Blue skies over Yerevan

The summit of Mount Ararat in full view for once
The summit of Mount Ararat in full view for once
Ararat, with some added fripperies
Ararat, with some added fripperies

I’ve been to a marvellous party. I didn’t personally see anyone swing from a chandelier, but it’s been good fun all the same.

I got up in Yerevan this morning thinking it was an ordinary day, but I was wrong. First of all, I was able for once to see the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat, which is usually swathed in cloud.

It makes a difference to the feel of Yerevan when you can see Ararat; it adds a whole dimension somehow, providing a great hunk of nature 5,137 metres high to counter-balance all the man-made stuff of a city where modern architecture is dominant.

So what's with the balloons?
So what’s with the balloons?
They're even on the buses
They’re even on the buses

The obvious thing to do was to head for the Cascade to take some shots. I rode all the escalators to the top and after walking back down noticed that there were a lot of balloons to be seen. Oh well, I thought, perhaps they just like balloons in Yerevan.

After lunch in a favourite eatery, I asked the waitress whether anything special was happening in the city today.

“It’s Yerevan’s birthday,” she said. Goodness. So what age is the dear old thing? A quick look at the city’s website reveals that she is 2,797 years old. We don’t make capital cities that old in Western Europe.

Pedestrians and cyclists reclaim Republic Square
Pedestrians and cyclists reclaim Republic Square

Off to Republic Square to see what is happening there. Usually this central square is full of bumper to bumper traffic going nowhere. Today it is closed to traffic and cyclists and pedestrians can wander at will.

Some places that are usually oases of peace and calm are still tranquil oases. There are no balloons at the Blue Mosque on Mashtots avenue.

Still, a general mood of partying is in the air. Just outside the opera house is a rock concert and elsewhere jazz is on offer. I feel privileged to be here and how very right that the sun is shining and that Mount Ararat gives its blessing.

A hike through Karabakh

Arrival in Artsakh or Karabakh
Arrival in Artsakh or Karabakh

In the eyes of the world, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh does not exist. That doesn’t prevent 145,000 people from regarding it as their home, nor does that stop men from dying to protect it.

Karabakh is a self-declared republic, unrecognised internationally. It is inhabited by  Armenians who in a bloody feat of arms wrested it from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. The conflict over this beguilingly beautiful region is unresolved and occasionally claims lives on the ceasefire line where Armenian and Azerbaijani forces still spit hate. The government in Baku has vowed to win this land back.

I put Karabakh on my itinerary because this conflict looms so large in the South Caucasus. I wanted to feel the pulse of the place and talk to Karabakhtis.

To give structure to our visit I suggested hiking a 10-day section of the route called the Janapar Trail. Tom signed up for this and we made a good team. Tom was navigator and I was interpreter. In the countryside of Karabakh, English is almost as exotic a language as Welsh. People speak the Karabakh dialect of Armenian and also Russian. The local dialect is sufficiently different from the Armenian spoken in Yerevan that national television uses subtitles when Karabakh villagers speak.

From Meghri in southern Armenia we went back up north through the mountains to Goris and then took a taxi to the Karabakh capital Stepanakert. At the border a sign in Armenian and French says “Welcome to Artsakh”. Artsakh and Karabakh are interchangeable terms for the same place.

After arrival in Karabakh our law-abiding iPhones moved forward one hour to Azerbaijan time (GMT+5). In practice Karabakh operates on the same time as Armenia (GMT+4).

In Stepanakert, an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking polished English, gave us visas on the spot. These authorised us to visit all seven regions we had requested “with the exception of the front line”.

One of our few encounters on the trail
One of our few encounters on the trail
The canyon on the approach to Shushi
The canyon on the approach to Shushi

We’re off …

The next day, September 21, we headed south by taxi on a quiet asphalt road to the town of Hadrut, the starting point of the trail. The driver dropped us by a church and we were on our own.

We had read the site with information on the trail and digested some of its tips. Stock up with Imodium against diarrhoea, avoid both the powerful fruit vodka called oghee and romance with the locals. We heeded this advice, but happily never needed the Imodium.

The one essential bit of kit is a GPS. With the assistance of and the ViewRanger GPS app we downloaded everything we needed onto Tom’s phone. We had a digital map of the trail, GPS guidance, written directions on the route and information on accommodation in each village at day’s end. Much of the trail is waymarked with blue paint, but not all of it.

We walked up into the hills north of Hadrut and surveyed a pretty dry landscape, but much of the time we followed a shady tree-lined track with oaks and walnuts. It quickly became clear that the trail designers had worked with the need for shade in mind.

The initial day was fairly gentle, 16 km, and on arrival in our first village, Togh, we found accommodation with a butcher called Artur. His house was partly in ruins, but he was a good chef and for dinner he served up delicious pork shashlik garnished with pomegranate.

Artur sat with us for a while and we talked. He downed shots of oghee from a wooden cask sitting on the table and painted a gloomy picture of Togh. The population, he said, had dropped from about 10,000 a century ago, when Togh was a centre for the silk industry, to about 700 today. There are ruined buildings everywhere.

“There is no work. Life is hard,” said Artur. I asked about the youth of Togh. What do they do? “They go to Russia,” he said. “Stavropol, Volgograd.”

He spoke disparagingly of Lenin and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and expressed nostalgia for the Russian Empire, of which Karabakh was part. “When the tsars ruled it was better,” he said.

But Togh is attempting a comeback, even without the tsars. Last year it held its first wine festival and this October it will be inviting oenophiles to come back for more. Togh’s red wine graces the menu of at least one top Yerevan restaurant.

On day two, heading for the village of Azokh, we walked through a sublime beech wood, still in the green garb of summer but with a few leaves falling in a mesmerising slow-motion dance.

I think we looked tired on arrival. Two village women walked up to us and kindly gave us grapes. We sat and feasted hungrily. We found accommodation in a house with a well-laden pomegranate tree and many hens and pigs. When I headed for the outdoor shower room, one pig briefly joined me. This Karabakh trip is more a celebration of rural life than an ode to modern plumbing.

Day three and the landscape is arid. “It is a bit like ‘The Grapes of Wrath'” said Tom, invoking John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel about farmers fleeing drought in Oklahoma. We had just walked past some abandoned farm machinery by the roadside in the village of Shekher. In Karabakh, rusting agricultural vehicles are a common sight.

At the end of day four we arrived in the village of Avetaranots. During these first four days we didn’t see one bar or cafe. Our routine on arrival in a village was to seek out a shop – there was always at least one – and buy the coldest beer they had.

In my memory these villages have fused into one. I recall the hellos and the stares of neatly dressed schoolchildren, the strutting geese, the grunting pigs and the kindness of strangers.

We entered Shushi from the bottom of this street
We entered Shushi from the bottom of this street
Shushi street art adorns a ruin
Shushi street art adorns a ruin

Martyred Shushi

Our fifth day on the trail was a highlight. We were into our stride now and we bundled days five and six on the site into a tough one-day hike to the old fortified town of Shushi which stands atop a cliff. After the village of Karintak the trail enters the dramatic Karkar Canyon. The path follows a river and is mainly a scramble through woodland, with a 700-metre high limestone wall visible through the trees.

Finally, a steep rocky path climbs to Shushi. Nothing can quite prepare you for this town, which is unlike anywhere I have ever seen. Soviet-era apartment blocks are not uplifting at the best of times, but we entered Shushi along a dirt road with a forlorn inhabited block on our left and the empty shell of a ruined block, overgrown with weeds, to our right.

Twenty-one years after the end of the Karabakh war about half of Shushi still lies in ruins. But it is a functioning town, with about 5,000 inhabitants. During our visit there was a wedding in the white limestone cathedral. There are four working museums, hotels, restaurants, cash dispensers, asphalted roads.

Shushi, or Shusha to Azerbaijanis, has had a tortured history. In the early 20th century it was one of the biggest towns of the South Caucasus, with a healthy economy based on silk manufacture, craftsmanship and trade.

With the benefit of hindsight, 1904 looks like a high water mark for multi-ethnic Shushi, which was important for both Christian Armenian and Muslim Azeri culture. In that year, Shakespeare’s “Othello” was performed in Turkish in Shushi’s 350-seat theatre. Things began to fall apart when Russia’s 1905 revolution sent shockwaves through the empire. The events known to history as the Armenian-Tatar Massacres left many dead across the Caucasus. In Shushi hundreds were killed or wounded and the theatre was set on fire.

But fate reserved a much crueller blow for Shushi. In 1920 Azerbaijani forces laid waste the Armenian quarter of the city, killing hundreds if not thousands. In the words of scholar Thomas de Waal, the Armenian quarter “stood, ghostly and untouched, for more than 40 years”.

We stayed two nights in Shushi and had time to hear something of its more recent history. Saro Saryan, president of the Union for Armenian Refugees, gave us a guided tour of the history museum, with emphasis on the battle for Shushi in the Karabakh war.

Armenian forces captured the town in an extraordinary night attack on 8-9 May, 1992. Two divisions with equipment strapped to their backs climbed the sheer rocks on Shushi’s southeast side. Azerbaijani troops and Chechen volunteers led by Islamist commander Shamil Basayev fled. From then on the tide of war flowed in favour of the Armenians.

We sat for a while and talked in the small museum office. I asked Saro how he rated the risk of another Karabakh war. “Fifty fifty,” he said crisply. Saro offered advice to Europe. He is wary of Islam and he brought up the subject of migrants arriving in Europe, many from the Middle East. “You must be very careful with your prosperity,” he said.

He depicted Christian Karabakh as a front line in a struggle against Islamic fundamentalism.

In Karabakh, the Azeri Muslim voices in the system are silent, because they were uprooted by war and left for Azerbaijan. Armenians, in their turn, were uprooted from Azerbaijan. Saro, for example, was born in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital. As is usual in conflicts, each party feels aggrieved.

Time to clear our heads and move on. Day seven was a gentle stroll downhill to Stepanakert.

This is a sort of Bonn of the Caucasus – a tranquil provincial town catapulted into being a capital. It is true that small groups of uniformed soldiers wearing black berets can be seen of an evening, but perhaps the most striking thing about Stepanakert is how normal it looks and feels. The town is some 30 km from the front line, but the mood seems relaxed and confident. There are no derelict buildings and some construction work is taking place.

An ace Australian navigator leads the way
An ace Australian navigator leads the way
Pristine Karabakh forests home to wolf and bear
Pristine Karabakh forests home to wolf and bear

North of Stepanakert

Day eight and we walked to the village of Patara where we stayed in the home of Stepan Grigoryan and his mother Emma. Unusually for Karabakh, Stepan speaks English. He works for the International Red Cross, partly helping land mine victims to earn a living, and he also runs a small bread business with his mother Emma.

Emma’s kitchen buzzes with activity. She and a team of women turn out about 140 to 150 loaves of flat Armenian bread a day. The Karabakh war left Emma a widow and she brought up a young family alone. She used to be a post office worker and started the bread business a year ago.

Stepan joined us for dinner and suggested that we drink toasts, just as in Georgia. He invited me to be toastmaster. My first experience in the role of tamada! I was mindful that the main news reports in Karabakh were of a spate of violent deaths, eight in all, civilian and military, on or near the front line. I said we should follow the custom of the Georgian region of Adjara.

“The first toast is to peace,” I said and we all raised our glasses of home-made blackberry wine.

Stepan was a much more cheerful drinking companion than Artur in the struggling town of Togh. He radiated youthful optimism and at 26 had seen a bit of the world. He had been on a leadership course in France and combined an international perspective with a deep attachment to his country. He expounded on the rule of Vachagan, who in the late fifth century and early sixth century AD built many churches, bridges and roads in Karabakh.

“Karabakh people say Karabakh is the centre of Armenia,” said Stepan, whose flow was interrupted by one of the women walking in with a trayful of bread. He excused himself, since he had to pitch in and help. Before turning up at the Red Cross office, he does bread deliveries.

Day nine, the toughest day of the trail but very lovely. Some of the time there was no path. With GPS in hand, we bushwhacked through pristine Karabakh forests, home to wolf, bear, lynx and jackal. Particularly challenging was a section around a spectacular natural rock called Kachaghakaberd, Fortress of the magpies. Here local people took sanctuary in the 8th century from Arab invaders. This is a remote spot, with difficult terrain of sudden drops and thick bramble bushes. Without a GPS or local knowledge, heaven help you.

Day 10 and our journey’s end. We arrived in the quirky mountain resort of Vank, which has its own little zoo, and checked into a hotel shaped like a ship. After a visit to the 13th century monastery of Gandzasar, considered one of the masterpieces of Armenian architecture, we celebrated at a tiny timber-built restaurant by the roadside, with views over the wooded mountainsides.

We declined pig’s head, but to the sound of a lion roaring we ate tasty vegetarian fare including Zhingalov khats, the Karabakh speciality of flatbread with a variety of herbs. We washed it down with local white wine.

We walked about 145 km in total and never saw a single hiker on the trail, just the occasional man with donkey or horse. I found a lot to like about Karabakh. Tom’s verdict? “I have to say, the hike has been a highlight of the year.”

Armenia packs a punch

Swapping one indecipherable alphabet ...
Swapping one indecipherable alphabet …

image… for another indecipherable alphabet

Armenia is an ancient nation with much to offer the world, but it is grappling with some mighty demons.

I find that visiting Armenia requires of me a certain amount of emotional heavy lifting. I remind myself occasionally that I am not here to solve the country’s problems.

My purpose in this post is to start exploring these mighty demons, to resume my travel narrative and to give some initial impressions of Armenia.

One significant demon is the whole phenomenon of emigration. While Europe faces the conundrum of how to absorb great waves of migrants, Armenia has the opposite challenge – how to persuade people to stay. The population has shrunk from 3.6 million in 1991 to three million today. Less than a third of the world’s Armenians live in Armenia.

If you are in a tough neighbourhood, as Armenia is, a falling population is not what you want. Enemies, and the country does have enemies, can seize upon it as a sign of weakness.

When last in touch I was watching a wedding video on the Azerbaijan/Russia border. After that, my priority was to go to a real wedding, in Wales. I went back to Baku on the Caspian Sea, then taxis to Tbilisi, flight home for outdoor nuptials of friends in the Welsh sunshine and back to Georgia.

Shortly after my return to Tbilisi I met up with my godson Tom, from Melbourne, who joined me for some Caucasus travel. We took a marshrutka to Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

Going from Georgia to Armenia, the traveller swaps one indecipherable alphabet for another indecipherable alphabet. (Only Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus uses the Roman script and they got there by a roundabout route. The script changed from Arabic to Roman in the 1920s, to Cyrillic in the 1930s and then back to Roman in the 1990s. Pity the 20th century scribes of Azerbaijan!)

The Armenian alphabet was introduced in AD 405 by the linguist and church leader Saint Mesrop Mashtots in order to translate the Bible into Armenian. Yerevan’s main avenue is named after him and the general view is that Mashtots was one of the pivotal figures in Armenian history.

His alphabet provided Armenia with a cultural anchor of the highest importance. Armenians have been through trials which make the hair stand on end just to read about them and the patch of earth which they call their own has shifted and shrunk.

But the nation has endured, thanks in large part to a culture based on the book, something you can take with you to a new land. It has even exported its alphabet, since thousands of books written in the Turkish and Kurdish languages have used the Armenian script.

The Cascade in Yerevan
The Cascade in Yerevan


So, a new alphabet and for me a new city. Yerevan. This city is older than Rome, but you would never guess that to look at it. Today it is a bustling modern capital of 1.2 million people with a Western pulse and the most impressive traffic jams of the South Caucasus.

Yerevan had a Persian character and a mainly Muslim population until the First World War. It became Armenian in flavour after the exodus of Armenians fleeing the mass killings perpetrated in Anatolia by Ottoman Turks. (Armenia knows these killings as the Genocide and Yerevan is full of billboards marking the centenary. A later blog will focus on these horrific events because they loom so large in Armenia’s history.)

The architectural tone of Yerevan is 20th century and the building material of choice is blocks of pink “tufa”, rock made from volcanic ash.

After arrival we had a mini-tour of the city centre, kindly conducted by an Armenian. Vahagn Petrosyan, a professional interpreter, took us first to the Cascade, a giant stairway built in the 1970s with several levels of sculptures and fountains. By climbing the stairs, on a clear day you get views of snow-capped Mount Ararat, a defining symbol of Armenia even though it rises on Turkish soil. (Incidentally the border with Turkey is closed, so quick trips to nearby Ararat are out.)

Next Vahagn took us to the central Republic Square, where dancing fountains and music are the city’s signature attraction of an evening. Nothing old was on the itinerary, for the simple reason that practically everything old has been bulldozed.

“The city is nearly 3,000 years old, but few of the buildings go back more than 100 years,” said Vahagn.

The architecture is European, much of it early Soviet, but in Yerevan you suddenly know that the Middle East is not far away. As the vulture flies, the killing fields of northern Syria are not much closer to Yerevan (about 670 km) than they are to Tbilisi (about 810 km). But Armenia feels much closer, psychologically and culturally, to the Middle East than does Georgia.

Today Armenia is a landlocked country, but once upon a time, more than 700 years ago, it had a Mediterranean shore. The music and the food of Armenia are partly Middle Eastern in flavour. The oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument, is important in Arab and in Armenian music.

War in Arab lands hits home in Yerevan, but does not seem to have been a big driver of emigration. Indeed, perhaps war has worked the other way – some Armenians from Syria and Iraq have settled in Armenia in recent years.

Yerevan has a distinctive quality of its own – lots of street life, classy jazz clubs, good people-watching.

A few months ago in a Tbilisi hostel I met a young Japanese man who had just been in Yerevan. He explained to a group of us why he had crossed all Asia to visit the city. At school in Japan, he said, his female geography teacher had impressed upon him that the women of Armenia were beautiful. For eight years he held the dream of going to Armenia to see for himself. Finally he got there and with their permission he photographed a number of Armenian women out and about in the capital.

It was a singular tale, but the Japanese traveller exuded the air of a man who had climbed his personal Everest and known the joy of fulfilment.

Admiring the beauty of the women is surely a part of the Yerevan experience. Some common sense is needed here – no city has only beautiful people. But there are enough women in Yerevan who turn heads that silence on this matter would be eccentric. Quite often you see the classic Armenian look – patrician nose, flowing black hair, perfect posture.

Armenian women, and their sisters in Georgia and Azerbaijan, have remembered what it is to be feminine. They also operate, at least in theory, on a values system which is different from the one which has evolved in the more freewheeling West. The sexual revolution ran out of steaminess somewhere before the Caucasus and their societies, Christian and Muslim alike, are conservative. An ice maiden hauteur can, of course, enhance the charms that nature has given.

Meghri in Armenia's deep south
Meghri in Armenia’s deep south

Road to the deep south

Anyway, we did move on from Yerevan, in case you were wondering, and we hit the road to Armenia’s southernmost point, to the border with Iran. We left the city in a shared taxi and very soon had a snapshot of the difficulties of life out in the countryside.

Our taxi ground to a halt, still in full view of Mount Ararat. All travellers on the road, the main artery to the south, were being obstructed by grape farmers, unhappy about the price they were being offered for their produce after a bumper crop.

About 100 people, farmers and motorists, milled around on the road. Police were present but refrained from strong-arm tactics. A man in suit and tie appeared and talked to the gumbooted farmers. I don’t know what he said, but after about 40 minutes at a standstill the traffic flowed again.

Protests by grape farmers in Ararat province are something of an annual ritual in September, when the grapes are harvested. Travelling through the Armenian countryside I did not pick up the whiff of prosperity. Lack of economic opportunity is clearly one driver of emigration.

We drove about 250 km through largely barren, sparsely populated hill country to the southern town of Goris, whose population has been steadily falling in recent years. Here we broke our journey and checked into a B&B buzzing with travellers from the Netherlands, Germany and China.

Most of us dined together. The Dutch tourists were two brothers, young adults, born of an Armenian father and Dutch mother and making their first visit to Armenia. They too were engaged in what I called earlier emotional heavy lifting.

I talked mainly to one brother, Levon Goceryan, born in Delft. He already had some opinions on Armenia.

“Their culture is about suffering. Nine out of 10 conversations with Armenians are about the Genocide,” said Levon. “What I miss is the future focus.” Well, you can’t be any clearer than that. Whether you have Armenian blood or not, this country certainly gives food for thought.

One of Levon’s themes was that Yerevan, unlike the big cities of Europe, lacked a youth sub-culture. He felt that Armenian youth simply copied their parents and this stunted innovation.

The next day Tom and I headed south again through the mountains of the Lesser Caucasus, in two marshrutki and a taxi, to the stunning town of Meghri close to the frontier with Iran.

Meghri is a perfect destination for lovers of the desert. It is girt by utterly arid lunar mountains, but the town itself is an oasis with extensive apple orchards. This is a landscape of western Asia. We found accommodation in a house with lime trees in the garden and figs drying on the balcony.

From Meghri we drove out to the border with Iran. This was an external border of the former Soviet Union and for all the world it still looks like a Cold War frontier, with high watchtowers and a barbed wire fence. Over on the other side of the river is Iran, neighbour also to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This is the southernmost point of my Caucasus journey.