Friday, 26 June 2015

Among Armenians: Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

world-map yerevan


Yesterday I read this Bradt post on 5 Reasons to visit Bulgaria. Now, I’m a big fan of Bradt travel guides as I’ve blogged in the past, and I’m an even bigger fan of Bulgaria which, if I had such a thing as a favourite country in the world, would be a strong contender for the honour, but reading this article and I was going “No! No! No!” Sadly, unlike Bradt’s amazing guides, this article seems to have been written by someone who doesn’t know the first thing about Bulgaria. Let me exaplain in my own (admittedly subjective) manner.

Reason #1: Sofia.

Now I love Bulgaria but I most definitely do not love her capital and nor, from what I am told, do her people. Sofia is grey, dreary and distinctly short on sites and atmosphere. Alongside other Balkan capitals such as Skopje, Sarajevo and Athens, she is a sorry Poundland version of Vienna. Visit Bulgaria by all means but, the immense concrete railway station and the old communist avenue in the very centre aside, miss Sofia. For more details as to why, read this account of my 2011 visit to Sofia

Reason #2: The Black Sea Coast

Now I lived and worked in and around Varna and Varna rocked! And Nesebur (in the picture on the article) and Sozopol are well worth checking out, but beyond that, the Black Sea coast is, I am sad to say, average. The best of Bulgaria is inland. Here’s my account of Varna.

Reason #3: Rila Monastery

Erm… embarrassing omission here, but after living there for a year, visiting numerous other times, I still haven’t been to Bulgaria’s No. 1 sight. So, they might be right on this one.

Reason #4: Heritage Towns

Ok, Bulgaria’s heritage towns are nice, and yes, they are a good reason to visit, but then heritage towns are a good reason to visit any country in Europe. And beware, because not all are as genuine as they seem. Etar for example, whilst nice, was built in the 1960s.

Reason #5: Brilliant Birding

Now for many years I have been telling people that the birds in Bulgaria are amazing but it seems that Bradt got the wrong end of the stick. Seriously though, this may well be true, but it is a bit of a niche interest in an article aimed at general travellers. I could recommend Bulgaria as an amazing place to watch Soviet-bloc diesel locomotives, (there are tours such as this one by Philip Wormald), but seriously, would most people give a toss?

So, if these aren’t the reasons to head Bulgaria-wards, then what are? Here are my Top 5:

Reason #1: Chalga

Traditional Balkan folk music meets pop and the fusion is both unique and captivating. It’s also a great way to learn about the social issues of the country and artists such as the transgender Roma Azis have helped revolutionise Bulgarian perceptions on sexuality and race issues. Read my article featured in Travelmag.

Reason #2: Great Railway Journeys

Ok, so there are great railway journeys all over the world, but Bulgaria has oodles of them in a small area and its cheap. Rail travel does not get better than storming up the dramatic Iskur Gorge in a train with windows that open and in a compartment where people talk to you. Or there’s the line through the Stara Planina which passes under Veliko Turnovo, or the great route down to Thessaloniki not to be mention the sadly-closed Septemvri to Bansko narrow gauge line. It’s cheap and a great way to meet the locals.

Reason #3: Amazing Communist Monuments

They’re all over the place and they’re huge. Check out the giant concrete flag-thingy in Stara Zagora that celebrates the Russo-Turkish War for example, the huge partisan in the woods near to Berkovitsa but, best of all, the ridiculously huge and impressive Monument to 1,300 Years of the Bulgarian State in Shumen. Marxtastic!

Reason #4: The Ladies

Hauntingly beautiful and extremely elegant and intelligent, Bulgaria’s females are simply awe-inspiring. It was an honour to meet them. For more information, read the wisdom of the expert on the subject, my mate Plamen.

Reason #5: Demir Baba

This 16th century Shiite Sufi shrine near to Isperikh in Dobrudja blew my mind when I first saw it. It is tranquil, spiritual and beautiful. Go there. Here are my accounts of my visits in 2003 and 2011.

And so that is Bulgaria and now back to another little land worth visiting: Armenia.

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!


Day 7 – Stepanakert to Yerevan

The Lada that was to take us back to Yerevan had morphed by the morning into a marshrutka with several other passengers in it. There was no explanation for the change from Ashot but as it was half-empty, the driver was cheerful and there were no vomiting alcoholics on board, the journey was far pleasanter than the one going down. Over the next seven hours or so I gazed out of the window, finished 'The Crossing Place', devoured another laborious chunk of 'A Shameful Act' and dozed. I also clocked the important sights – the caves of Tegh, Karahunj and the mine built for the water pipes to Lake Sevan and somewhere near to Yeghegnadzor we halted for a very tasty shwarma. Descending down to the Ararat plain, Mt. Ararat itself was still shrouded in clouds but its little brother, Mini Ararat[1] was clear and visible for the first time and very pretty it was too.

Back in Yerevan we renewed our acquaintances with the manager of the dungeon hotel, retrieved our bags from the hotel laundry and then settled back into our dingy but cheap lodgings. Then, after a shower and freshen up, we were out again, taking a bus into the centre with a specific mission in mind.

We were dropped halfway along Mesrop Mashtots Avenue and from there it was a short walk along Buzand Street to the towering hulk of the 1960s post office. En route we passed through an underpass which had the following graffiti daubed on the wall in English:

14325341416_a73f935577_z MOYES IS THAT YOU? 4-1 0-3

I laughed. One has had to wait a long time for Manchester United's fall from grace, but now that it has come, it has been spectacular and all the sweeter for it. I personally hope that they languish in mid-table for decades, but that is probably asking too much. My only regret is that it has occurred under David Moyes, a manager whom I have always respected and admired.

The post office was located in a decidedly iffier part of town. Paving slabs were broken, graffiti abounded and there was a smell of urine as we climbed the stairs. Inside it appeared more like a mobile phone emporium than a centre for dealing with mail, but thankfully, unlike at Sisian, at least here we could buy some stamps. I just wonder how folk outside the capital manage to send any letters although judging by the almost total absence of any postboxes spotted anywhere, who knows, perhaps they don't?

Folk back home contacted, we were now free to enjoy the rest of the afternoon and so I suggested that we take a walk through the rather lengthy, (around 1km), pedestrian tunnel under the post office to a quirky little attraction that I'd read about in the guidebook and quite fancied seeing.

The Children's Railway is a half-sized real railway running from an idyllically-located park down along the Hravda River Gorge for a mile or so. Children's railways were a Soviet institution, not toys but fully functioning real trains that were operated by children on holidays and at weekends, the idea I suppose, being to teach all the young Ivans, Natashas, Tatyanas and Vladimirs to be good railway workers when they grew up. There were many of them built in major cities of the Union, but Yerevan's was particularly lovely with the station being a mini version of the city's own grand railway terminal, (which we hadn't visited at that point but would soon). Alas, children no longer operate the trains, but sadly one aspect of the old Soviet regime still persists: it only runs on Sundays and holidays and since the day we visited was a Monday, then we were out of luck. Oh well, next time...

We took a leisurely walk through the shaded park by the station where there was a petulant child demanding ice cream from his mother in American-accented English. She looked thoroughly embarrassed in front of her Armenian family and I was reminded of my time in Vietnam when Việt Kiều – Overseas Vietnamese, literally “Outside Vietnamese” - parents, usually from California, brought their kids over to see the motherland. It was always a shock for the kids, totally Americanised and often with an uncertain grasp (if any) of the tongue, being dumped in such a frenetic, chaotic, alien place. I recall vividly waiting for a friend to arrive at Ho Chi Minh City Airport and seeing one particular family arrive from the States. The mum and dad came first, smiling, glad to be back home, greeted by a dozen gabbling and enthusiastic relatives armed with motorbikes and mangoes, whilst following behind came two pre-pubescent kids clad in baseball caps and NBA shirts, the look on their faces saying, “What the hell is this place that you've dragged us to?” Put in such a context, perhaps the child's demanding becomes a bit more understandable although if he'd been my son, he'd have had a good, firm word.

We walked through the suburbs, past half-built hotels and hardware shops to the nearest Metro station. On the way we met a policeman who asked us if we liked Armenia and pointed the right direction for us, (the map was wrong). We hadn't tried out the Yerevan Metro before, but it was much like all the other later Soviet systems, (i.e. not those with amazingly ornate stations), and the train that we travelled in the same kind of corrugated tin can that I had travelled in on the Moscow, Tashkent, Kiev, Tbilisi, Prague, Budapest and Sofia systems.

We headed for the full-sized version of the railway station that we'd seen in the park, though not to enjoy the architecture – spectacular as it was – but instead to get the details of the trains back to Tbilisi as neither of us fancied another lengthy marshrutka ride. We got the times and the prices – a daily night train and affordable too, particularly when one took into account the fact that it saved on a night in the hotel – and so returned to the city centre with a plan.

And there we dined in our favourite cellar restaurant again before heading to Republic Square to watch the beautiful dancing fountains – and even more beautiful females of the city on their evening stroll – whilst drinking coffee and playing backgammon at the Marriott Hotel on the square, the finest-placed hotel in the land, and probably, (if the coffee is anything to go by), the most expensive also. Oh well, we were on holiday...

Next part: Lake Sevan


[1] Mini maybe, but still a whopping 3,925m tall.

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