To get to the Sanahin and Haghpat UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Armenia, travelers are forced to drive through three dangerous tunnels on the way.
They’re located on the Pambak - Dzoraget stretch of the M-6 highway leading north from the town of Vanadzor in the country’s Lori Province.
All three tunnels are in bad shape, but the one built in 1962 near the Shahal railway station is on the verge of collapse.
The vistas along the way are fantastic since the road traverses the Pambak River gorge. But drivers must pay particular attention to the road, especially at night, to avoid deadly accidents.
Huge trailer trucks ply the narrow and twisting road that ultimately leads to the Georgian border to the north.
The Shahal tunnel, which cuts through 100 meters of sheer cliff face, has never been repaired since it was opened.
The road inside is a series of potholes, and seeping rainwater just makes the entire structure that much less solid.
The tunnel also has no lights and is barely wide enough for one of the lumbering giant trailer trucks at a time. Passenger cars coming from the other direction have to carefully maneuver to get by.
Local village residents and their livestock also use the tunnel. They have no option but to risk the passage.
Alkaverdi resident Valery Paranyan says that what is needed are signal warnings whenever a large truck is about to enter the tunnel from the other side.
Mr. Paranyan adds that the height of the tunnel is so low that two trucks cannot pass without getting stuck.
“A truck has to pass directly down the center or else it will hit the sides of the roof. The roadbed needs to be dug down to accommodate those trucks. That’s the job of the ministry of transportation,” says Smbat Noregyan a unit head with the highway police.
This reporter visited the tunnel two days ago and spoke with a driver who just passed through.
“It’s dangerous. When one of those trucks appears from the other direction passenger cars have no place to go. During winter, the ceiling is covered with hanging ice. I won’t even speak about the road surface,” he said.
“I’m from Talin and drive through the tunnel 5-6 times a month. It’s too low for the big rigs. They’re always hitting the ceiling and breaking off rocks. I just drove through and a big truck appeared from the opposite direction. Had I not be careful, we would have hit,” says driver Hayk Saharyan.
I talked to Alyad Tamayan, a Georgian trailer truck driver, who complained that the tunnel was too small for his vehicle and that the entire highway from Pambak to Alaverdi further north was in poor shape.
The stone shoulder barriers are missing in places and the safety rails of a bridge past the tunnel have long since disappeared. With the winter snows, reckless drivers can easily fall to the Debed River below.
Lori Provincial Governor Artur Nalbandyan travels this stretch of the M-6 daily. At the request of the drivers, Hetq requested that he inform us as to the plans, if any, to upgrade the highway and improve the tunnels in terms of safety.
Nalbandyan replied that the World Bank is backing a project to renovate the M-6 from Vanadzor all the way north to Bagratashen on the Georgian border. He added that construction to renovate the Shahal tunnel was included.
“But I don’t know when such work will start,” Nalbandyan concluded.
Ashot Arshakyan, who heads the Armenia Road Directorate SNOC attached to the Ministry of Transport and Communication, told me today that plans to renovate the tunnel I question have been drawn up and a tender bid for the construction will be announced.
“The tunnel and highway will be upgraded in a year or two,” Arshakyan said.