Friday, 22 May 2015

Among Armenians: Day 2–Echmiadzin and Yerevan

world-map yerevan

Greetings!

I’ve been busy this week formatting some of the many videos that I’ve been taking over the last year or so and the result is that the V-logs will probably begin again in earnest, particularly those from my DPRK trip which are amongst the most surreal I’ve ever taken. In the meantime, here’s the videos from my recent trip to Paris. I won’t be posting them as separate V-logs since they don’t fit the usual UTM format and are just pictures basically, but you may find them of interest.

Matt and Tom go to Paris by Eurostar

Matt and Tom explore Paris

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Prologue

Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!

ArmeniaMap02

yerevan-map

Day 2 – Echmiadzin and Yerevan

There were several places that I knew I had to see whilst in Armenia and the first of them was only ten miles or so away. Perhaps the Armenian nation's greatest claim to fame is that they were the first in entire world to accept Christianity when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates III and his nation to the new faith in 301. As an idea of just how early that was, two years afterwards in Rome, the Emperor Diocletian was unleashing his most terrible persecution of the Christians and Emperor Constantine did not receive his vision of a cross bearing the inscription “By this sign you will conquer” until 312.[1] The second-oldest Christian nation incidentally, is neighbouring Georgia, that land being converted by St. Nino in 337.

Due to this early start, Armenia has always had a strong faith and an impact upon the Christian world far in excess of its numbers. Most notable is the naming of one of the four quarters of the Holy City for the Armenians. In 2009 during my pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I explored the Armenian Quarter somewhat and attended Mass at St. James' Cathedral, an otherworldly place, dark with incense, the rituals performed in costumes befitting some occult sect in a Gothic horror film. It was fascinating stuff and made me long to visit Armenia all the more.[2]

But the Armenian Church, whilst old, is also quite unique and isolated in Christendom. Unlike its slightly younger neighbour to the north, it is not an Orthodox church, but instead referred to as non-Chalcedonian or Monophysite. The Monophysite churches were those who maintained against the definition arrived at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that in Christ there was but one nature, that is to say that most churches speak of Christ as having both human and divine natures, whereas the Monophysites maintain only the divine. This might seem to be an issue not really worth getting hot and bothered about, but bother about it they did and greatly so, the debates raging across the entire Christian world for about a century and when a decision was finally arrived at in the Council of Chalcedon, a number of churches left the fold, the first major schism in the faith, the main ones being the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syriac and Armenian churches.[3] The distinction and debate was not new to me after having visited several Coptic and Ethiopian chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and an amazing 3rd century Syriac church in Diyarbakır in Turkey where the priest kindly read out a passage from the Gospels in Aramaic, the same tongue that Christ Himself had originally preached them in.[4] Nonetheless, I have always struggled to get my head around the debate; I mean, so what if He is only divine and not human? The best argument that I have heard against it is that if Christ is divine only, then how could He have suffered and died on the Cross and, if there was no suffering and no death, then what was the point of it all? That sounds pretty convincing to me though I should love to hear a Monophysite rebuttal.

But why, you may be thinking, have I launched into this lengthy, (and possibly somewhat dull), examination of the finer points of theology concerning the Armenian Church? Well, it is simple, for that next morning Paul and I hopped on a bus and headed for Echmiadzin.

The legends state that St. Gregory the Illuminator had a vision in which the heavens opened and light shone down to earth. Then, following a procession of angels, (who are always apt to appear in such visions), Christ Himself descended to earth and with a golden hammer, struck the ground three times whereupon a column rose up with a base of gold, a capital of cloud and a cross of light. Similar visions appeared on the sites where three Christian virgins had been martyred, and that then these four columns transformed themselves into cruciform churches with cupolas. After the vision faded, Gregory built four churches on the sites shown to him by Christ and the first he named Echmiadzin (literally “The Descent of the Only Begotten”), Armenia's Vatican, both the spiritual and administrative heart of its church.

Not that it looked all that inspired as we drove in. the countryside between it and the capital was being consumed by messy urban sprawl and although the 7th century Church of St. Hripsime, (one of the other sites indicated by Christ to St. Gregory), was impressive, the town of Echmiadzin itself looked like a rather dull provincial Soviet town.

Once in the Holy See complex though, we knew that we were somewhere special. We first stepped into the brand-new (2013) Church of the Holy Archangels which immediately made me reassess my preconceived ideas about the Armenian Apostolic Church. Being the oldest national church in the world, I'd expected its temples to be like those of the Orthodox: dark and dusty, ornate and icon-filled. Yet this striking modern structure of grey stone, (which I was not sure if I liked or hated), was stark and minimalistic and, dare I say it, almost Protestant in its feel. Absent were the statues of Roman Catholicism and icons of Orthodoxy and like with Protestant churches and chapels, the space was not filled with much else.

The main cathedral however, the church built upon the site that Christ had shown to St. Gregory in his vision, conformed more to my expectation, or at least, it did externally, although since the structure dates largely from the 5th century, then that is perhaps unsurprising. Inside though, and the Protestant minimalism was again evident with the main altar, rather than being ostentatious like in a Roman Catholic church or shielded by an ornate iconstasis such as in an Orthodox church, was instead simply curtained off by a large velvet curtain which, although beautifully embroidered, was still simple in comparison to the Catholic and Orthodox alternatives. By the end of the trip I had discovered that this was de rigeur although the normal decoration for the altar curtains was simply an embroidered cross. The reason for this I never discovered but in Archbishop Ormanian's 'The Church of Armenia' I learnt that “What particularly arrests the notice of the stranger who visits these churches is their aspect of austere simplicity, which is in direct contrast with the profusion of ironwork and gilding to be found in Greek Orthodox churches. In these Armenian churches pictures are unusual, except over the altars, although they are never quite absent.”[5] And in this I must agree with the Archbishop for in all the churches that we visited, there were no icons and the few imagines of saints and Christ that were on show were, generally, of a poor quality.

14346716312_367a49dff8_zThe altar in the cathedral

What was not lacking in quality, beauty and ostentation were the contents of the Cathedral Museum behind the altar. There, in amongst the usual collection of bishop's hats and crooks, were some quite remarkable relics and artefacts, pride of which were two fragments of the True Cross, the spear that pierced Christ's side, (brought to Armenia by the Apostle Thaddeus who is buried in Nagorno-Karabagh), and a piece of wood from Noah's Ark which, legends state, came to rest on Mt. Ararat after the Deluge. And before one gets too sceptical about these wonders, (several spears exist, after all), the wood from the Ark has been carbon-dated to 6,000 years old whilst the spear is a genuine 1st century Roman spear. And besides, the girl who explained it all to us was so hauntingly beautiful that it is not inconceivable that she could actually have been an angel and thus it would have been mightily rude to doubt the claims that she made.

14325170596_526960992c_zThe spear that pierced Christ’s side

Claims that were on rockier ground however, were those concerning the legendary beginnings of the cathedral, for underneath the main altar is a pre-Christian Pagan altar which was, unfortunately for us, shut. However, its existence does mean that, rather than being shown the spot by the Son fo God, it is far more likely that St. Gregory merely built his new church on a pre-existing holy site, thus starting a tradition that was copied throughout the entire Christian world. More evidence in favour of this more mundane explanation comes with the building itself which is cruciform in shape and topped by a cupola as per Gregory's vision. However archaeological excavations have revealed that the original 4th century church which the saint erected was rectangular in shape, not cruciform at all and possessed no cupola.[6]

14161790357_98ba688fb9_zOutside the cathedral

Outside the cathedral we had a look at the new (2010) baptismal chapel where a ceremony was taking place. It wasn't a baptism but involved a priest blessing two young men. I wondered if they might be heading off for national service or perhaps emigrating but mischievously thought that it looked more like a gay wedding than anything else. How very heretical!

The final point of interest in the Holy See complex (aside from the shop) was a collection of some of the finest khachkars from across the land. Khachkars are carved memorial stones for which Armenia is justly renowned. The name means “cross stones” and they generally depict a cross surrounded by ornate decorative carving which can be figures, crosses, foliage or geometric patterns. They are incredibly beautiful but what struck both Paul and I was their similarity to ancient Celtic crosses both in design and purpose. Many historians have hypothesised about links between Celtic Britain and Ireland and the Byzantine East in the early Christian centuries and these similarities may be a product of that.[7]

14344968471_576e9eafdf_zKhachkar at Echmiadzin

Just outside the Holy See we spied a museum of art and sculpture which we decided to check out. Everything inside was by a single artist whose name I annoyingly failed to record. He was an ex-pat and a survivor of the 1915 genocide, something which came across in the contorted horror of many of his sculptures. Whilst much of what was on display didn't do a lot for me, some of his drawings were very good and I liked greatly his 'Christ's Descent from the Cross'.

We went into the centre of the little town which was, a few murals aside, rather nondescript and had little to keep us there. The Mother of God Church, humble beside its illustrious neighbours, was pleasant though and it serves as the parish place of worship. Dating largely from the 18th and 19th centuries though with a 1982 bell tower, it was, like Echmiadzin's original church, rectangular and simple. It had a nice atmosphere though and we were both surprised at the high percentage of young worshippers praying there.

We had an awful coffee back in the centre, easily the worst of our entire trip, and then took a bus back to Yerevan, looking out for the ruins of the enormous Zvarnots Cathedral on the way. We failed to see them but instead spied a strange building sat away from all the others topped with a plethora of satellite dishes and aerials and flying a large American flag. Was it an extension of the US Embassy, or perhaps an international school or perhaps something far more sinister? Alas, despite research on the internet, I have so far been unable to find out the answer.

Back in the capital we hailed a taxi to escort us to the Nagorno-Karabagh diplomatic mission. Nagorno-Karabagh is, like Transdniestra which I visited two years before,[8] not a normal country with normal embassies in the sense that no one recognises its independence. However, despite this international isolation, like Transdniestra – which incidentally, along with the other non-recognised entities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, does recognise Nagorno-Karabagh – has managed to win a war against its enemies, govern itself quite well and develop national institutions better than many recognised countries since it declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1991.

But if there is one thing that we learnt from our visit to Nagorno-Karabagh's “embassy” in Yerevan, then it is that being unrecognised by other countries may not necessarily be such a bad thing after all. My experience of foreign embassies and consulates does not encourage me to visit such places unless I really have to use their services. They are uniformly dour, serious and singularly unhelpful, as if angry that someone should actually wish to enter their precious country. And the worst of the lot, I am ashamed to say, are the british, who are so unbelievably snooty that every time I enter one I immediately feel the urge to rouse the proletariat and attempt to overthrow the established order violently. The experience that most angered me with them was when I came to use the British Embassy in Sofia once only to be told, (afterI had made a three-hour drive specifically), that they were shut for the Queen's Birthday. The Queen's Birthday! Since when have I ever been given a day off work for that?!

But the Nagorno-Karabagh mission was quite a different experience entirely. It was friendly, simple as that. Everyone smiled and went out of their way to help, and whilst things were being processed, the lady behind the desk – who was reason enough to want to visit Nagorno-Karabagh and stay there for the rest of your life – even suggested some possible itineraries, warned us of scams and pulled out a few illustrated maps. For the first time in my entire life, I came out of an embassy feeling better than when I entered and so if that is what being unrecognised does for you, then let's de-recognise a few more countries, starting with the UK.

We decided, the embassy being located in the northern suburb of Nor Arabkir,[9] to walk into the city centre. The area around the mission was nothing special, built on one of the many steep hills which surround the Armenian capital. Paul and I called into a shop to buy a drink and Paul, unable to stomach the ayran that I enjoy, opted for a strange drink of luminous green liquid. It had a picture of the plant that it was made from on the front, but neither of us recognised what it was. The only Latin word on the label was 'estragon'; later research revealed this to be the French for “tarragon”.

14161600839_0d0e4f8395_zPaul on estragon!

Weird herbal concoctions aside, there were two other points of interest in Nor Arabkir. The first was an enormous church under construction on a hillside[10] and a pair of strange skyscrapers that hung over the road. We walked on through the streets till we came to the monument that we had seen the day previously standing on the hill crest above the Cascade. This commemorates fifty years of Soviet rule and by it is a memorial to Stalin's victims, though neither was kept up like the Cascade below. What was more surprising however, was the enormous chasm between the Cascade and the monument which was a construction site. So, this was where Cafesjian's museum was to be, although judging by the state of the building site and lack of activity thereabout, it wouldn't be finished until the 22nd century at the earliest.

We moved on into the adjacent Victory Park, a classic Soviet public park now looking more than a little tatty around the edges. It had a boating lake, some statues and fine views across the city, but the highlight was the War Memorial topped by the 34m-high copper statue of Mother Armenia – not quite up to the awesome standards of the Mother Ukraine statue in Kiev[11] but still a mightily impressive lady as she looked down over the tanks, planes and other paraphernalia of the USSR's various conflicts.[12]

14348247235_d7a9014437_zMother Armenia

Rather footsore by this time, we hailed a taxi to take us down into the centre where we dined on Lebanese shwarma and then retired to a coffee shop near the opera house where we watched the girls go by, two teenage Iranian female tourists roller-skating in headscarves and a bin catch fire when someone threw a cigarette butt into it. Then, strolling to Republic Square, we met two local lads who, impressed by my Stoke City top (who isn't?) wanted to befriend us and meet up another time. So, we were getting to know the locals, not bad at all for only the second day. However, time and energy were lacking now and so we retreated to our dungeon hotel to map out the days ahead and catch up on some much needed sleep.


[1] In Latin, “In hoc signo vinces”. Many refer to this event as his conversion but in fact Constantine was not baptised until on his deathbed in 337 by which time Armenian Christianity was well-established.

[2] See my travelogue 'Holy Land'.

[3] In the case of the Armenians, apparently the translation provided of the Council's decision, (Armenian delegates could not attend due to strife at home), was so bad that they got the wrong idea entirely of what it was that they were rejecting.

[4] See my travelogue 'Latvia, Georgia and Turkey 2010'.

[5] The Church of Armenia, p.152-3

[6] Incidentally, the legend is the reason why virtually all Armenian churches have a cupola and most are cruciform in shape. What's good enough for Echmiadzin is evidently good enough for everywhere else.

[7] In his travelogue 'The Crossing Place' Philip Marsden comments:

“There are thousands of these stone crosses all over the highlands; their intricate woven patterns reminiscent of the Celtic crosses of north-western Europe. Scholars have toyed about with the idea of possible links, citing Armenian bishops who reached Ireland in the 11th century. But I suspect that the similarity stems more from a common impulse – the impulse to forge patterns from the shapeless rock – than a common historical root.”

The Crossing Place, p.182-3

[8] See my travelogue 'The Missing Link'.

[9] All of Yerevan's new suburbs are named after lost provinces of Armenia. Nor Arabkir means “New Arabkir”, Arabkir being an area in central Turkey now named Arapgir and situated in Malatya Province. Many refugees from that area settled in Nor Arabkir after the genocide.

[10] Nor Arabkir Church, set to become the second-largest church in Yerevan.

[11] See my travelogue 'The Missing Link'.

[12] She was not part of the original design of the War Memorial. Initially a similar-sized statue of Stalin stood surveying the city from that spot until he was demolished in 1962.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Book Review: North Korea Undercover

world-map pyongyangGreetings!

It’s been a while since we’ve had a book review so here’s my thoughts on BBC journalist John Sweeney’s offering on North Korea.

As you will soon learn, I was none too impressed, which is all well and good except that it begs the question of, if that is what one should not read before heading to the DPRK, then which books are a better alternative?

To be honest, quality travelogues are short on the ground; the only other I have read is Clive Leatherdale’s ‘To Dream of Pigs’ which is ok but deals chiefly with South Korea.

d78bedab-14f3-495b-ae13-efbad2fa8fb2

But whilst there may not be good travel writing, there are other good books to be perused. To prepare for my trip I read a trio of real-life tales of people who’ve escaped from North Korea. I recommend all of them but found ‘Nothing to Envy’ by Babara Demick to be the best. Both that book and ‘This is Paradise’ by Hyok Kang deal with life in the far north-east of the country which was of interest to me since that is where I travelled. The final book of that nature that I read was ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang’ by Kang Chol-Hwan which dealt with the capital more. Nonetheless, well worth a read although surely the title should read ‘Aquaria’?!

aquariums of pyongyangnothing to envythis is paradise

I also read a couple of books on the political situation in North Korea. Both were good although I must admit that I read ‘North Korea through the Looking Glass’ by Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig a while back so I can’t recall it in great detail. Andrei Lankov’s ‘The Real North Korea’ is, however, still fresh in my mind and I have no hesitation in recommending it as an excellent introduction to the seemingly surreal but in actual fact, wholly rational behaviour of the North Korean elite.

nk through the looking glassreal north korea

And finally, my guidebook for the trip was Bradt North Korea by Robert Willoughby which was excellent although, be warned, sometimes it is confiscated if you try and bring it into the country. Mine was although Bradt, to their credit, replaced it free of charge. And if that isn’t a recommendation, then nothing is.

bradt nk

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State

John Sweeney

North-Korea-Uncovered

It's understandable I suppose, that the first thing you do after booking a trip of a lifetime to North Korea, is read a book about the country. And as the only one in my local library dealing with “the world's most secret state” was this offering by the BBC's John Sweeney, then 'North Korea Undercover' it was.

I'd heard about it beforehand mind. Sweeney's trip to the DPRK caused great controversy. He'd latched onto a university tour pretending to be a professor but in reality making a TV documentary and getting the material for this book. The claims that he had endangered the lives of the students on the trip were not unfounded but they worked wonders for his viewing figures; record numbers including me tuned in to watch the Panorama programme that resulted from it all but to be honest, whilst I can't speak for the other 5 million, I was disappointed. If you're going to put others at risk, then do it for something worthwhile, use the opportunity to tell the world something we don't know about North Korea. Instead, I learnt nothing new: North Korea is run by a dictator who is, all in all, not very nice to everybody including his own people. True, maybe, but hardly very enlightening. Still, perhaps the book would be better...?

It wasn't. In fact, if anything, it was worse. The first chapter starts with “Of the five most creepy buildings in the world... the Pyongyang Planetarium... is the creepiest.” There's a picture of said offensive structure in the book, a large Saturn covered with mirrors. Cheesy perhaps, tacky, yes, but conversely not unsuitable a design for a planetarium and definitely not creepy. Elsewhere Sweeney would not notice it but here he does because here he is looking for creepiness. He has a conception in his head before he even sets off and over the next 294 pages he makes sure that everything that he sees fits into that conception.

And ultimately, that's what is so disappointing with this book. The whole thing is so close-minded, so biased and ultimately, so pointless. Sure, North Korea is the bad guy of world politics, a really bad guy in fact, but it is also a very secret state and I read the book hoping to learn a little about everyday life there. Instead I learnt little beyond the fact that John Sweeney is an old grump with a grudge.

Indeed he goes further than most, onwards towards a bigoted one-sided approach that is an anathema to both good journalism and good travel writing, (the book is a mixture of both). In one section he slams mercilessly Nicolas Bonner and Daniel Gordon, two British film-makers who are using cinema, (and in the case of Bonner, tourism – he is also the head of Koryo Tours), to get the DPRK to interact with the outside world. Sweeney doesn't like this, in fact he really doesn't like this. He lambastes them for not criticising the regime in their films and promoting James Dresnok, a “regime stooge”, (Dresnok is an American soldier who defected to the communists during the war and has stayed in North Korea ever since). Yet they would never be allowed to work in the DPRK again if they did criticise the Dear Leader and surely any interaction must be better than none?

And that's the whole point. Sweeney may feel that he's taking the moral high ground with regards to Leaders Great, Dear and Young, but his book has made neither a positive impact on our understanding of the DPRK nor a real difference to the conditions of ordinary North Koreans. The same cannot be said of the work of those whom he criticises so harshly. A little lesson worth musing upon me thinks.

.

June, 2014

Smallthorne, UK

Friday, 15 May 2015

Among Armenians: Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

world-map yerevan

Greetings!

I’m settled back into Britain now and my memories of the DPRK are fading as fast as the pain in my leg which I injured doing a bit of traditional Korean wrestling in Chilbo-san. But something stays with me and so I’m reading Andrei Lankov’s ‘The Real North Korea’, one of the better books on the DPRK and streets ahead of John Sweeney’s abysmal ‘North Korea Uncovered’, a book so sensationalist and ill-researched that he should be sent to the country that he dislikes so much for a decade as penance for his crime against travel writing. Don’t worry, I’ll review it one day.

In the meantime though, I’ll keep reading Lankov which, at least, takes one’s mind off the absolute political misery of the UK following last week’s election. Even thinking about the future hurts too much at present and at 3 o’ clock last Friday morning. I must admit that even the DPRK appeared, for a fleeting moment, as a tempting alternative.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Prologue

Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!

ArmeniaMap01

yerevan-map

Day 1 – Tbilisi to Yerevan

Due to the insomnia of the night before, I must confess to seeing little of the journey from Tbilisi to the border. We started off amongst scruffy post-Soviet sprawl and I awoke in a narrow river valley of incredible brownness. The rocks were brown and the sparse, hardy vegetation brown too. And at the border the people were of a noticeably darker hue than their Georgian neighbours. That I did notice and what also caught my eye was that the girls were much prettier. No offence is meant to Georgia here; I find her people to be amongst the most welcoming on earth but the girls, on the whole, do not set my pulse racing particularly fast. Judging from the border though, the same could not be said of Armenia. This was the land where Kim Kardashian's ancestors – and for that matter, young Araksia's – hailed from and it showed with a bevy of dusky, curvaceous beauties waiting in line to have their passports stamped. I smiled; something told me that I was going to like this place.

The Debed Valley through which we rattled after the border was narrow, almost a gorge. We were hemmed in on either side by brown hills, whilst below us the brown waters flowed. The valley floor however, was strewn with detritus from the Soviet era, the skeletal hulks of exhausted factories, mines and other industrial concerns, the decaying remains of a grand vision of how the world should be that never quite worked out. I was reminded of Albania, and particularly of the journey up a similar, albeit wider and slightly greener, valley from Gjirokastro to Tirana. This parallel was further enhanced when we stopped at a small roadside eatery. On my Albanian journey we'd halted at a similar establishment though here, at what was once the opposite end of the same empire as Albania, I didn't dine and instead Paul and I headed down to the riverside to gaze at the churning brown flow and drink invigorating water from a spring topped by a beautifully-carved stone. As the journey progressed it became apparent that Armenians value both springs and carved stones very much and there are thousands of the former decorated with the latter across the land, a hangover perhaps from those distant times before the advent of Christianity when the Armenian religion was based around worshipping water spirits.

14347529924_3c11f2b7a5_zThe spring by the Debed

Whilst waiting at that pleasant spot, whilst not eating, I did purchase a bottle of ayran which in those parts, as in Uzbekistan, generally comes carbonated. I fell in love with ayran, the salted yoghurt drink popular from Bosnia to Iran, the moment that I first tasted in on my first trip to Bulgaria back in 1998, but Paul had never heard of it before, so I let him have a swig of mine to see what he thought. Sadly, I must report that his thoughts did not marry my own and he categorically stated that no more would ever pass his lips in the future.

The first settlement of any consequence that we passed through was the town of Alaverdi, unusual in Armenia since it has an Islamic name (“Allah gave” in Turkish). It looked an interesting place and well worth a stop, something which we considered but, alas, ran out of time for. It was a copper mining settlement and everything was built out of the same reddish-brown volcanic stone as the hills, perhaps because it is hard-wearing or perhaps because the area has very few trees.[1] There was also a rather cool-looking cablecar heading up the side of the valley to where there stands a noteworthy monastery. Oh well, perhaps next time...

14345036791_8c01a26796_zAlaverdi

The Debed Valley continued both brown and narrow until just before the city of Vandazar which may be Armenia's second-biggest since the other contender for that honour, Gyumri, (formerly Leninakan, Araksia's home city), had been heavily depopulated following the 1988 earthquake. Unfortunately, our marshrutka did not head into the city itself, instead skirting it to the north, although I must say that it looked an incredibly downtrodden place indeed.

After Vandazar the landscape changed completely. Browns were replaced by greens, but not the vibrant greens of the Alps or Mediterranean, instead the more staid greens of the Scottish Highlands or wilds of Tibet. The land now was vast, windswept and empty, and snow still lay on the ground in many places whilst trees were nowhere to be seen. It could almost have been Snowdonia, almost but not quite for whilst there were many similarities, there was also something undoubtedly yet indescribably Asian about the whole scene.

We turned south off the main Vandazar to Gyumri road at Spitak which was the epicentre of the 1988 earthquake. Unsurprisingly, the town looked pretty new and in addition to the large memorial to those who died on the top of a low hill, we also saw rows of temporary houses built to shelter those who had lost everything I the tremor. Again, we both would have liked to have stopped and again we would have done so if we had had time to do so and so, again, maybe next trip...?

Once out of Spitak we climbed the magnificent Pambak Pass out of the valley and onto the high plateau still half-covered in snow. We rattled along the pretty appalling road passing villages which looked as if they had been transplanted from the Himalayas. Many had low houses with turf roofs, something that I recalled seeing on the steppe near to Kars in Turkey back in 2010, but then that should not have come as such of a surprise: altitude the two are similar and, as the crow flies, only a hundred miles or so separates them.

14345029461_9b52cbe154_zPambak Pass

An hour or more later we dropped down from the high plateau and into the grassy, messy morass around Yerevan, an unattractive mix of Soviet dereliction, capitalist sprawl and the tasteless nouveau riche mansions of the local mafia dons and politicians. By this time though, I was desperate for the toilet and my only emotion as we rolled into Kilikia Bus Station was one of profound relief.

We dined in the bus station's canteen – cheap and with a wide range of food that you can point at – and then took advantage of its facilities to leave Paul and the bags at a table whilst I changed some money in a bureau across the road. Whilst there I spied a hotel so went across to check out the rooms and prices. Both seemed reasonable, (there were two options, standard at 7,000 dram per room per night and basement at 5,000 dram), and so I retrieved Paul and we checked both options out before agreeing to take a basement room for the next three nights. True, it was a bit of a dingy dungeon, but in a capital city it represented a very cheap sleep indeed and being next to the bus station and hordes of taxis meant that it would be ideal for getting about. In the event, it transpired that we could not have made a better choice.

Accommodation settled with minimum fuss and cash in hand, we took a bus into the city centre. Another advantage of the hotel was that it was on a major bus route and every minute or so one passed bound for the centre. We alighted at France Square by the opera house but even before we'd got off the bus we both knew that this was going to be a good city to hang out in for a few days. Driving down Mesrop Mashtots Avenue we'd seen handsome buildings with some fine architecture. Gone was the concrete sprawl and decay of the standard post-Soviet city and in its place rows of elegant buildings all constructed out of the same hard-wearing, reddish-brown volcanic stone which we'd seen so much of in Alaverdi. In Asia, here was a city that was very European and yet, not quite. The general style and layout were undoubtedly Central European yet no city on my continent uses such stone and the style of the buildings also had an undeniable Oriental element to them. And on the right there was the entrance to a very Persian-looking mosque whilst to the left a glorious-looking covered market that looked well worth checking out later.

But it was not the buildings that took our breath away, instead it was the locals. Standing and sitting on our bus, striding down the streets and now milling around France Square were, quite frankly, the most beautiful selection of females that I have ever had the good fortune to clasp my eyes upon. Now, politically correct or not as it may be to talk about such things, but I have to admit that a great weakness of mine is gazing upon beautiful women. That is, I must add strongly, as far as it goes; my religious sensibilities would cause me to suffer from great pangs of guilt were I to go any further without intending a serious relationship, but alas, Christ's exhortation to gouge out your offending right eye[2] is perhaps the teaching of His that I have always struggled with the most. And nowhere was that the case more than in Yerevan. Imagine for a moment if you please, Kim Kardashian (yes, nice thought, I know) then multiply that imagine a thousandfold and there you have the streets of the Armenian capital. Dusky-skinned, doe-eyed beauties with an absolute elegance and femininity of movement which meant that even the lesser beauties can make a man weak at the knees by the way they move, whilst their figures, elegantly clad in tight jeans or tight tops and... ok, so you get the picture. Actually you don’t, trust me, unless you've been to Yerevan, you don't. But hey, if you don't trust me, then ask Osip Mandelstam, literary giant of the USSR, who described the ladies of Armenia as “women of leonine beauty”[3] or let me tell you about Paul, yes indeed, I shall talk of Paul.

Now Paul is a man whom I have known for a good seven years and whilst undoubtedly straight, his soul is perhaps not as superficial as mine, or at least, he is not as visually stimulated shall we say. The Lord's commandment regarding right eyes, I suspect, he has less trouble keeping and indeed, I even did a test on the matter once. We were walking in Wales and went into a pub for a pint and a meal and were served by a rather charming young waitress. Later that evening, as we were discussing looking at the ladies, I asked him to recall who had served us that afternoon. Beyond the fact that it had been a woman, he could remember nothing about her. I, on the other hand, am rather ashamed to admit recalling a great deal about her, even to this day. What I am trying to say is that I had never once noticed Paul engaged in the activity commonly referred to as ogling. Or at least, I hadn't until we hit Yerevan. There he did very little else and when not doing it, was forever commenting on what he had seen. I was glad, it was like a welcome to my world Paul and, of course, it helped assuage my guilt a little.

The Cascade is one of the main attractions of Yerevan. Its construction began in 1971 and it was intended to be an enormous artificial waterfall that would commemorate fifty years of Soviet rule, but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the rule that it had dished out disintegrated and thus the Cascade, like so much in the former USSR, began to crumble and decay. Renovations started in 2002 and in 2009 it was reopened as the Cafesjian Centre for the Arts, one of the most exciting and innovative arts spaces in the world.

It was named after – and paid for by – Gerard Cafesjian, an Armenian American who was born in the USA to parents who had survived the 1915 genocide. He made his fortune in publishing and upon retirement became a great philanthropist and promoter of the Armenian identity globally, (in addition to the Cascade, he has opened a genocide museum in his home city of New York). Armenia has a massive expatriate community which contributes millions to the local economy every year and which have helped it to become something of an economic miracle, a country which is prospering despite its two longest borders (with Turkey and Azerbaijan) being closed, its neighbour Georgian to the north still reeling from the 2008 conflict with Russia and its neighbour to the south, Iran, being an international pariah state, in addition to its own domestic lack of natural resources and good farming land.

14348361685_94982acfc9_zThe Tamanian Statue with the Cascade behind

Now I must admit here that, despite having a brother who is an acclaimed painter in oils, I struggle to “get” a lot of art, particular much of the more modern and abstract stuff. Nonetheless, I rather enjoyed our stroll up the Cascade as there was plenty to look at, (and I'm not just talking about the female art appreciators there). At the foot, along Tamanian Square, alongside the magnificent Soviet era statue of Hovannes Tamanian – more on him later – carved from a single block of basalt, were a series of statues including some chunky cartoonish characters by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero which I rather liked, although the ones by British sculptress Lynn Chadwick which my guidebook raved about, without wishing to sound unpatriotic, I considered crap.

The Cascade itself is like a gigantic staircase with sculptures on the various steps. You get up it by going inside the left-hand side where there is an escalator with various pieces of (largely uninspiring) modern art to look up as you rise upwards. At the top was an exhibition of sculptures using diamonds which was very Kardashian I thought, but generally speaking, it was the space itself rather than the art inside it which was memorable.

The exception to that though was situated in a subterranean gallery halfway up. This was a huge triptych of paintings by Grigor Khaniyan commissioned specially for the space and telling the story of the Armenian nation. The first celebrated the introduction of the Armenian alphabet which might seem a strange choice of subject for the central piece of a work telling the story of a nation, but it is appropriate since most historians agree that without their distinctive alphabet – as with their unique church – the Armenians would have suffered the same fate as all the other nations on a Biblical map and been subsumed and then lost in the identities of one or more of the great empires who continually lapped at Armenia's borders. Indeed, a look at the other great survivor from that era, the Jews, who also had their own faith and alphabet makes you realise that such things might well be more important that possessing land. In his book 'The Crossing Place' which explores the Armenian nation and identity around all the Near and Middle East, Philip Marsden asks Father Levon Zekiyan, Venice's Armenian priest the question of what keeps the Armenians Armenian, to which the priest replies,

“'The whole thing comes down to a single idea. And the key to it is the script. Mesrop Mashtots was our greatest political thinker! In the fifth century he invented the alphabet – he realized Armenia as a power was finished. If the Armenians were to survive without territory, they had to have a common idea, something that was theirs alone. The script embodies the idea.'

'And what was the idea?'

'Ah, you cannot describe it. If you are lucky, you will come to know it a little.' He took a sip of his wine and smiled. 'Our poet Sevak called it simply Ararat.'”[4]

triptych alphabetThe Introduction of the Armenian Alphabet

The second painting depicted the Battle of Avarayr which was fought against the Persians in 451. Although technically a defeat, the Armenians, like the Serbs with Kosovo Field, see it as the turning point in their national history. In danger of being extinguished and partitioned between the Roman and Persian empires, their stubborn resistance resulted in taxes on them being removed and freedom of religion granted, thus guaranteeing their survival as a unique nation, (since their church differed from everyone else's).

triptych avarayrThe Battle of Avarayr

The final panel, Rebirth, tells the story of the resurgence of the Armenian identity from the dust and ashes of those empires that dominated it and, rather romantically, only hours after putting the final touches to the face of the final figure, Mother Armenia, Khaniyan died.

triptych rebirthRebirth

As anyone who has read much of my work will know only too well, I am no nationalist. Indeed, I sincerely believe that ideology to be the cause of more misery and death on this earth than any other. That said, it – like its more extreme Stalinist and fascist forms – has some wonderful iconography and I could have stared at those paintings for hours. They were busy, a mass of people, symbols and colours, and I would have loved to have been able to depict it all. Khaniyan was born in 1924 and so was educated and grew up under Stalinism with its aggressive Soviet nationalism and his art shows signs of the socialist realism of the period. But he yearned for more freedom to express a distinctive Armenian identity and because of his privileged position as a favourite artist of the regime, he was able to travel and it was whilst doing that in the most unlikely of places, that he found his inspiration.

Albania, and particularly Enver Hoxha's extreme Stalinist Albania, is rarely cited as an influence on today's contemporary artists, but it lit a fire in Khaniyan. Hoxha was a strict Stalinist, but he had also broken away from the rest of the socialist world and in order to help justify his political isolationism he promoted a policy of self-determination and with it a cult of Albanianism, (not dissimilar in both style and content to the Juche ideology of the current North Korean regime), which stressed the unity of the Albanian people despite their difference in religion, and of their continuity over the centuries, painting his dictatorship as the natural culmination of the efforts of a people descended from the Ancient Ilyrians. Thus, in the world of art, whatever was Albanian was in and Khaniyan was electrified by what he saw as “the vital connection with the genius of traditional handicrafts.” The attraction to an ardent but suppressed Armenian nationalist is clear and I must admit that if there is one work in the world which reminds me of Khaniyan's magnum opus, it is the huge mosaic which graces the entrance to the National Museum in Tirana and is entitled simple 'Albania!'.

albaniaAlbania!

At the top of the Cascade we stood and admired the views, (both the stunning panorama across the city and the more feminine charms in the foreground), and wondered if the unfinished section between the top of the Cascade and the Soviet monument on the crest of the hill would ever be finished, (Cafesjan's foundation is planning a museum but work has reportedly ground to a halt), and then we descended back down to ground level to enjoy a very civilised coffee amongst the chunky cartoon statues on Tamanian Street.

Hovannes Tamanian is a figure who cannot be ignored by any visitor to Yerevan. More than any other Soviet city that I have visited, Armenia's capital comes across as a single, planned whole which is perhaps a little surprising since it was established as long ago as 782BC and has been inhabited continuously ever since, making it older than Rome. However, Yerevan was never the capital of Armenia, more a small provincial town and as late as the 19th century when the Russians took over, Gyumri was the main city. Everything changed though on the 28th May, 1918 when it was declared that the capital of the First Armenian Republic would be Yerevan, (presumably because of its less exposed position with relation to the Turkish border), and between 1924 and 1926 Hovannes Tamanian was commissioned to create a masterplan for the city which would make it worthy of its new status as the capital of the Armenian SSR.

The result is spectacular and, as we walked around the city over the days that followed, we could only admire Tamanian's vision. His Yerevan was circular, part of the circle being defined by the Hrazdan River but the majority by a green belt, a long thin park, now sadly being eroded away by a number of post-Soviet buildings. But it is within the ring that Tamanian's legacy is finest, broad avenues faced with handsome buildings constructed of tuff, the beautiful reddish-brown volcanic stone; European yet also Asian in their design and ornamentation. There is no city on earth similar to Yerevan, a boast that is unique amongst Soviet cities which tended to be very identikit, and that is largely due to Tamanian's sweeping vision, although it must be added, that some priceless architectural treasures were destroyed to make room for his masterpiece.

We walked through Tamanian's Green Belt and then down Abovian Street towards Republic Square, the heart of the city, passing the statue of Kara Bala on the way. He was something of a local celebrity, the kind of guy who gives a city character. A well-off gent who grew roses in his garden, he would go to Abovian Street and hand them out to pretty girls passing by, in particular one famous actress, Arus Voskanian, whom he presented with a rose every morning as she walked to the theatre. However, he was not alone in vying for her affections, a Turkish man also loved her and so jealous did this make Kara Bala that he murdered his rival. He was subsequently imprisoned for his crime and when he was eventually released years later, his wife had left him, his house sold and all his beloved roses uprooted. Distraught, he declared that he was no longer Kara Bala but instead Dardy (literally, “sorrow”) Bala. Even so, he still wandered the streets of Yerevan, now with a bottle for company, giving out flowers to pretty girls walking by. Eventually he died, found frozen one morning sitting on a rock and the whole city mourned him. Personally, I'm not sure what to make of the tale. I understand that beautiful women can drive a man mad and that Yerevan's muses are perhaps the most captivating on earth, but even so, murder is murder, and what no one seems to consider is how his devoted wife felt about it all? Nonetheless, one has to admit that the little statue of an old man handing out a rose comes as a welcome change from the usual generals and politicians.

14325190276_fde34c7a9b_zKara Bala

I loved Republic Square. Conceived as Lenin Square, (and originally boasting a statue of the little great man), it is the cherry on Tamanian's iced cake and one of the finest public squares on the planet. It reminded me a little of Milan's Piazza del Duomo although I'm unsure why since save for the fact that they are similar in size, the two have little in common. However, it may be a comparison that Tamanian – and to be more precise, his communist commissioners – would appreciate for whilst Republic Square, like the Piazza, is fronted on three sides by fine neo-classical buildings, the centrepiece here is not a Gothic cathedral but instead a temple of socialism, the Museum of the Bolshevik Revolution, (nowadays the State History Museum), a homage to human, not divine achievements. Taken as a whole though, whilst no single building can match the glory of Milan's Duomo, Tamanian's ensemble, all executed in warm-hued tuff, is by far the superior space.

14161719520_669290aaf7_zRepublic Square

We finished off our first day in Armenia by dining at an excellent traditional restaurant housed in a cellar nearby where we gorged ourselves on fine salads, pork ribs, aubergine and several pints of beer, before returning to Republic Square to watch the illuminated fountains dance to famous pieces of classical music, a scene more Central European than Central Asian, before then retiring to a nearby coffee shop to do justice to old Kara Bala's memory by drinking more beer whilst watching the girls go by, while in the background Borussia Dortmund played Real Madrid.


[1] This lack of trees may be natural or it may be due to the acute fuel shortages during the 1990s which caused the locals to cut down a lot of trees for firewood.

[2] Matthew 5:29; Mark 9:47

[3] Quoted in 'The Crossing Place', p.156

[4] The Crossing Place, p.17

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Among Armenians: Prologue

world-map yerevan

Greetings!

My epic North Korean trip is now over and boy, what a trip it was! I shall, of course, be writing all about it on Uncle Travelling Matt, plus posting some of the videos, but in the meantime, let me just say this: To anyone who is thinking about going, do it; North Korea is everything that you’d imagine it to be and more. Imagine your first travel experience, that unexpected exposure to a reality so different to your own, that almost surreal feeling that is both scary and exciting but totally addictive. That is how North Korea feels even to the experienced traveller, (and I met several of those on this trip). And if you are thinking of going, I cannot recommend Young Pioneer Tours enough, both for price and experience.

But back to the moment and it is time for a new travelogue. And so, with great pleasure I introduce my account of my travels last year to the bewitching little land of Armenia, another destination that I have no hesitation in recommending to anyone, even if it isn’t quite as weird as the Kingdom of the Kims.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Prologue

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!

ArmeniaMap

Among Armenians

Prologue – Tbilisi, Georgia

As I sat on the balcony gazing out into the dark Caucasian sky. I felt ill at ease. Problem was I didn’t know why. I was on my travels, about to enter a country that I’d long dreamt about travelling to. I should have been over the moon. But I wasn’t, instead I was as miserable as sin. So why did I feel so bad? Was it perhaps apprehension that the country we would enter the next morning would not live up to the high expectations I had set for it. Perhaps to reassure myself – or to send myself off to sleep – I read a few more chapters of ‘Visions of Ararat’.

‘Visions of Ararat’, compiled by Christopher J. Walker, was an anthology of writings on Armenia by Britons through the centuries, a condensed account of how my countrymen have perceived that small and ancient nation that holds the great volcano that Noah is reputed to have rested his ark upon, the captivating Mt. Ararat, as its sacred national symbol.

And it's interesting how it has been perceived over the centuries since, for those who actually have heard of the place, (Armenia... do you mean America...?), struggle to grasp it. Independent only since 1991, it is also amongst the most ancient nations on earth, one of the very few familiar names on a Biblical era map. Even so, what do most people know of the Armenians? Asian or European, deeply spiritual like their ancient church or beautiful but superficial like the most famous American Armenian of them all, Kim Kardashian?

And what of me? Why was I so bothered about visiting Armenia, (after all, it's not at the top of most people's travel hit lists)? Well, I can pinpoint exactly the moment when I knew that I would be visiting Armenia one day. It was back in 2002 when I was working at the George Byron Private Language High School in Varna, Bulgaria. One of my Year 12 students was a young lady named Araksia who was an Armenian. Bulgaria has had an Armenian community for centuries – Varna has an Armenian church dedicated to St. Sarkis – and it's not the only place either. In the 21st century there are far more Armenians outside of Armenia than there are in it and those emigres have affected world history far out of proportion to their numbers. Take the singer Cher, (real name Cherilyn Sarkisian), or the Chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov, or St. Blaise, patron saint of wool combers, or Hovannes Adamian who invented the colour TV, or Boris Babaian the computer pioneer, or Abraham Alikhanov one of the prime movers behind the Soviet nuclear programme, or George Ganjian who invented the circuit board, or Artem Mikoyan who invented the MiG jet fighter, or Ryamond Damadian the inventor of MRI and not to mention, of course, the delectable Ms. Kardashian who is famous for, well... being famous.[1]

SPL374663_003Kim Kardashian: An Armenian, erm… inspiration

And although not famous, I have to say that young Araksia was definitely keeping up her people's reputation. Easily the brightest student in her class, she burned with a passion for her people and homeland, (unlike most Bulgarian Armenians, she was actually born in Armenia, in the city of Leninakan), which softened the heart of even an old anti-nationalist like me. Every assignment that I received from her was a lesson in Armenian history or culture. I learnt all about the genocide of 1915, rituals of the church, of the terrible earthquake of 1988, of marriage ceremonies, the importance of Mt. Ararat and the fact that a true Armenian always wears gold and would never be seen dead wearing silver. So inspired by this latter gem was I that I even wrote a short story, 'The Silver Crucifix' about one young Armenian who went ahead and committed that unthinkable crime.

araksiaYear 12, George Byron School

(Araksia is the girl in blue on the front row)

And it didn't stop there. Armenia got stuck in my head for some reason and after moving to Vietnam I wrote the first of what would eventually become a series of four Indiana Jones meets John Buchan type adventure novels. 'The Lost Treasure of Onoguria' focussed on hidden treasure in Bulgaria but involved a multi-national cast including a beautiful young Armenian harem girl named Araksia and her mysterious father Zeroun whose connections with an ancient society named the Sacred Twelve unlocked the secrets to finding the treasure. And in the sequel, 'The Bukhara Affair' the heroes – including Zeroun – actually travel to Armenia where they are admitted to the inner sanctum of the Sacred Twelve where they see wonders beyond their imaginings. The third book features Zeroun again but the Armenian input is minimal though they were back with a bang in book four, 'Into the Belly of the Beast' where the grandchildren of the original protagonists secretly enter the Armenian SSR during the dark days of Stalinism.

Araksia however, was not my only, nor even my first Armenian interactions. I had several other Armenian students in Bulgaria (all bright) and once shared a compartment from Sofia to Stara Zagora with an Armenian expert on international red terrorism during the sixties and seventies, but I actually first heard of the Armenians back in 1997 when I visited Jerusalem for the first time and was surprised to learn that the Holy City is divided into four quarters: Arab, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. I'd heard the name before but knew nothing of them save that they were a people once part of the mighty Soviet Union, yet here they were controlling a major part of the most sacred city on earth. Arabs, Jews and Christians I could understand, but what on earth were the Armenians doing there? To learn more I bought and read Philip Marsden's travelogue 'The Crossing Place' whilst living in Japan in 2000. Although finishing the book and enjoying, I must admit that, at the time, it left little impression on me. I was not ready.

Ready or not, all these factors combined to ensure that a flickering flame of Armenian interest remained and in 2010 this was fanned into a fully-fledged bonfire when I travelled through Georgia and Turkey from Tbilisi to Istanbul. In a trip that included many highlights, I skirted the borders of Armenia itself, visiting many of the towns and regions that for centuries had had large Armenian populations – in some cases majorities – until the horrific massacres of 1915 ended that forever. And the places that left the strongest impressions on me were very much flavoured with a strong Armenian garnish. Set in the middle of a vast, windswept steppe that could easily have been Kazakhstan, a place at the end of the Turkish world and seemingly, when you're there, the city of Kars was a fascinating place. I'd journeyed there because it had been the setting of Orhan Pamuk's powerful novel 'Snow', a story which confronts the town's Islamic conservatism, but it is clear to any visitor that things were not always so. Many of the city's buildings betray its past as a Russian military frontier town whilst at the foot of the mighty citadel is a beautiful 10th century Armenian church, now clumsily converted into a mosque.

But if Kars seems like the end of the world, drive the 40km or so down the unmade track to Ani and there you see the real thing. Once the proud capital of the Bagatrid Dynasty, Ani is now a vast crumbling moonscape of ruins perched on the very edge of Turkey. Beyond the last of its haggard churches flows the Akhurian in a deep gorge and then beyond that a fence with watchtowers from which fly the horizontal yellow, blue and red stripes of the Armenian Republic. As I gazed out at that flag from the ruins of the civilisation that it is the successor of I promised myself one day to cross that border.

And the following morning I was due to fulfil that promise. So why feel so lousy?

15352675922_3cf122eefe_oAt the ruins of Ani, 2010

There was also a certain justice in this trip. Unlike most of my lengthier expeditions, this time I was not travelling alone. Paul, who had had no trouble whatsoever in getting off to sleep that night, had meant to share the 2011 trip with me until he'd snapped his cartilage playing football only a few weeks before. Confined to bed, I'd gone alone, but this time he'd stayed well clear of the beautiful game and could finally see the Caucasus for himself.

We'd flown together from London City to Amsterdam Schipol and then spent an extremely enjoyable evening drinking in the cafés of the Netherlands' largest city before almost missing the Georgian Airways flight onwards to Tbilisi which we'd shared with less than twenty other passengers. Then there had been the long bus ride into the heart of the Georgian capital and a lengthy taxi journal to the dismal, Soviet era bus station on the edge of town where the buses for Armenia left from. But left is what they had already done and the next was not until nine the following morning and o there was nothing for it but to spend the night there. So perhaps that was the reason for my ill ease: two days into an already too-short holiday and we hadn't even got there yet.

Or perhaps I was just tired of work, family and home life? After all, aren't holidays meant to be for rewinding from such pressures? I closed the book and went back to bed and this time I slept.


[1] You will note here that most Armenian surnames end in '-ian'. This means “of” or “from”. Thus Kardashian means “of Kardash” and so on. Kardash is a popular Armenian male name.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Travel Update VI

Greetings!

So, here I am on my last night in Beijing and thus, the last travel update too. It's been a pretty amazing trip with some lows as well as highs and I'll try to sum it up briefly now.

Since leaving the DRPK, I've travelled back across north-eastern China to Beijing. We spent the first two nights in Yanji, a city of about half a million where over 50% of the population is ethnically Korean and is capital of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture where Korean is the first language along with Chinese. It was a nice place but, despite its undoubted Koreaness, it was a massive culture shock. After the DPRK even the piffling provincial town of Tumen seemed like Manhattan and somewhere like Yanji with forty-storey high buildings and flashing neon seemed positively Blade Runner. Nonetheless, we had a great time. Yong Li arranged for us to stay in a local apartment and the whole group had one last Korean BBQ - and if you've never tried one, do - and then there were the baths, some of the best I've been to outside of Japan. It was also interesting to meet some of the other Koreans, not just the Chinese ones but also South Koreans. There are six flights daily to Yanji and I got chatting with one gent who runs a coffee shop and also a young couple who were fascnated with our DPRK videos - after all, they are not allowed to visit.

Most of the South Koreans fly to Yanji to visit Paektu-san - or in Chinese, Chang Bai Shan - Korea's holy mountain which lies half in China and half in the DPRK. So Glenn and I headed off there for a day trip to view the incredible volcanic crater lake which would have been mind-blowing except that my leg which I injured in the DPRK was killing me plus I came down with what was probably mild food poisioning so I felt like crap all day and throughout the night and following day and night. We spent those in Shenyang, a city of 7 million people, (read Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Merseyside combined), that I'd never even heard of before and which doesn't even get into China's top ten. 

Glenn and I returned to Beijing on the new bullet train which transformed a twelve hour journey into four and a half, and since then I've been pottering around Beijing whilst my leg strengthens and my stomach recovers, buying Asian junk that reminds me of Japan and that Vietnamese friends have requested.

But this trip was always more about the DPRK than China and I have to say that whilst my China experience was marred by illness and injury nothing could take away from North Korea, one of the most surreal travel experiences on earth. Perhaps the best way to describe it was something that Glenn said last night when we were talking to agirl we'd met in the hostel. "Remember back to your first travel experience, that time when it just hit you and blew your mind, that the world could be so different. That was how the DPRK felt." And he was right. I'm pretty well-travelled these days and so is he, having overlanded across Africa and most of Asia, and the problem with experience comes jadedness, yet on our DPRK trip no one was jaded, even the guide. It is a special place. The most lingering images that stay in my mind are fields teeming with people using agricultural methods unchanged since the 1800s, railways with electic wires where the (few) trains are all diesel because the supply keeps going off, thousands of people walking and cycling up and down unmade roads with fewe cars, Russian trucks converted to run using wood-burning boilers so that they appear on fire and Chongjin, a city of 600,000 where after the sun sets only a few lights and the statues of the Kims are lit and hundreds walk the streets in pitch black. 

The DPRK is not a third world country, I've seen those before. They are dirty and unimaginable poverty exists alongside bloated wealth. The DPRK is ordered and clean; it is developed and modern... or was. It is a country in which the money has left town, sometime during the early 1990s and everything has frozen then or regressed. Yes, there are those with wealth, but it is not obscene; they are as susceptible to things too. We stayed at all the best hotels yet not one had hot water and all suffered powercuts. We dined at Chongjin's premier entertainment venue and the electric went and we were sat there drinking beer in the pitch black. Our tour bus, one of the few on the roads, broke down three times.

Yet that was all part of the experience, as too was the group. I'd had misgivings beforehand about travelling with others yet our party of seven, (ten inclduing our three Korean guides), were excellent. We had intelligent debates on a plethora of subjects and no one abused or disrespected each others opinions. My fellow travellers and hosts made it for me and for that, I am deeply thankful.

But for now, home beckons...

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt