Posted by on 11, Jul 2010 in 2010 - The Caucasus, Armenia, Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Europe


The crossing into Armenia was pleasantly hassle free. The Armenian officials were helpful taking us from point to point to get the visa, Taffy x-rayed, the insurance, the Eco-tax and finally to make the payment into the bank for all these things. There was no corruption and all the officials tried to speak the odd word of English. The controls were still the baffling ping pong array of going from pillar to post to get various stamps etc that seem to be a hang over from Soviet times.

Once in, the scenery again instantly changed as we left the rolling hills behind and began climbing into the foothills of the mountains. The road follows the river passing through increasingly impressive gorges and very depressingly poor villages. It seems to be the poorest country we’ve visited so far but perhaps that is only this area. Small towns have large derelict factories crumbling and overgrown on the edge of town, an obvious Soviet remnant and unemployment in this area is very high. The buses have cylinders on the roof for presumably gas and look 50 years old or more. They drive along with whole panels missing from the engine bays and rust seems to be an integral part of the design.

Many of the homes look abandoned, though we think some are still lived in. The corrugated roof sheets have slipped in places and gaping holes now gaze skywards. Nothing has been painted in years – except a crash barrier on the road that had a team of men painting it black and white – and window frames and doors are often rotting. It is extremely sad.

The scenery however is almost from a fantasy film and you half expect to see a dragon fly past being chased by knights at any moment.

Our first stop is Hagput Monastery which sits on the top of the valley gazing out over the river below and the hills opposite. The hills don’t gently drop down into the valley they just seem to vanish below and the hill tops are flat enough for a Soviet town full of ghastly high rise blocks to sit right on the edge looking like a backdrop to a Doctor Who set.

The Monastery is UNESCO listed but has no entrance fee or floodlights at night and apart from some grass that has been cut looks neglected with grass growing out of the roof. Inside the swallows nest freely and the floor has circles of droppings below their nests. It is dark, damp and depressing and we thought a sad state of affairs for a 1000 year old treasure. There was however a service going on in one of the multitude of buildings with a priest and 3 choirboys being the only people present. In its pomp 1000 monks lived here and ran a school and library. Hopefully as Armenia develops they will spend money on this place. At present everything seems to have been done through USAid. One benefit of the lack of official support here is the stalls that surround the monastery entrance. All the items for sale are hand made locally – often by the people selling them – and there is not a sign of a made in China sticker anywhere. The vendors speak some English and say we are welcome to camp there for the night surrounded by cows and chickens, they are as usual lovely people.

The next day we carried on to Hageputs sister monastery Sanahin. This is also perched high up on a hill but is more compact and we liked it more. It is next to a graveyard and at the front is a large plaque perhaps 2m x 1m to a family killed in a car accident. The plaque has life sized head portraits of the 4 people who died and a picture of a lada flying off the edge of a hairpin bend into the canyon below. The girls were teenagers and it is deeply saddening but people still die in droves here on the roads, and ironically as the roads improve the faster they die. That said they are far better drivers than Georgia.

We reached Yerevan around 5pm and it was still 39C. We had left the canyons of the Debed River and driven up through mountainous hills (!) which were covered in a carpet of green but very few trees. The road had passed dozens of groups of beehives by the road selling honey and Taffy had thinned out the bee population quite considerably by the time we started our descent to Yerevan. As a backdrop to our drive the 4km high snow covered mountain Aragats stayed on our right for miles and miles.

Yerevan is another sprawling city and is one of the more attractive examples of grand Soviet architecture – except the blocks of flats which are still crammed together and sag and lean like old men. The central Republic Square, once adorned with a statue of Lenin is now a monumentally huge roundabout. But it is flanked by an impressive array of buildings gardens and fountains. All over the city similar grand buildings,many in need of attention, abound.

We decided we couldn’t face a day here as the heat was overpowering so we opted for an evening stroll instead as guide books didn’t rate it too highly. However we again were surprised by how modern it was. Apart from the Soviet buildings there isn’t a lot to see, but there are hundreds of outdoor cafés and by 10 the place is heaving with families and couples all dressed up strolling about. The cafés congregate around the opera house and are really luxurious with sofas pianists chandeliers and uniformed waitresses all around the pedestrianised square and lake. Like Tirana it knocks spots off anything we have in England and it is such a contrast to the depressing tower blocks on the edge of town.

Even the old Soviet statues and monuments here have been accommodated into the city plan and the large cascade – an enormous series of staircases in gardens leading up to the obligatory Mother Armenia statue on the top of the hill high above the city is brightly lit and bustling with people.

We met an Armenian American (why are Americans always from 2 places? I must remember to describe myself as Saxon English to the next one we meet) said that 10 years ago there were rolling blackouts here and 15 years ago no power at all. He said the development here had been at a phenomenal pace but it is by and large done sympathetically to the existing architecture.

We had been directed to park at a minibus terminal on the edge of town with the lorries. We got a taxi back and had to convince some locals that we knew where we were going before they would let us get into the taxi as they were very concerned for our safety going to such a “not nice” area. We had a very peaceful and Uneventful night with the other trucks.

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