It feels funny to escape from Málaga. After all, it’s what most people consider a tourist resort, and with good reason. I am lucky enough to think of it as Winter Home (for now)… and sometimes, you need to escape your home!
I decided to return to Ronda: a place I visited on my 2016 exploration trip to Málaga. Back then I was only there for a few hours, and felt I didn’t have enough time. The bridge is famous, and is quite amazing. I resolved to return and do a proper walk around ‘the ridge’. Four years later, then, it was time to return.
I booked a night in a fairly cheap hotel that was classically Spanish styled – especially their restaurant. The room was away from traffic noise, and had a modern bathroom. I found a coach company I had not heard of before, that took me on the 2 hour journey up. We passed through some pretty stunning countryside, allowing me to take a few more notes of places I’d like to come back to ‘one day’ – hopefully in less than four years!
I had arrived in time for a sunset view, and a wander around the old town. Then it was time for some food 🙂 But first, a craft ale and some rock tunes. A good discovery. After, we found a great tapas bar. I had a Ribera red wine, and numerous tapas that were all around the €1.50 level. Great service too. Perfect.
Then, the walk. Well, walk of my own making, as it seems there was no official path around ‘the ridge’. Going off via San Francisco Barrio I soon lost any path, and was in the middle of a field looking at the famous bridge from miles away, with just the birds for company, perched in the shade on a rocky outcrop. I ventured towards a tower back on the ‘ridge’, up through an olive grove that felt pretty ancient, then picked up the trail towards the distinctive oak trees that perched on top of the hill. This style of tree can be found atop a lot of ridges in the region, and always call to me to go and sit in their shade. On the top was a cluster of #vanlife folk, with one of the best views in the area. I proceeded onwards to a small chapel that had been built at one end of this ridge, before again having to make my own path…this time down the side of a pretty steep hillside. Not really recommended!
Picking up the road at the bottom, I was amused to find it going through a stream. With the sun out strong that day, it was actually pretty refreshing to walk through it without shoes and socks, and I dried off quickly. Sadly, the nearby winery didn’t seem to be open, and anyway it says to book in advance on their website. Probably for the best, as I had a train to catch out of town.
Arriving back in the centre of Ronda, the main square was alive with people celebrating Andalusia Day. I was just in time for a cana and a couple of small sandwiches sitting at my hotel bar, before heading out of town on the train.
Wandering through a goods yard was not exactly the way I had expected my voyage on the UkrFerry sailing to Odessa to begin, but that was precisely what I found myself doing. Picking my way across the rutted mud between truck cabs, I searched for signs for the passenger terminal. A man with a backpack passed me, striding purposefully towards the little yard I had seen from the flyover. Abandoning my search, I followed him, hoping he knew where he was going better than I did. A few minutes’ walking and a quick hop across the railway line which served the port brought us to the small yard, where an assortment of backpackers and locals sat about, reorganising their luggage or sipping coffee in paper cups from the tiny convenience store tucked into the wall. I joined a pair of Georgian truckers at the window and asked for a coffee then settled down on a wooden bench next to a grandmother surrounded by woven plastic bags, watching a couple with backpacks and dreadlocks play with a joyously panting dog.
After about an hour, the gate in the iron grille slid open, and we poured through it towards the ship. Passport control was a kiosk in the open air, where we queued through a turnstile as if we were waiting to go on to an amusement park ride. One by one, we held out our documents to be stamped and were nodded out on to the loading ramp with a variation on “We hope you liked us, come back soon.” Standing at the base of the loading ramp, I unsuccessfully scoured the area for the foot passenger entry. The same man I had followed through the truck yard passed me and walked straight up the main on-ramp, which I had assumed was the vehicle entry. A security guard nodded amiably at him, so I followed him once more, and soon found myself in the bowels of the ship, heading up an oil-scented staircase to the reception.
Once at the top, I exchanged my passport for the key to my cabin. I had booked a bed in an ensuite 2-berth with a window, which I would be sharing with a fellow female traveller. The cabin bore the marks of many renovations, here a built-in control for a radio of which there was no trace, there a switch that flipped but controlled nothing. Overall, the cabin was fairly basic but comfortable. After hanging my clothes in the rack and putting my toiletries in the bathroom cabinet, I headed up on to the deck.
After about half an hour, my watch showed 1pm, the time we had been told lunch would be served in the dining room. I went down to the reception, and found the dining room doors shut and a variety of passengers milling hungrily around. After waiting fifteen minutes, I approached the reception, where the man on the desk told me the ship ran on Ukrainian time. That was an hour behind Georgian, so I resigned my rumbling stomach to waiting and went back on deck.
A fresh sea breeze was blowing, and the weather, although not as sunny as the day before, looked settled. The online horror story about the girl who got stuck in the port for five days because of a storm started to recede from my mind. I leaned on the rail with the wind flipping through my hair and looked up at the distant hills holding the church I had walked to without a plan one day. A thud from below made me look down. Lorries had started to be loaded, and one had broken loose from its moorings and started to roll backwards. Shouting, the driver scrambled into the cab and slammed on the brakes while another hurried to re-secure the wheels.
Walking into the dining room an hour later, I looked around for the buffet every traveller’s report online had told me would be there. However, bowls of soup and plates loaded with roast chicken and mashed potatoes sat ready-made at each place. Thankfully, when I explained the situation, the kind but extremely straightforward lady in charge of the dining room was happy to swap my plate for a buckwheat and mixed vegetable pilaf. Feeling guilty for not having known the food was table service and for causing difficulty for the ship’s staff, I sat down with my allocated table mates. Only one person on the table spoke more than rudimentary English, so we resorted to a camaraderie made almost entirely of smiles, and awkward pantomimes to communicate things like needing the pepper or asking for another bread roll. The older couple sitting next to me, also vegetarian, took great care of me, insisting that I take the spare orange left over from dessert and generally treating me like an unexpected daughter.
Back in the cabin, I got to meet the woman I’d be sharing it with. A former government worker from Hong Kong, the riots had been the last straw that pushed her to leave on a round-the-world backpacking trip she had been dreaming of for years. She had already completed a marathon in North Korea and travelled through most of the countries in South-East Asia and India. I sat with my mouth wide open stuck halfway between envy and admiration, listening hungrily to her stories until she decided to take another look outside.
Despite having been told to board at 10am, we were still in port at Batumi. It was now about four in the afternoon. Hanging off the back deck, we watched an elderly goods train rumble up track in the middle of the loading ramp and into the ship, followed by more lorries. At around five, there was a heave, and the ferry began to chug gently away from the dock. I watched as the shoreline receded, docks and beaches and pleasure boats fading gently into a watercolour in the twilight.
The following day dawned cloudlessly blue. After breakfast, I ordered a coffee from the bar and sat sipping espresso in the sun on the back deck, enjoying the morning breeze and chatting to a group of four German girls who were backpacking through the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The Greifswald was a small ship, without any of the amenities found on larger vessels. The only public areas were the dining room, a seating area around the reception, and the outside decks, and there was no wifi, shop or place to take out cash. It was an excellent chance to switch off, get to know the people around me, meditate, read and journal. The day passed in a lazy blur, lying on the top deck in the hot sun like a seal on a rock, or sitting with my arms crossed leaning on the rail, staring into the cloud-pictures thrown up by the churning foam beneath.
Towards sunset, there was a shout of “Dolphins!” from someone on the starboard side. Everyone rushed over to look. Amid the sparkling waters of the Black Sea, sleek dark bodies leapt from the waves, one after another. The man next to me exclaimed something excited but incomprehensible, clearly aimed at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Ah, English,” he replied cheerfully. “Beautiful, yes?” he added, pointing to the dolphins. He turned out to be a truck driver from the Ukraine, and this was a regular route for him. As the sun set into the sea, he described the cars he’d bought in Georgia, and the home he hoped to one day build for a family, and I described my life in England, my job, my friends in Manchester as the coast of Sevastopol drifted by in the hazy distance. In the end, the dinner tannoy ended the conversation, and we both headed downstairs to our respective tables. The meals on board consisted of a bowl of soup to start, followed by something of the meat, potatoes and two veg variety, and fruit for dessert. The vegetarian option was usually vegetable soup, the starch and veg without the meat, and fruit as well. I barely needed to touch the extra supplies I had brought along in case of getting stranded at sea, although I did tuck into the hazelnuts out of concern for my protein intake.
That night, standing on deck in the starlight as the ship plunged through the waves, I ran into the driver and his friend again. After chatting happily for a while, we made our way down to the cabin decks. On the back deck, another group of Ukrainians were drinking spirits. They cheerily handed us a shot each as we passed, and raised a toast. The nearest one’s eyebrows raised as I lowered my glass at the same time as they did, and he reached out to check it was actually empty. The ship tossed, the glass fell over, and the man jostled my arm and said something in jocular Ukrainian that I couldn’t understand but grinned at anyway.
Back in the cabin, my new friend was reading on her bunk. She had tried to wash a few essentials earlier in the day, but we had been told off for opening the window, so that they were now drying on the curtain rail. After chatting for a while about travel, and life, and what waited for us back home, she revealed that after Odessa, she was planning to go to a forest park not far from Lviv.
“I’ll probably come to Lviv first,” she said. “I think it’s easiest for transport.” Since the reason I was going to Ukraine was to visit a friend in Lviv, I invited her to meet up with us there. It was difficult to plan much, since we had no wifi on the ship and were far out of signal range, but we would have a couple of days to discuss it when we reached Odessa. I had failed to find a couchsurfing host in the city so would be staying in a hostel, but had been reluctant to book one as I had heard so much about the possibility of the ferry getting stuck at sea in case of bad weather.
We docked in Chornomorsk on time, at around 9:30 am. We had to check out of the cabin straight after breakfast, and spent the next couple of hours sitting next to our bags on deck, watching tugs and fishing boats hum around the harbour. I logged on to the Port of Chernomorsk wi-fi as soon as I came in range, and booked into the same hostel Kaping was staying at – we had decided to hang out together in Odessa.
Once the ship docked, everyone congregated in front of the reception for immigration. The border officials came aboard and set up shop in the dining room, calling us in one-by-one to check and stamp our passports.
Once we had been processed, we were free to disembark, although actually getting out of the ship turned out to be more of a challenge. The queue for the lift was so enormous that we tried the stairs instead, only to find that the door at the bottom was locked. The lift had started to malfunction under the strain, failing to stop at our floor several times until I found myself choking down a panic attack. If you are claustrophobic like me and find crowds frightening, you will want to prepare yourself well for this part. You may potentially want to ask someone to be there to support you, although to be fair to UkrFerry it was the only part of the voyage that was anything less than enjoyable. Fortunately, my cabin mate was very kind and kept me talking so that I made it out of the boat in one piece, if rather shaky and drenched in a cold sweat.
Once outside the boat, we were guided over to a small bus stop where we sat in the sun for what felt like an eternity, waiting for a minibus. Our bags were taken separately on an odd little vehicle that looked like an inverted snowplough. After waiting in the minibus for over an hour, it trundled us about 200m across the tarmac to a long low building, where we had to go through customs. The whole process was immensely inefficient; budget plenty of time for getting out of the port if you have a connection to make.
From customs, we stumbled up a bank on to the main road in search of the bus. We had got chatting to a German couple on the minibus, and the group of us strolled through the highway dust until we saw a bus stop.
A packed bus rolled to a halt – the German couple just managed to squeeze on, but Lau Kaping and I couldn’t fit. A minute after the bus had rattled off up the road to Odessa, we realised this had been a blessing in disguise. The port in Batumi had had no currency exchange facilities and neither had the ferry, so neither of us had anything on us but Georgian lari and a small reserve of dollars and euros. Fortunately, there was a petrol station across the road with an ATM and a currency exchange window, where we gratefully swapped our leftover lari for hryvnia, dashing back across the tarmac just in time to squeeze ourselves into the next minibus as it rattled to a halt. Suitcases safely placed in the boot, we squashed in through the door and found ourselves face-to-face with the kind restaurant manager from the ferry, on her way to a well-deserved break in Odessa. Swaying from the hanging straps amid the press of bodies, we jostled and bounced into Odessa bus station. Grabbing our packs from the boot, we set off in search of our hostel and lunch, eager to explore the city.
Read the next post in the series here, or the last one here.
“I’ve never heard of that,” said my Georgian host, Saba, from the other side of a large khachapuri. This was not good news for my attempts to book the elusive sleeper train from Yerevan to Batumi, which supposedly stopped in Tbilisi along the way, and which I was supposed to be boarding in a couple of days’ time. I sighed and reloaded the Georgian Railways booking page. When this still failed to show any sign of the missing train 201, I gave up in disgust. With my limited time in Georgia, I had been very much planning to save a day with an overnight trip. Eternally kind, Saba offered to call the railway company for me. Apparently, since a recent upgrade to the railways, sleeper services no longer ran between the two cities as the journey no longer took enough time. Instead, my options were limited to daytime services or an overnight seat.
Three days later, I stood uncertainly on the dark pavement in front of what appeared to be a large shopping mall, but which Google Maps proudly proclaimed to be Tbilisi Railway Station. A pair of businessmen with neat suitcases strolled confidently through the sliding glass doors, and I followed them hopefully through the deserted mall and up to the third floor. Here, rows of seats replaced the shops, while blinking LED screens flashed out departures. The mall had become a station waiting room. Having successfully found the 801 on the board and reassured myself that, as scheduled, it wouldn’t be leaving for another two hours, I set off in search of food.
Unlike most transit hubs, the station was short of places to eat, and even the vending machine on the ground floor turned out to be selling books instead of snacks. Since I had plenty of time, I walked a couple of blocks until I spotted the welcoming lights of Shaurma Club (13 Queen Tamar Ave, Tbilisi), a late-night kebab spot. Even at that time, it was doing good business, clearly as popular with locals on a night out as with tourists waiting for the train.
Hot bag of chips in hand, I headed back towards the station, chastising myself slightly for not having found something more authentically Georgian but comforted by the tastiness of the food and the fact I had eaten my weight in khachapuri, khinkali and ajapsandali over the previous few days. On the way, I found myself chatting to a passing Georgian student, who wanted to know if I knew any good nightclubs in the city. After getting over my surprise at the role reversal, I suggested a couple that Saba and his friends had mentioned. He disappeared down a side street with a cheery, “Thank you!”, while checking his phone for directions. I carried on until I was waylaid by a small ginger cat perching on a large bin. It mewed beseechingly until I offered it a chip, which it sniffed warily before turning its nose up in disgust and vanishing into the dumpster, clearly disapproving of my taste in food.
A little after midnight, the LED board flashed a direction to board train 801. Following the flow of passengers down the escalator and out through the side of the mall, I found a sleek express waiting. After the mandatory ID and ticket check at the carriage door, I found my allocated place easily enough. The seats were spacious airline-style armchairs with plenty of luggage space nearby, and the train itself was clearly brand new. There was even a small free library near the door!
After a pleasant chat about our various travels with the lady sitting next to me, we both settled down for the night. Seeing me curling up under my scarf, a kind young guard in an immaculate uniform politely offered me a blanket. Despite the lack of a bed and the bright overhead lights being left on all night, I managed to get a decent few hours’ sleep using my backpack as a pillow.
It being dark, there was not much chance to see anything from the train. However, I heard from other travellers once I arrived in Batumi that the views can be quite spectacular, so unless you’re pushed for time it might be better to travel in daylight. At about 5:15am, I woke up from my doze to find the children belonging to the family opposite staring at me curiously among the general sounds of people organizing themselves and their luggage. I was parched from the air conditioning and the water in my bottle had run out. Luckily, the carriage came equipped with a well-stocked vending machine. Being the kind of person who can’t see an unknown item of food or drink without wanting to try it, I ended up with some very refreshing pear soda from Natakhtari, and something reminiscent of a Sesame Snap with added nuts.
Exactly on time, we pulled into Batumi Central Station. The sea and the sky were almost the same shade of slate-grey, fringed by a few palm trees that were near enough invisible behind a sleeting curtain of equally grey rain. It was hardly the scene I had expected from photos of bright sunshine and beaches I had seen while researching my trip. Thankfully, my host had driven to collect me, although I still ended up drenched to the skin from the short sprint between the station and his car. As we trundled off down the rain-soaked main street, I could not help thinking how generous and friendly most of the people I had come across on the trip were. The fact that he had come out at 6am to collect a virtual stranger from the station in driving rain just proved my point.
Two days later, I was chatting to a Spanish lady in the hostel I had checked into after my host left. She asked how I got there, so after telling her I returned the question.
“By the sleeper train from Yerevan,” she said.
“The sleeper train? The railway company said they didn’t run any more!” I exclaimed in dismay. The mystery was only solved several months later, when I idly looked it up in a moment of boredom and found a report from another traveller who had run into the same problem. As it turned out, that particular train doesn’t show up on the Georgian Railways website because it is run by the Armenian South Caucasus Railway (http://www.ukzhd.am/en.html for booking and information in English), a possibility which hadn’t occurred to me because the leg of the journey I was making took place entirely within Georgia. At least I got to try out one of the brand-new Stadler trains!
Read the next post in the series here, or the previous one here. Or check out the info below to see how to book the trip for yourself!
Departs: Tbilisi railway station, 21, 19, Tsotne Dadiani St, Tbilisi, Georgia (თბილისის რკინიგზის სადგური, 21, 19, ცოტნე დადიანის ქუჩა, თბილისი in Georgian). Multiple daily departures – see http://www.railway.ge/en/traffic-general-schedule/ for details.
Arrives: 05:55, Batumi Central Station, Queen Tamar Highway, Batumi, Georgia
Journey time: approx. 5 ½ hrs
Company: Georgian Railways
Price: 61 GEL(as of July 2019)
Tickets: Can be booked online at www.tickets.railway.ge. Booking available in Georgian, English and Russian. Tickets can be booked up to 40 days before travel – book in good time in summer. You need your email, passport and phone number to create an account. Accepts Visa and Mastercard. Tickets also available in person from local booking offices. If you are looking for a sleeper service, you’ll need to go to the Armenian South Caucasus Railway site at http://www.ukzhd.am/en.html for booking and information in English.
Seating: Airline style.
Rest stops: None, but clean modern toilets, a vending machine and a library were available onboard.
All information correct as of August 2019. We recommend checking the latest departures before your journey.
“It’s time to escape Winter, and go south from Berlin.” … “I could fly?”… But, perhaps there’s an alternative? “Isn’t it a bit far on the train, Ian?” “Arn’t you lucky, to have the time to do this?” … actually, yes, I am lucky. Very lucky indeed.
Inspired by friends validating my madness, and by going on an epic adventure from Berlin in summer, to Italy, I decided that despite being in my 40s it was time for an Interrail adventure! Also, I had seen a Twitter contact using Interrail for a business trip, and felt, WHY NOT?
I wanted to explore flying less. But, like many, I found the alternative confusing.
What Is The Alternative To Flying?
My hope with doing the migration this way, and through 196destinations, is that we can talk about the alternatives to flying a bit more, and understand the challenges, and make them a little easier for everyone reading.
Leg 1 – Operation Escape Berlin
So, I planned to leave Berlin and go to Munich. But the accommodation situation in Berlin had got even crazier, so I decided that I would spend some time in Leipzig, and then perhaps see some autumnal leaves in the Alps near Munich. WHY NOT?
The optimal situation for using my 5-journey Interrail pass would be if the train ticket cost 50 Euros or more. However, my first leg would not be far, so I took a FlixBus from Berlin to Leipzig. Comfortable seats, and an on-time service.
A small, clean city that was worth exploring. And it had a good tram & bus system to allow you to do so. I found an amazing AirBnB host that even picked me up from the bus station! AWESOME! A great mate also gave me a ticket to see Machine Head, which was at a fantastic small venue and super lively.
Thank you to my friend Anna for recommending the War Memorial. It was epic. And what a view from the top of the whole city.
Leg 2 – Leipzig to Munich & Garmisch.
Onwards, and time to use the first day of my Interrail pass.
I headed towards Munich, and then dived out again on the next train after arrival, to Garmisch, where I had found a few nights an affordable price. I was soo lucky with the weather. Autumn was in full effect on the trees, but it was blue skies and warm.
I had a great walk up the chucklesworth-named mountain, Wank. Then a super lecker Kaiserschmoren at sunset in a mountain gastro restaurant.
Leg 3 – A weekend in Munich.
Then, it was time to leave Garmisch. Just a short trup to Munich on another FlixBus. I was really looking forward to seeing some friends in the city, and on the outskirts in Dachau, where we cycled around some lakes.
Leg 4 – Crossing The Alps.
I’m off across the Alps today. Not just through Austria, but all the way Italy, and to its coast. An epic journey in itself. It would be another Interrail day. A couple of nights in Genova felt like a great reward at the end of the 10 hour travel day.
It was a big journey, leaving at 9am and not arriving in Genova until the evening. A journey of fantastic scenery that lived up to expectations. The undulating hills of the lower Alps leaving Munich gave way to the lower ski resorts heading into Austria.
Passing Innsbruck, the scenery became really stunning and quite dramatic, as the train would turn a corner with a steep mountain above, and reveal a valley that went off into the distance. All the while, we must have been climbing. Right on the border with Italy, it felt remote, and there were actual clouds rolling across the train track and through the station. There was a brief stop for the border check here, but my white privilege meant I was not asked for a passport.
And now, we started the descent into Italy, through the Dolomites. Really quite stunning, with more U-shaped valleys, than the classic high Alps V-shaped valleys. All along, it was like I had a widescreen view on the world, whilst I looked out the train window. I’m pretty sure I planned to read, but I didn’t even get up to go and look for the coffee that the OBB-powered train was sure to have. Such was my enthusiasm, I was like an excitable child, wondering what change in the view the next undulation would bring.
Arriving in Verona, it was time to change trains. Now I still don’t know if I’d accidentally booked a first class ticket, and the conductor let me get away with it with my regular Interrail ticket, but this train to Milano was swanky. I chatted to the French couple opposite, off for a night out in the city, whilst we tried to figure how to raise/lower/recline the ridiculously comfortable seats to the right angle. Super comfortable. And super fast. Swoosh – there goes Lake Garda, and then we’re already close to the city of Milan.
For the last train in this epic train day, I travelled on a coastal railway across rivers and bridges during dusk, arriving in Genova after dark. I’d booked a budget hotel not far from the station. On arrival, I was surprised to find it decorated with medieval art on the ceiling, and to find myself accommodated in a massive room. It was a bit basic in other regards, but a pleasant surprise. I had a walk around the town, which felt like a pre-renovation Málaga, but found it a little quiet. Eventually I found a square with some cafe bars.
Sadly, my plan to swim in Italy, France, and Spain didn’t quite work out, as it had become a little grey, and it turned out to be the start of a storm further along the Mediterranean.
Leg 5 – Onwards to Nice.
Nice? Well, between Antibes and Nice, in Villeneuve-Loubet to be precise. I left Genova with an unannounced 1-hour delay. However, I had a great conversation with a maths teacher who’d moved to Milano to get work, and had ended up working for below minimum wage in a cafe after learning Italian for a couple of years. It made me feel privileged to have this travel option, but also wish I had got his details to introduce to online teaching!
Crossing into France, some border guards entered the train. But again, my white privilege was all the passport I needed.
That night was the windiest night I’ve stayed on a boat, ever. It’s again a privilege, but wow, it was more like being shaken to sleep rather than gently rocked. It also turned out that part of the train line was now washed away.
Leg 6 – Viva Espania?
NEXT….well, this is where the international connectivity got very confusing, and perhaps the information on the storm could have been a lot better. With two of us looking, we couldn’t find a train from Nice to the Barcelona area. So, I would get a local train (or two…or four?) to Perpignan. Stay the night. Explore a castle 🙂 And then get the FlixBus again to Barcelona – WIN!
I got to visit my favourite tapas bar in Barceloneta, and catch up with a startup mate, before heading onwards – and straight through a strike in Barcelona!
Leg 7 – Finale To Málaga!
From Barcelona Sants, we were zoom through the countryside at high speed in the direction of Madrid. A short 2 hour changeover there allowed for a quick look at a city square where they had an art exhibition on sustainability, followed by a quiet tapas and beer in a more hipster neighbourhood – up a steep hill! (Cheers for the recommendation George).
We left Madrid just before dark, skirting through Cordoba in pitch black.
Arriving in Málaga late at night, to see a friendly face, I was happy to find myself at journey’s end after quite a trek indeed. I’d made it!
3200kms! My god! I may have sworn quite a bit about trains, tickets, supplements, and delays. But I feel accomplished. Yes, I could have flown, but I have seen a lot more of Europe this way. I have noted lots of places I could return to. And I have also used considerably less carbon up than flying. It is estimated to be 8x less infact.
Editor’s note: This is the first part of the trip by Jennie going from Yerevan, to Tbilisi.
Last summer, I was invited to visit my friend Oksanka, who lives in Lviv, Ukraine. About a week later, another friend, Hardeep, who I hadn’t seen for years and who lives in India, announced he would be in Armenia for a wedding.
Since I had several weeks off over the summer, I decided to join the dots by travelling overland from Yerevan to Lviv, catching up with my friends at each end and hopefully making some new ones along the way.
Not being a fan of flying, on my final day in Yerevan I took a taxi over to the Central Bus Station, also known as the Kilikia Bus Station after the local brand of beer. 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.” I groaned and insisted. “Please. It’s a marshrutka. The 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, and thanking the driver profusely, I glanced along the shop fronts until I saw the sign for Comfort.
The smiling lady behind the counter in the fridge-like office sold me a ticket, and 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. It had all its doors 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 all the seats were full. Before I could panic too much that the seats had been oversold and I would either be left behind or have to spend the 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, the driver 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 we 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 some 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 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 a little about finding vegetarian-friendly food, I ended up with a delicious mushroom and cheese pastry, which I nibbled at a tall bar-style table outside.
We carried on into the setting sun, the land getting wider and drier as we 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 and explore. On a steep slope the driver squinted and groped for his visor, and I leaned over to pull it down for him. I was rewarded with a beaming smile, and 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 any sign at all that there was an international border in the vicinity.
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, then get back in, drive a few minutes across the no-man’s land in the middle, then repeat the 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 like a tourist hub than Yerevan, although 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 my fellow passengers 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. 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.
Hello and welcome to the relaunched 196 Destinations.
We will be building a community of overland travellers, and sharing inspiring travel stories.
I’m Ian and I launched a bucket-list startup some years ago.
Now is the time for a different angle and to encourage more people to consider the train, coach, boat or even cycle.
It’s early days in the resurgence of alternatives to flying, so first we will build our community, but in time we will make it easier to book these alternatives too.
Are you travelling overland from Berlin to Prague? Or maybe Amsterdam to Paris? Perhaps you’re going further afield. Jennie did, to Armenia, and we’ll be sharing her story.
Our founder, Ian, lives between Berlin and Málaga and in 2018 decided that he wanted to fly less. In Autumn 2018 he travelled from Berlin with an Interrail pass, and took his time across Germany, Austria, Italy, and France before arriving in Spain. In Spring 2019 he’ll travel from Málaga to Berlin via a more express route. Read, and follow, our facebook page to see more about these recent trips and other discussion pieces.
It’s important to understand the alternative. Not to be condescending to people. Or say “thou shalt not.” This doesn’t work. However, if there’s an alternative with information that makes it easier to book, then perhaps more people will travel by train?
We really want to include YOUR overland travel stories too. Perhaps you’d be willing to share them with us? Get in touch via email@example.com and we’ll add you as a contributor.
Many thanks for reading and we look forward to your involvement.