Armenia Impressions

December 2015 & July 2016

@ Yerevan. What to write about Armenia and Armenians? I’ve been in capital now few weeks and liked my visit a lot. Center Yerevan has effectively washed its face from the Soviet past. Although it doesn’t take long walk after grey concrete blocks starts to appear. Downtown has several western style avenues with cafe’s, restaurants, hotels and boutique shops.

Prices compared to Europe are reasonable. Living expenses, gasoline and transportation, accommodation etc. are attractive. EU citizens don’t need visa for arrival, and can stay as tourist for half a year (and in neighbouring Georgia tourist visa permits stay a full year!). People are friendly, and women true beauties. Yerevan weather can be hazy when it hasn’t rained for a while, but once air is cleared, Ararat is providing magnificent views over the city.

Mount Ararat and statue Mother of Armenia.

Population of Armenia is just 3 million, and its a land locked country. Border can be crossed north from Georgia and south from Iran. Country was the first in world to turn officially Christian, year was AD301. Most Armenian churches are well older than Europeans counterparts. Compare for example Echmiazin Cathedral that was founded same year that country turned Christianity. Notre Dame de Paris, ancient by European standards, was founded “only” AD1163. Although center Yerevan contains little historic sights, it is surrounded with several interesting places to see, one or two hour drive away.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral, oldest state built church in the world. It has same meaning for Armenian Christians as Vatican for Catholics.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Sevan, second highest lake in world (after Titicaca in South America). Sevan has magnificent sights for surrounding regions, and two ancient churches. Winds were chilly in December, but lake is popular spot during summer time

Cave chapel of Geghard from AD1215

Mount Ararat

Mountain seen from Yerevan, Armenian side (above) and Dogubeyazit, Turkey (bellow).

Monastery of Khor Virap, winter (above) and summer (bellow).

@ August 2016, Yerevan. Is there angry God of Photography at Mt. Ararat? How hard it can be to take a single decent photo of something as fast moving as 5000 meter tall mountain and 1000 year old stone monastery? After 3 attempts, winter and summer, I must confess not as easy as one might think.

Mount Ararat and monastery of Khor Virap offer perhaps the most scenic vista near Yerevan. Trip is easily doable with half a day trip using public transport. Taxi or own vehicle even less. Problem is that Yerevan plain emit mist that can hide mountain entirely. And also, clouds can appear out of nowhere to cover the mountain. Best bet to go after the rain, when air has been cleared, but not too soon to allow skies clear. Naturally golden hours of sunrise and sunset give most scenic views.

Ararat for Armenians is what Fuji is for Japanese, a holy mountain that has been part of their culture and history throughout the millenniums. After borders where redrawn at the end of WW1, Ararat now stands in Turkish side of border.

Noah descending from Mount Ararat (Genesis 8:1-17):

Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

@ Goris, Armenian south. Surprisingly, there was no busses available from Yerevan to Goris, so I had a share-taxi with locals. Journey was interesting. Our Armenian driver nicknamed Schumacher, manoeuvred his big Mercedes at high altitudes in South Caucasus. Speeding around 160km so we were literally flying on a curvy and bumpy roads.

Speakers were blaring Armenian pop songs, and Schumacher was doing little dance performances while overtaking old Lada’s on our way. Utility vehicles have uncommon mix of historic equipment. Soviet era trucks, like Kamaz are remnants of Armenias past. Old oil trucks coming from Iran are made in USA Mack trucks, from Iran’s pre-revolution days. Views were great, even with a bit shaken about driving, couldn’t stop awing them.

Goris is in a deep U-shaped valley. Buildings are lower brick houses, normally 3 floors high. Streets are Russian style prospeks, wide streets in grid formation. I find the remoteness and grittiness of Goris quite appealing.

@ West Armenia

Mount Aragats is dormant volcano massif in western Armenia. Its highest summit at 4090m is also the highest point of the Armenia.

Mamashen Monastery near Gyumri.

Interior of Sanahin Monastery, near Alaverdi.

Dilijan, Armenian Alpine region north from Yerevan.


Gorgeous Georgia

(the country of Georgia in Caucasus)

Title came to mind when I set way out of capital Tbilisi. Marshrutka (minibus) didn’t have to drive more than an hour when Greater Caucasus mountain range was already providing stunning views.

June 2016

@ Stepantsminda. Night descends to a small town in a deep mountain valley. Cows are leisurely walking in yards and roads, in their never ending quest for something to munch. Its mid summer, and snow rivers are still visible but quickly fading, glaciers at mountain tops withdrawing. Evenings even now are pretty chilly, but afternoon sun combined with exhaust of trekking is sweaty affair in the mountains. Glancing up from village, silhouette of Gergeti Trinity Church at 2200 meters starts to fade away as light diminishes, and behind, the mighty 5000 meter tall Kazbegi shines in orange and purple hues of sunset. I climbed today to see the church and surroundings, two hour ascend is tedious exercise for leg muscles, and one hour tap dance down is hard on knees. But it was well worth the trouble, views overlooking the mountain, the ancient church and the views back to town were gorgeous.

Photos do pale justice to the scenery visitor can see in real life.

My guesthouse had lovely old gramophone and some records. Wonder when machine delighting listeners last time?

@ Borjomi. Am sitting on a porch of my guest house. Its been exhausting hot day, as I visited Vardzia, near Turkish and Armenian borders. Vardzia was medieval stone town carved to a side of steep cliff. Famous Georgian Queen Tamar who presided over golden age of her kingdom, sent off her armies for conquest from here. Wikipedia:

The chronicler of Tamar describes how the army was assembled at the rock-hewn town of Vardzia before marching on to Basian and how the queen addressed the troops from the balcony of the church.

Borjomi is famous for its healthy mineral water and springs. Health tourism started already in early 1800’s, when Tsarist Russia started developing the infrastructure. Town is situated in charming narrow valley, surrounded by lovely lush jungle growing on both sides of narrow river valley.

In its early years, Borjomi was reserved for blue blooded. Nowadays the attractions has been democratised for everyone interested.

@ Mestia and Ushguli. Scenes of Svanetia region in north west of Georgia are like from Hobbit movies. For centuries, region was protected by its difficult accessibility. Even Mongol’s weren’t interested in spending resources to capture it, easier targets were elsewhere. Svanetia is famous for its tower houses, green valleys and beautiful white capped mountains.

Svaneti region, north west of Georgia.

Svaneti girl.

Katski Pilar near city of Kutaisi.

Today, traveler comes first Mestia as its better connected with the rest of country. Ushguli is further 40km by the road. Mestia has more modern infrastructure, paved roads, shops, banks, restaurants and cafes, but its remoteness is still evident especially at winter time. I personally liked more of Ushguli, mainly because of its originality. Chatted with fellow traveler, an Austrian alpinist. We both agreed that region was under rapid transformation and in five-ten years time Ushguli could hardly be recognised from its past or even current self. Unpaved jumpy road would be paved. Hotels, restaurants would spring up to cater growing numbers of visitors. Rusting Soviet era equipment of trucks, tractors that still stand in where they broke off, would be cleared out of sight. Some of the magic of remoteness and originality would no doubt be lost. This writer also describes the changing situation in Svaneti.

Pigs, horses and cows are bumming around everywhere.

Georgian driving culture can be rough experience for new comer. Drivers often straighten the curves even when there is no clear visibility of opposing traffic. Speed limits are nonexistent, and cows can be standing middle of road in curves and dimly lit tunnels.

@ Gori. Day started with sweaty train ride from Kutaisi, aircon in wagon just wasn’t sufficient enough against the sun and 35-40 Celsius outside. As we approached the Gori, rain front started to grow in horizon. Am writing this in my room at darkening evening, its still pouring rain outside. Couldn’t help but comparing the weather with thunderous son of the city. Joseph Vissarionovich Jughashvili was born in Gori 18 December 1878, to a poor family of drunk father and devout Orthodox mother, Keke. Parents regularly beat their children, and following quote is telling of what kind of childhood the son had: Wikipedia: “N. Kipshidze, a doctor who treated Keke in her old age, recalled that when Stalin visited his mother in October 1935, he asked her: “Why did you beat me so hard?” “That’s why you turned out so well”, Keke answered.”
Two years later when Ekaterine Geladze died in Tbilisi, her son was too busy orchestrating the Great Purge in Moscow, and couldn’t or wouldn’t attend the funeral.

Grave of Keke, Stalin’s mother, in Tbilisi.

Stalins armored train wagon he used to travel to three famous conferences during WW2: Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. The Generalissimo was afraid of flight and paranoid about sabotage, so he traveled on land even as far as Iran.

Stalin museum of Gori.

Visited Stalin museum in city center was one of most rewarding museum visits I’ve done for a while. It was this because of contemporary Stalin-cult era information. Iron Joe, as many other dictators, built a personality cult around him. Gori was one of pilgrimage sites for diehard Stalinists. City’s main avenue is named after him. Stalin museum is in best place in the city, and from its park can be found humble birth home of Stalin, protected by neoclassic columns and covering. Photos, paintings and items of the dictator have long since disappeared from displays elsewhere, but here museum preserves and displays them as before. Visitor can grasp how seriously the man was taken in his time. Museum can also give a rare glimpse of nowadays-disappearing mindset of Soviet people. This 46min video gives interesting insight to private life of the dictator: YouTube.

Stalins cap and overcoats.

Stalin supermarket in Gori.

@ Tbilisi. Back in capital after tiring but very eye opening and rewarding trip around the country. Met many nice travelers from Poland, Austria, Korea, Japan. Tasted Georgian traditional foods like khinkali (meat dumplings) and khachapuri (cheese-filled bread). Country had a shady reputation during its first years of independence after collapse of Soviet Union, but since the Rose Revolution in 2003, new governments have managed to root out corrupted officials and mafia from hardening peoples lives. Like many former Soviet countries, Georgia is still in transition phase from this past, but things are changing rapidly. For travelers Georgia can provide experiences of beautiful nature, fascinating history and friendliness of local people. Wikitravel describes it better:

The Georgians have exceptionally strong traditions of hospitality, chivalry, and codes of personal honour. They believe that guests come from God. Friendship is prized highest among all the virtues. … The Georgians are proud, passionate, and fiercely individualistic, yet deeply connected with each other by a shared sense of belonging to a greater Georgian family.

Tbilisi views.

More Tbilisi views.

Tbilisi views.