A Week in Armenia

Sep
12th
2010

GORIS, ARMENIA — I’d had an excellent, relaxing week in Yerevan. After my first night in town I easily found an affordable apartment in the centre and moved in. I made sure to introduce myself to the little old ladies hanging around the courtyard, lest they take issue with how I’d chained the Hamburglar to their tree.

My next order of business was getting some food in me. One of the great pleasures of travel, I find, is always eating something different wherever I go. Subtle shifts in cuisine follow various regions and countries, and occasionally, when you cross a fault line left by clashing empires, the local food changes outright. When you cross the border from, say, Hungary to Serbia, you’re not just entering a land where the Ottomans held sway the firmest and longest: you’re also entering a vast empire of superb grilled meat and flavourful breads that stretches all the way to the Levant. Armenia, meanwhile, is a genuine crossroads between Europe and Western Asia, perched as it is just to the north of ancient Persia. I’d long dreamt of the gustatory thrills I’d discover there, delicately tinged with saffron and other exotic delights of the Orient. I hit the bricks and followed my nose. Turning left down Tigran Mets Poghota, and through a long, cacophanous bazaar, I finally found what I’d been looking for.

Truth be told, the Queen Burger does a double cheeseburger that would beat the pants off of most any combatant in the long and blood-drenched Budapest Burgerwar that ran late into the last decade. (This one in particular wouldn’t last a second against it.) I’m only guessing here, but it might have something to do with all those millions of diaspora Armenians now living in the land of the superb In-N-Out Burger. Surely they’ve been passing on the accrued wisdom of the New World to the Old Country: this burger was so simple, so perfect, and so unadulterated by local quirks (like, say, raw cucumbers, or patties made of something other than beef — yes, Hungarians, I’m looking at you), that when I slowly munched on it, my eyes closed and elbows on the table, I could’ve been at a particularly good roadside burger stand somewhere off the I-95. Thank you, Burger Queen of Armenia.

I’d achieved a sort of tourism burnout by this point in the trip, and I’ll confess to being more interested in catching up on Mad Men than, say, seeing the priceless, ancient sights of this fabled city. Nonetheless I did manage to climb the stairs of the Cascades, an ornamental staircase started in the 1970′s, for a panoramic view of the city with Mount Ararat looming behind it. It’s one of the central tragedies of modern Armenia that this mountain — one that figures so large in their mythology — is not just in another country, it’s in another country whose border they cannot cross. And so, it hangs over their city, forever just beyond their grasp.

Cascades, Yerevan

Yerevan and Mount Ararat

As usual, I fired up the Couchsurfing to try and make some local contacts, and maybe get an insider view of the place. First I met up with Manushak, a native of Yerevan with a career in banking. She does complicated things with numbers. She also gave me some whirlwind tours of the city’s nightlife, and I quickly learned that in this town, everyone knows everyone. Especially Manushak. I also learned of an actual indie-music scene in the city, one that Manushak routinely writes about.

Manushak

She had a friend named Arpiné– also on the Couchsurfing — whose career eerily mirrors my own: marketing management at a photo agency, and product management and design at an IT company. Arpiné’s also into Vespas in a big way, and has serious plans to become the first Vespa rider in Yerevan. Her friends are all trying to talk her out of it, but not me. Coming from a media background, she’s concerned with Armenia’s reputation abroad, and would prefer it if the two things people most associate with her country weren’t the 1915 genocide and Kim Kardashian.

Arpiné

Apparently when Miss Kardashian expands upon her Armenian heritage on American TV, as she does reguarly, the Armenian press makes a big stink about it. Her recent woes with bikini-area depilation, and her blaming it on her Armenianness, prompted Arpiné to protest that Armenians really aren’t that hairy.

Arpiné also had two friends named Harut and Yervand. The whole lot of them are into tech in a big way. Imagine my surprise when all three of them turned up to dinner and immediately signed in on Foursquare – I only have one friend who does that, and he’s back in New York. Anyway, Harut and Yervand are a riot, and they remind me of the two old guys from the Muppet Show, albeit much younger, more tech-savvy, and Armenian. Also, the reason why that Google Map on the right navbar of this blog is still operational is because Harut developed a tool that lets you compress a .kml file of GPS tracks without reducing too much detail. Thanks, Harut!

Harut and Yervand

Arpine, Harut, and Yervand told me over dinner about a larger problem within the nascent Armenian IT world: on the one hand, you have the young, hardworking, western-leaning innovators such as themselves, and on the other, a bunch of sleazebag, do-nothing spam artists who nonetheless manage to bag all the juicy grants from USAID and other development organizations. It points to a larger malaise within Armenia, which brings us back to the white Lada I mentioned in my previous post. The white Lada, it turns out, is the vehicle of choice for a large and very visible quasi-gangster overclass. (Well, shiny black SUVs are popular too, usually with windows tinted so dark that you can’t even see if anybody’s driving.) You see these beerbellied guys all over Yerevan, sitting in cafes in their too-tight and very douchey designer clothes — and they don’t seem to actually do anything productive. Armenia is by no means unique in having this problem, but it’s definitely more pronounced here than in any other country I’ve visited. Lucky for me, my Couchsurfing pals showed me the good side of the country’s younger set.

On my last day in Yerevan, one of Arpine’s friends, this guy named Gaspar, insisted on helping me sort out some problems I’d been having with my Vespa. He led me all over town in his car, taking me to get the battery filled, get new sparkplugs, and the like. Many thanks for that, Gaspar. Later, when I sat down to do some actual work on the bike, I discovered fuel leaking down from somewhere. Lots of it.

I texted Joern in Hamburg, and he guessed it was the carburetor. He was right. There was gas spilling everywhere, and in maybe 30km of riding the previous day I’d managed to dump about three-quarters of a tank of gas on the road. I cleaned the carb and replaced a rubber-nosed needle valve that had worn down. Davor back in Belgrade had given me one for free, saying “Here. You’ll need this.” I had no idea what it was at the time, but now I do. After I put it all back together and gave it a test-ride, the Hamburglar suddenly had balls again, and it no longer leaked. I was a happy camper.

On my last day in Yerevan, I headed towards a cafe on the main pedestrian drag to use the WiFi and catch up on some things. As I parked next to the cafe, a voice on a very loud PA system said something. I looked around, and it was coming from a police car parked across the street. The voice said the same thing again, a little more urgently, and I took that to mean I couldn’t park there. I grudgingly wheeled the bike around the corner and parked it there. And then, over the course of an entire afternoon sitting in the cafe, I came to appreciate that this was that cop’s only job: yelling at people to keep moving. It’s a living, I guess.

The next day, I upped sticks and began my trek towards Iran. I’d stop in the southern town of Gori for the night, and there was a whole lot of rugged terrain to get across in the meantime. The initial flat section came within 750 metres of the Turkish border, and offered a great view of Mount Ararat. Just before hitting the breakaway Azeri territory of Nakhchivan, I took a hard left into the mountains. The road was wide and well-maintained, and it just kept climbing. I was in third gear for the most part, going 60km/h at most, and had plenty of time to think about I’d seen in the Caucausus.

This trip I’m doing is a survey course, essentially, and I don’t have nearly enough time to really get to know any of the countries I’m visiting. But I can start to pick out patterns, and in the case of the Caucausus the similarities with the Former Yugoslavia are striking. Both regions are mountainous for the most part, and contain many small ethnicities either tenuously bound together or riven apart by nation-states, religion, and kinship. They’ve all suffered from recent wars, and many of the present geographical borders remain disputed, and behind all this you have a long history of enormous empires on the periphery colliding in their midst. Both regions also have really good food. The similarities are endless, and during my time there I had a sense of having been there before.

I’d never been to anything like what came next, though. The road simply kept climbing until it was 5 degrees centigrade in the late afternoon (it had been 28 degrees down in the valley) and I had to put on my cold-weather gear. The bike gasped for air and I had to actually gear down to second for long stretches at a time. I was still climbing, but it probably didn’t look all that manly.

At 9000 feet above sea level. Near Ughezdor, Armenia

Massive stone gates marked the apex of the pass.

I then slowly descended to a still-very-high-altitude plateau, past a brilliantly blue lake ringed by absolutely nothing…

…and then through herd after herd of cattle being led home for the day.

I then descended from this plateau down into the cloud cover. It was like normal fog, but wetter, and after a few minutes I was soaked through and shivering. The clouds blotted out the sun and I had to slow down in the darkness. Eventually I coasted down to the very deep valley that the town of Gori is nestled in, found the Khachik B&B, checked in, and took a very long, hot shower.


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