Stalin once said: “Churchill worries more about his shipment of Armenian brandy than he does about the war!”
Travelling overland from Eastern Turkey to Armenia is a chore. Maybe one day the Turks will admit to the Armenian genocide and the border between the two countries will open again.
First, I must take a bus over the mountains into Georgia where regular marshrutkas (minibuses) make the 6 hour run from Tbilisi to Yerevan. I wrap my long legs around a pile of overstuffed plastic bags. Truckers and traders grow rich hauling Turkish goods through Georgia to sell in Armenia.
Crossing the border here is a snap. Fill in the form Hand over $20 and Bingo! We are soon heading for the driver’s favourite lunch stop. A reasonable looking place offering freshly grilled kebabs. I visit the kitchen, a shack just large enough for a BBQ and an unmade bed. Two cats purr optimistically from the dirt floor. I settle for an ice cream!
Armenia is a small landlocked country with a big heart, and a tough history. Sandwiched between Georgia, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the breakaway state of Nagorno Karabakh, it was the first country to adopt Christianity in AD 301. It has fought losing battles with most of its neighbours and declared independence from The USSR in 1991.
Yerevan, the capital, is an odd mix of delapidated Soviet apartment buildings, modern stylish hotels, office blocks and trendy pedestrian walkways. Water and gas pipes zigzag through the city like fat strings of spaghetti, arching over intersections then dropping back to street level Another tasteless Soviet touch!
Chic young women compete for shabbily dressed young men, but with a ratio of four to one - Well it’s an unfair world! Clothing stores cunningly plant coolly clad mannequins on the sidewalk to tempt passers-by. It’s hot and water sellers do a brisk trade. The “enthroned” toilet attendant knits socks between customers.
After dark, couples stroll around Republican Square. Floodlit fountains “dance” in sync with piped-in music. A crescendo in “Land of Hope and Glory” manages to soak the crowd! Chi chi restaurants, discos, and outdoor cafes do a roaring trade. I grab an ice cold beer from a sidewalk cooler, pay the vendor, and continue on my way.
Across Haghtanak Bridge, The Ararat Brandy Company has been an iconic institution since 1887. I’m on a mission to sample Churchill’s favourite tipple - He was so impressed with Stalin’s gift of a few cases that he committed to an annual shipment of 300 bottles. I hope he shared them!
I hand over 2500 Armenian drams Around $6, and join a tour in the tasting room. Each participant receives a snifter.
“We will start with a five year old,” announces the official pourer. My glass is liberally filled A definite triple. I follow the crowd and swirl it around in my sweaty outstretched palm before taking the obligatory sniff. Then Glug! Yum! Pretty darned good!
A 10 year old follows, but of course the piece de resistance is the 20 year old. By this time I am feeling dizzy and, noting the lack of a spittoon or a convenient potted plant, I surreptitiously donate the rest to my neighbour, an ample, red-faced, Bulgarian.
I find Anan through Sati Tours, a travel agency chosen at random from my guidebook. He has a black belt, a pregnant wife, and a Ford SUV. I have negotiated his services for a 3-day all-inclusive trip to the countryside.
Small towns once humming with industry in the Soviet era, have become derelict junkyards filled with tangled steel and lifeless brick chimneys. Houses are boarded up, abandoned to the elements. Owners have either drifted into the capital or left the country.
Armenia’s churches, dating back 1000 years, are the real highlight of the countryside. After years of communist rule, religion is on the rise. We find majestic monasteries in picture perfect villages. Stonemasons and roofers volunteer their services for free.
Making a living is tough here and only the enterprising survive. The rocky Northern plains are dotted with wildflowers and small settlements. A cluster of tents is the summer home to a group of herders who have cunningly hooked a wire into the hydro pole and enjoy the luxury of free lighting and TV!
An isolated beekeeper stacks his hives well off the ground Away from meddlesome wolves he says. Are they after him, in his tiny fetid bunkroom, or his bees? His wife drops by with supplies from time to time.
We drive into the Kurdish village of Rya Taza. Anan is in a bad mood. His wife has called for the third time begging him to come home. He turns off his cell phone and floors the car - without noticing the deep pothole that cracked our heads on the roof!
Neat piles of cow dung patties dry in the sun fuel for baking flatbread. Freshly shorn wool hangs on a line. Newborn calves peer forlornly through an iron-barred stable gate. Chickens and ducks are on the loose. I note to avoid the outhouse with a serious lean. The best views of Mount Aragats are from the cemetery where homes for the dead outshine shacks for the living!
Three laughing ladies invite us in for tea. My favourite has a permanent giggle, even when she is showing off her father’s military medals. Which war I wonder?
Anan eyes the gas gauge nervously. No sweat, the ultimate entrepreneur is parked just around the corner with an ancient Soviet tanker truck sporting two gas pumps on the side. Will it be Regular or Premium?
Our bed and breakfast is in the mountain resort of Dilijan. Calling itself the Switzerland of Armenia is a bit of a stretch but the air is fresh and cool and it’s a favourite spot for burned-out Yerevanites to hike, camp, or just chill.
We zig-zag up the hill passing tiny wheezing buses, powered by rooftop propane tanks. Our hostess, a young widow with three sons, produces a massive stack of delicious cabbage rolls for dinner and I start to relax. “What, more churches? But we’ve just arrived” I plead, but Anan is already heading for the car!
“Ski Armenia” is not necessarily at the top of every aficionado’s bucket list when dreaming of a winter paradise. Pretty Tsaghkadzor, a resort boasting four lifts, was built to train Soviet skiers for the 1988 Olympics Hey you can even check the web cams online. Most summer tourists at The Hotel Russia are here to see the 11th century Kocharis Monastery, rent an ATV, or hike the mountain trails.
Mount Ararat appears through the mist as we approach Yerevan.
I return Anan to his anxious wife. No, he will never leave Armenia. It is his home. The place where his heart lies. He lifts his shirt to show off a bullet wound from the war with Azerbaijan. He is ready to fight again should his country need him.
Armenia has shed many people over the years but most of them remain passionately patriotic. $5 billion in annual remittances is a serious part of the economy. Contributions from the likes of billionaire Armenian/American Kirk Kerkorian have helped to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Armenian/French singer Charles Aznavour was given the title of “National Hero,” a free bus pass, and a barrel of Ararat brandy for his charitable donations!
I spent 6 rewarding days in Armenia and a week in Georgia. Two small Christian countries carrying lots of emotional baggage. Both trying to rebuild after decades of Soviet rule.
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Copyright © 2011 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.