In this now disease-ridden and fast changing world, it seems like my time spent in Armenia – only a couple of months ago – is already starting to get slightly unrelatable. Finding motivation on writing about such a different experience than that we are undergoing at the moment, really took me a while. Then I understood that there is actually something to learn and preach about in here again. And that is about the currently or soon-to-be important phenomenon of overcoming trauma.
Some of you (- hi, mom! -) are probably still wondering if they ever heard about such a place or knew where to locate it on the map. You don’t really see too many travel pictures or general information about the country anywhere, do you? I came to notice that even most of the few travelers only spent a couple of days in the capital Yerevan to cross it on their list. And I do understand why. First it may seem like there’s nothing else to see in the country as outside the capital there’s mostly poor and empty looking villages around. There’s actually a lot of half-built, abandoned and/or destroyed buildings all around the country, which can seem a little confusing at first. Even I was considering to rush through, but I’m happy that I decided to take a few weeks to get a wider and more realistic understanding about the country and it’s people.
So what’s the deal with the abandoned buildings and all? And what’s been happening in there over the last hundred years or so? My short answer to this is that just a lot of explosive kind of shit happened. Most significant of all is the genocide that took place under Ottoman rule during WW1, which led to many fleeing the country and the estimated deaths of 600 000 – 1 500 000 Armenians. As a result, even today only one third of Armenians live in Armenia itself. Since then, they also went through WW2, the Soviet times, Post-Soviet economic recession, the 1988 earthquake (killing tens of thousands) and the technically still ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh War.
When walking around in the capital, Yerevan, you don’t really get think much of the nasty parts of their history. The central area is surprisingly modern, and it’s soon easy to understand that the main activity in there is to simply enjoy life in terms of chilling and discovering the restaurant scene. I’m not even sure which dishes are all their’s but it’s fair to assume that they either have a great cuisine or just know how to prepare the stuff well. The city center is quite small so you can even get around quite comfortably by walking. I enjoyed my time and also did a bit of drinking in the nice pubs after spending a sober month in Iran. I came to understand from friends that five to ten years ago also Yerevan used to be a very different kind of a place. English wasn’t widely spoken at all, there was only local music being played around and people were more conservative and traditional. Even though the city still has it’s own and slightly mystical Slavic vibes, you can see that it has developed and gotten more international recently.
After some nice time I started feeling that it’s although time for me to leave the bubble and see real Armenia. Due to lack of information and certain areas being less touristic, even smaller towns were interesting to check out for their obscurity. Especially all the Western people interested in places like Chernobyl might find some mystique in the rural areas and rusty, massive chemical plants and such that I saw on my trip. In a way, Armenia seems like a one huge outdoor museum. Among all of it’s Soviet vibes and cruel history, there are also ancient monasteries to be found simply everywhere. Being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as state religion, you can count on it showing.
When it comes to having one for the road, there’s plenty of options. Drinking seems to be an important part of the culture, which can already be indicated from seeing how alcohol seems to take up to half of the storage in local mini stores. Armenians are particularly proud of their world class brandies, the quality of which also came as a pleasant surprise to me. The tour and tasting I did in Ararat Brandy museum was convincing enough to spend my pennies on a bottle of their 20-year old that still remains unopened. Otherwise you can also choose from several good bottles of wine, among with specialties like pomegranate wines and such. Craft beer culture isn’t highly developed nor popular in Caucasian countries but the best beers on my trip were all found in Dargett brewery restaurant. Their Baltic Porter and Black IPA were some of the nicest from their styles that I’ve had so far.
I don’t know if it was that I was mistaken as a Russian, but it was surprising to see how little attention people paid on a foreigner walking around. On the other hand, some travelers told me about experiencing the opposite. For some it might be partly the lack of English skills that keeps them distant but I also heard from others that it took them a long time to know Armenian people. For the first time I could understand what it’s like to travel around in Finland as a foreigner. Even though people seemed to mostly mind their own business, it was easy to see I was respected and offered help when needed. Once again I could find some really good people around. Most memorable thing happening was when I got invited to a random wedding ceremony by the world’s happiest father in law when visiting an ancient church. Or the bakery owner who gave me a private tour and handled me a bag full of delicious, fresh bread with a warm handshake and a wide smile.
If there’s something else to point out, it is that traditions truly stay strong. Religion still seems to be a very important and noticeable part of the culture. It could be that whatever is the world’s biggest pyramid scam for me, can actually give some value to people’s lives in there. At least it’s fair to assume so from all the church goers and people making cross signs always when driving past one. Where people in Yeravan are starting to be more modern, I heard stories in other cities about teenagers’ parents simply raging over finding out that their daughters have a boyfriend and so on. There sure are always both sides in these things. In my interviews I was told that during religion banning Soviet times, people stuck to their traditions and religion so deep in mind, that it still shows up strong up to this date. Considering the history, I gotta give “hat’s off” to Armenians for sticking to their identity no matter what came next. Forgiveness seemed to be already found but most importantly; hope is always present.