Another country, another currency, another language and another visa. Pretty easy to get this one at the border. For some reason, a three-day transit one costs 10,000 dram and a 21-day tourist one costs 3,000 dram (that’s about a fiver. Entering silly money zone.). No brainer. Border guards were very friendly and responded well to my teasing them for smoking lady fags. Everyone knows Vogues are for girls. Laughed less hard when he then told me he was a judo expert.
Where the ladies in Georgia are effortlessly stylish, the women in Armenia, well, aren’t. It seems that they’ve found shrugging off Soviet style a bit more of a challenge. If I had a quid for every block-colour horror show, I’d be a bit richer. The leather-fronted jumper has to be seen to be believed. Ladies – head-to-toe fluoro pink doesn’t work for anyone. Gents – colour coordination does not mean white tracksuit, trainers and cap.
Almost everyone I’ve met since Turkey has mentioned the 1915 Armenian genocide and I was ashamed to know that I knew little about it. The Turks and Armenians remain sworn enemies on the back of it and the border is still closed today, I think because the Turks refuse to admit that it was a genocide. Even though 1.5million people died. Out of respect to the dead, the government built a large remembrance monument and museum in the 1960s (remarkably chic, considering the era) on a spot that overlooks the city and Mount Ararat beyond. It’s beautiful. An eternal flame burns within and visitors are invited to lay flowers next to it and take a pause. Sorrowful opera music plays softly in the background, enhanced by the acoustic. Very sombre.
Anyway, looks like a few crazy Turks just took a dislike to the Armenians on account of their not being Muslim (the Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity) and having a quirky language. So they massacred the boys and men, drowned them in the sea and rivers, razed their houses, burnt their literature and forced masses of them into the Mesopotamian desert to starve to death. Now that’s harsh. I’d heard from an archaeology student that I met in Tbilisi that it was illuminating to read about the German involvement in it. They didn’t get their hands dirty but it seems the 1915 government (remember, that’s not the Nazis yet) turned a blind eye, some say tacitly condoning the murders in pursuit of stable economic and political ties with Turkey. Tsk.
Have been compiling an informal cheap beer index and, at the moment, Georgia tops the table with Armenia in second and Turkey in dismal third. Obviously Iran is out of the running, but any advance on 95p a pint will be recorded here for your holiday-planning pleasure.
Language has been an interesting game. Where the Georgians are having a push towards anglicisation and learning English with relish, the Armenians aren’t. Nor is their language anything like Georgian, nor does it have the same alphabet, despite being next-door neighbours. My masterful grasp of ‘garmujobo’ and ‘marduloba’ was entirely redundant. Instead, the Armenians hold French closer to their hearts, possibly because a French warship saved 4,000 of them from a siege during the genocide and then welcomed refugees in. Broke out the rusty French and have been surprised at how well it has served me.
From Yerevan, I needed to head South to the Iranian border at Meghri. The easy way is to hop on a direct bus to Tabriz, but I’d heard that the scenery, historic sites and homestays in and around Goris, halfway there, were spectacular. There’s no information about places to stay or onwards buses on the internet at all and Armenians themselves seem to think that it’s only possibly possible. But I decided that doing Yerevan-based day trips and taking the direct bus was the cheat’s way. Jumped on an 8am minibus and hoped for the best.
Was dumped unceremoniously at the side of the road at about 1pm and needed to arrange a) somewhere to stay and b) a bus to nearby Tatev, famed for it’s historic monastery and the world’s longest cable car, 5.7km long. That they built it at all seems pointless to me but it’s in the Guinness Book of Records so bully for them. It being Sunday, I was assured that there were no buses and no tourists heading up to Tatev to cadge a lift with. Though confident that this was a lie (it was), I opted for the Tricky premium and took a ‘private excursion’. Money very well spent. Winced at the price but negotiated in what everyone knows is the best way – over a shot of schnapps produced from my new-found friend’s car. What’s more, his chum had a homestay that he would take me to on the return. Win-win.
Jumped in Vachik’s Lada steed and set off up the mountain. Hadn’t got far when he asked if I wanted coffee so stopped in on the way to meet his family (including the two cows in the garage) and watch half an hour of Armenian Strictly Come Dancing.
Tatev is rightfully considered beautiful, with it’s mountain-top location and staggering vistas…which I saw glimpses of through the nearly descended cloud. I’m sure the same goes for the cable car. But a monastery is, at the end of the day, another freaking monastery. More noteworthy is the fact that the Armenian orthodox priest dress a bit like the KKK, only in black, and that the monks here built a tower that the braced with iron ribs. Two schools of thought as to why: one, to allow it to withstand the moderately frequent earthquakes; two (and far better), so that it would bend and restore itself if any marauding Sejliks tried to knock it over, convincing them that it was demonic and to flee.
On the way back down, stopped at a view point for a snack of cheese and parsley lavash (flat bread) that Mrs Vachik had packed us off with, and then again at the Devil’s Bridge picnic spot, which is nothing like a bridge and in fact impressive rapids with a manky-ish swimming pool at the top. Taroun, a local picnicker, was amused at the English novelty and called us over for a chat, 2 shots of vodka, a shot of chacha and some barbequed liver, which was only a little bit less disgusting than it sounds.
Back in town, a welcome committee of about 8 people greeted me at the homestay, a ship-shape, brand new collection of four rooms at the back of Martoun’s shop. I’d wager the finishing on their extension was better than any project in Dubai. Was ushered straight inside as an honorary bloke (not for the first time) for the gentleman’s Sunday lunch, with a feast of barbequed lamb, cheeses, mountain-fresh salad, sweets and another 10 or so shots of vodka, each accompanying a loyal toast which I was expected to fully participate in. The kids were allowed in to make friends after the crumbs had been cleared from the table, in large part because the grand daughter (Mariya) spoke French and was expected to act as interpreter. That’s right, me and the 11-year old are about the same level. Was pretty merry by the time bed time came around.
Next morning I breakfasted with Grandad, Martoun. Apparently it is poor form not to finish every bottle of booze on the table so at 8.30am, he poured me three more shots of vodka. Mercy me. And I thought my Grandad was a booze hound. Authentically Armenian and thoroughly enjoyable, but bring on the religious police. I can’t hack that pace.
So onwards, ever onwards to Iran. Was plopped on the microbus in the ultimate Bitch Seat – a stool in the aisle. Putin! Buses come with marriage proposals in the local dialect as standard, but Armenia ones also seem to come equipped with an English-speaking female graduate in the front seat who helpfully instruct the driver at which roadside point to deposit me next. In this case, the border…
Ubiquity stakes – Gold teeth
Fascinating fact – The Armenian national symbols are a bird, a fish and a pomegranate. The bird represents good news, the fish Christianity and the pomegranate, with its numerous seeds, the Armenian diaspora. Which they won’t stop telling you about.
*Next update might be a while. Iranian internet policy is more draconian than the UAE’s and wordpress, facebook, gmail and all the good porn sites are banned.*