Armenia to Ukraine Part 1: Overland to Tbilisi!

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.

My route from Yerevan via Tbilisi, Batumi and Odessa to Lviv, and then on to Kyiv.

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.

View of the Cascade in Yerevan
Sightseeing at the Cascade in Yerevan before leaving for Tbilisi.

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.

View of the mountains through the windscreen.
I got the best spot for catching views like this.

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.

Picture of Lake Seven.
Lake Sevan, with its stunning blue water, is a popular destination with locals and tourists alike.

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.

Refilling station with cars.
Refilling the gas tank near Tsovagyukh

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.

View of the mountain road with cows crossing.
Free-roaming cows wander through Dzharkhech

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.

View across the uplands near the border with Azerbaijan.
The area around the border with Azerbaijan is full of wide open spaces.

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.

Sun setting against clouds, above a hill.
The sun sets and clouds begin to gather near the border crossing with Georgia.

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.

View down the Kura River in Central Tbilisi on a sunny day.
Central Tbilisi’s Kura River, a lovely spot for sightseeing. Thankfully the weather had calmed down by then!

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!

Practicalities:

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.

Company: Comfort

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 arcomforttours@gmail.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.

Overland Travel Stories

196 Destinations founder, Ian.

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 ian@196destinations.com and we’ll add you as a contributor.

Many thanks for reading and we look forward to your involvement.

Ian.

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