Armenia: F*%k, another alphabet to not learn

 

tatevArmenia was…nice. Nothing mindblowingly incredible, nor anything that was difficult besides trying to get around with little Latin script outside of Yerevan, the capital. Armenia, like Georgia, has its own language and writing system that looks like this: շատ շնորհակալ եմ (Thank you very much). And no, I was not about to learn a new alphabet for less than two weeks in the country.

Although there are efforts to teach English, it was not very widespread and Russian was far more useful. Unlike Georgia, Armenia has a decent relationship with Russia and we didn’t have to be so judicious in our use of the language. Unfortunately, my exploration of Yerevan was limited due to handling business back home with medical school applications, and during our few trips into the city center I managed to forget my camera. Overall, Yerevan had a more spacious and slightly more modern feel than Tbilisi, but for whatever reason didn’t quite match the jumbled Tbilisi alleys in stroll-ability.

After a few days in Yerevan mostly consumed by working on my computer, we headed south toward the town of Goris. The town was nestled into a valley that seemed to drop from the hilly plateau, and the main draw to Goris is to see the Tatev monastery and continue on to Karabagh. Karabagh is a hotly contested area officially within Azerbaijani territory but controlled by the Armenian military due to historical claims on the land. It has been an issue since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reading the Wikipedia article on Karabagh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karabagh) would be far better than me trying to explain it. We decided to forgo a visit to Karabagh due to time constraints and the cost involved in getting there, but it certainly was hard to turn down the opportunity to see the destroyed city of Agdam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agdam), left as a ghost town after the Karabagh war in 1993, and the flashy city of Stepanakert.

We did take a visit up to the Tatev Monastery, built in the 9th century and still functional and in remarkable condition, arriving by the longest cable car in the world. Afterwards, we walked down to a river rock formation called Devil’s Bridge, but being springtime the water flow was too strong to be able to climb down and see the formations.

That night we met a Polish couple staying in the same guesthouse, and the husband was working in the Polish embassy in Yerevan and was full of information about Armenian history, the conflict with Turkey over the Armenian genocide, and the present state of the country. The conversation wandered in all sorts directions, but the main points seemed to hover around how isolated Armenia is as a country in terms of trade. With the border closed to the economic powerhouse of Turkey, and money being used up in military conflict with Azerbaijan, the country is struggling to get on its economic feet. There are not any significant natural resources in the country, and the Armenians themselves are fond of saying that their greatest natural resource is their diaspora, which is more populous than the country itself and remits massive amounts of cash to the country. Armenia also has pretty tight ties with the US, and there is no shortage of money coming from the US and other NATO alliance governments seeing as it is an ex-Soviet country in a strategically located area near the Middle East.

We also discussed an interesting facet of history that Georgia and Armenia remained Christian countries through repeated Muslim invasions, while all of the surrounding areas (Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya) were Muslim. It seemed the main reason for this was the gestalt of language, culture, and heritage within Georgia and Armenia that had Christianity as a main tenet. While other groups around these two areas were able to be converted, Christianity was such an integral part of the identity of Georgians and Armenians that it was tightly held through numerous conquests. We also discussed the apt comparison of Armenians and Jews, as the two groups have historically suffered similar atrocities (Turkish and Nazi genocides, respectively), have hotly contested and compact homelands surrounded by people who aren’t fond of them, possess massive diasporas, and have stereotypical reputations of being clever and industrious.

After Goris, we made our way a bit north to the difficultly-pronounced town of Yeghegnadzor. It is located in the Areni region, which is known for its specific type of grape and the quality of wine in the area. We made a short trip to a winery and had a sampling of the handful of red, white, and fruit wines they offered. We settled on a semi-dry red wine that was probably one of the best red wines I have ever had, not that I’m an expert, and a pretty good deal for only $7 a bottle including the wine tasting and a little tour of the facility.

There were also a handful of monasteries around Yeghegnador, but we only chose the most well-known one called Noravank. It was perched above a valley and had some serious restoration thanks to a huge lump of money from USAID to assist in developing tourist infrastructure in the country.

Our next stop was going to be Dilijan in the northern part of Armenia, but we had to head back to Yerevan so I could take care of more medical school business. This was also uneventful since I was wrapped up in work, but we stayed at a hostel that was run by an incredibly nice family and had a nice time talking with them (the mother was full of Armenian nationalism).

The son, Armen, was an avid paraglider and, along with an Icelandic guy who was also in the hostel, invited us to come out and watch him paraglide. I had never seen it up close, but suffice it to say that I may have found a new hobby when I get back to the United States. Basically, it’s like parachuting but you start from a high clearing, take off running, and try to catch thermal upward drafts to keep you up for as long as possible. Armen had gone as far as a few hundred kilometers in one takeoff, and was pretty skilled at it.

After the stopover in Yerevan, we found a marshrutka to Dilijan. It is described in guidebooks as the “Armenian Switzerland”, but that is definitely a stretch. It’s a sleepy town in a valley between small, wooded mountains, and is the sort of place you would want to put a small cottage to relax.

We found a guesthouse that, as we learned later, was prominent in Lonely Planet, so there were quite a few tourists there when we arrived. We had a particularly good time talking with a 23 year old from California named James who, at the age of 19, biked all the way from France to Vietnam and hit some pretty dicey areas in between including Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was in the middle of his second trip after graduating from UC Santa Barbara in two years, also mostly via bicycle, and wasn’t planning to get back the US until Spring of next year. He was full of misadventures and drawn to conflict areas, as well as being quite bright, and I expect him to either being writing some great books in the future or being written about in the obituaries.

We were a little monastery’d-out and didn’t feel like paying a taxi to get to anymore monasteries, so Anna and I just decided to hike to a nearby waterfall accessible from town and described in a local guide pamphlet. The hike itself was pretty difficult since it was obvious that no one had been on the trail in a long time, and even saying there was a trail was an overstatement. Since there was only one valley and one stream after a branch indicated in the directions, we just sort of followed the stream on the slope above through heavy brush and eventually reached a small “waterfall” that I can’t really say was worth the hike up. However, on the way to the trailhead we had to hike along a disused railroad section that looked abandoned since Soviet times, and it was fascinating to crawl around the decrepit station and equipment that seemed like it was frozen in time. At the very least, there was nice scenery.

After Dilijan, we decided to head to Turkey, but had to go back to Georgia since the border is closed between Armenia and Turkey for political reasons. There were no direct buses from Dilijan into Georgia towards Turkey, so we patched together buses between cities and eventually got to the Georgian side. The last city in Armenia was particularly difficult to deal with since it was clear the taxi drivers were colluding with the minibus drivers to push tourists into high-priced taxis across the border instead of public transport. The taxi drivers were relentlessly aggressive and had no problem lying and telling us there were no marshrutki going to Georgia. It was clear something was fishy when he kept lowering the price to eventually a third of what he initially offered. When we went to go talk to other marshrutka drivers, he would yell something at them and they would be quiet or say there were no more marshrutki that day.

We decided to go into a few stores nearby and everyone said there would be public transport to Georgia since it was still before noon, and at that point we had caught the taxi driver in an outright lie. An Armenian offered to ask the time information for us, since we couldn’t approach the marshrutka area without being hounded by the taxi driver, and he helped us get to the right minibus. Just another tourist scam to look out for, one among many, but thankfully honest Armenians were willing to help.

I’ll pick up with hitchhiking to Turkey (cough Kurdistan cough) soon.

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