Dropping out of the sky from Turkey into Armenia is quite a shock. They are neighbours but whereas Turkey has all the indications of a prospering, progressing nation, Armenia looks like a basket case. After the most rudimentary enquiry, one feels sad for Armenia. It used to be 10 times larger and the central influence of the region for thousands of years. Today, most of ancient Armenia is in Turkey. That doesn’t sit well with our new hosts and they are quick to tell that they have been treated badly. It’s difficult to disagree. Added to their problems with Turkey was the withdrawal of Russia in 1991. The Russians took all the money and anything else of value. Anything that couldn’t be moved was sold at token value to a ‘friend’ who is now an Oligarch. Everywhere shows sign of derelict industrial buildings and decaying commercial infrastructure. This would have been manageable if the country hadn’t been taken over by a bunch of crooks. One could argue, and I would agree with you, that this is not unusual. There are far more countries in the world ruled by tyrannical megalomaniacs or power crazed opportunists than by democratically elected benevolent representatives who genuinely want to see the best for the majority. In fact, you may struggle to think of any of the latter.
96% of the money in Armenia is in the capital Yerevan - or Swiss Banks. Most of that is in the hands of the politicians and their very close friends’ best described as the Mafia. All over town are magnificent buildings, memorials and up-market residents. (These do nothing for the average resident … but remember the rule … ‘Bling – the aphrodisiac of the poor’.) Artistic architectural flair is remarkable here. Some of the buildings and complexes are amazing. Many of the Mafia owned Casino’s and Night Clubs are spectacularly extravagant. However, drive back one street and it’s pretty obvious that the vast majority are struggling. The suburbs and rural communities are visibly unfortunate. Apart from the main thoroughfares used by the elite, the roads and other visible infrastructure is appalling. There are few countries we have visited that have poorer roads and we’ve experienced some doozies. The little effort being made to improve them is in fact making them worse. It seems that the Ministry of Roading Works is in 2 divisions. The division (a) that finds potholes and makes them neatly bigger and deeper ready for repair … and the division (b) that has the tar sealing job to fill the new big deep holes. Unfortunately there is no co-ordination between the two. The A team is totally labour and working hard. The B team is materials but without the budget to purchase – so do nothing. (Correction – they put all the tar seal on their leaders driveways.) The benefactors are the car repairers who are possibly the worlds best suspension repairers. The losers are the vehicle owners … the common people who pay high income taxes, road tax and large fines for little benefit.
The people we met are so convinced that they have no opportunity to change things that I fear it will take a long time to improve. An example was our driver / guide - possibly the nicest man in Armenia. Flypaper immediately pointed out to me that he may be Rowan Atkinson’s twin brother. He had a wonderful sense of humour and also the uncanny ‘Mr Bean’ ability to transform his face by applying different expressions. His smile was the finest reward I have ever experienced for my poor jokes. Unfortunately he proudly told us quite early that he had acquired his driving license on the 3rd attempt in Ireland. He only bothered because the Irish were aware that in Armenia you simply send the money and the licensing authority send back a document giving you the ability to both buy and drive a car. No practice or skills required. The fact he had a ‘real’ license gave him a unique status … together with a fear that the total police force were out to get him. The open road speed limit in Armenia is an unknown value. Sometimes its 60kph and sometime 70 or 80 - never more and seldom remaining static for long. The official slogan of the Armenian police force is “Keep ‘em guessing and help yourself”. As a result, our pseudo Irish chauffer never exceeded 60kph – I nicknamed him Mr Slow. Bad as the roads were, we seldom slowed further for anything. His Honda brake pads will last forever. Passing an aging smoking Lada or struggling 1950’s style Russian gas powered side valve truck (which were the only prey we could hope to capture) was painful and I often wondered if it would ever be achieved. There were times I wanted to beat him with a stick. He asked me why the automatic gearbox never changed to a lower gear. It was tragic to tell him that it was because he had never put his foot down far enough to engage the sensor that tells the transmission to go.
On the final 2 days Mr Slow bought his sister to assist with the guiding duties and she was lovely. She had also lived for a time in Ireland and had graduated University as a Psychologist and Lawyer. (She’s looking for a job if you can see potential for this nice mix of qualifications.) She and Flypaper sat in the back of the Honda and yapped away while Mr Slow focused on maintaining his clean driving reputation and I was able to ruminate on the notion that these 2 people deserve a lot better in life. Having said that, they were delightfully happy company and 100% responsible for our enjoying their almost totally unknown country.
We stayed 3 nights In a Soviet era 3 star hotel that has been purchased by local boy who made good in Russia and who is renovating the building to 5 star status. Unfortunately, to attain 5 stars it must first go down to 2 stars – which we can confirm it has achieved. Our 11th floor room had a magnificent view of Mount Ararat but no water in the bathroom for 30% of our occupation. When the water was running, it was hot only for 50% of the time. The air conditioning worked. We could tell it worked because after I used my own batteries in the remote it rattled like a tin can full of nails. The WiFi commendably worked on 7 of the 11 levels – but internet connection was only achieved in the lobby under the stern eye of the matron. (Such people are the only ones who instill fear in me.) The lift was the most vicious contraption we have ever stepped into. With room for 2 people and 2 bags, when one pushed the ‘switch’ (not a button) the doors instantly slammed shut like a bear trap. It then wobbled noisily up or down (no guarantee which way) until on arrival, the solenoid switch popped out with the sound of a pistol shot. The first time it happened I had to send Flypaper back to clean up the mess. Notwithstanding these small matters which, in the sanctuary of your lounge may be considered discomforts, we actually travel to experience them. Life in most of the world is less comfortable or even predictable, compared to that at home.
Our final night in Armenia was with a very hospitable family in a small town part way to our next country. These nights are the best. For example, our hosts had fitted a modern shower base and curtain but relied on the water to run down the plughole (as normal), out under the edge of the base, across the floor and down the central room drain hole. In addition, the shower rose expelled water in a global direction which included all over most of the bathroom. This was fine in terms of aiding our cleansing process, but a little concerning as the room also contained all of the electoral equipment for our and neighboring rooms. (We knew this because our stuff only worked when theirs didn’t.) On consideration, it was probably the flashest bathroom our hosts had ever experienced and their pride and joy was likely to have been the best in town. I’m pleased to have been their guest (and survived). The breakfast, in an overgrown garden shelter nattering with Mr Slow and Co, was also memorable. We never saw a snake but I suspect they were present and the local country food was fresh and delicious. (The honey in the Caucuses is superb!!!) I mention these things because I would like you to also visit Armenia - with the understanding that they wish to be wonderful hosts and, so long as we understand, they are.
Yerevan is filled with statues, memorials and artwork. (Many are amazing) On the main 2 lane highway into Yerevan from the North – one of the few that encourages a little more pace - is one of the hundreds of speed cameras placed to add further revenues to the ruling elite so that they can feather their nests even more comfortably. Adjacent to the camera someone has erected a tall column on top of which is a hand offering a 2 finger salute. I cannot work out if it was the motorists or the politicians’ that sponsored this.
Mr Slows sedate pace resulted in long days on the road required to see the many ancient churches, monasteries, forts and mounds of stones that filled our itinerary. Armenia was the first Christian nation in the world and every resulting church has been proudly preserved for tourists. The history is a little humbling when considered against New Zealand whose 1st inhabitants arrived around 1300AD. Armenians had been piling up stones for many thousands of years before then.
Their best pile of stones is a stupendous edifice in the centre of Yerevan known as the Cascade. It’s a huge staircase work of art covering 20 hectares. There are 5 levels connected by stairs or escalator and hundreds of artworks intermixed with a concert hall and museum all overlooking the city. There is even a giant Kiwi in the garden – but I hesitate to describe its orientation and cannot understand the reason for its existence. I am however sure that, as with everything else in Armenia, there is some symbolism involved.
Armenia and Georgia both argue as to which country grew the first grapes and who had the idea of turning them into wine and brandy. I suspect that, in those times, as the whole region was Armenia, we should give them this goal. The wines we allowed ourselves to drink in the name of cultural research were very different to those of Europe or the ‘New World’ but mostly very nice. Sometimes I even had a 4th glass. The bevy that did impress however was the Armenian Brandy. Our budget extended to their 7 year aged vintage and I do consider they should offer it in much bigger bottles. Prices are around ½ those for comparable wines and brandy’s in NZ. If you want a real budget fermentation then buy from the hundreds of roadside stalls offering homemade brews in recycled Coca Cola bottles. Mr Slow said some were nearly as good as his own annual vintage but we declined to test them on the basis that blindness is a real disadvantage for a traveling tourist.
One evening Flypaper dragged me out for a bit of fine dining and promenading around the central ‘Republic’ square (which turned out to be a circle). It was a wonderful evening. We fortunately left the restaurant just as the sound & light water fountain show was starting. This is spectacular, very entertaining and worth a visit to Yerevan. It was evidently a gift from France who was making overtures to the ‘guvmint’ when Russia slipped away with the disposable treasures. The coloured waters moving to the music was mesmerizing and continues for 2 hours. Equally mesmerizing were the young people in the streets. First – some background.
Given the state of the Armenian economy (don’t believe the ‘official’ story), many young men have left the country and work abroad. As unemployment could be as high as 40%, (official rate 10% but an independent household survey uncovered the truth) the funds they send home really keep their families and the economy alive. The outcome is similar to most of the other ‘ex-soviet’ state demographics … there are far more young ladies of prime breeding age than young men who usually offer their services at this time. The further result is a sense of desperation among the girls to secure those services. Now, my training was in Sales & Marketing and I have even spent time teaching these subjects to others. I can assure you that there is nothing I could offer by way of advice to the young ladies in Yerevan. They clearly identified their target market and promoted their product in a very businesslike manner. Their advertising was clear and communicative … although generally with a common theme. Those that had secured a lad were clinging on to him very tightly while the others made every effort to provide him with 2nd thoughts. Those single lads who wandered around in groups (as they do) were acting very blasé. I think they instinctively knew their reproductive futures were secure (if only they could slip away from their mates). It did however strike me that all of the young ladies on show were exceptionally attractive and those who were not so fortunate were in small number. It wasn’t until the next day at an historic church that I realized these less eye-catching young ladies were employing a different tactic. They went to church to pray for a nice boy. (I did feel a little sorry for them as there are not many of us nice guys around anymore.) The upside of this is the future popularity of the church is secure.