July 6, 2017: Tatev and Vayk
Our bus left Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh and headed towards Goris, the largest city in Southern Armenia. The roads were very windy and after nearly 3 hours in the bus, we stopped quickly for a bathroom break before pressing on. Luckily, our next stop was nearby.
30 minutes later, we stopped in the town of Halidzor which sits at the edge of a huge canyon. 6 miles away across and down the canyon sits Tatev, one of the most renowned Armenian churches in the country. The road to Tatev is incredibly windy and not conducive to bus travel, so the forces that be constructed a tramway called the Wings Of Tatev in 2010. At nearly 6 km long, it is the longest reversible tramway in the world.
The ride took about 12 minutes and soared hundreds of feet above the huge canyon. An audio program featuring a British narrator and traditional medieval-sounding music made the journey that much more epic.
Eventually, we made it to Tatev. Next to the small, unimpressive town was the humongous monastery founded in the 9th century. More so than any other monastery (except possibly Etchmiadzin), this one was best maintained. It is clear that money is being spent to improve the tourist infrastructure here- although the restoration work is far from complete. One of the highlights was the beautifully restored olive press building.
Unfortunately, on the way back, there was a long wait for the cable car. It took us 45 minutes to all get across the canyon.
On the drive back to Yerevan, 4 of us: the three non-Armenians guys (US, Germany, Netherlands) and one lady from Armenia decided to break-off from the tour to visit the famed spa-town of Jermuk and started planning logistics. Luckily, the Armenian lady had a cell phone and was able to find a hotel and arrange taxis to take us around. With 4 people, the prices were quite reasonable.
The final stop on the guided tour was the Areni Winery about halfway back to Yerevan and an hour from Jermuk. We first enjoyed our free wine samples, which included many unusual fruit wines. My favorite was the pomegranate wine.
As everyone else boarded the bus, the four of us were met by a sketchy looking car that turned out to be our taxi. The drive took us 30 minutes to the town of Vayk (Armenian for Sorrows) in the famed Valley of Sorrows (Vayots Dzor). We went to a very basic hotel known only as Mary’s off the main drag. We checked in and the innkeeper made us a fantastic dinner.
We then arranged breakfast at the super early hour of 8 AM and a taxi at 8:45.
July 7, 2017: Jermuk
Our taxi driver was blasting Spanish hits including Despacito and Subeme La Radio as we wound up a huge hillside. 30 minutes later we reached the town of Jermuk!
Jermuk is known for three things: spas, chess, and water. Our first stop was the Jermuk Waterfall located in a gorge below the town. It was so pretty!
We then took a chairlift up to the top of the tiny Jermuk Ski Resort. At the top there was a coffee shop. The owners thought we were Russian so they played Russian pop. Once they heard us speak in English, they changed the music to Tupac. To the tune of “All Eyez On Me”, we sipped tea.
The cab decided to ditch us, so we walked into town over a beautiful bridge. Since Jermuk is famous for its spas (it was the most famous Soviet spa town back in the day), we decided to go to a sanatorium (in Russia these are health resorts). We picked the Olympia because it looked the nicest.
We went in an approached the desk. There, a lady in perfect English explained that most people come here for 18-21 days to treat illnesses using spa treatments. However they did offer a number of quick treatments. She then pulled out a list of the treatments in Russian. All the treatments were $6 USD or 3,000 Dram
Since none of us spoke Russian, we decided to play a game of Russian Roulette. We each picked one at random and would see how it turned out (they had an English menu but this was more fun).
The German guy picked an underwater massage. He asked if it was clothed and the lady said sometimes. Since he didn’t bring a bathing suit he sat in a large tub completely naked. The nurse walked in and saw him naked. She was so shocked she walked out of the room and asked me to tell him in English to put some covering on. The massage apparently was great- it was a combination of jets and a hand massage.
The Netherlands guy picked the “electrophoresis”. He was coated in a gel and then got shocked with low power machines. He said it was better than expected.
I drew the short straw and got a charcot douche, a former KGB torture technique. I stood naked against a wall, while a nurse pelted me with twin high-powered water jets from 20 feet away. They targeted my back and arms and thankfully avoided a certain area. It felt fine, but I developed bruises later in the day from this.
The Armenian lady did not take part, and after we all laughed about our strange experience and got lunch together.
Afterwards, we had two hours to walk around town. We first went to the Mineral Water Gallery- a Greek temple-like structure where people were free to sample the water which flowed into pots at various temperatures. The lady at the spa insisted I try exactly 1 cup of the 38 degree water. Anything else will make me sick. Not following her advice, I sampled a bit of all the temperatures and ended up just fine.
We then found a guy holding a falcon next to a taxidermy bear. I paid him $1 to take a ridiculous photo.
Past the town, we went through a huge park with an abandoned building that looked like a sporting complex. I explored it on my own.
It was now 3pm and time to head back. We found a taxi who took us back for $15/person. The drive took 2 hours, but he did not want to take us to the center of town, so we had to find another taxi to take us. Eventually we made it back to Central Yerevan.
Not wanting to interact with the Filipino snorers in my old hostel, I went to a different hostel called Envoy. While $12/night, this one was considerably nicer than the old one- nearly perfectly run. More importantly, there was only one person in my room and he was not Filipino (which doesn’t mean he isn’t a snorer, but since I’ve never encountered a snorer this loud, I felt confident that I would be able to sleep). I met some other people in the hostel and they said that the Filipinos were indeed in the hostel but in a different room- they were kicked out of the old one for snoring too loudly and now the people in the other rooms couldn’t sleep. Oh my! Luckily, I was able to sleep.
July 8, 2017: The Final Sights
This was my final day in Armenia and I still had a lot left to see.
My first stop was Tsisernakabert, the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Since it didn’t open until 11 am, I had to stall by walking there, which took an hour. I walked by a random boat/restaurant and the strange national arena.
Tsisernakabert is located at the top of a large hill overlooking the city. It has two parts: the Museum and the Memorial. I decided to start at the museum. Prior to this visit, I knew absolutely nothing about the Genocide. Here’s the Cliffnotes version for those who do not know- obvious the story is much more complex:
Before the start of World War I, Armenians were living all throughout the Ottoman Empire with large groups in Istanbul and in what is now the Kurdish part of Turkey (called Western Armenia by most Armenians). The Turks did not like the Armenians because they were Christian and treated them poorly. Occasionally throughout the history, groups of Armenians would be massacred or forced to convert to Islam.
In 1908, a new group called the Young Turks rose to power at the same time that the Ottoman Empire lost most of its territory. The new government blamed the Armenians for their loss and important Turkish figures declared jihad on the Christians living in Turkey. Soon after, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany in order to gain territory lost from Russia. The Armenians in Armenia supported the Allies (US, Britain, Russia).
The Ottomans, with the help of the Kurds, then proceeded to deport the Armenian populations from their lands and sent them to Syria where they were all killed. The Genocide ended at the close the War and in total, 1.5 million Armenians were killed in exceedingly gruesome and brutal ways. Additionally, many of the children of those who were murdered were converted to Islam and given to Turkish families, which according to the museum was just as bad as murder because it stripped the children of their Armenian identity and created more people who support the Turkish cause.
I was surprised how eerily similar this story was to the Holocaust and I wonder if the Germans, who observed the Genocide firsthand, drew inspiration from these horrors. The biggest difference is that unlike in Germany where Holocaust denial is a crime, the Turkish government and people refuse to recognize that the Genocide happened despite the physical evidence (pictures, manuscripts, letters, and first-hand accounts from all sides).
This anti-Armenian sentiment in Turkey is only getting stronger with the passage of time. Recently, a documentary about the Genocide came out called The Promise. Before the was even released, 55,000 Turks gave the movie a 1-star review on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.
Adjacent to the museum is the memorial. Twelve large stone slabs surround an eternal flame while somber music plays. It was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Genocide. Like most Soviet-built memorials, it is extremely powerful.
I walked the hour back into town and worked my way back to the Vernissage, the famed outdoor market. There I bought an Armenian carpet. The carpet cost more money than the rest of my trip (excluding airfare), but will be a lifelong possession.
After dropping off my rug in the hostel, I caught a taxi to Gani, a Roman temple located about 30 minutes outside of town along a rough road. While the temple was well-preserved, there wasn’t much to do at the site and after 15 minutes, I was ready to move on.
I then caught another taxi to Geghard, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed monastery/cave. Geghard was packed with tourists.
While Geghard looks like a normal Armenian church from the outside, the inside is completely different as it is built into a mountainside. Rather than one large chamber, there are many small chambers, about half of them are dug into the rock.
I walked into one of the larger rooms and realized that I had just crashed a wedding. Shamelessly, I stayed for the entire ceremony, which was presided over by a black-robed priest. I even went through the line at the end and shook hands with the couple.
I cabbed back to Yerevan, walked around during the evening and took a nap. At midnight, I left for the airport and boarded my 3:30 AM flight to Qatar. I had a 2 hour layover and, after an unbelievably thorough security check, boarded the flight to Los Angeles. At 3 PM, I was back.
I was so incredibly impressed by Armenia. While Armenia gets a lot of Armenian Diaspora tourists, they do not get many non-Armenian foreign tourists. So the infrastructure was there and enough people spoke English, but the place felt undiscovered.
The Armenian people seemed very appreciative of my visit. Many people don’t know Armenia’s story and incorrectly assume that Armenia is a dangerous place due to its location in the world. In fact, never once did I feel unsafe.
The food was fantastic and everything was very affordable. I really cannot suggest a better budget destination than Armenia.