We spend the rest of our Turkish Lira on food & fuel and head to the border. There is a crazy queue, but all goes smoothly. Total process only about an hour, including getting our vehicle insurance for Georgia. We head along the coast stopping at the huge Fort at Gonio. After a quick explore we discuss our route - the mountains or the valley. We took the high road last time – surely the road has improved over the last 13 years, & we can’t resist a mountain. Decision made we are off through the crazy traffic of Batumi towards our road – State Highway No 1!
Lots of traffic as we wind through villages. During one long queue a Swiss girl runs up to meet us. She and her husband are in a 4x4 with a roof tent. We both stop at a little stone bridge to chat. Always fun to meet other overlanders. We may meet again when they reach Australia!
We continue as the road deteriorates into a narrow, winding, rutted & incredibly bad track (it really isn’t a road!). On and on and on. It definitely has not had any work done to it in the last 13 years. We constantly meet or are passed by local minivans – all crazy drivers. Areas of the track have slipped away & we edge along cliffs. All pretty hair-raising. It is getting late… in the end we simply pull over on the side of the road for the night.
Higher & higher we climb on our track (We drive 12km in one hour) until we reach the summit, to find it covered in snow – incredibly deep snow – taller than GR2. Can’t resist a photo or two! Then we head down, passing villages we saw years ago – then they were full of people & had crops growing everywhere – we guess it is a bit early in the season for them to head up here yet. At least our goat track is stony now, although water gushes over it in many places. In the distance we see a church spire and head in to the village of Zarma to find the lovely church – a monk arrives and opens up – the frescoes are gorgeous – totally untouched!
From now on the road is sealed. YAY! What a pleasure. It is still bumpy, but we can finally go faster. There are a few places to stop and explore. First the castle at Akhalstikhe which has been totally renovated – in fact way too renovated for us. Secondly the unrenovated Khertvisi Fortress which we can climb all over. And thirdly, even though it is getting late, the amazing Vardzia Caves. We explore all the tunnels, gawp at the frescoes inside the church, poke into old rooms. Finally, we spend the night in the overflow carpark watching as the floodlights light up the cave city.
Head back out of our valley & follow the river to Akhallealaki, a rather dreary depressing town, where we explore the markets to find bread. Then we spend the rest of our local currency on diesel. Time to head up into the high country to the border. The roads are pretty broken up & the border is in the middle of nowhere. They don’t really know what to do with us, but finally stamp us out and we head to the next challenge: Armenia! All the borders have problems with our Queensland registration papers – they really don’t look official enough, but after quite a few goes they finally enter GR2 into their computer. Then we have to pay an Environmental levy & insurance. They assure us the roads are better here (we beg to differ!) and we are off. This country is new to us so we have lots to learn & explore.
We head south through scruffy villages (we love the fences we see – made of car parts), to the 2nd biggest city – Gyumri. We park and explore on foot. As usual busy markets spill onto the streets and cars are everywhere, but the main plaza area has a few lovely old Armenian churches & some huge official buildings. As we wander the streets we can see lots of old facades saved for future use. Leaving town, we follow the river and find a nice spot for the night. A local family arrive to play soccer, so John joins in the fun.
Today’s destination is the Debed Canyon, but first we stop at the city of Vanadzor. The markets are on so we explore. As usual we try some street food – delicious fried potato fritters. And a good chance to stock up on some fresh fruit & veges. Then on to the canyon. Massive roadworks are under way so the road is broken up and dusty. It means we don’t really appreciate the scenery, but we do stop and explore a few of the Armenian churches – the best we see is at Odzun. At the head of the canyon is the copper mining town of Alaverdi chock full of dilapidated buildings – this town has the most we have seen so far, all remnants of the Russian communist days. Smoke fumes clog the valley from the mine. Amazing! We wind up the mountainside to visit 2 UNESCO listed monasteries. Both are stunning, but my favourite is Hughpat. It always amazes us where the tour bus’s pop up – there are a row of them here - they all had to wind up the same road we did. Then on to visit the Sanatin Monastery before dusk. In the carpark we meet Bert, who has a huge Dutch 4x4 RV. We head out for dinner with him & spend the night in the parking area.
It has rained overnight so there is no dust on our drive back out of the canyon – giving us a chance to enjoy the views. Back at Vanadzor we head south through lush green countryside. The LP mentions some pretty Russian villages, so we take a detour – the first is so sad & scruffy and with such a dirt goat track that we give the other Russian villages a miss. On to the more prosperous town of Dilijan for a quick explore. Something is in the wind. As we leave we see rows of army trucks & then convoys of fancy cars all with flashing lights heading in to town. (more on that later)
Time to head over the mountains and down to Sevan Lake. It is supposed to be a glorious blue – but not today. There are a few more churches to explore (what a surprise – Armenia is full of them) so we dutifully “do” them. Then time to head towards Yerevan on the busy motorway. Nearly there we detour to yet more sights. At Garni a Hellenic Temple & at Geghard another monastery. We stay in the Geghard carpark, ready for an early start in to the city tomorrow.
We rather like visiting large cities on a Sunday. Usually it means traffic is quiet and carparks are easy to find. Well in this case the traffic is OK but carparking is not so easy. After a few goes we park and set off on the LP walking tour. As it is Sunday we visit quite a few churches during their Sunday services. Rather nice to see them so well attended & listen to the music. Wander the streets to the main plaza/square to find a group of lovely buildings set around fountains (and of course there are some good carparks here!). Then on to see the markets – here there are huge numbers of police, soldiers & special unit forces – what is going on? Anyway, we enjoy the lovely craft markets - & no we don’t buy anything. Then a few more churches and lunch in an Armenian traditional restaurant before doing the second part of the LP walking tour. This part is through some fancy streets with various embassies. When I take a photo of the President’s house 2 police come running over – No photos! Woops. My feet are pretty tired by the time we get back to GR2. Time to leave, but we can’t go our planned route as protesters have blocked off our road. So, we head out another way & find another blockage, then another & another. We are forced to go down some narrow back streets to eventually get out. As we finally exit the city we see lines of protestors marching in along the closed roads. Boy are we glad to have got out! Later we discover that there have been huge protests. The President has resigned & there will be elections in a few days’ time.
Guess what’s next. Yes, more churches! First the ruined Cathedral at Zvartnots looking rather like a circle of pillars, then the Holy See of Armenia (up there with the Vatican apparently) – the Mary Tacher cathedral & complex at Echmiadzin. An amazing pilgrimage place. The cathedral is under renovation but we can still see the glorious brightly coloured paintwork that covers the entire interior – breathtaking. We are fully churched out now, so time to move on. Back roads south until we join the motorway. We end our day driving out to Khor Virap which is set on a mountainside with Mt Ararat looming behind it. We camp behind the monastery, with great views of Mt Ararat & Turkey.
Such a magic spot we don’t want to leave. John decides it is a great spot to practise flying his drone – yes right beside the border with Turkey! By the time we leave there are busloads of tourists already at the monastery. We continue south through wine growing areas, then nearly at the border of Azerbaijan turn & head east. Some of our drive today actually takes us through Azerbaijan territory – pretty crazy. On and on we head passing lots of snowy mountains. We hadn’t planned on any more monasteries but can’t resist driving through a rocky gorge to see yet another one at Noravank. Here parking is at a premium & buses are crammed in. Then on to Sisian where John spies a potential wrecking yard – he is on the hunt for his Armenian no plate. Score: the lovely family give him one and coffee! So out come some kangaroo hat pins and soft koalas for the kids, no English here at all. Next the ancient stones at Zorats Karar. Here we meet a Russian family who have promised John a Russian no plate when we get to Moscow. And our final destination of the day, Tatev Gorge. There is a cable car ride that glides over the massive gorge - we plan to do the touristy thing and go on it. By the time we arrive just after 6pm it has just closed for the day, so we head deep in to the gorge for the night. At 9am in the morning we wait impatiently in line for tickets - we can’t get on until nearly 12, so decide not to be tourists today. Time for the long drive to the border with lots more mountain driving. The road continually twists & turns as we climb up and down mountains.
Hours and hours later we finally reach the border……Iran here we come.