It was 7 am in Yerevan (Armenia) barely stepped out from the old boxy Soviet train from T’bilisi (Georgia). The weather was pleasant at 17C but we were shivering even with two winter jackets. We looked for a corner to wait for our cab arranged by our contact to pick us up at 8:30. Our day had begun and with challenges we poorly anticipated but met with kindness.
Washrooms at the Yerevan train station have fees. Two of our friends had their bladders almost going to burst and you could see it on their red faces and perfectly aligned knees. We did not have Armenian drams (money) because we thought we would wait for our cab and ask him to stop by at a currency shop. So, they did the first thing to survive – beg to an old lady who cannot speak or understand English. The lady cleaner was nice enough to let us all use it for free. We tried giving her Georgian Lari but she just smiled and shook his head.
It was early morning and I badly needed a coffee fix. I was almost going into the universe of unpleasantness and in group travel, the insufferably infuriating person would go down as the evil maleficent with stories passed on to generations. Kidding. It is a silent rule that the mood in the morning sets the day’s mood. No one breaks it or suffer everyone’s irritation. So, I set to look for a café inside the station (there were none). Instead, I found a coffee vending machine and I tried (please don’t do this) putting Georgian Laris. A cab driver at my back saw me do this “unforgivable” act. He graciously offered his local coins and he asked if I want to get more coffee for my friends sitting at the bench corner. He was too generous to four Asian travellers looking cold and bored.
While waiting, I told them how I woke up in the middle of the night twice with someone standing right in front of me while holding my left hand. The train has 2 double bunk beds privately separated from other berths. I was on one of the two top beds staring on a 1930’s ceiling with scattered red tapes. That someone was our guy friend who was a little bit frightened with the train’s squeals, screeches and swerves. It was his first time to ride on a sleeping train for 9 long hours. It was so funny that our noisy chatters caused an old man to give us murderous looks few steps from us.
Our driver was late for more than an hour so we were becoming anxious. There was no wifi in the station so there was no way to contact him. I approached the old man (with the murdering looks) and asked him if I can borrow his phone (how forward!). English is not a common language in Armenia so I had to resort to hand gestures. He immediately gave me his phone to dial our contact’s number. Our driver was supposedly on his way to the station. I then thanked the old man and he just nodded and left. Few minutes after, our driver came.
We just boarded the taxi when the old man came rushing out the train station looking for us. We thought our contact might have told him that the driver was outside. We promptly opened our windows and gave him a wave mouthing our thank yous.
This was the start of our adventure into the Land of Noah considered one of the last 6 ancient surviving countries along with Iran, China, Greece, Egypt and Japan.
Our first stop was the Geghard monastery, east of Yerevan named after the holy spear that pierced Jesus’ side while nailed on the cross. It took us more than an hour with our driver expertly puffing cigarettes like an old mafia in a black and white silent movie. It was an old monastery with parts carved out from the cliffs. The elaborate structures and architectural complex with defensive hard-to-scale walls were common with Georgian countryside monasteries but uniquely impressive on its rock-cut cave-like construction.
We decided to move on to our next at 11 am. Garni temple was the only site I wanted to visit in Armenia along with Mt Ararat. I was fascinated with this Greek-like pagan temple for the sun god towering over a cliff amidst a landscape of great natural beauty. It was our first time to see other Filipino travellers making their way into the iconic Greco-Roman structure with unique carved rocks and flowery trees lining the entrance.
After Garni, we asked our driver to take us somewhere to eat but it was a disaster. He was not familiar with the area so he tried going around. We were hungry and he offered us his packed fresh fruits. We decided to just finish our tour to Khor Virap monastery.
We got lost somewhere from Garni to Khor Virap. My friends were starting to be irritated but I was unfazed. Maybe because I wasn’t in a hurry to go back to the City or I was enjoying looking through the dry, vast lands of Armenia lost in thoughts on why Georgia has more abundant grasslands than this deserted country. Did you know that more Armenians are living abroad because they are considered one of the most persecuted groups, forced out from their own homeland? Moreover, the rolling mountains with the impressive floating Mount Ararat gave me beautiful snaps both on my camera and phone.
Mount Ararat is a mountain of mysticism at the border of 3 great nations Turkey, Iran and Armenia where Noah’s ark landed after the great flood. It is always covered in ice and snow majestically floating over the high lands of Armenian plateaus. After 3 hours of going in and out the countryside, we finally made it to Khor Virap at the foot of Mount Ararat.
Khor Virap monastery is the sacred home and prison site of St Grigor. We tried going down through old wooden ladders into one of the narrow and dark secret holes inside one of the temples; prayed inside the main church with our guide telling us to light a candle (but refused to do so as our hearts and stomachs were not in perfect synchrony) and climbed for few minutes to the stone cross on top of the hill.
At 2 pm, we were famished and unanimously decided to go back to the City to eat. Our rented apartment was in the middle of Republic Avenue and we were greeted with a street blockage and young people crowding the stretch of the lengthy avenue. Apparently, a civil unrest was going on in the country and we had forgotten to check the news a day before. They were overthrowing their president through street protests (successfully shutting down businesses and people’s daily routine) via the term Velvet Revolution.
After putting down our bags, we went out to a nearby diner to take out local fast foods – burgers, pizza and shawarma. We bought some supplies (i.e. noodles etc) across the street to last through the night, as we didn’t know what could happen. We took a nap (or I did!) and someone woke me up at 8pm asking if I want to go out. The three of us went out to discover Yerevan’s night side. We ended in Republic Square with the dancing and colorful water and light show accompanied by a local music in front of the Art Gallery and History Museum.
We went back just after midnight after grabbing some local beers and bringing it home to the apartment. I stayed late watching the local news, sipping beers and looking through the balcony checking for any sign of disturbances. It was a peaceful night without any indication that the city was undergoing a political instability except when morning came. I woke up late so I declined to go with them biking around the city. I was feeling exhausted and not in the mood for anything.
We opted to leave at lunch for our 5 pm flight to avoid any mishaps caused by the unrest. Immediately stepping outside our apartment were throngs of demonstrations shouting and blocking moving vehicles. We had to walk a little farther to look for a restaurant. Luckily, we found one of the highly rated Yerevan’s must-eat Baklachoff. The restaurant serves local cuisine with great eclectic interiors, soft music and superb service (they speak English!). I finally tried the unique bland UNESCO’s bread Lavash and paired it with a local black coffee that tasted like Turkish. We also ordered the same fruit Georgian sodas for our main course steamy chicken and beef cooked in local style with white sweet-aroma rice. We ordered a lot for four people (since it was our last day) and we were pleasantly surprised that our group bill was less than US$30! It was one of my best eat-outs in our 2 weeks of travel from the Himalayas in India to the Caucasian regions of Georgia and finally, into the Armenian dry plains.
One day tour: 30,000 Armenian Dram (62$ / 2,000 THB) for 4 people
One night (2 room-apartment): 18,000 AMD (37$ / 1,200 THB) for 4
Taxi to airport: 3,000 AMD (6$ / 200 THB) for 4
Food, drinks and others: 37.5$ per person
Overall total cost per person: US$64 for almost 2 days (except flights).
Some photos are from Dan’s camera.