|The plan||We plan to travel overland around Armenia over 16 days by the following route: Yerevan (and Echmiadzin) → Vayk → Sisian → Goris → Yerevan → Aghtsk → Yerevan|
June 17... Yerevan, Armenia - Our flight to Armenia was meant to take off at 3:15pm. Hmmm... We actually took off at about 7:30pm from Heathrow, thus arriving in Yerevan at the somewhat more convenient hour of 5:00am rather than midnight. After passing through the usual formalities, we were surrounded by a mob of taxi drivers, all with cigarettes in their hands, pressuring us to choose them for our journey into Yerevan (15 minutes by car). Our first offer was $50... we continued to say no, but they wouldn't give up. Even the ignoring tactic and the shouting "go away" tactic took a while to work. We decided to simply wait til it got light and gather our thoughts. While we sat there, the same drivers came up and pestered us several times more, even trying to buy us food and drink. Eventually it got light, and we wandered outside. In the midst of us being pestered, an American guy had told us that the going rate was about $10. So, we made an offer of five pounds (we didn't have any local currency - the dram), and he accepted. Of course, after dropping us off, he demanded five more. We steadfastly refused, hoping this wouldn't result in him driving off with our backpacks in the boot, but eventually he conceded to our shouts of "no! we agreed on a price." It just leaves you with an irky feeling when you are only seen as dollars on legs. So, Armenia will be giving us lessons in assertiveness it seems. Our first impressions as we passed the main roads were of derelict buildings, a big casino strip, some fancy architecture looking neglected, wide empty roads and a stunning view of Mount Ararat in the distance, lit up in pink by a glorious sunrise. Anyway, all we've done today is find a place to stay (Hotel Shirak), and slept. It's now late afternoon, and we wandered out to find some food. In the process, we've just met a Canadian guy who works here, who has given us some good tips. It's amazing how helpful another foreigner can be! Now, we can't wait to get out and see the place starting tomorrow. Love Graham and Nicole.
June 18... Yerevan, Armenia - Although we haven't been here long, Armenia seems like it will be a fun and interesting place for us to explore. But first, some background on Armenia... It's a small, land-locked country with a population of 3.4 million, that doesn't usually ring a bell with people. Its eventful history in a nutshell: It was first settled about 1200 BC by Indo-European tribes, then occupied by the Assyrians, then invaded and resettled by the Hayk (the ancestors of current-day Armenians), then conquered by Alexander the Great and then reclaimed by the Hayk as the great Armenian empire. After holding up against Rome for centuries, it finally fell to the Byzantine empire around 400 AD. By this time, its population had adopted Christianity. Later the Turks, then the Arabs, then the Turks again occupied Armenia, and then it fell to the Russians in the 18th Century. However, lots of Armenians were living in Turkey, and were severely persecuted by the Turks, culminating in the 1915 genocide. At this time, Turkey was fearful that the Armenians living within its borders would side with the Russians in the War, and so it ordered a mass deportation of its 2.5 million Armenians to the Syrian desert. At least one million either starved, died of thirst or were murdered. Throughout this period of persecution, many Armenians fled the region as refugees. Take for example, Nicole's relatives - her Dad's side. Planning to flee to South Africa, they reached Egypt and realised South Africa was actually a long way away, so they settled there. And from there there was more migration - a generation later, Dad's family moved to Australia... The rest of the Armenians, after declaring independence after the Russian Revolution of 1917, found themselves again under Russian control when Russia invaded in 1921. Armenia was swallowed up into the USSR, finally regaining independence in 1991. Like all post-communist countries it has experienced a lot of poverty since then but is slowly getting back on its feet... So, as for today (sorry if you didn't want to know all that) - we walked around the city centre, through Freedom Square and Republic Square. There's so many contrasts. Next to the grand National Opera House, there are piles of rubble and a rusty old army van (with someone living in it). The concrete lake next door, has potential to look nice, although only one patch of grass was attended to. But, with an outdoor cafe, and music playing, there was still some atmosphere. In Republic Square, tall grand buildings in pale pink stone with arches and fountains make for a very pretty sight. But peering through one of the arches gives a different picture, with views of crumbling apartments and neglected streets. There are old people begging, and young people looking rich and trendy. Where a massive statue of Lenin apparently once stood there now stands an enormous glimmering TV screen, showing ads - all part of the transition from communism to capitalism we guess. We then took a long walk in the heat (and boy was it hot) up a hill to visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Amid a large concrete open-dome structure burns an eternal flame of remembrance... Walking back, we found ourselves suddenly running for our lives as three huge terrifying looking dogs appeared from nowhere to chase us. Fortunately, they turned around soon after we started running. It was a little unexpected... Tonight we went to a classical music concert in the Aram Kachaturian Concert Hall in the Opera House, with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, a pianist and a choir. It was really nice, and a good dose of culture and it only cost 4,000 dram! (That's $5 each). Love Graham and Nicole.
June 19... Yerevan, Armenia - Today we caught a rickety old bus to the nearby town of Echmiadzin. The Armenian equivalent to the Vatican, this is the home of the Supreme Catholicos (leader) of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The people of Armenia adopted Christianity in the early 4th Century; the story is really quite unusual... King Trdates III of Armenia wanted to marry Hripsime, a Christian woman, but she refused because he was was a pagan. So, in a fit of rage, he had her stoned to death. After this, he went mad, and the only person who could cure him was a christian named Gregory who had been imprisoned in a well for 12 years for his faith. After recovering from his madness, Trdates converted to Christianity, and so did the rest of the country. The Armenian Apostolic Church belongs to the Eastern Oriental group of churches after breaking away from the churches of Rome and Greece in 504 AD, over a matter of doctrine regarding the nature of Christ's divinity and humanity... The church complex at Echmiadzin was quiet and peaceful, with a number of visitors and priests milling around. At the centre lies the main church building. Legend has it that the above-mentioned Gregory had a dream in which Jesus told him where to build the church and gave him the title of Gregory the Illuminator. The church had an elaborate pattern on the ceiling, numerous pictures of saints, and a central altar with a jewelled cross and an old bible on display. Many people entered the church, knelt at the altar, kissed the cross and the bible, and then walked out backwards, so as to keep facing the altar the whole time. Other people came in to light candles and pray. The building itself had an interesting style with several towers, which we find difficult to describe. After wandering round the area for a while in the sweltering heat, we caught a bus back to Yerevan for our afternoon nap... (It was just too hot to go outside). We have been commenting the whole time how dangerously people drive here. Crossing the road is a very difficult task, requiring much patience. We saw an accident last night, and today on the bus, we passed a pedestrian who had been hit moments earlier by a car - the woman was lying dead on the road as crowds looked on... This evening we walked up the Cascade, a enormous monument/staircase, built by the Russians in 1970, for the 50th anniversary of Soviet control of Armenia. It's basically a lot of steps covering a hillside with fountains here and there. At the top of the monument, there was a great view of Yerevan with the two mountains, Mount Ararat and Little Ararat towering in the distance. Afterwards we ate traditional Armenian (Caucasian) food at a cafe - lamb, potatoes, shish kebabs with lots of dill and raw onions. Good thing you're far away in Australia because our breath must stink! Love Graham and Nicole.
June 20... Yerevan, Armenia - Today we saw the Garni Temple, and lost our Armenia travel guide - doh! After accidentally sleeping in, we made our way out 26 km east by buses to the town of Garni. Nearby is a pagan temple from about 100 AD, which is apparently Armenia's top tourist destination. There were certainly a fair few Armenian visitors and locals about. The temple was built by King Trdates I with funds given by the Roman Emperor Nero for its construction. It was dedicated to the sun god, Helios. Quite an impressive structure set among hills and valleys, it had lots of columns, an altar and a fire pit, thought to be used for sacrifices. The whole temple was badly damaged by an earthquake in the 1600s, but was rebuilt in the 1960s and 70s. There were ruins of a church and some Roman baths at the site as well. The journey by bus there and back certainly added to our Armenian experience - the trip was very rocky due to the numerous pot holes on the roads, many of which were gravel or dirt. The scenery ranged from rolling tree-less hills, to sheer cliff faces, with some very poor looking villages along the way. There is a lot of sub-standard housing here - either in the form of shacks with sheets of rusted iron for rooves, or ugly apartment blocks that look like they were never quite finished. Upon returning to Yerevan, and going to write this entry, we realised our guide was still sitting on a pillar in Garni! Oh well, hopefully we can find a new one tomorrow... Love Graham and Nicole.
June 24... Yerevan, Armenia - It's another hot day in Yerevan. We've just got back from three days in the remote eastern part of Armenia. It is hard to believe that you can get remote in a country so small, but 200 km makes a big difference and takes a long time to travel on winding, pot-holed roads. After replacing our guidebook, we caught a public bus to Sisian, a five hour trip. Sisian (near Goris) has 15,000 people, 2 hotels and a lot of bratty kids with nothing to all day but pull Nicole's hair and locate Graham's wallet. They had mobbed us as we set off walking to the Zorat stones - Armenia's equivalent of Stonehenge. Much as this is a touted tourist attraction of the country, there is not one sign pointing the way. So armed with some basic directions given to us by the lady at the hotel, we walked, and walked, and walked but found nothing. After an hour or so, we gave up, and turned around to head for attraction number two - the waterfall near the village of Shaki. Short on fluids for rehydration and very tired from the walking we hopped in a taxi that had pulled over. The driver was an absolute lunatic swerving around every corner at ridiculous speeds and Graham spent the 4 km nightmare determining the safest position to adopt in the event of a car accident. Eventually we found the waterfall. There were three men having a picnic of ? beef stew, lavash bread and some white alcoholic drink. They insisted we join them for the meal. Having surveyed the food on offer, and determined the high likelihood of severe traveller's diarrhoea, we did our best to be polite. Convincing them through hand-gestures that we were teetotalling vegetarians, we settled for the bread alone. "Armenia's biggest waterfall" wasn't huge, but it was very beautiful. There were some kids from Shaki playing in the water. They were a lot nicer than the Sisian brats and begged us to come and have dinner with them, but it was getting late. The kids were a lot braver than Graham when it came to wading in the water ('but it was just so cold and my feet felt like they were freezing off!'). The long walk back gave us a nice chance to photograph the beautiful wildflowers that are abundant in the area. The next day we got the hotel lady to hire us a taxi for the day and were pleasantly surprised to find that he was a safe driver. Take two for the Zorat stones was far more successful (it turned out they were just around the corner from where we turned around the day before, although the were hard to spot from the road anyway). The large stones stand in lines in a deserted field, reminding us of the stones at Avebury in England. Thought to have been placed there between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago, they were probably used as an astrological observatory. A cool feature of the stones is that many have man-made peep-holes bored into them, which apparently line up with different planets and stars at different times of the year. Our next stop was Tatev monastery, 2 hours away, on mountainous roads. We passed a few small villages, several shepherds and farmers with herds of sheep and cows, and lots of chickens darting across the road. Our driver did very well. The large monastery is set on a cliff-top overlooking a forested gorge. It's now abandoned but was once home to 600 monks. It was exciting to explore the towers and rooms on our own for a few minutes, before a very large group of local Armenian tourists rocked up, changing the atmosphere just a little! Our last stop for the day was an area near Goris dotted with hundreds of caves among weird rock formations. People once lived in the caves, but now most are used as barns for animals. We found one with a wooden door though, and it looked just like a hobbit house. We knocked. No-one was home. That night, the lady at the hotel took us out to dinner at an interesting restaraunt which looked like a castle outside. We ate Armenian barbequed pork, lavash bread, cucumber, tomatoes and strong cheese. (We have discovered that this combination is the standard Amernian meal - we had had similar food but also with dolma (stuffed vine leaves) at the hotel the previous night). Our lovely dinner was followed by Armenian coffee and icecream, and our hostess refused to let us pay (so we snuck the money to her in a thankyou card the next day). We were amazed at her generosity (and that of many other people we have met here) because we know that living here is difficult, with high levels of unemployment and poverty. Today we caught the bus to the monastery "Norovank," or at least, we thought we were catching it there. Instead we got dropped off and told that Norovank was "oot kilometer" (8 km) down a side-road. So we started walking. Luckily we had lots of water with us. The road travelled along the bottom of a very large and impressive gorge. Much as we were enjoying the scenery, deep down were hoping for a car to save us from the heat. After about an hour one finally drove by and we flagged it down. It turned out to be an Israeli lady (and the driver she had hired for the day) who was more than happy to have some company. Yay! The monastery (like many of them here) is in a stunning and isolated setting, on top of a cliff with nothing else around for miles. We really liked the design of the building and the intricate stone-work. There were lots of old tombs, secret rooms and narrow stone stairways. At all these monasteries there are many khachkars (large stones engraved with elaborate designs with a central cross) - it's a unique Armenian artform dating from the 4th century onwards. We had another Armenian barbeque for lunch at the monastery and continued back to Yerevan with the Israeli lady. To perfectly end the day we found a market on the way home and now have a giant watermelon for dinner. Yum... Love Graham and Nicole.
June 25... Yerevan, Armenia - We think we will have seen almost all of Armenia's monasteries by the time we leave - today we hired a taxi driver (after an unsuccessful attempt to catch the bus) to take us to Khor Virap. The special thing about this monastery is that it is built on top of the prison cell that Gregory the Illuminator resided in for about 12 years. (He was the one who led the King and people of Armenia to convert to Christianity). The monastery was on a cliff top, with Mount Ararat towering over it. Mount Ararat, a picture-perfect mountain, is seen by the people here as the heart of Armenia. It is believed that Noah's Ark landed on the mountain after the flood, and that Armenians are ancestors of one of Noah's sons. (We realised today that if the biblical story is literally true, then we are all ancestors of Noah, given that the rest of mankind died in the flood!). As Armenia's borders have been encroached over the centuries, the mountain is now in fact in Turkey. We could see the fence and guard towers marking the border from the monastery. We climbed down into the prison cell of Gregory, which was small and dark and very cramped - Nicole hit her head but then that isn't unusual for her. We had read in our guidebooks that it is customary for the passengers to buy the taxi driver lunch on a long trip. Hmmm... not what we've found - the driver from Sisian bought us a large bag of biscuits and today's driver bought us ice-creams and juice! Talking about Armenian hospitality, one of the men having the stew at Shaki waterfall had invited us to stay with him when we visited his town, Sevan. He gave us his phone number and asked us to call him. We thought the offer was kind but had decided not to impose on his family. Today, back in Yerevan, we were walking along the street when someone called out to us from a car, waving and smiling. We thought, "do we know this guy?" - he jumped out, and reintroduced himself as the man from the picnic at Shaki, and reminded us that we had to stay with him, checking the date and that we still had his number! Today, we also visited the Matenadaran, a library of ancient and important manuscripts, mostly in the Armenian language. We had a quick tour of some of the documents, including Bibles, books on folk medicine, geometry, music and history, some beautifully illuminated with gold and natural dyes. Out the front is a big statue of Mesrob Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet and a national hero. The alphabet looks very pretty but we're slow at recognising words. Take a look below and see how you'd do... Love Graham and Nicole.
June 30... Yerevan, Armenia - On Sunday we climbed our first snowy mountain! We had planned on hiking up Mount Aragats ourselves because all the guidebooks had suggested that it was straightforward and easy. So we trundled into the tourist office to ask them what the nearest village was, and happened to bump into a tour agency owner running a day trip there on Sunday. He explained that there was only one guesthouse in the region, and that an experienced guide was really quite necessary. So we signed up and we're glad we did, because there was no way we could have climbed it on our own. Up and early, driving the one and a half hours to the base camp of Mount Agarats we passed, of all things, nomadic people camping in tents on the foothills for the summer whilst herding their sheep and cows. It was a very unexpected sight. The mountain itself is snow-covered year round, and is about 4,000 metres in height (although we started at about 3,200 metres). Initially cold, we were soon boiling from the sun reflecting off the snow. The snow got deeper as we climbed higher; underneath there were occasional freezing cold streams of water, but fortunately for us (but not our guide) our guide found these first when he would plunge thigh deep into water suddenly. By the time we reached the southern peak (our destination) we were beginning to feel a bit light-headed from the altitude, but the stunning view made it all worth it - there are five peaks surrounding the crater of a extinct volcano, all streaked with snow. We had got there just in time, because dark clouds and fog within minutes appeared to cover everything in sight, and the thunder sounded ominous. The climb had been difficult and challenging, so reaching the top felt satisfying, but coming down was the most fun part - perhaps this was the closest we'll come to skiing as we slid down the slope on our feet at a rapid pace... The next day we bundled ourselves into the bus to Sevan (the second major "tourist destination" in Armenia, about one hour from Yerevan). We never got in touch with the friendly man from Shaki waterfall, and the town looked like a complete dump, so we caught another bus north to Dilijan. This place is called the "Little Switzerland of Armenia" because it is surrounded by hills covered with pine trees. It certainly was a pretty spot. On the bus we had met a newly married, absolutely delightful Ukranian couple who were setting up a hair-dressing business in all sorts of areas throughout the old USSR. We went out to lunch with them at a small cafe on the nicest street in town - it has several well-preserved wooden houses with decorative verandahs and fences, not seen anywhere else in Armenia. It's a pity the rest of the town was like any other in Armenia - run-down and deserted looking. Luckily for us, the Ukrainians spoke Russian (as do almost all Armenians) and they helped us find a room in a guesthouse for the sum of $3 a night (ooh, that broke the budget!). The proper hotels of Dilijan (where we were planning to stay) have all apparently closed, so we were really quite lucky. We hiked through the nature reserve of Dilijan, but unfortunately it was pouring with rain the entire time and we were too drenched after a few hours to go on. We passed plenty of cows, horses and a wild pig in the forest. We also saw a derelict building which Graham had a suspicion was once a hospital - and sure enough as we passed it we stumbled across a rubbish dump full of syringes, drip bags and other hospital-type stuff. We were amazed that the medical waste had just been left out for anyone to step on (needless to say we were very careful where we walked). That evening we returned to the small cafe and had some traditional Georgian food (delicious). Our company was: a couple from the US who were peace-corps volunteers spending two years in Dilijan, and a rowdy but friendly bunch of Armenian men, who insisted on having a toast of Russian vodka with Graham and the American guy (Graham had a sip and discreetly gave the rest to the waitress to hide). Afterwards we had some Armenian coffee (which is the same as Turkish coffee - that is, very strong but tasty coffee served black in a very tiny cup). We're aquiring quite a taste for it... Today, we've come back to Yerevan and we are waiting for our Egyptian visas to be processed so we can continue on the next leg of the journey. Love Graham and Nicole.
July 2... Yerevan, Armenia - Its been a fun couple of days as we round up our time here. Yesterday we visited another monastery, called Geghard. This is a large monastery, built into a hillside, so you can walk deep into chapels and rooms carved out of the rock. It was quite exciting to explore some of the dark passageways and hidden chambers... Today was a day for fun that we had been looking forward to the whole time we've been in Armenia. Early on our trip, on catching the number 51 minibus, we saw a huge waterpark along the highway, like Wet'n'Wild. While it might be cold and rainy in Adelaide, we've had perfect hot summmer days here! And who could resist devoting a whole day to splashing around in a wave pool, going down waterslides (although Nicole was too much of a woos to go down some of the scarier ones) and trying out a flying fox where you swung high in the air across a pool to let go and plummet into the water at a critical moment. (Nicole took some convincing to give it a go, then when she did, she didn't let go at the critical moment, making a clumsy and somewhat uncomfortable exit on her back). We finished off with a nice meal in an outdoor cafe and after admiring someone else's fancy icecream, we had to have one ourselves - with fruit and a sparkler, it was good... Our impressions of Armenia (in no particular order): rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, cheap and expensive - a country of contrasts. We saw lots of people living in squalor and begging and lots of people driving around in expensive cars and wearing the latest fashions. The capital has nice architecture, parks and sculptures, but there are falling down apartments, deserted warehouses and seriously dangerous holes in the footpath. Public transport consists of hundreds of cramped minibuses and an ancient electric tram system that unhooks every few minutes requiring the driver to get out and re-hook the electric cable (we think it is a death-trap). No car has had a seatbelt and the way people drive is more dangerous than any other place we've experienced yet - we've witnessed four accidents in our 2 weeks here. Aside from the odd dodgy taxi-driver, the people are friendly, generous, helpful and patient, sometimes to an overwhelming degree! As far as prices go, food, transport and rural accommodation is very cheap (e.g. $10 for a good cafe meal with drinks and dessert for two; 25c for a minibus ride; $3 a night for a room). In the capital, however, a basic room (the cheapest in town) has been costing us $80 a night. In the country, the landscape is dramatic and beautiful, but is interspersed with huge ugly power lines, and villages that are falling apart. There are shepherds with their herds roaming the countryside which are a sight to see, and out of nowhere, monasteries appear. This is the first place we have visited that does not have a McDonalds or any other western fast food chain, which has been really nice. At times the non-touristy nature of this country has been fantastic but generally just added to the difficulty of seeing the sights. This has been one of the most challenging but most enjoyable places we've travelled in so far... Next stop, Cairo, where we'll be meeting up with Nicole's parents. Love Graham and Nicole.
Click here to see some photos from Armenia