It was time. My two months in Tbilisi had come to an end and it was time for me to leave Georgia and head to Armenia.
I woke up early after 4 hours of sleep and got a taxi to Tbilisi’s Ortochala bus station. As soon as I got out of the taxi, I was surrounded by a small crowd of drivers asking me where I wanted to go. My first instinct was to ignore them—no legit marshrutka (minibus) driver is that interested in or proactive at finding passengers. I assumed that they were unofficial taxi or marshrutka drivers—people with vans or cars that weren’t officially licensed as public transportation but who made the trips if/when they could fill up their vehicles with enough people. But I’ve had good experiences with shared taxis and vans in the past, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I told one of the guys that I was going to Yerevan and he led me to a big blue Dodge van. I was the only passenger there so far. I asked the driver (who was different from the guy that had brought me over to the van) when we were going to leave, and he said in 15 minutes. Right.
The driver’s name was Soso. (Soso is the diminutive form of the name Iosif, the Georgian version of Joseph. Stalin, who is Georgian and whose first name was Iosif, went by the name Soso when he was a boy.) He was making the trip from Tbilisi to Yerevan to pick up some cargo or something and figured he’d see if he could get any passengers while he was at it. The fare was 30 lari (about $18 US; the same price as an “official” marshrutka ride to Yerevan), 10 of which he gave to the taxi driver that had led me over to him. After waiting for an hour in vain for more passengers, we finally took off.
Soso loved to talk, and he asked me all sorts of questions: where I was from, what nationality I was (which isn’t the same as where someone is from), what I did for work, how much money I made, whether I had a driver’s license, whether I had a car, how long I had been in Georgia, how I liked Georgia, what things I had seen in Georgia, how much I paid for my apartment in Tbilisi, how many siblings I had, how old I was, and so on.
The drive to the Armenian border took about an hour and fifteen minutes. We drove through beautiful rolling green hills and the occasional small town or village. At the border, I got out of the van and waited for about 15 minutes to get a Georgia exit stamp in my passport. I got back in Soso’s van and we drove another few hundred feet to the Armenian border guard area, where I again got out of the van. I needed to get an Armenian visa, so I filled out a form and paid 3000 drams ($7.30) for the visa. I then waited in line for about 15 minutes to get my passport stamped and then hopped back into Soso’s van.
And Soso and I continued talking. He talked about his travels in Russia and Egypt. He talked about his wife and daughter. He talked about Georgian history and politics. He asked my why I wasn’t married, and why I hadn’t married a nice Georgian girl. He said that Tristan was a Georgian name, that there were Georgians named Tristan. (I’ve found that the name Tristan is better known outside of America than in it. Thanks, Wagner.) He told me that Armenians make better shashlyk than Georgians, but Georgians make better khinkali.
I asked Soso what he thought about Stalin (which is something I asked Georgians whenever I could), and he said that the man was totally crazy. Mad with power. I asked him about life during the Soviet Union—another favorite question of mine—and he told me about how much better it all was then. It was pretty much the same story that Davit had told me. There was more security then. Everyone had jobs. Everything was cheaper. Life was easier and better.
Once we were in Armenia, we started seeing people sitting on the sides of the road with buckets full of peaches. These were usually older women (babushki/бабушки), and there were several of them per mile. Soso pulled over and bought a bag of peaches from a more established-looking fruit and vegetable stand. He insisted that I eat several of them, which I happily did.
The landscape in Armenia was noticeably different from that in Georgia. The hills and mountains were still green, but they were much more rocky. The rock was dark gray basalt that was arranged vertically in columns (similar to the kind of thing you see at Devil’s Tower, Giant’s Causeway, and those cool waterfalls in Iceland). The mountains as a whole were steeper.
The ride from the border to Yerevan was about 4 hours. For the first couple hours, I was still Soso’s one and only passenger, but we eventually started picking up more people as we got closer to the big city. I got into a conversation with Armen, a guy sitting in a seat behind me. He was really excited to find out that I was an American and part Armenian. He told me all about the things and places we passed by and through, why they were named what they were, and why they were important. Armen was an ethnic Armenian who was born and lived most of his life in Georgia but now lives in Moscow. That’s why people in this part of the world always ask about your nationality/ethnicity in addition to where you’re from.
As we drove further south, the landscape changed yet again (and the road got better). The mountains became less rocky, less steep, and bigger. We eventually passed by Aragats, the tallest mountain in the country. The road topped out at a pass at about 7,050 feet.
At one point, about an hour outside of Yerevan, Soso stopped the van and hopped out to buy some more food. He brought back several pieces of warm bread with some spiced meat of some sort on the inside and again, he insisted that I eat some. I obliged, and it was really tasty.
Finally, after nearly 6.5 hours of sitting in an uncomfortable seat and driving on potholed roads, we pulled up at the train station in Yerevan. Soso gave me his phone number, telling me to call him the next time I was in Georgia, that I could stay with him, and that he’d introduce me to his unmarried daughter that was my age. I thanked him and hopped in a taxi to go to my apartment.
Stay tuned for my first impressions of Yerevan and Armenia as a whole.
[Note: These photos were all taken with my phone, so they’re not quite as good as usual.]