Noah's Ark and a Little Moonshine

YEREVAN/LAKE SEVAN/KHOR VIRAP: July 8-12, 2013

Leah: As our overnight train from Tbilisi chugged into the outskirts of Yerevan, we struggled to wipe the sleep from our eyes as we stared incredulously at the snow capped peak of Mount Ararat rising from the surrounding farmland to welcome us to Armenia (long the symbol of Armenia, Mt. Ararat is now actually 40km inside modern Turkey’s territory). It was upon this mountain where Noah’s Ark supposedly landed after the flood and we couldn’t think of a better way to kick off our time here than pressed against the windows, mouths agape at this natural wonder. The train ride had been a straightforward affair, departing Tbilisi at 10:15 p.m. and arriving at the Yerevan station just after 7 a.m. with an hour stop at the border around midnight for us to secure $8 visas and passport stamps. Neither food nor linens were provided, but we shared a four person sleeper berth with one other Japanese traveler and the experience was not at all unpleasant.

We figured out our metro stop with the assistance of a man in uniform and made our way to the Center Hostel, right smack in the middle of it all and really a collection of apartments on separate floors divided into dorm rooms and run by the charming Susana and her family. Clean rooms, breakfast included and ridiculously fast internet left us happy, so with food in our bellies we headed out to explore, despite our lethargic attitude. Although a Monday, it was apparently also a public holiday and we had missed the festivities the day before where everyone in the city ran around in a massive water fight drenching one another to the bone. Therefore, our initial impressions were of a sleepy city with wide streets, pedestrian crosswalks (they don’t speed up in an attempt to hit you like in Georgia!) graceful statuary and massive stone buildings standing guard over alleyways bedecked in gorgeous murals and hiding tiny boutiques, cafes and corner shops.

And the women! They are simply stunning and each one is a walking shampoo advertisement, with their long, thick, lustrous cascades of mahogany, ebony and dark chocolate-hued hair. I never knew there could be so many shades of brown. They walk around in floaty summer dresses and shoes that make my feet hurt just looking at them—no yoga pants and t-shirts to run errands here.  I loved it immediately and felt that with this new country I was able to shrug off some of the ick that hung around me like a cloud while in Georgia. Armenia already had me in her embrace.

Lounging and ambling complete, we took in a highly expensive (Steve: by expensive she means $9 USD per person) but completely worth it “Mexican” meal at Cactus, where we feasted on a chicken quesadilla “burger” and vegetarian fried chimichanga burrito. We couldn’t justify splurging on margaritas but instead opted for some fresh apricots from a sidewalk vendor, especially since Armenia is renowned for its fruit. Speaking of, we also noticed on our stroll that the 10th Annual Golden Apricot International Film Festival had kicked off right before we arrived, so we were stoked at the idea of taking in a film or two during our time here. The end of the evening saw us making plans for the following day with Natalie and Armen, the two Americans we met in Van, Turkey who had convinced us to check out their ancestral homeland.

Fast forward to the end of the next day and the four of us were buzzed from shots of kashats oghi, or local moonshine, and seriously considering attending a BBQ and spending the night in a town near Lake Sevan with our new taxi driver friend and his family. But perhaps I should backtrack…It was great to reconnect with Natalie, 22, and Armen, 25, especially since they’re fluent in Armenian and we knew it was essentially like spending the day with locals since they’ve been living here for a year. The plan was to head to Lake Sevan, about 60km away, and take a dip in the clear and cool aquamarine waters. After picking fresh yellow cherries from the nearby trees as we waited for the marshrutka to fill with passengers, we rode for an hour to Sevan where we then connected with a local taxi driver, Ashot, to take us down to the lakefront. One thing led to another and soon Armen and Natalie had bargained Ashot into a day trip to some surrounding sights, including stops for lunch and swimming, all for about 7,000 dram, or $18 USD.

First stop was a simply spectacular graveyard in the town of Noradus, where the tombs were topped with khachkars, or “cross stones.” These giant blocks of rock had been intricately chiseled and shaped into extraordinary designs, which then adorn tombs or various parts of churches or holy sites. Many Armenians believed that evil spirits became entrapped in the elaborate patterns and would therefore be prevented from doing harm where the khachkars were placed. Apparently there are only a couple such graveyards like this left in the country, so we spent a great deal of time weaving through the tombs, tracing the stone etchings and even stepping on top of the older fallen stones instead of the grass, which Natalie said is supposed to bring good luck. On the way out we stopped by a former monastery perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the lake and once again wondered at the workmanship and austere beauty where those of the Armenian Apostolic faith still come to light candles and pray in the confines of the dark rock church.

A quick stop at a random roadside brewery selling Keller’s beer saw my four compatriots swigging dark beer from hefty pints (while I sipped on carbonated water) before we made our way across the road to a restaurant/hotel where Armen and Natalie ordered up a fish feast for all of us. Sitting in our little wooden cabana overlooking the lake we were brought plates of bread, including the typical Armenian flatbread known as lavash, tomato and cucumber salad, purple basil, green onion and cilantro, pungent cheese and the coup de grace, barbequed trout. Oh yeah, and the strip-the-paint-off-the-walls moonshine that required lengthy toasts before sipping our shot glasses halfway down, only to repeat the procedure soon thereafter.

Steve: I should mention that when we first arrived at the restaurant they pulled out a liter Coca-Cola bottle filled with clear liquid and passed it around for everyone to smell—clearly alcohol, it didn’t smell repulsively strong and had a nice essence of apricot or peach. Then they pulled out a larger jug that everyone then sniffed, snapping their necks back with a knee-jerk reaction. When asked which one we wanted we all said “the first” and then the cabbie ordered the double-distilled triple-fermented rubbing alcohol instead.

Leah: Ashot tried his damndest to get the four of us to acquiesce and stay the night so we could continue our impromptu party, but even through our happily buzzed haze we eventually agreed that what sounded like a good idea then would most definitely be regrettable later, so with a final toast and a lingering burn in our throats, we swung by Sevan Monastery and then booked it back to the marshrutka stand just in time to learn that the last one of the day bound for Yerevan had already left. No worries then! With the boys looking on, Natalie and I cocked our hips, threw out our thumbs and used what female charm we had left at the end of our long day to nab a willing hitchhike ride. We found it less than five minutes later in 24-year-old Tigran who dropped us right off a main thoroughfare in Yerevan, from where we made it back to our neighborhood after grabbing some ice cream to counteract the kashats oghi sluggishness. First full day in Yerevan = success!

We decided to swing in the exact opposite direction the next day and take in the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex and Museum of Armenian Genocide; nothing like a lighthearted day spent experiencing the power of hate. The complex sits on a grassy hill to the west of the city center, so a quick marshrutka ride dropped us close enough to the entrance to walk. The first tribute we encountered was row upon row of Douglas Fir trees all planted in remembrance and recognition of the genocide, usually by heads of state and political dignitaries from places like India, Poland, the US and even Pope John Paul II. Haunting traditional Armenian music and vocals played over nearby speakers as we made our way up and down the aisles, setting a somber tone for our descent into the underground grey stone bunker where the actual museum is housed.

The museum commemorates the 1915-1922 genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, which was not even an initiative at the hands of a few sick people, but carried out as a state policy. Far from demonizing the Ottoman authorities involved, the exhibits simply presented the facts through historical photographs, newspapers, books and letters between world leaders, leaving visitors to absorb the realities for themselves. Dark lighting, windows in the shape of crosses and oversized photographs brought the graphic tragedies to light, from the decapitated heads of Armenian religious leaders on a table in front of uniformed Turks, to women and children dying from starvation and dehydration in the desert after being forced from their homes. It’s always sickening learning how hatred and violence can be perpetrated in the name of religion and border wars and I think I can speak for both of us when I say that the images we saw and the items we read are indelibly etched on our minds and hearts.

Steve: The core purpose of the museum seemed to be a place to house documents of the atrocities that were committed at the hands of the Turkish Republic. Just as some people still insist that the Holocaust never happened, this institution stands as a lasting, undeniable reminder that what happened to Armenians cannot be refuted and will never be forgotten. I truly enjoyed my time in Turkey but this really did get my gears working back to how no mention of Armenia was made anywhere in eastern Turkey, as if a whole epoch in history was being conveniently ignored.

Leah: Back at ground level we walked over to the actual memorial, consisting of twelve basalt slabs in a circle around an eternal flame. The slabs represent the twelve western provinces of Armenia which were lost to Turkey after WWI in a peace deal between Ataturk and Lenin (amazingly enough a solitary white dove was perched on one of the slabs the entire time we were there). Turkish officials then went about renaming all the monuments, sights and cities in these provinces in an effort to erase whatever Armenian heritage that they could. That’s why so many places in what is now eastern Turkey bear striking Armenian architecture and remnants of the language and culture, though churches have often been turned into mosques and dramatic ruins have often been left to decay in lieu of preservation (like the historical site of Ani which we visited), although there has apparently been much international pressure on Turkey to rectify the latter. The museum helped contextualize for us the lasting and simmering animosity between many Turks and Armenians and why people like Armen and Natalie become so outraged when they visit historical Armenian sites in Turkey and see absolutely no reference to Armenia or her people in any of the descriptions or information. In fact, everything has been obliterated. Genocide is one of those things that I fear explaining to any son or daughter I may ever have and this incredible tribute to a resilient country and her people proves that there’s not always an answer when a child asks, “but why?”.

We capped off the night by heading to a local watering hole known as the Music Factory, where we planned to say goodbye to Natalie before she headed home for L.A. the following day. She and Armen were a bit later in arriving than planned, so as Steve sipped his beer and I imbibed in a tumbler-sized gin and tonic we watched locals and Diasporan Armenians alike gyrate on the dance floor, smoke like chimneys and bop along in time to music ranging from Limp Bizkit and Tupac to Foo Fighters and even an experimental impromptu vocal performance by a Canadian Armenian using just her voice and a loop machine. Farewell shots down the hatch, lots of hugs and cheek kisses with Natalie and Armen and we were on our way back to the hostel in the wee hours, the brilliantly lit and colorful streets of Yerevan guiding us.

We followed up an emotionally intense day with a day trip to the Khor Virap Monastary, which is not only a place of pilgrimage for disaporan Armenians, but also the closest point in Armenia to Mt. Ararat, the biblical mountain where Noah’s Ark supposedly landed after the flood. As previously mentioned, this majestic landmark now lies within modern Turkish borders, which added a slight layer of melancholy to the experience, since this traditional symbol of Armenia is no longer technically theirs. A sweaty and cramped marshrutka ride took us about 35 minutes away from the city, where we were deposited on the road and then walked 4.2km in the dusty heat to the monastery through a small village and past acres upon acres of fertile vineyards. According to the annals of history, the pagan king Trdat imprisoned St. Gregory the Illuminator in a pit here for 13 years for trying to spread Christianity. The king then began slowly going mad and was only cured when his sister had a dream in which it was revealed to her that freeing St. Gregory would mean not only the king’s salvation, but that of the kingdom. Henceforth, Christianity was officially adopted and spread throughout Armenia. Under the watchful gaze of Mt. Ararat it was hard not to feel a higher energy coursing through the site, although I may have inwardly giggled a little at the mental image of a tiny ark balanced precipitously on the peak full of anxious, stinky, travel-weary animals and humans alike.

We weren’t entirely sure how or when the marshrutkas back to Yerevan worked, but we set out in the even hotter sun (it was now early afternoon) to trudge back to the main highway. A taxi soon pulled over carrying a mother and son and they beckoned us to climb in so they could at least take us to the main junction with the village road where it was another three kilometers to the highway. When we alighted and tried to pay the driver he waved away our attempts and smiled instead. I was already slightly delirious with ice cream dreams in the shadeless heat and after walking just a few minutes we heard a car approaching and moved over to the side of the road to let it pass. However the silver Mercedes coasted to a stop instead and the driver, Samuel, told us to climb in because he was heading to Yerevan; we had ridiculously good hitchhiking luck in New Zealand, but this was crazy!

While waiting at the gas station (which is not actually gas, since Armenian cars are usually retrofitted to run on compressed natural gas, much like those in Georgia) we learned that he was an accountant with an 8-month-old son who has lived and worked in The Netherlands, Ukraine and Germany and despite his wealth still can’t secure a visa to visit the US. The drive back to Yerevan was comfortable and full of conversation and he even dropped us a scant three metro stops from our hostel. Have I mentioned that I love Armenia? 
We finished off our evening with a film at the Golden Apricot Film Festival; titled Paradise: Hope, it was a slightly wacky tale of a German “fat camp” and the relationships between the attendees and their instructors. We quite enjoyed it, but a 10 P.M. start time left us pretty knackered, especially after our late night the evening before as well. All in all, another blessed Armenian day.

Feeling super lazy and incredibly tired the next day, we lounged around and caught up with e-mail, dealt with fraudulent activity on Steve’s ATM card (in Oakland, not even anywhere exotic!) and took in the Museum of Armenian History. While we blazed through the rooms with ancient pottery, tools and jewelry, we were fascinated by the array of monolithic phallic symbols, life-sized wooden wagons found in burial chambers, elaborate and colorful traditional Armenian attire and even an entire room dedicated to the Ani ruins that we had already visited in Turkey. The museum also had a permanent exhibit on Armenian carpets; after our instruction from the knowledgeable Ruth back in Goreme, Turkey, we were able to pick out several motifs in the weavings that we recognized. I even saw a donkey bag, which of course I wanted to bring home to complement our Iranian version.

We were also both profoundly affected by an archival photographic exhibit on loan from the Near East Relief Collection of the Rockefeller Archive Center. The photos documented the work of the American-based Near East Relief organization in the Caucasus region during the genocide years, which focused on medical care for the orphans and displaced youth, as well as vocational training and education. To complement what we learned at the Genocide Museum, we also discovered that worldwide specialists in genocide studies recognize the Armenian genocide as the first modern genocide and that Turkey not only refuses to recognize the atrocities, but has also not apologized to Armenians. Many comparisons were drawn between the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, but in the end the fact remains that Germany has apologized to the Jewish community for the past and the Nuremberg Trials were held to prosecute those in charge—Armenia can make no similar claims.

Overall, the museum was a definite highlight, especially since it encapsulated so much Armenian history, culture and art in one space. Although there weren’t always English translations (in fact, we’d laugh as we went from floor to floor, since one space would have brilliant and thorough English descriptions and then in the next room it was all back to Armenian—almost as if they had fired their translator halfway through). We also delighted in our new pastime of playing games with the looming museum guards in each room who were always either frowning retired women or young college-aged girls.

We noticed starting back in Turkey, but especially in Georgia, that there are docents or “watchers” in every museum in every room. Literally, every room. Of course we have people in similar capacities at home, but they take it to a ridiculous level of saturation here. They’re not only omnipresent, but trail you like Pacman ghosts and we had had enough of feeling like chastised five year olds despite doing nothing wrong. Therefore, we now try to throw these lovely ladies off by entering a room at the same time and going in different directions to hide behind exhibits where they can’t see us both and have to choose whom to follow. Steve will hover his finger this close to a diorama without actually touching it (I swear you can see them sweat) and I’ll get close enough to a tapestry to see the fibers move when I exhale, but without actual contact. Juvenile? Absolutely. Added fun value to museum entry cost? Most definitely.

We finished off the night with a powerhouse Apricot Film Festival viewing—three movies in all, two shorts and one feature length. Create a Formula came from Armenia and was a slightly hard to follow (for us, anyway) piece about national composer and pianist, Arno Babajanian; Father was a documentary following the life and family attributes of a Soviet ex-convict; and the finale, Hannah Arendttold the story of a philosophical journalist covering the trial of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann—fascinating. And the grand total for eight tickets to four films at an international film festival? 3,000 dram, or about $7.30. Hallelujah for subsidized art! We only have a few more days in Armenia and we’re already having to prioritize what to see; a country that I knew nothing about and wasn’t even planning to visit on this trip has turned into a runaway favorite and my heart is already heavy at the thought of leaving.


CLICK FOR PICTURES OF YEREVAN, LAKE SEVAN and KHOR VIRAP.

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Leah July 13, 2013 at 6:04 AM

Right? Never saw it coming, especially since it was never part of the trip plan.

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