I never imagined I would visit Armenia.
It was never a country that really captured my imagination. Not to say that it’s not an interesting country, it’s just that I never gave it much thought. Yet here we find ourselves – Christina and I, along with our friends Alex and Sarah – in a van driving from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, toward the Armenian border.
Our guide is named Beka, and he is overflowing with knowledge and information about both Georgia and Armenia, which he is more than happy to share with us along the way. “Do you know what percentage of the Georgian population smokes cigarettes?” he asks as we approach the border. “Over 100 percent.”
As we near the border crossing, we pass a road side pop-up shop selling copious amounts of washing powder. Nothing else, just rows and rows of washing powder. 50 feet further on, another one. Then another. We pass over a hundred washing powder kiosks in all along the road. “The thing about that”, begins our guide Beka, “is that washing powder is much cheaper in Georgia than Armenia. So people will arrive here from Armenia and stock up on all their soap.”
“But why are there…so many of them?” someone asks.
“In Georgia, when one man finds success, his neighbor becomes jealous and must try and replicate that success.” Beka explains. “So he opens his own washing powder business.”
The domino effect of jealousy has resulted in a miles long stretch of open country road with countless washing powder shops, often with dozens of them directly next to one another. With the quantity of shops to choose from, all specializing in the same product, it boggles my mind how they all remain in business. What’s to stop an Armenian from hitting up the very first shop across the border, instead of say, the 123rd shop from the border?
Crossing the border from Georgia to Armenia is no small task. The process involves passing through two different checkpoints – the first being the Georgia exit point, and the second the Armenian entry point. “Does anyone here have and Azerbaijani stamp on their passport?” Beka asks as we near the border. It turns out, the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, neighbors in geography only, is quite tenuous. Those with an Azerbaijani stamp are subject to rigorous questioning, and can also be rejected from entering the country of Armenia, at the discretion of the border guard. Christina and I have no trouble getting through, being greeted with a smile and a hearty ‘Welcome to Armenia!”. Others in our group however, are taken to separate rooms and asked questions such as: “Do you have any Azerbaijani friends?” and “Why would you want to visit Azerbaijan anyway?”
“Want to hear an Armenian joke?” Beka inquires. “Why doesn’t Armenia have a basketball team? Because they can’t bring themselves to put something in another person’s basket.”
“They are a very greedy people” he adds helpfully, in case we missed the implication.
Our first stop after crossing into Armenia is at an old Soviet copper smelting factory. Despite appearing to be completely abandoned and in a complete state of decay, the factory is still functioning. Copper is readily found in the mountains in this region and plays a vital part in the Armenian economy. The copper is processed at the factory before being hauled up the mountain where it is melted down. The dirty smoke issuing from the jagged peak makes it resemble a volcano on the set of “The Land Before Time”.
“Don’t breathe too deeply” remarks Beka as we step out of the van to take a look. “This valley has the highest rate of cancer in all of Armenia because of this factory, but copper is much too important for the economy for them to care about it.”
As we depart the factory and make our way into the nearby village that sits in the haze produced from the smokestacks, I notice the rickety old yellow buses moving passengers around. We learn that these buses are relics of the Soviet era, but are still in operational use today. The gas tanks are somewhat inexplicably placed on top, fully exposed to the scorching summer heat and the elements. Beka asks if we’d like to stop to take some photographs of one of the buses, a proposition we agree to. As we stand around taking snapshots with our phones, we attract a group of very confused and slightly amused locals who cannot begin to comprehend our interest in these old yellow buses. I imagine it would be akin to me watching a group of tourists gather around a fire hydrant, phones out, snapping photos.
Driving across the countryside, en route from one monastery to the next, we pass the occasional cemetery. I can’t help but note that the gravestones here all contain detailed etchings of the interred. Our guide points out that this is a very common practice in Armenia. He also explains that if the deceased has died in an interesting or noteworthy fashion, the cause of death would also be illustrated on the tombstone. In one particular instance, we encounter the grave of a family of four, who had met their demise after their car careened off one of the many cliffside roads that wind their way around this part of the country. The resulting artwork is downright macabre.
This particular grave is found at the site of the Sanahin Monastery. I’m taken with how quiet it is here – barely another soul to be found in the area. The same can be said of the other monasteries we visit as well – all of them are perched on top of mountains with commanding views of the rolling green landscapes surrounding them.
At the Haghpat monastery, we are told of a very special challenge that we should embark upon if we’d like to have any wish granted. Beka directs us to the back wall of the structure, where there is a low, narrow ledge running along the bottom, with countless small holes crowding the stones that make up the wall. “If you can walk all the way across this ledge, only using the holes to grip on to, you will be granted any wish you desire.” It looks simple, and in my mind I can easily cross the ledge without even having to touch the wall. In practice though, it’s virtually impossible, though that doesn’t stop us all from giving it a few unsuccessful attempts.
After visiting both monasteries, we stop at a local family’s mountaintop home for a delicious home-cooked meal of fresh cheeses, breads, vegetable dishes, and pork barbecue for the meat eaters in the group. It’s a great way to get a taste for the local cuisine and prepare us for the remainder of our day.
“One day, God is giving out noses. He is giving them to the Russians, the Georgians, and the Armenians.” Beka begins, as we head toward the final stop of the tour. “First he goes to the Georgians. ‘What kind of nose would you like to have?’ he asks. ‘Well we have such beautiful mountains in our country, so we want to have noses that are shaped like our mountains so that when we look in the mirror we can be reminded of their beauty’. He then goes to the Russians. ‘We want a nose that points up, because we love to drink, and an upturned nose helps us drink our vodka more easily.’ Next he comes to the Armenians. ‘What kind of nose would you like?’ God asks. ‘How much does it cost?’ the Armenian asks. ‘It’s free, of course’ God replies. ‘Well then give us the biggest nose you have!’ the Armenian replies enthusiastically.”
We arrive at our final stop of the trip, at the Akhtala fortress and monastery. This particular site has the most ornate interior that we have seen today, with beautifully preserved colorful frescoes throughout.
I’m amazed at how well preserved all of the sites we have visited are, having been built as far back as the 10th century. It speaks to how deeply religion and tradition plays into Armenian culture, that they take such strident care to preserve these sacred sites. Some of the monasteries we visit are in review to become UNESCO World Heritage sites.
On the drive back to Tbilisi, the conversation meanders, with Beka constantly approaching new topics to keep the dialogue going. It’s obvious he enjoys talking to people, and it seems to be his favorite part of his job. An introvert he is not. The conversation eventually turns to movies. “I love the movie ‘Schindler’s List” he remarks, as we all take turns naming our favorite films. “But the only problem is that parts of it are simply not true.”
“Which part?” asks our friend Sarah.
“The Jews. They are not so nice in real life as they are portrayed in the movie.”
“Oh.” answers Sarah, as she turns to look out the window, doing her best to avoid an international incident by challenging him.by