Friday, October 28, 2016

Armenia: Monastaries and Stolen Mountains

The summer of 2016 is now in the rear-view mirror - so far behind the bend that we’re surrounded by amazing fall color here on Mercer, Island Washington. We’ll get you here, we promise.

Debbie and I have already written about our visits in Eastern Europe to Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. We also wrote about visits to Azerbaijan and Georgia so in this post will cover the week we spent in Armenia, the last of the three countries that lay between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea which are part of the Caucasus Region.

There were far more spectacular sights in Armenia than we imagined. We may come back!
We knew very little about this part of the world before we added it to our itinerary. We are really happy we included all three countries because there is so much ancient history in this part of the world, past and present. If you ever wondered where Noah’s Ark actually landed then stay tuned because….we saw it with our very own eyes. Well not the Ark, but the final resting place. 

We finished our blog post on Georgia with us standing in front of a worn-out passenger van in Tbilisi saying goodbye to our friend and guide Tariel. An hour later, our Armenian driver pulled-out of the equally decrepit bus station with all 12 seats filled including one with two very well behaved children stacked on top of each other. We were packed like sardines with luggage jammed all around us for the 5-hour journey over narrow and twisty mountain roads to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. This is where Debbie might interject some sharp comments about my travel planning - but since I am writing the blog this time, I can just say, it was the best I could do.

Eventually both bags managed to be stuffed in the back of the van. And then we were jammed inside.
Here's the map I sent to the family showing our journey from Tblisis to Yeravan.
We stopped to drop-off and pick-up passengers along the way, and dropped a few off (sometimes in the middle of nowhere), but we were always over capacity. At one point, there were 15 of us in the van as we crossed the border into Armenia and not a single soul in the van spoke a word of English. It was definitely a grim ride that couldn’t really be livened-up with conversation in any language, so the only sound track was a scratchy radio station that came in and out of the speakers. The entire journey felt like we were aboard “The Little Engine Who Could - butreally didn't want to."

Yerevan turned out to be a beautiful thriving city filled with welcoming citizens.
By late afternoon we were in Airbnb #117 in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Our location was great - just around the corner from the city’s massive, fascist-style Republic Square. The square is famous known for it’s nightly show of “Bellagio-style” dancing waters in the huge central fountain. It makes for a great gathering place in the evenings for happy families and young people. All in all, we were surprised by this city. It was clean, bustling, and appeared prosperous. Lots of good food shopping for Debbie and well-done museums and historic monuments for us both.

Victory Park was full of intriguing sculptures from world famous artists and a hill top view overlooking the city.
 However, the entry-ways to our apartments and quality overall in this part of the world were getting less and less appealing. Even though we have learned to focus on what’s inside the building not how run-down the stairs and elevator (when there is one) might be.

The entryway to the dark hallway leading to our Airbnb. Dream on.
This one started out with an entry way from the street that advertised the travel agency next door "Blue Sky Dream". Right. That led to a depressing hallway followed by a two flights of stairs to an elevator that may or may not take us up to the 6th floor. The creaking cage showed no evidence it had ever been inspected for safety. Ever. It had an interesting feature - the light inside the elevator was activated by the weight of the passenger. It appeared one person did not weigh enough to trigger the light switch so when you pushed the button to go to the 6th floor, the door closed leaving you in total darkness and going nowhere. Two adults = no problem, the light comes on, but you still have to find the 6th floor button in the dark because the elevator does it didn't move until after the door closes and you've pushed it a second time. After a week, this became normal. You can see how things like this never get fixed.

Solution? If riding alone, be sure and have the flashlight feature on your phone turned on so you can see after the elevator light goes out. This is also helpful returning home at night. Because you have to find the elevator in the dark hallway.

Debbie had a discussion about all this with our host since the elevator quirks were not shared with us, and certainly not written down since there was no “house manual”. His response was basically that a rich guy on the top floor put in the elevator and we are lucky to have one at all. This was said with a “shrug”. Here is the link to our Armenian airbnb:

Our host Ruben was a very nice person, and he was helpful in getting us settled. The place was clean and in a great location but there was something missing...ah. Somehow we had managed to choose this apartment without noticing that there was no table - either in the dining area or kitchen.  No where to sit - and nothing to sit on (not even bar stools at the tiny counter). Any of you who have read our blog posts or the book will remember that having a “large table” is one of the keys to a great stay for us but somehow we were asleep at the switch when we booked this place. But then again - how could there be no table? Ruben said not to worry! He realized the situation and in fact, had good news for us. He had just purchased a table and he would deliver it in the next few days. Few days? Okay - our fault. We made do with the coffee table and worked perched on the edge of the couch or headed to the cafe around the corner.

Ruben dropped off a table - see below. It turned out the chairs didn’t match, so he sent them back and those would be coming soon. The end of the story is the table was the size of a large serving platter and was was barely big enough for one laptop. Michael made a seat for himself by using the nightstand with a pillow on top. Two small chairs arrived the day after we left. Live and learn.

Table for one? Right this way.

On the first Sunday we found a beautiful Armenian Apostolic Church right around the corner. The service (or mass) appeared to be a blend of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox plus lots of incense. We were made to feel welcome and enjoyed seeing, yet again, another way to celebrate the Eucharist. One of the most interesting parts of the service involved having the clergy circle the room waving incense while the alter boys held out small bags on wooden poles for congregants to drop in a few small white stones they had brought with them to church. A very kind young lady next to us shared a few of her stones so we'd have something to place in the bag. Still not sure what the ritual represented, but it was moving.

We always appreciate the chance to attend church services wherever we can.
On Monday, we signed-up for our traditional free walking tour to help us get to know the city and this one turned-out to be one of the best. Our guide, whose name was Vaku, spoke perfect English. He was a charming, 50 year old s"tarving-artist" and curious world traveler. He started the walking tour two years ago to augment his income and he puts his heart and soul into sharing his love of Yerevan and Armenia. It was an epic 3-hour tour that started at 5 pm in Republic Square and ended overlooking the city and a stunning sunset on top of Victory Park. The park itself is chock-full of sculptures by world-renowned artists. By the time we finished we were two tired Senior Nomads but we came to appreciate the city and it’s history more that we anticipated.

Posing for the camera with Vaku - our walking tour guide and translator for the newspaper story.
Ruben came back into the picture a couple of days later because his sister, Liana, is a journalist for the largest Russian speaking newspaper in Armenia and as it turns out, she wanted to meet us and do a story. Unfortunately, her English was limited so we invited Vaku to join us and translate for Liana (and he got some free publicity).

Vaku was a great one for political discourse. My favorite.
This was the 6th interview we’ve done with a translator so we were prepared for the uncertainty.  You are never sure the translator is actually translating what we said to the reporter. Regardless, they are always fun and this one was especially enjoyable because we had gotten to know Vaku and he was familiar with our story.
 Once again, we had a great time telling our story - and once again, we can only hope it turned out well since we can't read it. Here's the link: And a look at the front page:

On our last day in Yerevan, we visited the nearby Hellenistic temple at Garni and the ancient monastery at Geghard via bus from a local tour company called Huyr Tours. Now this was a bus we could appreciated - big, air-conditioned, reclining seats, a WC and a cooler filled with cold waters.

 It was educational, enjoyable and a good day out into the countryside. Armenia is filled with natural beauty and dozens of preserved temples and monasteries and Yerevan is close to picuresque Lake Sevan. The young tour guide provided live play-by-play commentary of the journey in three languages… after the other: Armenian, Russian and then English, not only on the bus, but at each stop, dividing the group into three and then taking us in turn to see the sights. By the end of the day, I am sure all she wanted to do was go home, go straight to bed and not open her mouth again until the next day.

Photo op with a family from Iran who were thrilled to meet Americans and share their hope for peace.
Remember I mentioned Noah and his Ark? It was on this tour that we stopped at a roadside outlook and were able to look across the Turkish border to Mt. Ararat in the far distance. This is where it is said that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood. For Christian Armenians this Biblical milestone brings heartache and grief because up until 1915 Mt. Ararat was in Armenia. Now the mountain looms in the distance across a valley just 20 miles away that once was Armenian and is now sits inside the border of Turkey. Somewhere near the peak the Ark came to rest - and apparently Noah and his contingent walked down the mountain into Yerevan.

Mount Ararat in the far distance.
Our earlier blog post on Azerbaijan talks about their bitter relationship with Armenia. Unfortunately, relations between Armenia and their neighbor to the west, Turkey, are also strained. In fact, the border between Armenia and Turkey has been closed since 1993.  Among the many challenges between these two countries is the issue of the 100 year-old Armenian Genocide (1915-23) the responsibility for which is so disputed that just by using the word “Genocide” I’ve already taken sides (as in Turkey was responsible). Only 28 countries are willing to use the term “Genocide” which has a very specific meaning in the world of international relations. Others, including the USA are willing to call it everything else except the “G” word.

A day at the Armenian Genocide Museum - not uplifting, but certainly informative.
If you want to know more about this difficult and complicated story here is a link to the Wikipedia entry Genocide.

I bring this all up because on our last day in Yerevan, we visited the Armenian Genocide Museum. It is very well done, moving and worth visiting since it tells the story (one-sided, of course) of the first genocide of the 20th century. It is said that over a million and a  half people died at the hands of the Ottoman forces.

As the result of the disputes with Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia only has ground-access to the rest of the world through Georgia to the north and Iran to the south. From what we saw in our drive from Tbilisi to Yerevan, the northern route is at best a two-lane mountain road rather than a sophisticated 21st century autobahn connecting Armenia to European Union markets and the rest of the world. All this being a big challenge for the future of Armenia.

The political games continue in this part of the world - but for many, life goes on.
So that wraps it up for our extensive tour of Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. It was an enlightening trip through six very different countries that were all, at one time, under the Soviet umbrella. We now have visited ten of the fifteen former Soviet Republics. When we talk about this whole journey being a Gap Year for seniors,  this is the kind of experience we mean.

Having said that, both of us were ready to return to more familiar surroundings so we planned months ago that when we finished seeing this part of the world our reward would be three weeks in Italy. So look for a blog post that starts in Sicily and ends in Milan. Ciao!

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads


  1. Very interesting and funny write up!! I had never thought about visiting this part of the world until I read this. The description of the elevator was hysterical!

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