Our Armenian adventure started in Yerevan, traced a circle around the northern cities of Gyumri, Vanadzor (with a day trip to the Debed Canyon) and Dilijan, before returning to Yerevan. We were struck by quite how different the capital was compared with the rest of the country – Yerevan felt developed and had no shortage of fashionable restaurants and cafes, while the rest of Armenia felt much quieter in comparison. Still, I’m really glad we travelled beyond Yerevan to get a more balanced view of the country.
We travelled exclusively by local buses and long distance marshrutky in Armenia, with the exceptions of our train ride between Yerevan and Gyumri and a late night taxi to Yerevan airport.
Our travel in Armenia emitted a little more than half of the carbon resulting from our travel in Georgia. This was due to both travelling more distance by train in Armenia, while also travelling less distance overall. Still, this didn’t seem to save us any time, as we spent just over 23 hours in transit in both countries.
This brings our total carbon emissions since leaving London up to 786 kgCO2e, and increasingly close to the 1,000 kgCO2e minimum offset size.
Although we spent less money in Armenia than any other country so far, I was surprised that our spend per day in Armenia was slightly higher than it was in Georgia. This seems to be due to a slightly higher proportion of our spend on transport and accommodation, since we travelled more distance per day in Armenia, while also making the most of Yerevan, a real foodie city.
Armenia just managed to beat Georgia, coming in with 6.2 cats per day. At this point I’m wondering if anywhere will come close to Greece or Turkey.
And now it’s time to call out our animal highlights…
🏅Cutest used car salesperson
🏅Furriest water fountain Visitor
🏅flirtiest bus station attendant
Our friends from the Tbilisi-Yerevan sleeper train gave us a whole list of food, drink and restaurants to try while we were in Armenia, and we were nothing if not obedient. The most impressive of these was probably Ghapama, which consists of a pumpkin filled with rice, dried fruit and buttery fried flat bread. This was beautifully presented at the Lavash Restaurant, where the top of the pumpkin was removed, the sides sliced and the whole thing opened up like a flower.
This concluded our brief 10 day tour of Armenia, and also our time in the Caucasus. Now only 200 km of Caspian Sea and 400 km of semi-arid steppe separated us from the Silk Road city of Khiva, Uzbekistan.
We’d read lots of nice things about Yerevan and it’s been on my to-visit list for a while, but I was still a bit surprised to find that it turned out to be one of those rare places we’ve visited where we both agreed that we could happily live.
We arrived from Dilijan on our wedding anniversary without any firm plans but with a few restaurants in mind for a fancier-than-usual dinner that evening, and immediately found out that even Monday evenings in Yerevan are lively! We eventually found a table at Abovyan 12, another excellent recommendation from our Tbilisi – Yerevan train friends, and proceeded to order half the menu. I was pretty confident we could handle it all until the waiter finished writing down our order and then asked whether we were expecting anyone to join us. Whoops! Anyway, it was a really nice meal and we washed it down with a bottle of pomegranate wine, an Armenian speciality.
The next day, we set out to explore the Cascade complex, a rather unusual area of central Yerevan that combines an enormous flight of 750 steps, terraced fountains, and an underground art gallery. Dotted around the whole complex are a huge number of art installations, and from the top there is a panoramic view of Yerevan, and on a clear day, across to Mount Ararat. In typical style, we didn’t make it to the top until fairly late in the day, and the afternoon haze meant we could only see a faint outline of the mountain. Still, it was an excellent view and a fun area to explore.
We spent the rest of the day walking around central Yerevan and appreciating the beautiful rose-coloured stone from which much of the city is built.
At one point, we found ourselves in the English Park. We’re still not quite sure what gave it its name (confusingly, it is sandwiched between the French and Italian Embassies) but I did lose Oli for a minute…
On our second full day, our main agenda item was to visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. We spent a sobering few hours learning about the events of 1915, the historical context that lead up to the atrocities, and the events following. It was truly horrendous and there are many lessons that we still need to learn today. Like visiting other similar museums and memorials around the world, it didn’t make for a fun morning, but it did feel like a very important part of understanding Armenia and we were glad that we had taken the time to visit.
Anticipating that we would need some mood repair, Oli had planned a very different activity for the afternoon, and so we made our way to the Yerevan Brandy Company for a tour and tasting. Planned is actually quite a strong word, since it turned out that we should have booked online, but thankfully the staff took pity on our sad little faces when they told us this and managed to squeeze us onto a tour.
The tour itself was super slick and I really enjoyed it, but everyone knows these kinds of attractions are all about the tasting, so imagine my alarm when I discovered that I really, really don’t like neat brandy! I think Oli was ashamed to be seen with me and quickly finished off my glasses as well as his own.
Our flight to Aktau was departing after midnight so we had lots of time to kill on our third day. We began at the Blue Mosque, Armenia’s only remaining mosque. We’d read that neighbouring Iran has been given access to restore and run the mosque, and in a reciprocal arrangement, Armenia has been able to restore several churches that sit on Iranian soil. We were welcomed warmly and even met a couple of resident cats in the beautiful garden courtyard.
After a lunch of Georgian khinkali (we just can’t get enough), we headed on a walk through the Kond Pedestrian Tunnel to reach the Hrazdan Gorge. Based on what we’d read, we were expecting lots of couples out for romantic strolls, but actually it was just quite dodgy! It was very dimly lit, the sides of the tunnel were bowing slightly and there were some small areas where it had actually caved in – I was very pleased to get out the other side.
Once again, Yerevan surprised us here. As well as the rushing river and autumnal trees in the gorge, we came across the Children’s Railway, a miniature station building, trains and track that were built in Soviet times to allow children to learn about engineering. Like many things in Armenia, it embodied faded grandeur (or maybe in this case, more like faded fun) and was in need of some love. But still, it was an amazingly inventive facility and apparently is still in use during the summer months, despite being a little rough round the edges. We certainly had a great time nosing around the train carriages, admiring the bird-themed stained glass windows in the station building and wandering along the track.
Finally, after some drinks and dinner at the lovely Mirzoyan Library and some time watching the dancing fountains in Republic Square, we reluctantly headed to the airport (we genuinely were not very enthusiastic about the thought of flying after a relaxed few months on ground transport).
Joining the ranks of stupid things that formerly frequent flyers have done at airport security post-Covid (I’ve heard a few good stories from people), Oli unintentionally brought through a Swiss army knife AND a full picnic cutlery set in his hand baggage. The security staff were not impressed (unsurprisingly) but somehow in the end didn’t confiscate them! I can’t say this gave me much confidence for what else people might have been able to bring onto the flight…
Luckily, as you can probably guess, we lived to tell the tale and were very excited to be off to Central Asia! First stop: Aktau, Kazakhstan.
Dilijan is a town in Armenia’s Lesser Caucasus mountains, most famous for its position within the eponymous 240 km2 national park. The region’s alpine landscape and quaint towns have earned it the (slightly questionable) nickname of the Switzerland of Armenia. We were staying in Dilijan’s old town; a small collection of wood and stone buildings, separated by cobbled streets already draped in autumn colours.
Surrounding the old town were a real mix of modern residential and commercial buildings, alongside the crumbling Soviet concrete to which we were starting to grow accustomed. Within a stone’s throw from our hotel was a columned amphitheatre, an ornate stone staircase flanked by lions and a long abandoned building (all pictured below).
Dilijan also had its fair share of monuments. These included three chaps from the 1977 Soviet movie Mimino standing around a water fountain (left), and the colossal monument to the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia (right).
But the main reason we were here was to explore the Dilijan National Park on foot. With few circular trails available, we opted to take a taxi to Parz Lake; an understandably popular lake situated in the mountains, before walking a mountain trail back to Dilijan. This taxi ride was almost noteworthy for how straightforward it was. The driver opened fare negotiations with a price I’d read was typical online, which almost never happens. In fact, I rarely achieve the price I’ve read about online even after a stressful negotiation. On top of that, the vehicle was modern and largely undamaged, the driver was careful, and knew exactly where we wanted to go. It was all too easy.
While I’d hoped the taxi ride would allow us to skip some of the elevation gain of the 12.5 km hike, a closer inspection of the elevation graph below shows that we only started 78 m above our end point, and we still had nearly half a kilometre of vertical gain before we reached the walk’s highest point. This all felt vaguely familiar – I’m sure one day we’ll find an easy downhill stroll!
While the lake was fairly busy, we met very few other hikers on the trail. The path itself was relatively easy to follow despite the carpet of leaves which covered most of the mountainside. We popped in and out of cloud as we went, and the damp landscape was full of vegetation, including some shiny black fungi which caught our eye.
At the highest point of the hike, the forest ended abruptly at an alpine meadow, which I’m sure would have had spectacular views if we weren’t in dense cloud. To make matters worse, the GPS on my phone stopped updating, so you can imagine our relief when we managed to pick out one of the few-and-far between way-markers through the thick fog. Re-entering the forest on the opposite side of the meadow, we came across a sign warning us of wild bears, which gave us a new danger to look out for as the visibility had improved.
The route down to Dilijan was similarly autumnal, with both the trees and cloud ensuring that the town didn’t emerge until the final moment.
Just as we reached Dilijan we came across a crumbling concrete “rotonda”, which I believe was the predecessor to the columned amphitheatre pictured at the top of this post.
With our loop of northern Armenia nearly complete, we were ready to return to Yerevan, this time for three nights instead of our previous 60 minutes. Although it was our last stop in the Caucasus, Yerevan stole our hearts immediately, and was the unexpected highlight of our time in Georgia and Armenia.