July 1-3, 2017: Off to Armenia
Armenia was admittedly not high on my list of places to visit. I had a week vacation from work and was looking for a small country that can be “seen” in a week. My top two ideas were Kyrgyzstan and Cameroon. However, I saw that Qatar Airways started flying to Yerevan and had a promotional fare. At $1,100 roundtrip, the fare was a bit more than $300 cheaper than to any of the other countries. I also have Armenian coworkers and thought it would be cool to see where they come from.
After weeks of research, I boarded my Qatar Airways flight from LA to Doha. According to the airline staff, 50% of the plane was headed to either Yerevan or Tehran. Despite my middle seat, the airline was great and I would take that 16-hour flight over a 4-hour Spirit/Frontier flight any day.
Once in Doha, I had a 3.5 hour layover which wasn’t quite enough time to explore the city. After checking out the hideous giant teddy bear sculpture, I went over to the Al Maha Transit Lounge and had a free dinner courtesy of my PriorityPass card. I then wandered around all the gates seeing where flights were going to. It was mostly Middle-East and North African destinations, but Qatar truly flies all over the world.
At an obscure gate on the lower level, I found the flight to Yerevan. I clearly stood out as the tallest and palest person there. On the 3-hour flight over, I met a South African-Armenian girl named Nancy who explained that Armenians live all over the world. While only 4 million live in Armenia, 14 million live abroad in what is called the Diaspora.
At 1 AM, I landed at Yerevan’s Zvarnots International Airport. There, I got picked up by a driver who took me to my hostel, the Yerevan Hostel right in the center of the city. After checking in, I went to sleep around 2:30 AM.
July 3, 2017: Yerevan
Unfortunately, the Guinness Book of Records World’s Loudest Snorer (unverified)- a Filipino man in his mid 30’s- happened to be my bunkmate, so I didn’t sleep much at all- waking up at 6am with no shot at falling back asleep.
I decided to go for a long walk and hopefully get breakfast. Unfortunately, Armenia is a very late-moving country. The only people I saw were filming a movie. Nothing, not even coffee shops, opened until 9 AM at the earliest and most didn’t open until 10.
I walked around for about two hours and when I returned I decided to take a shower. As I was walking into the bathroom, another Filipino guest of the hostel offered me his shampoo. Then he asked if he could get in the shower with me. “ABSOLUTLEY NOT” I yelled at him as I tried to convince myself that at least some normal people visit Armenia.
At 9 AM, the hostel offered free breakfast and everyone who showed up was Filipino. I finally asked what they were all doing here. It turns out they are all trying to get jobs in Lebanon, but could not get work visas in the Philippines since Lebanon doesn’t have an embassy in Manila. Lebanon has good relations with Armenia due to the large Christian populations in both nations, so they were spending the next 3 months hanging out while they wait for their visas to process. By the way, the breakfast was terrible: a special type bread I remember from my time in Kazakhstan 5 years ago, a chocolate wafer, some weirdly processed Russian ham, and a bowl of butter. That said it’s hard to complain when the breakfast is free and the hostel is $8/night.
Since I had no plans, I tried to plan out my week. The hostel offered free day tours to different parts of the country every day. Today was Garni, Geghard, and Lake Sevan for 7,000 dram or $14. One of the tours I was very interested in was a 3-day tour to a remote region called Nagorno-Karabakh. Unfortunately, the hostel only ran tours here from Friday-Sunday meaning I couldn’t do it. Another option would be to hire a driver, but that was super expensive: $400 US for just the driver not including the visa fee, meals, and lodging. It was shaping up to be a very expensive option. I decided to look around and find other options. I nearby to another hostel, but they also only offered the tour on weekends. I had begun to consign myself to paying the $400.
As I walked back to my hostel, I saw a billboard…in English advertising 3-day tour to Nagorno-Karabakh for the exact days I wanted to go. Unbelievable!
I snapped a picture of the ad and checked the address of the tour company- it was about 2 blocks away from my hostel. I ran over to the tour agency, booked the tour and paid the $125 US. Just like that I was set!
I now had my bearings around the center of Yerevan and worked my way over to the Tumanyan Statue at the bottom of the Cascades project. There I met my former coworker Greg. Not only did Greg used to live in Armenia, but he also was the project manager on the Cascades- one of the most popular spots in Yerevan.
Greg told me the history of Yerevan. The city was founded in 782 BC making it 50 years older than Rome and one of the world’s oldest continuously occupied cities. It was originally called Erebuni and was the capital of an ancient Armenian kingdom. It then declined in prominence until the early part of the 20th Century when the Soviets completely rebuilt the city and its population tenfold to over 1 million people. Today, it is by far the most prosperous city in Armenia.
We walked over to the Cascades. During the Soviet Union, the government tried to build a gigantic staircase up a mountain in central Yerevan. Unfortunately, they never finished the project- it was about 70% finished. After independence, the forces that be transformed the Cascades into an art museum. At the base of the staircase, they got amazing sculptures from all over the world. Then they built escalators underneath the staircase. At each level, there was a cool art installation. One level had a Chihuly glass sculpture. Another level had an incredible mural depicting important events in Armenian history.
Eventually we reached the top of the project where the staircase abruptly ended. We turned around and saw Ararat, the giant mountain of Biblical fame. At 16,854 feet tall, it towers over the landscape- sort of like how Mount Rainier dominates the Seattle skyline. Ararat also has incredible significance in Armenian culture despite being in Turkey. Most Armenians consider the mountain to be part of Western Armenia, which until the Genocide was largely populated by Armenians.
We walked around town a bit more and got lunch. For some reason, the tomatoes here are incredible. Greg then invited me to his parents’ house tomorrow for a special dinner. I agreed to go before we parted ways.
I then went to the Armenian History Museum in Republic Square. After spending two hours in there, I am convinced that Armenia has perhaps the most complicated history of any country in the world.
It is, unfortunately, located in between three historic world powers: Persia, Russia, and Turkey (Ottomans). At some point in history for the better part of the last 5,000 years, one of those three powers would become strong and would conquer Armenia. Rome and Alexander the Great also had streaks in Armenia.
However, there were two notable exceptions when Armenians ruled their own land. The first was the kingdom of Uratu which lasted from 800-600 BC. Yerevan was founded during this period. The second exception was the Kingdom of Armenia which was ruled by Tigran the Great. The kingdom stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian all the way down to Jerusalem. Even to this day, Tigran the Great is considered a hero and you can easily buy a t-shirt bearing his likeness all over Yerevan.
After a long day of sightseeing, I wanted to take a nap before going out for the evening. Unfortunately, the Filipino snoring champion also decided to take a nap at the same time and I couldn’t nap even for a minute because he was so loud.
At 9 PM, I walked back over to Republic Square to watch the famed water show that happens every night. The fountains in the pond at the center of the square danced to the music- mostly classical Russian songs. At 10 PM, I sat down for dinner at Pandok Yerevan a popular spot for traditional Armenian food. For $15, I got a huge soup, entrée, and 2 drinks. It was delicious! Afterwards, I headed back to the hostel and went to bed. The Filipino was temporarily out of the room so I was able to fall asleep.
July 4, 2017: Etchmiadzin and a Special Dinner
My luck ran out at 3AM when I woke up from the Filipino’s snores. For 3 hours I tried to go back to sleep but had no luck.
At 6 AM, I decided to go for a long walk up to the Mother Armenia statue about 2 miles and a hill away. I accidentally ended up walking along a highway which was a big mistake since there were no sidewalks and I had to hop a fence to get off.
Eventually I made it to the 160 ft tall monument. Originally it had a giant statue of Stalin, but it was taken down in 1974 and replaced with a female figure holding a sword representing peace through strength.
After walking back down, I took a taxi out to Etchmiadzin (Etch me yacht sin), the “Vatican of the Armenian Church”- 45 minutes west of Yerevan. Since I got a good price from the guy, I decided to negotiate with him to take me on a six-hour trip to a few of the sights in the region for about $30. His name was Samvel and he was very proud to drive a Mercedes-Benz. It didn’t have air-conditioning and it was 105 degrees outside, but he was incredibly proud to own what he considered to be the best car in the world. I stroked his ego by telling him that Mercedes are the single most prestigious car to own in America. He beamed. As we passed by a sign with the word Etchmiadzin, Samvel made the sign of the cross over his chest and kissed a Jesus figurine on his dashboard.
Two hours later, we arrived in Sardarapat. This was the site of a major battle against the Turks during the Genocide in World War 1. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Armenians repelled the Turks and forced them out of present day Armenia. It is thought that had the Turks won this battle, they would have destroyed all of Armenia and massacred all the Christians.
Luckily Armenia won the battle and there still is an Armenia. Sardarapat, obviously, holds a significant place in the hearts of all Armenians. Today, there is a gigantic Soviet memorial to the battle. It is nearly a mile-long. At the far end of the memorial is a museum. However, since it was a Monday, the museum was closed and I had the run of the complex. Luckily, Samvel was there to take a picture of me in front of the winged bulls.
We then drove back to Etchmiadzin where I toured the UNESCO-listed cathedral complex that serves as the headquarters of the Armenian Church. Like the Vatican, it is a huge complex consisting of multiple churches, school and residences. In the year 301, St Gregory the Illuminator convinced the king of Armenia to convert to Christianity, making Armenia the world’s first Christian country. Later that year, he started building Etchmiadzin, which was completed in the year 303. It is one of the world’s oldest churches.
I walked into the cathedral and marveled at the incredible ceiling. I then walked over to the center of the church near the altar and, following the lead of everyone else there, kissed the relics marking the spot where Christ reportedly descended from Heaven and struck the ground with a golden hammer (can’t hurt my luck).
I then strolled around the rest of the compound.
Samvel then took me to the St. Hripsime Church located just outside of town. This one featured a 3rd century burial site of St Hripsime, one of the first Christian martyrs in Armenia.
We then drove back to Yerevan where I said goodbye to Samvel.
I stopped at the Nagorno-Karabakh embassy where I applied for my visa. The process took about an hour and cost $6. Then, I went back to the hostel, freshened up and took a taxi out to Greg’s parents house about 30 minutes outside of Yerevan.
Greg took me straight to the backyard which was covered in cherry trees and a large table full of food. I met Greg’s parents, friends, fiance and her family. Everyone was so welcoming.
Eventually we sat down for dinner and did tons of toasts in Armenian. After each toast, we would take a sip of brandy. At first I took an entire shot but the realized I had made a terrible mistake when we got to the 4th or 5th toast. There ended up being like 20 toasts.
We then were served Armenian barbeque. Then we went into the house for desserts. The entire meal lasted about 4 hours and was wonderful! I am so lucky to have been invited to this special occasion.
I then got a ride home from one of the other guests and went to bed in preparation of the big bus trip!