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Overland by bus from Yerevan, Armenia to Tbilisi, Georgia

Phespirit reports - May 2008

The Plan

The Journey

With his pre-paid ticket tucked safely in his passport, Phespirit was collected from the Hotel Aviatrans in central Yerevan at half past eight in the morning and driven the short distance to a bus station at the southwest corner of the city. He was due to depart at nine o'clock on a marshrutka - a type of small white minivan that runs most of the bus routes in the Caucasus - heading north for Tbilisi in Georgia.

The nine o'clock marshrutka didn't get moving until ten to ten, by which time it was filled to maximum occupancy: the driver (smoking and chatting on his mobile phone) plus fifteen seated passengers. The sun was out but clouds and haze still prevailed. The day had not yet heated up. This was fine as there was no air conditioning in the vehicle and the first challenge of the day seemed certain to be a protracted stop-start crawl through the dense, semi-chaotic traffic of Yerevan. By skirting around the city from the southwest to the north, however, a reasonably clear route was found and the marshrutka was accelerating away from the capital after just a quarter of an hour.

It took about forty minutes to reach Aparan, the first sizeable town since leaving the capital. Prior to this the landscape had been uniformly clothed with lush green grass but had scarcely a tree or bush in sight. The road had climbed gently the whole way from Yerevan, winding between undulating rocky fields with high rocky hills marking the horizon. The sun had long been left behind, but only one heavy rain shower had intervened to oppress the view. By eleven o'clock the road had crested and took a slight downward turn. A quarter of an hour later it reached Spitak, the second major town on route to the border.

At half past eleven the marshrutka arrived at the outskirts of the sprawling, smoking industrial city of Vanadzor. It always plays upon Phespirit's conscience when he writes disparagingly about a place he barely knows, but with Vanadzor he has little alternative. It is a horribly grim spectacle, polluted and pungent with roads pitted, patched and uneven. It took ten minutes to get through, and was a relief to be out the other side. Immediately beyond the limits of Vanadzor the landscape became one of high hills and narrow valleys, and everywhere trees. From here to the border with Georgia the road followed the line of the River Debed.

A little over two and half hours after leaving Yerevan, the marshrutka crossed the Debed at Alaverdi and joined a road with painted markings. It struck Phespirit that these were the first he could recall seeing during the course of his exodus. The area around Alaverdi showed signs of decayed industry but was made slightly pretty by the river itself, and an abundance of trees on the steep valley walls. Half an hour after Alaverdi, Phespirit arrived at the border. Foreboding black storm clouds lay waiting in Georgia.

Phespirit climbed out of the marshrutka, stretched, then strolled across to the passport control office. His passport was inspected at one window and stamped at another. With no further fuss, he walked onto the bridge between the two opposing border posts. A Swiss man called Robert asked Phespirit if he would oblige him by taking his photo on the bridge, then offered up some chocolate - "breakfast" - and announced that Armenia had come fourth in the Eurovision Song Contest over the weekend. To think that Phespirit might never have known .....

At quarter past one, when all the passengers had cleared Armenia's border control, they reboarded the marshrutka for the short drive across to the Georgian side. Here all bags were unloaded. Again there was a perfunctory inspection of papers, made official with stamps at a passport booth, then bags were fed through a large x-ray machine and cleared, and all in the space of five minutes. When everyone had done this and finished their cigarettes, they got back on the marshrutka and were seemingly ready to go at half past one. Phespirit noticed a cemetery next to the Georgian border office, but no church. He speculated that perhaps it was there as a deterrent against illegal crossings. The black sky that had persistently rumbled with thunder now issued its inevitable rain. After a final ten minute delay caused by some border complication with one of the passengers, the last border barrier was cleared.

The thing Phespirit immediately noticed about Georgia was that the roads were much smoother than those in Armenia, and resplendent with painted lines. The first major town, Marneuli, was encountered half an hour into the country, and thereafter the landscape became more open, the horizons more distant, with trees once more giving way to rolling grassy plains. The city limits of Tbilisi were penetrated at half past two, and the bus station reached at 2:37pm. Phespirit's first task was to set his watch back one hour to 1:37pm local time. His second was to collect his hold-all and then shake hands with the car driver who was primed and waiting to take him to his hotel.

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