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Published: August 23rd 2008
I've just finished traveling Armenia with my half-Armenian girlfriend, Liza. It was the first stage of a 2 year traveling spree that we were both embarking on and very exciting for me because it was a chance to see the place where she had spent much of her childhood.
We arrived in Yerevan on the 6th July and were picked up at the airport by two different sets of relatives, neither of whom knew that the other was waiting for us. They took us back through the outskirts of Yerevan, the capital, to the flat of Liza's great uncle, Edo. It was very hot and dusty, and half-finished tower blocks dotted the landscape. There was no door to Edo's tower block, and no lobby inside, just a small concrete room dotted with small graffitis, some of them adverts for hairdressers, taxis, etc. Every time we came home we waited there for several minutes as the ancient lift creaked its way down, listening to the sound of the chains jingling.
Inside the flat was small but comfy, and we were made to feel very much at home. Edo, a quiet, philosophical, 85-year-old war veteran who displayed immense patience and personal
strength in the face of constant tellings off from the grandmothers he was surrounded by, was somewhat of a fruit addict; he had lots of different types ready for us, as well as a vast array of juices, jams and liqueurs filling up every cupboard in the house. I have never been much of a fruit eater myself, but I pretty much lived off it in Armenia because it was all so amazingly sweet and tasty. Apricots, which I have never liked at all, were in fact my favourite fruit in Armenia.
The day after we arrived Edo took us to a market in the outskirts. He never went to the one in the centre, which is very expensive and mainly for tourists these days. We arrived at the market and began to walk through. The first section was lined by lorries loaded to the top with watermelons or cabbages and a few cars selling vegetables out of the boot (trunk). I took a photo of one and suddenly people were all around me, laughing, smiling and asking me to photograph them with their produce. An interesting comparison to Morocco, where I remember angry faces demanding money whenever i
took my camera out in Marrakesh. We wandered through the rest of the market, testing different fruits, Edo only agreeing to buy the very tastiest and cheapest. The atmosphere of the market was quite incredible, buzzing with activity, deals going down, arguments erupting, black bin liners full to the brim with fruit being sold to individual customers, all to the background of vast piles of multi-coloured produce laid out on the ground, on stalls of in cars. It was a great introduction to the country.
We were invited to the house of some friends in a village nearby. The village was full of old, traditional-looking houses. We wandered around a little, sharing the streets with cows, chickens, and groups of old men sitting around playing backgammon or chatting. Back at our friends' house we the men were busy tending a barbecue with various different meats and vegetables and the women were preparing salads, cheese and various other dishes. The meal was delicious. Special attention was paid to me as a foreignor, making sure my plate was always full and that I had everything I wanted. After we had eaten they took us on a tour of Echmiadzin, a nearby
town with four of the oldest churches in the world. One of them was begun just after Armenia officially became the first Christian nation in 301 AD.
The next step in our travels round the country was a trip to the south with a friend of Liza's grandmother. The thinking was that she would take us to friend's houses where we would be able to stay, which would be far more interesting than sleeping in hotels. She was a well-meaning old lady but she had a voice that produced the same effect on me as the scraping of nails on a blackboard, only that was just a meaningless sound whereas her voice formed words that actually got inside your brain and threatened to drive you mad. On top of this, she simply did not stop talking and would not give us any time on our own. At meals she would pile stuff onto my plate despite my futile pleas for her not to. While she was talking at mealtimes, several times every sentence she would turn to me and say in a hysterical voice, "EAT!" It was an example of the Armenian hospitality taken to an extreme by a
character who I suspected might be slightly neurotic.
We took a shared taxi south from Yerevan for 5 hours, through some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen, to a small village called Noravan, near the town of Sisian. On the way, we took a slight detour to a beautiful ancient church at the top of a canyon. This, confusingly, was called Noravank. Noravan (without the K!) was a very rustic village. We stayed with a very warm and welcoming local family. The mother worked in the garden and with the animals, milking the cows and goat by hand every day, and the father was in the army, a veteran of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. They entertained us very well; despite the fact that they had no prior knowledge of our arrival, they managed to produce an amazing array of dishes, all of which were made from products from their garden or animals. The husband opened a bottle of brandy he had been saving for a special occasion and we all drank several glasses, with someone saying a toast every time we had a drink. Their 7-year-old son, Haik, was a real character
and often said things to me that were clearly repetitions of what his parents had told him: "Don't leave the table before you've finished everything on your plate, Eddy!" and "Drink your milk so that you're not hungry later, Eddy!"
In the area there were a number of very varied and interesting sites to visit, some early Christian and some remnants of ancient civilisations that had inhabited the region many thousands of years before. Zorots Karer, an ancient astronomical site from 3000 BC, was made up of several hundred standing stones, many with smaill holes carved in them to line up with the stars. Also nearby the Vorotan canyon began with several stunning churches and monasteries clinging to the tops of its cliffs, among them Vorotnovank and Tatev. There were several examples of entire towns of cave houses hewn into cliffs, some of which had been inhabited as recently as 70 years ago. Khndzoresk is a particularly beautiful example of one of these towns.
Further east was a town called Goris; with a population of around 30,000, it nestled in a small valley encircled by towering mountains. We were supposed to be meeting up with some friends there
but at first we couldn't find them. While waiting, a car drew up to us. The driver told us that he was expecting guests and asked whether we were his guests! We were not, but we eventually found our hosts and had lunch with them. After lunch, with 2 daughters of the family, we got in a taxi and drove south down a spectacular road that snaked its way up into the mountains before descending into the Vorotan canyon then ascending back up the other side again. We stopped outside the monastery of Tatev, perched right on the brink of the canyon. It was a beautiful complex of ancient buildings and we were lucky enough to catch a monk who was willing to tell us all about them.
One day we drove to a very small, very beautiful village called Urut, set in another stunning canyon. We swam in some warm springs nearby and walked through the unbelievable beauty of the canyon. Then we went and had dinner with some friends who lived in the village. Everyone we had met was so friendly, so welcoming and so hospitable, it could almost trick you into thinking that they were gloriously
happy and led such wonderful lives. A reality check came when the man told us about how hard life was, especially during the freezing winters when everyone huddled together in one room, and about how boring it was to live every day of your life exactly the same. He was very clever, and had received a great education under the Soviet regime, but complained of how useless the education system was these days, and that his children were learning nothing at school.
The father of the family we stayed with in Noravan once told us about some Americans who had lived in their village, helping the population. It was obvious from what he said that the people had been volunteers. "Why do they come here, where life is so hard?" he asked me, before answering his own question: "I suppose they must be receiving a vast salary."
The North of Armenia, like the south, was stunningly beautiful, but unlike the south the landscape here was dotted by many abandoned factories, monuments to the collapse of the country's economy in the post-Soviet years that had led to 80% unemployment. We took a marshrutka (public minivan) to a town called
Alaverdi in the Debed Canyon. The area is crammed with ancient churches and monasteries in surprisingly good condition considering that many had been built as early as the 6th Century AD. No churches or monasteries in Armenia require an entrance fee, but it is a good idea to purchase a few small candles to light and place near the altar, as these donations are all the churches survive on. The most beautiful we saw were at Akhtala, Sanahin, Haghpat and Odzun. Near Sanahin we found fields of wild cannabis growing.
We stayed with an enormously fat woman called Lilit who shouted basic English at us in an extremely loud, deep voice every minute of our stay with her. Nevertheless, she was extremely welcoming and we became quite fond of her. Always ready to help us with anything, give advice, offer us some of her home cooking or home brewed fruit vodka, she was a really good, honest person.
We moved on to a town called Ijevan in the north east where we spent 2 days. We went to a small village called Yenokavan and spent a few hours walking in the mountains nearby, wandering up winding paths past
people working in their fields until we found a spot overlooking a huge green canyon where we ate some kebabs we had bought with us from town.
Back in town, we asked some locals where the church was. They were happy to take us on a walk along a path that wound its way a short distance down the mountainside to the little, square, roofless church. It was from the 13th century but was still in use, despite the fact that it was so small that most of the people had to stand outside during the service. While walking back to Ijevan, a taxi driver, who had just dropped off a fare, picked us up and gave us a free lift.
Before heading back to Yerevan we spent a day relaxing on the shores of Lake Sevan, Armenia's biggest lake and a favourite spot for people to escape from Yerevan and relax on the beach.
In Yerevan we went to a performance of Armenian dancing at the National Opera House and went for a kebab with the friends in the village who we had visited at the start of our trip. We visited various other friends, had
a meal out in a restaurant and did another trip to visit an ancient Pagan temple called Garni. From Garni some friendly locals gave us a lift on to what turned out to be my favourite church in Armenia - Geghard. With high ceilinged rooms and carved ceilings with sometimes only a tiny hole through which a beam of light attempted to illuminate the whole place and plenty of intricate and original carvings, it had a truly magical and intensely spiritual atmosphere.
Sorry for the slightly rushed nature of this entry - it's been written a month after the trip and I'm sat at an expensive internet cafe in Vanuatu - read the next blog entries to learn more about that trip!
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