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


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 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'.

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