While in Armenia on business, I took up the opportunity to travel to the southern part of the country, the Syunik province. I heard a lot of good things about this historically Armenian region, its natural beauty and its monuments. So I drove the so called “North – South” road from Yerevan all the way to Meghri near the Iranian border.
I only had two days to get back in Yerevan. I really wanted to make it to the Iranian border near Meghri, while fitting in a few touristic stops. My obsession with reaching Meghri had to do with a road trip from Europe to Georgia back in 2009, for which the return trip was planned via Armenia and Iran, but it didn’t work out that way.
Goris seemed to be the perfect base for an overnight stay, somewhat halfway Yerevan and Meghri with a good and reasonably priced hotel overlooking the town and a few sights nearby. After booking the hotel and picking up the rental car, I headed south in the morning traffic of Yerevan, on a weekday in April with splendid spring weather. The plan was to drive to Meghri, do some local sightseeing and then head back to Goris for the night. In total roughly 530 kilometers to cover in one day with a few mountain passes.
Heading out of Yerevan via the M-2 / E117 highway the road first goes southwest to the Turkish border with the majestic snowcapped Mount Ararat in plain sight. Until the town of Ararat the highway is a hybrid between a motorway and a dual carriageway through the Ararat plain.
The first 50 kilometers until the town of Ararat were a breeze to drive. Hardly any traffic on the flat road and splendid scenery to enjoy. After that the road turned into a single carriageway and remained that for most part. The navigation and roadsigns directed me through Yeraskh, the border town at the Azerbaijan exclave Nakhchivan, although there is a bypass road as well. Since the 2020 Azerbaijan war against Nagorno Karabakh, Russia has increased its presence in Armenia, and that is visible, not only around Karabakh. At the central intersection in Yeraskh a Russian observation post keeps watch over passing traffic. And those who want to visit the train station.
From here the road leaves the Ararat Plain and the Aras river valley, heading east across the southern section of the Gegham mountain range. During the climb the road passes through one of the Azerbaijan enclaves in Armenia. The village Karki (or Tigranashen) has been under Armenian control since 1990, captured during the first Karabakh war, and traffic passes through it in free flow. If you don’t know the enclave was there you wouldn’t even notice.
At the town of Areni, 100 kilometers from Yerevan, the road joins the Arpa river and continues through the Arpa Canyon, a beautiful and gracious canyon that is a pleasure to drive. The area is rich of vineyards and wineries which are all signposted along the road. Unfortunately my self-imposed schedule didn’t allow for a stop. Near Getik the road follows the Darb river upstream through a canyon when the climb to the first serious mountain pass begins. The 2344 meter high Vorotan Pass is also the border of Syunik province and provides a great view over de Syunik Volcanic Highland. South from the pass, in the volcanic highland, the Spandarian Reservoir is the largest in the country and is located at an elevation of 2050 metres above sea level.
The volcanic highland extends until the town of Goris, where it suddenly drops. Just before Goris the road bends southward to Tatev. Before the 2020 war the main road to Iran used to pass through Goris. From there it headed south to the provincial center Kapan, running parallel to the Azerbaijan border and crossing it a few times. After the 2020 war Azerbaijan regained control over its borderlands and only a few months before my trip they closed the road for through traffic, causing Armenians to quickly upgrade the road through Tatev which had a few bad sections.
Near Shinuhayr the volcanic highland terminates with a steep drop to the Vorotan river, with the road passing it via the Devil’s Bridge. The climb up to Tatev, famous for its medieval monastery goes with more than a dozen hairpin curves. It was just my luck that when I came down to the river, on the other side a colonne of Armenian army trucks with pieces of artillery came down the hairpins. After an OK sign from the police at the Devil’s Bridge I was allowed to go up the steep climb, as long as I took care at the turns for the trucks coming down.
The road passes here through the Bargushat mountain range and is very curvy due to the river gorges and ridges it crosses. From the highway one gets a stunning view over the 9th century Tatev monastery, one of the highlights of Armenia’s cultural heritage. The road slowly navigates down to 1000 metres above sea level near Norashenik where it joins the Okhtar river towards the regional capital Kapan, the most populous town of southern Armenia at 43.000 residents.
From Kapan the road heads west towards the Zangezur mountain range, which forms the north-south border area with Nakhchivan. First the road follows the Voghji river upstream, until the town of Karajan, where the road turns south to climb to the 2535 meter high Meghri Pass, the highest point in the road south.
After the Meghri Pass the road quickly winds down to the Meghri river and after 30 kilometers arrives at the town which is located at an elevation of roughly 600 metres above sea level. First I passed the town to set my eyes on Iran. A few kilometers south of Meghri the Aras river forms the Armenian-Iranian border flowing from east to west. Nearby is the Norduz border checkpoint across the river, which handles all the overland traffic between the two countries.
Instead, I headed east on the M17 along the river as I wanted to check out the remains of the former Meghri railway station. In the 1940 Soviet era a railway line was build along the Aras river from Azerbaijan via Meghri to Julfa in Nakhchivan. Since the 1990s it has not been operative and has mostly been dismantled. Since the 2020 war there is new talk about reviving the railway connection as part of a new Azerbaijan transport corridor to Nakhchivan (see my other post about that). I knew from photos the railway yard at Meghri station had some old locomotives and wagons floating around, good for some photography.
Unfortunately a Russian checkpoint in the road, just before the railway station, was in the way to go and check it out. So I headed back via the loop to the east side of town. At Meghri there are a few touristic sights. One of them is the Meghri Fortress at the east side of town. Instead, I went to the 17th century Hovhannes Church on the other side of town. The church has been renovated in recent years with financial support from USAID, and I wanted to check it out. The church is fully decorated with Armenian-Iranian frescoes inside which have been preserved.
The church is a located at the end of a local road up the hill, off the road to Karchevan. It has a little courtyard, and the entrance is on the side. It is a so called hall church, rectangular in shape with a minor bell tower in the center of the roof. The interior is impressive and fully decorated with frescoes.
By this time it was already late afternoon, close to 4 pm, time to start driving to Goris. According to the navigation it would take me three hours, despite the modest 150 kilometers. Even though the driving in Armenia had been pleasant so far without reckless drivers along the way, I preferred not to drive in the dark hours. The roads were generally quite alright but sudden potholes can be treacherous at night.
The alternative road to Goris, via Tsav through the Shikahog State Reserve was not an option anymore, as it was closed in the Azerbaijan borderlands as well. So I had to drive the same way back, arriving at the hotel just around dusk. The ‘Khoreayi dzor’ in Goris is in the outskirts of Goris located up on a hill overlooking the town and valley. After checking in to my pleasant room I got diner at the hotel. No need to go out and hunt for restaurants in town. The hotel served traditional Armenian and Georgian food after all. What else could I wish for?
Goris is a nice and lively town with a compact and easy to navigate centre. The street plan is rectangular in shape with straight roads. At the central square in the southern side of town you can find the municipality administrative buildings, the cultural center and a regional museum.
The next morning I took off to the east on the M12, the road to the Lachin corridor and Nagorno Karabakh. That was not my destination, but the historic cave town at Khndzoresk which is located in the Khor Dzor gorge. People used to live in cave dwellings here until the 1950s, when the new village was built above the gorge. Inside the gorge there is a church, and other buildings as well. At its height the village had more than 8000 people, with dozens of stores and seven schools.
Khndzoresk and Lachin
From the parking lot one has to walk down hundreds of steps into the gorge, where a hangbridge allows for a passage across. You can walk around freely and access the caves. In one particular cave at the foot of the stairs there is a little housemuseum, run by a man who was born and raised there. The gorge was full with blooming blossoms, under a clear blue sky.
After this morning exercise I drove as much as I could towards the Lachin corridor, passing through the town of Tegh. A few kilometers beyond the town, near the de jure Azerbaijan border is a checkpoint, where I turned around. Since the 2020 war Azerbaijan regained control over the territory between the Armenian mainland and Nagorno Karabakh.
Under the ceasefire agreement the sole connecting road to the Karabakh capital Stepanakert came under Russian oversight and protection. Since late 2022 there is a new road, a little more south from Tegh via Kornidzor, which bypasses Lachin town that Azerbaijan nowadays controls. Earlier in 2022 when I was here the old situation still applied. In early 2023 the corridor has been blocked by Azerbaijan, which broke the agreement with Armenia and leaves Karabakh without Armenian linkage.
After this little detour I drove back to Yerevan, the same way I came. Not my tradition, but directed by the road situation and my timeline. The alternative via Lake Sevan would consume too much time. Another time.
By five o’clock in the afternoon I was back in Yerevan for my last obligations before flying back home in the early morning hours. The Syunik province is certainly an area that deserves a longer visit.