Hotel: EuroStar Hotel (Akhalkalaki, Georgia) $40
This morning we planned on visiting the town of Echmiadzin, the Armenian Vatican, home to the Armenian Orthodox church. We planned to take a minibus there, and taxi back. The minibus depot was about 10 blocks away and so we climbed into a taxi for the short ride. Once we were at the depot, the taxi driver started getting animated, I think he wanted us to take the taxi instead of the minibus; it would have been cheaper to take the minibus of course. We finally decided to take the taxi there and back, as it would only be $12.50 for all 4 of us.
The town of Echmiadzin lies about 20 minutes west of Yerevan, past the airport.
On the way out of town, we passed several brandy companies, the US Embassy, and row after row of tacky casinos! Echmiadzin was a quiet leafy town, we arrived at the cathedral around 9:30. The cathedral itself isn't very impressive at first look, but once inside was worth the trip. The museum there has many religious artifacts, including allegedly the Holy Lance, that pierced Jesus's side. Once back outside, there were several black robed priests wandering around the grounds, chatting on cell phones. We stopped at the Zvartnots ruins on the way back to Yerevan, the site of a former church that was destroyed in an earthquake. The site is near the airport, with a great view of Mt. Ararat behind it, although it was very hazy today as well. Both Echmiadzin and Zvartnots are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
After grabbing some lunch and checking out of the hotel, we left for the minibus depot to Gyumri. The plan was to catch a minibus there, then see about either a minibus or taxi across the border back into Georgia. The minibuses for Gyumri ($2.75) conveniently departed a few blocks from the hotel. The ride took a couple of hours, all on great roads. Gyumri was another run-down Soviet industial city, we only were there long enough to discover the bus for Georgia had already left, buy some food, then hire a taxi ($52) to take us the 45 miles across the border into Georgia. We had to wait quite awhile at the 'gas' station, our Lada taxi again ran on methane.
The road was in perfect condition all the way to the border, which was quite remote but located in a gorgeous landscape of rolling meadows filled with wildflowers and buzzing insects.
Meeting the locals
We had no problems at the Armenian post, but they were amused that we had only been in Armenia for two days. As soon as we crossed the border; the road turned to gravel. The Georgians seemed overly curious in our passports, noting stamps from Laos, Brazil, South Africa, etc.. and they asked what we did that allowed us to travel so much. They stamped and waved us through, but our taxi driver had a much more difficult time; he was yelling for about 5 minutes before coming back out to the car and getting something out of the glove compartment. We assume he had to pay a bribe, the Georgians hadn't tried anything with us but they probably assumed they could shake down our driver!
The road was a horrendous potholed dirt road for the next 20 miles or so; passing small towns with sod-roof houses and drying dung stacked along the fences (no trees anywhere around here; they use dung for fuel).
Fields of potatoes
We finally arrived in Akhalkalaki in the late afternoon, with no idea of where we were going to stay that evening (our guidebook had nothing on the area). We had passed a sign for a hotel on the way into town, but it was some distance, and we hoped there was something more convenient. Our taxi driver dropped is in town, then left; we asked around for a hotel and a guy offered to show us; he ended up taking us back out to the place we had passed! We would have taken anything at this point, but we lucked out.. the place was brand new, built for the UN and other aid workers in the area. They only had one free room, the 'suite' which we could all share. Dinner was served soon after, we were led into the kitchen and had to point out what we all wanted.
After dinner the late afternoon lighting was perfect, we all decided to go for a walk through the fields.
We passed an old factory, then across the road and train tracks where we noticed a picturesque red church on a hill across the river. We started walking towards it, but must have walked into someone's backyard, as several people came out to investigate us. At first they were wary, but then when they learned we were Americans, the whole village came out! They all spoke Russian, so we were able to communicate a little. The grandmother and daughter started hamming it up for my wife's camera, we got some wonderful pictures. We were all soon invited into the house for coffee, a great experience! All the village teenage girls had shown up to gawk at us; there were very few boys around, I guess they were all working or in the military. We teased S about finding him a girlfriend! We all traded addresses and it was so hard to leave; everyone followed us halfway back to the hotel! S had bought some vodka at the bar, we all had a few shots before going to sleep.