Armenia. I’m glad I went last month.

I usually write about a country after my visit is done. Sometimes, I am a couple of weeks late. In this case, I had decided to finish my Armenia story this week-end. As it happens, the last 48 hours saw the worse violence between “Armenia” and Azerbaijan since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994. Here is the situation in a nutshell:

1) There have been tensions and wars for centuries between the Armenians, the first people to adopt Christianity as a State Religion in the early 4th century, and the Turkic Azerbaijanis, their Muslim, albeit now very secular, neighbours.

2) Before and during the collapse of the USSR, the ethnic Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh region demanded their independence. Protests and sporadic violence irrupted into an all out war between 1992 and 1994. 30,000 people died and vast numbers were forced from their homes. Nagorno-Karabakh went from being 75% Armenian to nearly 100%. Almost all Armenians left Azerbaijan and vice-versa.

3) Except for other self-declared breakaway territories like Abkhazia or Transnistria (which I visited), no country recognizes the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is de jure part of Azerbaijan, but de facto independent since 1994. I even heard some Armenians refer to it as part of Armenia.

4) In the first paragraph, I referred to “Armenia”. I used the quotes because the conflict is nominally between NK and Azerbaijan, but NK is massively supported by Armenia, financially and militarily.

5) Turkey is 100% on the side of Azerbaijan, among many reasons because they share a similar and mutually intelligible language, a religion and a hatred of Armenians. Russia has a good but complicated relation with Azerbaijan. I believe they are closer to Armenia and have several military bases in the country. But they sell weapons to both sides. Iran has historically been more on Armenia’s side, but seems to be more on the fence these days. This is a little surprising since Iran and Azerbaijan are the only 2 majority Shia countries in the world and there are more ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran than in Azerbaijan. Perhaps this shows that although I mentioned the religious differences, they do not have the same importance here as they have in Middle Eastern conflicts, for example.

6) Since the 1994 cease-fire there have been periodic border clashes, but on April 1st 2016, heavy fighting started again. As I am writing this about 48 hours later, the fighting is ongoing, although Azerbaijan has just announced a unilateral ceasefire.

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A street sign downtown Yerevan. I don’t know what it says, but explanations are not really required.

Since Azerbaijan and Armenia do not have formal relations and the border is closed, I actually went to Georgia first by overnight train. I spent a couple of days there, but I will write about it later. I then took the bus to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It was quite the experience.

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First, before crossing the border, everyone was buying soap. Like, tens of kilos of soap. I tried to understand why but couldn’t find an answer. Taxes? Cheaper? Our minibus was also filled to capacity with the vast quantities of luggage carried by three women. According to an older Ukrainian couple who could talk to them in Russian, they were likely involved in some sort of minor contraband headed for Turkey. Since the land border is closed, I don’t know if this makes any sense, but the point is that they looked suspicious.

The Caucasus border procedures for westerners, in two words.

Azerbaijan: Efficient, bureaucratic.

Georgia: Efficient, easy.

Armenia: Chaos, more chaos.

I waited in line for a good 20 minutes to be told by the border agent that I needed a visa on arrival, something I already knew. I said “how much”? He said they were sold somewhere else. I had no idea and there were no signs to that effect. So I walked to a different building and waited in line, filled some paperwork, paid the fee and went back to do the 20 minute line again, because the agent who sold the visa was not authorized to stamp it. I found the minibus and apologized to the Ukrainian couple for delaying everybody (they were the only ones who spoke some English). They said not to worry, the bus was not going anywhere. It had gone through immigration easily, but was stuck at customs, certainly because of the unusual amount of luggage.

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In the end, everyone had to open their suitcases so the border guard (just outside of the photo) could see what was inside. With nothing else to do, all the passengers gathered around to see what people had in their bags. Then we waited again forever, probably while the guards decided what “tax” the 3 women had to pay. During this whole thing I just waited in the shade a few meters away. When the driver got back in the bus, I boarded and we took off, my bag completely unchecked by anyone. In total, crossing the border took 1.5 – 2 hours

Now don’t get me wrong, Armenia is a very pleasant country to visit, but it has its quirks. Superficially, if I had to make a light-hearted comparison, I would say it is the Albania of the Caucasus.

The Ukrainian couple asked me if I wanted to share a taxi to visit attractions outside the capital. I agreed and we spend the next morning touring around. We bought the driver lunch and paid him US$20, for 5 hours. Not a price I would have been able to negotiate in English. This highlights the fact that Armenia is the poorest country in the Caucasus. The political situation hurts a lot. Turkey imposes various sanctions on Armenia to the West and there are no relations with Azerbaijan to the East. Because of this, the pipeline built between Baku and Turkey had to do a long and costly detour through Georgia. As a result, Georgia gets large annual transit fees, and Armenia gets nothing.

Although I have no facts to back this up, I also noticed in several former Soviet Republics, especially the poor ones, that young women are often very well dressed, with hair and make-up all done up, even when the occasion doesn’t warrant it. Some of my Eastern European friends have explained that for many, the best prospect in life is marrying a rich guy, so they never want to miss an opportunity by looking scruffy. It was certainly the case in Moldova and Belarus (although the later is not that poor).

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I know this is a crappy (and a little creepy) picture, but you will have to take my word for it: these beautiful women would never work at cashing and bagging groceries in North America. Hostesses in a nice restaurant or barmaids in a trendy bar would be far more likely – and far more lucrative – options. But when another tourist and I mentioned this in front of our hotel manager, she said dismissively: “I would never work in bar”. Social conservatism was the issue here, not working conditions. Serving drinks to strange men is apparently not a “proper” occupation for some more traditional Armenian women.

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The people of Turkey, Russia and Iran have long had a passion in common; invading the Caucasus. But I didn’t know the Romans also shared that particular hobby. In fact, I had to Google a map of the Roman Empire to realize that it had expanded so far to the North-East (in the 2nd century it even controlled a bit of territory that is modern day Russia). This is the Temple of Garni, the only such surviving structure in Armenia. Built in the 1st century, it honours the sun God Mirh. For my follow Celts, this false God roughly corresponds to the real God Belenos.

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The ancient Armenians may have had a funny name for the Sun God, but they sure knew how to pick a nice spot for a temple.

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Part of the village of Garni (pop. ~7,000).

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The nearby Geghard Monastery. Beautiful surroundings but hard to photograph without doing some mountain climbing. Most of the structures are medieval, but the monastery was actually founded before Christianity became the Official Religion of Armenia, in the early 4th century. According to Christian lore, the spear that wounded Jesus on the cross was kept here for a while.

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The place is very busy not only with tourists, but also with worshippers. I saw a line-up at a booth near the entrance. I lined up and paid the small entrance fee. As it turns out, entrance is free and I was now the owner of a candle!

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The chapel was very cramped are hard to photograph. Nuns were signing beautiful sacred music, under the supervision of a priest dressed like the Emperor in The Return of the Jedi.

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We stopped for a traditional lunch at a rural restaurant. For me the most “exotic” part was the smoking between dishes, but whatever. On the menu, a huge plate of kebabs, another huge plate of lamb chops, a plate of herbs, a basket of bread, some yoghourt-like sauce, some sort of juice, a carafe of vodka (nope, that’s not water in there!) and a plate of vegetables. That was the funniest part of the meal, after the vodka. The Ukrainian woman asked for “some vegetables”, so I expected a vegetable dish, but no. We got a plate with 2 tomatoes, 2 peppers, a cucumber and a knife!

During the meal, the couple negotiated a visit to NK with the driver. They got along great, so in the end they settled for a fairly low price. He took them to the breakaway territory and they all stayed at the driver’s grandmother’s place. The driver’s wife even came!

Visiting NK is a highly sensitive issue in Azerbaijan. In fact, it is considered a crime. The crime of illegally entering Azerbaijan, and if the authorities believe you have been, you are banned for life from entering Azerbaijan. I chose not to go. Mainly because the drive is very long and there is nothing specific I really wanted to see, but also because I will probably want to return to Azerbaijan at some point.

On my first morning in Georgia, I met a Polish couple staying at my hotel. The “hotel” was something very common in former communist countries; a large house (or apartment), converted into a 4 bedroom guesthouse. We were the only clients there and we discussed travel plans. After a few minutes, we realized that 10 days from now, we would be on the same Kutaisi to Warsaw WizzAir flight! Then they left for Armenia. I went the next day, checked into a similar small guesthouse and… there they were! Small world.

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Enjoying some traditional Armenian food with Aleksandra and Michal, to my right, and the guesthouse manager and Matthew, a British tourist I ended up travelling with for a few days. He talked about his job a little but I did not pay much attention. Since he has been to Iran, been to Pakistan, and is not on Facebook, there is a 64% chance he is a spy and a 47% chance he is an arms dealer (total probability exceeds 100% because he could be doing both). But that is not why I have a stupid expression on my face, it is because the picture was taken as I was chewing on something.

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Teapot.

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Smoking woman.

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And the “Cascade”, a five level giant concrete staircase with statues, fountains and gardens (not in winter), and cafes and other businesses (when not closed for renovations).

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A very impressive lion made of recycled tires.

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And this statue, which I expected to have some allegoric title, with an idealistic pacifist message. Well, not quite, the plaque read: “Chrome Plated Air to Air Missile, Poland, 1980”.

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It seems a sixth step, or some other structure, was planned but never finished. You can still keep going towards the top of the hill, but through a small adjacent street.

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On top, in Victory Park, a statue of Mother Armenia. The pedestal originally hosted a statue of Stalin, but he got replaced in the 1960’s.

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The 1930’s-built Yerevan Opera Theatre. Central Yerevan is a pleasant city to walk around, with a large pedestrian street and spectacular spots, like Republic Square.

Հանրապետության_Հրապարակ

By Sonanik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I thought it would be even more photogenic at night, and this is the kind of photo I would have taken, if I had not been out eating and drinking every evening with Matthew, Aleksandra, Michal and two American students doing an internship in Yerevan.

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At some point Alison (left) and Matthew went to get more drinks at the bar. I asked Lena how it was like to live in patriarchal and conservative Armenia as a young woman.

“[bla, bla, bla] … And being friends with local men is impossible. They automatically assume you want something else. Even if I just talk to a guy, after a while he gets creepy and I have to say something like:

Listen, we just met! I don’t want to have sex with you!”

Then I saw Matthew, who had returned at that exact moment, staring at us in shock! A little awkwardness and a lot of hilarity followed. On another note, I don’t know why the eyes are white. Photoshop has a great tool to remove red eyes, but it doesn’t work with white eyes. While googling for a solution, I discovered that white eyes in pictures can be a sign of eye diseases. There is even an app for it. But I will assume there is something wrong with my phone and we are not all afflicted with undiagnosed paediatric retinoblastoma.

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The one annoying thing about going out in Armenia – and the Caucasus in general – is that all bars are completely smoke filled. I can’t imagine that when I was a little kid this was normal everywhere, including in planes! Anecdote: Air Canada became the first airline to offer smoke-free flights between North America and Europe, in 1990.

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The next day we took a long walk to the Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concerts Complex, a product of 1980s architecture. The place has a long history of troubles and it was sold last year to a private company which intends to turn it over the next 4 years into a “family-oriented centre”.

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Close to it, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex. Or, for any Turkish or Azerbaijani readers, the “Stone Spike Placed in a Park, for no Specific Reason”.

In case you are not aware of how acrimonious this historical dispute is, know this: in Turkey, saying there was an Armenian genocide is a criminal offense, while in some countries, saying there was no genocide is the crime! This list of countries includes, not surprisingly, Greece and Cyprus, so the politics of it is quite blatant. Most countries outside the west express no opinion because, let’s face it, Armenia is just not important enough to waste diplomatic capital pissing off Turkey. Even Israel, which had good relations with Turkey until the Erdoğan government, does not officially recognize the genocide. As for myself, from a libertarian perspective, I simply don’t think making “Official Versions of History” is any Government’s business, but I digress.

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Speaking of Turkey, this is Mount Ararat, the highest mountain in Turkey, and visible on a clear day from Yerevan. I had to photoshop a bit of the haze out to make it visible, hence the strange look. According to the Book of Genesis, this is were Noah landed his Ark 5,000 years ago.

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Don’t ask. I don’t know.

After a few days in Yerevan, I took a bus to Dilijan with Matthew. It was a little disappointing. The “old city” is really just a single block and the place feels more conservative and rural. I wrote to Alison and Lena that if they decided to visit, they should be prepared for the fact that in a restaurant or a bar, they would likely be the only women in the place.

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But the breakfast spot was more than acceptable! In fact the mountain lodge was great and although we had booked 2 single rooms, since the place was empty the owner set us up in 2 small suites. He also helped us negotiate a taxi to Tbilisi, Georgia. Even with 2 passengers, this is more expensive than taking the bus, but it is faster and allows you to stop along the way.

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Like at the 13th century Haghartsin Monastery.

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And that was that. We got to the same chaotic border, but did it in the other direction. No line-up, 2 second glance at my picture then my face, STAMP! Did not take 10 seconds. And that ended my rather superficial, but very fun visit to Armenia. Hopefully NK goes back to being a “frozen conflict” as soon as possible.

#Armenia

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