21st – 27th June
We cross into Armenia from Georgia at Sadakhlo, in bright sunshine with high hopes of this beautiful yet tragic little country. For a republic supposedly trying to encourage tourism and foreign investment, it’s astonishingly expensive to drive into - $65 for four days worth of car tax – before we even drive a mile…
Within an hour of crossing we’re in the midst of a huge thunderstorm. The views of the heavily forested Debed Canyon obscured, we stop for lunch at a roadside café and wait for the weather to clear. One hour and $20 later (this country is expensive) we’re driving through scenery that is simultaneously stunning yet scarred by decades of Soviet heavy industry projects – rusting factories, crumbling apartment blocks and endless electric pylons follow the Debed River through this once majestic gorge.
We turn off the main road a couple of times, climbing dozens of switchbacks to the gently wooden plateaus that sit above the gorge, in search of some of the region’s ancient monasteries. They’re generally still intact, blackened by eight centuries of weather and now presiding over post-industrial pollution rather than pristine beauty.
We carry on up the valley, past the bleak and poverty-stricken copper mining town of Alaverdi – a ribbon of more decaying Soviet apartment blocks dominated by a vast, barely functioning smelting plant belching thick grey smoke into the gorge. This factory once employed 100,000 people – most of the town’s population – but now most of the populace sit idle amongst their dilapidated streets. It’s all rather depressing.
We spend our first night in the Vanadzor, the capital of the region and although larger than the previous towns, certainly no prettier. It starts chucking it down again so we opt for a family run B&B in the centre of town. The owner’s daughter greets us acidly; it appears we’re staying in her room so she’s confined to the living room – which despite the $25 income evidently doesn’t please her too much.
In the morning the weather’s much brighter, as are our spirits – invigorated by a decent night’s sleep. We drive southwards through relatively unspoilt countryside towards Lake Sevan, stopping in the sleepy town of Dilijan to admire some of its nearby monasteries; 12th century masterpieces of masonry and stone carving tucked away in quiet valleys covered in beech and walnut forests.
Lake Sevan is the country’s number one holiday destination – an 80km long stretch of pristine water at 2,000 metres, surrounded by fertile plains and the occasional distant snow-capped peak. The Soviets drained the lake by some 20 metres for irrigation and hydroelectric projects, revealing a number of tantalising beaches around which holiday resorts were soon built.
For sound and necessary ecological reasons, however, the lake has been slowly refilled over the past 20 years and the beaches are now covered by water again – leaving dozens of surreal beach bars, bungalows and jetties half-submerged by the waters.
The sun’s still out so we find a suitable spot for camping; a quiet lakeside picnic site overlooking the beautiful Hayravank monastery, jutting out into the lake on it’s own little peninsular. The caretaker charges us a hefty 5,000 Armenian dram ($14) for the privilege.
Crayfish and vodka
Evidently he feels guilty, as whilst we’re cooking up our supper, he wanders over with a bottle of vodka and a bag of freshly caught crayfish that he’s commandeered off some local fishermen. He kindly insists we join him for a swift shot – although as per usual there’s no such thing as a single shot.
He spends the evening with us, sharing the crayfish and proposing numerous toasts which soon put paid to the vodka. He departs briefly, only to return with three large bottles of strong local beer with which to continue the evening.
As we chat about his country, he reminisces about the “good old days” of the Soviet Union – a time when everyone had guaranteed jobs and places to live, security, and enough money to put food on the table. Armenia suffered more than most of the Soviet Satellite Republics (SSR’s) – Stalin purged or exiled over 500,000 people here – yet tellingly many people here still look back on the Soviet days as better times.
The next morning we diplomatically evade the offer of a morning vodka shot from our host; however there’s no escaping another present – a huge bin-liner full of freshly caught, live crayfish - about three kilos worth. Heaven knows what we’ll do with them… Finally, we make our way to Yerevan, the capital.
Despite it’s relative wealth, Yerevan is not an attractive city – dozens of avenues lined with well kept but dreary apartment blocks, and a raft of uninspiring new buildings. Like the rest of the country, it’s also phenomenally expensive.
We find a B&B on the city outskirts, park the car up and get the metro into the centre. Three hours later and we’ve done all the sightseeing we want to – there’s a new cathedral that’s more impressive for its substance than its style, a recently completed 100 metre long cascade of waterfalls and gardens that runs off a hill in the centre of the city (it’s less impressive than it sounds) and dozens upon dozens of new, chic cafes that are the city’s greatest feature. Trendy Armenians hang out in these by the dozen, enjoying the balmy weather and designer cappuccinos at $4 apiece.
Fortunately Samuel, the B&B owner, agrees to cook up our mountain of crayfish for supper so we can share them with him and his family – it would take us weeks to eat them on our own. He mentions that crayfish from Sevan used to be much bigger, but over-fishing has ravaged the stocks. “But what can the fishermen do? They have to live somehow”.
Samuel is a fully qualified engineer who speaks fluent English. Over a very long and drawn out supper of beer and crayfish, he gives us a fairly damning insight into his blighted country.
Self-enrichment, government scale
The current government comprises a handful of oligarchs whose principle aim is to milk as much cash from their people as possible. Unlike numerous other countries we’ve visited where personal self-enrichment is the raison d’être for working in government, this is the first country where such self-enrichment is derived directly from local people’s own cash rather than by one-sided exploitation of local resources or similar.
Thanks to a long history of emigration, coupled with a mass exodus after the 1915 Turkish genocide (during which half a million Armenians were massacred), Armenia now has a huge diaspora population living worldwide – around eight million people, compared to just three million Armenians who live within the country.
This diaspora sends back some $1.3 billion per year – around 30% of the GDP – which keeps the country’s economy artificially growing. In order to maximise their takings of this annual cash influx, the government keeps the Armenian dram artificially strong – about twice its market value – ensuring that every dollar entering the country buys less local currency.
This, coupled with effective state monopolies on every single available product in the country – from oil to rice, newspapers to mobile phones, banks to airlines – means no currency black market exists and therefore locals have no choice but to accept the poor exchange rate, and give the difference to the government. It must be the only country in the world with an artificially manipulated currency and no black market.
Samuel complains that it’s impossible for ordinary people to start businesses, thanks to heavy taxes and regulations that apply to everyone except government officials and their families. Everything imported from abroad (even a single mobile phone) requires payment of monstrous taxes – hence trapping ordinary Armenians in government-induced poverty.
Hope for the future?
Samuel reckons 90% of the country’s wealth rests with 50 families. Isn’t there anything the population can do about it? We ask.
“Not here” he says resignedly. “Armenians are not violent people. They will never choose to fight anyone, least of all their own government. We will never rebel, we just accept it and try to work harder to look after our families” Samuel’s B&B is unregistered and technically illegal – he couldn’t afford to run it if he had to the pay government taxes and registration fees. That’s why he’s left it half finished – so he can claim it’s not open whenever the numerous government inspectors randomly visit.
He too harks back to the good old days of Communism. It’s not surprising, though, given the state of the country now. Eventually, we call it a night and go to bed – its 3am – although Samuel could talk all night about his country’s misfortunes.
The following morning, we start early and drive north towards the western Georgian border. The countryside north west of Yerevan is very different to the east – arid, rolling hills covered with colourful wild flowers, yet still dotted with ugly Soviet villages.
We stop briefly in Artvic – a particularly depressing and decrepit town en-route – to look at one last monastery before we leave. We find it, in the shabby outskirts. A couple of drunks try to relieve us of some loose change in the car park – it’s 10am and they can barely stand – but we find it hard to feel anything but sympathy for them. As we walk inside the grounds, a young girl rushes up to Nina and presents her with a big bunch of bright blue flowers, grins for a second, then dashes away shyly.
Walking into the monastery, four black-robed monks start singing a psalm in a low, mournful tone. A father and daughter are the only other attendees at this intimate service, heads hung in devout reflection.
Amongst all the poverty and hopelessness we’ve seen in this country, the dereliction and the drunks outside, it’s an intensely moving moment – in this country, it seems that many people find hope only in God, or alcohol. We each light a candle, leave a donation, and slip away quietly as the monks finish their service.
Two hours later during another thunderstorm, we cross back to Georgia, having to pay another $25 in car taxes just to leave Armenia. This country really doesn’t help itself.
Good old Georgia
We both breathe a sigh of relief to be back in Georgia. Though not without its problems, the country just feels so much more alive, its people sturdier, happier, more passionate – not downtrodden and passive. We drive down the stunningly beautiful Mtkvari valley to visit the magnificent 12th century cave dwellings at Vardzia, dotted throughout a 300 metre high cliff-face above the Mtkvari River.
The next day we head to the Black Sea coast and enjoy two days relaxing in the sunshine in and around Batumi, surrounded by cheerful and occasionally drunken weekenders from Tbilisi, all making the most of the weather.
Invigorated and refreshed by more Georgian hospitality, katchapuri and of course plenty of local wine, we head to Turkey in high spirits. We can’t believe that we’re almost officially back in Europe…