A Travellerspoint blog

A Pinnacle

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The Blogger

The Blogger

One of the highlights of my very short visit to Armenia was climbing Mt Aragats.

We got to the summit of its southern peak, which is at 3,879m/12,726 ft.

I was not alone. All credit goes to my guide Artsrun, without which none of this would have been possible.

Artsrun

Artsrun

Remember (you knew - didn’t you) Yerevan is quite high up - 1,390 m (4,560 ft) in the part I am staying in. The car park is not at the bottom of the mountain. We climbed a lot less than the full height of the peak.

North Peak

North Peak

On the other hand, oxygen is starting to get scarce at those heights. It was hard going near the top. It is a hike rather than any kind of mountaineering exploit, but I would not have attempted it without a guide. The mountain is an extinct volcano, and has four main peaks. The others are not for the likes of me - mountaineering stuff. It is a 90 minutes drive from the city centre.

We had a beautiful day for it, and it was much cooler than previous days at 20C. In fact Artsrun reckons we had the best conditions he has ever seen.

Mt Ararat (Turkey) in Background

Mt Ararat (Turkey) in Background

I made the arrangements through Armenian Geographic, and they were excellent. I was picked up from and dropped off at the front door of my apartment building. The cost was US$120. The price included Artsrun's services and the transport.

The only bit of the whole thing which was a bit tricky was paying them. They expect payment by bank transfer. By the time I learned they do not take credit cards, I had already left home - without the card reader I need for transfers. In the end I had to take the cash out of an ATM in Yerevan, and get the bank to pay it into their account.

Another Group Summits

Another Group Summits

I have enjoyed some great climbs in the Alps, and Mt Kilimanjaro was one of those once in a lifetime moments. Getting up Mt Aragats was a new experience I will always cherish.

Posted by IainT 06:03 Archived in Armenia Tagged mountains armenia aragats Comments (0)

Trans Caucasus

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Zvartnots International - Exterior

Zvartnots International - Exterior

Planning my Yerevan excursion from Tbilisi was fascinating. The whole exercise of traveling between the two cities is worth a blog of its own.

I could have taken an overnight train to Yerevan, with the return in daytime - although it is an overnight train from Yerevan to Batumi (on Georgia’s Black Sea coast) and so it is a sleeper train with no seats. It arrives in Tbilisi about midnight.

The cost in a 1st class sleeper is 17,300 dram (or £30) one way. In 1st class the compartment is for 2 people sharing. 2nd and 3rd class are also available. The journey time is 10 hours - remember a trainload of passengers have to clear two immigration controls at the border. It takes time.

The winter train service is different as the summer one is aimed at Armenians going to the coast on holiday.

I could have booked a shared minibus in either direction. It costs £18 one way, and takes 5-6 hours. The distance is 171 miles (276km).

My Yerevan Apartment Building

My Yerevan Apartment Building

I could have taken a rented car with a driver for £90 one way. The journey time is about the same as a minibus. I could have rented a car and driven myself. What put me off the latter very quickly was the need for an international driving permit in Armenia.

Until very recently taking a flight was a just theoretical possibility. In reality, the only flight (Georgian Airways) left Tbilisi at 5:30am.

Russia and Georgia recently engaged in one of their diplomatic crises, as part of which Georgian Airways cannot fly to Moscow. They used the spare capacity to upgrade their Yerevan service to 2/3 times daily and at more sensible hours.

Yerevan City Centre

Yerevan City Centre

Their cheapest fare was over €150 one way when I first looked. Is that good value for a 30 minute flight? It is only 108 miles (173km) between the cities by air.

My decision was to book the minivan service. I wanted to see the countryside and was curious about why it takes so long. I have written a piece already about the Tbilisi to Yerevan trip.

Minibus Recovery Mode

Minibus Recovery Mode

To get back to Tbilisi I changed my plans and booked a flight. The thought of 5.5 hours in a cramped minibus was just too much! It cost me US$162 one way, including a checked in bag. Unlike most airlines, their fares seem to stay fixed and the price does not go up close to the departure date.

The flight turned out to be an excellent decision. I had to hang around Zvartnots International for a couple of hours, but it was a pleasure. It is a lovely airport. Bright, clean, spacious, stylish, comfortable, efficient - built for travellers and not as a shopping mall.

Zvartnots International - Inside

Zvartnots International - Inside

The flight was interesting. Aircompany Armenia as a franchise for Georgian Airways. Moscow to Tbilisi via Yerevan. A mixed bunch on board. Some got off at Yerevan. We got on.

None of this is intended to put anyone off, and it is just an explanation of what my research and experiences produced. Things change quickly of course - like the sudden addition of extra flights. Those might disappear when Moscow’s attitude shifts.

Posted by IainT 20:47 Archived in Armenia Tagged planes trains transport flights georgia airlines tbilisi yerevan armenia Comments (0)

Crossing Borders

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Mt Ararat

Mt Ararat

Well, that was quite a day (yesterday, 19 September).

I was out of my apartment at 10am to get a minibus to Yerevan, in Armenia.

It is 173 mile (277 km) drive from Tbilisi. It took 5.5 hours, which is normal according to Google maps. The road is not good. The traffic is very slow in places. A lot of the road is through hills and mountains.

We were lucky with our stops at the border, and it only took us 20 minutes. The Armenian immigration officer was unimpressed by the Azerbaijan stamps in my passport, but let me in.

We also stopped for fuel - LPG I think. I could have bought lunch there, but had no Armenian money. The currency exchange booth at the border declined my English notes. In fact the guy gave me a “do you think I’m stupid?” look.

Non-Lunch Stop

Non-Lunch Stop

Just before the border we stopped for the driver to buy 10kg of oranges at a roadside stall. I guess they looked good, or cheap, or both.

He also stopped to buy a car door just after we got into Armenia. Then he discovered there was no room for it in the van. We had to leave it for him to collect another time.

Google does not factor in these random stops, so I guess we made good time. His driving was wild, but no more so than that of other drivers.

The other thing of note on the journey was passing 4 surface-to-air missiles in a field.

When we stopped for fuel and had wifi (but no lunch) I saw we had been right beside the Azerbaijan border when I saw the weaponry. We may even have driven through Armenian occupied Azerbaijan.

It is an interesting part of the world.

Dusk in Yerevan

Dusk in Yerevan

Armenia’s long border with Turkey is closed. So is its long border with Azerbaijan. That leaves north to Georgia or south to Iran.

Of course the Republic of Artsakh also deserves a mention, as it borders on Armenia. It used to be Nagorno-Karabakh. It used to be part of Azerbaijan. It is not recognised as independent internationally - not even by Armenia.

Downtown Yerevan

Downtown Yerevan

Its border with Armenia is open, however. Its border with Azerbaijan is not. You risk landmines and sniper fire if you stray too close.

Brits need a visa to visit Artsakh. An Artsakh visa in your passport will mean automatic refusal of entry to Azerbaijan. Indeed, even an Armenian stamp in your passport will result in close questioning by immigration in Azerbaijan.

If I mention Artsakh, I should also mention the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. It is part of Azerbaijan, but an enclave surrounded by Turkey, Armenia (closed border, obviously) and Iran. The population is just over 400,000 and is 99% Azerbaijani.

Georgia seems to be on reasonable terms with Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Its problem is Russia, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia being de facto seceded. Armenia appears to be on good terms with Georgia, and even more so with Russia.

Recovery Time

Recovery Time

Clear?

Posted by IainT 02:19 Archived in Armenia Tagged beer transport georgia azerbaijan tbilisi yerevan armenia Comments (0)

R and R

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Cafe Leila, Tbilisi

Cafe Leila, Tbilisi

After Berlin, my next stop on this September adventure is Tbilisi.

I have 3 nights here to relax into my holiday and recover from the travel. Tbilisi is a 3.5 hour flight from Berlin, which in turn is 2 hours from Scotland. I could not find any sensible route to get from Scotland to Tbilisi in one day, which is why I had the - very welcome - overnight stop in Berlin.

Typical Tbilisi

Typical Tbilisi

Then you have the 3 hour time difference to factor in…

I had my first experience of Georgian Airways and it turned out well. They are using an Embraer 190 (capacity 97) on the Berlin route. It was very civilised and comfortable.

It is good to be in a familiar setting for this relax and recover phase, and I chose to return to the Airbnb flat I used in May. Apart from being ideal inside, the location is great just 5 minutes walk from Kala (the Old Town) or the Freedom Square metro station if venturing further.

More Typical Tbilisi

More Typical Tbilisi

Because I spent quite a bit of time in the city in May, I feel no great urge to get out exploring. I can revisit places I enjoy if I want to, but it is great to just take my time and do nothing when it suits me.

Getting Hot

Getting Hot

Getting away from work is good news. Whilst I enjoy 80% of it, and I have no career ambitions to put myself under pressure, it can be very intensive.

Escaping Brexit is not possible, but being 1,700 miles from home does help!

Food Tour

Food Tour

Being away from home also reminds me how easy it is to live under the permanent cosh of the task list - or lists in my case. Even if I am 100% relaxing at home, I always have those outstanding itms on the lists somewhere in the back of my mind.

Posted by IainT 02:08 Archived in Georgia Tagged food germany berlin flights georgia airlines tbilisi brexit Comments (0)

Berlin, Again

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Brandenburger Tor

Brandenburger Tor

My September holiday has started!

And so far, so good.

Very good, to be honest. Ryanair has transported me safely to Berlin - and the flight was 20 minutes early!

I am in the airport hotel at Schönefeld overnight. It is very good too, and right beside the railway station - city centre 30 minutes. The hotel even gave me a free 24 hour travel card. It is the Intercity Hotel (one good turn deserves another).

Branding

Branding

I had time for a couple of hours in the city before it started to get dark. The train took me the Friedrichstrasse to wander around Under den Linden, the Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag.

A Memory

A Memory

The last time I used Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse was May 1990. The DDR had opened its borders but was still a separate state. Foreigners still had to use an official border crossing, while locals walked through holes in the wall. I had to pay for a visa and convert the mandatory minimum of hard currency into useless Ostmarks.

It all seems quite unreal now.

I was there for a legal conference. The start of the Single Market in 1992 was the topic.

Yes, unreal now.

The conference was held in the Reichstag - the West German Government was still in Bonn.

Reichstag

Reichstag

Very unreal.

My only other visit to Berlin was in February 2003, taking my son for a wee trip during his school’s mid term break. He would have been 10 years old.

One highlight was going to see Eisbären Berlin playing ice hockey. The team plays in a big fancy arena now, with average crowds of over 12,000, but back then the venue was the Wellblechpalast in Hohenschönhausen - one of the eastern suburbs.

S Bahn & D Bahn

S Bahn & D Bahn

Wellblechpalast translates as “corrugated iron palace”, and it was 40 years old even then. Eisbären grew out of Dynamo Berlin - the East German police and secret service sports club.

Currywurst & Bier

Currywurst & Bier

Yes, good to be back and it is a shame it is just an overnight stay.

Posted by IainT 13:02 Archived in Germany Tagged trains food germany berlin flights ice_hockey airlines brexit Comments (0)

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