How to arrive in Armenia in Style
Armenia is a small country – with a small airport. With only three million inhabitants, and Armenians living outside the country outnumbering them by about three times, you might think Zvartnots International Airport near Yerevan is somewhat of a large international hub where you can easily fly in, but believe me, it’s not. From Europe. It serves mainly flights to and from Russia and the Middle East.
So, you’re travelling from Europe, the US or Asia, and other than flying in through Moscow or Dubai…
What are the options of travelling to Armenia?
There is a train once a day from Tbilisi. It takes approximately 12 hours for the 290km. In summer, you could even travel here from Batumi.
So, the majority of travel into Armenia is still overland from Georgia. Since Georgia tries very hard to become an international tourist destination, it has become easy to fly to Georgia directly. Most airlines, including the flag carrier Georgian Airways, serve Tbilisi, and low-cost carriers have started flying to the second city, Kutaisi.
Arrival in Tbilisi Shota Rustaveli Airport
We visited at Easter, and the most convenient and moderately priced option was to fly from Berlin to Tbilisi via Riga on Air Baltic. Trouble is, most flights arrive in the middle of the night, like ours, at around 03.30am. After landing in a scary crosswind, we disembarked and cleared immigration and customs at lightning speed. And then we stood in the bare Arrivals Hall of Shota Rustaveli Airport at about 4am. We found an ATM and a very helpful Tourist Information Desk and one cafe that was open. Outside, taxis, both official and inofficial, and not easy to distinguish except for a few totally clapped-out specimens, were circling the loop between terminals As soon as we set a foot outside the door, men approached us, trying to sell us a taxi ride into town for 30 Lari (about 10 EURO).
Any attempt to get a taxi from the Airport straight to Yerevan at this stage failed miserably. We would get repeat offers of the taxi into town, then another taxi to Yerevan from an unspecified location at an unspecified time for approximately 50-60EURO. Or we were offered to be taken to Ortachala Bus Station, one of the departure points for shared Yerevan taxis, which depart when full but generally not before 9am.
Take Bus 37 to Central Tbilisi
But that Swabian-Scot heritage stinginess and the overbearing eagerness of those men hanging round stopped us from getting into a cab. Instead we languished in the only cafe open drinking coffee for nearly the same money. We went to the friendly Tourist Information again, where the nice man changed our Georgian Lari notes into 50 tetri coins (needed for the bus). Then, at the crack of dawn at 6am, we boarded the bus No.37 from the Airport. It just stops outside Departures, just turn right from Arrivals and walk along until you see a Bus Stop. There was one other Georgian Man there an no one has an interest in showing you the Bus Stop, because they want you to take a cab.
Here we observed how the taxis on their long and slow merry-go-round fishing for passengers, the creaky knackered-looking ones doing more rounds than the shiny ones. Then the bus appeared, and we threw 50 tetri each into the ticket box in the middle of the bus, a ticket got printed, we clutched out tickets and bags and set off towards the City Centre.
Once in town, you can buy a “Metromani” Card at every Metro Station – just hold the card on the reader in bus, metro and cable car, and don’t worry about change.
Our bus hurtled along some classic Soviet-style estates, more and more people got on and I felt like being transported back to 1987. However, we were on a mission to get to Yerevan as cheaply and as comfortably as possible. I had checked on the Bus Route Map that this bus would stop at Avlabari, another departing point for shared Yerevan taxis.
Once we had passed the George Bush Highway (“Bushi Street”), after about 25minutes, I hesitantly asked a fellow passenger in Russian about Avlabari. “Still coming” she sad, then got off. It helps to know the oversized red “M” signage of the Metro, as the 37 Bus first stops at the 300 Aragveli Station. Don’t bother trying to read the signs unless you read Georgian.
Shared Vans from Avlabari
After about 30minutes from the airport, we arrived at a large square, and to the right, we saw yet another Metro Station. Another passenger confirmed this was Avlabari. We hopped off, walked past some stretch limousines (none of them going to Yerevan, unfortunately), to a small parking lot in front of some gardens.
As you stand in front of the Metro Station, is is to your left. Here were two or three shiny white minivans and a clapped out one with a sign on top with some destinations. So you could go to Yerevan, Vladikavkas in Northern Ossetia and Pyatigorsk from here. Don’t worry, the clapped-out van is stationary and serves as the office! So we were told a price (35 Lari per person), and ushered into one of the shiny minivans. Then nothing happened for a bit. The drivers took a delivery of some pastries, had coffee delivered to them, went for a smoke… After maybe an hour, at least a Finnish woman and a Georgian woman joined us, but the minivan was far from full.
At least, it as daylight now, so I ventured out with the Finnish woman and bought some snacks from a nearby mini market. It was by now 8am, and I was getting a bit twitchy – I just wanted to go to Yerevan! After a bit more waiting, just before 9am, a more clapped-out minivan with about 20 seats hurtled past. We were quickly ushered into the bigger one. After five minutes, we had left Tbilisi and bumped along a nice countryside road, interspersed with scruffy villages with loads of roadside stalls selling humongous packets of laundry detergent.
I didn’t really care at this point whether we would be in a smaller minivan or a marshrutka, I just wanted to go to Yerevan, and sleep! Also, the ride would just cost 25 Lari, because we were now in a larger vehicle. They are very honest, these public transport drivers. In fact, it would hardly matter, because the road is not the best. You could be in a comfy sedan and still bump along the potholed road.
Very cleanly, these Georgian, I thought. But you know what the real reason behind this is? Armenia has no trade relations with Turkey or Azerbaijan. A lot of food and drink and, well cosmetics and detergent are produced in Turkey under licence. So, Georgians import these huge packets from Turkey and sell them to people travelling to Armenia. At least this is what our guide told me on the return journey.
Georgia-Armenia Border Crossing
We picked up more locals, dropped them off at other villages, really speeding along the bumpy road, until we reached the Georgian-Armenian Border at Sadakhlo/Bagratashen after about an hour. We had to get off the van, take all our belongings, then got stamped out of Georgia. Back in the van, we drove 500 metres, then stamped into Armenia. Both border posts were rather bare (empty, too) and the Armenia one had the added convenience of a money exchange. The whole process took no more than ten minutes. Also, as soon as we had stepped on Armenian soil, our driver asked for the fare. Perfectly fine, as normally, in Europe, you’d pay before you get it he vehicle. But in Armenia, you always pay on exit – perhaps they think its more polite to deliver the service first then ask for payment? Anyway, this seemed like a fine way of the middle. So everyone paid the 25 Lari and on we went.
On the road in Armenia
Once in Armenia, we travelled on a grand tarmac road, which lasted about ten kilometres. Then it got a whole lot worse than in Georgia. At least, our driver would point out, we would have free WiFi now! And indeed, the other passengers used it, doing Facebook or drivers test questions while flying half a metre up in the air. Also, we got treated to increasingly boisterous music from the vans stereo. Whether it was Russian, Armenian, or Georgian, was hard to determine. Some of it sounded very much like Russian gangsta rap – okay to listen for a while. Maybe not for five hours when you’ve wedged yourself in your seat and try to sleep.
The whole scenery got a lot more bare now, but beautiful, with just a couple scruffy villages by the road. Shared vans/marshrutkas from Avlabari, as we later learned, tend to take the Novemberyan-Ijevan route. If you read any tales of snipers, relax, the road it now pretty safe as far as armed attacks are concerned. It wasn’t around 2016 when there was another conflict with Azerbaijan about Artsakh/Karabakh. And the road skirts the Azerbaijan border very closely. Now, it was fine. The route is quite different than the route through the Debed Canyon, more forested, and there are some smaller monasteries here.
Being on public transport, of course, we hurtled straight through. Although the road looked terrifying, our driver drove very safely – something I would observe on all marshrutka rides I’ve been on. I know, there are stories of overcrowding and reckless driving, but I while our driver drove pretty fast considering the state of the road, I never really felt unsafe – just a bit hungover from lack of sleep and somewhat queasy from not eating very much.
After another three hours, we stopped at a roadside bakery/truck stop called Tsovagyugh just before Lake Sevan. I went in to find they had a traditional bread oven and wonderful fresh bread, as well as pastries, BBQ meat, drinks… and spotless restrooms.
Soon Lake Sevan would come into view, beautiful but bitterly cold looking – the Lake is at 1900m, after all. The closer we got to Yerevan, the better (and the more boring) the road got.
As we descended into Yerevan, the driver stopped by the roadside to make a call and have a cigarette. Who cares for schedules – we were doing well, making the trip in under five hours. I wasn’t even sure where exactly the van would be dropping as off (it will go to the Kilikiya Avtokayan, a pretty inconvenient location south of the centre and not really that walkable), but as we went through the centre, I turned on my GPS, and as soon as it came to another stop in the centre, we got off with some other passengers and walked towards Republic Square, from where it was an easy stroll to our hotel.
Hotels in Yerevan
We had booked two nights at the Ibis Yerevan Centre*, just to relax and stay somewhere familiar… worried about culture shock, perhaps…
It was good, rather classy for what I know as a budget chain, quite new, excellent comfortable beds and spotlessly clean. Despite its central location, it’s rather quiet at night, and everything in the centre is just a short stroll away. What struck us the minute we hopped off the van, was how green and relaxed Yerevan seemed to be – a first impression that would only become cemented over the next few days, as we explored Yerevan and the sights around it. Of course, for less than half the price of a mid-range hotel you can stay in a studio apartment or, like we did, in a great private room with all comforts in someone’s house. We moved into a really nice private room in the central yet very quiet area of Poplovok Park after two nights where we has a wonderful stay with an Armenian-Ukrainian beautician lady – but this is a story for another day.
Practicalities (or the waffle above in short)
Arrival in Tbilisi Airport:
Bus 37 runs 24/7 to the Liberty Square and along Rustaveli Avenue, stopping at Avlabari Metro. You can take a cab for 30 Lari but why shell it out when a perfectly nice bus takes you to the centre for 50 tetri and only takes slightly longer? I even took that bus at 1am and its fine and safe and reliable.
Catching a ride to Yerevan:
Avlabari (small parking lot outside the Metro) – more convenient when you’re fresh off the plane and take the 37 Bus, as it stops at Avlabari. You need to ask someone on the bus to point the stop out to you as they are not announced. The shared taxis/vans won’t leave much before 9am. Their route goes through Novemberyan and Ijevan should you wish to alight there
Ortachala on Vakhtang Gorgasali Street (right by the city bus/marshrutka stop, cars have clear signage in Latin on them). I believe these ones take the route through the Debed Canyon and Vanadzor. We took this route back and there is huuuge construction with detours so unless you want to go to Sanahin and Haghpat (better as a day trip from Yerevan) I see little reason to take this route until road works are finished.
Expect to pay 25-35Lari per person on both routes. The journey will take between 4.5 and 6 hours.
Pre-booked private Taxi: If you are short of time, arrive in the middle of the night and want to travel straight away, this might be a good option. Some companies like Kiwitaxi offer pre-booked, private taxi will cost between 100 and 250EURO. Perfect if you are a family or small group. Also, you could theoretically ask the driver to stop off along the route to explore some towns and monasteries. I haven’t taken this route, I just know it exists. Another option would be to privately arrange a taxi – there are some contact details here. Or you could ask someone at your guesthouse, who will often arrange these private semi-official taxis. We took a comfortable shared taxi (4 people) from Telavi back to Tbilisi, cost insignificantly more than a marshrutka, and we got picked up and then dropped in a convenient location in Tbilisi.
Tour: If you fancy taking the Vanadzor-Debed Canyon Route and get your fill of culture, I would highly recommend the “Enlinking Caucasus” tour run by Envoy Hostels. It’s run every Friday from Yerevan to Tbilisi, then back on Saturday. It stops off at Sanahin, Haghpat and Akthtala. They are all rather tricky to reach on public transport. These places are rather close together but seeing them in one day from Yerevan without private transport is impossible. Envoy use a smallish van, and group sizes are no higher than about 18. We took this tour on the return leg to Tbilisi, and really loved it. We had a great guide who would talk nonstop about Armenian history and life in Armenia. I consider it great value, even if prices are somewhat higher (about 50 EURO) than the 15 EURO you’d pay for public transport. I will report on that trip later.
Both Georgia and Armenia have pretty open and welcoming policies to foreign visitors. If you are a citizen of the EU, the Americas, Russia, China, India, Japan, Australia or Southeast Asia (exception: Vietnam), you are basically granted visa-free entry. Or you get a visa on arrival (Turkey and some Balkan states). Georgia has a similar visa policy but some countries may require eVisa (apply online without trip to a Consulate). The border police for both countries are friendly and won’t hassle you. We experienced no wait at the border at all. You can change Armenian Dram right after passport control at Bagratashen at rates comparable to Yerevan.