Updated: Mar 31, 2019
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
Ararat - Symbol of Armenia
Still, nice views are had from the top, and you can see Mount Ararat from here really well on a clear day – which, it being 40 degrees and smoggy, it wasn’t… As I strolled down, I registered for the first time how many police and soldiers line the streets of the capital. In this respect, it’s reminiscent of Baku; an unwelcome reminder of the potential threat of danger and unrest. The relaxed air of the people however put me at ease, and I never got that feeling of dread and paranoia I felt in Azerbaijan. Yerevan lies in a valley, surrounded on all sides by hills, and just over the border in Turkey, over a border which cannot be crossed, looking down over the city is the symbol of all Armenians – the snow-capped Mount Ararat.
Hazy at this time of year, views on a crisp winters day can be spectacular. Armenians have suffered dreadfully down the ages, and have had to cede huge swathes of their territory (mainly to Turkey) as well as large segments of their population – most notably during the First World War, when it is said that 1.5 million lost their lives in the first recorded human genocide. Ararat is a symbol of this loss to Armenians, and is a tantalizing reminder of their more glorious past. This mountain’s importance can not be under-estimated in the minds of the Armenians – it is where Noah’s Ark is said to have to come to a rest, and many really believe this to be true. Whether religious or not, it just somehow is for them Armenia, and the fact it is in present day Turkey does not stop them believing it is theirs.
The Genocide Museum
I decided to visit a museum dedicated to the genocide on my second day, to acquaint myself with the most important aspect of recent Armenian history. On a hill in the northern suburbs, its location is poignant, and a large 40m-high spire standing next to a circle of 12 basalt slabs representing the lost provinces of Armenia guard an eternal flame. Just beyond, in an unassuming
underground bunker, lies a museum documenting man’s inhumanity to man. There’s no attempt to demonise the Ottoman authorities; the facts inside are allowed to speak for themselves. Photographic evidence, documentary evidence, testimonies – all contribute to what most western nations (notably with the exception of the U.K and The U.S) have accepted as the first organized ethnic cleansing of a region – what is now eastern Turkey – or, in other words, the first holocaust. The saddest pictures were those showing starving infants – thousands of children were orphaned, many just starved as the Turks in 1915, during the chaos of the First World War and as the world’s attention was diverted, attempted to wipe out the Armenians in their eastern territories, presumably to make a clear run for the Azeris to the east and thus to form a stronger Muslim influence in the Caucasus. The Ottoman army achieved this by the most primitive of means – marching entire villages out into the desert and shooting them or pushing them over cliffs, or erecting makeshift gallows which were often painfully ineffective and led to people simply being clubbed to death. On the way out, a huge, blown-up photograph of an orphanage in Syria after the genocide. Unbelievably moving. What strikes me is the lack of a real apology or acknowledgement of the event from successive Turkish regimes; it is simply denied, or claimed to be a huge exaggeration. Of course, Baku follows this line. Sadly, both the UK and USA remain neutral over the matter, so as not to inflame tensions with Turkey and keep a strategically important Middle Eastern ally onside.
Eating Out, Armenian Style Strolling around Yerevan is not a particularly easy task, having only a small pedestrianized centre – in which there is, in truth, not a great deal to see, save a large plaza and fountain (which dances to music amusingly in the evening) with buildings from the Soviet era surrounding it. In the middle of a summer heatwave, it’s an exhausting task, and the volume of traffic speeding past, the noise this creates along with the heat and fumes, makes this task even harder, so that my planned three nights in Yerevan somehow turned to five. Just being outside in temperature of 35+ degrees is brutal in late August, and you can’t get much done really. Thankfully, there are numerous leafy and shady places to escape the heat, and hundreds of street-side cafes. Yerevanis seem to adore whiling away their hours in cafes chatting, and the vibe of the city is pretty relaxed. The choice of restaurants in the city, it must be said, was a bit disappointing, and when quality food is found, it’s usually at a bit of a price. The markets abound with fresh fruit, colourful and juicy looking vegetables of all varieties, but this country is meat-fixated. Grilled, fried, roasted, minced or charred.
Fast-food places are ubiquitous, as are kebab shops, and there are more restaurants selling barbecued food than you can shake a charred stick at. One sultry evening, our surrogate mother/hostess Anahit decided to take us all out for the evening to a typical Armenian restaurant, a little bit out of town on a street called Paronyan Poghots (aka ‘Barbecue Street’). Set along the straggly river that runs to the west of the city centre, all along its 2km length you can spot ‘khorovats’ restaurants in every shape and form, from modest street-side vendors to massive establishments catering to families and group gatherings which can accommodate 200 people or more, and often on several levels. The place we were taken to resembled the latter, and it was an interesting dining experience, if not one I’d wish to repeat. Blaring Armenian pop is played throughout the restaurant, so that having a conversation with your nearest neighbour can be troublesome; attempting to talk with someone a few seats away is futile. The waiting left a huge amount to be desired; we were instantly dismissed as a table of penny-pinching backpackers (true) and given ridiculously short shrift and rude service from out waiters, who were more concerned with a raucous group adjacent to us who were ordering bottles of champagne and tray-fuls of singed chicken, lamb and beef. My main course arrived twenty minutes after everyone else’s, a bottle of white wine we ordered was warm, and Anahit was reprimanded for bringing a group who wasn’t spending enough money. Disappointing really, but an insight into how Armenians like to eat out in Yerevan. Below us, a massive dance floor had filled up and were jiggling around to some truly atrocious pop, a mixture of some of the worst western cheese from the last 30 years and modern Russian pop. A racket doesn't usually help my food go down, and this was one dining experience I'd rather not repeat.
Bottling It: Brandy Distillery Tour What springs to mind when you think of Armenia? I’ll bet that, presuming something springs to mind, Cognac will be pretty high up the list. Armenia is famous for it, and Churchill (a man who surely knew what he was talking about on the subject) famously commented that he considered Armenian cognac to be superior to that of France’s. With that in mind, I decided to do a tour of Ararat Distillery. I managed to get a free tour; normally the price is 10 Euro.
After an initial introduction to the woman who deals with media types (ahem..) I was called and asked to visit at the slightly inconvenient time of 2pm; I’d have preferred later, knowing that the visit would include a tasting, and that I would likely be sloshed at an early hour. Well, an earlier hour than usual anyway. Just up from Barbecue Street, the Distillery, run by Yerevan Brandy Company, is an icon of the city, and its product is something closely connected to Armenian identity. The tour took us through the history of brandy making in one hour – from grape to glass. Apparently, it’s all in the barrel – wine is kept in different types of barrel, from five to thirty years, to produce different tastes and aromas, much as whiskey is. I remembered a chapter from Kapuscinski’s ‘Imperium' in which he captured the process with characteristic poetry. The company has cellars of barrels dating back to the 19th century, including one which won’t be opened until a peace deal with Azerbaijan over Karabach is brokered. The tour was conducted by a vivacious and charming girl in English with humour and interesting anecdotes. We got to a room full of old bottles stretching back to the 19th century, including a fine blended cognac that Stalin cunningly plied Churchill with at the 1945 Yalta conference, the result of which was the Soviet Union claiming most of eastern Europe for himself.
Armenian brandy, it might be said, has a lot to answer for. Of course, the best bit of the tour was the last part, when we actually got to sample three different blends – one five years old, the next ten, the last twenty. I’ve never been a huge fan of brandy, but, sampled with rich liqueur chocolates, in convivial surrounds and with a charming hostess rolling the glass around on its side to show how to judge texture and colour (let’s just get on with it and down it!) – I could become a fan. The first glass went down smoothly; the second, richer and more velvety in texture, with a hint of hazelnut and chocolate, gave me a tingly feeling and I was become nicely light-headed; by the third, which went down like liquid honey, I was well into it and could have stayed all evening. Unfortunately, as these things are wont to do, the party broke up and there was just me and a slightly intoxicated Dutchman left to sample the wares. We left an hour later, best of buddies and swearing to call each other before leaving Yerevan. Of course, we never did. Great afternoon though – and I thanked my guide warmly when I left, promising to give the Company a great write-up. Which I am doing, here.
Exploring the Hinterlands: Monastery Trail I decided to explore some of Yerevan’s surrounds. Khor Virap is a great monastery to the south, a stone’s throw from the Turkish border, again commanding great views of Ararat on a clear day. Iconic, it appears on countless postcards, and sits on a hillock overlooking river pastures, storks nests and vineyards. Idyllic, photogenic, and very crowded with tourists. There are a huge amount of Diaspora Armenians (mainly living in the US but also French and Canadian) traveling in Armenia in the summer – mainly in large tour buses – and when you get on the ‘monastery trail’, which I was about to do, you just cannot avoid them.
Nearby, to the north, I went to Geghard, another beautifully-situated, ancient monastery. Named after the holy lance that pierced Christ’s side at the crucifixion, Geghard lies in a steep scenic canyon 30km north east of Yerevan. The spear itself was once kept here but is now housed in Echmiadzin, several kilometers east. The surrounds are what make Geghard special; a remote dry valley, it is superbly serene and calming. Trees around here are often dotted with strips of cloth. It is said that you can say a prayer or make a wish and tie a strip of cloth to a tree near the monastery to make it come true.
I visited Garni Temple, nearby – a comprehensively rebuilt Hellenic Temple, dedicated to Helios, the god of the sun. Again, for me it was notable mainly for its location rather than as a sight in itself – if you’ve been to Turkey’s Roman sites for example it won’t bowl you over – but the surrounding barren mountains and deep gorges looked spectacular, and I’d have attempted a hike over the valley to another monastery called Havuts Tar if it wasn’t so damned hot. Already perspiring profusely, all I could do was sit down in a nearby café and have a kebab and bottle of Kotayk beer.
A word on Armenian beers – weak, light and fairly unremarkable. But in this heat, almost anything cold would have tasted ok. My final day trip from Yerevan was to Echmiadzin Monastery. The Vatican of Armenia, this is to Armenians the holiest of the holy; the place where St Gregory the Illuminator saw a beam of light fall to the earth in a divine vision (I’m sure people must have taken more drugs in those days), and where he built the first church in Armenia (and therefore the first church in the world). As I was there on a Sunday, I watched a service. Extremely fluid, the priest leads his flock around the church, swinging thuribles with incense as a choir warbles harmoniously in the background. It’s a slightly bizarre sight, with monks in black cloaks with hoods moving ceremonially around and other oddly-garbed holy men gliding around. People stand around the church randomly, moving around freely, many holding lit candles or placing them in large golden trays full of water. All in all, quite different from church services I’ve seen – close to Catholic, but much more movement and less bowing and scraping. I’d begun to get a measure of this country now and wanted to see more. I decided to move on from Yerevan after five days – it was enough time to see most of what I wanted to see, though I was never bored, and indeed I had a very busy last day trying to fit in all the stuff I wanted to see in order to do a city guide on the place. I’d recommend it as a city trip – provided you go without massively high expectations. If that sounds like damning it with faint praise, well maybe. Compared to Baku, though, I had a ball. Armenia – I like you – but maybe I’m not in love yet.
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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, on Baku in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh respectively, please go here:
To see a city guide I wrote to Yerevan, with tips and advice aplenty, go here: