When one talks about Armenia, one is hard pressed not to mention its famous diaspora: Cher, Andre Agassi, and not mention the notorious Kardashian clan.
A mere mention of the latter prompted an Armenian-American to roll her eyes. “The guys from System of a Down went to my school, though!” she contributed more enthusiastically, referring to the Armenian members of the Grammy-nominated rock band.
Getting in and out of Armenia can be tricky, especially by land. It’s as tricky as the politics in that particular region. Despite being flanked by four countries, it only has two open borders: with Georgia in the north and Iran in the south. It continues to have a testy relationship with Turkey in the west over a genocide that occurred in 1915, and it still has a hostile non-relationship with Azerbaijan over the disputed area of Nagorno Karabakh, a mountainous territory recognized as an independent republic only by Armenia and a small handful of states.
I grudgingly took a 23-hour bus ride from Tehran to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. My fellow passengers included an Armenian-Turkmen student who was studying in Yerevan, a couple of Armenian-Iranians and a small group of bodybuilders with shaved arms and a man who planned to illegally emigrate to the United States.
"The Jakarta Globe," August 5, 2013
Once we passed the Iranian border, all the women, except one elderly lady, removed their headscarves, and when the bus made a short stop at 8 a.m., somewhere in southern Armenia, the bodybuilders bought beer, which they promptly drank.
The journey took us through mountains, with the scenery changing from arid to lush forest at the top of a mountain ridge. The student nudged me when we passed Mount Ararat which looms from modern-day Turkey. It is believed to be the landing spot of Noah’s ark and is revered by Armenians as their national identity since Armenians consider themselves descendants of Noah.
The student was keen to practice her English, and therefore kept me awake with recommendations for Yerevan — “You must go to Republic Square! At night we have the singing fountain, very pretty with lights and song. Whenever I have a headache, I go there. Headache gone.” — tales of her family life in Turkmenistan, their problems with religious intolerance, and when she learned I had been to America I was grilled on how to secure a US tourist visa. Of course, she mentioned the genocide.
Russian is the second language in Armenia, but even if you don’t speak it, you’re sure to recognize the word “genosida.”
A craftsman told me his grandmother’s family fled to Baghdad. An old woman who approached me on a juice stand told me she used to live in Tajikistan, where her family ended up for years.
More stories are available in the free museum attached to the somber genocide memorial, located on a hill overlooking Yerevan. Every year on April 24, hundreds of thousands lay flowers around an eternal flame in memory of those who perished. To this day, the term “genocide” and the Armenians’ version of events leading up to it are still disputed by Turkey.
Despite being the cultural, economic and political heart of the nation, Yerevan has a small-town feel about it. The vibe is laid back and it doesn’t pay to rush. If you want to travel to another town, prepare to do a lot of waiting as the marshrutka (minibus) and shared taxi will only depart after it’s filled up. But the fare is cheap.
As it now embraces capitalism, flashy new money is mixed with the grunginess of Soviet relics: an expensive SUV parked next to a Lada is a common sight.
People dress up when they go out, and dark, long hair is considered an attractive feature on a woman.
Compared to other capitals in the region, many of the must-see sights are small in scale. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in quirkiness.
Visit a market and indulge in the sickly sweet rojik, a popular Caucasus sweet made by dipping strings of walnuts into thickened grape juice. Marvel at old cars, their boots and interiors filled — literally — to the brim with produce. One wonders how the seller drove to the market, squeezed between all those tomatoes or cauliflowers. And if you think our government is too lax when it comes to cigarette legislation, wait till you see the claw machines, like those found in amusement parks. Drop a coin in the slot, and instead of grabbing plush toys, try to snag yourself a pack of cigarettes instead.
Yerevan is also good for anything Soviet-related. Look out for CCCP (USSR in Cyrillic alphabet) ice cream in stores. By coincidence, the first time I looked for it, the store ran out of supply — a food shortage; how very Soviet of them.
The citizens of Soviet Armenia did enjoy certain freedoms, though. The quality of life, for instance, was reportedly among the highest in comparison with other Soviet republics.
My tour guide, who was wearing a Young Pioneer bandana, was approached by a guard at a metro station. He wanted to know why she was wearing this insignia of the past, and after hearing she was conducting a tour of Soviet Yerevan, his face softened and he muttered, “That’s good. I also still have mine at home.”
Much has been said about Armenian hospitality, and the people in general are very welcoming. I remember sitting by the side of a road waiting for a bus back to Yerevan when passing motorists stopped by to give me apples, which they considerately washed first.
Men and women, old and young, greeted me on the streets, trying to tell me their stories in rapid-fire Russian.
Mostly they’re happy to see tourists visiting their country and almost always ask if I enjoyed Armenia. I always gave them a sincere thumbs up.
"The Jakarta Globe," August 5, 2013