Not the end of the adventure
01.08.2009 - 05.08.2009
Yerevan is a very Soviet city, with large buildings in shades beige and grey dominating the streets, which are all surprisingly well kept (around the centre at least), sharp corners and paint still on. The central planning of it shows too, theres a ring road around the centre, with long boulevards going through, dotted with sociaL realist statues. Despite the illusion of a giant soviet city, it is actually very small, this centre ring is only about a kilometer and a half in diameter. There don't seem to be any old buildings there either, and apparently Russian officers visiting Yerevan in the 19th century called the city a "collection of mud huts", Armenians don't seem to build anything out of stone apart from monasteries and the odd caravanserai, and Yerevan's were all demolished to make way for what the Soviet architect decided. It's skyline seems to be changing drastically though, with new deveopment making the city seem like a forest of cranes.
As with Tbilisi, Yerevan has a large statue overlooking it on a hill north of the city, Mother Armenia, defensively holding a sword across her body. It seems Caucasian peoples love mother figures, sort of how Turkic peoples love father figures (Ataturk = Father of Turks, Turkmenbashi = Father of Turkmen). Tbilisi had a Mother Georgia statue, holding a cup of wine for guests and a sword for enemies. The Russians are in on the game too, with the largest of them all at 85m, near Volgograd, holding a massive sword aloft, arm outstretched and shouting. The Azeris, caught in the middle of the mother-father complex, have abstained, perhaps as a mother-father combination statue would be too weird.
Most of Armenia's most famous and most visited sights (unsurprisingly churches and monasteries) are scattered around Yerevan, and although we hadn't planned on seeing all of them, our laundry wouldn't be ready till monday so we had an extra day to kill. First on the list was Echmiadzin, Armenia's Vatican, where the head of the oldest chrisian sect resides. Most of the complex is inaccessable to non-Armenian clegy, but the main church is very nice, and by far the most colourful Armenian church we've seen so far, with frescoes decorating the walls, and packed with a large candle lighting brigade. Walking around the small town, we didn't find much else of interest, but met a man who sung us a song, and a woman who wanted who know where the concert was (which one I have no idea) and how much are shoes cost. She did give us a chocolate bar, so I guess shes the good kind of crazy.
Next day (still waiting for laundry, but it had to bedone, seriously) we saw Garni and Geghard, having teamed up with a Mecedonian-Canadian firefighter from our flat-hostel. The first a hellenic temple which is mostly rebuilt, overlooking a nice valley (not much else to add), the latter a church with many acoustically awesome chambers carved into the cliff by which it resides, definitely a 9 out of 10.
We spent a lot of time in Yerevan just walking around, sitting in the many, many cafes that litter the streets and eating shwarmas and trying out wierd Armenian soft drinks (like bright green Feti Cola, Estragon flavour, yum). The cafes and trees lining the streets do give it a slight European feel, but counterbalancing that there were also dogfights in the main central park (by the opera), which were quite entertaining.
As soon as we got our laundry back (I can't stress enough how much it was necessary), we decided to break north and see how far we close we could get to the Georgian border, so that we could cross to Turkey as soon as possible.
Getting the last marshrutka out of town at 8 (no one travels at night because the roads are so bad and there are no lights on the "motorways") and our first marshrutka after sunset, we set out north to the town of Gyumri.
This turned out to be the most epic ride of my life, as we rode on a rickety minibus into the mountains skirting a giant electrical storm. The lightning lit up the arid ground around us every few seconds for what seemed like an eternity (2 hours) and occasionally a huge flash would draw itself starky in the sky. As we kept driving along the storm kept moving toward us, creeping closer from the left side, then it was chasing us from behind, then surrounded us but somehow we managed to bouce along the pothole ridden road just quickly enough to avoid it. I wish I was a better writer to capture the moment, but sufice to say I saw more lighting that night that I have ever in my life before. Also, we had a wicked soundtrack .
We got to Gyumri slightly dumbfounded and were dumped somewhere near the centre. As none of the locals seemed to know any the geography of the town at all (we asked a few), and the rain had finally caught up with us, we took a cab to a cheap homestay somewhere in town. Not planning to stay long, or see the city at all (it was mostly levelled in an earthquake 20 years ago), we got up early and got to the bus station to get on something going to Georgia. As usual we had to wait for a couple of hours, so we got a shotfull of sunflower seeds and practiced our seed eating skills, which are far below that of the average Armenian (that is super-expert, we even saw some who would pop the seed into their mouths and spit out the shells). It passed the time. Eventually we got to another border crossing of shacks, guys with AKs, cows, and stressed out people, although we got through without any problems.
Going back into Georgia the scenery got a lot more green and lush (and the roads a lot worse), and we got dumped off near some Georgian farmers armed to the teeth with knives, scythes and pitchforks (probably planning to kill the local vampire lord), on on a turn-off to the cave-city of Vardzia, the last sight we planned to see in Georgia before heading into Muslim lands. A hitch got us halfway there, as well as lots of apples, and another hitch put us into the open arms of a Georgian tour group from Tbilisi, who drove us to more sights than we knew where there as well as filling us with khachipuri. The cave city was awesome, with hundreds of caves carved into the rock, and long pitch black tunnels between some of them. All of the caves were empty apart form one working church, but it was very fun to climb around. There were also more impressive caves nearby, as well as a nunnery set amidst nice vegetation and ruins all along the canyon, including a castle set on a cliff, controlling the valley beneath.
The tour group eventually dropped us off outside a hotel (probably slightly over estimating our budget) on the outskirts of the unpronouncable town of Akhaltsikhe, but it was late so having no choice we eventually haggled it down to something fairly manageable. Hey, after the next day, all our Georgian money would be completely useless, and we got a nice shower, BBC news and a massive breakfast. Also we met some Mongol Rallyers, who were new to the region and had made the mistake of driving at night, battering their car. Giving them a few tips, we left them making repairs and went to get the bus from the bus station mostly filled with giant watermelons to the border of Turkey.