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Caucasian Daze (Part 7/9) - Armenia - Yerevan: Brandy and Barbecues

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Public building, downtown Yerevan, Armenia, made with local tufa stone
Public building, downtown Yerevan, made with local tufa stone

Completing the Jigsaw

Having spent nearly two months in the Caucasus, and having seen both sides of the traveling spectrum, from Georgia – where I was treated to hearty meals, fantastic wines and a warm welcome, to Azerbaijan, where I was threatened with deportation and can honestly say I felt more grateful on leaving than anywhere I have ever been, it was now time for me to complete the Caucasus jigsaw (at least the part which westerners can go to) by going to Armenia and Nagornno Karabach. I’d been warned off the place by the Azeris so much that I was intrigued as to what this little country had to offer – and the final goal of Karrabach, a slice of land at the far east of the country which is still not officially recognized as an independent state by U.N – was a fascinating and fitting finale to the trip. Not that the Georgians had done much to whet my appetite; they regard their southern neighbours with indifference bordering on disdain, and have little positive to say about the place. They generally regard them as traitors to the cause in the region – too much in bed with Russia to be proper allies, despite both countries being effectively, together, an island of Christianity in a surrounding sea of Islam. Which is a shame for them both politically, but hardly surprising, given Russia’s successful policy of divide and rule in this region over the centuries.

History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan
History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan

As for the Armenians, they may have fought a war with the Azeris, but generally they prefer them to Georgians, who they see as proud, willful and only superficially Christian. The two countries argue over who was the first to accept Christianity; it is generally accepted that Armenia were, about 300 A.D, and that the Georgians followed suit around ten years later, but many Georgians seem to dispute this. An Armenian joke sums all of this regional dissension up well: a boy asks his grandfather why the Armenians haven’t sent a man into space. The old man replies, ‘If the Armenians sent a cosmonaut into space, the Georgians would die of envy. If the Georgians die of envy, the Armenians will die of pleasure. And if the Georgians and Armenians die, the Azeris will be left with all the land.’ Love thy neighbour? Well, it seems that, in this part of the world, they skipped over that part of the Bible, and, in a nutshell, that’s what makes the whole region such a political powder-keg. The question, it seems, is not ‘if’ it will explode again, but ‘when’.

Entering Armenia

Coming in by bus from Tbilisi, your first impression is how dry the country is – there is a lack of vegetation around compared to parts of Georgia, but then again, I was arriving in late August after a spectacularly long and hot summer. It was still hovering around 35 degrees each day, and I still hadn’t had a day of rain in two months. The border was a formality; $10 for the visa was less than I had expected, and we walked across it without much difficulty. The border police, on seeing my Azeri stamp, were none too friendly though – perhaps understandably. A smile never hurts though, and make a big impression on entering a country in this region. From the Sadakhlo border, you are straight into a steep-sided valley called the Debed Canyon, which contains two world-heritage listed monasteries, and which I planned to visit on my way back to Georgia in a couple of weeks, as I was flying back out of Tbilisi. It looked impressive.

Armenian countryside outside Yerevan
Armenian countryside outside Yerevan

We stopped after an hour or so for a break and had a ‘khorovhats’ (barbecue – an obsession amongst Armenians, as I was soon to find) and cool beer in a shaded area by the roadside for a couple of dollars. The Armenian Dram seemed to be stronger than the Georgian Lari but thankfully less than the Azeri Manat, so prices were somewhere in the middle of those places. I chatted to an Iranian couple who were on their way overland back to Iran from Tbilisi – a pretty lengthy journey – and they seemed extremely open to discussing politics, bemoaning their leader Armadinejad, and saying that he is not representative of the country as a whole, that most young people hate him and want free and democratic elections. An Israeli couple, who were also on board the bus, were fascinated to talk to them, and realized that they were not the great enemy that their leaders make them out to be, just ordinary people who want to live in a free country. Politics, religion, war. All intertwined, and, unfortunately, what lies at the heart of this region, so close to the Middle East and so similar in many ways, yet never considered to actually be a part of it. Over a couple of beers and a quick round of vodka shots, politics dissolves. Back in the bus, over the Kotayk plateau, views towards the four-peaked Mount Aragats were splendid. My initial impression of the towns, particularly when passing through Vanadzor (with only 170,000 people comfortably the second biggest urban centre in Armenia after Yerevan) was that they are both poorer and more Sovietized than in Georgia. Houses are mostly constructed of pinky-orange stone, locally excavated and called ‘tuff’. Sorry-looking factories are dotted around, some looking half-empty, others billowing smoke into the air. Ladas line the roads, people look a bit disheveled. Overall, not that attractive.

Yerevan: a Soviet-era capital

We arrived in Yerevan after a relatively painless, and in parts enjoyable, six hour journey from Tbilisi, which is a full eight hours less than the tortuously slow train. It cannot be said by any stretch that Yerevan is a particularly beautiful city, and I didn’t expect it to be; a mainly Soviet-era city, only a capital after the Communist revolution in 1922, it has few examples of architectural splendour. I did hope though that it would provide a friendly welcome, and in this respect it didn’t disappoint. Your first impression, and the lasting one of Yerevan, is of the people.

Armenian women
Armenian beauties

Striking-looking, slim with dark hair and eyes, with long proud Roman noses and prominent eye-brows that often appear to meet in the middle, the Armenians I met were in general extremely hospitable and friendly, although like Azerbaijan, there does seem to exist a certain element of Soviet-era suspicion still – as I was soon to find out later when I questioned my landlady about the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. “Are you a journalist?” she suspiciously eyed me up and down “You ask too many questions!” The hostel I was staying in was more of a homestay, and its owner was more of an over-bearing, rather gossipy mother to her guests than hostel owner. Staying in someone’s flat does have its upsides – it’s homely, welcoming and you feel as if you are living in the style of the locals; on the other hand, it can also be uncomfortably claustrophobic

sometimes, and having to observe house rules like being silent after 11pm and not coming in after 1am can be frustrating. It says a lot for the lack of a hostel scene in Yerevan that this was the most popular backpacking place in town though. It was centrally located; step outside and you’re at the National Opera, the hub of cultural life in Yerevan. A grey, drab, soviet building it may be, but it attracts international opera and ballet troupes, and houses an underground discotheque, which, when I visited, contained the most eclectic range of ages I’ve seen in a club, from ten to sixty. Of the other notable sights in the city, probably the best known one is the ‘cascade’, a vast flight of stone steps and flower beds, built as a monument to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia. Perhaps for this reason, it has the typical effect on the visitor of over-arching Soviet grandeur – it leaves you a bit cold. The steps abruptly end at a massive building site, and despite millions having been spent on improving the sight, including endless indoor escalators to take you to the rather bleak plaza at the top, in truth it’s all a bit of a non-event.

The Cascade, Yerevan, Armenia
The Cascade, Yerevan