Armenia, the old world

Armenia, the old world
Photo Credit: Apoorva Prasad
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Charm and antiquity meet in this unexplored slice of southern Caucasus, where all are --welcome to stay and join--. Start from the capital city Yerevan

Apoorva Prasad
December 17 , 2014
18 Min Read

We hiked up the last few steep steps to Garni temple, past the bizarrely artificial-looking basalt columns writhing upwards and capped by ancient dressed-stone blocks. And the temple came into view — a perfectly Greco-Roman structure on a promontory above the cliff, far from its usual European setting. A large group of people milled about, some of them in traditional costumes. The women, with glossy black or blonde hair, wore rich, deep blue-purple belted robes, and the men tunics, pants and hats. As music poured out of speakers set on the sides of the temple, the men and women held hands and began to turn in circles, faster and faster and faster.

Mkhitar, my new Armenian friend, jumped, grinning widely. “This is real Armenian music; not that Arabish the taxi was playing!” he said as he ran towards the circle to join them. I was not sure if he meant to coin that clever word, for English was certainly not his native language. Still, he spoke it much better than most Armenians, for whom Russian is the usual second language. While Mkhitar joined the dancers, I tried quizzing a couple who looked like they belonged and they called over someone who did speak English. “We are practising,” the woman explained. “For national day, you understand? We are showing people the national dance, we are teaching people. You are welcome to stay and join.”

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‘Welcome to stay and join’ is the deep essence of Armenia. In an ever-shrinking world, the holy grail of travel is to find a truly unspoilt destination. Who wants to rub shoulders with hordes of tourists in Europe? Or follow a well-beaten track in Asia? Or go to places where everyone speaks English and you can’t even get lost? But Armenia, a tiny landlocked nation in the southern Caucasus, feels unexplored.

Not that Armenia is off the map, of course. There is even a Delhi-Yerevan flight via Moscow (which most likely flies empty, given how difficult it is for Indians to get visas). Despite its central location between Europe and Asia, semi-professional travellers like me must still spend dozens of hours on cheap flights to get there. Once you get there, though, it’s all worth it.

Facts. Armenia — a former Soviet republic — is the world’s oldest Christian nation, bordered today by Muslim-majority Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan (and Christian Georgia to the north). It is on the border of the Fertile Crescent, believed to be the place where civilisation began, some 6,000 years ago. The world’s oldest shoe — a straw-filled laced leather moccasin — was discovered in a cave here two years ago (it’s in the State Museum). There’s also an Armenian version of Stonehenge and probably much more that remains undiscovered. Ancient cathedrals, churches and monasteries (not to mention Roman sites and, before that, Indo-European settlements and even earlier, Neanderthal caves) fill nooks in the hills, mountains and ravines. Also, as you might expect of a country in this location, it is indeed a ‘stan’. Armenians call their country Hayastan, the land of the Hayk tribe. Hayk, the myth goes, was the great grandson of Noah whose ark beached on land off the rising Black Sea close to the great volcanic domes soaring above Yerevan, the twin-peaked snow-capped Mount Ararat.

Ararat may be in Turkey today, but it’s the biggest thing visible from Yerevan (when it’s not hazy and cloudy). For the Armenians, it is their most cherished symbol of national identity. After millennia of losing their independence to the Persians and then the Turks, Hayastani borders have been pushed back to their present location — a few score kilometres away from Ararat.

I got to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital and biggest city, at an ungodly 4am, which is when all flights from Europe land there. Mkhitar (Mkhik for short) called me up at the hotel to say, “I’ll come pick you up at 10, ok?” He reached at 11am; Armenians, it seems, run just a half-hour ahead of Indian Stretchable Time. All I’d seen of Yerevan so far was its heart: the massive Republic Square, with its imposing stone edifices, including the State Museum, a few government ministries and, inexplicably, the Marriott hotel.

Mkhik, a young tour company manager whom I’d contacted a few weeks earlier, walked me straight to Tumanyan Street for breakfast while he shopped for ‘classic pants’. He was leaving the country for the first time in his life, in a few days, for a tourism expo in Paris. Hours later I would be wandering this neighbourhood in circles, not realising that Yerevan is a grid inside a small circle, with everything a 15-minute walk from everything else. Past Americano-cool cafés and Armani stores was a Nirula’s-style Armenian stand-and-eat fast food joint. At the pay-first counter, two women waited patiently for this confused foreigner to figure out how it worked. (Later, I would ask someone how it was so easy to tell I was a foreigner, given that in looks and skin colour, I resembled many Armenians. He shrugged and pointed at my sturdy beige Merrels. “Your shoes. Your body language.” So now I have a new goal — if I can’t speak the local lingua, I’ll at least adopt the native body language.) Six hundred Armenian drams bought me a lavash-wrapped chicken kebab that was indeed as in the middle of Turkey and India as I could have hoped. I washed it down with a salty yoghurt drink they sold in ready-to-drink packed plastic glasses.

The lack of sleep hits me hard as I stand people-watching. It’s late September and still hot. Outside, gangs of perfectly made-up girls in tight jeans and high heels stroll past shops. Clattering Ladas and Volgas mingle with custom paint-job Hummers and Mercs.

I’m completely lost and I’m loving it. A red-eye flight is all it took to be surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of a completely foreign city, with no tourists or touts to ruin my sense of displacement.

Mkhik’s back, but the pants-shopping isn’t done. We step into a Celio but there’s nothing he likes there. We jump into the single-line metro. For a measly AMD 50, we’re on a scary, bumpy, fast ride to the outskirts of Yerevan. Here we walk into what I can only describe as an Armenian Palika Bazaar, a covered market with lots of little stalls selling everything from belts to shirts to shampoo and Chinese toys. Mkhik finally finds what he likes and grabs a Lada taxi to his home in the suburbs. I tag along.

Mkhik lives in a Soviet-style apartment block, reduced by capitalism to a Bombay-style tenement, complete with piles of rubble littering the sides of the narrow streets, a scraggly kitten next to the garbage and a broken bike in the front yard. These sights are so familiar, yet so far in space and time, that the disorientation is complete. Indoors, the apartment is unexpectedly large and comfortable, but there’s no running water except in the mornings and evenings. There’s a computer on a corner desk, a Lego ship and books next to a small TV on a large shelf in the living room. I’m home; I’m back in middle-class India, 20 years ago. Mkhik’s mother, a surprisingly young lady with jet-black hair, has laid out a small and simple lunch. Grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, more lavash (a roomali roti-like bread) and two spreads — cream and a spicy tomato-mix chutney. We eat with our hands and end the meal with some homemade cakes. The next day, she’ll pack us fantastic dolmas, rice and sausage wrapped in a spinach leaf for us to carry with us to the Garni gorge.

Outside the city, just a few kilometres on, the landscape changes dramatically. A narrow strip of tar runs through grass-covered hills. In the distance, hills become rocky mountains. Garni is a small but popular destination, a fantastical gorge created by the Goght river with columns so perfectly vertical, it’s difficult to believe they aren’t man-made. This is where the Greco-Roman temple sits.

The dancers at the Garni temple invite us to stay and join, so we stay and Mkhik excitedly joins them. The sun sets and the temple on top of the gorge is lit by orange light; the costumed dancers perform against this surreal background. The party will continue late into the night but I really must get some sleep, so we take a taxi back. The road is dark and unlit, and suddenly the driver hits the brakes. A large flock of sheep is crossing the highway; but there’s no impatience here. Vehicles wait patiently until two shepherds and the sheepdog bring up stragglers, and the road’s clear.

A day later, our group of friends had expanded to include an Italian professor of law and a Polish couple. This ragtag group ambled to the outskirts of the city, where we haggled, waited and finally hitched a cheap ride to Noravanq on a minibus, the most common inter-city transport in this part of the world. ‘Noravanq’ means ‘new monastery’, but it’s a relative newness, since the structure was built in the 12th century. We got back to the city late and ate in a restaurant that, like most others, had live Armenian music. Next morning, we wandered over to the State Museum, which contained some fantastic relics, including that famous old shoe as well as Indo-European chariots, bows and arrows, and various jewellery and trinkets.

But our goal for the day was the Ararat cognac factory. For AMD 3,500, you can book a tasting tour of Churchill’s favourite brandy. We showed up at the front desk to discover a bored guard. We energetically threw around the words ‘brandy’ and ‘tour’ until he made sounds that seemed to suggest, “wait, I’ll call someone who knows”.

We waited in the lobby with the other brandy enthusiasts, among them a few well-dressed young men who looked vaguely Indian. Were they Indian students travelling far for a cheap drink? That last bit was closer to the mark than I could have known.

In some time, a well-dressed, frowning young woman arrived and told us to pay up. A German couple who’d just shown up took the non-tasting tour but the young men paid unsmilingly for the works. Our guide led us into an open courtyard and began the tour by announcing — without a trace of irony — that the factory had been built in the 19th century atop the ruins of Erebuni fortress. We took a bright red elevator many levels underground to a cellar where the brandy fumes were heavy enough to get drunk on. Massive barrels lined the walls. Girl-guide, always unsmiling, took out a bottle of wine and told us the factory had stopped making wine years ago, but they still had a 50-year-old vintage for the tasting tours…

I asked her if she’d been working here long. “Yes, very long,” she replied without any sarcasm. “Almost a year.” I smiled encouragingly.

Back up on top, we were shown into a dining room laid out with three snifters, a tall glass with ice and a reddish fluid, chocolate and a plate of fruits. I sat next to one of the men. After a snifterful of the drink, I turned to him, “So, where are you from?”

“We are from Iran,” he declared, “And you are...?”

“India,” I grinned back. Suddenly, there was a lot of talk and chuckling and backslapping. “Yes, yes, that’s what we were saying to each other, India. My friend guessed it!”

With a common border, Iranians often vacation in Armenia. Then I realised that the table next to us seated a number of head-scarfed women. Everyone was speaking Farsi and sipping their cognacs.

We staggered out into the daylight, ran smack into a French-speaking beggar, navigated around him and wandered towards an old covered bazaar. Here, old men and women were selling Armenian specialities, and long strings of sweet dried fruits stuffed with nuts dangled from stalls next to an array of open spices and spicy pepper-filled dry sausages and lots of one-litre Coke bottles.

Waitaminnit. Coke bottles? Przemek, our Polish companion, knew Russian. After some rapid conversation, he turned to me and said, “They’re actually filled with local homemade wine. He’s inviting us to have a drink with him in the back.” I obediently followed. We went into a tiny storeroom that the genial white-haired man unlocked with a small key and suddenly I was standing under drying sausages. The sausage-maker, talking continuously in Russian, pulled out a few cups and tipped a large plastic container into each, filling them all halfway. Genatzt! We cheered in Armenian and drained the homemade fruit vodka. Sausage-maker immediately took the cups and refilled them, this time from another bucket. I soon discovered that Armenia was, even now, not far from Russia. I learnt to plead in Russian. Chut-chut! Little-little! Several drinks later (yes, on top of the cognacs), we were buying sausages from him, haggling a little over the already cheap prices. It was now late afternoon, and we staggered on to a street food stall just outside the bazaar for a bite of khoravats, barbecue and khachapuri, a Georgian snack.

All the nightlife in Yerevan is oriented towards the Opera. We ended the evening there, sitting in an open-tented café with live Caribbean music, just in front of the orange-lit grand rear entrance to the Opera building. The Royal Philharmonic was playing there for two days and I had a seat for the next day, the fourth row from the stage — in possibly the cheapest place in the world to watch them.

The information

Getting there: Aeroflot flies to Yerevan from Delhi (from Rs 35,000) via Moscow. From Mumbai, Jet Airways and Etihad have flights (from 57,000) with stops at Delhi and Abu Dhabi.

Visa: The Embassy of the Republic of Armenia is at Armenia Street, D-133, Anand Niketan, New Delhi 110057, Tel: +91-11 24112851-52, Fax: +91-11-24112853, e-mail: info@armenian.co.in. For a visa, Indians may need a letter of invitation approved by the local security services. More details are on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia (www.mfa.am/en/visa).

Currency: Armenian dram (1 INR = 7.41225 AMD)

Getting around: Downtown Yerevan is small enough to walk around. Taxis are cheap and ubiquitous, but settle on a price first. There’s also a single-line metro if you have a rendezvous on the outskirts of town or just want to see what an efficient, cheap, ex-Soviet metro rail feels like. Going outside of town will necessitate hiring a car and a driver or renting a car if you’re willing to drive, or doing it the local way — taking a ride on a minibus packed to bursting by the driver to ensure maximum revenue. Booking a tour operator to take you around makes the whole thing much simpler, of course. Envoy Tours (http://envoyhostel.com), run by the hostel of the same name, is a good option as is Geographic Travel Club (www.geotravel.am).

Where to stay: The fanciest hotel in town is the Armenia Marriott (www.marriott.com) but the Best Western Congress (www.congresshotelyerevan.com) might be more value for your money. Another popular, and more affordable, option is Hotel Meg (www.hotelmeg.com). The best budget option is probably the Envoy Hostel (http://envoyhostel.com), neat and clean, if somewhat small. Homestays are also popular with backpackers. Ask around in Yerevan or visit http://bedandbreakfast.am to check the classifieds there.

What to see & do: The artefacts-filled State Museum of History on Republic Square is well worth a visit, as is the small but fascinating Matenadaran library on Mesrop Mashtots Avenue, which houses ancient manuscripts. The National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre on Opera Square hosts some of the most reasonably priced high art events you’ll ever attend. The Genocide Memorial (http://genocide-museum.am) documents the Ottoman Empire’s massacres during and after WWI. The heavy, urban monumental steps called the Cascades built on a hillside offer wonderful views of Yerevan and Mt Ararat. The covered bazaar on Mashtots Avenue is a striking old building where you can buy dried fruits and fresh fruits and much else. The beautifully tiled Blue Mosque is a relic of the thriving Muslim population here before the Soviet era. Also visit the weekend ‘Vernissage’ flea market, where you can buy all kinds of trinkets. The Echmiadzin Cathedral, just outside Yerevan, is the holy see of the Armenian church and a Unesco site.

A half-hour away, Garni gorge is a geological wonder with a 1st century CE Roman temple on top. Khor Virap, just under Mt Ararat, is a scenic church built over the scary, dark ‘snake pit’ where St Gregory was supposedly imprisoned for 12 years before Armenia converted to Christianity. And Noravanq monastery, a two-hour drive away, is tucked away in a magnificent rocky canyon where we did some rock climbing — Armenia is a hidden gem for outdoor activities. We contacted Mkhitar Mkhitaryan (http://uptherocks.com) to be our guide on the trip.

Armenia has an aerial tramway service, the world’s longest at 5.7km, and it links Yerevan with the ninth-century Tatev monastery.

What to buy: Dried fruit and nuts are an Armenian speciality they’re rightly proud of. You’ll see a selection for breakfast in your hotel and will be able to buy all kinds in the local bazaar. Strong Armenian fruit wines come in a range of flavours; the bottle of cherry wine I bought went well with spicy, peppery Armenian sausages.


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