Saturday, 9 May 2015

Among Armenians: Prologue

world-map yerevan


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


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!


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 caf├ęs 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.

Next part: Tbilisi to Yerevan

[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.

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