sign in Armenian, Russian, and a few English words: EATING PLACE, SLEEPING PLACE. There was a phone number to call, so I called it. It took a few tries but eventually I got through and the owner of the phone number just walked up to my car. It's a small town, word gets around fast!

The owner didn't speak much English but we were able to negotiate dinner, room and breakfast for AMD 8,000 which works out to about $20. The food was incredible, served in impossibly huge portions, and it was my first taste of real Armenian countryside cooking. If you go to Armenia for no other reason, go to try the food--it's really incredible. The main dish was made from a few different kinds of meat stewed in their own juices combined with potatoes, vegetables, onions and peppers. This was served with a typical Armenian bread, a block of cheese which is like Halloumi cheese from Cyprus (I'm not sure what it is called, it's local and often served at breakfast too, but it's very similar). And finally, the best part: tomatoes and peppers picked right off the vine immediately before serving them to me, grown in the guest house's very own garden.

The next morning, I fired up the GPS and told it I wanted to go to the Georgian border. Armenia was amazing but I wanted to see another country, and I figured my trusty Garmin would get me there. I looked at the route on Google Maps and it seemed fairly obvious, just up the other side of the lake, a quick jaunt to the west, head north and then over the border. Garmin, however, had other plans. In reviewing the route, it passed through Azerbaijan. That's a no-go, because the border has been closed since the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 1993. So has the Turkish border. And both Azerbaijani borders are closed, including the one for the Azerbaijani exclave on the western Armenian border. Also, Garmin wasn't able to figure out any routing that wasn't in Armenia (even though I have the maps for Georgia), so I had to specify a waypoint. OK, no worries, everything looked solid, although I didn't quite know what the road names it was using were, there was nothing about crossing into Azerbaijan. And on my way I went.

I drove, and I drove, and I drove, following the Garmin. And then, hey, wait a minute, I'm not going up the east side of the lake, I'm heading back to the west side of the lake! Ugh. Well, it wasn't the end of the world, it's just the same lake viewed from a different angle, and this way, I at least knew the road was passable. Oh well. I kept driving, driving, following the Garmin, which then took me on some progressively narrower and narrower and more and more remote roads. The roads went from pavement to "something that used to be pavement during the Soviet era maybe" to gravel to dirt. I bounced through villages, past donkey farms and places that probably haven't changed in centuries. At this point, I was worried that Garmin might be sending me on the wrong path, but I was also curious where it would lead me. It led me past a nuclear plant, past a hydroelectric power station, past dilapidated factories of soviet past. Through hill and dale, farm and village, and finally... a road sign pointing the way (in Armenian and Cyrillic) to Yerevan.

I almost screamed in fury. Why would Garmin bring me back here? Apparently, at some point when I stopped to take a picture, the GPS lost the route that I had programmed and instead of asking me what I wanted to do, it just automatically replaced the route with one of the previous routes. This was to the Ani Plaza Hotel in Yerevan (near the apartment I was staying). And Garmin assumes that roads are all paved here and everything is like the US, so the "quickest" route calculation doesn't take into account the fact that the road hasn't been paved since before Gorbachev. Incredibly frustrating but GPS snafus happen and besides, it wasn't the end of the world. I could get some ice cream, buy some Georgian laris (which I'd need anyway), and take care of any sort of city business. Maybe it wasn't so bad after all.

This city just keeps drawing me back into its embrace. But more on that later.

I stopped by the currency exchange booth. The guy working didn't have laris or rubles (the two currencies I was after), but he did tell me that I'd gotten ripped off when changing $600 the previous day. The other guy had given me the "buy" rate instead of the "sell" rate (I had called him on it but he insisted he was right, and I figured he must be), ripping me off to the tune of $11 (fortunately the spread is fairly low on the Armenian dram). I did get the ice cream, but it didn't taste as sweet knowing I'd been cheated for more than the standard $5 that I don't care about (when you travel, you are definitely going to get ripped off--I have personally decided that if it's for less than $5, it's not worth the energy of worrying about it).

Back to Google Maps, and I figured out the route on my own this time. M1 west to M3 north and done. This would take me to the Georgian border and it was only 180km or so, how long could that possibly take?

Well, as it turns out, a pretty long time. There are a lot of cattle ranches along the way and this means traffic jams! Progress is slower than you'd expect when driving in Armenia. There are traffic jams of cows and sheep on the roads, long delays when you're caught behind ancient Soviet-era trucks with more wheels than you thought possible, and potholes the size of giraffes. And so it was that I found myself well short of Tbilisi, my planned destination for the day. It was getting darker and darker, and I knew I needed to find somewhere--anywhere--to stay.

The problem? I don't speak Armenian or Russian, and I can't read either language. Almost everything here is signposted in Armenian-only, or if you're lucky Armenian and Russian. So I felt really, really lucky to see a sign for "hotel/restaurant" by the side of the road. "3km."

Well, the first sign pointed to a second sign that was in Armenian only but had the number 3 on it and a picture sort of like the one by the highway, so I figured I must be going the right direction. The road was a road once, maybe at some point during the Soviet era, but now it's just bits of pavement here and there that serve more as a hindrance than a help. I wound my way slowly, paying attention to the km markers, and 2km on I came to a collection of buildings. "2km, that doesn't make sense," I thought. The road got even worse and turned into basically what looked like a logging road, but I figured I might as well press on until the km marker hit 3. If I didn't find it, I'd turn back around.

Exactly at the 3km mark, the road ended at a gate. Two surprised-looking security guards came up to me, speaking in Russian. I said "hotel" a few times, and then one of them remembered what "hotel" means and said, "DA, DA, HOTEL!" with a big smile. The gate opened and I drove onto the grounds of an incredibly improbable resort. "This is going to be expensive," I thought, "but I don't have a choice."

I parked the car, made my way into the lobby, and went to the desk. "Hello!" I said. "Do you speak English?" The two clerks at the front desk didn't, but they knew exactly what I needed and found someone in the back who spoke English very well. I explained that I didn't have a reservation and asked if there was availability. There was, and she checked me in in the cool, casual way where you just know that a whopping bill awaits. "OK, the total is 17,000 drams," she said, a total of less than $42 including breakfast. The room was very nice, the breakfast was incredible, the grounds are beautifully forested with walking paths throughout, and ... well, I'll just let the view speak for itself.

Last edited by TProphet; Jan 13, 15 at 1:21 am
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Old Jul 11, 13, 11:41 am
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Amazing TR. I'm jealous.

Please keep going with the report
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Old Jul 12, 13, 2:36 am
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Great report. I'm looking forward to teh next parts.
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Old Jul 12, 13, 9:35 pm
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Thanks so much for your reports. I leave for my first visit to Armenia on Monday. It's a business trip so not much time for exploring. One day in Yerevan and then heading for Synuik province in the south.
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Old Jul 16, 13, 10:42 am
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I woke up in the morning and went downstairs for an excellent Armenian breakfast. The Sochut Resort does a really wonderful job with their breakfast, everything typically Armenian (this is a good thing) and really delicious. There is a huge selection, including eggs with tomatoes and vegetables, high quality sausages, some really nice local cheese, and all the tea you can drink. It’s actually hard to find restaurants in Armenia while on the road, so I ate a lot knowing that it might be awhile before I found my next meal.

It was time to check out, so I cleared out of my hotel room and took a walk around the grounds of the resort. It’s a really wonderful place, tucked away in the forest, with miles of hiking trails behind the property. If I hadn’t had another plan for the day, I would have extended my stay to enjoy it longer. However, I was heading for Georgia, so I threw my bags in the car, fired up the trusty Garmin, and—confident that I now knew how to program it—set it for the correct location. Leaving the Sochut Resort yielded an amazing view of the surrounding landscape:

The GPS properly guided me back Stepanavan, the town. It’s a collection of a few buildings. I knew I needed to make a right turn at the end of the road, so wasn’t at all suspicious when the GPS sent me down what appeared to be a paved highway. Another car turned right in the same place, so it was clear that I must be going in the right direction. The road got progressively worse as I traveled, other cars long gone, but this was relatively normal. The entire budget for the country of Armenia is only USD $2.5 billion per year, so although Armenian highway departments are definitely not lazy (some roads consist almost entirely of small, meticulously placed patches) there just isn’t enough money to properly pave even major highways.

The road when it was still a road:

Up one mountain, down another, around the bend, pavement falling away bit by bit until the point you could tell the road had been paved once, but only once and that was a long time ago. Finally, the GPS squawked “Turn left.” I started to turn, and stopped short. A rough 4x4 track led off down a 30+ degree angle. There was no way I was going down that, and I’d gone too far to turn back. There also wasn’t any cellular reception since I was so far out in the middle of nowhere at this point that it was impossible to know where I was. I definitely wasn’t on the main highway, though, this had become obvious some time ago.

OK, when in doubt press forward, then. The road (such as it was) was at least reasonably well-traveled. I had seen other cars (by “car” I mean Lada 4x4) so it obviously led somewhere. I just wasn’t sure where, but going back wasn’t an option because I’d already traveled so far. The GPS fortunately rerouted and was able to adapt to the direction I’d chosen for myself, and with this, I began to assert control over my trip from Garmin. Still, I was lost, and was relying on the device that had gotten me lost in the first place to get me out of being lost. Here is the Garmin leading me boldly forward into a mud pit:

I kept driving, winding down a forested mountainside. The KM indicator fluctuated wildly in between pictures and the GPS occasionally indicated that I should drive directly off a cliff or make turns that were impossible. I didn’t pay it much heed, figuring that it was having trouble picking up enough satellites to correctly gauge the distance. The road was getting really steep and really bad at this point, I hadn’t seen anything except for 4x4s for a long time, and it didn’t seem as though there was any civilization for miles around. And then, around a corner, there was a break in the trees and a spectacular vista unfolded before me:

I could see some signs of civilization. “I’m getting somewhere,” I thought, even though the car was bouncing wildly on the mountain track, and the road condition had turned into “small lakes interspersed with potholes” by this point. I have a lot of experience driving on bad forest service roads in the Pacific Northwest, so this was nothing I couldn’t handle; I drove slow, always knew my center of gravity, and avoided driving over big rocks. The idea of changing a tire on these roads was definitely not attractive. Although I didn’t have much respect for Kia going into the trip, I have to say that the car was holding up remarkably well despite the punishment that the road gave it. My biggest worry was the bridges, and whether they were in any condition for a vehicle to be driving over them. Soviet engineers built strong bridges, though, and they were still holding up well despite decades of neglect.

Eventually I wound my way down the mountainside, across a river, and found myself in one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen in Europe. I was back in civilization, such as it was, with a few small ranches dotting the valley floor and power lines running along a road leading up the opposite mountainside. If I had a tent and a picnic, I would have stayed for at least a day, but I could only stop to stretch my legs, take a picture and be thankful that I hadn’t gotten lost forever.

“Follow the power lines” is a pretty good strategy when you’re lost in the forest—they eventually have to lead somewhere. Fortunately this was pretty easy because there was only one road, a track just as rough as the one I’d just come down, leading up the mountainside. Going up is dicier than going down, because without 4WD, one false move and you’re done. If you start to spin your wheels, you can only back down to a flat enough point and try again with more speed, which is a dangerous game because hitting the wrong rock at the wrong angle will pop your tires. There were also really big rocks sticking up out of the road at this point, and this presented the additional risk of getting high centered. I nearly high-centered myself once, but fortunately it was on a switchback and I had enough room to get myself right. Eventually, and with a huge breath of relief, I made it to the top, to a tiny village. What’s more, my mobile phone lit up, so I was finally able to look at a map and figure out where I actually was. This was a safer bet than the GPS, which had loudly howled in protest at everything I’d been doing so far, urgently insisting that I should drive off of cliffs and into the river.

Finally I was able to look at Google Maps. It seems the GPS wasn’t entirely wrong. Knowing that I wanted to go to Georgia, it had sent me from Stepanavan down a route called H34. This would have eventually gotten me to the Georgian border if I had stayed on it, bringing me to a road that was of even more questionable quality on the Georgian side. I may eventually have gotten to Tbilisi, but this clearly hadn’t worked. Fortunately, I was now on a road called H31, which led directly to the M3 (as a freight route, a road that was in more drivable condition) which would take me to the Georgian border, intersecting at a town called Tashir. All I needed to do was keep driving straight ahead.

Relieved that I was finally approaching my destination, I drove straight forward. The road gradually got better and better and suddenly the pavement was back, and I was driving through a town! The GPS, in its native habitat, sprang to life and started spouting less nonsense, urging me to drive to the M3 and turn right. I obediently followed—having verified the routing, I knew it was accurate. When I reached the M3 I paid attention to the speed limit, knowing that the traffic police are sticklers in small Armenian towns. So, I wasn’t all that worried when I passed a policeman going the opposite direction; I was going exactly the speed limit.

The lights went on, the police car wheeled around, and I found myself being stopped. The car stopped behind me. This didn’t seem a friendly stop like the one at Lake Sevan. The policeman exited his vehicle, walked briskly to my car, stood and saluted, said something in Russian, and then looked at me expectantly. I explained politely that I didn’t speak Russian. “Car Passport,” he said. I pulled out all of the documentation from the rental car company—rental agreement, insurance, registration, and even permission to drive the car into Georgia. I handed all of it to the officer, who inspected everything with a frown, then handed it back to me. He motioned me outside the vehicle, so I stepped out (slowly and carefully, making sure he saw my hands at all times—a habit learned from interactions with violent and unpredictable American police officers). I relaxed a bit when outside the vehicle, seeing that the officer was unarmed. He walked me to the front of the car, and motioned to the front of it. I wasn’t sure what the issue was—a headlight out, maybe? I gave him a confused look, and he pointed at where the front license plate should be.

Uh-oh. He asked something that probably meant “where is your license plate?” and obviously I didn’t know where it was. I pulled out my phone, asking for permission to call, and the officer nodded. I then placed a call to the emergency number for the rental car company, which is answered by one of the owners of the company. Quickly explaining the situation, he asked to talk to the officer. An animated conversation in Armenian followed, with the police officer’s body language becoming ever more aggressive, and with him periodically looking at me with a bigger and bigger scowl. Eventually the officer handed the phone back to me. “Missing the license plate is a really big deal” said Edgar, the rental agent. “The car is going to be towed, and they are going to take you to the police station. You will need to stay overnight until we can sort things out tomorrow. Can I talk to the officer again? Maybe I can try for another solution.”

I got a very big sinking feeling—going to jail in a foreign country isn’t something that I was really planning to do on my vacation and I was hoping not to sample the Armenian prison conditions. Edgar talked to the police officer some more, who softened his stance somewhat and seemed to signal some kind of agreement. Speaking to Edgar again, he said “OK, I convinced him not to tow the car, but you need to follow him to the police station. Call me when you get there and we’ll go from there.” The policeman motioned for me to follow him and while driving to the police station, I surreptitiously logged on to Facebook and posted an update:

Great. I just got arrested in Armenia. That puts a damper on things.
I called Edgar when I got to the police station. He had been working on things in Yerevan in the meantime, and was trying to figure out whether a new plate could be delivered to me. Still, it looked like I was going to have to stay overnight. I took this to mean “stay overnight in jail,” because I was, after all, at the police station and was there for something described as “pretty serious.” So, I was pretty nervous, but resigned to it. I went into the police station to be fingerprinted and processed.

Instead, after a long discussion, a police boss came downstairs. He took me to his office, told me to sit in a chair, and left me alone in his office for awhile. I waited nervously. He came back with a cup of iced coffee, which he handed to me! Then he said “please, Edgar.” I called Edgar and handed the phone to the police boss. A seriously animated discussion followed, which seemed to end in some kind of agreement, and the phone was handed back to me. “You are going to have to come back to Yerevan tonight,” said Edgar. “This officer will prepare a permission document for you to drive the car back here. Then we can replace the car tomorrow.” So, I wasn’t going to jail after all! “Wow, that really interrupts my vacation. If the police can give me permission to drive, could I just drive to Tbilisi instead?” I asked. Edgar explained that I would not be able to cross the border without proper license plates, and I got the distinct impression that I was really pushing it by asking.

The police first needed to prepare a report regarding the circumstances under which the plate went missing. However, this needed to be done based on a translation of an English version of my report, which I wrote. The police called around Tashir to find someone who spoke English well enough to translate, and finally the local high school English teacher came to help. She was very helpful and professional and we were able to prepare the documents in a way that was suitable for the police.

Finally, the report was finished in triplicate, and the police colonel (who was processing my report) took it to the captain for his signature and official stamp. Eventually, it was done. I called Edgar just to confirm that everything was OK, and the police colonel confirmed it. He even helped to switch the rear license plate to the front, which would keep me from being stopped by every police officer I passed on the way back to Yerevan.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my Facebook update had created a panic in between my Armenian friend and my American friends. A friend in the US DoD called his counterpart in Armenia, who (as it turned out) was a four-star Armenian general. The Armenian President’s office quickly got involved contacting police stations in northern Armenia, and the American embassy began placing calls around Yerevan looking for information on where I might be. Several hours had elapsed in between my initial Facebook post and the current time, and it wasn’t long before my phone rang. It was Edgar. “You know, the President’s office just called me, the embassy is calling me, these people who are in America, can you please tell them everything is OK?” I posted a quick update on Facebook calling off the wolves. While it’s really good to have friends who can come through in a pinch, it’s kind of amazing how much trouble I managed to create in such a short period of time.

Driving back into Yerevan, past a traffic jam full of cows, I was a disappointed by the setback but really glad that it wasn’t worse. After all, only a few hours before, I’d been preparing to spend the night in jail! For my trouble, I was rewarded by a really amazing mountain view over the pass. I booked a hotel using my 3G modem and iPad, rolled into town, and even when driving past the presidential palace (practically flinching when I drove past several police cars) I wasn’t stopped. I had managed to make it all the way across the entire country without any further problems. The following day, I’d regroup and make another attempt.

Last edited by TProphet; Jan 13, 15 at 1:31 am
TProphet is offline  
Old Jul 16, 13, 11:59 am
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Originally Posted by TProphet
I posted a quick update on Facebook calling off the wolves. While its really good to have friends who can come through in a pinch, its kind of amazing how much trouble I managed to create in such a short period of time.
I learned the same lesson several years ago in Iran. I'd jokingly posted a comment that I was flying to Kish for the day, and if I wasn't back in 24 hrs to alert someone. Well, living in DC, I know enough "someones who know someones" and like you it created quite a problem to wind down when I missed my original flight back to Dubai.

I've learnt only to Facebook embarrassing travel mishaps after resolved
ironmanjt is offline  
Old Jul 16, 13, 12:09 pm
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Great report!

Comical about the Facebook repercussions.
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Old Jul 17, 13, 6:05 am
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Sounds like a fascinating place to visit. And great to see kids with scruffy knees for once - true kids!
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Old Jul 20, 13, 5:18 am
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TProphet, congrats on the op-up - and on such a great trip report. I'm a little bit obsessed about going to Armenia and Georgia now, so am reading this with a great deal of interest. We came very close to adding both countries to our tally while driving from the UK to Mongolia last year, but reluctantly (and probably wisely) decided that we wouldn't have time to do justice to either, so headed straight from Turkey into Iran instead. However, everyone I know who did visit seemed to love it - Georgia especially.

As for the GPS, it's amazing how they can get you into trouble. The further from civilization you get, the less use a GPS seems to be. The worst thing, though, is that they lead you to switch off some of your own native ability to find your way. I've had my fair share of GPS mishaps so particularly enjoyed reading about someone else's - thanks!

Really looking forward to the next instalment!
mad_atta is offline  
Old Jul 20, 13, 6:24 am
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Great report TProphet. What an adventure, especially the creative GPS routing and the missing license plate. Oh to be young again.
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