At first I didn’t understand why I couldn’t find a direct flight from Baku, Azerbaijan into Yerevan, Armenia. Both were big cities, with big airports, each with lots of flights and routes. You’d think a nonstop Baku-Yerevan flight would be a no-brainer. But I’d soon learn that the two countries weren’t exactly the best of friends. So if you’re in Azerbaijan and wish to fly to Armenia–or vice versa–you’ll have to use Tbilisi, Georgia as an intermediary connection. (There are others, but GVD-TBS-EVN seemed to be the easiest and shortest route.)
I arrived in Yerevan at 7:45AM. I didn’t get much sleep the night before, arriving in Tbilisi after midnight. I needed coffee. We stopped to grab some joe at a grocery store in town before beginning the day’s journey.
I should probably tell you this now: I usually enjoy visiting the grocery stores in foreign countries more than the museums. Weird, I know, but I just love seeing the different kinds of food, and even more, the different brands from country to country. I marvel at the overall differences, but also the similarities. You can learn a lot about a nation by what’s stocked on their grocery store shelves, and supermarkets are always one of my favorite things to explore when I’m visiting a new land. Plus I love treats! The cookie and candy aisle is my favorite. This particular market was very nice, in fact, one of the best looking grocery stores I’d even been in: very clean and organized, there was a little diner in the middle, and up front, ladies were rolling dough and baking traditional lavash. I enjoyed my coffee and grabbed some snacks for the road. We’d have a long first day in the car.
Guide and Seek
Let me introduce my guides. I’d be visiting the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh during this trip (more on that later), and that would require a ton of driving, special visas, the Armenian language and a lot of knowledge. Soviet Tours arranged an awesome package, which included my guide (Anna) and my driver (Artur). I’d come to get to know the both of them very well during the next three days. Not only were they human textbooks, explaining every thing, person and place as we went along, but in general, just really great people. It made for a really fun and educational trip, and while I often prefer exploring solo, I wouldn’t have had such a fantastic experience without Anna and Artur. One of my fellow travel friends joined this small tour as well.
She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain
It was a loooong first day of driving, and it wouldn’t have been so grueling if it wasn’t for all the mountains. As the crow flies, the distance we traveled wasn’t so long, but we twisted and turned pretty much the whole way, as we made our way around hill after hill and mountain after mountain! The drive was pretty intense, but luckily we had some fantastic stops along the way.
Noravank was the first of a few monasteries I’d see on the trip. It was absolutely stunning, inside and out, and I loved that it was completely in the middle of nowhere. Nothing else was built near it–no hotels, gas stations, restaurants, etc. Just this ancient stone structure, and that was it. Surrounded by nature.
We’d continue to “keep it real,” as we stopped for lunch inside a cave. Yup, a cave. Qarandzav restaurant was located inside an actual cave and this would be one of the most memorable lunches I’d ever have. The food was fantastic, but of course the atmosphere stole the show. We sat on old wooden chairs inside the rocks. A stream flowed by just outside the entrance. The lavash was warm and the herbs were just picked from the garden. What a neat stop!
Next stop was another cave, but sadly one without a restaurant and bar. This was a giant cave complex, called Areni-1. The earliest known shoe was discovered here in 2010. In 2011, the discovery of a straw skirt dating back to 3,900 years BC was reported. And in 2009, the oldest brain was discovered here!
I learned Armenia was known for its dried fruits, especially their apricots, peaches, apples, plums, grapes, figs, pomegranates. There were fruit and nut stands everywhere, usually manned by older ladies, and I couldn’t help but drool of the sight of these absolutely enormous fruit “roll ups!” I had to have one!
Getting to Tatev Monastery was the best part of my visit here! The Wings of Tatev cable car runs three and a half miles between Halidzor and the monastery and is the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway built in only one section. It holds the record for longest non-stop double track cable car. The views were spectacular!
No sooner had we crossed into the disputed territory of Artsakh (previously and recently known as Nagorno Karabakh) when we drove head first into a blanket of fog thicker than I’ve ever seen. I’ve only thought “I was about to die” a handful of times in my life, but this afternoon was one of them. Between losing light as the sun set, the hairpin turns over the sheer mountainous cliffs, and the relentless fog that prohibited you from seeing even two inches in front of your windshield, I was praying so hard that this wouldn’t be the end of me. Any novice would have pulled over and waited out the fog, but Artur kept the accelerator down, and although he did slow the vehicle, we were still moving fast enough that I thought it could all end at any moment!
We stopped to see another monastery in Shushi Province, but it was that foggy, that you couldn’t even see in front of you as you were walking. (Side note, I’d hoped we could have some sushi in Shushi, but no luck.)
I finally let out the biggest sigh of relief when we arrived at my hotel in the town of Stepanakert just before the sun set. We’d arrived alive! I’d enjoyed my first day in Armenia immensely, but it was a long, tedious (and scary at times) drive. I was so glad to be out of that van and on my feet! (Note: Artur was an excellent driver!)
Let’s Get Weird
Artsakh is one of the most bizarre places on this earth. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I love bizarre. That’s why I loved Artsakh…this place is just so random, filled with so many random things that really don’t make much sense to a tourist like me. I’d dreamed of coming here, and I was so excited to finally be here.
I celebrated with a hot dog pizza that night. No one at the restaurant spoke any English, but luckily the menu did. I did have trouble ordering a bottle of water though. Shame on me for thinking everyone in the world knew the word “water”…I swear I thought that one was universal. After six or seven tries, I finally got my water! Bed followed shortly after the meal.
Stepanakert is the capital of The Republic of Artsakh and if I only had one disappointment during my entire visit to Armenia, it was that I didn’t have more time in Stepanakert. The town intrigued me so much and it was a shame that I only spent the night there and saw just one of its sites as I was leaving. But it was my own fault for booking such little time in Armenia; I was the only one to blame. There was still so much to see, and it was a long way back to Yerevan.
The first stop was The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I’d apply for and be granted my visa. I needed a visa just to be inside Artsakh and wouldn’t be able to leave without one. The whole process took only about 15 minutes–I filled out all the paperwork and waited for my visa.
On the way out of town we stopped at one of the things I’d wanted to see the most: Artsakh’s “We Are Our Mountains” monument. As I studied Artsakh over the past year in preparation for my trip, this monument kept popping up on my internet searches and it sure intrigued me. It just looked so strange and solidified the whole “weirdness” vibe of this region. I couldn’t wait to see it in person! I excitedly jogged up the hill to meet the stone people I’d come all this way to see!
Vank You Very Much!
Next stop, the village of Vank. Also situated in The Republic of Artsakh, Vank turned the weird meter up to “10,” as this place was ground zero for all things random. From a “boat hotel,” to old Rolls Royces perched on top of poles, cat statues guarding the town’s entrance and tigers carved out of hills, Vank had all the charm of an amusement park inside the Twilight Zone, and I loved every bizarre part! Where’s Rod Serling?
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
What happened next was absolutely one of the best and most unique “surprises” that I have ever encountered while traveling. In fact, it was the exact definition of why I love to travel–an encounter so unexpected and special, that it will go down as one of my most cherished interactions with the “locals.”
As we were heading back to Yerevan–still in The Republic of Artsakh–we came around a bend in the road, in between the hills, and suddenly saw a huge tank and a group of military personnel gathered on the side of the road. As we passed, we noticed it was some kind of ceremony or procession. I don’t remember whose idea it was to circle back and stop, but the next thing I know we were all getting out of the van and approaching the activity. A flurry of Armenian words was exchanged between a couple uniformed men and my guides, and then…my mind was blown.
“They are inviting you to have lunch with them,” said my guide. “They are happy that Americans are here to witness this celebration and insist you stay a while and eat with them.” I couldn’t believe it. How is this even happening?
For the next half hour we watched performances, dances, speeches, poems, and award presentations. This was a special celebration commemorating the 25th anniversary of the liberation. But what was most legit part was our actual lunch. The soldiers had this huge metal cauldron with some kind of meat boiling over fire at the banks of the river, and scooped us up a few ladles each of the stuff. If I was anywhere else, I’d be scared to death to try this: random pieces of animal–God knows what kind–still on the bones, simmering in an oily broth? I’ll pass. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before! But when you’re in the bowels of The Republic of Nagorno Karabakh and the revolutionary army insists you eat with them…you eat with them! It actually wasn’t bad–served with some of that awesome, fresh lavash bread, it all came together like some sort of Armenian burrito. The officers even poured some of the steaming meat juice into a cup for us to drink. That was a little different, but it had been boiled, so I wasn’t too concerned. Overall, just an absolutely rad, money-can’t-buy experience. This isn’t in the guide books and no “ticket” or schedule is available for this awesome treat; it’s a slice of pure travel-happenstance that was somehow awarded to me on this afternoon.
The Elephant in the Room
A reminder, that this blog is designed to be a travel journal for me. I write about where I go, what I see, who I meet and what I do. I don’t include much “factual” stuff or history, that’s what the internet is for. And I stay far away from politics. My only agenda is to see the world, meet new people, and open my mind and heart while doing it all. I should at least mention though, that Artsakh is a territory disputed by Azerbaijan. It’s a long and complicated story, and extremely sensitive, so I don’t have much to comment about it here–but just know it’s a hot button, especially from the side of the Azeris. In fact, you won’t be allowed to even visit Azerbaijan if they catch wind that you’ve stepped foot inside Artsakh. My friend Anthony Bourdain got banned from Azerbaijan for doing just that. So if my Azeri friends are reading this, I hope you won’t hate me. I’m just a guy trying to everywhere. And I certainly do wish peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
So I’ve Been Dyin’ to Go Here…
As we headed back to Yerevan, we made a stop at the medieval Noraduz Cemetery, the largest surviving cemetery with khachkars following the destruction of the khachkars in Old Julfa, Nakhichevan. Khachkars are carved, memorial slabs bearing a cross, and often with additional motifs such as rosettes, interlaces, and botanical motifs.
I Decided to Dare a Man to Share a Van to Yerevan
Yes, I love to rhyme. By the time I got back to Yerevan, I was pooped. Absolutely exhausted. I explored the city on foot for a bit–which by the way, I loved–but didn’t have much energy left in me after the long journey. I grabbed dinner at a place called Tavern Yerevan, where the food and service were fantastic, before heading back to my hotel in Republic Square. I needed sleep.
The next morning we were up and at ’em to explore the fabulous capital. Here’s what day three looked like:
After enjoying some of Yerevan, we headed not too far out of town to visit one last historical site, Geghard Monastery, which was extra-magnificent because the structure was partially carved out of the mountain itself! I enjoyed exploring the building and the surrounding area, before heading further down the road to see Garni Temple and enjoy a cliff-side lunch.
Perhaps the best part of this monastery–or any one I’ve visited on this trip–was this surreal surprise:
It was time for lunch and you didn’t have to twist my arm! This time I was shown exactly how Armenian bread was made, as I was given a front row seat to watch it be prepared from scratch.
Our last official stop on the tour that day was the market. Gum Market did not sell gum, however, they did sell a crap load of that delicious dried fruit, along with spices, meats, veggies and cheeses. And Gum Market was the cleanest market I’d ever seen outside of the U.S. When you’re used to the hectic (and dirty) markets of Africa, Asia and The Middle East, this place was really refreshing and eerily calm!
Day three was a wrap by late afternoon. I’d had a blast. I’d wander around the city solo for the rest of the afternoon before having dinner and crashing out. The next morning it was off to Iran!
I’d almost done a really dumb thing. I found some really sweet Ararat aged Armenian cognac gift sets at the market and bought three of them to take back home to co-workers. But what an idiot–Iran was my next stop, and alcohol was strictly forbidden there. I’d remembered this only after I’d packed the cognac snugly in my backpack. I’m not sure if the Iranian officials would’ve just confiscated the liquor, or threw me in the slammer, but I didn’t want to find out. I gave Artur some cash and asked if he’d mail the bottles to me in the USA, and sure enough, about two weeks later they arrived. To think, I was this close to forgetting and bringing them into Iran!
Artur seemed to go out of his way many times during our tour together, including running me up the hill to catch a gorgeous view of Mount Ararat before chauffeuring on to the airport. He was one of the good ones, and so was Anna.
Armenia, I Think I Like You
There’s probably only a handful of countries I’d actually consider moving to. Armenia is one of them. The food is delicious, and the scenery is delightful…but there was something else I noticed about Armenia, and that was its society. Granted I was only there for a few days, but what I saw, when it came to the people of Armenia, really impressed me. Almost everyone was dressed nice, like they were going to church. Everyone seemed so well put together and presented, even the children. I didn’t see “sloppy” people. And it seemed like folks really respected one another; I didn’t witness any fighting, yelling, loud music, or even much horn-honking. And if there was any graffiti, I sure didn’t see it. The streets were immaculate. Some of the conversations with Anna were about family, and how strong the familial bond and structure was in Armenia. I took note. I could be totally off, but I pieced all of these things together and left with a positive impression of Armenian society, in general. It reminded me of good old fashioned American values; so many of them lost today, but they are thriving in Armenia. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but to me there was something really special about Armenia, far beyond the delicious bread and breathtaking monasteries. And I was lucky to experience it.