“Shall we go to Armenia & Georgia?”…
Singapore / January 2017
The original plan was to visit a part of the Silk Road – and our correspondence with the lovely Sheena Seah of Country Holidays Singapore revolved around various Silk Road itineraries – and there were many. However, for the dates we were looking at, it was dust storm time and so, not a good time to go. Knowing our interests – photography, history and some (light) walks (‘light’ specified by me, not my erstwhile and much fitter travel partner, Shobs) – Sheena suggested Armenia and Georgia and we said okay since we really didn’t have any other ideas.
A 7-Hour Layover in Doha
Singapore – Doha – Yerevan / 29 – 30 March 2018
It was a looong flight – made slightly better by i. the fact that it wasn’t full, ii. watching Murder on the Orient Express and The Darkest Hour (which was excellent) and iii. getting some decent sleep.
Next question – what to do for 7 hours at the Hamad International Airport at Doha. The Priority Pass lounge access card that Shobs had, allowed access to the Maha lounge for 4 hours only – though we weren’t thrown out after 4 hours – I suspect it was far too crowded for anyone to keep track of anyone or anything. It was actually less crowded in the public areas – and (horrors), there was no yummy middle-Eastern food in the lounge – what??
We googled “what to do at Doha airport”…and came up with: take a selfie with a giant yellow teddy bear sculpted from bronze (“an engaging art piece that humanises the space as well as remind travellers of their childhood and the precious objects which are a reminder of home.” sic), and a tantalising article asking if we could “spot all 8 art installations at Hamad International”. Sorry, HIA but I don’t think you’ll be giving Changi Airport a run for its money in the “what to do on a layover” category anytime soon.
We had plenty of time and in one of several ‘walk-arounds’ came across a food court and decided a biryani was in order.
On hindsight, I should’ve done my homework better – if I had, I would’ve realised that a 7-hour layover is plenty of time to do a city tour or even visit the Museum of Islamic Art – which I missed on my first and only visit to Doha a couple of years ago – and which I’m told is quite spectacular. Sigh.
I mostly slept on the 3-hour flight to Yerevan. Our passports were scrutinised rather closely by the immigration officer, and despite the new visa-free entry rule for Singaporeans, I was asked for my visa – fortunately I had it with me.
Our bags were out very quickly, and we were soon being greeted by our guide for the next 4 days, Katar, and our driver, Mello. Katar was bright and chirpy despite the late hour (past midnight) – this bode well for our time here.
The streets were almost deserted as we drove to our hotel; there seemed to be an abundance of distilleries – Armenia is famous for its brandy apparently – I didn’t know this. Our hotel was smack in the middle of Yerevan’s Republic Square – now the Marriott, it had its beginnings as the Soviet-owned Armenia Hotel.
Tomorrow, rain is forecast but that works well, as it’s Museum Day.
History, Poe, Brandy – and Lamb
Yerevan / 30 March 2018
Had a really good sleep and woke up to a sunny morning – was the forecast wrong after all? The buffet spread was…a spread. Tried various unfamiliar items – many centred around dried fruits and nuts. All very yum.
We had a couple of hours before we were to meet Katar, so we set off in search of the Edgar Alan Poe wall art and a particular door, both of which Shobs had seen in our guidebook, and both of which were on Abovyan Street, which was right next to the hotel.
First impressions of Yerevan – clean, well signposted, modern buildings and old ones side by side; it felt safe…except maybe when crossing the roads, where you had 3 options –
1. you stopped and waited for the cars to stop before crossing (though this often meant that the cars took it that you weren’t crossing and sped through the crossings);
2. you crossed when the locals crossed – this was our preferred option;
3. you (maybe said a prayer and) crossed despite the cars showing no signs of stopping – our least preferred option though this seemed to be the preferred local option – in which case we then deployed option 2 above and followed them milliseconds after the cars screeched to a halt.
Street sculptures were plentiful – and the first one we saw was of a man with a basket of
flowers and a (real) cigarette in his mouth. There was a backstory to this statue of Karabala, which I only found out much later – you can read more here, but essentially it involved love, jealousy, and eventually dying from the cold. But today, as I took photos of Karabala with his real cigarette, a local woman waited patiently. As soon as I was done, she quite indignantly took the cigarette out of the statue’s mouth and chucked it into the bin. I hope she didn’t think we’d stuck the ciggy in his mouth!!
We walked for a good half an hour or so down Abovyan Street but no sign of Poe or the door. We did see a lipid-lowering church, the 12th century St. Asvatstatsin, and loads of street art – inanimate and human.
At some point we decided we weren’t going to see Poe or the door, and crossed the street (via an underpass – the 4th option when it comes to crossing streets – unfortunately not always available) to make our way back to the hotel. And as we walked back, stopping to take pics of more street art, carpets, people…there was Poe in an alley off Abovyan Street.
We got back to the hotel in good time for our 11AM meet-up with Katar. The sun was still out and we were hopeful that the forecast was wrong.
- First stop – the History Museum which was just across from our hotel, one of the many old buildings around Republic Square.
The museum had some stunning exhibits – caveat here – old things fascinate me. The Egyptian mummies, Turkana Boy, Lucy… and here in Yerevan’s History Museum, there were some remarkably drool-worthy well preserved objects (unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed) :
- wooden burial chariots with intricate trelliswork, from the Bronze Age. These were found in Lake Sevan when the water level went down (the water was used to generate electricity). These chariots are four to five thousand years old and just how they’ve been so well preserved is beyond me.
- a leather shoe, complete with laces; it was found in a cave and was stuffed with grass which helped keep its shape – the original shoe tree (or shoe grass in this case). At 5,500 years old, it is officially the oldest shoe in the world.
- giant kvevris (or qvevris) which were used to make wine – these were buried in the ground with their mouths at or just above ground level…making drowning in wine a real possibility…
We could’ve spent all day there had we been left to our own devices – fortunately we had a very knowledgeable docent who pointed out the highlights of each collection, and we managed to cover most of the main exhibits. When we emerged from the museum some one and a half hours later, it was pouring. Looks like the forecast was correct after all.
2. Next stop – the Matenadaran – aka the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts.
Mashtots was a smart chap who lived around 400AD. He invented the Armenian alphabet, or ‘I-bu-ben’ (literally ‘A & B’) which initially comprised 36 letters (2 more letters were added about 800 years later). The Matenadaran which translates to ‘the holder of manuscripts’ is up on a hill, with a statue of Mashtots in front of it, overlooking…you guessed it, Mashtots Avenue.
Only a fraction of the treasures was on display. There were texts on medicine, science, poetry, religion; there was the ‘biggest book’ – this manuscript was divided into two and smuggled to safety by two women during the genocide. One lady delivered her half to the church in Etchmiadzin, while the other lady buried her half before she could reach Etchmiadzin. Both halves eventually made their way to the Matenadaran.
There were ancient manuscripts and parchments from all over the world. In one glass showcase, there were palm leaves that looked like the ‘ola’ leaves I’d seen in Chennai many years ago – those leaves which are a database of all the information – past, present and future – of all the people in the world. And yes, I did find my own leaf – but that’s a whole other story. Just as I remarked, “Hey these look like ola leaves,” I read the sign next to it which said, ‘palm leaf manuscript from south India.’
We were quite hungry by the time we were done at the Matenadaran. Lunch was at The Club, a basement restaurant in the city. As we walked to the restaurant we saw yet another Poe painting on a wall, a smaller one this time, but definitely Poe – quite intriguing, this Poe obsession.
Our first Armenian lunch – the portions were huge, and yummy (pics of starters and dessert below…forgot to take a pic of the beef mains). It was a good conversation – us asking Katar about Armenia, and she asking us about Singapore, what makes it tick, etc…I realised I’m quite ‘patriotic’ about this country not-of-my-birth 🙂
“…who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
It was a sobering afternoon, post-lunch at the Armenian Genocide Memorial complex. Armenia’s history involved much shifting of its borders, and some time in the 15th century it was part of the Ottoman Empire. The minority Christian Armenians were subject to ‘unequal’ treatment in the majority Muslim empire – and yet they did well – they were well-educated and ran successful businesses…you can see where this is going. The first massacres happened just before the turn of the century around 1896 – a few hundred thousands of Armenians were killed by the Turks.
The next chapter in 1908 involved a group called the Young Turks whom the Armenians had hoped would bring a positive change to Turkey, and to their lot – but their hope was short-lived…the Young Turks were hell-bent on Turkification. There were many many stories – and pictures – of Armenians forced to switch from Christianity to Islam, some who escaped from Muslim captivity, and others who died trying.
As World War I began, with the Turks fighting alongside Germany, the case against the Christian Armenians was strengthened – with the growing fear that the Armenians would join forces with the Turks’ enemy, Russia.
And just like that, 1.5 million Armenians (at least 50% of Armenians in Turkey) were exterminated – in particular, all their intellectuals, all their scientists and artists, their writers and priests…
Among the Young Turks were doctors, who inflicted the most horrific tortures on their Armenian prisoners…
Then there was Komitas – whose story has remained stuck in my head, as has his face which exuded peace and serenity. Komitas was a composer, singer and a priest. He survived the genocide, and was released from the Turkish prison with the help of US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau (whose book is well worth reading, we were told). He was alive but “it was as if he were dead,” said Katar – an empty shell of himself, terrified of shadows and without the ability to speak. He never recovered and died in 1935 in a psychiatric hospital in Paris.
It would appear that the Armenian genocide provided some inspiration to Hitler some years later. As he prepared to invade Poland and “kill without mercy the men, women and children of Poland”, he is believed to have said, “…after all, who today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The madness continues today…
A Stiff Drink
After all that horrible history, we were more than ready for our next stop – the Ararat brandy factory. We joined a tour led by a very eloquent young lady. The highlights here were :
- the almost overpowering smell of alcohol that hung in the air. Many workers had failed breathalyser tests on account of this – till they carried identification that stated they worked at the factory, and then were let off by the traffic cops. Some may have used this excuse even if they really had been drinking…
- the weighing scale – visiting dignitaries were weighed and an equivalent weight of brandy-filled bottles were presented to them. This practice was stopped after Boris Yeltsin visited – and now VIPs are just given a case or two.
- the Peace Barrel, and probably the only place in Armenia where you’d find the Azerbaijani flag. The barrel was created at the start of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region – and will be opened once the conflict ends…it might be a while.
- the Churchill story – and how after the Yalta Conference (I think) at the end of WWII, Stalin offered Churchill an Ararat brandy post-dinner. He liked it so much, a case of Ararat brandy was sent every month to him, by the Soviet ambassador, on Stalin’s instructions. The cases continued to be delivered 10 years after he died, till some staffer at the Soviet Embassy realised the recipient was dead.
- the brandy tasting (of course). Over 2 snifters of very smooth Ararat brandy (a 3-year old and a ten-year old), we made friends with some other brandy-tasting tourists – a Filipina, a Pole and his Armenian girlfriend.
Too Much Lamb (yes, it is possible)
It was still light by the time we got back to the hotel. So we went walkabout and practised our road-crossing skills. There was an all-girl brass band performing (or maybe practising) near our hotel – much time was spent giggling – which was quite infectious. We came across a little park, on the way seeing a Kim Kardashian lookalike emerging from a Best Western – Shobs’ theory was that it really was the K who was travelling incognito, and what better hotel to stay in to remain undetected. There was more intriguing street art – this time a stylised drawing of Mike Tyson.
We thought we’d go for dinner at The Salon (which was recommended by Katar), on the now-familiar Abovyan Street. On the way, we saw the door that we were looking for this morning – it was a door to a restaurant, and it was open unfortunately, so no photographs.
At The Salon, we took the waiters’ recommendation, and believed him when he said “not so big, enough for one.” We ordered a lamb stew and a ‘lamb parcel’ – we could’ve fed at least 4 people – enough said.
Like stuffed little piggies, we rolled back to the hotel. What a day it’s been – So Much Information – and lamb. Tomorrow we go to Khor Virap – the closest we’ll be to Mt Ararat. Fingers crossed it’s a clear day.