Thursday, 30 July 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage: Part II–Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

world-map israel

Greetings!

And what a week it has been. Last Saturday whilst exploring the Roman city of Wroxeter, I tripped backwards and knackered my knee (again). The result: four hours in A&E and a week sat on the settee with nothing to do except read books and type up travelogues. The results: my Welsh travelogue A470 which tells the story of my driving expedition from the top to the bottom of Wales with my brother last year is completed and I’m making good progress in writing up my trip around Ireland last year. Oh yes, and I’ve been able to listen to every over of England destroying the Aussies in the Third Ashes Test. Every cloud…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Israel-physical-map2

old-Jerusalem-map

Ash Wednesday

We were up early and glad to be leaving Tel Aviv, that soulless city with its abysmal hotel. To make things worse, Thao was suffering from an allergic reaction to something or other and so we had our taxi driver go out of his way to a pharmacy which cost more but at least stopped the complaints. Like all our drivers, he was an Arab and a friendly one at that. He chatted about his toddler son and a Filipina regular customer, (he’d assumed the Spouse was Filipino), who only left the house when he was outside for fear of the police, (she was an illegal visa-overstayer).

I decided that the train was the best way to travel to the Holy City despite it being much longer, partially because neither Thao nor I particularly like bus travel, partially because the trip was reputed to be rather scenic, partially because I like trains and partially because I’d never done it before. The Ottoman railway line to Jerusalem had only been reopened four years before – since I’d last visited Israel has undergone a rail revolution with several passenger lines being opened and what’s more, it isn’t over yet; a high-speed line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is currently under construction and there are plans for a line all the way down to Eilat; all good in my opinion.

As our diesel rumbled out of Tel Aviv, through Lod, (birthplace of St. George of dragon-slaying fame), Ramla, (the only Arab-founded town in Israel, although looking remarkably like all the Jewish-founded towns) and Beit Shemesh, I tried to focus my thoughts in a more religious manner as befits the journey towards Jerusalem, the City of Peace, Al-Qud, the holiest place on the planet. I started by reading a little of Journey of a Lifetime,[1] a book that I’d borrowed from the prison chapel, an account of a 1950s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but it proved to be a poor read and so I laid it aside and delved into The Holy Land,[2] a Catholic guide to the sites of pilgrimage that the Roman Catholic Deacon at the prison had leant me. This proved to be far more interesting and I began to get a feel for the land we were visiting. By this time we had entered a desolately beautiful ravine with no roads and only a trickle of a stream at its bottom that the single track railway kept criss-crossing. It took very little imagination to be transported back not just to the time of Christ, but well before that, to the landscape that Elijah roamed and David hid in. I took out my rosary to focus my thoughts but found my meditations much disturbed, jumping from Elijah, to prayers for Christian friends around the globe who have never had the chance to come to the Holy Land, to John the Baptist who preached in a similar wilderness, to David who fought in it. On previous pilgrimages, focussing had been easy; there’d only been one story to meditate upon, such as that of Our Lady and Richeldis at Walsingham or that of St. Kevin at Glendalough, but here in the land of both the Old and New Testaments, (not to mention an extremely eventful recent history as well!), there was simply too much to think about and now I understood why so many Christians focus solely on Christ during these trips – they can’t take in any more than that.

We continued down that valley right until the end of the journey when vast new housing developments appeared on the cliff tops above us, Jewish bastions against the Palestinians, in place of the scattered Arab dwellings that had lined the previous few miles,[3] and we drew into the brand-new Jerusalem Malha terminus.[4]

We took a taxi to the Old City that, on an inflated rate, took us on a round-robin trip that eventually dropped us at our destination. Thao was not best pleased, I too and in our hurry I left our Lonely Planet Israel on the dashboard. Bad enough that we had no guidebook now, but what made it worse was that it had been the 1995 edition, a relic from my very first trip to Israel, well-thumbed and used. I have developed an attachment to my old guidebooks and the loss of this one was especially hurtful as it was permeated with memories and alas Lonely Planet guidebooks have gone downhill rapidly in terms of content since 1995 so any replacement was always going to be inferior as well as costly.

I had booked us into a hotel that Lenin had recommended before flying out called the Golden Gate. That was all well and good, but finding it without a guidebook was something else. I had an address on the Suq Khan ez-Zeit but several searches along that street did not reveal its location. In the end I went to the Lutheran Church and a guide kindly showed me where it was. Then, with the Golden gate receptionist in tow, I went to pick up Thao and Tom from the café where they’d been waiting and together we made our way to the hotel.

Lenin had made a wise choice in recommending the Golden Gate to us. It was cheap yet clean and the room spacious. Most of all though, it had character, both ancient, (the building was a thousand years old), and modern, in the form of Sarra, an American convert to Islam who was friendly yet somehow odd at the same time. In her own way she reminded me of those British girls who go out to Greece on holiday, fall in love with a Tassos or Stavros and then stay there long after Tassos or Stavros has left them for another passing tourist, part of the fixtures, though never part of the local society which tolerates yet never quite accepts them. Sarra mind you, in her full hijaab dress, might not have been enamoured with this comparison and so I never once put it to her.

Settled in, we went out to eat in a nearby Arab restaurant. This meal was special for me as it was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent and during Lent I don’t eat meat. But Lent doesn’t start until you’ve attended Mass on Ash Wednesday and on this particular Ash Wednesday I was intending to attend Mass in none other than the holiest church on earth. Therefore, the midday shwarma that we were served tasted even better than it actually was, for it would be the last meat that I’d touch in Israel and signified something very special.

1928273_147061515304_2167614_nTom and Thao on the Suq Khan ez-Zeit

At the heart of the Christian faith is one man, Jesus of Nazareth, and His message, and this message is symbolised best by two places; Calvary, the site of the cross upon which He died and the Empty Tomb from which He overcame death and was resurrected. For a Christian these are the things that matter, for it is that death and resurrection that set Him apart from all the other great prophets and religious figures that the world has produced, and that death and resurrection that has set mankind free and confirmed God’s love for His people. And quite amazingly, both sites are today contained within one great building, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

When I first visited the Holy Sepulchre back on the 22nd February, 1997, I was in Jerusalem on a day trip with Elton and Adrienne Netto and Simeon and Pepi Kovatchevi, all friends from Kibbutz Revivim. I was not particularly religious at the time although I described myself as a Christian on the forms and knew the Bible stories well after spending hours reading and looking at the pictures of The Children’s Illustrated Bible as a kid. I went that time not as a pilgrim, but a tourist and my lasting memory was one of surprise that two sites that I’d always assumed to be about a mile apart, (I’d always imagined the tomb to be some distance out of the city in a shallow wooded valley). That of course brings into question the issue of whether the sites of pilgrimage are the actual sites of the events, but that is a huge topic that could fill a whole book but not this one.[5] In pilgrimage you see, what matters is what these sites symbolise, not historical accuracy despite that being hard for many a modern mind to understand. So it was that with Thao and Tom in tow I went to Calvary and prayed at the site of the Cross. Since I had come to Jerusalem in order to say thank you for Tom’s arrival – after years of waiting and miscarriage with complications we did wonder as to whether he would ever arrive – then I was glad to have fulfilled my promise so soon.

ISRAEL00Calvary

We walked to the Tomb together but the queue was long and both Thao and Tom were tired so they left and I stayed on to immerse myself in this, the holiest of all places, further. I explored the side chapels and bought mementoes from the Coptic tent at the rear of the tomb for Christian friends worldwide who would never have the opportunity to come there themselves. Then I explored the alcoves behind the tomb where there is a tomb that tradition states is that of Joseph of Arimathea. Whilst there I came across a sight that quite shocked me: a Muslim girl in a headscarf facing Mecca on her prayer mat and praying. When I first saw her I must admit I felt a little angry: what right had she to invade the holiest place of my religion, only yards from the Tomb itself, and then pray to somewhere else in far-off Arabia? Those thoughts however, evaporated in an instant when I just thought about it all for a second. Hadn’t Christ’s death been for everybody and don’t the Muslims respect Him as a prophet? And doesn’t it say something really positive about Christianity that a Muslim can come within yards of its holiest shrine and pray in their own fashion and not be hassled or worse? After all, Christians – or followers of any other religion for that matter – are not even allowed within the boundaries of the city of Mecca, let alone the shrine itself and, if they prayed openly as Christians in any part of Saudi Arabia, then in all likelihood a holy war would break out. No, upon reflection I was glad that I had seen that Muslim girl praying in that place; it said a lot about a religion based on love and it challenged the baser instincts in man.

The Holy Sepulchre is in many ways not a church but a collection of churches all under one roof yet administered by different denominations. The central section is Greek Orthodox but the Armenians, Copts and Syriacs all have chapels as well. The world’s largest Christian church, the Roman Catholic, also has sections but they are small in comparison with those held by the Greeks. They should consider themselves lucky mind; the Protestant churches, (who make up approximately a third of all Christians), have nothing. Not that that bothered me particularly, for whilst I technically am a Protestant, I tend to attend Catholic Mass when abroad and on that particular day there was one on in the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition at the side of the Empty Tomb.

How the other denominations organised their services I don’t know, but the Catholics did theirs on a booking system whereby pilgrim groups could reserve a slot and so it was that the Mass I attended was in Portuguese and I shared it with several coachloads of worshippers from Lisbon.

Not that I minded. It was honour enough just being able to celebrate in that place and one of the great things about the Mass is that you know where you are with it whatever the language. As the priest intoned, I tried to meditate but it was difficult to concentrate as like with my meditations on the train coming into Jerusalem, there was simply too much to take in. Nonetheless, I persevered and returned to the island and cave that I had visited at Walsingham, but then I travelled further, to a hilltop above the cave from which I could see the island, sea and mainland beyond. In the same church as Calvary, it was a fitting journey.[6]

Back in reality though, there was much to think about also. As I heard the muezzin from the adjacent mosque calling the Muslims to prayer during Mass, I thought about this remarkable church, unspectacular compared to many European cathedrals, reeking of incense, dark, and in places totally dilapidated, yet with an atmosphere all of its own, labyrinthine, Western, Eastern, truly unique and, despite the crowds, a place of quiet and reflection.

My reflections were broken by the Peace. This is the one part of the Mass that does differ across the cultures and I always find it interesting to see how the locals approach it. In England, it is the cue for a hearty handshake whilst in Vietnam the congregation always looked uncomfortable and annoyed at being asked to interact with their fellow worshippers and merely afforded one another a cursory nod. The Portuguese however, much to my surprise, all waved at each other enthusiastically. It was altogether quite pleasant.

After the Peace I prayed for Christian friends around the world and for my own family. Then I took the host in the holiest church on Earth and that done, I returned to the hotel a content man.

Thao is a difficult person to please, particularly regarding food. She did not fancy more of the same fare as before and so we went on a stroll to locate something different. We walked up through the Old City to the Jaffa Gate and then through a plush new shopping complex to the New City where we found a Japanese restaurant of middling quality in which to dine. This short trip made me realise that I did not know Jerusalem at all; on my two previous visits I’d not left the Old City and even within the walls had explored either the Christian or Armenian Quarters.[7] As we walked back outside the city walls full of ramen and sushi, I resolved to correct that omission post-haste.


[1] Author: Carlyle Witton-Davies

[2] Author: David Baldwin

[3] In the past it is recorded that the inhabitants of these villages often threw stones at the passing Jewish trains although thankfully there were no such episodes on the day that we rumbled by.

[4] The former terminus was near to the Old City but it had not been rebuilt due to objections from the local residents about potential noise pollution.

[5] Ah, but what a subject it is! In the Holy Land there are two sites claiming to be the Empty Tomb, two Upper Rooms, (where the Last Supper took place), and no less than three contenders for Emmaus. Since Christian holy sites only began to get popularised some three centuries or so after the death of Christ, then the accuracy of all of them is questionable, although ‘The Holy Land’ by David Baldwin argues that St. Helena of Constantinople – mother of Emperor Justinian and the greatest holy place identifier of them all – came to Jerusalem in 326AD she merely officialised sites of traditional veneration that could easily have been prayed at first by the disciples. As for the Holy Sepulchre, Helena identified Calvary as being the spot where Hadrian’s temple to Venus and Jupiter stood, (built to thwart Christians she said), and excavations revealed three crosses and the tomb that Joseph of Arimathea gave for Christ’s body to be placed in. Therefore, of all the Holy Places, the Holy Sepulchre is said to be one of the most historically accurate. The first church on the site was built in 326AD under Helena’s supervision.

[6] See Walsingham Pilgrimage travelogue.

[7] I also realised just how small the Holy City is. Before I’d always felt it to be huge and labyrinthine, but on both counts it is beaten hands down by Fez, Marrakesh and countless other Arab cities. In reality, Jerusalem’s Old City is small, compact and easily navigable.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage: Part I–Tel Aviv

world-map israel

Greetings!

And what a week it has been. On UTM we have finally finished ‘Among Armenians’ and so it is time to shift our attentions elsewhere, to the land that first attracted me to Armenia: Israel.

I wrote this travelogue many years ago and have kept it in storage until now. That’s been largely due to the fact that anything about Israel/Palestine, (when you feel the need to add slashes into country names you know you’re on dodgy ground), seems to invite controversy and awaken strong feelings. And more than any other conflict in the world, this one tends to result in you falling one side of the fence or the other. And so it is that I am accused of being Pro-Palestinian by Pro-Israeli friends and Pro-Israeli by Pro-Palestinian ones. All I try to do is sit on the fence but in the Middle East fences tend to be spiky.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this exploration of what is, in my opinion, not the most beautiful country in the world but undoubtedly the most fascinating. When I wrote this travelogue back in 2010 I considered it to be the best that I had ever penned, the first decent travelogue. Looking back, I feel I have improved but it still holds up well and I hope you agree.

Oh yes, and I said that this has been a big week for me: I booked my flights to Cuba for next January. Time to get practising my Spanish. Soy Matt. Tengo uno hijo…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Israel-physical-map1

map-of-tel-aviv

HOLY LAND

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BOOK 1: SACRED PILGRIMAGE

FOREWORD

This is an account of a journey, undertaken during the early months of 2009. Although one single journey, it falls into two distinct parts and that should be appreciated when reading this account which is somewhat different to my other travelogues because of it.

The first part of the journey is a pilgrimage, a religious pilgrimage. I have never made any secret of the fact that I do have a faith that I take seriously and in none of my writings does that come across more than in Book 1 of this work. It is unashamedly Christian and laden with religious references. This is deliberate. It is not an attempt to convert, but merely to convey some of my feelings as a pilgrim to the Holy Land. Pilgrimages are extremely different in character to normal travel and hopefully this comes across in the account. If you are not religious, please bear with it, it will be worth doing so.

The second part of the journey is also a pilgrimage, but this time a secular one. Twelve years before this journey, I travelled to the Holy Land as a young man to work as a volunteer on a kibbutz. It was an experience that changed my life and part of my reasoning in returning was to reflect on that experience now that I am a father, a husband, older and, hopefully, a little wiser. References to those earlier travels permeate throughout the entire account, but particular this latter part. The second half of the account, like the journey itself, is an entirely different experience to the religious pilgrimage that proceeds it. I just hope that you the reader, manages to find something of use and enjoyment in both.

Finally, I wish to talk a little about the writing of this account. It was begun only a month or so after the trip concluded using notes compiled during the journey, but then left and not completed until midway through 2011. In the intervening period, Tom had grown up considerably and Thao and I had separated. During the journey itself, I had no intimations that we would ever part, but through the writing of this account, it became obvious that in many respects, we were already living in separate worlds back then. I was focussed on God and my memories; she just wanted to look after the baby and get home. The absolute non-engagement of her in the experience in which she was present in body is deafening in its silence. Those comments are not criticisms of either her or myself, merely a statement of fact.

Last of all, I wish to thank certain people who helped make this travelogue, the trip and all my former Holy Land expeditions special. There are too many to name in person, but below is a short list of some of the prime movers:

Thao Nguyen

Lenin (Brian Connellan)

Paul Lewis

Yankalei Shemesh

Sara Shemesh

Zohar Shemesh

Tom van den Ouden

Christoph Geiser

Simon Woods

Heather Nolan

Adrienne Netto

Elton Netto

Pepi Kovatcheva

Simeon Kovatchev

Andrei Kovalski

Maija Spektor

Pavel Serebryakov

Fr. Tony Rigby (for the Holy Land pilgrimage book)

Paul Daly

Bela Kadar (for use of the photos)

Matt Pointon

Smallthorne, U.K., May 2011

FLIGHT

Every trip starts with a journey. You need to get to wherever it is that you’re going. Rarely though, do you get there before you’ve arrived. This trip however, was different. We were going to Israel, to the Holy Land, and we got there the moment we arrived at the gate in Manchester Airport’s Terminal 2.

This gate you see, was different to all the others. Most were full of the pasty-faced, waiting to get a tan, clad in shorts and football shirts, ready to hit the beaches of the Canaries, the Balearics, the Costas. A few had businessmen waiting at them, suited and tied, passing the hours before tying up that important deal in Frankfurt, Tokyo or Singapore. This gate however, was, as I said, different. At this gate all the men had beards and ringlets whilst the women were well-covered. They held their prayer books in their hands and bobbed up and down facing a wall. Israel might boast some great beaches and bars in Eilat and Tel Aviv, but something told me that this lot weren’t on a lads’ holiday. Nor too were they headed for Tel Aviv’s central business district to complete a takeover or merger. Israel may be a party land and a business land, but above all it is the Holy Land and in Manchester Terminal 2 we had already arrived, for all those waiting had their eyes and ears tuned into the Almighty, not mere human concerns.

I was no different to these other travellers in that faith was the primary motivation for my journey, but the cross around my neck betrayed the fact that whilst we all prayed to the same god, we did it in slightly different ways, for as well as being the Promised Land of the Jews, Israel is also holy to the Christians, Muslims, Baha’i, Druze and Samaritans. Many faiths flock there and coexist, not always happily, within the borders of that ancient land.

For me though, the pilgrimage was not only religious, it was also very secular and personal, for just over twelve years previously, I had boarded a plane at Gatwick to take me to Tel Aviv. It was my first dose of back-packing, of real travel, and it marked the start of a passion for such travel that has stayed with me ever since. Despite infuriating me in so many ways, political and cultural, social and environmental, Israel has retained a very special place in my heart and after completing religious duties, I would be taking my son and wife to the place of my enlightenment, a kibbutz in the Negev Desert, for the very first time.

On board we got chatting to a young lady who, like us, had a baby in her arms. The majority of the plane’s passengers she explained, were in the same party. There was an Hassidic wedding on in Beit Shemesh and the Hassidim on board were all friends or relatives of the happy couple from Leeds or Manchester, the two traditional centres of Judaism in the North of England.

As this was a pilgrimage more than a holiday, I decided to start as I meant to continue and so I pulled out my rosary and prayed for the trip to come, concentrating on past pilgrimages and also on Tom who was, after all, the reason for the whole expedition, even if he himself was unaware of the fact.

Thao and I had wanted a child for years, ever since our marriage. Despite trying though, one had not come, nothing at all. Then, in 2005, she’d got pregnant. She’d got excited and started making plans; I’d got excited and started making plans, but then, as with so many pregnancies, especially first ones, she’d miscarried. We were both devastated, but particularly her. Worse than that, there were complications; she had pains that continued for months and required several hospital visits. It was at this time, in the depths of despair over our lost child, that I made my promise to God: if He blessed us with a child, then I would make the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre to say thank you. Still we tried, still we waited and then, just as we thought it would never happen, in 2008 Thao fell pregnant again. This time though, there were no miscarriages and on Christmas Day 2008, he was born. Two months later he was christened Thomas, (after his godfather and the saint who doubted for I’ve always believed doubt to be most healthy), Việt Anh, (which is Vietnamese for “Vietnam and England” which requires no explanation).

I’m not saying that his birth was a miracle. For a healthy young woman to give birth to a healthy young baby is not even unusual, let alone miraculous, but for us he was, and still is, a miracle, and his choice of birthday only serves to confirm that. However, with joy comes responsibility and, since I’d made that promise, well I then had to go and keep it…

I was not the only one who decided to pray on that flight. Not content with their exhortations in the airport, midway over Europe all the male Hassidim lined up in the aisle and, taking the lead from the one at the head of the line, went through an impromptu service. The Thomson flight attendants with their trolleys full of duty free looked bemused; one imagines that such things do not happen on the more standard Manchester-Lanzarote route.

At Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport everything had changed since my last visit a decade before. A sparkling new terminal had been built and the horrendous queues of the olden days were no more. My mind went back to my first visit, my arrival on January 17th, 1997 when I was met by the Shemesh family, friends of Paul, my father’s best friend, a Stoke-on-Trent Jew who visited Israel annually. Back then I was a different person to now; younger and far less confident. I’d hardly travelled either and had only agreed to go to Israel because I knew that there was the safety net of the Shemeshes to catch me if I fell. Prior to then, my only independent travel outside of Britain had been to Corfu and a day in Albania.[1] Now I had almost fifty countries under my belt, five of which I had lived in, and with that experience comes confidence. I did not need any Shemesh to meet me at the airport now, but I was still grateful for the fact that they had been there on that fateful day over a decade before.

Sailing through the customs with ease – the only thing that hadn’t changed was that the officials are still some of the sexiest in the world – we transferred downstairs to take the train into Tel Aviv. This too was new; in the olden days you had to take either a taxi or a bus but now there was a rail link direct into the heart of the city. As a lover of trains, I approved. Israel’s rail network has traditionally been very poor, so much so that I’d only ever managed one train trip on all my previous visits, down the coast from Haifa to Tel Aviv, but in the intervening decade the country has undergone a veritable rail revolution, with services being restored to Jerusalem, Beersheva and Ben Gurion Airport, and track capacity being increased on the main coastal trunk route. It’s not all finished either, for there’s a high-speed line under construction between Tel Aviv, the airport and Jerusalem and extensions planned for Dimona and Eilat amongst other destinations. I was impressed by it all and I wasn’t the only one, for when the diesel locomotive pulled into the station, its engine’s roar amplified ten-fold by the concrete walls, Tom bounced up and down excitedly. Hopefully, he too was beginning a lifetime’s love affair with trains and travel…?

Things were less impressive however, when we alighted at Tel Aviv’s Savidor Station and caught a taxi to our hotel, Momo’s Hostel on Ben Yehuda Street. Tel Aviv is a bland, colourless, concrete city which one finds difficult to like. The best description that I have ever read of the place is that by Paul Theroux:

No other city in the entire Mediterranean looks more like an American concoction than Tel Aviv. It is wrong to compare it (as many people did) with Miami and its tangle of suburbs. Tel Aviv was both more sterile and less interesting, and it was strangely introverted; its streets were lifeless, its different cultures, and its tensions, masked… Somewhere on the east coast of Florida there must be a city that Tel Aviv resembles, a medium-sized seaside settlement of ugly high-rise buildings and hotels, a shopping district, a promenade by the sea, not many trees, a white population watching gray [sic] flopping waves under a blue sky.”[2]

All I can say is, if that is the truth, I never want to visit Florida.

Dating entirely from the 20th century, Tel Aviv lacks an identifiable centre and instead seems to consist solely of rows of concrete apartment blocks with shops underneath. As we rolled along the streets, the meter ticking over and the Arab taxi driver talking of the Champions League, (he was an admirer of Chelsea because of their Israeli manager, Avram Grant), my mind was cast back to my very first visit when Sara and Zohar Shemesh showed me round the centre of the city with its Druze market and expensive shopping streets. I’d wondered then if there wasn’t more to it, if I was missing something, but I am still looking for it if there is, for all my subsequent visits have revealed naught of note.

Even all of this however, did not prepare us for the hotel which was, in a nutshell, awful. Thao was enraged – and rightly so – yet I protested that it had seemed alright on the internet and besides, the staff were friendly. She however, has higher standards than me, but eventually we both agreed that since it was for one night only, we would make do and, after dropping off our bags, we got out as soon as we could, going for a Japanese meal at a nearby establishment called Supper Sushi as a sop towards an irritated Indochinese, before then going onto the beach, Tel Aviv’s one great draw card, where we drank beer as Tom slept whilst gazing out over the waters of the Mediterranean, the moonlight glittering on the waves.

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Next part: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem


[1] See ‘Albanian Excursions Part I’.

[2] The Pillars of Hercules, p.387-8

Monday, 20 July 2015

Among Armenians: Postscript: A Georgian Minibreak

world-map tbilisiGreetings!

And again apologies for the late posting. It’s summertime now which means disappearing most weekends to camp, explore castles and churches and generally have a good time instead of sitting in front of a laptop.

Indeed, on my travels this weekend, spent with Paul from the Armenian trip, I was reminded of our journeying by a stone that we saw in a beautiful old church in Meifod, Wales. It was the gravestone of an unnamed Prince of Powys and over 1,000 years old. Staring at its intricate Celtic designs and the primitive crucified Christ at the head I was reminded of an Armenian khatchkar. Was there an ancient connection between the Celts and the Armenians? Some think so, others think not though stones like that one can make you definitely believe it.

stone

Today’s posting is the last in the ‘Among Armenians’ series, next week we’ll have something completely different. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and that you enjoy this short postscript in neighbouring Georgia as well. Go there one day; I recommend it!

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

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

Day 9: Garni and Geghard

Postscript: A Georgian Minibreak

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

Map of the Caucasus Republic of Georgia

tbilisi map

Postscript – A Georgian Minibreak

The train rolled into Tbilisi Railway Station at a ten to eight in the morning. Bleary-eyed, we alighted, checked our bags into left luggage and then changed some of our pounds into Georgian lari before heading north on the Metro to the Didube Bus Station. I knew Tbilisi a little after having spent several days there in 2010,[1] and that was why I headed for Didube as Didube Bus Station is where the marshrutki for all over Georgia leave from.

The word “marshrutka” (plural “marshrutki”) comes from the Russian “marshrutnoe taksi” (routed taxi) which itself comes from the German “Marschroute”, a combination of “walk” or “march” and “route”. I hadn't liked them the first time that I'd learnt the term back in Didube Bus Station four years before and nothing in the meantime had conspired to improve my image of them, but we needed to head places and last time around I'd learnt that, in Georgia, the train is a far worse option.

We were splitting up, Paul and I. Partially because I had already seen the city that he wished to explore and partly because I enjoy my own company and, whilst Paul had been an excellent travelling companion over the last couple of weeks, I desperately wanted some time alone. Which was all well and good except that, unlike me, Paul hadn't been to Georgia before, couldn't read Cyrillic and didn't speak any Russian. So it was that I found him the marshrutka for Gori, gave him the guidebook so he'd know how to get about once there and then sought my own transport further west to Borjomi.

Gori is Stalin's birthplace and, after the great man's death, Beria turned the city into a virtual shrine to him. I'd visited in 2010, made friends with the stationmaster and thoroughly enjoyed my sojourn there. Around 80km west from his hometown, in a gorge cut by the Mtkvari River, lies another town associated with old Uncle Joe. Borjomi was the old dictator's favourite spa and since I sought some and love spas then, well, was I going to head anywhere else?

I left Tbilisi with me feeling that we were in a very different country to the one that I had left the night before. The Georgians looked different to their southern brethren – still dark features but lighter skin, more European features and, I am afraid to say, much plainer females. Their faith is different too; icons abounded everywhere and whenever a church was passed everyone devotedly crossed themselves thrice, back-to-front. Georgia is the most openly and passionately Orthodox country that I have ever visited. It is also poorer and scruffier than Armenia, (Sevan excepted), but the roads were much better. It reminded me of Romania and Bulgaria in the 1990s. Overall Romania had far greater poverty than Bulgaria, but in amongst the chaos and rubbish there were unexpected signs of wealth that could only be dwelt of south of the Danube, like brand-new high speed trains and the impressive Bucharest Metro.

The marshrutka left Tbilisi behind and passed Mtskheta, the Echmiadzin of Georgia, with its grand stone cathedral, and then veered westwards along a new, smooth and largely-empty dual-carriageway.

The road did not run along the floor of the Mtkvari Valley as the railway does, but instead a mile or so to the north. As we passed Gori it commanded fantastic views over the city and I could pick out the citadel and Stalin Museum that I had visited on my last trip. I just hoped that Paul would enjoy them as much as I had done. Also of interest was a close-up view of the IDP[2] settlement that I had spied from the citadel before and an enormous military base to the north of the city close by the highway. Both were there because, less than a mile north of the road, lies South Ossetia, the region that declared its independence from Georgia during the 2008 conflict when the Russians invaded and occupied Gori itself for a few days. If things kick-off again in Georgia, this is the spot where it is most likely to happen.

After Khashuri, a nondescript town some fifty kilometres on from Gori, the valley narrowed and became very picturesque, the scenery changing from wide Central Asian brown expanse to almost Alpine slopes and greens. Soon we were in Borjomi itself, the main settlement in those parts, and at the bus station I summoned a taxi and asked the driver to find me some suitable accommodation. He took me over the Mtkvari and up a steep hill to a private house where rooms were being rented out at 30 lari per night. The one that I was shown was good and the location pleasant and so I took it and slumped thankfully on the bed, tired of all the travel.

I took a walk around the town which really was a charming place indeed. I'd wanted to visit back in 2010 but hadn't had time and so I was glad to have the chance to do so now. I crossed back over the river and then followed two ladies dressed in long black skirts and headscarves, the attire of religious Orthodox women, to the former Hotel Borjomi, a huge ex-Inturist concrete slab at the eastern end of the town now full of refugees from Abkhazia, the other Georgian province which has broken away from its parent country and declared independence, (like South Ossetia, with considerable Russian assistance). It was a sorry-looking place, with washing hanging from the balconies, a slice of misery in the midst of an Alpine paradise. Having just come from Nagorno-Karabagh this place provided the flip-side view of such post-Soviet unrecognised entities. Like with Nagorno-Karabagh, (and South Ossetia and Transdniestra), the majority of the population of Abkhazia had wished for independence, usually because of a culture of aggressive nationalism in the parent country, but there were also those who wished to maintain the status quo and were thus forced out of the land where their families had dwelt for generations. Doubtless, there are similar sorry hovels full of refugees across Azerbaijan peopled by the former inhabitants of those now sorry and broken ruins that we had seen at Aghdam. I wondered what stories those two traditionally-attired girls could tell, which village they had been forced from, what cottage, vegetable garden and orchard they had left behind.

borjomi4 The Mtkvari with the former Hotel Borjomi in the background

Having seen the dark side of Borjomi, I headed to the town’s museum to explore its history. On the way I saw more evidence of the local religiosity: an elderly priest was walking the streets and passers-by were coming up to him and asking for blessings. Although undoubtedly religious, we had witnessed nothing like that in Armenia and whilst from a distance the Armenian and Georgian churches may appear to the stranger to be much the same, in actual fact they are markedly different in many areas aside from how they view the Council of Chalcedon.

Borjomi’s museum was a delight. Housed in a rambling – and crumbling – villa once owned by the Romanovs, it contained a variety of artwork, stuffed animals and artefacts. I found of particular interest the sections of the town’s bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and a gallery sponsored by BP on local archaeological finds, (whilst building a pipeline through the area, the oil giant had paid for archaeological digs and restored an ancient church which I would have loved to have had the chance to visit).

After the museum I walked to the spa itself. On the way I passed the railway station which now hosts a restaurant, the Metropol, where I decided to dine. The bowl of kharcho, (a traditional Georgian dish that contains mutton, garlic, rice and vegetables in a spicy soup), was excellent – Armenian food is good, but Georgian is world-class – but the waitress, a young lady named Maiya, was the most miserable that I have ever come across.

The spa is located in a park about a kilometre from the town centre. It was a lovely walk, past a string of traditional Georgian villas with incredible fretwork. One had been restored and is now the headquarters of the Borjomi Spa Water Company whose products are seen on tables all across Georgia and beyond, (it was once the most popular mineral water in the USSR),. By the park gates a new hotel was being built but it was not distasteful and when it is finished and the whole promenade by the river completed, the area will be very pleasant indeed.

02 The Spa at Borjomi

I paid a nominal fee to enter the park which was well-maintained initially but got tattier the further I ventured in. After half a mile or so it petered out entirely but I continued walking through the beautiful forested gorge to the public bath set in a meadow in the middle of the mountains, away from any civilisation.

It was an incredible place, one of the most beautiful bathing spots that I have ever visited, marred only by the litter left by previous visitors. There were few other people there then, al locals, including one charming wide-hipped girl, but after twenty minutes or so they all left and I had the place entirely to myself save for the presence of a few grazing cows. I submerged myself in the glorious sulphurous water lazily, feeling that life couldn’t get any better. There is no pleasure on earth greater than that of bathing in a spa and few spas as marvellous as that one with regards to setting.

14ef2e62c904 The bathing pool in the woods

I strolled back through the woods to the park where I imbibed two pints of water from Stalin's favourite spring. It was slightly warm, very sulphurous and tingly and although I enjoyed it, I couldn't have drank anymore. Then I made my way back to the Metropol where I dined again, this time on chakapuli, a stew of lamb, scallions and greens with tarragon. It was again excellent and Maiya again morose and what is more, the CD again the same, three songs on loop, one of which was James Blunt's 'You're Beautiful' which is a nice song once or twice but rather grating after ten plays.

Back up the steep hill to my room, I fell into conversation with the owner, a friendly chap who had lived for ten years in the USA and boasted of visiting no less than twenty-five states. He admitted to missing his life there somewhat, but then moved onto talking about currency exchange rates, being much impressed by the strength of pound sterling. As we talked a car pulled up and out got the pretty wide-hipped girl from the bathing pool who said hello and turned out to be his daughter.

That evening, after the sun had set, I walked down into the town to buy some water. Borjomi truly is a beautiful place by night as much as by day. I passed a fantastic pseudo-Gothic castle which turned out to be a former palace of the Romanovs, Borjomi being a magnet for all the great and good in the old imperial days, attracting such luminaries as Chekov and Tchiakovsky as well as Stalin and a number of tsars. On mountain slopes above the town, several large crosses were illuminated in neon providing spiritual guidance in the blackness. It was a friendly place too. After I'd bought the water and a few snacks from the supermarket, I saw my taxi driver who waved hello. Only in town a few hours and already feeling part of the family! It was nice, a fantastic and relaxing end to the trip and I was a happy man as I ascended back up the hill to my room where I finished 'Shadow of the Moon' before turning in for the night.

I was up early the following morning to catch the nine o'clock marshrutka back to Tbilisi. I would have dearly loved to have spent several days relaxing and walking in the hills about Borjomi but it was not possible and at least I had been lucky enough to experience it once. Maybe next time...?

On the way back to the capital I read from cover to cover a rather strange Japanese novel named 'Hotel Iris' by one Yoko Ogawa which I found rather enjoyable although in my mind's eye reality mixed with fiction and whilst the overall setting was definitely a rather sleepy Japanese seaside resort, the hotel itself was the eccentric edifice of Borjomi Museum.

Upon arrival I took the Metro to the railway station where I dropped my overnight bag and then made my way to Freedom Square, the heart of the city. I'd decided to check out the National Museum not having managed to do so on my last visit, but it was shut, the day being Good Friday. Not realising that it was such a holy day, (to be fair, I think the Georgian Church uses a different calendar to the Anglican), I popped into the adjacent Kashveti Church. To be fair, as churches go, this one was nothing remarkable, only dating from the early 20th century, but I must admit that I enjoyed being in a church with plenty of icons.

I wandered along Rustaveli Avenue back to Freedom Square and then down Pushkin Street towards the river. That whole area had been extensively renovated since my last visit, the traditional wooden houses with fretwork balconies that have a flavour of New Orleans looking spruce and handsome, whilst below them the old city walls had been excavated and imaginatively presented.

I stopped to buy presents in a market and then dined on kharcho and garlic aubergine in a little restaurant before continuing on to the river itself, my intention to head to the old city. I never got that far however, as I spied a fascinating-looking church which turned out to be the Anchiskhati Church, the oldest in all Tbilisi. I went inside and found a real gem. Dating from the 6th century with chunky Romanesque pillars, it had a smattering of worshippers inside as the priests busied themselves preparing for the service of Divine Liturgy. I went around kissing the icons and then waited as the Liturgy commenced. It was indescribably beautiful, an earthy, sweet Orthodoxy that soothes the senses and brings one closer to God. I stayed for some time stood by a pillar, (there are few chairs in Orthodox churches), soaking up the Divine Liturgy until it grew so crowded that one could hardly move.

Anchiskhati-Basili_2420376c Inside the Anchiskhati Church

Then I went on my way, retreating to a cafe adjacent to a strange, crooked, ancient-looking clocktower, (but which I suspect must be brand-new as it is not mentioned in my (2007) guidebook. There I sipped tea and began writing a short story inspired by a trip earlier in the year along the Heart of Wales Line[3] whilst all the while I could still hear the haunting Liturgy being chanted in the background.

14161748188_aa0ebf032f_z The curious clocktower

After my tea I walked through the Old City. There was evidence of much renovation since 2010 and Tbilisi is fast becoming a very pleasant city indeed. I went shopping for a hat; not any old hat but a very specific one. Back in 2010 I'd bought one from a roadside vendor when my marshrutka had stopped en route to Kazbegi. The hat in question was a knitted woollen one decorated with crosses all the way around. Despite having a number of slightly ridiculous hats in my possession, I had never come across one that was quite 'me'. Or at least, not until that marshrutka stopped that fateful day. The hat was comfy, stylish in an “I'm not stylish whatsoever” kind of way and, most importantly of all, something of a talking point, (Matt, where on earth did you get that?!”). I wore it everywhere until, on a trip to St. David's earlier in the year, I left it behind by accident. Since then I had been hatless, almost naked wherever I roamed. How fortuitous therefore, that I had already booked another trip to Georgia to replace it.

The hat in question was a traditional Georgian design, but although there were no shortage of traditional Georgian hats on sale in all the souvenir shops, all were of a very different, far sillier and furrier type. I guessed that my hat was probably only traditional in a certain region, (that around Kazbegi I assume), whilst these dafter headpieces were from a different region. However, after extensive and dedicated searching, I did locate a shop near to Freedom Square with a much wider hat selection and I bought several ensuring that my hat may be properly clad for years to come.

14347553734_b53cc41f1c_z Beer advert showing a trio of Georgian hats. The ones on sale everywhere were like that on the left; mine is like the one on the right

I made my way back to the railway station where I passed the time writing the short story and drinking Natakhtari Pear Lemonade, a firm favourite from my first visit. After an hour or so Paul arrived and, after catching up on each other's activities – he had really enjoyed Gori – we made our way back to the Old Town so that he could see a little of the highlights of the capital. We walked through the narrow streets to the river where a swish new bridge leads to a brand-new park. Once again, it was clear that there had been substantial investment in improving Tbilisi in recent years and the city that I had been lukewarm about in 2010 I was now really beginning to like.

And the greatest of all those improvements led from the newly laid-out park to the imposing statue of Mother Georgia, (a sister of Mother Armenia in Yerevan and Mother Ukraine in Kiev), stood on the Sololaki Ridge which runs to the west of the Old Town. This was a brand-new cablecar which whisked us up, over and above the city on an amazing journey, before depositing us at the feet of the great woman herself and next to the Narikala Citadel. Four years before I'd scrambled up the hill in the intense summer heat to the citadel only to discover nondescript ruins and a hawker selling lukewarm bottled mineral water. This was far more civilised!

Mother Georgia herself (Kartlis Deda in Georgian) is, like her Armenian sister, an impressive lady, a twenty metre high aluminium statue carrying a sword in one hand and a bowl in the other. Constructed between 1958 and 1963, her choice of objects to hold demonstrates that Georgia is hospitable but also ready to defend herself. Stood at her feet though, she was not the main attraction, but instead the city itself, laid out like a carpet below us, glittering in the spring sunlight.

14161740688_ac352d869e_z Paul overlooking Tbilisi

And there we finished our Georgian minibreak and indeed, our entire Caucasian odyssey. We'd no more energy or head space left for sightseeing and only wanted to soak up the atmosphere and relax for the few remaining hours until our plane departed back to Amsterdam. After all, there'd be little chance to do either when we got back home. And it had been a good trip, for Paul all had been new, for me a mix of both the alien and the familiar, but enjoyable in equal measure. The South Caucasus are home to some of the most ancient and fascinating human civilisations on earth and it packs a lot into a very small space, (Georgia is roughly the same size as the Republic of Ireland whilst Armenia is smaller). What is more, very few people seem to have cottoned on to just how brilliant it is. Which for me, is not a problem at all.

14161893297_2ea28aa84d_z Georgia: It’s all about the Natakhtari Pear Lemonade and Borjomi Water

FINIS

Written Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, 9th December, 2014

 

Bibliography

Books

Among the Russians: From the Baltic to the Caucasus

Colin Thubron

Published by Heinemann Ltd. (London, UK) 1983

 

Armenia with Nagorno-Karabagh (Edition 3)

Nicholas Holding with Deirdre Holding

Published by Bradt Travel Guides Ltd. (Chalfont St. Peter, UK) 2011

 

The Crossing Place

Philip Marsden

Published by Flamingo (London, UK) 1994 (First edition: 1993)

 

Georgia (Edition 3)

Tim Burford

Published by Bradt Travel Guides Ltd. (Chalfont St. Peter, UK) 2007

 

A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility

Taner Akçam

Published by Constable Ltd. (London, UK) 2007

 

Articles

Mass Wedding in Karabakh Results in Baby Boom

Azbarez.com 20/08/2009

http://asbarez.com/69565/mass-wedding-in-karabakh-results-in-baby-boom/

 

Nagorno-Karabakh: Mass Wedding Hopes to Spark Baby Boom in Separatist Territory

Eurasianet.org 23/10/2008

http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav102408.shtml


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

[2] Internally Displaced Persons

[3] Caertomos

,

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Among Armenians: Day 9: Garni and Geghard

world-map yerevanGreetings!

I chanced upon an article this week entitled 5 Depressing Side Effects No One Tells You About Moving Abroad. Stuff like this always piques my curiosity so I gave it a read and to be honest, like with so much that one finds on the internet, I left disappointed and so wished to add my comments.

Now according to the author, one Manon De Heus, a Berlin-based journalist and sociologist no less, who has live in a mind-boggling five different countries, if one moves abroad one must be prepared for the following:

  • Your loved ones will be devastated
  • You’ll feel guilty all the time
  • You’ll feel really, really lonely
  • You won’t fit in anymore
  • You’ll lose dear friends

Oh dear oh dear Manon, but I’m afraid that I beg to differ and, furthermore, state categorically that I’m not impressed at all that you are writing such drivel. Why? Well, firstly because if you really are a sociologist and thus an academic of worth, you’ll know not to generalise and if the above aren’t generalisations, then I don’t know what is.

But what of her five claims? Well, all could or might be true, but then again, so could the opposite. Take for example the first: Your loved ones will be devastated. Some will, but hopefully not all. I am a father and I love my son to bits. If he went away I would miss him but if he didn’t I would fear that he is missing out on so much of the beauty of the world. Parents, friends, siblings and so on should help those we care deeply for to be independent and to live life on the full, not try to stop it. That is controlling and controlling someone does not equate to loving them. It is built on a lack of self-esteem.

Similarly, feeling guilty also boils down to a lack of that same self-esteem and nothing can solve low self-esteem better than independence. Why should you feel guilty for being yourself and living your life? Some people do, but then some people do not and those who don’t are in the right: it’s your life and you have the right to live it.

As for feeling really, really lonely, well, you might Manon, but I never did. Quite the contrary in fact, I was far less lonely overseas than at home and I’m rarely lonely here. Loneliness is caused by the same lack of self-esteem and an inability to find things to occupy your time and meet new people. Loneliness is in the mind, not the place and so if you’re feeling lonely Manon, just check out all the cool things that are going on, wherever you may be.

You won’t fit in anymore. Well, that is true. It was a shock when I returned home to find that it hadn’t changed but I had. But that is no bad thing: my horizons had widened and I now get far more out of my hometown than I did when I returned to it in 2005. As for not fitting in when overseas, well, isn’t that the point?

And finally, you’ll lose dear friends. Again true… and yet not. You do drift away from some old friends, (but then you pick up new ones), but the thing is, often they are friends whom you bonded with more because of circumstance than character, i.e. were they such dear friends after all whom you shared a lot with or were they just people you’d hung out with for years because there was no one else? Once again, dependency or independence, which do you choose?

I know which I prefer.

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

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

Day 9: Garni and Geghard

Postscript: A Georgian Minibreak

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

yerevan-map

ArmeniaMap09

Day 9 – Garni and Geghard

We were up at ten with a hangover on our last day in Armenia. We'd arranged with the taxi driver who'd escorted us back from the centre one night to take us to Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery, two of Armenia's most famous sights and both within easy reach of Yerevan. We'd chosen this driver as he was friendly, intelligent and spoke good English due to having lived for many years overseas in Germany, Syria, Jordan and Kazakhstan, being a fully-qualified dentist, (which made me wonder quite what he was doing driving taxis).

We headed out of Yerevan and into the hills. Vilem and Filip thought that the best way to cure a hangover was to drink more and were passing beer about. To their annoyance, I refused stubbornly, though Paul partook. The fact is, I like a drink as much as anyone but before 5pm all it ever seems to do is send me to sleep and this was not a day that I wanted to doze through.

Rounding one corner, Filip exclaimed, “What mountain is that?” and looking to where he was pointed, we all got our first view of the trip of Ararat in all her glory. Shrouded by clouds at Khor Virap and Yerevan and on the journeys to and fro Nagorno-Karabagh, Paul and I had resigned ourselves to not seeing her in full yet there, on our very last day in the country, she shimmered in all her volcanic magnificence. What a fitting finale and what a sight! We stopped immediately for photographs before continuing on our way.

14161792169_e803e00cbf_z Ararat

I liked the temple at Garni. The setting was spectacular, above a gorge, surrounded by almost Mediterranean hills. Pride of place though went to the temple itself, a slice of Ancient Rome plonked in the Caucasus. It was as if we had just stepped into an Asterix & Obelix adventure.

And perhaps about as historically accurate. Garni is the best preserved Roman building in the Caucasus, a complete Pagan temple dating back to the 1st century and once dedicated to Mithras. Well, maybe. Actually, most of it is a rebuild or even a reimagining. The original was largely destroyed in an earthquake back in 1679 and what you see now is the product of a reconstruction between 1969 and 1975. As to how authentic that reconstruction is, historians differ; some even believe that Garni never was a temple at all and instead the tomb of a Romanised local ruler. How tragic it is when our illusions are shattered so! Nonetheless, it was a great place to visit, not only for the temple itself, (which could, after all, be an accurate rebuild), but also for the remains of a (definitely authentic) bathhouse with a spectacular mosaic which contains the words, “We worked but did not get anything”. In his classic travelogue of the USSR 'Among the Russians', Colin Thubron patronisingly notes that “a tour-leader pointed them out to his group as proof of Capitalist oppression of mosaic-workers in the first century AD and shrivelled the life-loving fantasy beneath our feet to Marxist dust.”[1] Maybe, although I somehow doubt that Mr. Thubron has ever had to put up with the oppression that such Marxists strive to halt. Indeed, if his publishers had refused to pay him a penny after selling thousands of his books, would his words have been any different to those of the oppressed 1st century mosaic artists? I somehow suspect not.

14161952227_36bb894569_z Garni

Our next stop, the famous cave monastery at Geghard, was only a few miles further on from Garni. I'd wanted to visit this place ever since watching Ian Wright stroll around it on the Lonely Planet episode on Armenia and Georgia.[2]

And it did not disappoint. Set in the end of a narrow river valley, the hills rocky and bare, the monastery initially looked little different to most of the others. However, inside it bore no similarities to all we had seen before as most of the church was actually built into the hill, utilising ancient caves which had been further hollowed out and decorated with carved stonework. It was an incredibly atmospheric place and I enjoyed sitting in peace for a while with a candle. Afterwards I explored the monks' cells, tiny cave chambers where devout men would live for years, and then an upper chamber of the church which had the most amazing acoustics that I have ever experienced. I stood in the centre of the room and sang a verse of 'Veni, Veni, Emmanuel' and it was as if an entire choir were accompanying me.

14348448235_d9992dd40a_z Inside the cave church

On the way back to our taxi I decided to try out some of the snacks being offered by the hawkers outside the monastery compound. We'd seen the same stuff on sale everywhere that we went but had been apprehensive about trying them as they all looked, well... suspect. The main one was a sort of brown, gooey string with blobs on it. This turned out to be a string of nuts covered in, well, gooey brown stuff, but it was rather tasty. The other Armenian snack staple was a sort of piece of brown paper that turned out to be dried apricot puree rolled into sheets. They call it “fruit” or “sour lavash” and of the two it was my favourite.

We made only one stop on the way back to the hotel and that was due to Paul who was still suffering from the excesses of the night before – and, no doubt, Vilem's early morning beers – and had to empty the contents of his stomach by the side of the road. Taking his condition into account, we rested awhile upon our return before heading into Yerevan, bidding our Czech friends adieu at the foot of the Cascade and then taking the Metro to the grand railway terminal to buy our tickets onwards to Tbilisi that evening. We decided to treat ourselves and go first class and, at a mere 17,000 dram each, why not? Although still a grand place, Yerevan's railway station felt a bit sad and empty. Once connected to the greatest railway system on earth, with lines running from Vladivostok to Brest, Archangel to Dushnabe and thence connections onwards to destinations all over Europe and Asia. Nowadays though, it only serves a few trains per day. The main trunk line to Iran is now severed at the sleepy town of Yeraskh due to Azerbaijani Nakhijevan blocking the way south whilst closed borders to the east and west mean no expansion is possible in those directions. So, the only line of any real importance is the one that we would be travelling along, to Tbilisi though via a very roundabout route through Armavir and Gyumri which means that a marshrutka or bus is several hours quicker, and even this line can only get you into Georgia as the routes onwards to the north are severed due to the frosty relations between Russia and Georgia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia through which the only mainline to Moscow passes. So, aside from a few local services, there is but the night train to Tbilisi which leaves every other day, returning the following night.

Tickets bought, we headed into beautiful Yerevan one last time to while away the hours playing backgammon, writing postcards, checking the internet and admiring the ladies. Then it was time to go so we headed back to that station of stations, (still largely empty) where I finally finished 'A Shameful Act' and then got told off by a soldier for whistling a tune, (“Give a man a hat...” Paul commented), before finally boarding the train. I've been on several of the great old Soviet trains before, but for Paul it was a new experience. Thankfully, some things have improved over the years and, unlike when the Lowlander and I travelled through Uzbekistan, there was no attempt to fill-up our compartment with either non-registered passengers or contraband melons.[3] And so, as the sun sank behind the slopes of Ararat, we rumbled out of the station and the magical and ancient land of Armenia.

14348417795_5735123b41_zThe Tbilisi Train

Next Part: A Georgian Minibreak


[1] Among the Russians, p.177

[2] Lonely Planet Series 7, Episode 2: Georgia & Armenia (2001)

[3] See my travelogue 'Across Asia With A Lowlander'.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Among Armenians: Day 8: Lake Sevan

world-map yerevanGreetings!

Summer is here in the UK and that means one thing: cricket! I’ve just had a great evening watching T20 at Old Trafford and next Friday I’m off to the 1st Ashes Test in Cardiff.

Cricket is a strange game: those who understand it love it, those who don’t are turned off by the length of games. Yet it is an amazing cultural experience for anyone and I truly recommend catching a game in any of the countries where cricket is popular.

And so I’m off to take some of my own advice…

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

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

Day 9: Garni and Geghard

Postscript: A Georgian Minibreak

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

ArmeniaMap07

Day 8 – Lake Sevan

We arose at ten and breakfasted in the canteen café at the bus station, thinking that it would be convenient for what was to come next: catching a marshrutka for the thirty miles or so journey to Lake Sevan. However, upon finishing our victuals we found that there were no marshrutki from that bus station but instead they left from the West – or North, depending on who you asked – bus station which could be reached by catching a bus from a certain bus stop in town on Isahakian Street. There we headed only to be directed to a different stop on Terian Street only then to be directed back to the original stop. In the end we caught a taxi.

The Northern Bus Station was a good distance out of the city to the east on the Sevan road and from there it was not long before a marshrutka filled up and departed. Unfortunately, it filled up rather too much for my liking and so I saw little of the scenery going although what I did look at was very mountainous and brown. Instead though, I concentrated on reading, a lengthy, cheesy and very enjoyable historical romance named 'Shadow of the Moon' by one M. M. Kaye and for the hour or so that we were travelling I was more in 19th century British India than 21st century Armenia, falling in love with the dark-haired heroine Winter de Ballesteros almost as much as I was the raven-haired graces all about me on the marshrutka.

It was raining when we reached Sevan, the grimy little town on the shores of the famous lake, the first rain that we'd experienced since coming, so we hailed a taxi straightaway to escort us to Sevanavank, the ancient monastery on an “island” in the lake.

I write “island” rather than island because island is what everyone calls it when it is very plainly a peninsular, being very much connected to the mainland. However, the popular moniker is much deserved since, until very recently, Sevanavank was an island. Let me explain.

Lake Sevan is the smallest of the Three Great Lakes of Armenia. Like its highest mountains, the largest two of the three – Van and Urmia – are now irredeemably lost, Van in modern-day Turkey and Urmia within Iran. Indeed, I'd been to the shores of the former during my 2010 trip through the lost provinces of Armenia, an expanse of blue in a hot and arid land that melted into the horizon. That too had an Armenian city on the shore and church on an island. There though, both lay in ruins.

Despite being the smallest of the three lakes already, the Soviets earnestly desired to make it even smaller. Important figures had read the 1910 book by Armenian engineer Soukias Manasserian 'The Evaporating Billions and the Stagnation of Russian Capital' which put forward a scheme to reduce the depth of the lake from 95m to 45m, using the water for irrigation and hydro-electric power generation.[1] In addition to this, the new land created could be used for agricultural production, the idea being that the lake's “scraggy shores will be turned into sweet-smelling meadows, groves of nut-trees and oak trees... Around it beautiful roads and promenades will be laid... There could be no objection to diminishing the size of the lake for it would merely mean diminishing the annual evaporation of a vast quantity of moisture that rose uselessly into the air.”[2]

Work began in 1933 but was delayed by the war and only completed in 1949. Declared a major achievement of the Soviet Union, lake levels began to drop by one metre a year. However, after the death of Stalin and the Secret Speech criticising him in 1956, doubts about the wisdom of the project began to be raised. The trees that were meant to be growing on the reclaimed land weren't doing all that well and fish yields from the lake – which is famous for its trout – were dropping alarmingly. In 1958 a Sevan Committee was formed to try and keep the water levels as high as possible and by 1962 the level stabilised at 18m below the original. Then a 49km tunnel was built to bring 200 million cubic metres of water each year from the River Arpa into the lake (see earlier chapter). This opened in 1981 but the water levels only rose by 1.5m so a second tunnel was cut to divert 165 million cubic metres of water per annum from the River Vorotan into the Arpa and thence the lake. This 22km megaproject, (remember the mine that I discussed earlier?), was finally completed in 2008 but by this time the water levels had dropped another two metres as, after the 1988 earthquake, the collapse of the USSR, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabagh and the closure of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Station which provided Armenia with around half of its electricity, the hydro-electric plants sucking the water out of Lake Sevan had to increase their capacity in order to meet the electricity shortfall. Nowadays though, water levels are rising satisfactorily again and are expected to stabilise at 1,904m above sea level, only 11m below the original level. By 2009 a level of 1,899m had been reached, good news for everyone save those who built illegally on the newly-drained land by the lakeside.

It was still raining when we arrived on the peninsular island so we dived into a restaurant for tea and backgammon. Lake Sevan is, as I mentioned before, famous for its trout and the proprietor was eager for us to sample his, but after our hearty breakfast in the bus station, neither of us were hungry so we declained, planning to return later when we'd worked up an appetite. A rain shower, two games of backgammon and two teas a-piece later we were glad that we hadn't felt peckish for we were charged a whopping 4,000 dram for our tea, (the “complimentary” cakes were 1,000 dram each), and the Lord alone knows what the trout would have cost us. Both of us were angry but upon reflection, it was the only time we were ripped off on the entire trip so one shouldn't complain too much.

When the sky was clear we went down to the lakeside and took our photos with the fishing boats. We could have easily been at the seaside save for the fact that the water was fresh and there was a thin line of mountains on the distant horizon. It would have been extremely beautiful if it were not for the detritus of the tourist industry all around – shacks selling souvenirs and drinks, etc – so we walked away from the commercialised area around the car park and went to find somewhere a little more pristine.

14368751693_a9a0c60f5d_z By the fishing fleet of Lake Sevan

We didn't get very far. Only a quarter of a mile or so down the lane and we were waved back by an armed guard. The end of the island is a military zone – although what defensive purpose it serves I really struggle to comprehend – and they didn't even like us being near the fence which was a shame since the views across the placid waters were stunning. Nonetheless, I was glad to have gone that way since we passed the Soviet Writers' Guest House where the literary luminaries of the USSR once congregated to gain inspiration but which now sits crumbling and forlorn. It's a building that I'd seen on plenty of pictures, a slab of hideous 1960s modernism plonked in an ancient landscape, like putting Tracy Island from 'Thunderbirds' on Lindisfarne. As with the scheme to drain the lake that it overlooked, it spoke of an arrogant and insensitive time.

14368746623_ba4a62e13c_z Insensitive: The Writers’ Rest House with the monastery behind

We climbed the hill to the monastery itself though, after visiting several of Armenia's more spectacular churches, I was not expecting much, particularly as my guidebook described it disparagingly as “not really one of Armenia's most appealing places and [it] owes its popularity largely to its proximity to the lake and its accessibility from Yerevan.”[3] Yet the two tiny extant churches pleasantly surprised us both. Whilst no competition architecturally for Echmiadzin, Gandazar, Syuni or even Khor Virap, they were exquisite in their intimate, earthy humbleness and the location was breath-taking.

I went into the larger of the two churches, the Mother of God Church where I met its extremely friendly caretaker. It turned out that he was a coin collector which meant that we had something in common as I collect banknotes. He asked about British coins and after much rummaging through our pockets, Paul and I managed to locate 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p pieces which we then fitted together to demonstrate how they form the image of a complete Royal Standard. This must be quite unique in world numismatics as he was most impressed and even more so when we presented them to him as a gift. In thanks, he showed us his church's greatest treasure, an incredible 13th century khachkar which depicted – amongst other things – the Four Evangelists, the Three Kings, Adam and Eve and, most fascinating of all, Christ with His hair braided in Mongol style as it was at that time that Genghis Khan's men were sweeping through Asia destroying all in their path. It was an amazing work of art and snapshot of history and having it explained to us by such an enthusiastic gentleman made it all the more powerful to us.

14347709474_5b89b708d2_z The Mongol Christ

I sat and prayed in the small and older Holy Apostles Church for some time. It was my favourite church in all Armenia and, perhaps significantly, also the smallest and humblest that we'd entered. Only fitting for the worship of a humble carpenter I suppose.

Afterwards I climbed the hill to its crest and sat there for some time. The 360° views over the entire lake were breath-taking and much more so because of the stark contrast with Yerevan only 30 miles or so away. There all is dusty and brown, it is warm enough to wear shorts and a T-shirt and to drink coffee outdoors after sundown. At the lake though, it was chilly even with a coat on and snow still lay on most of the slopes. The lake itself was a placid, glassy deep blue but the mountains which surround it were dark. The only place which bore any similarity to it was the landscape around Sisian and the only other area in the world that I could compare it to are the wilder, bleaker moors of Scotland, Wales and England, yet even so, there was something subtly different between here and there: it was familiar yet also very alien.

14161949320_8277b32ce1_z Sevanavank

14348551585_3d740b1cf6_z Lake Sevan

Sat on that hilltop, I made a short video reflecting on the entire trip around Armenia which was now beginning to draw to a close. There was a lot to reflect on for Armenia packs so much into such a tiny country, both human and physical. I have just discussed how radically different the landscapes around Lake Sevan and Sisian are to Yerevan yet they were only two of several that we'd witnessed on our journeyings. The incredibly brown Debed Valley on the way in that was almost Albanian; the peaks and valleys of Nagorno-Karabagh that could have been in the Carpathians of the mountains of Bosnia and then that flat, fertile plain on which stood the ruins of Aghdam, almost Dutch from a distance.

But the physical geography was only half of it and, although I know this sounds like a cheesy cliché, it is her people that make Armenia so special. Their native art style is truly unique, at times Persian, at times almost Islamic, then somehow Celtic yet always wholly Armenian; the national church which is instantly recognisable and both independent and different from any other church on the planet, and then the great city of Yerevan which must rate as one of the most cultured and civilised capitals on the planet. And once you've finished looking at all that then there's the women, oh the women...

As I sat there I noticed two lovers in embrace lower down the slope, oblivious to the world as they gazed into one another's eyes, their forms silhouetted against the glittering waters of the lake. It was a beautiful and timeless image and an honour to be able to witness it. I just hope that they don't mind that I captured them for all eternity with my camera.

14161860749_f07a7d7174_z Love

We ummed and arred over what to do once we had descended the hill. We'd seen what we had come to see but it was still early. Around fifteen miles down the shore of the lake lay the Field of Khachkars, the finest collection of cross stones in all Armenia with just under a thousand dating from all era of Armenian history. The guidebook raved about it, calling it a highlight of the land, but we had seen a hell of a lot of khachkars already and wondered what seeing a load more would give us. In the end though, after some debate, the lack of alternatives made us decide to get a taxi out to them, agreeing a price of 6,000 dram for the trip.

The drive along the water's edge was fascinating and as we rode realised just how far reality had proved to be from the Soviet vision of “sweet-smelling meadows, groves of nut trees and oak trees” with “beautiful roads and promenades”. The whole scene was instead bleak, not helped by the spitting rain and melting snow I admit, but nonetheless, the road was bumpy rather than beautiful, the land by the shore bare or dotted with straggly bushes and the buildings dilapidated. The scene reminded me more of Kazakhstan or some other Central Asia republic than a lakeside paradise.

14346893442_d4c529a701_z Not quite paradise: Driving by Lake Sevan

We passed by the town of Gazar, formerly Nor Bayazit – New Bayazit – where the refugees from that now Turkish – or to be more ethnically accurate, Kurdishj – city fled to. I'd stayed in their old home four years before and seen the ruins of the Armenian town although, ironically, the whole city had now been relocated a mile or so to the west and the new settlement is now named Doğubayazıt which translates as, you've guessed it, New Bayazit.

The Field of Khachkars, an immense cemetery near to the lake's edge, reminded me of an ancient churchyard in North or Mid Wales somewhere, but that may just have been because of the drizzle. It was a remarkable place and we spent a good half an hour there wandering amongst the khachkars and photographing some of the more interesting ones, but our earlier fears were realised and there are only so many carved stones that a man can truly appreciate and we had already reached our limit.

14346919512_7f2dfe6447_z Khachkars

On the way back our driver stopped to fill-up with gas and afterwards I took the opportunity to solve the gas rather than petrol mystery. The answer was simple: in Armenia petrol sells at 500 dram per litre whilst gas is 250 dram. Most of that gas comes from Russia, (and a little from Iran), whom Armenia is friendly with unlike its northern neighbour Georgia. But how did this gas get through considering the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades to the west and east and Georgia being in the way to the north. “Bribes sort that out,” was the explanation given. This prompted a then and now conversation and our driver, a man in his forties, was adamant that things were better when Armenia had been a part of the USSR. People had jobs and money then; now the roads are awful. Gorbachev, in his opinion, “fucked everyone up the arse”.

14346900042_75f166f970_z Filling up with gas

In Sevan, perhaps the grottiest town in all Armenia, the roads were truly awful, the main streets being more like a farm track. And to make it worse, when we got there, the last marshrutka back to the capital had already left. We negotiated a price of 7,000 dram with our driver and headed back by car which was much pleasanter than the journey going as we were now able to see the scenery as we dropped around a thousand metres back down to the plain. As he drove our driver continued with the corruption theme, talking about hotels owned by the president's brother and pointing out a gangster's mansion on the edge of the city that was built to look like a church and was where Dmitri Medvedyev had stayed a year or two before.

In the capital we met up with the boys that we'd got acquainted with before our jaunt down to Nagorno-Karabagh. They arrived with friends and all were football-mad – good for me but less so for Paul who, as a Munster man, prefers the other shaped ball. There was Aram who supported Manchester United, Alfred an AC Milan aficionado and David who liked Arsenal. We walked around the streets, talked largely of the beautiful game but also of the boring architecture on the new Northern Avenue,[4] with lashings of macho gesturing and a sad, yet predictable, burst of homophobia which is de rigeur in that area of the world. We showed them the David Moyes graffiti which Alfred and David found funny, Aram less so, and then we retired to a sports bar to watch the semi-final of the German domestic cup between Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg. This was a popular game amongst the locals since Armenia's star striker, their best player for a generation or more, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, was playing up front for Dortmund and the bar was offering a 15% discount on all drinks if he scored. Anyway, the boys proved to be excellent company and we had a good night indeed, particularly when Mkhitaryan did score and the whole place erupted in cash-saving jubilation.

14368648763_7835319251_z Drinks with the footie mad lads

When we got back to our hotel we found two other travellers had checked-in next door. They were the first other backpackers that we'd seen all trip and we soon fell into conversation. Filip and Vilem were a pair of Czechs with a passion for mountaineering and another for alcohol. They'd just arrived from Georgia where they'd tried – and failed – to climb Mt. Kazbek and met a couple of “fun” Ukrainian girls on the bus. They were good company and so we talked and drank into the small hours although when Paul went to the toilet, Filip asked as to why he had no trouble understanding my English but struggled with that of my friend. “You know how a Slovak speaks Czech,” I replied and they nodded in understanding.

14161973327_1367fe6188_zAnd more drinks with the Czechs in our dungeon

 

[1] Manasserian also produced the plan to drain the Aral Sea which has left fishing boats stranded in a salty desert and has become an ecological disaster of immense proportions. They probably have a dartboard with his face on it at Greenpeace headquarters.

[2] Soviet propaganda quoted in Armenia with Nagorno-Karabagh, p.173.

[3] Armenia with Nagorno-Karabagh, p.175

[4] The Northern Avenue was part of Tamanian's original master plan that was never constructed. In 2002 work controversially started to complete the great man's vision and it is now open to the public, a broad new boulevard linking Republic Square with the Opera House. However, it has attracted much criticism due to the standard of its buildings being far below the quality of those built by Tamanian and the corners cut during construction.