Chasing Armenia

I have just returned form spending a week travelling around northern Armenia. Unfortunately, this was far from enough time to fully explore this stunning country and I’m already looking forward to when I can return. For such a small place there is really a lot to see and do there. We didn’t even touch the south of the country, and there are still a fair few places in the north that we didn’t reach. However, what I did see in Armenia was beautiful natural landscapes of rolling hills, snow-capped mountains and dramatic gorges dotted with monasteries and temples, as well as warm and hospitable locals.

Hovhannavank monastery on the Kasagh Gorge
Landscape near Garni

Our first stop was the capital. Yerevan seriously defied my expectations. One of the first things that I noticed was how relaxed it was. We rolled into the centre early in the evening on a Saturday, and whilst there were plenty of people out and about on the streets, it was still surprisingly quiet. This was probably largely down to the fact that Yerevan’s wide avenues can actually handle the city’s traffic and people seem to orderly follow the rules of the road (take note, Tbilisi). The crescendo of Georgian car horns was gone! Another surprise was that there is plenty of greenery in Yerevan with tree-lined streets and parks dotted around the city. Walking around as we struggled to locate our hostel, I started to get more of a feel for the city. Seeing a fully decked out Rolls Royce driving abreast to a clunky old Lada was the perfect exemplification of how a select amount of Armenians have greatly prospered in the post-Soviet period, leaving everyone else far behind. Walking around the centre you see plenty of examples of wealth with luxury boutiques, trendy bars and fashionable restaurants in abundance, however, when we steered away from the more popular touristy sites, we saw a different side to the city. After leaving the cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator (consecrated in 2001, this is the biggest Armenian Apostolic Church in the world), we decided to take a shortcut back to our hostel. Here we saw a completely different side of Yerevan, surrounded by the decaying facades of Soviet-era apartment buildings and tumbledown homes with holes in the wall and roofs made of corrugated iron.

Kathoghike Church, Yerevan
The less glamorous side of Yerevan

The next morning we made our trip to what is probably the most important site in Yerevan, the Armenian Genocide memorial complex on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd. The memorial consists of an eternal flame surrounded by twelve slabs of rock (representing the twelve regions lost to Turkey) pointing skyward.Next to this a giant needle emerges from the ground, split in two by a crack running up its length. Whilst the memorial complex itself was moving, the museum was a far more harrowing experience. Located underground with no windows or natural light of any kind, the museum takes you through a chronological account of the events preceding, during and following the genocide. The exhibition was divided into 50 different sections, each with its own wall of text. Whilst this was a huge amount of information to take in, I slowly made my way through the museum, making sure to read everything that was on display. Part of the tragedy surrounding the Armenian genocide is how few nations recognise it to this day, and as such it is discussed surprisingly little in the West, even though these were the events that led Raphael Lemkin to coin the very term ‘genocide’. For this reason I felt that it was my duty to absorb as much as I could on my visit.

After leaving the Genocide Museum, one of the next recommendations in the Lonely Planet was the Yerevan Military Museum, but we decided that we’d had our fill of death and horror for one day. Thankfully, Yerevan is also home to a frankly staggering amount of museums and galleries, the most impressive of which might be the Cafesijan Center for the Arts. This remarkable gallery is located at the Yerevan Cascade, an enormous stairway that climbs up a hill in the northern periphery of central Yerevan. The gallery itself is located within the Cascade, and to visit the various exhibits guests ascend the inside of the hill via a series of escalators, gliding past the different pieces of art on display.  Every other floor also takes you back outside onto the Cascade where there are fountains, sculptures and other interesting pieces of art on display. It’s a great vantage point to see the city from above and also is supposed to be the best place in the city to see Mount Ararat. We’re sure the view of this infamous mountain would have been spectacular, but sadly all we could see on the horizon was cloud and smog.

The Armenian Genocide memorial complex
Artwork on display on the exterior of the cascade

Yerevan is also in close vicinity to some interesting archaeological sites such Garmi Temple and the monasteries of the Kasagh Gorge. The medieval monastery of Geghard was a particular highlight. Whilst from the outside it might not seem overly impressive, inside it’s another story. The main chapel is built against the side of a cliff and the inside resembles a cave more than a place of worship. The interior hasn’t been restored so it is dark, gloomy, falling apart and full of atmosphere. We were particularly lucky as one visitor burst into song, reciting an Armenian hymn in a low, melancholic voice than reverberated throughout the structure and only added to the spooky character of the place. There was also the town of Byurakan, from which you could visit the 7th-century fortress of Amberd. It has to be said, we were left a little disappointed by this site. Whilst the Lonely Planet described it as ‘majestic’, what we saw was just a crumbling ruin that lacked any real character or defining features. However, the trip wasn’t totally wasted as we finally caught out first glimpse of Mount Ararat.  I would have left Armenia disappointed if I hadn’t seen this majestic mountain, which represents Armenia’s most potent national symbol. One local got quite emotional talking to me about the mountain, saying how when he’d been at school he would stare out the window every day, marveling at what seemed to him to be the highest place in the world. He said he could never imagine a time when Armenians would accept that Ararat wasn’t theirs. The mountain, along with significant portions of western Armenia, was lost in the Turkish-Armenian war of 1920. As such the mountain has come to symbolise not only the Armenian nation, but also the genocide and the lost regions.

View of Mount Ararat from Byurakan
Carvings at Geghard

Heading further north we got to see two more of Armenia’s larger towns. Our first stop was Gyumri, Armenia’s second biggest city. Although it is not a particularly beautiful city, the locals here are famed for their peculiar sense of humour and strong accents. One afternoon as we sat on a park bench enjoying a brief spell of sunshine, one local popped himself down next to us. He introduced himself as Artur, a 50-something-year-old blacksmith, and although he spoke perfectly good Russian, he insisted on communicating almost entirely by hand gestures and singing old French songs (most of which he didn’t seem to know the words to). If we ever didn’t seem to understand what he was getting at, he would gesticulate wildly, pointing and staring at the sky as if asking for some divine intervention. At first I suspected he might have been drunk, but as our surreal conversation went on I didn’t catch a whiff of booze on his breath, and he seemed fully compos mentis. In the end I decided he was just a bit of a goofy local, but he certainly kept us distracted for a good hour or so! The owner of our guesthouse was also incredibly welcoming. Strutting around the house in his robe like an Armenian Hugh Hefner, Hayk always made us feel completely at home. Whilst he worked as a banker by day, in his spare time he was also the head of the Gyumri branch of the Rotary Club, and he made sure to show off the attic of his house that served as the local club house.

From Gyumri we moved on to Stepanavan, a small town located quite close to the Georgian border. It was a quaint and peaceful place, set on a high plateau and surrounded by gorgeous hills and mountains on all sides. If I’d squinted my eyes to blur all the signs in Armenian, I easily could have been in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. The town itself seems like it has been frozen in time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, or even long before, but this only adds to the charm of the place. The only exception was a local cafe called Carahunge, which seemed quite incongruous with the rest of the town due to the fact it looked like a hipster-made log cabin, complete with a menu of European comfort food, board games,artisanal clay dishes, a wide selection of spirits behind the bar and American pop music on the radio. Whilst there isn’t much to see inside the city, we took a trip out to the Dendropark, a 35 hectare arboretum full of local families taking a stroll and gaggles of teenagers chasing each other about or serenading their sweethearts on park benches. I would have loved the chance to have walked more throughout the countryside of this charming region, however, on the final leg of the trip my stomach decided it had other plans and kept me bed-bound for most of the day.

View of the mountains from Gyumri

Nonetheless, we crammed a lot in to one week and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Armenia. The strange truth now is that I’ve seen far more of Armenia than I have of Georgia! This is something that I’ll have to remedy in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on this space for more!

Travel stories: from Kazbegi and David Gareja to Chiatura and Armenia

During the past two months, I have luckily managed to see quite a lot of the beautiful country that is Georgia. I am really impressed by the natural variety it disposes – as you will see snowy mountains, lavish valleys, and arid semi-deserts within a scope of only a few travel hours. That being said, the nature is of an outstanding beauty, and will probably accumulatively lead to more tourists arriving in Georgia every year. In winter, however, one has to be aware of the more difficult conditions that roads might impose. Being flexible is key. As I concluded with some friends, going on weekend trips in Georgia in winter means most of the time ‘hiking through the snow, climbing up slippery stairs, overcoming dangerous cliffs and risking your life’. When you make it to your viewpoint, however, you immediately forget all your struggles, as Georgian nature never disappoints.

Ananuri Complex
The Caucasus viewpoints in Gudauri

The Georgian Military Highway

One of the first trips I made, in the beginning of February, was the Georgian Military Highway up to Stepantsminda (better known as Kazbegi). The road runs from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia, Russia), and is often described as one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The first stop brought us to beautiful Ananuri, a scenic castle complex some 65 kilometres north of Tbilisi. From 13th until 18th century, it was the seat of the eristavis of Aragvi, a local feudal dynasty. The fortified castle that can be discovered nowadays dates from the 17th century. After Ananuri, one follows the road that leads to Gudauri, a ski resort on the southern plateau of the Greater Caucasus. Although we did not have time to ski, we could enjoy the amazing viewpoints, as Gudauri is entirely located above tree-level (at an elevation of 2.200m). After many steep and rough sections, we arrived at Stepantsminda, at only 22 kilometres from Vladikavkaz, from where the mighty 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church can be seen on an elevated hilltop. Normally, one can either climb up a steep path or reach the church by car, but this path was completely covered with a thick icy layer, and locals secured us that without professional hiking gear we would not be successful. Being flexible was a must again. Kazbegi remains on the list and has to be revisited in another season.


The arid Georgian south at David Gareja

In the beginning of February, with some friends I attempted a visit to the monastery complex of David Gareja, in the deep south of Kakheti. This mysterious complex was founded in the 6th century, when an Assyrian monk arrived in the region, and is known for cells, churches, living spaces and chapels that have been carved or hollowed out from the rocky surface. When arriving at Udabno, the last village before the dirt track leading to David Gareja, we were once again confronted with Georgian winter. The dirt track was blocked by metres of snow. We visited Bodbe and Signagi, the showpiece of former President Saakashvili, instead. A few weeks ago, another attempt proved more successful. One has to be very determined and willing to go all the way to David Gareja. The conditions of the road transformed a 70km-drive in 3 hours travelling. When we finally arrived, a steep hike up provided us with breath-taking panoramic views with the Georgian Greater Caucasus up north, and the arid Azerbaijani landscape in southern direction. The arid semi-desert landscape around the complex is fairly different from the rest of Georgia and provides unique vegetation and colours. The complex is actually squatted along the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, a part of it officially located in Azerbaijan. This has generated some border tensions since both countries obtained independence in 1991. The Georgian stance explains David Gareja as intrinsically Georgian and as part of its historical heritage, while Azerbaijan states the complex has Caucasian Albanian origins, and therefore belongs to Azerbaijan.

The road to David Gareja on our first attempt.
David Gareja

Chiatura: a Soviet relic

When Georgia regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it had obtained a legacy of Soviet relics. While those might generally be portrayed through the typical communist flats that one finds in suburbs, such as is the case in Tbilisi, the town of Chiatura tells another story. In the heart of Imereti, Chiatura was a bustling manganese-mining town. During the 1950s and 60s, this provided employment to the people of the region, making it a prosperous industrial town. The mining-labour character of the town made it always stood out, as had been proven during the Russian Revolution, when it became the only Bolshevik-stronghold in Georgia. Stalin was offered shelter in Chiatura and became a hero for the mining workers, who dubbed him ‘sergeant major Koba’. In the 50s, Stalin instructed the development of an ingenious cable car-system. As Chiatura is located within a deep gorge, this seemed the only feasible way to connect the different parts of the town and to get the workers to the mine as fast as possible. In 1954, the first ones where opened, providing a true modern masterpiece during the time. Nowadays, Chiatura provides a gloomy overview. Nothing seems to have changed. Some rusty and coloured cable cars are still functioning, while others hang motionless. Flats and factories look abandoned, although they might sometimes still be functioning. A true adventure awaits us. While we hear a lot of squeaky noises, and have to jump over an abyss when getting out, we had a unique experience in a town that was once ahead of its time. Nowadays, many flats remain empty and are basically valueless, as inhabitants have left for Tbilisi, Kutaisi, or other cities.

Chiatura and its cablecar system

The long Hayastan weekend

Ever since I came to Tbilisi, visiting Armenia was high on my list. Its closeness and easy border procedures made me think it would be a waste to not cross into Hayastan, as Armenians call their country themselves. However, other than Tbilisi, most parts of Armenia have a very extreme climate, with cold winters and hot, dry summers. For weeks I was checking the weather in Yerevan, just to see that another weekend with temperatures plummeting to as much as -25 °C was to be expected. Thus, I had to be patient. Last weekend, spring finally seemed to have arrived in Armenia and together with my Kazakh friends, we decided to grab our chance. As we heard good stories about hitchhiking (something I would have never tried in Western Europe), we were keen to at least try this. Although our luck was variable, we managed to reach Yerevan safe and sound with a stop at the beautiful Lake Sevan along the way. Safe and sound, that is. While our Armenian taxi driver assured us the road at the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border crossing leading through Noyemberyan, Dilijan, Sevan, to Yerevan, was safe enough during daytime, we later found out this certainly is not always the case. The road scrapes along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border for a couple of kilometres, and abandoned houses and churches with bullet holes can be witnessed.

Sevanavank and frozen Lake Sevan

Arriving in Sevan, we witnessed a completely frozen lake. According to locals, this was a unique event that had occurred for the first time in twenty years. We arrived in Yerevan after sunset and could immediately enjoy the great view on the city we had from our apartment. Yerevan cannot be compared to Tbilisi in a lot of perspectives. Where Tbilisi boasts an old city centre, and a vibrant cosmopolitan and clubbing culture, Yerevan seems a rather conservative and impromptu capital. It possesses over lavish avenues, an impressive Republic Square, fancy shops, and great restaurants with great hospitability and tasty Armenian food, but at the same time a real core seems to be absent. As Yerevan only started to gain independence after Armenia rose as an independent state for the first time in 1918, most buildings are either in Soviet or post-Soviet style. The several monuments and references that refer to Armenia’s very troubled past seem to actually hold the country back in this past. An understandable sense of sadness, combined with boundless militancy seems never far away. However, this clingy nostalgia often feels like impeding Yerevan from truly becoming a 21st-century capital, regardless of how many new skyscrapers may be built. The feeling of loss becomes ultimate in Khor Virap, an ancient Armenian monastery complex close to the Turkish border. Its opponent on the Turkish side is the mighty Ararat, the long-lost Armenian symbol. Everywhere you go in Armenia, the Ararat is present. It is an intangible religious, cultural and heroic symbol for the Armenians, but which now finds itself located within the boundaries of another state. Armenia, being one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world, is definitely a very interesting place to visit, and stirs many different, often opposed, sentiments and emotions.

Yerevan concrete
Khor Virap and Mount Ararat in the background

Tbilisi wanderings

Every time I went on trips and came back to Tbilisi, it felt as coming home. It’s a strange feeling how fast this city seems to have accepted me and made me feel comfortable. In a relatively short time, I managed to make a lot of new great friends, interesting contacts, and see a lot of this bubbling city. In many senses, Tbilisi is one of the new places to be! Rarely I have seen a city developing so fast, becoming so vibrant, and inspiring. It boasts over great history, a well-maintained old centre, chic modern neighbourhoods, many cultural events, and an exciting nightlife. It is the exact opposite of what people might expect when they think of Tbilisi as a former Soviet outlet in the Caucasus. Tbilisi is special. It unifies many cultures, and it is becoming more cosmopolitan every day. When I complained to my colleague Ana about the lack of bookshops in the city, she wanted to prove me wrong and took me on a ‘bookshop tour’. And although those places might not always be on the most central locations, they indeed exist and possess over a variety of books in Georgian, Russian and English. You just have to know where they are located and what they are specialised in. As copyright laws are not so strict here, Ana also taught me how to differentiate real editions from fake books. Even in Georgia, 8GEL for Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel seems to be too good to be true. While sadly very little of Georgian literature has been translated, it is definitely worth trying to find something. Shota Rustaveli’s ვეფხისტყაოსანი (The Knight in the Panther’s Skin), a national epic poem, is probably Georgia’s most famous work.

Tbilisi book hunting