Vardzia to Yerevan

Tuesday, August 9, 2022 - 06:30

We got up very early this morning so that we could cross the Georgia/Armenia border before I had to do a half day of work starting at 11.30am local time. I'd read this border was a straightforward one, but so as not to take any chances we left a buffer of 90 minutes just in case things went wrong. In the end it turned out that 'straightforward' didn't necessarily mean the same as quick - more on that below!

The first part of the drive took us back out of the valley where Vardzia is located, and then south east toward the Armenian border, where the landscape completely changed to steppe. The trees mostly disappeared and the mountains gave way to lower hills in the distance. It reminded me of parts of Wyoming I've driven through before, though it was also something like moorland in the UK. We had an added challenge with the driving because there was very thick fog for a lot of this stretch, and the Georgians didn't seem to want to use their car lights to help us spot them, let alone proper fog lights. It also seemed like early on a Monday morning was prime time for migrating herds of cows, where at one point we had to stop completely while a huge herd passed on either side of the car guided by some farmers. This also meant the road with covered in cow mess, which ended up going all over the car rather unpleasantly as we found out when we stopped.

Eventually the fog lifted, and we made it to the border post. By this point the temperature had dropped to just 12 degrees, the coldest it has been all trip, which I was very unprepared for wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and given the number of times I had to get in and out of the car at the borders. The Georgian side of the border was very basic, with one car and one lorry lane on each side. We had a customs official ask us to open the boot, and the passports and car papers were checked. We then drove over to the Armenian side where there was a lot more infrastructure. The line of cars wasn't long at all, but as soon as we stopped, some customs officials came over and said all passengers must use the terminal and only the car and driver could go through the car section. We'd been asked to do this before in Turkey though once they saw the baby we'd been let off. However that wasn't the case here, and Lucy definitely didn't appreciate being woken from her nap and having to get out in the cold weather! The process was a very simple passport check inside the terminal for Melisa and Lucy; it was outside where the challenges began.

Within a few minutes I was at the front of the car queue, and as soon as the official saw my v5c, he looked concerned. He came out and did a lap of the car, studying both licence plates closely. He then went back in the booth and studied the v5c in great detail along with my passport. He didn't look at all happy, so he then took out his phone and called someone. Another man then entered and they looked at the paperwork together, before this new person asked me where I was from and to confirm my licence plate number; something I've had to do at previous borders since the 0 and O look quite similar, and it isn't clear if the 1 is a 1 or an i. I thought this would be it but the original official wasn't satisfied, got back on his phone, and then a woman came out and into the booth with him. This woman spoke great English and asked me a lot more questions. She said "he wants to know why your licence plate is different on the front and back", I asked what she meant, to which she asked why the front is white and has no UK flag, while the back is yellow and has a UK flag. I explained this is just how plates are in the UK with a '10' in the reg meaning the year 2010, and she accepted this, but the man was still unhappy. She then told me I have to put a UK flag on the front of the car as well since it is a requirement in Armenia - I said no problem, as we have actually been carrying a front plate with a UK flag with us just in case this came up during the trip. She looked happy with this answer and said "great, will the front then match the back?", and I said well no, it won't be yellow as UK regulation is white on the front. This caused further unhappiness. She then said "he is also asking why your car passport shows an I on the front but a 1 inside". I then had to painstakingly explain that the front of a v5c shows how the plate is represented on the vehicle, but the inside shows it in a normal printed font. She explained this to him but he was still huffing and puffing and waving his hand at the v5c in front of him. She looked at me as if to say she was sorry about this guy being awkward (he was really just being awkward by this point!!), and spoke to him quite a lot more in Armenian. I told her this is the documentation my government has given me for my car, there simply isn't anything more I can give them! The final question was to confirm that the car was a 2010 car, to which I then had to explain it was actually a 2022 car. Even the woman was a bit unhappy at this point, asking why I had just explained that the 10 in my plate is a year, but the car is in fact a 22 car. I then had to explain how cars in the UK can have private registrations older than the car, which she actually seemed to find quite interesting, and she told me they also have private registrations in Armenia. In the end she explained all this to the man, he begrudgingly accepted, entered me in the system and stamped my passport.

I thought this was the end of it, but some more customs officials then came over, asked me to open the boot and back doors again (I didn't think it was wise to point out I had already done this), and told me I need to go inside to 'clear customs'. They also asked me how much the car was worth, and when I told them they started laughing and saying something in Armenian. I went into the terminal and to one of the customs counters, where the lady pointed and told me "bank, bank" pointing at a currency exchange booth just down the corridor. I wasn't sure why I needed to go there but I obliged, and it turned out this was where they do an assessment of the vehicle to decide how much tax you need to pay. I gave the v5c to the man and he looked it over, wasn't sure what to do, and got his phone out. I just about understand the words 'BMW' and 'Great Britain' in the conversation, he then did something on his computer and said "5000". My stomach sunk slightly and I thought this was us falling to the type of customs deposit I've heard they can mess you around with at borders in places like Africa and Central Asia, which is why the Carnet de Passage system was created. I said "5000 what?" and he said "Dram", the Armenian currency, only £10! So I happily paid the £10 then went with the receipt back to the customs counter. The customs counter woman then told me I also need to pay the ecological tax - que some shouting across the corridor between the woman and the man at the currency counter, and she then asked if the car is fully electric, which I confirmed, and she said I don't need to pay the ecological tax. She then asked me to fill in a customs declaration form, a bit like the customs declaration you have to do for places like the USA. She asked me to confirm the car's price which she balked at and then laughed a bit like the men outside - I suppose not many higher value cars come through this border. She did however call the exchange man back over, they had a whole conversation where the man shrugged his shoulders a lot - my best guess is she was asking why I only paid £10 tax on the car, but she let it go in the end and issued me a customs certificate.

With customs paperwork in hand, the very final step was to walk over to the car insurance building outside the terminal and pay €26 for insurance for 10 days - not a bad price in the end. This might all sound like a lot of hassle, but I have to say that throughout this entire process, which took nearly 2 hours in the end, everyone was surprisingly friendly and spoke good English. I never felt like I was in trouble or that we wouldn't get let in, more that they just couldn't believe this UK car was here and didn't know how to deal with it. However, this long delay did mean that we weren't going to make it to Yerevan in time for me to work, so we decided to stop in a nice cafe in Armenia's second city Gyumri instead, which was only about 45 minutes from the border. This wasn't such a bad thing, since I had read about Gyumri before the trip and how it has some great examples of classic Armenian architecture. We managed to have a quick walk around the main square and take some photos, enjoying the rather unique very dark grey buildings with touches of orange.

After I was finished with work we completed the trip to Yerevan, which took us further over the steppe landscape, along a half finished motorway (a common theme now we have seen motorway building in Bosnia, Albania, Georgia and here). This meant traffic was both ways on one side of the motorway while they finished the other, but it was easy driving on the brand new tarmac. I really enjoyed the drive, and think steppe might be one of my favourites along with desert - it really gives a sense of wide open space, helped by the fact the area between the cities is so sparsely populated.

As if the day hadn't been busy enough, the limited time we have in Yerevan meant we also decided to do the city's free walking tour this evening. However, Melisa was coming down with some kind of stomach bug at this point so opted to stay at the hotel with Lucy while I went on the tour alone. The tour was with a guide called Vako who has been running these tours for the last 8 years, and was incredibly well informed about his city, the country, and the geopolitical situation in the region. The tour ended up being 3 and a half hours long which was arguably a little too long, but at the same time it was all very interesting and I'm not sure I would have cut any of it out. I can't mention everything from the tour here, but highlights included the history of the country, the Armenian genocide, how they became the first Christian country in the world and have a unique type of Christianity here, the language and alphabet, how Armenians feel about the Kardashians, and the free concerts put on here by System of a Down and Kanye West. What really struck me was the way the Armenian people have been persecuted by those around them over the last 3000 years, and it reminded me a lot of the historical plight of the Jewish people. Vako even said how even though they've been persecuted for thousands of years, they are still here while many of the persecutors aren't, which is something I often here Jewish people say about themselves too. There are still a lot of problems for Armenia though, especially with neighbouring Azerbaijan, who they are having to give up more land to even this month (Azerbaijan is backed by Turkey who are NATO so the West doesn't do anything), and have been destroying Armenian churches, monasteries, and religious artefacts recently without repercussion from the international community.

Yerevan itself seems like a great city on first impressions during the walking tour, with many interesting sights and a unique type of architecture. We are staying right on the huge Republic Square which is a perfect location from which to explore more of it tomorrow once Melisa is hopefully feeling better. I was straight back to the hotel after the tour not feeling great myself, having to skip the night time alfresco dining and bar culture the Armenians are known to enjoy every night of their long summers.

Dog Notes: 

We're quite used to no checks being required on Summer by this point, and today was no exception. The customs officials opened the back door to see Summer on the seat staring up at them cutely. They then asked 'Is dangerous?' to which we assured them she isn't. They then proceeded to pet her on the head and make noises at her - much easier than our border experience!

Electric Vehicle EV Notes: 

We thought we were going to have enough charge to get all the way from Vardzia to Yerevan, but the first part of the trip ended up being very uneconomical due to much colder temperatures than we have had at any point so far. We therefore found what I think is the only charger in Gyumri for a topup.
- Solara AM charger at Solara shop in Gyumri. Used the Solara app which requires an Armenian phone number to sign up so it was lucky we picked up a local sim card at the border. They charge 120 AMD (about 25p) per unit but it isn't clear if their unit is a KW or a minute. I topped up £8 worth and that was enough for about 40% charge.

Miles Driven: 
Holiday Inn Yerevan


Another day of challenges but I guess that city tour made it all worthwhile. Your number plate and general border experience left me open mouthed! Not sure what they would have made of my blue car.

I think that experience at the border would have given me a 'stomach problem' and a swift about turn! You did well. Brave man!

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