Glimpses of the World

Everyone knows that the most exotic way to travel is by cruise boat. Imagine waking up in the morning with a beautiful view of the open blue ocean or another country or island you have never seen before!

Armenia

At the lakeside we join a picnicking family under the trees. Every member from 7 to 70 is present. The children play ball and frolic on tree swings. Bocolyan introduces me, and at the family's insistence, we join the feast and drain glasses of vodka. An elderly couple start speaking to me in Turkish, and more people join the queue to shake hands and welcome me. The man hails originally from Malatya and relates how his uncle emigrated 

Those unable to speak Russian were treated as ignorant peasants

To the US for 7 years to work in and learn the textile trade. Boarding the ship to return, he was criticised for wearing the fez, a symbol of backward attire after living in a developed country. He kept his anger under his fez and resolved henceforth never to remove it. The story somehow found its way into the Istanbul papers, and the man was ushered into the presence of the Sultan, praised and sent back to Malatya to become a manufacturer. The family emigrated to Alexandria where our "uncle" was born. Without ever having set foot in Turkey he learnt Turkish for this was the language his parents continued to speak at home. We reluctantly take leave of the family, taking with us a letter destined for a son living in Baglarbasi.

Our next stop is the Hellenistic Garni temple and Geghard rock churches lying to the east of Yerevan. En route we stop off at Yuro's house for coffee. His wife, although pure Armenian, sports blonde hair and speaks to Yuro in Russian. Yuro explains that her dyed hair and preference for Russian stem from a common exaggerated respect for Russian culture. In Soviet times an assimilation of Russian culture and language was seen as a status symbol, earning privilege. Those unable to speak Russian were treated as ignorant peasants. Perhaps this is the key to the mystery of the abundance of "new blondes" in Turkey!

The Garni temple, an almost too perfect example of Hellenistic architecture built in the first century BC towards the end of Alexander the Great's eastern campaigns, stands on a high cliff overlooking a deep canyon. As buzzards circle overhead this proves an ideal spot to watch the sunset. A road winds along the slope of the canyon, eventually unravelling at the bottom among orchards, fields and grazing herds.

Some young couples who ask me to take their photo react enthusiastically when I say I have come from Istanbul.

The Geghard churches are at the end of a steep cliff covered with maquis. Surrounded by external walls, they served as a refuge from Seljuk raids in the 10th and 11th centuries. Living quarters were tunnelled into the rock, and the main building has sand filled recesses for the lighting of candles. Returning to the parking spot we find a group of musicians playing pipe and drums for tips.

I spend the evening at the home of two young friends, Benjamin and Sayat, who spent some time in Istanbul before settling in Yerevan. They speak of the city of seven hills with nostalgia, but feel that they must support their country during its period of hardship. From time to time the power goes out, and our conversation continues by gas light. They are hospitable to the point of Sayat giving up his bed to sleep on the floor but remain impervious to my protests to the contrary.

My first unavoidable acquaintance with Armenia was made from the 5,100 m summit of Ararat on a frozen February dawn. In subsequent years, I passed tangentially on the Kagizman - Igdir bus, only glimpsing the opposite shores of the Aras through sleepy eyes. Although the disintegration of the Soviet Union has succeeded in opening the doors of the small republics to the international arena and as a result demystifying them, I took up Atlas' proposal to write an article on Armenia with enthusiasm. I wished to become acquainted firsthand with the country that has left unerasable traces on the memory of the Turkish people. A shabby Ikarus packed with people and parcels advanced slowly and painfully along the unimaginably bad road from Tblisi to Yerevan. The discomfort was alleviated to some degree by the warmth of Armenian passengers who struggled to communicate with me in Azeri Turkish and constantly addressed me as "brother".

At the Georgian - Armenian border I was one of few people to exit the bus, and I experienced a moment of trepidation as my passport was examined by a soldier who seemed unable to find a visa. I pointed to my visa taken from the Tblisi embassy, and the grinning corporal allowed me to return to the bus.

 

The water described by Maksim Gorki as a piece of sky fallen to earth

Entering Armenia the road suddenly improves, but the steep, verdant terrain of Georgia is replaced by barren rocky steppe. By evening we pass through the poor outer suburbs of Yerevan where construction work abounds between the 8-10 story blocks, with magnificent Ararat towering beyond. My guide, Murat Bocolyan, takes me to the relatively cheap Ermenistan Hotel, and we arrange to meet the following morning.

At the first light my main concern is to rush to the window and see Ararat, with its icy cap visible above the high buildings. Lost in mountaineer's obsessions, the sound of a car horn brings me to my senses. Bocolyan and our driver Yuro are waiting. Our first goal lies to the north-east of Yerevan: Sevan lake and Sevan monastery.

The discomfort was alleviated to some degree by the warmth of Armenian passengers who struggled to communicate with me in Azeri Turkish and constantly addressed me as "brother"

At 29,400 square km Armenia is the smallest of the Soviet republics. Emigration over the last three years has nearly halved the population to 1.5 million, and one third of the Republic's citizens reside in Yerevan, thus leaving a very scant rural sector. Unsurprisingly, animal husbandry forms the economic cornerstone of this mountans country, and all along the road we encounter shepherds tending sheep and cattle. Finally, we come upon the blueness of a lake which only an artist's palette could recreate. The water, described by Maksim Gorki as a piece of sky fallen to earth, is so clear that it can be used for drinking. Because of HEP stations the level of the lake has fallen 10 m since 1930, leaving the monastery on a peninsula insted of its former island. 230 basalt steps lead up to the ninth century monastery which retains two churches, the larger of which is still in use. Most of the visitors here are large families or couples. Some young couples who ask me to take their photo react enthusiastically when I say I have come from Istanbul. Most people from the former Soviet republics have the same admiration for Istanbul as some Turks for Paris or New York. And no wonder: from their point of view Turkey is a veritable paradise in all respects.

Early next morning we set off for the spiritual centre of Armenians throughout the world, the Ecmiadzin monastery where a service is to be held. The service continues till midday and the building is packed with visitors. After the religious prohibition of the Soviet era an intensified spiritual atmosphere can be felt in Armenia, as in Georgia. 

drinking in the setting sun till clusters of lights appear in the darkness of Yerevan and filter a sad sweet glow onto Ararat.

Churches in Armenia function as social centres and lack the sombre pomposity of Catholic and Protestant churches.

Returning to Yerevan, we pass the Metsamor nuclear power station (10 km from the Turkish border) which, in spite of the negative report of the International Atomic Energy News Agency on the dangerous implications of its location in an earthquake zone, has reopened this year in response to the energy crisis. Faced with the effects of a six-year economic blockade, Armenia has chosen to ignore environmental considerations.

As the sun begins to sink on the horizon we approach Horvirab church on the Turkish border, founded on a rock promontory in the plain. The gorges on the north-east face of Ararat can be made out through the mist. Below the church on the plain a boy is pole-vaulting over a rope, his feet encased in a saucepan. Three musicians sit under an umbrella playing tambourine, pipe and drum as a youth dressed as a harlequin shouts to attract the crowds and collect money.

The capital, Yerevan, is a largish city founded on the slope of a mountain. It is laid out in the manner of Soviet cities, sporting wide, tree-lined avenues and huge squares. After perestroika, street sellers and buffets were naturally added to the urban tapestry, selling foreign cigarettes, alcohol, coca cola and all kinds of counterfeit items. I happened across low quality products from Turkey with brand names I have never heard of a consequence of the opening of Alican border point between Igdir and Aralik. The underground makes getting around Yerevan fairly comfortable. There are also shared cabs and trams and comparatively expensive taxis. Finding food presents a problem, however, as restaurants are non-existant. Fortunately, in the evening pork shish kebobs can be found on the street. The only thing we had no difficulty finding was Turkish coffee, for Armenians seem even more addicted to the drink than Turks. The other famous Armenian drink is brandy, the bottles sporting labels featuring large and small renditions of Ararat.

In the evening few places are lit up, and accordingly, everyone gathers around the fountain in Lenin Square. Young girls and boys stroll around shelling sunflower seeds and babies are wheeled to and fro in gaudily coloured prams. Those with a car - especially engaged couples - head for a viewing point above the city near the statue of the Mother of Armenia. Lovers sit entwined, drinking in the setting sun till clusters of lights appear in the darkness of Yerevan and filter a sad sweet glow onto Ararat.

Destinations