Editor’s note: This is the first part of the trip by Jennie going from Yerevan, to Tbilisi.
“It’s the halfway point,” Hardeep said. I could hear the grin in his voice over the phone. It was Yerevan, Armenia, where he was going for a friend’s wedding in a month or so.
I’d met Hardeep at a Couchsurfing meeting in Sydney while making my way round the coast of Australia in 2012. Since then, he’d moved back to his native India and I’d moved back to Manchester, and although we’d stayed in touch online, we hadn’t actually seen each other.
“Halfway point – we should meet there,” he continued, joking as he usually did.
“Maybe we should.”
My planned trip to China was out. I’d waited for other people and ended up without enough time to get a visa, and now I was looking at six weeks off work with nothing to do. Or put another way, total freedom to do…well, things like let a joke turn into a plan.
Half an hour later, I’d booked a one-way ticket to Yerevan, let my friend Oksanka in Lviv, Ukraine know that I was going to take her up on her offer to host me after all, and started scouring the internet for clues on how to get from one to the other.
Six days in Yerevan didn’t feel long enough. Hardeep picked me up from the airport in a taxi and barely gave me time to throw my backpack into the Airbnb before we were off to the nearby town of Vagharshapat to see the sights.
Over the next few days, we wandered round the beautiful ancient town, seeing museums, tasting the local coffee and trying to work out what, if anything, a vegetarian could eat in the local restaurants (answer: usually something pretty delicious).
On my final day in Yerevan I said goodbye to Hardeep and took a taxi to the Central Bus Station, also known as the Kilikia Bus Station after the local brand of beer. A travel blog had suggested that was the place to find the minibus to Tbilisi.
Pulling into the forecourt, the taxi driver stopped short and rolled down his window, shouting out to a passing bus driver in Armenian. The other man shook his head in evident confusion, gesturing around at the buses. The taxi driver shook his head, twisting back over his shoulder to speak to me.
“Sorry. No bus here, no bus Tbilisi.”
The trip was clearly off to a very promising start. I groaned and insisted.
“Please could you ask someone else? It’s a marshrutka. To Tbilisi.”
Shaking his head at the crazy tourist, he sighed and wound down the window again. This time, the man he asked nodded sagely, pointing round to the far side of the U-shaped bus station.
Scrambling out of the car into the hot July air with a sigh of relief and thanking the driver profusely, I glanced along the shop fronts until I saw the sign for Comfort Tours.
The smiling lady in the fridge-like office told me to be ready in 45 minutes. The journey was supposed to take about six hours, and the accounts I’d read online suggested bringing food and drink, so I slipped off to a little supermarket at the entrance to the bus station for water and some snacks to keep me going along the way.
By the time I made it back with a bulging bag full of snacks, a shiny Mercedes minibus had pulled up in front of the ticket office. All its doors were wide open as the driver, a kind-faced young man, helped a pair of backpackers load their bags into the storage space behind the seats.
Peering in, I saw to my dismay that the seats were all full. Before I could panic too much that the bus had been oversold and I would either be left behind or have to spend a six-hour journey on a stranger’s lap, the driver swung my bag into the boot and led me straight to the front passenger seat.
The minibus was spotless inside, with plush pleather seats and fully functioning air conditioning. It was a huge contrast to the little marshrutka Hardeep and I had taken back from Gyumri the day before, the ancient peeling fuzz of the nylon seats gradually releasing decades’ worth of cigarette smoke and sweat as twenty of us crowded into a seventeen-seat vehicle with the only air circulation coming from the driver’s open window.
Now, I imitated the driver and put down my window to let in the breeze as the Sprinter glided clear of the bus station’s shade and into the scorching Armenian sun. Shortly afterwards, amid the exhaust fumes and honking of Yerevan’s traffic, he leaned across, put the windows up and turned the air conditioning on full-blast. The bus-load of us, almost all tourists except for one Armenian man who occasionally leaned out from the seat behind me to chat to the driver, exchanged stories and basked in the cool draught as the minibus glided clear of the suburbs and onto the highway.
An hour later, we turned a corner and a brilliant flash of blue appeared between the two hills to the right – the glorious aquamarine water of Lake Sevan. Sadly, we didn’t get to stop, but we got a fantastic view of the lake anyway, rolling along past little makeshift stalls selling rubber rings, swimsuits and cold drinks. As I raised my phone to take a photo through the window, the bus slowed, and I wondered if I had been mistaken about stopping. Then I noticed the driver smiling at me.
“Okay?” he asked, gesturing at the phone, and I realised he had slowed down so I could take pictures of the lake. “You want to take pictures, just let me know,” he said cheerfully, looking into the rearview mirror to make sure everyone understood.
About half an hour after leaving Lake Sevan behind, we crunched over gravel to pull off at a literal gas station. Many cars in Armenia run on natural gas rather than petrol. We waited in a square concrete block with plastic seats beside a small cafe, while the driver filled up the compressed gas tank in the boot. Walking round the corner to take advantage of the facilities, I found a startlingly beautiful view – the village of Tsovagyukh spread out across the valley below.
Back out front, a young German couple stood sipping cold drinks in the sun. I joined them, swapping stories of places we had seen in Armenia and plans for the road ahead.
Shortly afterwards, we piled back into the Sprinter and set off again, winding between forested hills and dusty grasslands, zig-zagging down tiny switchback roads past isolated stalls selling steamed corncobs and fresh fruit, and guesthouse signs swinging gently in the breeze. At one point we passed road works, where ancient dusty-blue Soviet-era lorries hauled loads of gravel back and forth amid the pungent stink of hot tar.
Descending into the town of Dzharkhech, brown cows meandered amiably across the our path, apparently completely unfazed by the bus bearing down on the them.
At about 4pm, we pulled over at a supermarket and bakery on the outskirts of Ijevan, a small town in the Gugark Mountains. It was a good chance to get something to eat, attempt to convince a vending machine to spit out a coffee, and grab any last-minute souvenirs. Although I had worried about finding vegetarian-friendly food, the baker surprised me with a delicious mushroom and cheese pastry. I took it outside with my coffee and a paper bag of souvenir magnets for my family back home, and tucked in at the tall bar-style table.
We carried on into the setting sun, the land getting wider and drier as the bus moved out into broad uplands. Little stone villages and quaint churches dotted the open grasslands around us, all of them an invitation to return someday when I could stop and wander through them.
As the Mercedes grumbled up a steep slope out of the valley, the driver squinted and groped for his visor. I leaned over to pull it down for him and was rewarded with a beaming smile. We talked for a while, although my total lack of Armenian and his limited English restricted the conversation to the basics. The road comes extremely close to the Azerbaijan border here; however we didn’t encounter a single border guard or even a bit of barbed wire or a sign.
Crossing into Georgia at the Sadakhlo/Bagratashen border point was surprisingly easy. We had to get out of the car to get our passports stamped at the Armenian border control, get back in, drive a few minutes across the no-man’s land in the middle, then repeat the whole process to enter Georgia (taking our bags out of the bus and carrying them through the border control both times).
Safely in Georgia, we sat waiting at the roadside while the driver made his way through the slow crawl of car inspections, watching a couple of local men throw crusts to a trio of hopeful stray dogs.
Darkness fell as we drove away. Outside the windows, the cosy lights of scattered homes and shops flitted by, old ladies selling fruit under tarpaulin roofs, families eating dinner at street-side restaurants. The sky began to cloud over ominously.
“There’ll be a thunderstorm” said the driver, pointing to the sky. I looked at him in surprise. It had been wall-to-wall sunshine all day.
Sure enough, the storm came within an hour. As we flew down a wide empty motorway on the mountainside above Tbilisi, the city lights glimmering in the valley below, with all the windows open and the wind hammering in our ears, great forks and sheets of purple lightning split the sky. The entire busload of passengers were glued wide-eyed to the windows. The scene was incredible, although unfortunately my phone battery was too low by then to take any photos.
The storm was over by the time we reached the city. Tbilisi felt more touristy than Yerevan. It was still charming. It bustled happily in the damp evening air, full of people off for dinner or a taste of the famous Georgian wine.
We stopped off here and there to drop people off at their hotels and guesthouses, until, by the time the bus pulled in at the roadside in the Ortachala district a little after 8pm, I was the only one left. Sliding stiffly down from my seat, I thanked the driver and said goodbye.
“Have lovely stay in Georgia,” he replied happily. “Maybe I’ll come to UK too someday!”
After a quick stop to take out lari at an ATM, I found a taxi to take me on to my Couchsurfing host in Didi Digomi, my head still full of mountain vistas, squat churches and violet lightning.
Read the next post in the series here, or check below for information on booking the trip yourself!
Departs: Central /Kilikia bus station, Admiral Isakov Ave, Yerevan, Armenia.(Կիլիկիա ավտոբուսի կայարան, Ծովակալ Իսակովի պողոտա, Երևան in Armenian) The Comfort office is to the left-hand side as you approach the bus station from the street.
Arrives: Gorgasali St, Ortachala District, Tbilisi
Journey time: approx. 6.5 – 7 hrs, including comfort breaks, refuelling and crossing the border.
Departures: Daily, 8:30, 10:30, 13:00, 15:00, and 17:00 (as of July 2019). However, they do leave once they fill up.
Price: 8000 AMD (as of July 2019)
Tickets available: In person at the Comfort office in Kilikia Bus Station, open 08:00-17:00. Alternatively, phone +374 44 06 55 55 or +374 91 96 55 55 or e-mail email@example.com.
Border crossing: Bagratashen (Armenia) / Sadakhlo (Georgia)
Rest stops: seems to be fairly flexible. One at Tsovagyukh gas station approx. 1 hour in, one at Ijevan about 2 hours in, one at border crossing. Food/drinks/toilets available.
All information correct as of July 2019. We recommend checking the latest departures before your journey.