Sunday, July 20, 2008

Armenia: Don't Try This at Home

Finally boarding the plane to escape Armenia (which is, once again, hot as @&$#!), I breathe a sigh of relief. While a delightful country with warm and friendly people, I can’t quite claim that our time in the country has been exactly easy-going. I elbow James, who’s nursing a serious hangover caused by our new Armenian friends drowning us with vodka (although he blames me), and we restrain ourselves from clapping as the plane pulls away from the terminal, like hostages freed from captivity.

The nexus of our Armenian issues had been a nagging problem that had plagued us since Georgia. While many of my dear readers may not be too familiar with Armenia (yes, it is its own country), it appears that the rest of the world isn’t too aware of its existence either. For a country with a diaspora of over 12 million people (not bad for a country of only 3.5 million), our flight options for the 4-day window with which we wanted to get out of the country were mainly limited to Tehran, Vienna, or 12 choices of Russia, none of which really helped. Matters were complicated by the fact that every time we managed to graduate off the waitlist of the one flight to Ukraine, the airline demanded payment in cash within several hours in their offices in Yerevan- slightly difficult while we were in Georgia.

Not to be daunted by petty logistical issues, our trip from Tbilisi to Yerevan was a fascinating drive through the Northern part of the country, visiting ancient historical sights and monasteries such as Haghpat, stopping for roadside shashlik with our newest best friend (our Armenian/Georgian taxi driver), observing the usual Soviet blight such as abandoned factories or belching smelters, and admiring as the countryside changed from craggy mountains to rolling green valleys, circumnavigating Armenia's highest snow-covered peak of Mt Aragats.

We also stopped to admire a mix of beautiful, sad and quirky sights, such as the beekeepers making delicious local honey from fields of brilliantly coloured flowers, the enormous Venetian-style palace being built by a wealthy local businessman in the middle of nowhere, and at the other extreme, tragic graves for whole families killed by the devastating 1988 earthquake.

One of the more random sights en route was a monument to the Armenian alphabet, which happened to be being visited by a busload of Iranian tourists as we arrived. The combination was pretty special, as James attempted rapprochement with the Iranians on behalf of the US Government, I attempted to decipher the strange swirls of these blocks of stone scattered around the landscape.

Eventually Yerevan came into view, framed by the looming background of the revered Mt Ararat (inconveniently located across the border in Turkey). Yerevan itself was a pleasant town, bustling with activity and with delightful hidden gems like the restaurants down in the river valley, but with little that made it a truly unique or unforgettable destination.

Our communications with our hosts were at times strained, since they insisted on communicating in English: "Yes you will leave yesterday morning for 6pm" apparently translates to "Will you be checking out tomorrow?".

With much of our time in Yerevan absorbed by a friendly travel agent and our logistics into and through Ukraine, I must admit we may not have given poor Yerevan entirely the attention it deserved, although we did befriend a group of locals who offered us their "protection" (seems this worldwide Armenian trait is also taken to heart at home), poured a bottle of vodka down our throats, shared their dinner with us (apparently Armenian cuisine is a combination of Russian Georgian, and Azeri, but don't tell them that), and generally enlivened our evening.

After a morning's sightseeing with plenty of stops for water, we toured a mix of Soviet monuments and seemingly purpose-built tourist attractions, and hunted for kebabs, and then it was time to escape. Our trip to the airport also gave us the opportunity to hear the sales pitch of our taxi driver-cum-entrepreneurial sheep farmer seeking investment or advice on how to emigrate to Australia.

On to Odessa (we never did get the flight to Simferopol we wanted), for a 12-hour stopover, then to Kiev!

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

1 comment:

cmotes said...


From experience, I can advise you to never trust an Armenian. Or wait... was that Arkansasians that should never trust. Dangit.

Seriously though, my second piece of advice is that the only bit of Armenian language you need to know is "Let's see, my head is bleeding, and me and my friend are in the back of your taxi pointing at the wound.... where the F do you THINK we are asking you to take us?? Hospital you freakin FOO!!"