Armenia is most decidedly, a very unique and worthy place to visit. The people, who have been sitting up in their Shangri La mountain fortress, have been idling by writing poetry in their own language while sipping the oldest wine in the world, praying to a Mr. Jesu Cristo longer than any other country in the world.
This is a place of ancient wisdom, a place most decidedly undiscovered by many other travelers, and often overlooked for unfortunate reasons.
Reason 1 is the big “Why Armenia?”
I received this question a lot. Why would you and your girlfriend go to Armenia rather than somewhere nice? Shut up — You don’t know me, and you clearly don’t know anything about Armenia. This is a land of sublime nature, a culture older than anything you’ve probably experienced, and a place so far off the beaten path that anywhere you go makes you feel like Indiana Jones.
Reason 2 has more to do with its past.
Armenia has not had a lot of time to be independent, aside from the time their empire stretched to the Mediterranean around 70 BCE. Since then it has been taken over by everyone from the Persians to the Greeks to the Mongols and Soviets and a whole lot of other non-Armenian Kings. That hasn’t left a lot of time for the Armenians to be independent, yet their culture has outlived even the most formidable of Empires.
If you are from the United States or another Western country, chances are you know some folks of Armenian descent. You may have noticed that these individuals hold on to their culture stronger than many other diasporas around. This is of course because there are far more Armenians living outside Armenia than living in it, due to a mixture of factors including the Armenian Genocide. This act of systematic extermination and forced exodus committed by the then Ottoman Empire displaced millions of Western Armenians, out into neighboring Syria and Lebanon or even further afield to places like Glendale, California. This is a subject I do not have the necessary titles to lecture on, but I do encourage you to dig into the subject under your own discretion, and to go to Armenia yourself to understand the depth of this country’s history and many painful memories.
But like all countries that have suffered, there is a boundless sense of pride in the culture they have created and successfully held on to through it all. However, this and the ongoing conflict with neighbor Azerbaijan (if you have been reading this blog for a while, you know my feelings on Azerbaijan) have made Armenia a bit off the beaten path to those exploring the Caucasus. Roughly 90% of the country’s land borders are closed, meaning one must come from Georgia, Iran, or a bumpy plane from East Europe.
But for me, these reasons absolutely make the case for why one should visit Armenia. Beyond that, the nature is absolutely sublime, and the lack of tourists makes every site you visit feel as if you are its sole discoverer. But to get the most out of Armenia, I believe a car rental is the best way to go.
I love public transport. But Marshrtukas, the local bus “system” in Eastern Europe which are always too tight, drive with a deathwish, and wait until the bus is packed like a can of salted fish before leaving the bus parking lot, are not great for winter in the midst of a pandemic. So, the obvious response is to rent a car. For me, the cheapest place ended up being Caravan Car rental, and to my surprise, the process was incredibly easy. The cheap options, a Lada Niva or a Dacia Logan, are surprisingly good and came with winter tires.
We opted for the Dacia Logan (because it has airbags) and made our way North of Yerevan Zvarnots Airport as soon as we landed. Immediately, we learned that these roads, these streets were no longer Western European.
Countries outside the “west” have a wonderful way of doing math. When we, in the West, see two lanes, we see two lanes. When drivers in many Eastern countries see two lanes, they see five. Driving in Yerevan is most certainly hectic, and you must keep your whits about you 100% of the time if you want to get your rental car deposit back in full.
However, the roads are surprisingly well maintained. Even in the countryside, roads are surprisingly good, and most certainly better than they are elsewhere even in the Caucacus. Traffic is relatively small as well, and most of the time, your biggest traffic jam will be a shepherd with his flock.
Our first stop was the one and only major ski resort town in Armenia, Tsaghkadzor. Covered in the slush of the previous snow, we arrived at our sleepy little hamlet hotel. Snow drifted down daintily in the dark, lit by only a large flood light attached to the roof. There was no main check-in or desk, but after a bit of poking around I found an old man living inside a hobbit hole of the basement. Russian TV blared on the television as he used an old Nokia to call the owner, the only person who spoke any English. His nose red from a combination of the cold and a lifetime of clear alcohol.
When I was connected, the nice owner told me how much to pay and wished me a good trip. We had come here to ski, so I obviously asked how easy it would be to rent some ski equipment. “You want to ski?” She asked. “Sir, there’s not enough snow… you can not ski.”
Time for a Plan K.
We had booked three nights at the ski hotel, expecting to be able to ski. So now I’ve learned to be flexible in Armenia, and I’ve learned that even if the locals on the ground tell you that the ski slopes are open, it may not be true.
But being the intrepid travelers that we were, we powered on and used the three days to explore the country. We left no stone unturned as we visited every major monastery and every dusty Armenian town in between. If stranded in Tsaghkadzor, some easy close destinations include the Hellinistic Temple of Garni, and the monastery built into a cave at Geghard Monastery.
For me, Geghard Monastery was a truly magically Indiana Jones experience. Fat globs of snow drifted down from the sky as we arrived at the temple, driving through a canyon of high cliffs. At the bottom of the cliff sat a small grey wall, and in it a small ancient grey temple with black robed monks. Armenia is quite special in that it was the first country to officially adopt Christianity as a religion, and thus have a very unique approach to Mr. Christ and the art of church building. Armenian temples are cold, devoid of the gold-clad walls and ornamentation or other Eastern-Orthodox churches. Most churches are made of raw earthen or stone walls, and may only feature a small painting of a diety and a few carvings or prayers scratched into the wall surface.
But be wary of the snow, dear reader. Armenia’s response to heavy snowfall is two men in the back of a semi with shovels quickly throwing old asphalt chips onto the road. Roads ice over quickly, drivers drive like maniacs, and winter roads are prone to a good pile up.
Driving back from Geghard Monastery to our skiless ski resort on the main highway, we hardly realized that the road had completely iced over as a thick fog obscured the path ahead. Before I knew it, the people ahead of us who had been driving a brisk Armenian 90 kmh halted to a complete standstill, and they were doing so on an ice rink. Our breaks creaked as I quickly noticed that we were about to hit a wall of cars. I pumped the breaks and luckily the drivers in front of me pulled over to avoid their own collisions, making a small thoroughway for me to needle my ice skating car through. Crisis averted, but those Dacia Logan airbags were sure looking useful if this had gone south.
So if you decide to rent a car in winter in Armenia, be sure of a few things. Know how to drive in a busy city, and know how to drive in the snow and ice. Even a week after the snow, roads were left icey and unplowed.
Besides being able to see every destination by car, Armenia is the perfect size to travel easily. Within six hours, we drove from the northern town of Dilijan down to the peaks of Tatev. Along the way, we found dramatic peaks and gorgeous roads of arid nothingness.
Down in Tatev, one can really go off-the-beaten-path. For example, a well-preserved village of cave dwellers, inhabited as recently as 1952, lay a bumpy gravel drive off the main road in a random city near Tatev. But the experience yielded one of the most genuine, and most under-visited sites we had seen during our trip.
To add to the Indiana Jones effect, we even had to cross a long suspension bridge that swayed precariously with each step.
So rent your car and explore Armenia as thoroughly as physically possible. You won’t regret it. Up next, we explore the chaotic metropolitan capital of Yerevan.