This is Part 6 of our Dacia Duster adventure through 10 countries and 9000 km around the Black Sea, you can read Part 1: Transnistria here, Part 2: Chernobyl here, Part 3: Belarus here, Part 4: Crossing the Black Sea and Georgia here and Part 5: Azerbaijan here. As a reminder this Test Drive happened before COVID-19 travel restrictions were implemented. Due to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the border between the two countries is closed and I have to return northwest to Georgia to then travel south to Armenia. Given the border between Turkey and Armenia is also closed, I’ll have to transit via Georgia for the second time to rejoin Turkey and the next step of this trip.
Armenian flag and our itinerary in the country.
Armenia is home to just under 3 million inhabitants, a figure that has started to decrease as the population ages. It borders Azerbaijan to the East, Georgia to the North, Turkey to the West and Iran to the South (see map above). Armenia has a long and rich history starting in 860 BC with the first Armenian state of Urartu, replaced in the 6th century BC by the Satrapy of Armenia. Later, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Armenian homeland composed of Eastern Armenia and Western Armenia was under the rule of the Ottoman and Persian empires. In 1922 it became a founding member of the Soviet Union and regained its independence in 1991. Armenia maintains good relations with the USA, Russia and Iran. But it’s a different story with its close neighbours, being embroiled in a post-Soviet “frozen conflict” about the Republic of Artsakh, de facto independent with the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, that reignited during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Another “frozen conflict” zone is Transnistria which we visited as part of this adventure.
Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster has entered Armenia – Examples of Armenian alphabet.
The Georgia-Armenia border is passed with no fuss but the first hour inside the country is spent on a “work in progress” rocky road as seen above. I’m not sure how long it has been in construction as there doesn’t seem to be any work being done at the time I visited. Or perhaps this is just a normal unsealed road in Armenia. Being faced with yet another alphabet remains an exotic experience. The unique Armenian alphabet was created by Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD, and it is the fourth alphabet I have experienced during this trip after the Latin, Cyrillic and Georgian ones. First impressions as far as the car park of countryside Armenia is concerned show a blanket of used 1998 Opel Astra including the station wagon variant, as well as lots of 1999 Opel Zafira. The Lada Zhiguli is still frequent but much less so than in Azerbaijan, but the GAZ Volga is more popular than in the neighbour country. I did not see any new cars within the first two hours in the country.
The capital of Armenia is Yerevan, 1.1 million inhabitants which means 1 in every 3 Armenians live here. It is the only sizeable city I will get to visit in Armenia and concentrates the newest and shiniest cars of the country as we’ll see further down. I only had the chance to spend one evening here so I had to handpick the sights I visited. From top to bottom on the pictures above, Republic Square is grandiose with its musical fountain, the streets are lined with trees and old-style lampposts reminiscent of Paris. The Cafesjian Center for the Arts and the Cascade are beautifully illuminated at night, fresh juice street vendors pepper the centre of town. Khoravats (barbecued meat) and Karkantak for dinner before the unmissable baklava for dessert. Here, the vibe is again very different to the other cities I visited during this trip. It’s very relaxed, very trendy, people walk slowly with their dog, men look stoic and many women all have an air of Kim Kardashian, whose surname ends in “-ian” like the vast majority of Armenians. It becomes “-yan” after a vowel, and the suffix means “from” or “of”. Either from a town, from a parent, an occupation (Najarian= son of a carpenter) or from status or personal traits (Melikyan = son of a king).
Yerevan car park and mini service station
Yerevan cars are choking the main streets of the city, with traffic jams aplenty. However Armenian drivers are proving to be a very peaceful and polite bunch, miles away from their aggressive Georgian counterparts or the reckless Azerbaijani. Absolutely no one honks and drivers even stop and give way at pedestrian crossings! A first in the region. The prevalence of used 1998 Opel Astra and 1999 Opel Zafira is confirmed in town, with the Nissan Tiida also very frequent. I have picked up some used Japanese imports for the first time since Georgia as these were banned in Azerbaijan. The Renault Logan is popular as a taxi, the Toyota Corolla could have been #1 in the country for the previous generation. Large SUVs such as the Toyota Land Cruiser and Prado are also successful here, as is the Toyota Camry, I spotted quite a few new ones in Yerevan. When venturing into the underground hotel carparks a handful of Mercedes G-Class make their appearance. The Hyundai Creta, Accent and Russian Renault Kaptur are also relatively frequent. I also saw some oddities in Yerevan: first generation Renault Twingo and Kangoo, as well as a first gen Fiat Punto convertible. Finally, I spotted a mini service station (pictured above) operated by a single man on the sidewalk.
Armenian countryside snapshots
We now travel back up north through the Eastern countryside, which seems poorer and is definitely more mountainous. This could help explain the incredible prevalence of the valiant UAZ Hunter, virtually unchanged since 1971. It’s simple, there is at least one UAZ Hunter in every village I crossed and even up to 11 in one single village, Teghut. Sometimes my entire field of vision is filled with Hunters. It is used by the Police in the region and most look bruised and battered, with only a tiny portion that could be considered new. So the Hunter isn’t likely to appear near the top of the Armenian sales charts. The UAZ Bukhanka also popular as pictured above, as well as the Lada Niva but much less so.
Geghard monastery with its khachkars and Sevan lake
The first stop after Yerevan is the Geghard monastery to the east of town. Founded in the 4th century, the oldest surviving chapel dates back to the 12th century. Geghard is a World Heritage-listed monastery and is carved out of the rock face of the Azat River Gorge. It gives the site a rather monochrome grey appearance but the dark interior comes to life under the candlelight or through the slim window openings as pictured above. I was in the monastery at the same time as a loud and obnoxious group of retired French people but their visit included a short performance by a local choir of three people that I got to enjoy too. It showcased the incredible acoustics of the churches. Peppered all around the site are khachkars or Armenian cross-stones (2nd and 4th pictures from above), carved, memorial steles bearing a cross, characteristic of Medieval Christian Armenian art. On the road north back to Georgia we drive along Lake Sevan, altitude 1900m, the largest lake in the Caucasus and one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in the world. Its colour changes daily and was a striking turquoise when I visited (picture above). On the only highway in the country, leading from Yerevan to Lake Sevan, I got flashed for speeding but the two policemen were easy-going about it, reflecting the attitude of a fascinating country.
Next stop is the last part of our adventure, in Turkey and Bulgaria. Stay tuned!