After a three week stay in the Netherlands and with a double entry visa for Russia, I return to Tbilisi to find Piggy in good health. The visa is valid for 3 months starting May 15, which means that I will skip Azerbaijan and spend the short time remaining in Armenia.
In Tbilisi I get caught in the rush-hour, total chaos at the intersections. Often there are no traffic lights, so the strongest or boldest drivers take over. In the traffic jam it is important to stay right behind the vehicle in front of you. From left and right the cars are trying to push ahead. From my high position not everything that is happening right in front of me or next to me is visible. While I accelerate I suddenly hear a loud crunchy sound. That, of course, means trouble. It turns out that the driver of a passenger car has first taken the right of the boldest and has secondly underestimated the right of the strongest. He has put his car slightly in front of my right corner in order to claim priority. As he was invisible to me when I pulled up, I severely damaged his left flank up to and including his rear door, or rather the other way around. The police were on the spot quickly and after 2 hours decided it was not my fault. Not surprisingly, Piggy survived of the battle unharmed.
The border formalities are concluded smoothly, but after 400 meters in Armenia my way is blocked by cars parked across the road. I suspect an accident and stop when a few men ask me to. However, it turns out to be a deliberate roadblock of which I am the first victim. There is a lot of discussion going on between the cars and Armenian flags are draped over the vehicles. Within half an hour more cars appear to reinforce the barrier. A group of young people dance to the Caucasian rhythm coming from the loudspeakers that have arrived in the meantime. A disc jockey ensures the continuity of the music and occasionally someone shouts a short speech through the microphone.
Less than a week ago in The Hague I witnessed a small demonstration of some 40 Armenians in front of the Peace Palace. They protested against the fact that the incumbent prime minister wanted to run for office for the third time, which is forbidden by the constitution. Since his party is the largest in the country, it means that he would hardly get any opposition. The activists demanded his resignation. Also in Armenia itself protesters took to the streets.
Quite. Now I am witnessing in Armenia that the Prime Minister has stepped down under the pressure of the opposition and has left the country. The leader of the strike has ordered the blocking of roads in order to paralyze the economy and thus pressure the parliament to appoint an interim prime minister, who enjoys the approval of the people.
After 5 hours of waiting, the blockade is finally lifted. There is still just enough time to drive to the Debed Canyon and find a spot next to one of the many monasteries there. This area is famous for its many very old monasteries and churches. Armenia was the first country in the world to declare the Christian church the official state religion. The second country to follow was Ethiopia. The interior of the extremely old churches does remind me a lot of the Ethiopian churches, including the niches and caves carved in the cliffside, where monks lived their hermit life until they died.
The scenically beautiful area along the Debed River is unfortunately marred by countless deserted copper mines and industries that provided the population with work during the Soviet era. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the factories were closed down. Factories do not look beautiful anyway, but old Soviet factories are the worst. Especially if after years of neglect, when the walls have partially collapsed and the material has assumed the rust-brown color of decay. The population has moved away. No work anymore. There is no money to clean up the mess. That makes me realize that Armenia is even poorer than Georgia. Cars are kept going for as long as possible and if there is really no longer any life in them, the wreck is left for years in the garden or along the side of the road. But here too, a car wreck seems to have some use as a fence for a piece of land.
In Sanahin I visit both an old monastery and the museum of the Mikoyan brothers. They were born in this village and were an important influence in their world. The younger brother was the inventor and developer of the famous MIG fighter plane and the eldest had a very high position in the cabinets of Stalin up to Brezhnev. In Armenia people have a mixed feeling with this eldest brother because he was close to Stalin, but on the other hand he had a moderating influence on the Soviet leaders as, for example, in the Cuban crisis.
In Sanahin I meet Australians John and Lynda Pinder (www.globalroamer2.com). They have been traveling the world with their camper truck for 16 years and each year spread 6 months travelling and 6 months at home. The three of us dine in a brand new trendy restaurant which on the outside is indistinguishable from the surrounding gray Soviet flats. The young lady from the Mikoyan Museum has taken me there, because if you don’t know it, it is impossible to find.
This is a day I have to digest many impressions. First of all, I attend a church service in an old church on Lake Sevan. The colorful service is led by the priest who, dressed in a beautiful silver-colored robe and with a kind of crown on his head, performs rituals that are unknown and incomprehensible to me.A male choir sings beautifully. The people present very devoutly kiss the Holy Cross the priest holds in his hand when he walks past them. The whole atmosphere makes a deep impression on me. Click HERE for the video. When I want to drive away from my paid parking place afterwards, the parking attendant asks me to flatten the piece of open ground next to the parking lot with Piggy. The man wants to expand. As a return service I ask for a free parking space. He thinks this is a good deal. The weight of 12 tons does a good job when I drive back and forth across the sandy terrain several times. Not long afterwards I encounter another roadblock. It appears that parliament has not agreed to the appointment of the opposition leader as interim prime minister. The people are clearly not happy with this and have been instructed by the opposition to block all roads to the airport. Now they really want to completely shut down the economy. This time, the blockade is not completely watertight. The owners of a 4×4 vehicle have discovered a route through the terrain avoiding the blockade. On foot I go to estimate the possibilities for Piggy. I even see passenger cars zigzagging across with slipping tires and abrasive sounds from under the car. Some get stuck, but miraculously they manage to free themselves again. When I see an old truck with a trailer full of cows crawling through, I decide to go for it. The truck almost threatens to tip over and the poor cows all slide to one side and panic. Fortunately, the driver then finds a flatter piece of land so that the danger passes. Fortunately, I do not transport cows, but it remains exciting with my 3.85-meter high truck. For a moment this sloping slope gives me an adrenalin burst, but the rest of the route through pits and stones goes perfectly, albeit at a walking pace, because the scissor movement between the front cabin and the rear cabin is quite alarming .
Spring has now clearly arrived. On top of the 2400 meters high Selimpass, the snow has largely disappeared and the population is picking vegetables, roots and herbs. Nature shows a growth spurt and gives people healthy food. It is a beautiful environment. The slopes are a fresh green and the flowers add extra color, contrasting with the leftover patches of snow..
And again a number of visits to monasteries, churches and a very special cemetery. They are all special structures in unique locations. I can now rejoice in beautiful sunny weather. It is so clear that I can see the Mount Ararat on the other side of the border, in Turkey, very sharply outlines. As the background of a field of red poppies, the mountain with its snowy peak makes a beautiful contrast.
The roads in Armenia are terrible. Often a speed of 35 km per hour is the least unpleasant for driver and truck, but passenger cars whizz past.
The border with the isolated part of Azerbaijan (Nakhcivan) is closed with a high fence. The two countries still have disagreements about Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and most of Azerbaijan.
Eventually I reach the capital of Armenia, Yerevan. But first of all I go to Camping 3Gs (www.campingarmenia.com), run by an enthusiastic Dutch couple. It is one of the best and cosiest campsites I’ve visited so far. And it has the best price / quality ratio by far. It’s great to be able to do my washing in a proper washing machine again, to connect the electricity,to refill the watertanks and even solve a leakage problem with help.
The roads are regularly blocked. The airport is also closed. On May 8, the parliament will vote for the second time for a new interim prime minister. I decide not to wait for that date. On May 7 I want to leave the country, before the situation might become much grimmer if the will of the people is ignored .
Recently, the opposition has decided to lift the roadblocks in anticipation of the new vote. So I get a chance to visit Yerevan before I leave the country. It is not a very special city, I think. Unfortunately, the Ararat does not show itself any more. Too much air pollution. On this day I walk at least 20 km to visit the most interesting places.
According to plan, I will cross the border with Georgia on May 7 and travel back to Tbilisi via Vardzia, where I will spend the night at a newly discovered parking space in the city, next to the futuristic, metal-colored ‘Music Theater and Exhibition Center’ (totally empty and unused – what a waste!)
I learn that the Armenian Parliament has chosen eggs for its money and voted in favor of the opposition leader’s appointment as interim prime minister. With this, the sting is removed from the wound and the country can prepare itself for a hopefully democratically elected leader who could help the country get out of its misery. Corruption and nepotism will need to be tackled first.
The next item on my agenda is the entry into Russia on May 15. On my way north I make a stop in Gudauri, the resort that I visited 1.5 months ago. There was still snow then and the skislopes were open. Now the sun is shining and the only snow visible is on the high tops of the mountains. I know from that previous visit that one can make a duo parapente flight here, so I drive over to get some information. Within half an hour I am hanging in the air, floating above the canyon, between the high mountains with their snowy tops and above the road I just travelled. We fly next to an eagle and also have great views of Mount Kazbek, the highest summit in the area. Awesome! How quickly a person’s day can take a different turn from what was expected. And that’s exactly why I make this journey of my life. Of course I wanted to make this flight solo, but yes, when you get older, there is not enough time left to learn all the skills needed for this kind of challenging activities. I once took a basic paragliding course in the Belgian Ardennes, but that does not get you very far here between high mountains and deep gorges.
The Jvaripas is now completely snow-free. I hope that, reading this, you remember the “rescue operations” a month and a half ago? The landscape has changed completely, but is just as beautiful. In Kazbegi (or Stepantsminda, as it is called nowadays) I wait for May 15, the day I can cross the border into Russia. I spend a beautiful day walking to the Holy Trinity Church high on top of a mountain high above this town. Because of the clouds, the interesting Mount Kazbeg is again invisible. During the parapent flight, it fortunately was reasonably visible. An impressive lump of rock of 5033 meters high.
The plans for the coming weeks are:
- From Georgia the border crossing into Russia.
2. Through the unstable regions of Chechnya and Dagestan (I will not be camping in the wild but spend the night in hotels or motels) to Astrakhan.
3. There I will cross the border with Kazakhstan and
4. Enter Russia again via the north side of this country and travel through the Altai Mountains to Irkutsk, where I have to arrange a visa for Mongolia,
5. After which I hope to enter Mongolia.
If there is anybody interested in a few weeks exploring then mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do not forget that obtaining a visa and route planning requires a timely response.
TAKE LOOK AT THE IMAGERY AND FOOTAGE OF TURKEY & CAUCASUS