A Travellerspoint blog


End of the Caucasus

Not the end of the adventure

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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.

Posted by Nomadics 10:10 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking

Hitching Armenia

Closing the loop

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The sights of southern Armenia are nice, amidst the mountains carpeted in the whites, blues, yellows and purples of small mountain flowers in bloom. Our first day in Sisian we wandered around the sights scattered in the hills above the town, the first of which was Zorats Karer, or Karahundj (stone hundj, or henge), a mysterious collection of large rocks punctured with small holes that is thought to be some kind of ancient observatory.
It is dated to 7000 BC, making it the oldest rock observatory (if you can call a bunch of rocks an observatory), but according to the man in the small shack selling souvenirs, who invited us in for coffee (we were the only people there when we arrived), the dating was done using "procession", so measuring how far off it is from actually seeing stars through the holes. Since the stars move their position centimeters in millions of years, I would assume this method has a margin of error of somewhere in the thousands of years, so it's safe to say we have no idea when, who or why these rocks are placed here. Also it's making the assumption that they haven't been moved within that time, which is rather ludicrous since messing stuff up has been a human pastime since day 1, and this area has been inhabited by us humans almost since then. It all sounded like the Armenian claim of "this is the oldest, best and most incredible thing EVER!", and the naming it to karahundj (a recent thing) seems like a attempt to gain legitimacy by linking it to Stonehenge. Anyway, despite the rant, it was actually a very interesting place, with large rocks arranged in a east-west line with a circle in the middle, with most of the rocks having small holes through them. It definitely throws up questions of why these strange rocks are here, and what it must have meant to early peoples.

Then we had some cross country mountain walking to a large waterfall nearby, which was actually "shut off" because the nearby hydroelectric station was using up the water, so there was only a small trickle down the falls themselves. There was still an opportunity to have a swim in the cold mountain waters in the pool above with some local boys, and some rock climbing to the top of a mountain nearby.

The next day we decided to be adventurous and have a day trip to Tatev, a famous monastery in the region that was recommended to us by a trucker we had hitched with earlier: "If you haven't seen Tatev, you haven't seen Armenia". This was rather daring as there was one bus going there from the town of Goris (further down the motorway from us) and none going back until the next day, and since it wasn't on the main road or anything of the sort, hitching would be hard.
We had this "hitching would be hard" revelation after a few hours of standing along the dirt track that leads to Tatev, being told a few times that we'd have no chance of getting there by passing drivers (some of whom said they'd drive us there for big money, ie. filthy taxi drivers, so we ignored them). Eventually a passing kid confirmed our suspicions and invited us into his house, where we were somehow ushered into a farewell feast for a newly married couple, who were leaving that same day on their honeymoon. Some chess games and shots of homemade mulberry vodka later, they put us on the only (packed) bus going there along the dirt path into the mountains. The jackhammer ride didn't help the daytime hangover, but we made it eventually. After we arrived, some kids laughed at our wishes to get back on the same day, pointing to some local homestays nearby. Deciding to ignore that issue for the time being, we went to check out the monastery that Tatev is famous for.

The monastery was surrounded by a large wall, perched on a cliff overlooking a deep canyon, definitely an epic sight. The building itself was fairly usual (I'm getting quite sick of these monasteries), beige stone, drum and conical dome, carvings of crosses everywhere, orange wax all over the walls from years of candles. After this was done, we had the pressing issue of somehow getting back, which also meant that we couldn't see the other sight of the area, Satan's bridge, as hiking 5km through mountains and back then trying to hitch a ride wasn't really an option since it was getting late.
But one again, luck was on our side, and we managed to befriend some Armenian playboys (the big dog was LSE and MGU educated, with his trophy girl and 2 lackeys) out on holiday and got a ride back in their big black jeep. Amazingly enough, they also wanted to see Satan's bridge and took us there too, which was a natural bridge over a steep gorge (ie a rockfall). You can even go under the bridge, to the place where you'd expect the trolls to lurk, which is an dark tunnel dripping with stalactites and pools of warm spring water, as well as lots of cool rocks to climb around.

Eventually, after losing the way a few times (iphone GPS doesn't work here) the sleek black SUV dropped us off on the motorway to Sisian, where we quickly found a classic foul mouthed Armenian trucker on his was to Yerevan from Iran who dropped us off at the turn. There we miraculously found another truck home. The hitching itself is very fun, as you get good banter with the truckers in a particular Russian vernacular where every second word is somehow offensive.

A dinner of fresh fruit and bread and quick night at our hotel, and we hopped onto a minivan heading north to Yerevan, the capital, almost completing our loop of the country. But before we stopped at Khor Virap, yet another monastery on a hill overlooking Ararat plain and the mountain itself, another epic location. Obviously it's very picturesque, but it feels quite standard. They need to step it up and build a monastery on an island inside an active volcano or something. Despite taxi touts bluntly saying there's no public transport, we got onto a waiting bus right in from of us to the capital.

Yerevan is a slight shock, a developed city where we don't have to avoid cow pats on the streets, nicely dressed attractive people, neon lights and tall buildings. Definitely a mild "farmer boy in the big city for the first time" kind of sensation, although it soon passed. We shall delve deeper into what there is around...

Posted by Nomadics 09:20 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking


Differences in the Kavkaz

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Armenia is definitely different. The aphabet, although still undecipherable, is less swirly and more u and n shaped (all the letters kinda look the same). The people look slightly more middle-eastern, still with big noses, but with the bump in the nose in a slightly higher up place. The typical Georgian face, with a thiner jaw than forhead is long gone, and the men's haircuts have all become short, with a (nasty) fringe. The music has definitely changed, with cafes, restaurants, marshrutkas and taxis now blaring our seriously middle eastern sounding music, quarter tones and all, a change from the ballads popular with their Georgian counterparts.

The infrastructure and the roads have definitely gotten better (these ones aren't bombed out), we now have hardly any potholes, hardly any cows, and barriers on the sides of roads! Luyks! The economic situation here is not great though, and the crisis really shows, there are no jobs in the towns, and many people leave for Istanbul, Moscow and anywhere else they can get a visa for work. This tourist season also seems to be a record low, we've been alone in all of the places we've stayed at, and we've seen hardly any foreigners at the sights, most taxi drivers and hotel owners we've met have been complaining about how there's noone around (to swindle) compared to last year (when foreigner's money flew straight into their hands). Hmm... comments in brackets must be the Georgian propaganda.

Dilijan is a town famous during Soviet days for being a retreat for the creative socialist workers, which the Armenian tourist machine has audaciously rebranded "The Switzerland of Armenia". Although the forested mountainsides were pretty nice, the Soviet appartment blocks and buildings take something away from the alpine charm, as do the piles of rubbish and building materials. There we did the standard hitchhiking around, which has been amazing to meet funny bored drivers looking for some foreign entertainment, as well as getting us to monasteries hidden away in the forests. We got lost looking for one, and ended up trekking through the forest for quite a long time, knowing that the monastery wasn't there but hoping to stumble upon somthing good, until we found some lumberjacks who told us to turn back "nehuya tam i netu" ("nothing there", but in a style you would expect from a lumberjack).

Today, we managed ventured into long distance hitchhiking, after some transport around the pretty lake Sevan, a fairly large blue lake surrounded by grassy mountains we got onto a bus of middle aged German hikers, a bus which we actually hitched on before, albeit previously without the germans. This was an incredible piece of luck, and I was happy we had more in common with the driver and some random Armenian dude on the bus (who was probably on the payroll but didn't seem to actually do anything apart from chat to us) than with the bourgeois European scum. Yeah. Then after some waiting (we have nothing but time), we fulfilled another dream and got a Kamaz, carrying around 30 tonnes of wet sand to a factory somewhere. Clearly, 30 tonnes is a lot, and going uphill seemed a slow as if I were pushing it. A few painstaking mountian passes later, we reached our target in the southern grass covered mountains: Sisian, in a piece of Armenia wedged between Azerbaijan of 2 sides and Iran from the bottom (lots of Hajji truckers). Tomorrow we plan to inspect the petroglyphs and other cool stuff around here, a welcome change from the seemingly hundreds of thousand-year-old monasteries that seem to be as common here as gold teeth on old ladies (that's very common to the uninitiated into all things Soviet).

Posted by Nomadics 09:46 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking

Caucasian Banter

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In Georgia, people were pretty fervent at how terrible the Armenians are: "they always claim that everything, including Georgia, is theirs", when one of the boys was claiming how the wine was the best in the world, the others reminded his to be careful: he was beginning to sound like an Armenian.

2 days into Armenia we heard the other side from a fat farmer called Fyodor: In Armenia, they are cultured and civilised people, who like to help out foreigners, whearas we should watch out in Georgia and Azerbaijan, as our stuff will probably get stolen.

Posted by Nomadics 09:44 Archived in Armenia Tagged tips_and_tricks

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