I visited Armenia as part of my 66-day journey across Asia in Summer 2012. I entered the country by minibus which I boarded in Tbilisi, Georgia. After crossing the border, the trip to the capital Yerevan took me through the sinuous Debed Canyon.
What stuck out in this gorgeous landscape were the abandoned factories on the hills. A Polish girl on the minibus told me that in the Soviet days factories used to operate regardless of whether they were profitable, and these ones would have supplied goods to the rest of the USSR. Once the Union collapsed, these factories shut down one by one.
I decided on my way back I would stop in this region and visit some of these factories. And Luigi, whom I met in Yerevan and travelled with in Nagorno Karabakh and who had Italian-Peruvian-Japanese roots, agreed to join me, on the condition that we also went to the monasteries.
Vanadzor, the first town I picked, near the bottom end of the Debed Canyon, had a few abandoned/semi-functional factories and was interesting to see as it showed us life in an ordinary Armenian town. But it was in the second one, Alaverdi, where we really got to observe the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The town centre was dominated by a semi-functional copper mine, which was now jointly operated with a Greek company. We stayed in a modest hotel in a partially renovated building, decorated tastefully with second-hand furniture and, rather randomly, a ping-pong table.
In Alaverdi and Sanahin — which is just above the canyon and can be reached by a cable car — there were Soviet-style communist apartment blocks built originally for the workers. Some of these were half-complete, and the rest were totally rundown, with signs that residents had carried out their own maintenance. Especially in Sanahin, poverty was clearly visible. In Alaverdi there was a health clinic funded by the US Department of State.
Walking among these blocks, we came across a young man, who spoke very good English but with an Indian accent. He told us he had got a scholarship and gone to high school in Calcutta, India. Now that he had graduated, he didn’t know what he would do with himself in this sad place where there were no jobs.
The Sanahin Monastery in contrast was majestic and deservedly a Unesco World Heritage Site. It was overgrown with plants, below the uneven floor inside there were graves, and there were no monks.
Pink City Yerevan
What distinguishes Yerevan firstly is the pink stones from which it’s built. And secondly the orderliness of its layout. It’s green and pleasant to walk around. At night-time it’s active.
Meeting Armenians at the hostel, I learned that Armenians are as close-knit as Jewish people. Armenians living in Western countries and Russia build themselves luxurious holiday homes in Armenia. Young Armenians come during the school holidays to learn the language, religion, culture, traditional dances, volunteer in places such as hospitals and orphanages. And some of them to find Armenian spouses!
It is important to point out that besides similarities between what Armenians and Jews suffered in history (as a result of which both are scattered all around the world), Christianity for Armenians is almost as old as Judaism is for Jews: Armenians were the first nation to adopt Christianity — in the early 4th century.
In Yerevan I also visited a nice mosque built by the Iranian community in the 18th century — the two countries enjoy surprisingly close links.
Before going to Armenia I was wondering whether I would experience any negativity given my origins, as there is an ongoing dispute between Turkey and Armenia as to whether the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman days amount to genocide or not. But I found, with one exception, it was the complete opposite.
People running the hostel were extra-friendly when I told them I was from Turkey originally. Hranush, a beautiful young girl working at the reception desk, told me she was studying Turkish at university in Yerevan, and wanted to go to Istanbul.
At the main bus station in Yerevan there were signs for many destinations in Turkey. I saw several Turkish lorries transporting goods back and forth via Georgia (as the border between Armenia and Turkey remains closed). Beko, the giant Turkish domestic appliances company, seemed to be doing good business in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.
At none of the border crossings did I face any issues or questions. (Though I have a British passport, my forename is very common in Turkey, hence instantly recognisable.)
The only exception to all of this was a former army officer we spoke to in Nagorno Karabakh who said that Turks were responsible for all the problems in Europe!