Posts Tagged ‘armenia’

October 8 – 10, 2009: On a long trip, returning to a place, even one you have only visited briefly, can feel a little like a homecoming. I certainly felt glad to see my room at the Villa Delenda in Yerevan again, although I only stopped long enough to leave my pack before going back out for a late dinner at Marco Polo. My mood improved further after a very good carrot salad, with honey and nuts and orange, followed by schnitzel and fries and, of course, a glass of my new discovery, Pineau.

This time I did some sightseeing on the north side of town. I had heard good

Yerevan's Cascade

things about the cascade, supposedly a flight of stairs with flowing water, but no water was in evidence, and it seemed unfinished. On the other hand, the British backpackers I had met in Telavi had talked down the Matenadaran, the museum of ancient manuscripts, but I had a lovely time there. I went round once with a guide, and then again on my own, and felt lucky to catch an exhibition of beautifully illustrated manuscripts from Cilicia.

Expeditions to the Folk Museum and the Woodcarving “Museum” (more of a showroom) were less successful, but I found the History Museum, on Republic Square worthwhile despite the lack of English labels. I liked the lace from the Lake Van region, now in Turkey, and Turkish influence was evident in the costume section, particularly the wide silver-buckled belts, which reminded me of similar outfits I had seen in Northern Greece, also under Ottoman rule until the 20th century. Then I noticed Persian influence on the ceramics, a reminder that Armenia had been unhappily located between two empires, a prize of war for first one and then the other.

Assorted sweets in Yerevan's market

Although Armenia has a proud history as the first Christian nation, occupation by the Muslim Turks and Persians resulted in a number of conversions, and one mosque survives today in downtown Yerevan. I found it almost deserted when I visited, with the prayer hall out of bounds, and a small exhibition of Iranian art explained by a notice that renovations had been funded by Iran. I had more fun across the street in the big, bustling covered market – you could easily overdose on sugar from the free samples of unusual sweets offered by the merchants.

I don’t often attend made-for-tourists folk performances, but I had bought a ticket for one in Yerevan before leaving for Nagorno-Karabakh. The Australian woman from the tour decided to join me, and we were happy to run into the French couple at the show. We were treated to separate performances by male dancers – very energetic – and female dancers – much more demure – with many costume changes, and a sizable chorus backed by drums and strings. Some of the instruments reminded me of hammered dulcimers, but were probably kanuns (http://www.traditionalcrossroads.com/cd/4336.php).

After the performance we went for drinks at one of the fancy cafes near the Opera House, and had such a good time we arranged to meet for dinner the next night. I talked the others into trying Armenian barbecue, or khoravats, which had sounded like the kind of meal that worked better with a group. When we arrived at Urartu, the maitre d’hotel warned us that he only had one table available, and the music would be too loud for us. Initially incredulous, we soon discovered he was right – the wedding party in progress had the music at deafening levels. A pity – we would have liked to join in the fun, but thought our ear drums might not recover.

Instead we ate in a private room round the side of the building, where the two Armenian speakers ordered the food from a friendly waitress – no menus appeared. I had been right about needing a group, and we all agreed that the meal was delicious, and a great value at 5,000 dram ($13) each. An antipasto spread of tomato, cucumber, pickles, cheese, yoghurt and tomato sauce was followed by two lovely pork chops apiece – the best meat I had in Armenia. Washed down with Areni wine, it made a festive end to my visit. Next day I would leave for Syria.

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October 7 – 8, 2009: After we stopped by the Foreign Ministry to get our

Wooden statue in Nagorno-Karabakh

visas validated (alas, no passport stamps) we spent some quality time being guided round the Artsakh State Museum. While most of the museum qualified as at least interesting, the most arresting exhibit for me was an ethnographic diorama, which demonstrated that at one time women were not allowed to speak to a man without prior permission, including their husbands!!! They wore their scarves over their mouths to reinforce the prohibition, which explained the otherwise rather odd face of the woman in an iconic wooden sculpture we would see later. The sculpted woman was a lot smaller than the man, too.

Gandzasar monastery

My disgust at this custom could explain why I retain no memory of our subsequent visit to Gandzasar monastery – although my photos show an unusual central tower. It might be that it was one church too many. Or it could be that I was finding the tour a little trying. The family group was not melding too well with the rest of us, and this got worse when one of them, an Iranian-American architect from Los Angeles, got aggressive over possession of the front seat on the coach. Then the guide insisted on playing Armenian music very loudly over the coach’s sound system. Beside being (for me) just a headache-inducing loud noise, this meant that she didn’t have to lecture, or initiate a discussion, which I regretted. I had met someone who had been on the same trip the week before, and he had enjoyed interesting discussions between diaspora and non-diaspora Armenians.

However, after another late and lengthy lunch the day improved. Back in Stepanakert some of us investigated a crowd on the outskirts of a park to find a lively group of children putting on a concert of music and dance. No-one seemed to speak English, but the Australian woman (S) from the tour was able to find out that this was a display by pupils from a nearby Music School. She was subsequently interviewed for a local radio program, and we seemed to be welcome additions to the audience.

Later, as S and I walked through town in search of an internet cafe, we were waylaid by a couple of university students, who said they wanted to practice their English. We were happy to oblige, until it turned out that they really wanted to talk about God. Before religion intruded into the conversation,  I was able to establish that although we had traveled from Yerevan to Stepanakert, they weren’t able to travel from Stepanakert to Yerevan, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Young dancers in Stepanakert

Dinner only emphasized the split in the group, with the Iranian family at one table, and everyone else split between two more. And the next morning the dispute over the front seat actually turned, briefly, physical. Our guide seemed too inexperienced to know how to handle the situation, but fortunately no-one was hurt.

The weather had become damp and misty overnight, and we could barely see the buildings in Shushi, our last Nagorno-Karabakh stop. The elegiac atmosphere could hardly have been more appropriate, as this was a ghost town, devastated by the fighting in the 1990s. We left for the border in a somber mood.

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October 6, 2009: Tuesday morning I set off on the Hyur tour to Nagorno-Karabakh. For once on a tour I was in a distinct linguistic minority – everyone else in the group, except for the Corsican chef, spoke Armenian – they were all from the diaspora. True, the other solo female, a therapist from Australia, turned out to speak western Armenian, and had a little difficulty with everyone else’s eastern Armenian, but she could manage.

The land called Artsakh by its inhabitants spent a long time as part of Persia, passing into Russian hands in 1805, after which many Muslim inhabitants left for Persia, and Persian Armenians moved to Karabakh. Stalin, in one of his many divide-and-conquer map-redrawing exercises, moved the area from Armenia to Azerbaijan in the 1920s, and Azeri settlers started moving in. When Karabakh voted to join Armenia after independence in 1989, Azerbaijan responded with force, helped at first by the Soviets and then by the Turks. Five years and 30,000 lives later, an uneasy ceasefire was declared. Now Karabakh is still officially part of Azerbaijan, but can only be visited from Armenia.

Back in 2006 I had passed through another non-country resulting from Stalin’s gerrymandering – Transnistria.  There Moldova, itself once part of Romania, claimed sovereignty, and only Russia recognized the break-away republic. I had been on a bus headed to Chisinau in Moldova, but still had to bribe the border guards to get in. Nothing I saw encouraged me to linger. I hoped that Karabakh had been doing better.

Khor Virap

We actually spent most of Tuesday in Armenia proper. Our first stop was foranother look at Mt. Ararat, still lost in haze, and the border with Turkey. Talks about finally opening the border were underway while I was in Armenia, although apparently the Azerbaijanis were insisting that their issues should be settled first, and demonstrators in Yerevan’s Republic Square were collecting signatures on a petition opposing better relations until Turkey acknowledged the Armenian genocide of 1915-17. I believe the border is still closed.

Khor Virop is almost as significant to Armenians as Mount Ararat, and photographed better. Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity, in 301, thanks to St. Gregory the Illuminator, who spent 12 years imprisoned in a dungeon below where the church now stands. I enjoyed a number of the carvings at Khor Virap, but I’m too tone deaf to really appreciate the a capella female chorus that performed inside one of the churches.


Around this point, I began to suspect that I was getting churched-out, although our next stop, Noravank, was different enough to hold my interest. One of the 13th century churches is a two-story affair, with two steep exterior staircases forming a triangle outside. I stayed at ground level, and watched those who ventured up inching their way gingerly back down – well, except for the kids, who had no trouble at all.


After a late and lengthy lunch, with more tough barbecue, we made one more stop before the border, at Karahunj, Armenia’s Stonehenge. I hadn’t heard of it, and was surprised by a field of huge stones, said to have been arranged around 5,500 B.C.E. as an astronomical observatory. Unfortunately, the temperature had dropped, and with a fierce wind blowing I sought shelter beside one of the stones rather than listening to our guide.

While we had to stop at the border, our guide took care of the formalities (Hyur had taken a copy of my passport when I paid for the tour). We finally reached the Heghnar hotel in Stepanakert, and dinner, at 8:45 pm.

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Disappointed with Yerevan

October 4 – 6, 2009: After passing through some more forested mountain scenery, the marshrutka to Yerevan entered a tunnel. When we emerged, I was amazed by a sudden change – all the trees had disappeared. Further south we skirted Lake Sevan, coldly blue, and beautiful, but reflecting barren hillsides. Yerevan surprised me too, much bigger than I expected, sprawling among low hills under hazy skies.

Villa Delenda

None of Lonely Planet’s hotel listings had appealed to me, and eventually I booked through Hyur Service (www.hyurservice.com). Instead of traveling independently around Yerevan, I had decided to take organized day trips, plus a two night tour to the disputed (with Azerbaijan) enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Hyur had been willing, unlike Sati Global, to guarantee that the tour would run even if I was the only client. They also had a list of Yerevan accommodations, and I picked Villa Delenda (www.villadelenda.com), which turned out to be an inspired choice.

Admittedly, when my taxi delivered me to the Villa, I thought the driver had made a mistake. Instead of a hotel sign, the building sported a tourist information board, telling me that the house had been built, from tufa, in 1906, while Yerevan was under Persian control, for the jewelers Gegham and Hovhannes Mnatsakanian. Once inside I was led upstairs to a room with a high, sloped, beamed ceiling, a big bed, and (I later discovered) a rain-head shower in the bathroom.

New development in central Yerevan

Unfortunately, the Villa was a rare survival in central Yerevan. Aside from Republic Square, surrounded by elegant low-rise buildings, the center of Yerevan was being gutted to make way for monumental high-rise development I would characterize as “brutalist modern”. I understand that the development is funded by members of the Armenian diaspora, who inhabit the expensive apartments maybe a month or two a year. After Tbilisi, somewhat shabby, somewhat chaotic, but built on a human scale, I found the center of Yerevan sterile and unfriendly, looking like the set for a dystopian sci-fi movie.

I did appreciate the restaurant scene in Yerevan. I enjoyed one of my best, if somewhat pricey, meals at Dolmama (dolmama.narod.ru/restaurant.htm)  – a huge salad of greens, tomatoes, nuts, olives and cheese followed by three quail in vine leaves. I drank a glass of good Areni wine with the meal, and then Dolmama introduced me to Pineau, delicious and just slightly sweet. Yumm! I ate a couple of times more cheaply at Marco Polo, on Abovyan Poghots, where the people-watching supplemented the food.

Since I had arrived on a Sunday, I spent my first afternoon checking out the Vernissage market. Down one side of Pavstos Byuzand Poghots an outdoor Home Depot gave way to souvenir stalls, then to clothes, while on the other side I found carpets and embroidery, flanked by glass and ceramics. I liked some of the wood carving, but I didn’t buy – too much travel still to go.

Garni temple

Monday morning at breakfast I met a French couple who would be on both my Hyur tours. She was ethnic Armenian, and had learned Armenian from her mother in her late teens, but he was a native Corsican, a chef, who spoke no Armenian. They were having to change hotels as the Villa Delenda was fully booked, and shared the taxi taking them to Hyur’s office with me, but I spent much of Monday’s tour chatting with a German guy who had lived in China for three years.

This tour took us to Garni, a largely reconstructed Roman temple, and 13th century Geghard monastery. On the way we stopped for what should have been an iconic sight – Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, tauntingly just out of reach across the closed Turkish border. Alas, it floated, barely discernible, above a haze of pollution that seemed a permanent feature of the Yerevan area.

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Chilly in Dilijan

October 2 – 4, 2009: I had been so impressed with the scenery driving north from Vanadzor, that I took a taxi instead of a marshrutka the short distance to my next stop, Dilijan. I was well rewarded, with more forested hillsides backed by steeper mountains. The taxi also saved me the uphill trek to my homestay, Nina’s. There I met an Englishwoman, a retired archaeologist who had been helping out at Erebuni, a Urartu site in south Yerevan. We agreed to share a taxi to visit the local sights next day.

Near Dilijan

The bathroom at Nina’s was a bit primitive, with unreliable hot water, but indoors, and otherwise she provided a comfortable place with lots of good food. I would have been even happier if the weather had been better. Plenty of sunshine during the day, but temperatures plunged at night, and I needed two quilts and blankets to keep from shivering.

While Dilijan enjoyed a beautiful location, I wasn’t as impressed by the “made for tourists” street of craft shops just down from Nina’s. Nor was I impressed by the cost of the posh new guesthouse at one end of that street – 40,000 dram compared to the 10,000 I was paying (which included dinner as well as breakfast). I did enjoy apricot and mushroom soup for lunch at the equally posh restaurant at the other end of the street.


The monasteries around Dilijan proved a bit of a disappointment, as one was essentially off limits for renovation. I really missed the more graceful architecture in Georgia, although once again I saw some good carving – but not up to the standard around Vanadzor. After lunch back in Dilijan I managed to visit a couple of nearly deserted churches deep in the woods.

A non-touristy street in Dilijan

Initially I thought, based on a USAID map, that I could walk in, but eventually I gave up on that and took a taxi the three and a half kilometers in from the road, before walking the last half kilometer alone. My boots got a bit muddy but the peace was notable – plus the trees were sporting autumn colors. The churches were in poor repair, but not totally I abandoned – I noticed a few feathers on a stone outside one of them – likely the remains of sacrificed chicken.

That evening Nina’s husband cooked barbecue on a hearth built into one of the walls in the dining room. A spread of assorted salads accompanied some good tasting meat, which for once in this part of the world turned out to be tender.The next morning he drove me down to the main square to catch a marshrutka on to Yerevan.

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September 30 – October 2, 2009: It wasn’t just the Russian signage that alerted me to the fact that I had crossed a border. Georgia and Armenia are both small Caucasian countries, but nothing like as similar as I had expected. They were even, I was shocked to discover, in different time zones. Since I was traveling practically due south, this was so unexpected that I almost missed dinner my first night.

Along with the Russian signs, Armenians seemed to have retained a more rule-bound outlook than the Georgians. Drivers paid more attention to lane markings, and I was able to wear my seat belt without feeling that I was insulting my driver. Not that drivers necessarily wore their own belts – on several occasions my driver pulled his belt across his chest and sat on the end when he caught sight of a police car.

Debed Canyon

And taxi drivers used their meters. I had grown accustomed to negotiating the rate for a day’s exploration, but in Vanadzor the drivers wanted to use their meters instead. I acquiesced, but cut back on my planned program. I had stopped in Vanadzor instead of heading straight for the capital because I wanted to visit the scenic Debed canyon, and several neighboring monasteries, without backtracking on a day trip, but public transport really wouldn’t work.

Driving back up the canyon I realized how much I had missed from my back seat in the marshrutka. Steep forested slopes rose above a swift river, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. But the Soviets’ well-documented disdain for the natural world was all too evident, with the mining town of Alaverdi occupying space that elsewhere might be protected as a national park.

Armenia’s churches at first appeared similar to those in Georgia, with the

Armenian khachkar

same basic cruciform design, and a central tower, but inside the differences were clear. With no windows piercing the tower, these churches were much darker, and the columns supporting the roof and walls were much more massive. But while I preferred Georgia’s church architecture, Armenia’s khachkars were breathtaking. I had read about them – carved crosses, the books said – but was unprepared for the lacy reality.

I was also unprepared for the tour groups I encountered at the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Sanahin and Haghpat. Armenia, thanks to its troubled history, has a sizable diaspora, and many ethnic Armenians visit their homeland – and of course, there had been no war with Russia to discourage western tourists. Still, there weren’t so many tourists that I couldn’t appreciate Sanahin’s forest location, and when I visited Odzun, a 5th century church also perched on the plateau above the canyon but not a UNESCO site, I had the place to myself. The resident priest made sure to show me all the 4th century blocks built into the columns, and after I tipped him he showed off his church’s acoustics with an a capella chant.

The main square in Vanadzor

I liked Vanadzor itself, too. The tour groups seemed to be on day trips from Yerevan, as I didn’t see any in town, and my hotel had just one all-male group that might well have been on a business trip. I walked the main streets, finding cafes with mostly male clientele (and Turkish coffee) and admiring the low-rise buildings, mostly constructed from a pretty pinkish stone. I also enjoyed my first taste of lahmahjoon, aka Armenian pizza – a very thin crust topped with spicy minced lamb – cheap and delicious.

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On To Armenia

September 30, 2009: After a good breakfast buffet in the Villa Mtiebi’s charming, light-filled atrium, I took a taxi over to Ortachala bus station. Every other time I’d done this in Georgia, the driver had delivered me to the correct marshrutka: here, perhaps because I had been staying at a more up-market hotel, the driver delivered me instead to a coterie of taxi drivers – yes, you could get a taxi all the way to Yerevan. After I cleared up this misunderstanding, I had to trek through the station to its lower reaches, and a rather worn marshrutka.

A (city) marshrutka in Yerevan

The good news? I didn’t have to wait long for it to leave. The bad news? I didn’t have to wait long because it was almost full when I boarded, and I had a cramped seat in the back. Since I couldn’t see much, the ride to the border was pretty boring. So was the wait at the border. I didn’t have any trouble getting a visa, but it took the Taiwanese guy up front almost 90 minutes. Apparently he ran into a Catch-22 where the border guards thought he was mainland Chinese, and should have gotten his visa in Tbilisi, while the authorities in Tbilisi had insisted he should get it at the border.

Another passenger, a small, black-clad nun, didn’t make it into Armenia at all. The Taiwanese man told me that she had too many Russian stamps in her passport, and the Armenians were currently leaning towards the west rather than Russia. She lost a shouting match with the driver before collecting her luggage and heading back across the border. Perhaps she was trying to get a reduction in the fare. Primed by Lonely Planet, even though I was only going to Vanadzor, not all the way to Yerevan, I hadn’t even tried to get a reduction – one fixed fare for all. The nun’s fate did help the rest of us – we were glad of the extra room.

The rest stop view

Shortly after we entered Armenia, we suddenly stopped, made a U-turn, and headed back towards the border. But no big problem – the driver had just forgotten to drop off a parcel. Not long after we stopped again, but this was a rest stop. I admired the view, but passed on the food from the roadside barbecue.

The driver didn’t seem very happy with dropping me off in Vanadzor, and in fact let me off on the main road, north of town, and not at the bus station. I pulled out Lonely Planet, and decided to walk to my hotel. It was further than it looked on the map, but I found my first look at Armenia interesting. Both Georgia and Armenia have their own alphabets, but in Armenia many signs are still multilingual, with Russian as well as Armenian – I had seen precious little Russian in Georgia!

My hotel (Argishti), which I had booked through an agency in Yerevan (no website or email address available), came as a pleasant surprise. The facade and public areas were much posher than I expected, and my semi-luxe room had elegant blue drapes, bright lighting and a huge (if somewhat empty) bathroom. I also appreciated the plentiful hot water. Having passed on the BBQ on the way south, I was glad to find food available in the hotel’s dining room, and tucked into (tough) chicken and potatoes before setting off to explore the town and arrange a taxi for the next day.

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The trip I most want to make is to follow the Silk Road through Central Asia, but it didn’t seem that this was the year. I got back from a month in France in May, and I didn’t feel that I had time to organize the visas and transport needed for a trip starting in Istanbul and finishing somewhere in the Himalayas, and leaving in August or September. So, having visited the eastern end in 2001, I decided to visit the western end this year, then next year maybe I could do the middle.

So Plan A was Eastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran.  But further research suggested I needed a Plan B.

  1. Turkey. I would start the trip in September, but this year Ramadan runs roughly from 22 August – 20 September. For that month, observant Muslims let nothing pass their lips from sunup to sundown. I have borderline hypoglycemia, and therefore have to eat lunch, but I wasn’t sure that I would find restaurants and cafes open during the day in the more conservative and less-traveled east. I also wondered about the availability of transport.
  2. Azerbaijan. Since the US started charging high prices for visas, other countries have reciprocated for people traveling on US passports. I was willing to pay the $131 visa fee (55 GBP for Brits), but then I learned that Azerbaijan had added a requirement for a Letter of Invitation (popular among former Soviet republics), which would run me at least another $75. Add in the cost of Fed Ex’ing my passport to Washington and back, and even if I didn’t use a visa service I was looking at well over $200 and it just didn’t seem worth the cost. Maybe the Azerbaijanis just don’t want tourists around – the Washington embassy website now says: “Due to technical reasons the Consular Section will temporarily work 2 days a week: on Mondays and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.”
  3. Iran. I waited until after the June election to apply for an Iranian visa, thinking that things might well be looser then. Well, we all know what happened instead. Based on posts on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree it seems that right now I can’t get a visa for either my US or UK passport. Rather than plan the trip and then regroup at the last minute when my application was refused, I reluctantly dropped Iran, too.

Well, the Silk Road was never a single rope, more a loose skein with threads slipping off in all directions. True, one route ran to Baku in Azerbaijan, another through Tabriz and on into Turkey. But further south goods were traded through Aleppo to Antioch, and via Damascus to Tyre. I still wanted to visit the Caucasus, but instead of Iran I’d make my first visit to the Middle East.

Plan B therefore was Georgia, Armenia, Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. But I couldn’t work up great enthusiasm for the trek across Eastern Turkey, which would involve a lot of time on buses, not enough places worth a three night stop, and too much time added to the trip if I didn’t want to turn it into a bus marathon. Luckily, I learned that there’s a twice weekly flight from Yerevan to Aleppo.

Plan C:

  • Fly from RDU to New York on September 10th, staying for three nights. I’ll be visiting the city for longer than it takes to change planes for the very first time.
  • Fly New York to Istanbul to Batumi – Turkish Airlines say they will put me up in an airport hotel in Istanbul as I can’t make the connection to Batumi the day I arrive.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Georgia and Armenia, ending in Yerevan.
  • Flight to Aleppo on October 11th.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
  • Flight from Amman to Istanbul for three nights.
  • Flight to New York for another three nights.
  • Fly back to RDU November 15th.

Let’s hope there won’t be a need for a Plan D. I am keeping an eye on the Georgia-Russia situation. Worst case I can fly Batumi-Yerevan instead of going overland.

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