From freezing north-east Turkey, I travel back to warmer Georgia, to spend a night in an empty hostel in Tbilisi before aiming to get a mini-bus to the Armenian capital the next day. In a sane world, I’d go directly from Turkey to Armenia, but the border is closed; due to their history, the two neighboring states mutually despise each other to such an extent that they have no formal diplomatic relations. I don’t mind going back to Georgia though, as it’s a fairly easy country to travel through. While walking to catch the bus to Yerevan from Tbilisi, I’m approached by a cab driver offering a shared taxi for the same price as the bus. I get in the back to be greeted with a “How ya doin’?” in a strong New Yoik accent from the front passenger seat, which throws me somewhat. It’s the last thing I expect and it takes me a while to get my head around what this fella is, as he quick-fires questions in the style of something I haven’t heard apart from what I’ve seen from Hollywood movies and Sesame Street. As it turns out, Mike is a harmless Russian who moved to the States in the early 90s. He’s on his way to Nagorno-Karabakh to stay with his Aunt. He tells me I have to see mountainous Karabakh and asks if I’d like to join him but I explain I’d like to see Yerevan before moving south. In Yerevan I settle into another near-deserted hostel with the only other guest being an Italian cyclist also on his way to Iran. Yerevan is a marvel for the all-pervasive grey of its Soviet-era architecture. The strong Soviet influence can still be seen in daily life here, as can Russian culture. Unlike the Georgians, Armenians like Russia and feel some affiliation with it. This is obvious from the moment I enter the country, with the amount of Ladas, bilingual Cyrillic signs and Russian pop music. Many older Armenians sill look back at the Soviet days with nostalgia and given the slightly depressive atmosphere of the place with added capitalist cynicism, I can understand why.
Mount Ararat, which towers over Yerevan from across the border in Turkey, is sacred for Armenians. Ararat holds special importance as the place where Noah’s Ark is believed to have come to rest. Unfortunately, due to the cloudy weather, the only glimpse I see of it is in the many fine-art paintings of Yerevan’s flea market. Historically part of West Armenia, the fact the mountain is now outside state boundaries adds to the emotional and psychological attachment, and gives an ever present reminder of the weight of history. Eastern Turkey is still called Western Armenia here and the tragedy of the pogroms and expulsions of Armenians from Anatolia in the late 19th and early 20th century is still etched into the sad features of many of the faces I see. Given that Turkey still denies there was a genocide, a sense of injustice and lack of closure persists. On a cold, overcast morning, I visit Tsiternakaberd genocide memorial and museum to learn about what happened from the Armenian perspective. The eternal flame at the centre of the memorial (the 12 concrete slabs in the surrounding circle represent the 12 lost provinces of West Armenia) commemorates the 1.5 million Armenians killed. The museum itself is small but well designed and shows haunting exhibits, from photos of the starving women and children forced to flee into the desert, to records of the once flourishing Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire, to half burned historical manuscripts from sacked churches. Back in the hostel I get chatting to the young receptionist who turns out to be an Armenian refugee from Syria…she had to leave with her mother and sister due to the civil war. It’s sad that nearly a century after the genocide, sectarian warfare is still waged in the Middle East. Despite all our museums and platitudes of “never again”, history repeats itself over and over.
After all the fun of Yerevan, I make the ill-fated decision to go to a part of Azerbaijan that Armenia has been occupying for the past 20 years. The Republic of Mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t recognised by any other country but it has its own government/police force and foreigners still need a visa to enter it. Ethnically the people here are Armenian, with the minority Azerbaijani population being driven out in the war in the early 90s. I thought it would be interesting to visit but soon regret coming as it’s even less developed than Armenia and winter is not a good time to be here. On the mini-bus to the capital, Stepanakert, I meet a Taiwanese traveler, Pin Liu and we spend the next few days together trying to survive in what to us feels like Siberia. Finding anyone that speaks English is major challenge (the locals are confused when you don’t speak Armenian or Russian), as is anywhere that doesn’t automatically double or triple the price of everything when they see you’re a tourist. The worst thing though is the bitter cold and lack of heating in the rough guesthouses. Both of us plan to visit the sacked city of Aghdam but the taxi driver that we find isn’t willing to take us, as it’s in a sensitive military area. Instead we content ourselves with finding a taxi driver that isn’t a crook (for locals, shared taxis are around the same price as the bus), albeit one hasn’t any useful military connections, and go on a day trip to a place called Gandazar, with an ancient Church overlooking the town. It takes 45 minutes to walk up the mountain to the church but compared to Stapanakert, it’s warm. Our taxi driver, Sergin walks up with us, chatting in Russian the whole way. For a 50-year-old chain smoker he’s surprisingly fit and sets the pace the whole way up, not having to stop for a break once.
The next day Pin Liu and I get a bus back to Goris, relieved to be finally making our way towards Iran. Pin Liu cycled from Germany to Armenia but stopped cycling in Yerevan because of the snowy/icy conditions. Unlike myself, he was sensible and learned a few key words in Russian before coming to the Caucuses. In Goris I bump into a guy I shared a taxi with from Yerevan a few days previously. Vehran is a young military doctor who’s also a musician in his spare time. He invites me back to his flat to hear some of his folk songs. He ensures I leave Armenia on a more positive note, as his guitar playing/singing is top quality….it’s like listening to a professional album. During my time in Georgia and Armenia, around 80% of the music I heard was trashy pop shite instead so it’s good to hear some original indigenous tunes before leaving. Back in the guesthouse, Pin Liu and a Japanese backpacker are talking about Iran and Farsi when I arrive…my brain is on overdrive thinking about a new country and culture and I spend another cold night without much sleep. Early the next morning we get a shared taxi (a beaten up Lada) through the mountains to the border.