Sunday, 1 January 2012

Armenia - cultural surprises and a tumultuous recent history

After our trip to Abkhazia and Zugdidi James and I got the over night train back to Tbilisi. Now there was snow on the hills and it was significantly colder. We wanted to get to Armenia before it got any colder so bought a ticket for the night train to Yerevan (yes, I know this takes three times as long but, for backpackers on a budget, it doubles up as a cheap night's accommodation).

As always we were sharing our platskartny compartment with a selection of characters. Carman was an Armenian making one of her many trips between Yerevan and Moscow. Esa was a Kurd from Turkey on holiday. I clocked him immediately. He had a lost puppy look about him that I have seen on many occasions as a nervous traveller steps into the unknown. He had not researched his destination, where he was going to stay or what there was to do, his plan was to find someone who spoke Kurdish, who he was sure would show him around, but in the meantime we would have to do. As soon as we got off the train he latched onto us. We tried to lose him in our hunt for an ATM or money changers. In the end Carman offered to exchange our US dollars for Armenian Drams. Esa followed us down to the metro station, where we had to pay for his ticket into town. We eventually made it clear that he was not welcome to follow us until he got a better offer. I felt a bit bad, as we left him outside the metro station, but he was immensely irritating and I knew that he would continue to invite himself along to everything we did in Yerevan.

It soon transpired that we had written the wrong address down for the hostel which had been recommended to us. Just as we gave up looking for it, and not wanting to incur the cost of a taxi to a different hostel, we stumbled upon it when setting out on foot to find a different place to stay. The Penthouse Hostel was worth the hunt, as well as the effort it took to climb the 5 flights of stairs. It was spotless and homely with stunning views over Yerevan and beyond to Mt Ararat, a huge 5000 m volcano. Mt Ararat is actually in Turkey but dominates the Yerevan skyline. It is a daily reminder to the Armenians of the loss of Western Armenian territory to the Turks which causing the Armenian Genocide between 1915 to 1923 in which 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives. The Turks still deny that this event took place and it is the reason for the continued Armenia/Turkey border closures.

No one we met had mentioned Yerevan to be an interesting city, so we had no expectations. After a couple of days looking around, we decided that we loved it. The art galleries were world class, probably a result of the huge Armenian diaspora who now contribute to and fund many galleries. The stark cascades building houses the Cafesjian Museum of Art. A gallery which mainly comprises modern art using glass, much of which is the collection of Gerard Cafesjian's, a wealthy Armenian-American. Another highlight was an exhibition by photojournalist Ruben Mangasaryan whose powerful images depicted local people during both the war in Nagorno Karabakh and the earthquake in 1982 which compounded the suffering.

We were keen to travel to Nagorno Karabakh ourselves and spent a morning getting the correct paperwork before attempting to get a marshrutka to Goris, a town conveniently located to break-up our journey to Stepanakert in Karabakh. Our out-of-date guidebook let us down again and we wasted several hours trying to find the correct place to catch the right marshrutka. By the time we had found the right place we had missed the last one. We weren't the only stranded travellers, however. Helen (a Brit) and Jamie (a Aussie) were also looking for a ride to Goris. This made four of us, the perfect number for getting a taxi. We had met Helen and Jamie the previous night in our hostel. Unbelievably they already knew about us and our trip. They had done almost exactly the same trip but starting in Chengdu, China, instead of Kathmandu. They were the first people that we had met who had taken the boat across the Caspian Sea as we had and were planning to continue all the way into Europe like we were. They had read about us in various guest books in Tajikistan and other places. Needless to say we weren't short on conversation for the 4 hour journey to Goris.

Winter had come early here as well and we pulled up to the homestay in the snowy darkness. We had been delayed due to drifting snow on the highest section of the road, which had reduced us to a crawl. Luckily the homestay had room and mulberry vodka was complimentary.

The following morning we caused massive offence to our host. He was shocked to hear that we would not be visiting the Tatev Monastery a day trip away. "It is essential!" he said. But we were monastery'd out; without the capacity to view a single other church or monastery. Instead we walked around the town, made up of solid stone houses, reminiscent of French farm houses. At one point we came across over 100 sober young men waiting outside an office. We didn't ask them why they were there but I would guess they were being conscripted into the Army. On the outskirts of town, through a cemetery, was an extensive network of cave dwellings. Nowadays, if they had any use, it was to stable animals.

We needed to catch a marshrutka to Stepanakert which entailed standing on the road out of Goris trying to wave one down. Like the Georgian alphabet, Armenia has it's own script. This meant that we had to spot 
Ստեփանակերտ on a speeding marshrutka in time to wave it down. We didn't have a chance. A taxi driver had noticed our failed attempts and came to ask if we would like his services. Explaining that we didn't have the money to take a taxi and we just wanted to catch a bus, instead of the run of excuses taxi drivers usually gave us - all the buses will be full, there are no more marshrutkas today, they won't stop in Goris etc. etc. etc. - he said that he understood and would help us wave the right one down. Ten minutes later we were speeding out way of Goris, Stepanakert-bound. If ever there was a sign of the Armenian's hospitality and kindness this was one.

Views from our hostel balcony over Yerevan towards Mt Ararat.

James walking through Goris cemetary with cave dwellings in the background.

Looking back towards Goris and the snowy hills.

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