Sunday, June 3, 2018

բարեւ Երեւան

Another day, another country, another language... another alphabet.

Having had to leave my room in Tblisi at 2:30 am to check in at 4:00 am for a 6:00 am flight, I was completely out for the count as the plane was coming in to land at Yerevan airport. The plane was not full so I had been able to move across to a window seat hoping to see something, but within seconds I'd nodded off. The flight was only half an hour long and I was deep in some wonderful dream, auto-generated by these amazing things we all have, the human brain, when that unmistakable "beep" sounded, signalling that we were coming in to land. I opened my eyes looked to my right and saw the most magnificent sight - one that is often elusive even if you spend days in Yerevan - Mount Ararat. Apparently, when Czar Nicholas II came here he waited a week to see the mountain that he had been told was such a sight, but it was covered continuously in cloud. Frustrated, he left the city to head back to Russia. The story goes that as his entourage was leaving Yerevan there was a break in the cloud and everyone urged him to turn and see the sight. The Czar refused. He is alleged to have said something like...

"Too bad for Ararat. It will not have seen the Czar."

Mardy bugger!

Ararat, the Magnificent
The photo above, of course, does not do the view I had justice. The entire vista is dominated by this huge snow-capped mountain, and its sister.

Wow! That was one of the most important goals ticked off already, and I hadn't even landed.

Short hop to Armenia
Just like when you land in Tblisi, the first impression of being in Armenia is another, completely different, script. The Armenian alphabet is equally undecipherable to me, being nothing like the Latin or Cyrillic which I am familiar with. The only common letter, it seems, is "o".

(The title of the post, by the way, says "Hello Yerevan", would you believe?)

O! The Unique Armenian script
It has a fascinating history. In a nutshell, in the 4th century AD, King Vramshapuh of Armenia got one of the scholarly officials in his chancellery to create a new alphabet for Armenia. Mesrop Mashtots was his name. Thanks, Mesrop!

Anyway, once arrived, the routine then is to get some cash. Again it's very different. The Azerbaijani Manat and the Georgian Lari had both been re-calibrated recently apparently. 1,000 Lari was suddenly 1 Lari.

Armenia's currency is the Dram, but they haven't done this re-calibration yet so I collected lots of notes with lots of zeros on them.

10,000 Armenian Dram = approximately $27 Australian
Then, it was time to head off the the city to explore.

As always, there was a pack of predatory taxi drivers looking for "fresh meat" to exploit. And as always, I try to avoid them and head for the usual bus that will take you to the city center.

One young guy came up to me.

"You want, taxi?"

"No, I'm catching a bus" I replied.

"No!" he parped "No bus!"

I barked back, pointing at the bus outside...

"Yes. Bus!"

And quickly got on it only to realise that in my haste I hadn't yet downloaded the Yerevan map to MAPS.ME that can be a life saver. Of course, now outside the airport building, the WiFi was very weak but I desperately tried to reconnect. As the bus started up and began to leave, the download of the map just completed in the nick of time.

Such minor dramas happen every day doing these adventures.

Anyway, the bus ride was very pleasant and soon it was rolling down Yerevan's impressive wide, grid-like road layout.

Great Hotel
This was Sunday morning at 7 am in a pretty devoutly Christian country so I wasn't expecting much to be going on. My new English friends told me when they got here it was dead, and that was on a week day. They said their accommodation was closed and they couldn't even find anywhere to get a coffee for a few hours. But my luck was in. Not only did I find my hotel really quickly and easily, they were open and friendly. I was invited to have some breakfast while they saw if they could get a room ready. After wolfing down some scrambled egg and a coffee the receptionist came up to me and said...

"Good news. We have a room ready for you whenever you want."

Fantastic. So, I came up, had a shower and crashed out for a few hours to catch up on some sleep happy knowing I'd made it to me 58th country.

Armenia - 58th Country visited

When I woke up it was time to explore. What to do?

I came up with a ridiculously ambitious plan for a walk around Yerevan, not really appreciating how big it is.

Tour of Yerevan - in my dreams!
I headed off for the first spot on the itinerary... of course, a football stadium.

Just like Dinamo Tblisi had been an iconic club side of the Soviet Era, so too were a club called Ararat Erevan. I had to find their ground. According to the Wikipedia page they played at two grounds, one new, small and not really much to see and one which was also the national stadium with a cappacity of 50,000+. Clearly that was the one to go for.

So I set off on my usual rambling walks across a big new city. was advising me to walk a very long route to the stadium that just seemed illogical so I went with my gut feeling and walked the more direct route. After a while I saw the stadium from a distance and also saw that there was a massive gorge to cross. Flustered, I thought maybe that's why I was being advised to walk all the way around.

Sod that for a game of soldiers. I hailed down a taxi and asked him to go to the Hrazdan stadium. He proceeded by heading off in the opposite direction before doing a big loop around a block and driving past where he'd picked me up, over a bridge, 300 meters further up and dropped me off outside the stadium.

What an idiot! I could have walked the last bit in 5 minutes. I'd spent 600 Dram for nothing. (600 Dram is $1.63 remember.)

When I got there, though, it was a big shock. The stadium looked really dilapidated and under the shade of a massive concrete stands there must have been a hundred people buying and selling clothes in a makeshift (and presumably very cheap) market place. My heart sank, not only because the stadium was clearly no longer in use, but also at the sheer contrast in my objectives in going there compared to all these poor people. I took a few quick photos and, thoroughly ashamed of myself, scuttled off back to the city center.

Ararat Erevan no longer play here

You're not singing any more! - The pitch is becoming a jungle
Massive floodlights still look impressive from a distance
OK, the football bit, then...

Ararat Yerevan were formed in 1935 in the Soviet period. They never did brilliantly but won the USSR league once, finished runners up twice and won the cup a couple of times.

The occasion most English fans might remember is when they played West Ham in the Cup Winners Cup in the 1970s. West Ham won 3-1 at Upton park on that occasion.

Ararat rarely climbed any mountains in the Soviet League
What about the national team? Don't ask. As my tour guide (see later) said "We teach young Armenian boys that they kings. Imagine a team of eleven who think like that?"

Of course, it's more likely that with a relatively small population living in a hilly country there's not going to be much opportunity or desire to play football.

At least they didn't finish last in their qualifying group...

Poland and Denmark will be there, but not Armenia
And, Armenia are ranked in the top 100 teams - so above average, right?

Armenia, 2nd out of three in the transcaucasian region. 
Later, back at the hotel, I read the small print that the stadium hadn't been used since 2015 after a dispute with UEFA about ground safety. Rather than spend the money to fix the problem, astonishingly, it seems the stadium is being left to rot.

Walking back, I got to peer over the side of the bridge down into the abyss of a canyon carved out by the river Hrazdan - so that's why the stadium's called ...

The city is really well layed out, its circular design is something Armenians are rightly proud of and you see lots of reminders of it all over the place.

City of Yerevan Museum
I must admit my feet were starting to ache by now and I was hungry and thirsty, so I headed back to the city center.

Chess is big here
Eventually, thanks to the miracle of the internet and MAPS.ME I found a nice restaurant that was on the way back to the hotel. I had Nirhav - a spicy chicken dish and a pot of tea.

That's better!

I got back to the hotel to put my feet up for a bit and decide what to do next. As I lay there, I started to hear borborygmus (or "borborognies" as the Kuliukai call them).

What do you mean, what are they? You know. Those rumbling, squelching sounds your intestines make when they're digesting the last meal you had. It would seem the local bacterial fauna as present in my last meal didn't quite agree with mine.

I now obviously needed a plan B - something less ambitious - and I remembered the East Anglian chaps had recommended going on a "free" (sure) walking tour of Yerevan with a local guide. So I made contact and booked myself on a tour starting at 5pm.

I Skyped Leb not feeling too good by then, I have to admit, and then at about 4:30 set off to find Vako and the walking tour group.

On my way to the walk, with clenched buttocks

Iconic Yerevan scene - note the pink stone

Meeting Place - filled with Cyclists

... because, by coincidence it was apparently World Cycle Day

Vako telling us all about Armenian architecture

He knows his stuff all right, but slightly too much architectural detail for me
There was no doubting the patriotism of the tour guide. Armenians were the first to discover wine, not Georgia, they'd invented the wheel, they'd invented lots of things. You wouldn't believe how important the Armenians were - just like you hear about Lithuanians when a patriot is talking about them, and every nation is, presumably. And like every nation, they did all this, despite the fact they'd been surrounded by people who were always out to get them. At least there was some evidence: Ancient grave stones, marking long held occupation of lands in Eastern Turkey and current day Azerbaijan had been systematically destroyed leaving no trace of them.

A Kachkar - beautiful tombstone
We shouldn't be too cynical though. You have to feel sympathy for smaller nationalities like the Armenia. Most of their history has been under one occupation or another. Persians, Turks, Russians.

Under Soviet occupation, some mosques and churches were replaced by hotels and cinemas. Mmm... that's not such a bad idea, is it? 
Why can't the big nations just leave the small ones to live in peace? Why does a country the size of Russia, or even Turkey, need even more territory? I've always thought that there should be a role for the UN here. To be a member you have to sign up to an agreement that if any population under your control wants independence, and meets certain criteria, you have to let them go.

"Sure. That's going to happen" I hear you say. "Who are the permanent members of the UN security council?"

Oh well, you can dream.

The oldest still standing church in Yerevan
Armenians are also very proud of their unique, independent "Apostolic" church. Not Orthodox, not Catholic. Armenians do not take orders from Constantinople, or Rome. Good for them, I say, even if the whole religious obsession with Mount Ararat and Noah and all the people in the world coming from here, etc etc, is a bit silly.

Anyway, the tour ended in the perfect place at the perfect time. The Cascade complex is this amazing, huge set of massive steps that lead away from the city up into the hills to the north. From the top, if it's clear, you get breathtaking views over the city with, of course, mount Ararat as the most magnificent backdrop.

Lucky I took the tour, as I'd definitely not have known about the very handy escalators that take you to the top (if you get there before 5pm.) It might have killed me to try to climb up that!

As you ascend the escalators there are endless works of art on display to impress you as you go. In fact the whole complex is really a museum.

Looking up at the Cascade from the bottom. Fancy a climb?

No thanks! I'll take the escalator!

Leb would have loved these

The view from the top

Can you make out Mount Ararat in the distance?

The residence of Charles Aznavour - what a view he must have

Ararat - so close, but in a different country with borders closed

And so ended the tour. Thanks, Viko. It was great. Nice too to have the opportunity to meet some lovely fellow travellers.

Our group - Danes, Swiss, Russians, Persians, South Africans, Germans and a Lith-Romanian culturally English bitser that lives in Aus
Some of us went to bar after that for a couple of beers and a nice meal. It was really nice chatting to people from all over the world. I was particularly taken by an attractive young Russian couple (whose names I forget) - the two in the middle of the photo above. I can't imagine having an in depth conversation about world politics in any other language but these guys were doing so, effortlessly. I must say, it was refreshing to hear first hand accounts about what life was like in Putin's Russia. They were very pragmatic and, largely, supportive of him.

I trundled off later for some much needed kip. I did feel I missed out on a good night as Yerevan was literally buzzing with thousands on the streets and in the bars and cafes. Contrast this with boring old Perth which, on a Sunday, has the feel of a city where a neutron bomb has just hit.

Swan Lake
Night night Armenia!

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