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Armenia (mostly North), May/June 2022 (1 Viewer)

Richard Prior

Halfway up an Alp
A ‘big’ birthday for me this year had me finally deciding the expense of a trip on a commercial Bird Tour to Finland and Norway for the long suffering Mrs P and me was perhaps justified after all….

But it was not to be, due to people dropping out the whole thing was cancelled, so as we had over the past 2 years collected about 18kgs of children’s clothes to take to a project we support in Armenia it was a no brainer to bring forward our next visit to our friends there – so perhaps there’ll be no new WP species for me for my 70th year after all, but there’s more to life than lifers …… isn’t there?:unsure: Therefore this is more of a Vacational Report than a Bird Trip report, we spent our time in the North/North West so none of the country’s ‘sought after Western Palearctic specialties’ as the Tour Companies would call them - and as there was no room in our luggage for my ‘bird photographing lens’ those hoping for some of my usual top quality exotic birdy pics should look away now….

Things went a bit Pete Tong from the start when our flight from Geneva arrived late at Vienna and Austrian Airlines decided to let their Yerevan flight leave without us and three other passengers even though a delay of less than 15 minutes would have been incurred. With only one flight per day and the next evening’s flight fully booked we were billeted in a Vienna airport hotel for the night and booked on another airline the following afternoon to … Athens (??) then the night flight from there to Yerevan where we eventually arrived 23hours late!

Day one was originally planned to be a midday check in at a hotel, a bit of kip then a good few hours birding around Mount Aragats, stay overnight before heading north to our friends at Vanadzor on Day 2. Instead we arrived on Day 2 but still took the same route, a dawn drive from the airport to the foothills of Mt Aragats in our hired Lada Niva saw the first taste of the exotic for a West European birder, on the dusty plain flocks of Rosy Starling were already scudding across the sky, numerous Hoopoe flying across the road carrying food for their young and a brief stop to check the map produced a couple of pairs of Roller nesting on a huge war memorial. Driving up into the cleaner air above Byurakan we saw an accipiter perched on a roadside rock, with its back turned but it gave us a stare allowing us to see it had a nice dark eye, a Levant Sparrowhawk. While Mrs P had a sleep in the parked car I walked around the vicinity, near a former holiday camp now seriously overgrown. Rock and Black-headed Bunting were competing in a singing contest with several other species, Cuckoo, several Common and Lesser Whitethroat, Common and Black Redstart, Mountain Chiffchaff, Common Rosefinch and a skulking but noisy Marsh Warbler finally gave itself up after teasing me for several minutes. A calling Cetti’s Warbler was typically uncooperative though as was a shy Robin. As the sun rose higher a nice group of four rufous Steppe Buzzard circled around, Woodlark were singing and a Bee Eater announced its arrival before it flew overhead (on our September 2019 visit Bee Eater provided the soundtrack to our holiday but this individual proved to be the only one of our two weeks this time!). No time to go higher up the road for Radde’s Accentor, White-throated Robin etc etc as we had to hit the road north, but we managed to persuade the nearby hotel to rustle up some breakfast (tomato omelette and potatoes, yum), out of the window a fine Lesser Grey Shrike was looking for its morning meal too and a pair of Grey Wagtail were flycatching in the car park. After taking the obligatory photo of the distant Mount Ararat (‘Armenia’s highest peak’ (though of course it’s actually in present day Turkey)) we struck off east along a minor road till we reached the main Yerevan to Vanadzor highway. We had driven on this road in 2019 when the grassland was pretty parched and birdsong largely absent, but to see it in late Spring was something else, wildflowers everywhere and rushing streams full of snowmelt water gave it another aspect. The cattle and sheep farmers and their families were in the process of setting up camp in a number of spots and there was a good variety of birds to be seen or heard, including a pair of Ruddy Shelduck, Quail, Skylark (loads), Sand Martin, Tawny Pipit, Northern and Isabelline Wheatear, Red-backed Shrike, Rock Sparrow and Corn Bunting. Strangely we didn’t see any Lesser Spotted Eagle despite having encountered them on this route previously. Driving on the minor roads was as usual, a challenge (!) but that’s why we chose to hire a Lada Niva, they cope with everything the Armenian road system throws at you. Having said that, each time we return to the country the roads are better. It was Republic Day, so various events were taking place in the towns, meaning a few interesting diversions were undertaken and lorries had been pulled off the road for several hours until the main roads reopened after the concerts and parades had finished.

Late afternoon saw us arrive in Vanadzor, Armenia’s third city and we checked into our town centre B & B, squeezed between a bread factory and backing onto a park (sadly not visible behind a wall).

Photos: Mount Ararat, Rock Bunting, Black-headed Bunting, en route landscape, some of the Aparan Police Band getting ready for the Republic Day concert.


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Day 3-5 Despite its city centre location our B and B was an oasis of greenery, plenty of fruit trees and bushes to attract the local Blackcap and a pair of Common Redstart that were constantly going to and for with food for their young, the nest cleverly tucked away in an air vent on the bakery wall, a wise choice given the heavy rainstorms which are a feature of Armenia in May (May being the month with the heaviest rainfall). The male was a very smart individual of the samamisicus subspecies (Ehrenberg’s Redstart). The next couple of days were focused on the humanitarian side of our trip in the vicinity of Spitak, the town that was all but wiped out by the 1988 earthquake. I did add our first Wryneck though, kleng kleng klenging away in trees overlooking the enormous rusting chemical works complex at the western entrance of Vanadzor.

Our next destination was Odzun, a large village overlooking the impressive Debed gorge, the river runs north and on into Georgia. It’s an area well known for Lammergeier and Wallcreeper (just like home!) and popular with the tour companies, with several ancient monasteries and churches. We had chosen the quiet option, staying in a Soviet-era hotel away from the gorge and a couple of kms outside the village too. On the edges of the gorge we saw our only Alpine Swifts of this trip and a smart Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush perched on a roadside outcrop.

At first, the avian soundtrack around the hotel’s extensive orchards and surrounding woodland was very familiar and West European you might say, warblers represented by Common Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Common and Lesser Whitethroat, Common Redstart pairs in full nesting mode, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Wren, Dunnock, Song Thrush and Blackbird, Tree Pipit and White Wagtail, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tit, Nuthatch, Red-backed Shrike, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Bullfinch. The hot weather, our state of fatigue and the steep hills behind the hotel meant our walk on the first day at Odzun was a fairly short one and the siesta by contrast a long one:)! Still we briefly saw what was probably just a ‘normal’ male European Stonechat, breeding Tree Sparrow in the cemetery (sadly containing several new graves, mostly of young guys killed in the recent conflict with Azerbadjan). Two Egyptian Vulture were circling with a light form Booted Eagle over the slopes where shepherds on horseback were looking after flocks of sheep or small groups of cows.

The second morning dawned with the liquid song of Golden Oriole echoing up from the woods and a Quail was calling in the orchard where a family of pigs were wandering (they even tried to walk into the dining room as we had yet another fabulous Armenian breakfast, can’t blame them!). We were the only guests for the four nights we were there which for Mrs P (who works in the nursing sector and understandably needed a rest after two years of Covid–related pressure) was just the quiet restful ticket required. We wanted to go North West to explore a little populated area, villages originally established by Russians escaping religious persecution by Catherine the Great so drove west to Stepanavan along a surprisingly good minor road, then north almost to the Georgian border. From there we went west on a dirt road for 14kms over a mountain pass to Tashir before looping back through Stepanavan again. On the lower lying sections of our route there seemed to be either a Black-headed or Corn Bunting on wires between each telegraph pole and a fair few Common Rosefinch too. I was struck by how common Sand Martin was, many low banks beside the winding river as we headed north had colonies. Raptors were in short supply though, a few Common Kestrel and a couple of Long-legged Buzzard about it. On the mountainous dirt road we began to see Whinchat and added Raven to our tally but our picnic at what seemed like a promising spot at the pass didn’t produce much except a stonking male Ring Ousel carrying food, showing very silvery wings on this local subspecies amicorum but without the pale ‘scales’ on the underparts that we’re used to on the alpestris version here in the Alps. A Marsh Warbler popped up and sang beside the track (unfortunately our camera was on ‘flowers and plants’ setting as you can see!) and a brown Common Rosefinch came to have a look at us. As I switched off the engine at that point I could have sworn I heard a Corncrake call once but Mrs P thought it was the Lada creaking:unsure:….
Approaching Stepanavan we passed a couple of lakes so not surprisingly we saw our first Armenian Gull plus a few other wetland habitat species, Marsh Harrier, Coot, Little Grebe, (Black-headed) Yellow Wagtail and singing Sedge Warbler.
Photos Common Redstart, Doroband Monastery with Georgia in background, 'Russian' village Privolnoye, Marsh Warbler, Common Rosefinch


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A delightfully evocative read Richard, many thanks, keep it coming! Congratulations on the 'milestone' too!

Thanks Chris, hope people find it of interest despite the reduced bird content this time. On that theme, a few photos from the first few days:
1. A village scene near Spitak, the epicentre of the 1988 'quake. All was reduced to rubble so the buildings all date since then (in some of the villages people are still in the 'temporary' prefab buildings put up immediately after the disaster). Note the mains gas pipes are above ground, a sensible idea with the seismic activity thereabouts.
2. In the Odzun cemetery. Most gravestones from the 1970s onwards tend to have an image of the deceased, the older ones often copied from identity card photos it seems. Some more recent ones have different images on the two sides of the stone, the young man for example is portrayed on the reverse in smart jeans and shoes carrying his cigarettes as if off for a night out with his mates. There's also a tradition to have a design of a flower with a broken stem, if the person died young.
3. The overgrown hotel grounds at Odzun, showing the only other guests heading towards the dining room!
4. Looking down into the Debed Gorge - spot the tiny chapel, those builders were brave in the old days!
5. A typical village house in Privolnoye, one of the exiled Russian established villages in the far north.


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As we approached Odzun after our jaunt ‘up north ‘ we had rear views (and looking into the low sun) of a flying away large falcon sp, probably a Peregrine as they breed in the gorge but unlike at home in the Alps, in Armenia Saker is also a breeder so a sp it will remain!

Day 6 We had settled into a rather lazy pattern of late breakfasts so I usually did a stroll around the grounds and a scan/listen from the bedroom’s balcony, perched on the only (rickety) chair available. An Egyptian Vulture chugged past and I was delighted when a Common Rosefinch arrived and sang from one of the apple trees before flying off (the only one seen or heard up at the hotel in our three days stay). Better still though, I could clearly hear a Corncrake crek crekking away, at the same time as the Quail was 'wetting its lips', a double whammy if ever there was! I’d briefly seen a Nuthatch and Long-tailed Tit the previous morning, both looking a bit different to our ones at home, so this morning I had the camera ready, hoping they’d be close enough to catch on film (or memory card as it is these days). The Nuthatch was smaller and darker below than the French/British version and had a white forehead, ssp caucasica no less! I missed taking a photo of it , but took a few of the LtTs which had off-white heads, dark throat blotches, grey backs and quite long tails, another subspecies to learn about, this one being ssp major. The White Wagtail nesting under the hotel roof (with Swift and House Martin for neighbours) were of the dukhunensis ssp with their flashy white wing panel. We walked down to the village, admiring the fruit and veg gardens that surrounded all the houses (no space or time wasted on manicuring lawns in Armenia) and lost count of the number of Common Redstart pairs nesting, again a contrast to home where it’s the Black Redstart that we associate with buildings (though the preponderance of fruit trees explains it I suppose). A group of friendly 11/13 year olds came to chat with us in the church gardens where we picknicked and had fun trying out their English on us. Climbing back up the 2kms to the hotel in the heat was a struggle to say the least and I’m sure that cough-like call of the various Red-backed Shrike had taken on a more mocking tone….

Photos Long tailed tit x 2, Red backed Shrike, White Wagtail, Odzun, the village perched on the Debed Gorge edge as viewed from the hotel.


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Note the mains gas pipes are above ground, a sensible idea with the seismic activity thereabouts.
Not sure it's due to the siesmic activity ... many villages in very unsiesmic Belarus also have above ground. Think it's a Soviet thing.

Given the state of their driving, I'm amazed folk haven't crashed into half these pipes and blown their villages and towns to smithereens 🙂
Harsh Jos, I drove for two years in Lebanon, now that’s really wild driving😬
I admit I assumed the reason for the gas pipes above ground was because of earthquakes, I x we onset if it’s linked to frozen ground for months on end making digging too difficult….
Day 7 Our next three nights were booked in Gyumri, Armenia’s second city, probably less than two hours away if you take main roads, but we …….well you know the rest ;) We took the pretty road west to Stepanavan, then up to Tashir then struck west for the 43kms of mostly dirt road over the Karakhach Pass (2272m asl) and down onto the Gyumri to Georgia main road. On our map (Reise Know-How series, recommended!) there were a few lakes marked north of Stepanavan near the magnificently named village of Getavan(!), we found the largest of them along a particularly bumpy road, the damp fields were full of wildflowers (photo of wild iris (if we weren’t mistaken)) and White Stork were finding plenty to eat as were numerous Black-headed Wagtail. Also present were a couple of pairs of Marsh Harrier, song flighting Sedge Warbler plus three Greats, Egret, Cormorant and Crested Grebe. Singles of Grey Heron and Common Pochard made up the watery new additions to our paltry trip list. As we climbed higher we began to see Water Pipit, another subspecies (coutelli) different to our Alpine breeders, plus plenty of Skylark, Northern Wheatear, Long-legged Buzzard, the distinctive Caucasian version of Twite and Marsh Warbler breeding at 2000m. But the cherry on the cake was at the plateau around the pass itself, a stunning adult male Montagu’s Harrier. But hang on, there are two, no more…. and more… and more!!

I have been a birder for 60 years now and the next twenty minutes ranked among my best ever experiences, there were at least 9 birds, display flying, one courtship food pass, calling, skirmishing. “Seems like a good place to eat our sandwiches“ suggested Véronique! The light was awful and the birds understandably didn’t come too close but what a spectacle it was. We eventually tore ourselves away but the next three or four kms saw us log another 10 to 12 individuals, including one female that was debated in another thread recently.

Celebration was in order that evening after our arrival in Gyumri, a nice bottle of Alexandropol (the old Russian name for Gyumri) beer with our meal in the restaurant, conveniently situated just a 20metre stagger from our hotel door.

Photos Wild Iris, Long-legged Buzzard, Water Pipit, Skylark, Montagu’s Harrier pair


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A few more from the road up to the Col, summer pasture quarters being set up, most of these folk are from Armenia's Yezidi minority, the families will live up high until October.


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Day 8 – 9

We spent Saturday walking around the city so binoculars were left in the hotel (whaddamistake!). Gyumri city centre still has lots of late19th/ early 20th century buildings which withstood the 1988 earthquake (unlike most of the Soviet Union era built ones…..), the two main churches on each side of the central square were however badly damaged and one is still not fully functioning, there is rubble and the original cupola lying on the ground plus a moving (as in emotionally, not mechanically!) statue dating from the drama. As inevitably happens when I leave my optics behind there was some avian interest, a singing Willow Warbler had me racking my brains for other possibilities as here at home they pass through in April, but my ears weren’t deceiving me, I checked later and one had been seen just a few days before elsewhere in the country, Lord knows where it was headed! Another canopy feeding passerine also by the city’s central square had me stumped though, size suggested something approaching Eastern Olivaceous Warbler but no tail pumping seen, it was always high up and never in full view so I couldn’t even place it in a likely family. We searched for, and found a Syrian restaurant, several of which have sprung up in Yerevan too, since the influx of Armenian descent refugees from Aleppo and Deir es Zoor in Syria in recent years, there were some sobering photos on the walls of Aleppo before and after 2011:(.

In keeping with our theme of birding in less visited corners of Armenia this time, Sunday saw us head up to the far North West corner of the country where Turkey, Georgia and Armenia meet, to the Lake Arpi protected area. The lake is home to the world’s largest Armenian Gull colony and Citrine Wagtail and Dalmatian Pelican have been mentioned there in the past. Not everyone uses eBird but I was nevertheless surprised to see the most recent checklist dated from July 2009 (containing only three species too!) so this was to be a journey into the unknown (sort of). A recently upgraded main road north for 40 kms to just 4kms from the Georgian border then 20kms of dirt road through rolling grassland to the lake. En route we saw our first Rook and Crested Lark of this trip, refilling our water bottles at one of the many roadside springs available in Armenia, saying hello in Georgian to a southbound lorry driver who was using the facility too. a very handsome male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was below the village reservoir at the last settlement before the Georgian border crossing point. There were impressive densities of Whinchat, Corn Bunting, Northern Wheatear and Black-headed Wagtail along the final section, one village had a few Common Starling with a single Rosy Starling tacking along and we came across a group of 5 Little Egret and 4 Night Heron feeding in the shallows of the River Akhuryan that flows out of the lake’s eastern dam (the lake always existed on the river but the surface area was increased from 4.5square km to 22square km when it was damned in 1950). I don’t know for sure but this may have helped the Armenian Gull which nest on two islands well out from the current shore, we could see the islands covered with nesting pairs of this smart larid. The road skirted the lake, but never closer than 200m from the shore, at least on north east section we visited. Being a weekend, quite a few fishermen were present but no boats as far as we could see, possibly not allowed. Although distant, we could clearly see some big round pelican-shaped white blobs congregated on one corner of one of the islands, Dalmatian Pelican surely:unsure: As if to answer my question one took off and came straight for us, turning overhead before landing next to four others I hadn’t noticed halfway between us and the first island! This felt like a lifer for me as the only Dalmatian Pelican I’d ever seen was in 1997 in Bulgaria, a bird sitting beside the water at Burgas, a long way off and in a heat haze. Two very smart adult Spoonbill were standing on the lake shore, a ringtail Montagu’s Harrier was quartering the fields and a pair of Black Redstart of the red lower-bellied ochruros subspecies were nesting on a farm building near our picnic stop in the shade of the Lake Arpi National Park office building. I feel the lake and its surrounds would be a good place to visit during autumn migration when I imagine the water level would be lower for migrating waders. It was noticeably cooler than in Gyumri, apparently winter here is long and hard, there’s even a Cross Country Ski resort nearby! A bit of raptor action on the way back to Gyumri in the late afternoon, more Long-legged Buzzard, a stonking adult male Pallid Harrier and a Hobby snacking on a hirundine as we arrived back at our hotel (just down the road from roundabout with the giant statue of Charles Aznavour!). Another glass of Alexandropol was in order that evening!

Photos: Whinchat, Armenian Gull, Dalmatian Pelican, Lake Arpi with Turkish hills beyond, a Common Rosefinch that cooperated (unfortunately the camera didn't!).


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Thanks T, it's a great little country with a big heart!
A few more from our time at Gyumri and north: proof that not all Armenian roads are bad, village White Stork, 3 self-explanatory photos of St All Saviours in Gyumri.


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I need to get a move on and wrap up this report as Jos has started his, we don’t want Armenia fatigue setting in on Birdforum do we!

6 June We were booked into a B and B for the next 2 nights in Byurukan, the idea being to drive over from Gyumri in the morning and do some proper walking in the afternoon on the lower slopes of Mt Aragats( we’d brought our hiking batons after all!) followed by a day higher up, perhaps even going to the summit (4090m) from the end of the road at Lake Kars (3190m).

Best laid plans an’all that…..

It was hot, 35C along the Gyumri to Yerevan highway, we made one stop at the remains of a caravanserai , imagining the scenes all those centuries before when the Silk Road merchants stopped off on their way to and from Persia. We couldn’t find the variety of larks and Wheatears we’d hoped for, just Crested Lark and Northern Wheatear and Crag Martin nesting in the ancient building. We reached Byurakan and bought an excellent khorovats (kebab) each and drove up the mountain a bit to eat them. To cut a long story short (not like me I know ;) !) we had problems with the car not restarting ( no doubt related to the extreme heat) so once it decided to cooperate again we decided to find our accommodation and let it and us cool down before our planned walk higher up. I find using the application maps.me very good usually, it shows the most minor of roads etc but proved (for the second time on this trip) to be unreliable with hotel/ guest house locations, after 30 minutes trying to find our B and B as shown on the app the car conked out again (just after we had got proper directions by telephoning the owner (a bit late I know) and a local resident helped Véronique push it into his house entrance (well I had to do the steering didn’t I😉). Not for the first time we found ourselves overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of Armenian people, we were fed and watered (and plied with home made wine !) the rest of the day, despite the language barrier we managed some stilted conversations and showed family photos to each other on our phones. The mighty Tigran was convinced that the petrol I had bought was poor quality AND that the fuel gauge was faulty so we arranged with our guardian angel and his wife Anoush that they’d fill a jerrycan that evening in Ashtarak where they had a family party to go to and we would rendezvous at 9 the next morning and go up to Aragats together after topping up the tank. By early evening the car had cooled down and we went down to our accommodation next to the Astrophysical Observatory. A stressful day finished with a singing Garden Warbler across the road, Hoopoe busy food carrying and later on the soothing song of a Nightingale outside our window.

7 June This was meant to be our last day with birding opportunities, hiking boots - check, hiking batons - check, fleece for the cooler temps at high altitude - check. Off we went, our new friends waiting for us at their house, Tigran and I filled up the tank with the ‘cleaner’ petrol he’d bought (in fact the tank was still half full as I thought but never mind..). We started to suspect that the day was not going to be as energetic as we planned when we saw our friends dressed in their lightweight clothes and trainers, and what was in all those bags they loaded in the Niva (with a couple of rugs?) As Tigran is a very big man I didn’t even squeak when he took the wheel and drove us up to the lake non - stop, fast too but he was clearly a good driver. So the Northern Wheatear, Red-backed Shrike, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush and ‘Caucasian’ Horned Lark were a bit of a blur as we sped past them! There was still a fair bit of snow around the lake giving it a Siberian look, though it was warm enough to start a coffee, cake and biscuit session by the shore, still communicating with our few words of Armenian and our phrase book. After an hour Anoush packed up the biscuits and thermos, walked the 5metres to the car and came back with a picnic - bread, cheese, herbs, Coca Cola, home made wine etc etc! Two curious Alpine Accentor strolled just behind us and I saw more Horned Lark, Twite, Black Redstart, White Wagtail and two distant Snowfinch flew into view up by the snowfield. House Martin were nesting on the buildings, not bad at 3000m plus! But we never got beyond the picnic spot, it was evident that our hosts were not the hiking types and Tigran had clearly overdone the vodka at the party the night before, his stomach making strange noiseso_O Early afternoon we drove down off the mountain, stopping off to pick wild Thyme (the girls), go behind the rocks (Tigran) and look for birds (me). Frustratingly I could hear Radde’s Accentor but before I could wander further afield to get a view of it, it was back in the car for more adventure, our friends drove us down into the gorge fashioned by the snowmelt river that comes down from the lake and up to a remote church on a hill (where their daughter was married it transpired). A cracking male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear and circling Short-toed Eagle were somewhat tardy additions to the trip list. Back to their house where Anoush brought out a cooked meal, including the famous Armenian dumplings! And so a memorable day out ended, not at all as planned birding or hiking wise, but a rich cultural experience and a longer version of the several great encounters we had during the fortnight.

The next day we dropped the Lada back at the airport and transferred to central Yerevan where we became city tourists for a couple of days, however I managed to see a nice male Levant Sparrowhawk and a Honey Buzzard over the hotel and a few Laughing Dove to complete our lightweight bird list (111species).

Our journey home was déja vu as once again we missed our connecting flight (to Geneva from Vienna) by less than five minutes, the departure gate still manned but ‘just closed’ and an apologetic Austrian Airlines person clearly worried that I was going to have a heart attack after running from the ‘coming back into Schengen’ security control. So once again, hours to kill at Vienna Airport, then at Zurich airport before finally arriving back at Geneva 9 hours late.

Photos: approach to Lake Kars (Tigran at the wheel), lake landscape, Mt Aragats above the lake, Laughing Dove (phone photo) Republic Square Yerevan


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Great story Richard. Nice adventure and i really appreciated that you wrote it down for us. Thanks a lot for sharing. Makes me want to go to Armenia even more! Also I’m really curious about this homemade wine :unsure: ;)
Great story Richard. Nice adventure and i really appreciated that you wrote it down for us. Thanks a lot for sharing. Makes me want to go to Armenia even more! Also I’m really curious about this homemade wine :unsure: ;)
Hahah, well it was certainly a lot less strong (and less dangerous to the health) than vodka, I was ‘a bit poorly’ the first time I visited Armenia because of that!
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