Sun, Nov 24, 2013
We arrived at the Georgia/Armenia border and were quickly stamped out of Georgia. We got to Armenia and I was asked for my visa. I didn’t have one. However, there was a booth that sold them but it had to be paid in Armenian dram. There was a sort of vending machine so I put in $10 and waited. Eventually 4,030 drams came out. I paid 3,000 for the visa and the official put a full-page sticker in my passport. At passport control, the other official stamped me in and said “Have a nice day.” Again, so different from some of the other border crossings on the trip. This was the second easiest after Georgia.
The roads weren’t as straight and fast moving in Georgia because the landscape changed once we entered Armenia. The roads were very curvy and hilly and the scenery was beautiful. Even the villages were a bit different – different architecture, building materials. The churches were made from reddish stone bricks, as opposed to the white stones in Georgia. I could see several snowcapped mountains in the distance and we drove past Lake Sevan, the largest lake in Armenia. I arrived in Yerevan around 6:30, just after dark and spent my last 1,000 drams on a taxi to the hostel.
The hostel was in a great location. Within a block were lots of little restaurants and pubs. The next street over is one of the major shopping streets and had a 24-hour supermarket with a currency exchange.
Mon, Nov 25
I went for a morning walk up the “Cascade”, about 800 marble steps up to the Independence Monument.
From there I walked thru the park to the “Mother of Armenia” statue.
There were a few locals doing exercise and sweeping up leaves but generally it was eerie walking thru a deserted amusement park. The Mother of Armenia statue is purely defensive – with a huge sword, shield at her feet, and several military vehicles parked around the plaza. Unlike Mother Georgia who also holds a cup for wine.
At 11:00, I set off on a “Soviet Tour” run by the Envoy Hostel. For 3 hours, we drove around the city learning about the days when Armenia was part of the USSR. There used to be many streets named after Lenin and a large statue in the square, but today there is little along the way of names that links Armenia with the USSR.
However, there are several remnants we saw as part of the tour:
* The large marble buildings in Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square). These use a pink tinted stone called “Tufta” which is native to Armenia. Thus, the former nickname of “The rose city of the USSR.
*The Yerevan Train Station and Subway that were built by the Soviets. The subway probably wouldn’t have been originally built but the mayor of Yerevan paid people to create fake traffic jams when the Soviets visited, thus leading to the Soviets thinking how badly a subway was needed. On the way to the subway, we stopped to have some traditional Russian treats – fried bread. One had a potato filling and the other with powdered sugar on top.
*Factory district – there was 100% employment in the Soviet days, and nearly 100% unemployment immediately after the independence. Many of the older taxi drivers were the engineers in the various factories. These huge, empty, very polluted sites serve as a reminder.
* Soviet bloc housing. The Soviets were in the process of building block houses for 1000’s of people. Each one of these buildings made up a part of a letter that would eventually spell “CCCP” as seen from the air. Only two of the C’s and a part of the P were completed at the time of independence.
*Almost all the Lenin statues in Armenia were destroyed. However, the Lenin statue in one city was carved by a Yerevan artist. This artist wanted to keep the head and the nearly 3-foot head is now in his backyard. This is the only Lenin in Yerevan today.
After the Soviet tour, I headed to the Yerevan Distillery with makes the Ararat brand of Brandy. They had a tour in English starting in an hour so I went for a short walk to wait for the others to arrive. The others in the tour were a couple from Canada here for an Armenian carpet convention and 3 diplomats from Germany, Macedonia, and Georgia in town for an OSCE convention. The tour was short but very interesting. We learned that Winston Churchill daily drank Armenian brandy. They showed us the scale where they would give every visiting president their weight in brandy. And we learned about aging brandy and the fact that it stops aging once it’s in the bottle (I never knew that – I assumed it continued aging). After the tour, we got to taste a 3 year and 10-year aged brandy with some chocolate.
Later that evening, my hostel roommate, Natasha and I went for beers and a Greek salad and the Czech Brewery. We met and talked to an Australian guy at the hostel for a while before going to bed. He is in love with the Caucuses and had been to Georgia several times.