2013 Armenia and Georgia – final thoughts on the tour

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Tiles on a wall in Tbisili

[More photos will come as I do the Georgian posts]

General observations on Armenia including some recent history (whole books have been written on past history!)

For more information about the history of Armenia, Google Armenian history – Wikipedia has some good information.

Georgia ‘thoughts’ are further down the page so keep reading!

I did enjoy Armenia, and our guide Lara’s knowledge of her country and its history was prodigious – however, there was almost too much information for us to take in, especially on the very hot days that we had when we first arrived in Yerevan. So thank goodness for Google and Wikipedia!

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The photos that are in here are ones I took in the streets or shops of Yerevan and Tbisili.

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Overall we were extremely lucky with the weather – however, we would have liked some sun to see the colours of Lake Sevan and as it was raining so much on our last day, Lara said that Armenia was crying because we were leaving!

Georgia was amazing, however it doesn’t have anything as wonderful as the Matenadaran library, or the Cascade complex in Yerevan – it would have been good if the trip overall was longer – the 9 days in Georgia was ok, but another full day in Yerevan would also have been good.

Armenians (and Georgians) are very patriotic – the young people, like Lara, have lived through a lot of the disasters mentioned below, but they are still happy, friendly, very hospitable people. I think in the end, that Lara’s information was less biased than Nick’s – he did not discuss anything, if at all possible, about the Soviet time in Georgia – unless it was on the itinerary, whereas Lara did show us statues or monuments that had been erected during the Soviet era. I asked Nick about some mural on a building we had just passed, that would have been interesting to photograph, and he brushed it off as just some communist building.

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Lara was quite open about the Armenian nouveau riche – one house we drove past belonged to an importer, and he must have used something from every shipment he had received – it was so tacky, and so over the top, with decoration from almost every building era – we couldn’t see it that well from the bus – it was gone in a flash.

The food in Armenia is shared food at the table, so like Georgia, it is difficult to get just one item – when I had the lamb and potato dish at Marco Polo in Yerevan, no vegetables came with it. And at the restaurant at Lake Sevan, the table had multiple little plates of different salads for each section of 4-6 people (we had a long table), and then one dish of trout and chips (they all love fried chips over here) for each section.

General observations:

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Typical Armenian pattern

Yerevan wouldn’t look out of place in Europe – it has more European style buildings than Krakow or Warsaw, but it doesn’t have the vibrancy that Tbilisi has.

Buildings are made of Tuff – volcanic rock which comes in different colours – in Yerevan, the colours ranged from deep to light pink and from deep to light yellow. It also comes in dark grey – see comments about the colour of the monastery on the last day in Armenia. In Yerevan there was more colour generally than in the villages.

It was spring when we arrived in the mountain areas and the trees were just starting to come into leaf – a month before there had been snow.

Lots of chestnut trees just coming into flower – I saw them a lot in Poland.

Armenia was ruled by Persia at one time and when we went to the folk concert, the girls and their clothing definitely had a ‘Persian’ look to them.

Christianity was spread by the apostles from the 1st century – I have mentioned elsewhere that the area that was historic Armenia was the very first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion. That is also why the church is called the Apostolic church (not the Gregorian church). These churches are very simple, plain churches with no frescos, no ornate icons, and definitely no gold leaf anywhere (as there is in Russia).

Modern Armenia is much smaller than historic Armenia – which is of course, what happens when bigger countries decide they want your land, or just want you out of the way.

Because it is basically a Christian country, women generally don’t wear headscarves outside of the church, but like the Muslim mosques we visit anywhere, most women put head scarves on for active churches and tourists shouldn’t have bare flesh when visiting churches (so no shorts, mini skirts or sleeveless tops – but some tourists just don’t get it!) This is also the case in all Muslim countries as well. For the historic ruined churches we didn’t need scarves.

As wikitravel says, the fact that so many of the historic monasteries that are available to be visited are in places of outstanding natural beauty, does help stop you getting ‘monastery fatigue’!

For more information (simpler than the link below which has more detail) about Armenia go to http://wikitravel.org/en/Armenia

A bit of history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Armenia

Disasters happened one after the other for modern Armenia

1988 Demonstrations started against the Soviet Union.

1988 War started with Azerbaijan:

Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region that had both Armenians and Azeris – in 1988 the Karabakh Armenians started protesting, wanting to be part of Armenia. This guerrilla-style war continued until 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed – at this point, the conflict escalated to all-out war with Azerbaijan.  Eventually 230,000 Armenians in Azerbaijan either returned to Armenia voluntarily or were forced to relocate. Those that got out early on before the conflict became really serious, managed to sell their houses and get money out so they could start a new life in Armenia (Lara, our Armenian guide, and her parents were in this group – her mother was a top scientist in a the wine making industry in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan). If they didn’t move voluntarily they were forced out, were not able to sell their houses, or get money out.

As many as 800,000 Azeris in Armenia, were displaced back to Azerbaijan. Many ex Azerbaijan families didn’t stay in Armenia but continued on to Russia, Georgia, USA and Canada, Australia and Western Europe. America took orphan children for a period of time, but many never returned to Armenia, and as a result America has closed its borders to Armenians as they have to most East European countries.

1988 November – the Spitak earthquake caused a lot of damage – Northern Armenia is vulnerable to large earthquakes anyway as it is in a seismic zone, but the shoddy workmanship and building construction during Brezhnev’s time, contributed to the very high loss of life.

1991 Russian dissolution: the collapse of the Soviet Union was in August 1991 – for many people, the Soviet days were easier as they were looked after by the Soviet Union. Because the Soviets took over Armenia, it was saved from being taken over by Turkey who has wanted Armenia for years. After Armenia declared itself a sovereign state in 1991, Armenian groups from around the world came and offered help for the fledgling nation (especially Canada).

1992-94 War with Azerbaijan was at its height – the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan was closed in 1991, and has never reopened – there aren’t even any flights between the countries. [Those from our group who went on into Azerbaijan were not allowed to have anything on them that had ‘made in Armenia’ on it, or even was obviously Armenian – if even one item was found, then the whole group would have had their luggage searched.]

The border with Turkey was closed at the same time, and it was only in 2009 that Armenia and Turkey signed a treaty to normalise relations. However, the reluctance of Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian genocide limits this. Also In 1922 Turkey was given Armenian land that includes Kars and Ani and Mt Ararat – considered sacred by Armenians – by Russia in exchange for Adjara, an autonomous region on the Black Sea (now part of Georgia where Batumi is), that Russia wanted.

2008 Unfortunately during the 7 day war (Russia and Georgia – Georgian post) Armenia let Russian helicopters use bases near the Georgian border, and many Georgians haven’t forgiven Armenia for that – Nick,

(Georgian section tour leader) being one of them – he said, ‘you have to earn your friends’ and obviously Armenia hasn’t!

Final thoughts on the tour

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Visiting these two totally unknown countries has been really interesting, especially learning about their history and culture of which I knew nothing. I did not realise there were quite so many churches on this tour – especially so in Georgia – in Yerevan we saw the Matenadaran library and the yet unfinished Cascade complex, but apart from the Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia didn’t have anything to match them.

Georgia rather looks down its nose at Armenia; of course, it is much bigger, but considering Armenia’s land-locked location and its equally turbulent history, I think Armenia is doing well for an ex-Soviet state – I found it interesting and would have liked another day or so there.

DSCF6092However, Nick was a much better tour leader than Lara, who was more like a local guide – her people skills weren’t as good, nor was she as good a leader – she didn’t keep an eye on the last people of the group to make sure they were still with the group (which local guides never do – it is up to you to keep up with the tour).

However, as I have said already, her knowledge of Armenia was prodigious and she never used notes – unfortunately, she sat in her front seat of the bus, facing the road and talked into the microphone and many people went to sleep – she spoke too fast and gave us too much information at one time – whereas Nick gave us ‘bites’ of information and always faced us in the bus (not so safe though for him). He said that guides are not supposed to keep talking if even one person goes to sleep which would be very difficult on many tours.

We spent a lot of time in the bus (thankfully, large buses), generally the roads were bad and there wasn’t a lot to see apart from churches, however there were not many other tourists which was a positive. I was often reminded of my trip around Turkey in 1996 – the long distances on the bus, the churches and especially the amount of rubbish everywhere in the villages, the country-side and in the rivers.  Unfortunately now there are so many plastic water bottles for the rubbish system to contend with (which it doesn’t). We aren’t supposed to drink the tap water here – it isn’t because the water isn’t ‘safe’ to drink out of the tap – it is just that our systems wouldn’t like the different minerals in it and we might get a stomach upset – therefore bottled water was better for us.

Judy made this comment – I admire the tenacity and resilience of people who have survived genocide, invasions and unspeakable cruelty, to emerge strong and patriotic – I totally agree with it.

It has been really good to get to know our guides, both of whom were young, and both of whom had had unpleasant family experiences that had affected many of the population of their countries. I got to know Nick better than Lara as we had longer with him, and Nick’s English (spoken and understanding of) was better than Lara’s. Nick’s father had died 5 weeks earlier – he wore black for 40 days as is the custom. He is now financially responsible for his mother, his two unmarried aunts and his brother, until his brother gets a full-time job. As I had over-estimated how cold it would be in the mountains, I gave him the thermal stuff I had bought over – new and unused – and a bag with all the excess bits and pieces I didn’t need after the tour – which theoretically meant I had more space, though where it has disappeared to I don’t know!

Georgians are definitely patriotic – in the paper, Georgia Today, which was in English and available at the hotel in Tbilisi, there was a feature article titled “Cover up at Sotheby’s” – relating to paintings being sold by Sotheby’s and painted by a Georgian artist, that were listed as being Russian – this sort of thing really makes patriotic Georgians angry as (1) they are not Russian and never have been, and (2) Russian art is selling for higher prices than Georgian art.

There have been a lot of stray dogs in the villages we have been to – we have been told not to touch the dogs as there is rabies in Georgia (and Armenia) – 18 months ago Nick was bitten by a dog and chose to have the anti-rabies injection rather than risk getting rabies, although he had been told the dog didn’t have rabies.  Then he couldn’t drink alcohol for 6 months!

Both Yerevan and Tbilisi have a metro system – we didn’t use the one in Yerevan as it was a very short line and built by the Russians to what was the industrial section of the city – consequently it is now only used by those people who live there.  The Tbilisi Metro was very useful – we had to buy a card for 2 lari (Georgian money) and then top it up for use on the scanning machines – no cash was held by anyone apart from the cashiers. It cost ½ lari for each trip which was very reasonable – and that was for one sector or all of them. The elevators were very long – they reminded me of the ones in Russia that also went down a long way – it would not be good if the power went out so I hope they have back-up generators!

As in many countries, e.g. Poland, Turkey, Slovenia, the people who live in the cities are very different from those who live in the country villages. The city people have been exposed to western culture and have changed through this. The country people live a life that is more traditional and tourists are still not very common in the countryside of both countries. Of course, like anywhere else, there are plenty of people in the country-side who are prepared to make their living from tourists and they usually understand a few words in English – such as how much is it?  Then they take their calculator and punch in the numbers – just like they used to do when I was living in Poland. However, sign language goes a long way as well – picking up something, making eye contact with the seller and saying something (even if it is incomprehensible to them) obviously is a question about the price of the item being held.

Russian is still the second language in both countries, but Lara said that in most schools Armenian and Russian are taught, and then English and maybe one other language such as French, German or even Japanese.

And here we are, with most of us speaking only English!

The South Caucasus Region is now of great strategic significance – however, Armenia has been intentionally excluded by other countries (e.g. Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia to some point) and is becoming regionally isolated. I really don’t know what the future holds for these countries – the new prime minister in Georgia got elected because of his money and his contacts and it appears as though his own interests are his priority rather than his country’s.  That is sad as these people are just like you and me, in fact, Nick wouldn’t look out of place in any western country (The Caucasus region is where Caucasians come from). Many Armenians and Georgians look more western than a lot of Turks do, especially those in Istanbul.

Nick said that although he didn’t agree with all of what the previous government was trying to do, most of it was ok, but no one really knows about the new government (remember this was written in 2013) – I think I mentioned before that the previous government was pro-west whereas this new government is pro-north (Russia). It wouldn’t take much to start another conflict here.

Like Russia, I would not have wanted to do this trip without being on a tour – certainly English is common enough in both capitals to be able to get by, and there are heaps of tour companies who will take you to the places we went to, especially in Tbilisi, but it was so much easier doing a tour.  And Explore is an ok tour company and we had a good group – out of the 18 there was only one person who was really difficult.

Other stuff:
When checking online for some information I found this wikipedia link – about the oil pipeline that goes from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey – scroll down and read the section, Controversial Aspects!

End of travel notes for Armenia and Georgia.