Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tight-ass backpacking in Armenia

The concept of backpacking is simple: exploring the world by carrying all your stuff in a backpack. And usually, most backpackers have more time than money and therefore travel as cheap as possible. But to travel ultra-cheap, by doing things like hitchhiking, sleeping outside and following a diet consisting instant-noodles for breakfast, lunch and diner has a different meaning. My Bulgarian travelpartner Kalin gave it a name: Tight-ass backpacking. And Armenia I will remember as a country where I virtually travelled all the way this style. Read the following story and find out why.
After hitchhiking to the Armenian border from Tbilisi, we got our Armenian visas straight away for a fee of $30. But as it was late allready and getting dark, hitchhiking into the country wasn't easy. Kalin and I finally managed to get a ride to a gasstation in the middle of nowhere and, luckily, soon after a second lift to Haghpat monastery. We stayed in a small hotel next to the monastery, where we enjoyed a gorgious Armenian diner. The morning after we saw the pretty monastery and walked down towards the main road after. On the way, a priest from the monastery picked us up and brought us to the first real town: Alaverdi. In that place we bought a honeymelon for lunch and figured out what to do next. At the same time, a bus full of Dutch 'Golden-Age' tourists was stopping next to us. I went into the bus and asked the tourguide if we could join their group to whatever place they where going to. However, the guide refused us at first, but came back to us later and invited us to join the tourgroup until lake Sevan.
So, we enjoyed a nice free busride with airconditioning and free information about the area from the guide. Also we stopped in Haghartsin monastery and made it to lake Sevan that evening. Sevan is one of the highest lakes in the world, lying at 1900m above sea-level. Only downside of Sevan is, that it's a touristic place (domestic tourism) and that accomodation is expensive. So, we decided to sleep outside. We walked towards Sevan-peninsula, saw the amazing monastery overthere and dropped our backpacks in a nice piece of grass. The night was very painfull and cold though, as we were sleeping on some rocks and I only had a thin sleepingbag. But who's free.
As expected, we woke up early and walked to the main road. We hitchhiked to the capital Yerevan after, where we arrived around 10 o'clock. In Yerevan we had a long walk to the first metrostation and we saw some nasty dogs doing 'exercise' (shagging) on the sidewalk. My first impressions of Yerevan were not quite positive. The Armenian capital is very polluted and quite a boring city, there is nothing much to see and it is a big city like any other. However, I enjoyed staying in the capital a lot, because we found a very cheap place to stay. We stayed in the ghetto-area of Yerevan, in a small homestay for as little as 1250 dram (less than 3 euro). Our room had two U-shaped beds, there was no running water, a bucket-shower with cold water, free coffee and another guy staying there who spended twice in jail and had been deported from Russia for an unknown reason..... But again, who cares, it is cheap and we enjoyed our VIP-accomodation for five days in total.
The next day in Yerevan, we did some walking around and we met a British guy with whom we drunk a couple of beers in the evening. The day that followed, we woke up in our royal-suite, took a metro to the centre and went by marshrutka to Echmiadzin, a place 20km west of Yerevan. Echmiadzin is the holy-see of Armenian christianity and we saw the impressive church there. Like in Georgia, Armenians are deeply religious and this was quite visable in Echmiadzin. We didn't stayed long though and catched another marshrutka back to the capital around 5pm. Back in Yerevan we ate some cheap lahmacun and went back to our homestay. The following day we made another daytrip, we went by bus south to a church called Khor Virap. The church is beautifully situated with views on the holy Armenian mountain Ararat. It is an amazing place with gorgious views on the surrounding areas. Inside the church we met a guy holding a chicken and a knife. Kalin talked with him and the guy told us that they brought the chicken to sacrifice it. We saw the slaughtering of the chicken after and one of the women draw a cross on our foreheads with the chicken's blood (see my picture). Quite an amazing experience. On the way back, we hitched to the main road, where we bought and ate a melon. Soon after we hitchhiked back to Yerevan, together with a nice guy in a Samara.
The next day, we haven't done much. I took a bucket-shower and washed my clothes by hand. Kalin and I played lots of chess, drunk a beer and ate some kebab on the blazingly hot day. In the evening we met Yoav, an Israeli backpacker who is a friend of Kalin and who I met in Tbilisi and Kazbegi. We had diner together with Yoav and played a dice game in the night. The morning after started with lots of coffee and hanging around in our homestay. We had kebab for breakfast and walked in the city centre towards the busstop. I left Kalin and Yoav around 4pm, with a bus to Ashtarak, 30km west of Yerevan. The rest of the day I hitchhiked to Georgia. I got a ride for about 50km to a town named Talin and after half an hour waiting a second lift 10km further. The guy from my second lift felt sorry for me and insisted I took 2000 dram (6$) from him, amazing. Also, the same man arranged a third lift for me to the northern Armenian city Gyumri. On the way the driver pulled over because of a huge hailstrom. The weather completely changed and it rained hailbricks as big as rice. Finally, we made it to Gyumri and the driver brought me to the end of town, so I was able to hitchhike further. The main problem was, that it was getting dark allready and almost no cars passed by. Luckily, I got a ride from 4 funny guys and they decided to bring me all the way to the border. Around 9.30pm I crossed the shithole border Bavra into Georgia and got a ride from two big maffia-type of guys to the first real Georgian town Ninotsminda. The guys where absolute bastards: big, fat, chainsmoking guys, with kind of a gangster attitude. They were nice to me however and brought me to a cheap hotel in Ninotsminda. I payed 5 lari (3 dollar) for a bed and a beer in the hotel, which is even cheaper than the place in Yerevan. I slept early, because I intended to travel far the next day.