Beautiful untouchable women and losing my religion in Armenia

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July 10th 2010
Published: August 23rd 2010
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My options of getting to Armenia from Iran were somewhat limited. I could either take an overnight bus from Tabriz which would involve the extended bureaucratic bollocks at the border and twenty seven hours without sleep. The alternative in my head was to cross into Turkey and then quickly into Armenia - but their borders are closed (what with the rather silly argument over the Armenian Genocide 100 years ago). The only other viable option was to take a bus back down to Tehran and get on a plane to the Armenian capital - that also might be my last (the previous summer a flight on the Tehran-Yerevan route had fallen out of the sky killing everyone on board). I opted for the coach which I knew would be a test of endurance.

In Tabriz, the coach picked me up on the side of the road out of Tabriz at around 8.30pm and the dying light. At about midnight we arrived at the border just in time to catch the last extra time goal of the final of a turgid World Cup. After the final whistle the TV was then abruptly switched off - so I didn’t get to see

Room with a view
the Spaniards lift the cup.

Iranian-Armenian border

Anyway, the Iranian border facility was grotty and the toilets filthy - which is what I’d come to expect. The customs ‘inspection’ was a solitary man with a large belly and in no uniform who sat on a chair disinterested whilst slovenly stopping random people with bags. Luckily I didn’t look like I was smuggling anything too important - just the usual Iranian porn; hot off the press.

I was unsure how the actual ‘queuing up and showing passport’ process was going to work out on the Iranian border - in my experience queuing is an alien concept here. And so it proved to be; instead of queuing orderly the passengers just chucked their passports in a bundle to the sole Iranian border guard and then queued or rather sneakily nudged past me. I didn’t realise this ‘process’ and I wouldn’t have done it anyway as I allowed myself the conceit that my British passport is a little bit more important than theirs.

After an hour of this I gave up standing in line amongst the Armenian Iranians and waited till the line had ended to get my passport stamped. The slight worry was having read (in a Lonely Planet, where else?) that sometimes the buses leave before you’ve come through immigration. But this soon turned into truculence - if I was gonna miss the bus because the border is run like a free-for-all then I was gonna be the victim that proved it. These places really make me lose it sometimes! However, it didn’t come to pass in the end. The bus driver/assistant came to collect me and hurried the Iranian border guard up. By the time I got back on the bus at 2am everyone was waiting for me. Bollocks to ya I thought, I’ll keep you all waiting if you refuse to conduct yourself according to polite society! Meh!

Busman's Holiday it ain't

We next drove the short distance to the Armenian border. A stout man with a crimson-alcoholic face and the sly eyes of a Communist Commissar barked at each of us to stand in front of his machine for what we presumed was a test of high temperature. It is the bizarre nature of these borders that they are still doing this stuff for a flu epidemic that was years ago but also this same man also got on out coach as a passenger - presumably homebound.

At the Armenian visa desk I filled out a form, handed over a passport photo and about 20 US Dollars and watched as my passport was passed over to the next kiosk. At borders you’re never really sure what’s going on - you are in No Man’s land when it comes to information and you are at the mercy of the Byzantine rules and regulations of a foreign state! So it was doubly surprising to notice that a flag of Russia was hanging behind what looked like uniformed Russian immigration guards (yes, they are here for some reason) who then checked over my passport and at the visa the Armenian bloke had issued and pasted into it; but the Russian border guard - resplendent with a garish gold watch - looked confused; the visa appeared to be printed in black. The Armenian shrugged and pointed at the printer - his toner was clearly wayward. My passport was handed back to me where I made sure that the dates were correct - unorthodox but so is having Russians guard your borders twenty years after the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It was now in the wee hours and after putting our bags back in the stowage of the coach we were trundling off again. The winding roads of southern Armenia prevented me from catching some shut-eye because of the swaying of left and right so I simply gritted my teeth and focussed on the only thing that kept me from delirium; the buxom young ladies of the bus.

By early afternoon the snow-capped and Mount Fuji-lookalike Mount Ararat loomed in the distance from the Turkish side of the border - I knew that we had finally arrived in Yerevan. At 1.30pm I wearily got off the bus, collected my bags and tried my best to wiggle past the persistent taxi touts. I didn’t have a guidebook but I had made contact with someone on couchsurfers who had promised to let me stay at his place so I decided to walk to the city centre and to get to a computer. As usual it was boiling hot and carrying a heavy backpack I sweated "like a bastard".

Couchsurfing in Armenia

I found a cafe with free wireless internet and contacted Kaspers - my Latvian couchsurfing host who gave me details of how to get to his place in the city. So after a well-deserved although completely enervating couple of beers I got in a taxi to a place called ‘Bangladesh’. Fifteen minutes later and I’m in a post-Soviet mass of dilapidated tower blocks and pot holes - just what I wanted! However, Kaspers showed me where I would be sleeping - my own bed, my own room and free wifi!

Kaspers was doing volunteer work with a European NGO (non-governmental organization) for a few months over the summer. It seems there are many NGOs and volunteers in Armenia - Kaspers’ Spanish housemate was helping to make/edit films for an Armenian charity. He had been here for 10 months already and with the aid of paid-for language lessons had even mastered the Armenian language.

This was impressive as Armenia was the first country on my trip where English was not really spoken and it was not even the second language - in fact an overhang from Soviet days - Russian is. This is a problem if you don’t speak either Armenian or Russian. Added to this is the Armenian script - looking more like Thai than Latin that I’m used to. It’s at times like this on the road that you realise that the world is both wonderfully diverse and frustrating!

My couchsurfing host Kaspers was very easy-going and easy to get along with; he also allowed me to stay for an unlimited time in Armenia - something which I was extremely grateful for; I could take my time and not be rushed into doing touristy shit - in fact I’d become considerably tired of doing sights and things that were ‘recommended’. So I took in the local area of ‘Bangladesh’ with its decrepit Soviet tower blocks, gloominess and complete juxtaposition with luxury cars such as Mercedes and BMWs everywhere. Yes, despite seeming to live in run-down flats in rotting blocks with fickle hot water supply people they still managed to buy luxury cars from Germany - I was told that this is the way it is here in Armenia where image is everything.

I was ‘down’ with the locals not in BMWs as I caught buses from the kitchen sink estate to everywhere. Buses here are called ‘Marshrutkas’ - or rather Ford Transit vans with seats fitted inside and driven by the worst drivers in the world - most of whom I was told were drunk. But there are many of them around and you can hail them anywhere for a straight 100 dram which is about 25 British pence.

Journeying on these buses I noticed that the women were mostly very good looking with fantastic figures that were also very revealing. Paradoxically it’s also very conservative place where women don’t drink or smoke in public and I don’t recall seeing any women driving a car; shorts are seen as risqué for men to wear and where public drunkenness is completely taboo. I witnessed a terrific effort by some middle-aged man who was drunk-as-a-fart-and-stank-of-shit but who managed with extreme control climb into the cramped Ford Transit and get to a (donated) seat. Whilst all around him looked at him with disgusted eyes; I simply smiled to myself.

Fortunately my visit to Yerevan coincided with one of its cultural highlights - that of the annual Apricot International Film Festival ; I also had the company of two lovely Spanish lasses from Astorias who were visiting the country on behalf of their charity as well as checking on the Spanish bloke Kaspers lived with. The price was very cheap for a movie - something like 1 GBP - and the programme was interesting enough. We watched a film which was was half-set in London - "She a Chinese " and screened in the Moscow Cinema - a wonderful Soviet era building - a luxurious space to see a film. Afterwards we entered a big hotel in the square for a drink and somehow gained access to a festival hosted event - free booze and canapés - cue Borat impersonation: “I like!”

When I did make it into the city during the day I found it immediately to my liking and in direct contrast to Iran which I now know to be shockingly decrepit in comparison. I visited the Cascade a ‘vast flight of stone steps and flower beds leads up to a monument commemorating the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia.’ It’s rather strange-looking thing - international sculptures occupy the grassy knolls below and escalators took me upstairs up through the belly of the building, passing recessed fountains and the panorama view from the top was very cool.

As well as the view from the top made it all rather terrific. The newly opened art gallery at the base - with collections of international glassware - which only the week before had been visited by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made it all seem very European. Not only that but the imposing Soviet buildings, the wide boulevards, the statues of poets and writers along with its outdoor bars and cafes - all surprisingly European; and the women didn’t wear any headscarves either - in fact the women were quite possibly the best-looking and with the best figures I’ve seen anywhere.

Over the next two weeks I took it easy in the flat and only occasionally did touristy things.

Ok, some history

Before I got here there were two things that I knew about Armenia- firstly that of the Armenian Genocide which was carried out during the last years of the Ottoman Empire by the Turks - killing somewhere like 1 and a half million people (or thereabouts). So, I had to visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial - which commemorates this grim episode. I wanted to find out about what had happened and to fill in a gap in my knowledge but unfortunately bad lighting, poor display, tiny incoherent display notes as well as any narrative - let alone any kind of two-sides-of-the-story type deal impartiality made it a wasted effort; I simply didn’t know any more about it then when I entered which is sad really - because it is a massive element of national identity - of one people trying to actually exterminate you as a people.

The second thing I knew about Armenia was that it was the world’s oldest Christian church - having been converted way back in 301 AD by hip hop MC sound-alike St Gregory the Illuminator - he was kept in a pit for twelve years by pagan badass king Tiridates III before literally seeing the light. Armenia therefore has some seriously old churches (and monasteries) which alongside its unique architecture and ancient rites and liturgy - I felt would be like looking into the past of the Church.

Because of the language barrier I thought that visiting some of these churches and monasteries by marshrutkas and buses would not be worth the effort (or presumably the hassle). So I gave up on visiting on my own but what made this pusillanimous decision a little less shameful was the fact that I could see all the highlights of Armenia with very cheap daily tours; the country was small enough meant I could also do the majority - so that’s what I did.

Wonderful medieval monasteries

One Sunday I went on a tour to Lake Sevan and Tsaghkadzor; the location of the 11th - 13th-century Kecharis Monastery which was also hosting a mass that morning. It seemed to be a relaxed yet holy affair - the priest had his back to the congregation dressed in his green vestments, square hat and surrounded by altar boys throwing lit incense around whilst the locals milled about quite freely lighting candles and standing by the doorway. Interestingly all of the women covered their heads with veils (they are looser than Islamic headscarves in Iran). It also appeared that over the centuries things haven’t changed much in Armenia’s rites and rituals so there was plenty of incense, singing, call and replies; a genuinely captivating affair all in all and at two hours long they could afford to be.

My favourite moment - was a sung prayer and then the priest turned around suddenly and made the sign of the cross to the congregation - the drama of religious faith is alive and well in Armenia. However I was lagging in that department. My recent antipathy to religious faith was courtesy of Christopher Hitchens in his polemical book, God is not Great which allows me at last to quote from him:

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard - or try to turn back - the measurable advances that we have made.

Basically, ‘fossilized philosophies with the question left out’ - and that is why all these churches are testing after a while. Indeed, the churches and monasteries looked much alike after a few - a syndrome given the acronym of ABC or ABM - ‘another bloody church' day or ‘another bloody monastery' day.

However there were some more highlights. The Armenian Church has a knack of choosing very beautiful locations for its monasteries and churches. More religion was on the cards during another tour to Echmiadzin - the Armenian Church’s equivalent of the Vatican City with its very old Cathedral and in its treasury bits of Saints Peter, Thaddeus, Andrew, the Holy Cross as well as a piece of Noah’s wooden Ark - which in legend was meant to have landed at Mount Ararat - a holy symbol of Armenian identity - even though it’s now in Turkey. As an aside, the guide for the treasury room thought he could tell where I was from without asking me because ‘the Armenians and Celtic peoples are connected’ - first I’d heard of it mate!

Another particular highlight was a day tour to the Sanahin and Haghpat monasteries - UNESCO World Heritage sites situated in the Debed Canyon in the far north of the country. It took a relatively long three hours to get there - which took in plenty of rolling hills and picturesque mountains and culminated in the beautiful Debed Canyon - verdant and with a lovely river roaring through it. We also passed the Soviet ‘post industrial’ city of Vanadzor which had a huge chemical works at the eastern end of town which were spectacularly moribund with hectares of chimney stacks and rusting roofless buildings.

Our journey was speeded up by the reckless driver from the Heyr Tour company - who seemed to think that speeding on narrow hair pin roads whilst on the phone with ten other passengers was acceptable. At a pit stop some others complained but the concern was dismissed; the driver knew how to drive these roads. I wondered to myself why it would take a news items on the TV which 10 tourists were in a road accident before dangerous driving was seen as unacceptable.

The monasteries themselves are spectacular - Sanahin dates back to 928 AD and Haghpat was founded around 976 by Queen Khosrvanuch. Being atop mountains they are both particularly beautiful but also amazingly atmospheric. The uniquely carved crosses (khachkars) covered with rosettes and botanical motifs were the oldest I’d seen and who’s knot and tie motifs are intriguingly reminiscent from earlier Celtic crosses. That’s all I say - let the pictures do the talking.

Cheap opera

I noticed that in the centre of Yerevan was the National Opera of Armenia and considering how expensive it is in London and the good reputation Soviet opera had - I had to take the chance - plus it was only about 10 pounds.

The outside of the building was a bit functional and concrety but I wasn’t able to find the bloody entrance for the plebs (me) and people kept giving me the wrong directions until finally a friendly member of the actual orchestra who played French horn helped me (in English) to find the entrance to my section. The interior was serious, spacious and opulent as you’d expect from a former Soviet cultural institution and as I took my seat I noticed how it was also chock-full of gorgeous young women dressed up to the ninety-nines so to speak. I was thankful I’d made an effort myself - a fresh long-sleeved shirt and trousers type deal - the American preppy look is all you can expect from an on a-budge-backpacker like me. But seriously, I was amazed at how many lovely young women were in attendance and there was me on my tod not able to speak a word of Armenian or Russian and left to muteness.

Twenty minutes into this Armenian opera (Anoush - "The opera is about the tragedy of a peasant girl (Anoush) whose short love affair ends in loss and death because of conflict between her lover (Saro) and her brother (Mossy)") and I’m drifting in and out of sleep; I had made the mistake of drinking a bottle of the local beer - Kilikia just before the performance. But after a while the tunes came along and I actually started to enjoy myself and even though it was an Armenian national opera, the lush surroundings and the tunes started to come through.

Bar scene (or lack of)

The rest of the time was mostly taking advantage of the cheap beer and exploring the bars - or rather going to the same bar every night because everything else was either a bit rubbish; lacked any atmosphere; was deadly quiet and/or the people were dull - and that included the Beatles Bar! The exception to this was a newly opened that in its naff way was also an ‘ethnic bar’ with the highly original concept of, wait for it: bean bags. The toilet sinks had no water however, but I thought I’d give them a chance.

On one of my nights there I manage to meet a British-Armenian journalist working in the city on the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. He was a funny, good with beer and a world-weary king of a bloke - just what you want in a journalist and I liked him. I must have expressed an interest in the region because he invited me along to the capital of Georgia to meet with human rights figures and writers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t wait around long enough to take up this offer but in our drink-sponsored sessions we discussed the place and about how I really liked the city - whcih caused his eyes to roll. He’d been here ten years and I was fresh off the bus so that was to be expected. He also said that the bars weren’t up to much in the city and that this was his now preferred drinking spot - the best of a bad lot.

However, the bar's admittedly tacky alternative vibe such as Native American portraits, bean bags and owners with dreadlocks and Ealing accents was hiding a scary secret or two. No one wanted to talk about the ethnically disputed areas of Nagorno-Karabakh - Armenia officially occupies 16%!o(MISSING)f Azerbaijani territory. In fact, some of the people I was sat with at the bar - the hippy-wannabes and bar owners in the city I found to be not only neo-Pagan but also quite fascistic - it reminded me of the Nazi's obsessions with German paganism and the occult. One of them showed me an actual tattoo on his bicep of a map of the Kingdom of Armenia in antiquity - when it was much larger and more powerful. I found this all quite sinister if I'm honest and in total contrast to the so-called vibe of the place.

I'm afraid I then made a mistake of assuming that liberalism in this bar was alive and well. Admittedly very sententious of me I warned against repeating the same fascistic and right-wing nationalistic mistakes in Europe which had led to the Second World War. Britain was blamed for not helping the Armenians in the Genocide agaisnt them by the Ottoman Turks, "ships don’t cross over mountains" someone quoted.

What about the huge British (and Antipodean) losses in fighting the Turks at Gallipoli I asked, what made the Armenians so bloody important all of a sudden? I was genuinely shocked to meet such reactionary opinions - and fed up with their constant crowing about so-called historical slights against them - I wish they’d seriously grow up and not live in the past so much. At which point I was angered and fed up with their nationalistic rhetoric that I told them where to go along with their piss-poor excuse of a bar.

This episode seriously poisoned my time in Armenia - I’d had enough of the same shitty bars and the endless monasteries and churches - they made me truly alienated from organized religion - an almost militant atheism in fact. I wanted to escape - two weeks was enough in the country and only the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin made up for it somewhat - amazing places and I can't recommend enough.

A persuaded myself to finally exhaust a few more tours of monasteries this time with Kaspers - my couchsurfing host - and a nice hitch hike back to Yerevan. The only thing left was to do a mountain of laundry and to enjoy the local women on the marshurutkas one last time and dream of the day I can speak Armenian, become a member of the Apostolic Armenian Church and...Nope that ain’t happening....

Next stop Georgia - the second oldest Christian church in the world (yay more monasteries!) - and worshippers of St George.

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23rd August 2010

Hey John, Just finished reading your blog in Armenia. I still haven't been to my country of nationality, but I was interested to read about your experiences. I could of told you a few things you could of told the Armenian women in Armenia to help you out there, lol! Eric

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