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Armenia

Lake Sevan

Yerevan

August 5, 2005
Arrival

We arrived at the airport, got our visas checked, Elizabeth picked up her bag and we headed out to the lion's den... the Taxi line. We got a taxi for $10 and headed to a home stay in town. The taxi drive was hectic and road rules fail to exist here. Instead of feeling frightened like I did the first few time I was in a car in Russia, I felt oddly comfortable and at home. The trip wasn't safe, but it made me feel at ease, as if this was a place I know and feel comfortable in. Perhaps it's just the feeling that at any moment I could die and I simply can't do anything about it that relaxes me. The feeling that my life is out of my control is odd at first, but quickly becomes home and comfortable, a feeling of relaxation and at peace.

The address of our home stay was wrong so the bus driver helped us find it, just to find that the place was full. The woman set us up with a friend of hers on the south side of the city, so we took a mini bus as our host, Emma, picked us up outside the big church in the city. We walked to the nearby apartment, which we had it to ourselves. We settled down and decided to grab food and money on our way to the bus station, before catching a bus to Lake Sevan. We got money from a bank with armed guards, much more like Kenya than Europe, but for our protection. The street food was good, I had a deep fried dough thing filled with potatoes, much like the peroshki found in Odesa and a meat pie baked instead of fried.

The walk took us to an area that was extremely beat up and poor. The sidewalks were cracked and falling apart with gravel spread sporadically throughout as the rest was lifeless soil in the semi-arid desert-like environment. It looked like the city was devastated and had no money, but other parts of the city vastly contradicted this.

Later that night, after returning from Lake Sevan, we decided to eat at a grill we had seen that morning. After sitting down we realized that Elizabeth was the only woman present, however they welcomed us none-the-less. They didn't have a menu in either English or Russian, so we looked at the raw meat and pointed. We also ordered salad, water, and the complimentary lavash. We seemed to set ourselves apart from the rest of the restaurant who was drinking a thick white milky substance in addition to vodka or beer. The salad was typical for this part of the world: tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and parsley.

The bread was a combination of flat lavash and lavash more like bread. This was served with a sauce consisting of onions and spices along with chunks of tomatoes. It was good, but the meat overshadowed it. I got the pork and Elizabeth the beef. The flavoring of both, but particularly the beef was incredible and would rank as some of the best pork and beef that I have ever had. It was served on flat lavash and we ate it with the tasty sauce.

After the meal, which was extremely filling and absolutely incredible, we paid our eight dollar bill and headed to the apartment to get an early night. In general, I'm quite impressed with the Armenians. The city of Yerevan is incredibly ugly from an architectural viewpoint, but the people are so kind and inviting, they seem so happy and optimistic. The people seem to have so little, but they have what so many places lack: hope and optimism.

Lake Sevan

August 5, 2005
Lake Sevan

We made it to the bus stop in Yerevan, which was little more than a bus parked on the side of the road. We asked if they were going to Sevan and, after they responded positively, we asked when the bus leaves and they said when the bus fills up. We grossly under-estimated how long this would take and an hour later we continued to wait for people. Once the bus finally filled we left, me sleeping for much of the trip.

Upon arrival, the driver asked where we were going and we said the lake, he informed us that we had to take a mini bus there so headed to the nearby lake via mini bus. We paid at the end of the trip not the beginning, which seems to exemplify the Armenian people's honest nature and their trust in the kindness of humanity.

Our time on the lake was short, but the hill overlooking the lake and the lake itself was great. The hill that makes up the peninsula consists of a couple churches and great views over the lake. When the sun cracked the clouds the lake tuned an almost unreal bright turquoise color in complete contrast to the cloud-covered blue of the rest of the lake. The lake is surrounded on all sides by hills or I guess small mountains and the churches are made of dark red and black bricks, a round steeple rising from the middle and the base in the shape of a cross.

We asked another driver how to get back to Yerevan and he responded by mini-bus then bus. He insisted on standing up when talking to a lady, which I found slightly odd considering he seemed very comfortable and relaxed before we approached him. Unfortunately, the man also informed us that the last bus back was at 5:00 so we quickly grabbed a mini bus into town to catch the last bus.

After being pulled over by the police our trip continued, we picked up a little old woman, extremely tan with a large straw hat, who was carrying a large bucket of sunflower seeds. She was excessively happy and dominated the bus-wide conversation in Armenian. Once she realized we were foreign she began giving us sunflower seeds and two Russian women helped translate for us to participate in the bus-wide conversation. They were all extremely nice and by the end of the five minute ride we seemed to have been accepted by the people as their guests and upon exiting the bus, were invited to the Russians' home. As much as we would have liked to, we had not slept the previous night and unfortunately the last bus to Yerevan was across the street. We regretfully denied the invitation and jumped across the street to find the mini bus full.

The people on this bus were again extremely generous and let us in, although there truly was no space. I think I took the brunt of this problem myself, but it was a sacrifice well worth the hassle in order to avoid having to find a place in Sevan for the night. On this trip we were again welcomed as guests as two young girls who spoke some, although very minimal English, decided to practice their language skills as we struggled to continue the conversation.

Echmiadzin & Zvartnots

August 6, 2005
Echmiadzin & Zvartnots

We managed to get up in Yerevan at 10:30 this morning without much of a problem. I slept like a rock and could have slept longer had I been given the chance. Like much of this part of the world, there is little hot water and much of the day there is no water at all. We had missed our morning water-window so went without a shower, a ritual I feel I will partake in often on this trip.

We went to the bus stop for Echmiadzin, little more than a stop on a street corner.

We made it to Echmiadzin and got off in front of the church complex which is essentially the Vatican of the Armenian Orthodox Church. At one end of the complex stands an enormous monument to the visit of the late Pope John Paul II. The monument was quite impressive especially given the income of many of the people here. It struck me that they sacrificed the money to build such a monument while much of the surrounding area was going to ruins.

We bought much needed water at the small store at the entrance of the complex and the woman actually spoke English and insisted on using it.

I felt slightly out of place and rude here wearing shorts; the typically dress is of long dark pants and a shirt that is something other than a t-shirt with English writing on it. The people seemed to notice me; however no one stared or made me feel uneasy.

We walked around the grounds and into the church, which was adorned with incredible detail in carved stone work. The inside was ordinary, while the museum in the back was very interesting. The museum contained religious books from hundreds of years ago written in Armenian and even had a container with part of Noah's ark in it very near the spear head that pierced Christ's side on the day of his death.

We lit candles in the church, crossed ourselves three times and exited the church backwards so as to avoid turning our backs to the altar.

The old church in Zvartnots has a very unique style compared to other churches I've seen. There was a large baptismal pool and a hole in which the altar used to rise up from in the center. Being a small sight though our stop here was only about 15 minutes long, then we were off to Yerevan for the night.

Yerevan

August 6, 2005
A Day as a Tourist

We started our time in Yerevan today at the Opera House followed by the nearby Cascade, a large set of stairs leading up a hill to a Soviet monument. The hike was long and draining in the heat. The views did little to make one feel rewarded for their effort, especially since, in the heat, the air was thick and full of dust creating clouds preventing us from seeing nearby Mt. Ararat, although we had decent views of it upon arrival at the airport.

After our walk down the Cascade we had lunch with two of Elizabeth's friends. The one girl worked in Moldova and compared the situation here with that of Moldova. They also shared a ton of information with us about Armenia.

The phone system in Armenia is sporadic at best; the Diaspora's aid seems to disappear through bureaucracy; Armenia has alienated or been alienated by all of their neighbors except to a small degree Iran and Georgia. This led them to turn to Russia, Diaspora support, and the closing of their borders to Azerbaijan and Turkey. The imports mostly come in via air or ground through Georgia, so everything is excessively expensive seeing as how Armenian itself is too dry to have sustainable crops and feed themselves. This helps me understand my flight into the country... Elizabeth's friend said that many flights contain live chickens.

The country also has an incredible tourism industry based around the Diaspora. This however does not change the fact that the country has little to offer visitors and that the country has nothing to produce except cognac, which is apparently inferior to that of the rest of Europe's.

The US Embassy here is incredibly large and the reasons are various as to why. First the Diaspora is strong in the US; second, Armenia has tied closely to Russia and has over 20,000 Russian troops on their soil, frightening not only Azerbaijan and Turkey, but also the United States.

After lunch some of the money that the Diaspora has donated became apparent throughout the city. The streets of Yerevan are the best I've seen in any former Soviet country including the Baltic countries. There are various western standard banks and ATM's along with a small group of very nice cars including a large number of Bentleys and enough demand for a Porsche dealership.

As we walked around the streets I was absolutely shocked at how many Americans I saw and heard. The number not only rivals, but exceeds the number of Americans in Moscow or St. Petersburg. I felt like I was actually in a city that was well known and was a tourist destination, however the sights don't justify this, only the people and the Diaspora's will to return do. The streets contained only Armenian and English voices; no Russians anywhere, a shock after going to places like Riga, Kyiv, and even Vilnius.

After grabbing a street kebab, we sat on the square to people watch. On the way back we bought water from two women who were thrilled that we were not only in their country, but that we could talk to them in Russian. They didn't want to let us leave.

August 7, 2005
Leaving Armenia

We woke early, again missing the water, this time too early for the water to be turned on, so we'll go without a shower for another day. We got to the actual bus station today for the journey to Tbilisi. We arrived early and found another American here for the journey back to his temporary home in Georgia.

Just outside of Yerevan we saw a huge pyramid structure raising out of nowhere, our driver said that it is a new casino... as if the people need that. The trip to Tbilisi was beautiful through the mountains.

Our lunch was at a small road side grill, where we had shashlik (in Russian), or khorvats (in Armenian) really nothing more than grilled meat with onions, salad, and water. The dinner for the three of us (the American, Barry joined us) was all of about 6 or 7 dollars. We continuously stopped for passengers going short distances, including many soldiers going from bases to small villages.

We reached the border without any problems and saw more foreigners here including people from France, Germany, and various other European countries, many of whom were on motorcycle. The border wasn't bad other than the fact they the e-visa confused the border guard in Armenia. We made it without much problem and continued to the Georgian border with even less trouble.

Continue the above trip to: Georgia

Learn more about Armenia Return to Justin's Travel Blog