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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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