Friday 3 April 2020

2018 Armenia

18.10.18 London Heathrow 

Unusually, I write on a plane – a shiny new Aeroflot A331.  Not like the previous Aeroflot plane – an old banger to SamarkandBut I'm on my way to another equally suggestive city: Yerevan.  I'm flying to Moscow where I change.  Still no direct flights from London to Armenia.  Appalling.

And so I realise a long-held desire to visit the land of (almost) Ararat.  In fact, I nearly went with the old Aeroflot, when Intourist offered incredibly cheap flights to get hard currencies.  As well as Uzbekistan, I went to Moscow and Leningrad as was.  On offer was Armenia and Georgia, and at the time I regretted not going.  But my two recent trips to Georgia were probably far better, since I wouldn't have seen much with Intourist…

My path to this plane has been long and contested.  Originally, I was going back to Georgia, but for various reasons that didn't happen.  Just as well: on the day I was due to be in Georgia, I developed the first and thus worst toothache of my life – quite hard to eat, and needing constant painkillers.  Would have ruined Georgia.  I eventually got the tooth fixed by a new dentist – who, by chance, was of Armenian origin.  She's good, and solved the pain, so here I am, surrounded by authentic-looking Russians – tractor-driver ladies (large), mafia-type men (sinister) and waif-like stewardesses (pretty).

Getting to Yerevan is fairly epic: four hours to Moscow, two-hour wait, then two to three hours to Yerevan, arriving at 6am.  At the airport I need to get a SIM for my phone, and then a Rideways taxi should take me to Yerevan Ibis.  This is very central, and very cheap – about £40 a night. Now waiting in Sheremetyevo.  Huge place, quite lively for midnight – quite a few flights going out.  Mine leaves at 2am.  Striking that signs are in Russian and Chinese…

19.10.18 Yerevan 

So here I am at last.  In the Ibis hotel, eating a slight expensive (5000 dram) breakfast.  But here.  Managed to sleep for almost all of the three-hour flight down here – hard, but managed.  Sadly, no vision of Ararat, even though I'd chosen my seat for this – still pitch black.  Lots of stars though.  Very long queue at passport control, but they let me through in 20 minutes.  Case arrived, and then I bought a SIM – 2800 dram for 5 Gbytes – pretty cheap…

In retrospect, using Moscow as a hub for central Asia is obvious – can't think why I didn't use it before.  Perhaps thinking back to the old Aeroflot planes… For example, they have flights to Almaty, Astana, Ulaanbaatar… lots of appealing places.  Must check prices…

Driving in from the airport, the Armenian script looked wonderfully exotic – must learn the capital letters, which stump me too often.  Lots of oriental-looking people here.  Can't tell if they are central Asian, Koreans, Chinese...haven't heard speech yet.  Sounds Japanese...makes sense, Armenia relatively close to Japan.  Big party of them here.

After I had shaved, I felt vaguely human, and went out wandering in the glorious autumn sunshine.  It was cold – 5°C – when I got off the plane, but the sun was moving the temperature up.  First problem: the SIM I bought wouldn't work with my venerable mobile phone.

Down to Republic Square.  Really impressive; spacious with towering buildings forming it.  The use of stone here is really good.  Lots of minivans offering trips to Lake Sevan et al. - but no prices.  Time to haggle… Then up Northern Avenue.  Swanky and culminating in the Armenian Opera Theatre, and Freedom Square.  Along the way I went in to the main mobile company –  It took two of them 20 minutes, but they eventually got my SIM working.

Now in the restaurant Lavash, on Tumanian Street.  Eaten fried pork and potatoes: not bad – and very cheap (about £4).  Opposite me in the Tumanian Sharwa – might try it another day.  Back to the hotel for a quick kip, then out again, down to the river valley.  And there it is, looming majestically in the afternoon haze – Mount Ararat.  Great view from the church of St. Sargis – amazing stones that look almost edible in their variations of honey hue.  Very characteristic Armenian style – shallow carving on the facade, tall narrow windows, tiny bell towers on the corners.    Afterwards I took one of Yerevan's long, straight boulevards – Mashtots Paghota – aligned with Ararat.

Passed colourful market, and was able to change euros at a good rate.  Then on for over a kilometre, past the opera house, and Khachaturian's statue, up beyond the ring road, almost to the Matenadaran, where I'll go tomorrow.  Then right, back to Abovian Paghats.  The contrast of Yerevan with Tbilisi is interesting.  Yerevan is more sophisticated, but Tbilisi is more atmospheric.  I think it goes back to the fact that Yerevan is a planned city, but Tbilisi is just layer upon layer. (Yerevan may be older, but little remains of that except Erebuni.)   People seem better-off here, strolling along Northern Avenue, just as in Italy or Spain.  Lots of top-end shops.  Yerevan seems to have more money than Tbilisi, but I think Georgia's economy is doing better than Armenia's, probably because it is not isolated by war as Armenia is.

I'm really lucky (of course, in many ways) because Yerevan is celebrating its 2800th anniversary on Sunday.  Lots of banners around.  Be interesting to see what they do.  Now out at supper.  The good news: it's so mild I'm eating outside.  The bad news: people smoke a lot, and in the restaurants.  In Terian Street, in a small restaurant that looks quite original.  Very popular, a good sign.  Sadly, food was slow in coming and unbalanced – ah well.  Tun Lahika – will give it a miss in future.  But hard to believe I only arrived early this morning.  Up to the top of the Cascades...reminds me of the weird Hoxha building in Tirana.  Still hazy…

20.10.18 Yerevan 

I sit at the feet of Mashtots, looking out at Ararat.  Nice building – the Armenians are rather good at monuments.  Fine manuscripts inside, including Middle Georgian manuscripts.  Sunny, but hazy – pity about Ararat, but good for walking.  To give my knee a rest, in to The Green Bean for Armenian coffee.  Good stuff, and cheap at 500 dram. To the Museum of Russian Art.  Amazing exhibition on Vrubel's "Demon and angel battling for Tamar's soul" – Lermontov's Georgian poem, of course.  Amazing because of the restoration carried out on the torn, stolen art work.  "Demon" read in the background – lovely atmosphere.  

Into the crazy Cafesian Gallery.  Sitting in front of the huge Battle of Vardanank by Grigor Khanjian.  Central battle scene rather effective.  Not wild about all the lifts here… Now in front of Sasuntsi Davit, by Artashes Hovsepian. Beautiful stone relief – something Armenians excel at.  Interesting exhibition of Shadi Ghadinian – Iranian female photographer.  Striking images under difficult conditions.

Back to Tumanian Street – lots of restaurants here; chose Lebanese for kebab.  To the History Museum.  Incredible wealth for such old stuff – hearthstones, huge vessels – all four to five thousand years old.  Armenia clearly a hearth of humanity.  Stunning funereal cart with four huge wheels… To the Urartu section.  Incredible to see the inscription of Erebun – 782 BCE.  Out of the museum into nearby Jazzve cafe for surch… I was exhausted after only one floor of the place – so much quality stuff to see.

Out early for dinner, as I expected things to be busy...and they are, even at this time.  To Lavash, where I barely got a table upstairs.  After the museum, to Vernissage.  Huge – much bigger than Temple Street in Hong Kong.  Lots of interesting stuff – and lots of tat, like £10 duduks, of which there are hundreds… T-shirts, jewels, carpets, chess sets, silverware, rings, scarfs, books (in Russian and in Armenian), kitchenware etc.  And not a price in sight – haggling is order of the day here. I took a break from this by going to the city's cathedral.  Which looks like a prison – big and blocky, with little that is graceful or spiritual.  Such a contrast to the Holy Trinity church in Tbilisi, also new, so it shows it can be done.  Then back to the market.  Found a stall selling music, and haggled for two books for learning the duduk from 13,000 dram to 10,000 dram, so not bad.

Then, from the market, took a taxi back to the hotel – my knee is still complaining about the Cascades…  Rather angry driver listening to Russian pop music, got me back for 1000 dram – about £1.30, so pretty cheap.  Will probably take them again.

Just had a good soup with yoghurt and buckwheat.  Took a glass of Armenian wine - £2.  Waiting for beef now.  Which turned out to be beef and beans cooked inside a pumpkin – absolutely wonderful.  Red wine not bad, not quite as punchy as Georgian wine.

21.10.18 Yerevan 

An unusual morning.  Now in Artbridge Bookstore Cafe – seems the Yerevan equivalent of Prospero's Bookshop in TbilisiI had originally planned to go to the National Gallery this morning.  But the weather today is sunny, while tomorrow will be cloudy, so I decided to go to Khov Virap in the hope of seeing Ararat.  The question then: how to get there, and how to pay.  There were to taxis outside Ibis hotel.  I spoke to the driver of one, a typical young Armenian.  We agreed after haggling on 10,000 dram – about £7.  I got in the back.  Seat belts stuck behind the seats.  This was a big problem, because he drove like a maniac.  After we established Russian as our best mode of communication, I asked him to stop, and sat in the front seat, which had a seat belt.  He didn't wear his.  Then we stopped for gas – not petrol, but LPG (I assume).  This is held in a large tank in the boot.  The man filling it up told me to stand back – "опасно".  Great.  Then we hared off to the site.

The journey interesting, if hardly attractive.  Dry, dusty, sere landscape – like Tbilisi/Turkey, only poorer.  Lots of old Soviet infrastructure, struggling to work.  Everywhere those strange pipes – the same I saw in Stepantsminda – gas supplies.  Thanks to his speeding – at about 120 km/hour – we soon reached our destination.  Still rather hazy, alas, although at least I was closer to Ararat.  Must be stunning on a clear day.  Didn't bother going to the church, which is no match to many others.  Saw a sheep with a red ribbon – not a good sign, I fear – I think it means a sacrifice.  Then back to Yerevan.  But given we were in the right part of the city, I decided to go to Erebun.  After all, today is being celebrated as the 2800th anniversary of its founding.  In fact, I saw the inscription in cuneiform yesterday.  Zipped around museum (free today), then climbed hundreds of steps (aaargh) to the top.

Very impressive – huge, well-preserved walls.  Lots of rooms visible.  Reminded me of Knossos, but even better preserved.  Roughly contemporary, too, I think. In fact the remains of the walls so high and steep I found it impossible to get down, except at the main entrance.  Lovely views of the city, too, although not exactly beautiful.  Amazing the history of this place – prehistoric and Urartan. I was there about 40 minutes, so taxi driver not very pleased.  I'd agreed 14,000 dram, but ended up giving 15,000 dram to keep him happy.  He wasn't.

To the National Gallery, which confusingly is in the same building as the National Museum.  As usual, you begin at the top, which means a ride in a very ricketty Soviet lift.  Not much special here, except Hakob Hovnatanian (1806-1881).  Born and worked in Tbilisi.  Lots of fine portraits, if a little repetitive.  A room full of Hovhannes Aivazovsky (1817-1900), including "The Darial gorge"...wonder if he went there.  Probably. Also "Noah descending from Ararat" by the same artist. Majestic painting of Ararat by Gevorg Bashinjaghian (1857-1925).  Simple, but effective.  Also of Kazbeg and Daryal gorge. Nice view of Ararat by Yegishe Tadevosian (1870-1936) viewed from Echmiadzin. "Old Tiflis" by Panos Terlemezian (1865-1941).

After the gallery I went to the Republic Square, saw the marching bands.  Sat in the garden by Italy Street, had a coffee. And then I had a problem: most of the square was closed off by the police – I assume some bigwig was coming (the mayor?).  Luckily, I saw an Armenian man arguing with the police, who finally let him through – so I and several others joined the group to cut across the blockade.  Later, I sat nearby Vernissage, reading emails.  

Heavy beats filled the air – Yerevan2018 celebrations in full swing.  I decided to eat early to avoid the crowds gathering for the celebration that night.  In Mamoor, which has good reviews, very near.  Nice pumpkin soup..slight spoiled by people smoking here, which is common… One striking thing about the National Gallery: every room had at least one attendant, but there were only four of us looking at the pix…

22.10.18 Yerevan 

Back in the Lebanese for lunch – it's slightly damp outside, and I didn't want to wander.  Since most museums are closed today – à la France – out to Geghard monastery.  First, find a taxi and haggle.  Went with an old geezer for 10,000 dram.  No seat belts in back, so I moved to the front again.  Old, gas-powered car.  Interesting bloke.  Born in Tbilisi, Russian teacher by profession (we spoke in Russian), but now driving taxis to support his daughter and grandson, who bore his name – Yura.  Life obviously hard, since was about my age.

Lovely drive to Geghard monastery – climbing, looked like Georgia (no surprise).  No traffic about, although a few coaches at the site – Russians mostly, plus a group of French.  Impressive church, gleaming and unusual – inside, a cave.  On the outside of the main church, graffiti from the 1840s – reminds me of Egypt…

Then back via Garni.  Temple fab, but rebuilt.  Interesting it exists here, of course.  But for main thing was the fantastic views of Garni valley.  I only heard about this place a few months ago, when I watched a YouTube video of this crazy Russian bloke recording his drive to Garni through Georgia – which is how I came across it.

Drive back into Yerevan a bit hair raising – driver moved across junction as cars from right stormed away – narrowly avoided impact.  But otherwise a great trip.  Gave him 10,000 dram plus 2,000 for his grandson…  Forgot to mention: Yura has travelled everywhere in ex-Soviet Union – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia.  Big advantage of a common market.

Sitting in Khachaturian's house.  Not much to see – lots of concert programmes, a few scores.  Best bit is the part he lived in – had that old person's smell.  Beautiful portrait of him conducting in London (Abbey Road Studios?). But overall impression is one of sadness…

Back in the Green Bean – has a nice vibe, and I need coffee and pud.  Everyone's smoking – no wonder: I saw packets cost just £1 for 20 cigarettes.  Then to Vernissage again.  On to see poor Griboyedov's statue.  Never heard of him six months ago, but now I feel I've known him for ages.  Poor chap.  Nearby, huge concrete monstrosity – reminded me of Albania… On the metro.  Had to see what it was like.  Small, undistinguished, not deep like Tbilisi.  Back to Republic Square, then walked down Italy Street across to supermarket.  Need to buy some Ararat cognac and good wines.  Got them, then grabbed a taxi for 1000 dram.

For dinner, thought to try Tumanyan Shaurma.  Disappointing – food not very appetising.  Hope it doesn't do anything serious to my guts.

23.10.18 Yerevan 

Sitting at the Marriott in Republic Square.  Lovely warm autumn morning.  Alas, still hazy, so the view of Ararat still tantalisingly partial. Took a taxi to the Genocide Memorial.  Very fine – that Armenian monumentality again.  The huge slabs of rock serving the architects well.  No one else there, as it should be for the best appreciation.  The flickering flame down in the well, the flowers - carnations – laid around its border.  Very simple, very effective.

It is very strange.  I have been longing to come to Armenia for 40 years – I regretted not taking the Intourist Armenia and Georgia package.  But in the end, better thus.  Then, they were poor and oppressed.  Now, both are free and happy places.  I feel at home in both.  Almost more here, because the language is easier.  I think I know why Yerevan feels so different from Tbilisi: it is a very compact, homogeneous city.  Tbilisi is spread out, with different parts that don't hang together.  That said, Tbilisi's old quarter is not matched by anything here in Yerevan.  And Georgia's scenery is more majestic.  However, Yerevan's museums are much better…

Took taxi back to Republic Square for coffee in Marriott café – what a shrewd move to buy this building – location, location, location.  Lovely sunshine.  Then walked to Museum of Modern Art.  Hard to find – hidden on a side street in nondescript building.  Quite interesting.  Overall tone: rather sad and depressing… Then to Artbridge Bookstore Café.  Empty.  To hotel for a quick kip – tonight is going to be long and tiring.  Managed to book window seats.

Where to finish?  Went to the museum dedicated to Spendiarian – not a name I'd come across before.  No one else there.  Now sitting in Republic Square, the only place to end the day.  Dark storm clouds looming to the south, a few drops of rain.

After last night's disappointing food, only one place possible: Lavash, where I reserved a table to make sure.  Will eat a fair amount to keep going during the night since Aeroflot food is not great… Eating aveluk soup and ghapama erzurum – which I had before.  So good, I want it wine (I will have two glasses tonight...)

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