Armenia is not easy to get to from the UK. There are no direct flights and three of the four land borders are not accessible, a consequence of Armenia’s long running disputes with Azerbaijan & Turkey and our own less than cordial relationship with Iran.
There are signs that borders may open in the not too distant future with Iran again on better terms with the West and Turkey agreeing to open discussions about the Armenian genocide they are said to have carried out from 1915 but have always denied in the past.
There are no signs of good diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan and they are still technically at war because of the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and dispute. NK as it is known is a majority ethnic Armenian populated region, which is technically part of Azerbaijan even though it is not attached Azerbaijan territory and now considers itself independent!
So, it takes some effort to get to the former Soviet, but you are handsomely rewarded if you do grab the opportunity.
Hamish and I took the long route – Istanbul to Erzurum in Kurdish Turkey via Ankara by overnight train, bus and taxi into Georgia and then another overnight train to Yerevan via Tbilisi. This epic trip threw up plenty of memorable moments, which you can read about in my book.
We arrived in the Armenian capital on a very special day – the 23rd Independence Day celebrations on 21st September 2014. This was a very patriotic affair as you can imagine.
Low on friendly neighbours they may be, but they certainly know how to have a good time judging by the singing, dancing, eating and drinking by the enthusiastic throng, young faces painted in Armenia’s vibrant national colours of orange, red and blue.
We watched the celebrations in Independence Square, which culminated in an impressive firework display. It felt like we were gate-crashing somewhat, but nobody cared a jot and we felt honoured to be there looking on.
Yerevan itself was a very pleasant city to linger in. Plenty of fountains, green spaces, cafes & bars and attractive architecture & interesting Orthodox churches and a striking mosque.
However it is outside the capital that the real jewels exist, easily doable as day or half day trips from Yerevan.
We undertook two tours, one a full day tour of the region where Mount Ararat is situated and the other a half day taking in a Greek temple and a monastery.
The whole day tour started out at a monastery called Khor Virap in the shadow of Mount Ararat.
Ararat was disappointingly further away than the postcard I had purchased the day before had portrayed. Photoshop had a lot to answer for! Furthermore, the mountain positioned just inside Eastern Turkey was shrouded in cloud.
I informed Hamish of the fascinating fact that the mountain had been the final resting place for Noah’s Ark once the floods had subsided. We both wondered why he had taken two wasps with him!
We caught the end of the English part of the tour and heard that the mountain pretty much marked the border between Armenia and their larger neighbours. No man’s land in between was farmed by workers from both sides, all having special permits to leave and return to their country every day.
Below the floor of the smaller of the two churches on the site there was a passageway where Grigor Lusavorich, who was to become ‘Saint Gregory the Illuminator’, was said to be imprisoned for fourteen years. Eventually he was released to become most influential in turning Armenia into the world’s first Christian country in AD 301.
For those that were interested, you could climb down a thirty rung metal ladder and squeeze yourself through the narrow tunnel that had been the apparent ‘home’ for Gregory, and come up the other side of the church. Such a pity the bulk of my bag meant that I would not fit!
Hamish went down the ladder and straight back up. The only head banging he would do this trip was when I played AC/DC on my i-pad!
It was great to be in the countryside, the added bonus of going on excursions. You get to see the real country, the mountains, the way of living, the rivers & lakes and the wildlife.
The landscape here was mainly wild, desert-like and infertile. Pockets of lush green were few and far between, except for a large expanse of vines.
We were due to stop at a vineyard later where I was sure we would hear that Armenia was the home of wine, a claim also made and more widely accepted as true by neighbouring Georgia.
First things first though, time for a visit to the church complex of Noravank. There were three churches on the one site, which were most remarkable for the carvings inside and outside on their rocky walls. Messages inscribed on and pictures hewn out of the rock depicted the holy trinity and other religious icons.
The main church of St Karapet had some extremely narrow steps arranged in an inverted V-shape around the main entrance that led up to the second storey.
With no handrail and total disregard for health & safety, you were able to clamber up the steps to view the rocky chamber above. It would have been safer to climb up and down the back of an aggravated stegosaurus in my book, but virtually everybody else made the climb apart from vertigo suffering me.
The fact that most people came down as soon as they reached the top confirmed my thought (hope) that there would not be much to see up there. Hamish confirmed absolutely that this was indeed the case, unless you are into bare rocky ceilings.
After lunch in lovely countryside by a babbling river, we visited a winery for a tour and tasting. Indeed Armenia was mentioned as the home of wine, most of which appeared to be of the sweet variety if this place was typical.
You could also buy it cheaper from the roadside, as long as you did not mind it being contained in anything the locals could get their hands on!
The G Spots
The half day tour was even better in my mind.
We hired a taxi driver for £20 and set off. First stop was Garni, a Greek style temple dating back to Roman times that was set amongst rolling hills and pine forest.
We arrived before official opening time, but a gardener let us in to give us the place to ourselves for a blissful while. How much nicer it was not to be herded around, having posers diminishing every shot.
The temple itself was impressive in structure, but had clearly been much rebuilt. It was a case of that old dilemma of whether ruins should be re-built or left as rubble to let the original be left to the imagination or to artist’s impressions.
The Armenians had chosen the former option to the purist’s chagrin. At least they had used original style material, which was now weather worn enough to almost blend in with the few original stone blocks that remained.
We had fifteen-minutes of privacy before a Russian trio of two hairy blokes plus a girl with bee-sting lips and a deep love for herself, showed up.
The girl wore a white fur lined hooded coat, coupled with white knee length boots. She posed in front of every flower and each aspect of the temple imaginable. Not only that, but she had to bend this way and that way whilst making multiple expressions, all in pursuit of the perfect shot.
When her appetite for paparazzi was sated, the guys turned on each other and snapped away in similar style. They were to be an irritation all morning.
Gregory our driver then approached me to advise that I should go and see some ancient mushrooms. Mushrooms? How ancient can they be? Were they petrified or perhaps set in amber?
Gregory had actually said washrooms – I decided I must get that hearing checked!
The Roman bathhouse was encased in glass, but we were still able to get a good impression of how the hot water had formed an ancient sauna and could also make out some impressive mosaics.
After thirty-minutes getting a few pics of our own, it was off to Geghard Monastery, blessedly with a lead over Anna Karenina and her bodyguards.
It wasn’t long before Geghard loomed into view, an impressive looking pile of monastery.
We stopped on the hillside opposite for a few snaps of the rocky structure before moseying on down.
The monastery was a fabulous spot in the picturesque countryside, surrounded by mountains and tranquility. Every now and again the peace would be embellished by some exquisite singing from a group of five female singers who piped up for a fee upon request.
The first time I heard their harmonies, I was inside the church itself. It made a wonderful accompaniment to the ornate carvings and inscriptions cut out of the stone building. There was even a small stream babbling along inside.
It really was a spiritual place. At least it was until Karenina and Co turned up to blight every shot with their presence.
We lingered for over two hours, managing to ignore the bored looks of our waiting driver.
I discovered that the singing quintet placed themselves down a small passage on the second level to find the best acoustics for their heavenly voices. A strategically placed hole in the church wall allowed the blissful tunes to waft into the main building and fill it with sweet music.
Outside we saw a new bride cheesily release a dove and witnessed an old lady bent double as she walked with the aid of a stick. The wizened old maid enjoyed herself by standing up virtually straight as visitors passed her by, to let out a witch-like guttural cackle right into the unsuspecting faces of the peace-loving tourists!
At the moment a group of thirty Romanies descended on the place to shatter the peace and usurp the Russians in the annoying stakes, we decided it was time to leave.
We were soon back to Yerevan for our afternoon train to Tbilisi and left Armenia with a feeling of sadness to be leaving such a lovely and welcoming country.
I thoroughly recommend a visit before too long if you can. 21st September 2016 could be a great time to go to catch the 25th anniversary of independence. I may just see you there!