We were supposed to pick up Crystal and Taline at 8:30 that morning. I say supposed to, because we didn’t. When 8:30am rolled around, Liz was running around the house banging on my bedroom door and shouting “AHHHH WE’RE LATE! WE ARE SOOOOO LATE!” We hurriedly packed, piled into Liz’s Rav4, and sped to Taline’s apartment. After we picked up Crystal and Taline, we made a quick stop at “Yum-Yum Donuts” for sustenance. I can’t exactly vouch for the authenticity of this particular Yum-Yum donuts franchise, as I’ve noticed that a few stores in the South Caucasus tend to blatantly rip-off the names of Western retailers (Victoria’s Secret, GAP, etc) that don’t have a presence in the country. Perhaps the most amusing example of this was when Taline pointed out the “In-N-Out” burger place in Yerevan. I’m guessing that some enterprising young Armenian went to visit some family members in SoCal and was so enamored with our favorite fast food chain that he decided to open up one in Yerevan. Although I didn’t try the Armenian In-N-Out, I’m quite sure that it can’t even come close to one in California.
Loaded down with a box of donuts and muffins, we were finally on our way out of the city. YEAH TBILISI HERE WE COME! The soundtrack for this road trip was a mix of 70s and 80s music, heavy on Abba and Madonna. The drive through the Armenian countryside went smoothly, if you discount the fact that Liz has apparently gone native and is an absolutely fucking crazy driver. Lucky for us, her red diplomatic license plates allowed her to breeze right past those bastard policeman extortionists.
Near Lake Sevan, we encountered this large herd of cattle that was crossing the highway. This doesn’t happen very often in California, or on the Beltway, so I had to take a few photos.
A view of Lake Sevan from the road. A brilliant blue color, the lake was surrounded by mountains smothered in clouds. On the side of the road, young boys waved at the cars passing by and stretched out their arms to indicate the size of the fish they had for sale. Apparently there are some very large fish in Sevan.
We took the same road up to the Georgian border that we had taken several days earlier when we visited the monasteries at Haghpat and Sanahin. Crystal, Laura, and myself were experts of sort with this route, and could advise on the bridge that was coming up and oh, by the way, it was only one lane because the other half had fallen into the canyon below…don’t look down!
We soon found ourselves at the Bagratashen-Sadakhlo border crossing. The process went quickly on the Armenian side, mostly due to the fact that Liz has a black diplomatic passport. We hopped back into the car and drove through the no-man’s land towards the Georgian border. There’s no real direction as to which building we are supposed to go to in order to have our passports stamped, but we see a group of people standing around a decrepit pre-fab trailer and figure we should give it a try. Inside the hot, dimly lit room, an overworked, sweating Georgian border guard sits in front of a computer, methodically typing in numbers. A large stack of passports sits on his desk, and outside the shack the crowd of Russians yells through the window for him to hurry up. We placed our passports on his desk, and he begins to process our documents. Several of the Russians rush in, angrily demanding to know why he is now tending to our passports rather than theirs. The officer merely shrugs, points to Liz’s passport, and says “I have a diplomat here.” (Oh, and, like, four of her friends who are most definitely not diplomats but shoved their passports under hers nevertheless). I don’t feel so bad that we cut in front of the Russians, considering how many times I’ve had to put up with their line techniques in Moscow and Petersburg.
After we get our passports stamped we are officially in Georgia and off to Tbilisi. The Georgian landscape is completely different from Armenia’s, with its small, rolling hills and vast fields of sunflowers. We passed an equipment depot and camp for the BTC Pipeline, which was exciting (for me, at least) because I wrote my master’s dissertation on that pipeline.
The BTC Pipeline is somewhere out there
The Georgian roads were rough and filled with potholes (yes, even worse than DC!) They weren’t marked very well, so sometimes we weren’t sure if we were heading in the right direction. All we could do is pull alongside a group of locals and shout “Tbilisi?!?” praying they would point us in the right direction.
Small Georgian town
It pains me to say this, and some of you will probably disown me, but our first destination once we arrived in Tbilisi was McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s, the fine purveyor of Americana in a paper wrapper and cheap plastic toy. We didn’t know where the McDonald’s was, so we pulled over and asked a babushka for directions. She didn’t know, and shouted something to an elderly man missing most of his teeth. He hobbled over, and we asked again “Excuse me, do you know where McDonald’s is located?” He grinned and nodded “Ah, McDonald’s! Yes, yes!” and gave us proper directions. Now imagine this, a group of five American girls driving around Tbilisi in an SUV asking the locals where McDonald’s is. How…cliche.
The all too familiar golden arches
The reason we had to go to McDonald’s is because there isn’t one in Yerevan, and Liz and Taline were craving a taste of home. I don’t blame them, as in my trips abroad, especially in Russia, I occasionally partook in a burger and fries. It’s always interesting to visit a McDonald’s in a foreign country, and is almost like a weird social experiment. Everything is so familiar (the smells, the taste, the decorations, the uniforms) yet so foreign (the incomprehensible menu, the locals, the cleanliness, yes! cleanliness).
After the expats had their fill of McDonald’s, we checked into our hotel, a charming lodge named Betsy’s Place. As soon as we pulled up to the hotel we noticed that ALL of the cars were SUVs with red diplomatic plates. Apparently this was the place to be if you were a diplomat. God only knows how I ended up there.
The view from our room. I could sit on our balcony for hours and just stare at the city below.
Once we checked in, Liz, Laura, and Taline promptly fell asleep, while Crystal and I headed out to explore the city. We wandered around for awhile, with no exact destination in mind, and passed the flea market where elderly Georgians stood around gossiping and begging passers-by to purchase their broken rotary telephones and yellowing photos of Stalin. We hailed a taxi and had the driver take us to Narikala Fortress. His car couldn’t make it up the steep hill, so we had quite a workout walking up there, which was great considering I was still feeling the effects of the previous night’s drinking. It was worth it, though, as the view from the fortress was incredible.
Narikala fortress – its earliest walls date from the 4th century
Looking down on Tbilisi
Houses on the cliffs overlooking the Mtkvari River. They looked as if any moment they could fall into the water below.
Back of the fortress
We walked down the hill and hailed a taxi to take us back to the hotel in order to meet the rest of our group for dinner. We ended up with a friendly guy who didn’t know where our hotel was, and to be honest, neither did we. We just knew the address, not any details of where it was located in the city. We knew it was near McDonald’s, so had the driver take us there. When he dropped us off, though, I was a bit perplexed, as this McDonald’s looked a bit unfamiliar. Yes, that’s right…it was a different McDonald’s. You mean to tell me there are two McDonald’s in Tbilisi and Yerevan doesn’t even have one? Amazing.
After spending the entire day eating American junk food (donuts AND McDonald’s?! I mean, really!) we opted to have dinner at a traditional Georgian restaurant. Shashlik, kebabs, meat, meat, meat, red wine, and two different types of artery-clogging, heart stopping khachapuri. Khachapuri, a type of bread filled with cheese (and sometimes slabs of butter and eggs) is incredibly delicious, incredibly addicting and INCREDIBLY bad for you. It’s practically the national dish of Georgia, and can be found at virtually any kiosk or restaurant in Tbilisi.
We ended the night with drinks in the hotel bar and headed off to bed. Our electricity kept flickering on and off while we were trying to read ourselves to sleep. Welcome to the former Soviet Union.
(So I lied, took me longer than a week to get the next post up…I’m too lazy about posting, I realize…this is bad. Next up: we spend some more time in Georgia and then fly to Baku, Azerbaijan)