Monasteries of the Lori bend
Hotel: SIL Hotel (Yerevan, Armenia) $75
Visa at border: $30
$1 USD = 440 Armenian Dram
We arrived at the Ortachala bus station this morning around 7:30 AM. The minibus to Yerevan was scheduled to depart at 8AM ($12.50). We were only planning on going as far as Alaverdi, in Armenia, to visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Sanahin and Haghput. We arrived at the border around 9:30; the driver asked if we had visas for Armenia, he then let us go through the border post ahead of the others when we motioned that we would be buying them on the Armenian side. We walked across the bridge into Armenia, there was a small building where we paid our $30 for the visa, then back to the guard hut where they waved us in. All told it took about 45 minutes for immigration on both sides. Armenia was also an hour ahead of Georgia; meaning it was now 11:15. The town of Alaverdi lay another 20 miles past the border; in the lovely Debed river canyon. We passed the entrance to Haghpat Monastery, then came to the town of Alaverdi, a really impoverished Soviet industrial city, with a somewhat functional copper mine. Unfortunately the driver dropped us off in the edge of town, there was nothing there no taxis, buses or anything. We started walking towards the center of town when a big Volga taxi passed us by, we flagged him down and he agreed to take us to the monasteries for $12. We needed to go into town to change money and grab some snacks, he took us to the bank and market. The Volga was cool looking, something like a cross between an old 60’s style Lincoln and the batmobile. The drive back to Haghpat took about 20 minutes, climbing up to where the monastery stood on the edge of the canyon. On the way up the hill we noticed many public springs, it is an Armenian tradition to dedicate a spring in honor of a deceased family member. The view from the monastery was stunning; the weather was perfect. Both monasteries were built around 1000 AD, and the style of the churches was slightly different from those we saw in Georgia. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century AD, there are many other ancient churches throughout the country. They have their own church, similar to Eastern Orthodox. We were the only tourists there, at supposedly one of the most popular sites in Armenia! We wandered around the grounds and inside the church for awhile before heading back to Alaverdi and the Sanahin monastery, but this wasn’t quite as impressive a setting as it was surrounded by trees and crumbling Soviet apartments. Our driver had offered to take us all the way to Yerevan for $50, it seemed a good deal for over 120 miles! We stopped at a small roadside barbecue place for lunch, and had some of the best kebab so far; already we were liking Armenia for the scenery, roads, and now food! After passing Vanadzor we stopped for fuel, this is when we realized that most of the vehicles in Armenia run on methane. The Volga had two huge gas cylinders in the trunk, we stepped back from the car alarmingly when the valves started hissing loudly! The drive to Yerevan took another couple hours, including a few minutes stop along the edge of Lake Sevan, where there are several popular lakeside resorts. The drive from Lake Sevan to Yerevan was very quick; it was expressway all the way. Our driver did not know Yerevan, so he dropped us at the edge of town where we caught a taxi to one of the hotels listed in the Lonely Planet. We arrived at the hotel, which was located in a dodgy part of town, only to find it was full. The taxi driver then took us to the SIL Hotel, then conveniently overcharged us for the privilege! The SIL was a bit more expensive than we had hoped ($90), and so we tried to find another hotel, but every place we called was completely full! The SIL desk came down to $75, which we decided to accept if only for one night. It did turn out to be a good location, just two blocks from a metro station, and about a 10 minute walk to Republic Square. We found an excellent restaurant nearby with delicious kebab. The bill for all 4 of us, with beer, water, kebab and steak was barely $20! Afterwards, we walked over to Republic Square, where we sat for awhile watching the local pace of life go by. There quite a cafe culture here, with hundreds of cafes. Yerevan almost has a Latin feel, with all the cute girls, cafes, and hip hop videos playing in the cafes. We stopped in one of the cafes off the square for an ice cream and an Armenian brandy, while watching all the people pass by. Yerevan was one of the first cities we’d seen in the Caucasus with families out, a lot more progressive with men walking with their children, teenagers hanging out, etc. It seemed a very safe and comfortable place. Everyone was very well dressed and wearing stylish clothes. Armenia has alot of money coming in from the diaspora, and it shows.