Armenia or Bust

The next morning, I packed and took the metro south of Tblisi on the road to Armenia.  I was lucky to get some rides to the border where I met 3 German couples who were traveling as a caravan of VW micro vans.  Actually, I thought I had a ride to Yerevan from a nice elderly gentleman and his business partner, but when I got out to walk across the border (all passengers have to disembark and go through immigration), their car was gone.  I was pretty desperate at that point because there’s nothing at the border (or for many miles) and I thought I would have to walk.  I also had left my fresh figs in the car, which looked so good.  We had stopped at a roadside shack selling cleaning supplies.  They negotiated with the man for laundry detergent, pet food, and I spied some huge delicious figs and asked to buy them.  I had a large bill (50 Lari), and they didn’t want to change it, but my driver convinced them.  He also offered me a small hard candy, brand Colibri, which I later found in Yerevan at Grand Candy (and bought enough to last a month)!  Flavors like rose and mint, lemon and lime were subtle and lovely.  The joys of different cultures!

We made our way through a lovely forested region in northeastern Armenia (on the Azerbaijani border) towards Lake Sevan.  Lake Sevan (Armenian: Սևանա լիճ Sevana lič), is the largest lake in Armenia and the Caucasus region, and one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in the world.  Sevan meant black Van, a reference to Lake Van which had been part of Armenia till the war with Turkey.  Apparently the Armenians that saw Sevan were reminded of Lake Van only darker.  We drove along the shore of Lake Sevan and went to the city of Sevan in search of an ATM.  Sevan looked like a Soviet occupation poster chid with a huge central square (a result of Soviet demolition of tens to hundreds of homes) and ugly 10+story concrete apartment buildings that looked more like prisons.  Having seen this in every town that has been occupied by Soviets, I am quite tired of ugly architecture and the disrespect that Russian occupiers had for the aesthetics of the countries they were occupying.  We hit a horribly bumpy road in search of an ATM.  The area was god-foresaken and I didn’t think we would find one, but we did.  I dashed into a store to buy stapes: bread, cheese, etc.  They were very impatient, and while it only took me 3 minutes (I timed myself), they were hovering at the door saying let’s go!  They had forgotten what it was like to be a backpacker without access to food, as they had storehouses on wheels.

Back at the lake, I set off along the lake shore toward a tree-covered peninsula while the Germans unpacked their camper vans.  It was a Sunday afternoon, and Armenians (mostly city people from Yerevan) were happily playing in the water, sitting on the ground with picnics, cooking mouth watering beef kebabs on barbeques, and listening to haunting music.  People seemed very happy and kind – I was struck by Armenians temperament.  Apparently trees are unusual in this part of Armenia (near Lake Sevan), in large part because of environmental devestation wrought by the Stalinist regime during Russian occupation of Armenia.  The Sevanavan monastery, which used to be on an island in the lake, became accessible by a land bridge when the lake was drained by the Soviets in the 1950s.  The lake, as a result of being drained, has dropped to half or so of its former level, and has shrunk dramatically.  Eutrophication (algae blooms) have become frequent, as has evaporation and lowering water quality.  I don’t know whether they are still diverting water through a pipe, but they had been for many years.  Too many large water projects – reminds me of the IMF and world bank, who dammed practically all of Sri Lanka’s rivers in the 1970s.  Huge disaster.

I went to a lovely park near the presidential palace one evening to see a bittersweet film, Moskovich Mon Amor, part of an Armenian film festival.  Luckily I understand French, as the subtitles were in French. It was about an old Azerbaijani living near Lake Sevan who was nostalgic for former Soviet times.  He kept a well worn magazine photo of a red Moskovich that he lovingly guards amongst his keepsakes.  He is so obsessed and focused on earning enough money to buy the car that he neglects his wife, who takes a job in Yerevan to help him pay for his new love.  She ends up dying of exhaustion on the day that he has finally earned enough money to purchase the car.  As he opens the car’s garage, he throws his hard-earned money in the air.  The camera follows his eyes to the passenger seat where we see his wife in her younger years, looking back at him lovingly.

I was touched by the main character’s dedication to his goal, working in winter, trudging to fix engines in the snow. He would slowly accumulate money, making chairs by hand and selling them door to to door in Yerevan, taking the bus (very old Soviet style) back to his village.  He and the village boys spent 2 years building a rag tag garage out of crushed oil barrels, which the municipality tore down immediately upon discovery.  His son wrote to him and asked for bail money as he’d been wrongly imprisoned in Georgia.  My heart broke watching his struggle, a poor man from a village (which I had seen now for months) trying to attain a dream created by an urban-based culture.  And to see his relationship with his wife crumble under the strain of struggling to survive.

All in all, I loved Yerevan, despite the fact that the old part of the city has been completely destroyed and subsumed by very modern architecture.  Most people have to take a bus for at least an hour to get to work, and very few can afford to live in the city.  I wanted to stay longer but was running out of time, so after a few days, I took to the highway on my way to Ngora Karabah, the disputed autonomous zone between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  One of the first rides I got was to a wine cellar/roadside outdoor restaurant with picturesque tables and a stream meandering through the place.  I decided to order food, as I hadn’t eaten much Armenian food up to that point, and had a lovely soup and grilled chicken with lavash.  After a few short rides I got a ride from a very kindly trucker who was headed toward my destination.  We chatted in Russian for a bit as he wound his way through Armenia’s dramatic scenery – a pile of stones that had been a monastery on one side, a deep river canyon with a steep cliff of purple and orange hued rock on the other.  There was almost no villages or human habitation outside of a few towns that we passed between Yerevan and ???.  We and several other trucks stopped at a roadside spring for water.

Unfortunately, we didn’t reach my destination till after dark, and it had started raining.  He asked me where I wanted to go, and after checking with a few hotels, I decided that camping in the countryside would be better.  So we headed out of town and I indicated at one point to stop.  He’d wanted to leave me closer to houses (and barking dogs), but I preferred a remoter setting where hopefully no one would bother me.  I thanked him and jumped out with my pack, picking my way through high grass wet with rain.  Not wanting to call attention to myself, I walked in the dark and without a light, occasionally falling from the uneven ground.  I found what seemed like the most ideal spot and set up my tent, but then decided that I needed to be under trees which were in short supply because it had started raining and I didn’t have a rainfly (and have a down bag, which is useless when wet).  I set off hoping to find a better spot (I carried my tent in one hand to do so) but couldn’t find a sheltered place that didn’t have broken glass, trash, or too steep of a slope.  After what seemed like an hour, I wound up in the same spot and decided to risk it, putting my backpack rain poncho over one corner and a plastic bag over the other.  Nothing like improvising.

Lucky for me, it didn’t rain hard that night, and though I was pretty uncomfortable and didn’t sleep much, I awoke unscathed to a nice morning and took a few photos on my way to the road.  I’d already decided that I didn’t have time to continue to Karabah, so I headed back the way I’d come towards Yerevan.  I got a 2 block ride from an older man and his 2 sons who demanded that I pay him, as I must be a rich American.  I told him I only had some small amount of money (I’d told him that when he’d picked me up, as he made the universal sign for money).  After I’d shaken my head, he indicated that I should get in anyway, only to again demand money 3 minutes later and then drive off in a huff.  I needed to save the few Armenian dollars I had, not knowing if I would find an ATM (universally called bankomat or automat) before crossing the Georgian border.

My next 2 rides were very nice.  One young man, who worked at Grand Candy (Armenian’s great candy store where I bought the rose, lemon, and peppermint flavored hard candies called Colibri), was on his way to work and spoke English.  He told me about his job and showed me a brochure with all the candy they make.  Quite a variety!  The next ride was from a business man from Yerevan who owned 2 small hydroelectric plants, one fairly new and the other an old Soviet one.  He and his son spoke English, and they were very generous, treating me to coffee at a scenic outdoor cafe that had apparently seen better days during Soviet times.  I sank back into the leather seats of their black Mercedes SUV, thanking my lucky stars for my kind hosts. They told me about difficulties with economic investment in Armenia, blaming Russia in part for making it difficult for other countries to participate.  The man seemed cheerful despite the difficulties he faces at the hydro plants.  He says that once a week or so he has to make the 2 hour drive from home to fix something or help with its operation.

Reluctantly I bid them farewell in Yerevan to reenter the real world of a blistering 100 degrees after a climate-controlled 70.  I ended up walking for an hour to get to the edge of the city where I could more easily catch a ride.  Along the way, a kindly German student accompanied me, offering to carry my pack while he told me about his recent trip to Tehran.  He apologetically asked whether I had difficulty getting rides, as I was quite a bit older than the usual 20 something student.  Given that I haven’t hitchhiked for many years, and only did so in Armenia at the suggestion of a couchsurfing friend in Tblisi, it wasn’t a problem.  Plus the fact that Armenians are very friendly and generally help anyone who needs it, I’d had very good luck in Armenia and most often only waited a few minutes between rides.

I loved Lake Sevan – or more, the whole atmosphere of festive picnickers, bathers, and pilgrims.  The monastery was majestic, or what was left of it.  Most monasteries and churches in Armenia have been completely destroyed by Turks.  The latter literally used them for bombing practice if they were unable to destroy them during battles.  The extent of the destruction was shown and described in the National Gallery of Armenia.  Huge tragedy – not only were the people executed en masse by Turkish soldiers, but the culture was effectively wiped out via the destuction of all buildings, especially churches, monasteries, and castles.  Actually, not so – the spirit of the Armenian people is very strong, as I saw in the week that I was there.  People do not give up so easily.  Even after being beaten back time and again.  I was very sad looking at old sketches of the important monuments done in 1905 or so before the Turkis genocide and wholesale destruction of the country.  Luckily, there were very learned and cultured people in Armenia that decided it was essential to catalog all the important structures via drawing.

I was in Armenia in large part because of my high school French teacher Mr. Yervant Andelian whom I admired for his kindness, sense of humor, and belief in me.  I had always wanted to thank him for his great teaching but got in touch too late.  I wanted to salute the place that had made such a great man.  Though he’d been born in France (his parents escaped Armenia during the genocide), he was still an Armenian in my mind.  And after my visit to Armenia, I can say without a doubt that Yervant was (and is) an Armenian.

The German caravan set out the next morning (after I showed them the monastery and translated for them).  I had learned some Russian in Abkhazia and it came in useful here as it is the lingua franca in all Russian-occupied countries.  I found my way to the highway and made my way to Yerevan.  People were generous with rides, and I quickly found myself at a bus stop near the center.  Uncertain of which way to go, I asked a bus driver and had the good fortune to meet a lovely young woman who spoke English well.  She said she would help me find the center and a place to stay, as I didn’t have a place reserved.  Lilit and I walked along very modern streets toward the National Gallery and Republic square, designed in 1924 by architect Alexander Tamanyan.  It was built of rose and white Armenian tufa stone, and is one of the most elegant I’ve seen.  I was amazed at the number of parks, waterworks, and beautiful early 1920s architecture.  The people (particularly the women) dressed very elegantly.  Heels are required for most jobs, apparently – my friend said that she had to wear them as a hotel concierge and got quite tired doing so.

Lilit helped me find a lovely hostel/hotel (it offered both private rooms and shared dormitories) only 5 minutes walk from Republic Square.  They offered the best breakfast I’ve ever had (choice of Russian and Armenian food) and was lucky to have the 8-bed dorm room to myself for 3 nights.  After happily dropping my things, we walked to a center of Chinese and Tibetan herbal medicine where she attends classes and workshops on various herbal treatments.  I was very interested as well, as I taken many herbs for scleroderma, Raynaud’s, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.  She kindly translated what the women were sharing (it was an all women audience, perhaps 20 people or so).  The head of the foundation in Armenia was there and asked whether I’d be interested in representing the company in California.  I respectfully declined, not interested in marketing herbs for some company.  Lilit had to go home to her mother and sister (like most people, she has a 1+hour bus ride from Yerevan), and we bid farewelll.  I wandered around the city in the evening, walking to the parks, getting my orthodic fixed, and just people watching.  The shoe repair place that I went to was spotless, and a very elegantly-dressed Armenian woman had brought her beautiful bejeweled heels in.  I felt a bit embarrassed in my purple and pink, yellow-laced running shoes.  But they treated me as if I were a Parisian model, and kindly glued my orthodic such that it has not to this day come apart.  Better than the job done in the US and Georgia!

Lilit and I met again 2 days later, this time for dental cleaning.  I had asked Lilit if she knew any dentists, and it turned out that one of her former English language students is a dentist in the best clinic in Armenia.  It certainly was a good cleaning – he was gentle and answered the question I’d had about my tooth – yes, the crown had cracked.  I later realized that I’d done it biting down hard on an olive in Abkhazia.  Later I would see Mt Ararat on the way towards Nagara-Karabah (which I never reached), and wonder the way that Armenia had been fragmented.  The mountain was very important to the religious beliefs of the Armenians, with the claim that Noah’s ark was becalmed somewhere on its might slopes.  Very tragic that Turkey decided to claim the great mountain for itself.  The border is just a stone’s throw from the town of Ararat half an hour west of Yerevan. Very tragic indeed.

I refreshed myself before hitting the road with an ice cream and chicken kebab, then shouldered my pack and continued.  I got a nice ride from a young man heading back from work, and was dropped off outside his village just as it started to pour.  I ran and ducked into a bus stop shelter, then got brave and stuck out my thumb.  A very kind man driving a painfully slow old Soviet truck stopped for me.  As we conversed in broken Russian, I asked him about his work and life.  He told me how little he makes (35 USD/month) for the long hours he works (often 12/day).  I was really sad looking at the photos of his children and watching him struggle to shift gears – I’d never heard such gear grinding before!  We drove along in the cantankerous truck, me reflecting on how hard this man’s life was. I asked him if I could offer him money for petrol but he refused.  There was a quiet dignity and beautiful quality in this man that reminded me of my French teacher Yervant Andelian, the inspiration for my trip to Armenia.  I have tears in my eyes thinking back on that day.

I caught another ride with a rather sketchy character winding along a narrow river valley with steep cliffs on either side.  The sun was setting, casting huge shadows on the rock faces, and I practically hung my head out the window to get a better look.  My last ride was with a woman and her son across the Georgian border to Tblisi.  It was a 3 hour ride, and had already gotten dark, so I’d thought I’d be camping in Armenia on some remote cliff face that night.  I prayed that we’d get there in 1 piece, as the young man seemed bent on driving 100 mph on a small windy 2 lane road.  I pleaded with him in Russian to slow down, and offered him money.  I don’t think he understood me, and just laughed at my bribe.  We did make it, and I asked to be let off near the dry bridge where they hold the hipster flea market on Sundays.  It was 11pm, and I limped my way to my friends apartment near the McDonald’s on Tatashvili Street.  I was happy to see them, and we talked for a bit before I collapsed from exhaustion.  I had 1 day in Tblisi before flying to Vilnius the day, when I would catch a 2am bus to arrive by 6am in Kutaisi in time for an 8:30am flight with Wizz Air, one of the cheap budget airlines in Europe.

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