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November 22, 2006

The South Caucasus: Ignoring U.S. State Department travel warnings on the long road back to Yerevan

Ateshgah Fire Temple

And finally, continuing part whatever of our trip to the South Caucasus…which took place in July…
It was our last day in Baku, but our plane wasn’t leaving until the afternoon so we had some time to kill. The day before, we found a travel agency that offered a tour of sights outside the city, so we signed up for a morning tour of the Abşeron peninsula. What better way to spend your last day in Baku than by gallivanting around an industrial wasteland? Yeah, I couldn’t think of anything better, either.

Our first stop was the Ateşgah Fire Temple, located in the village of Surakhany.

Ateshgah Fire Temple
Entrance to the temple

Ateshgah Fire Temple

This temple was built in the 17th century by Indian fire-worshippers who were attracted to this particular site due to the multitude of natural gas seeps in the area. Pilgrims would travel for thousands of miles to worship at the altar of the gas fed flames, and, if the bizarre wax figures on display were any indication, engage in incredibly painful self-mutilation.

Ateshgah Fire Temple cells
Cells where pilgrims slept and mutilated themselves

By the late 19th century, however, the gas vents were exhausted (oops!) so the flames you currently see at Ateşgah are actually fed by Baku’s local gas lines.

Ateshgah Fire Temple gas pipes
Great job covering up those pipes, guys

Ateshgah Fire Temple
Oh natural gas, you are so good to meeeeee, you are the reason I was able to come to Baku!

Our next stop was a beautiful Shi’a mosque in Ramana. I had never visited a mosque before, so the tour was extremely interesting. At the same time, however, I was unsure of the proper etiquette. Are we really supposed to be in here? Well, our guide talked to the caretaker and he welcomed us inside…even told us we could take photos, but on that point we demurred, as I just didn’t feel comfortable photographing inside the mosque. Odd, considering I ran around St. Peter’s in Rome taking as many photos as possible of the dead Popes.

Baku mosque

After visiting the mosque, we made a quick stop at a small castle built in the 14th-century.

Ramana castle

The castle was closed for “renovations”, but there were some great views of the oil fields below.

Ramana castle

Baku oil fields

Baku oil fields

Baku oil fields

It’s no wonder the Abşeron Peninsula is considered to be one of the most polluted areas in the world. Years of drilling with little regard for the surrounding environment have left the area resembling an apocalyptic wasteland. We drove through these famed old fields of Baku – the same fields upon which the Nobel family earned their fortune and Royal Dutch Shell rose to prominence. Now, these fields are dotted with homes (mere shacks, really) and the rusting equipment acts as makeshift goals for the local kids playing soccer on the thick, oily sand, surrounded by pools of crude oil and broken pipelines.

We eventually made our way to our final stop, Yanar Dağ, or “Fire Mountain.” According to local legend, the mountain is “on fire” because a young shepherd accidentally lit a natural gas seep when he carelessly tossed his cigarette (or something like that) and the steady flow of natural gas has kept the mountain burning ever since. It was a pretty cool sight…not something you see everyday, for sure, but all I could think of was, wow, look at all that natural gas just going to waste.

Yanar Dag fire mountain
Perfect for smores?

Aliyev billboard

Across from “Fire Mountain” was this billboard of Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. As you can see, a Soviet-esque cult of personality is alive and well in this country. Billboards and posters of the Aliyevs adorn buildings throughout Baku and line the streets of even the smallest villages. More than once our driver would point out the window and remark that the particular sight was “named after our former president.” Of course, because name one thing in this city that isn’t?!

We climbed to the top of a small hill in order to take in the surrounding area. Off in the distance you could see the glimmering Caspian. It looked clean from afar. Our guide asked us if we went swimming in the Caspian. “Er…well, no.” He seemed taken aback. “Well, next time you must. You know, the oil is good for your skin.” Right, if I remember correctly, the latest craze to hit the skincare world was the inclusion of Azeri light crude in Estée Lauder’s “Intense Hydration” moisturizer. “Now, with 25% more crude oil!” Or not.
Our tour of Abşeron complete, we headed back to the airport. After experiencing the clusterfucks that were Tbilisi International Airport and Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport, I was amazed at the efficiency and cleanliness of Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Airport (told ya they named everything after him!). After the ticket agent handed us our boarding passes, he placed two pens on the counter. Laura and I stood there like idiots. “Uh, are we supposed to sign something?” No, he replied, they were a gift. Sweet, I got a Heydar Aliyev International Airport pen. Glad to see those petrodollars being put to good use.

As to be expected, our plane was an hour and a half late taking off, so we had a lot of time to sit around and do nothing. A lady sitting across from us asked if we were in the Peace Corps. Much like the Peace Corps volunteers we ran into earlier in our trip, she did not believe that someone would visit Baku for fun. If you were a foreigner in Baku, you were either working for the Peace Corps or an oil company. It turned out that she was a contractor working on the BTC Pipeline, so we talked for awhile. Having written by master’s dissertation on that very pipeline, you could say I was a bit familiar with her employer.

Our plane finally got off the ground, and we were on our way to Tbilisi. Goodbye Baku! I’ll be back when I’m running BP Azerbaijan! I highly recommend visiting Baku if you find yourself in the South Caucasus. My particular reason for visiting was to finally see the damn place after spending god knows how many hours in the LSE library attempting to write a coherent dissertation about the BTC Pipeline and Russian energy policy. For the average visitor who may not have a slight obsession with Caspian oil production, you will still find that there is much to do in Baku and the surrounding region. And if you run out of things to do, well, there’s always caviar and vodka, right?

After a short flight, we soon found ourselves fighting our way through the tremendously long lines at passport control in Tbilisi. In between pushing and shoving some testy Eastern Europeans trying to cut in line, I was silently praying that our ride to Armenia was waiting outside…because if he wasn’t, we would be totally screwed. Before leaving Baku, I contacted a Tbilisi-based travel agency and arranged, via e-mail, to have a taxi take us back to Yerevan. Taking a taxi from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia? Lindsay, you outta your mind? Well, the trains don’t run too regularly between the two cities, and several people advised me that a taxi was the way to go. Besides, Crystal and I had taken a taxi from Bosnia to Montenegro to Croatia and weren’t killed or seriously injured (and Christ, that trip involved landmines, so what’s a five hour drive between two friendly nations, right?).

Laura spotted a guy holding a sign with my name on it, so we said hello to him, threw our luggage into his tiny SUV, and started on our way to Yerevan. I once again spotted the billboard of Bush waving and grinning like a goddamn idiot, announcing that we were travelling into the city via “George W. Bush Street” (Sorry, I still can’t get over the absurdity of it all). Our driver was a quiet fellow, so I decided the best way to strike up a conversation was by asking him, in Russian, “So, this is George Bush street, eh?” It was one of the few times I saw our driver smile. “Yes, our President Saakashvili looooooooves George Bush.” The way he said it in Russian, though, was quite amusing. The “love”, in this case, was not the kind of “love” that English speakers interject so carelessly into their sentences. It wasn’t like “Oh man, I loooove Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups” but rather more like “I looove George Clooney and wouldn’t kick him outta my bed, ya know what I’m sayin’?” According to our driver, it was that kind of love between our respective leaders. Uh, thanks but I’d rather not have that mental picture.

Our driver drove like a bat out of hell, cigarette dangling from his mouth, swerving to avoid the corpses of dead livestock, speeding through villages laden with idle men in 1980s Adidas tracksuits, and past the vast fields of sunflowers. It was 8pm by the time we arrived at the border crossing, and hence not very busy. We were stuck in Georgia for a few minutes while our driver argued with a malnourished teenage soldier manning the gates. The soldier finally relented and opened the gate after a Mafioso type sitting in a plastic chair (most likely stolen from an outdoor café) ordered him to let us through. We drove between the no-man’s land separating Georgia and Armenia and sat in the car for 45 minutes while our driver spoke with the Armenian guards and attempted to find the driver who would take us the rest of the way to Yerevan (the company told me that we would have to switch drivers once we arrived in Armenia). This was definitely a lot easier when Liz and her diplomatic passport were accompanying us.

Georgia Armenia border
Goodbye, Georgia!

Georgia Armenia border
No man’s land between Georgia and Armenia. Photography strictly forbidden, what?

Georgia Armenia border
Waiting for Armenia to let us in

Our driver finally came back for us so that we could start the process of acquiring an Armenian visa.
Compared to the Georgians, the Armenians make it such a complete pain in the ass to get into their country. I hadn’t a clue why it was taking so damn long to get our visa, considering we were the only people there waiting in the visa line. While the gruff border officer attended to his oh-so-important business out there in the middle of nowhere, I entertained the two Armenian soldiers with my horrible Russian. One of them kept asking me if I had a kartochka (small photo for the visa), but I thought he said kartoshka so I was wondering why the hell he was asking me for a potato. These dudes that hungry out here? The officer finally gave us our applications, and while Laura was filling hers out one of the soldiers continually remarked that Laura had a “pretty” pen. I was like, Dude, what pen are you using that this guy thinks is so pretty? “Well, you know…the only pen I have.” Ah yes, she completed her application for an Armenian visa with her official Heydar Aliyev International Airport pen. Classic. These guys are never gonna let us in the country now.

Well, the Armenians did eventually place a shiny new Armenian visa in our passport, so we were finally allowed to enter the country. We bid farewell to the soldiers, who were by then wholly neglecting their guard duties in favour of talking to us, much to the chagrin of their senior officer and the family in the Trabant waiting to be let through. We said a brief hello to our driver, but that was about it. My Russian had regressed to the point where I sounded like a three year old peasant girl with a limited vocabulary, (only, the peasant girl would have had a far better accent) and I just didn’t feel like attempting any discussion with my brain in a state of incoherent mush. I much preferred to sit back in the creaking 1980s era BMW and watch the sun set behind the mountains. The road we started out on was windy and treacherous, but our driver was great (something you don’t come across very often in this part of the world). Obviously, this was not the same road that we had taken to Tbilisi, as I didn’t recognize anything. And then I saw the sign for Noyemberyan. Ah yes, I suddenly remembered….this is the road the State Department told us we weren’t supposed to take due to random sniper fire:

Travelers should avoid the old highway between the towns of Ijevan and Noyemberyan in the Tavush region, as well as the main highway between the towns of Kirants and Baghanis/Voskevan. The U.S. Embassy has designated this portion of the road off-limits to all U.S. government personnel because of its proximity to the cease fire line between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, a line which has seen numerous cease fire violations over the years.

Yes, twelve years after the cease-fire was announced, the Azeris and Armenians are still taking the occasional shot at each other. We drove past a few military bases and the ruins of several homes…relics from the war, I guess…courtesy of Azeri artillery shells. Remember, it’s not a true Lindsay vacation if it doesn’t involve landmines or massive displays of firepower.

I dozed off for a bit and woke up just as we were coming out of the mountain tunnel that leads to Lake Sevan. Our driver turned to me, with a toothy grin and said, in his thick accent “Good morning!” I just started laughing, it was so surreal. He offered a cigarette (No thanks, I’m from California. Christ, why do these people smoke so goddamn much?), and we started talking in a mixture of Russian and English. His name was Stefan. Cool guy. He has two sisters in….where else? Los Angeles – North Hollywood to be exact. Like I said before, you’d be hard pressed to find an Armenian who doesn’t have a family member or two in LA. We finally got into Yerevan around 1:30am.

THREE COUNTRIES IN ONE DAY…AGAIN! And the hardest part of the trip? Trying to unlock the door to Liz’s apartment. Sorry we woke ya up, dude. Those Eastern Euro locks confuse the hell outta me.

(Wow, that was a long post and it took me entirely too long to write it. I blame it on my laziness. I would write three sentences, say “Whatever, I’ll finish it later” and then find something more entertaining to do. My next posts won’t be as long…I think I still have three days to cover, but they’ll be short…except for perhaps the post on London. It may turn into some long-winded diatribe about how great of a city London is and how much DC sucks. Also, some people have asked me how I can remember everything even though I took this trip in July. It’s simple…whenever I travel, I carry a small notebook along and write a short sketch at the end of each day so that when I get home I can write a somewhat semi-coherent account of the trip. Secondly, some friends have asked what’s up with the Californian wearing the Texas shirts. I like that burnt orange color, alright? And, I dunno, maybe a bit of irony?)

August 16, 2006

The South Caucasus: This is the story of 5 girls who went on a Road trip to Tbilisi

Cattle in Armenia

We were supposed to pick up Crystal and Taline at 8:30 that morning. I say supposed to, because we didn’t. When 8:30am rolled around, Liz was running around the house banging on my bedroom door and shouting “AHHHH WE’RE LATE! WE ARE SOOOOO LATE!” We hurriedly packed, piled into Liz’s Rav4, and sped to Taline’s apartment. After we picked up Crystal and Taline, we made a quick stop at “Yum-Yum Donuts” for sustenance. I can’t exactly vouch for the authenticity of this particular Yum-Yum donuts franchise, as I’ve noticed that a few stores in the South Caucasus tend to blatantly rip-off the names of Western retailers (Victoria’s Secret, GAP, etc) that don’t have a presence in the country. Perhaps the most amusing example of this was when Taline pointed out the “In-N-Out” burger place in Yerevan. I’m guessing that some enterprising young Armenian went to visit some family members in SoCal and was so enamored with our favorite fast food chain that he decided to open up one in Yerevan. Although I didn’t try the Armenian In-N-Out, I’m quite sure that it can’t even come close to one in California.

Loaded down with a box of donuts and muffins, we were finally on our way out of the city. YEAH TBILISI HERE WE COME! The soundtrack for this road trip was a mix of 70s and 80s music, heavy on Abba and Madonna. The drive through the Armenian countryside went smoothly, if you discount the fact that Liz has apparently gone native and is an absolutely fucking crazy driver. Lucky for us, her red diplomatic license plates allowed her to breeze right past those bastard policeman extortionists.

Cattle in Armenia


Near Lake Sevan, we encountered this large herd of cattle that was crossing the highway. This doesn’t happen very often in California, or on the Beltway, so I had to take a few photos.

Lake Sevan
A view of Lake Sevan from the road. A brilliant blue color, the lake was surrounded by mountains smothered in clouds. On the side of the road, young boys waved at the cars passing by and stretched out their arms to indicate the size of the fish they had for sale. Apparently there are some very large fish in Sevan.

We took the same road up to the Georgian border that we had taken several days earlier when we visited the monasteries at Haghpat and Sanahin. Crystal, Laura, and myself were experts of sort with this route, and could advise on the bridge that was coming up and oh, by the way, it was only one lane because the other half had fallen into the canyon below…don’t look down!

We soon found ourselves at the Bagratashen-Sadakhlo border crossing. The process went quickly on the Armenian side, mostly due to the fact that Liz has a black diplomatic passport. We hopped back into the car and drove through the no-man’s land towards the Georgian border. There’s no real direction as to which building we are supposed to go to in order to have our passports stamped, but we see a group of people standing around a decrepit pre-fab trailer and figure we should give it a try. Inside the hot, dimly lit room, an overworked, sweating Georgian border guard sits in front of a computer, methodically typing in numbers. A large stack of passports sits on his desk, and outside the shack the crowd of Russians yells through the window for him to hurry up. We placed our passports on his desk, and he begins to process our documents. Several of the Russians rush in, angrily demanding to know why he is now tending to our passports rather than theirs. The officer merely shrugs, points to Liz’s passport, and says “I have a diplomat here.” (Oh, and, like, four of her friends who are most definitely not diplomats but shoved their passports under hers nevertheless). I don’t feel so bad that we cut in front of the Russians, considering how many times I’ve had to put up with their line techniques in Moscow and Petersburg.

After we get our passports stamped we are officially in Georgia and off to Tbilisi. The Georgian landscape is completely different from Armenia’s, with its small, rolling hills and vast fields of sunflowers. We passed an equipment depot and camp for the BTC Pipeline, which was exciting (for me, at least) because I wrote my master’s dissertation on that pipeline.

Road on the way to Tbilisi
Georgia

BTC Pipeline is buried somewhere out there
The BTC Pipeline is somewhere out there

The Georgian roads were rough and filled with potholes (yes, even worse than DC!) They weren’t marked very well, so sometimes we weren’t sure if we were heading in the right direction. All we could do is pull alongside a group of locals and shout “Tbilisi?!?” praying they would point us in the right direction.

Road on the way to Tbilisi
Georgian town on the way to Tbilisi
Small Georgian town

It pains me to say this, and some of you will probably disown me, but our first destination once we arrived in Tbilisi was McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s, the fine purveyor of Americana in a paper wrapper and cheap plastic toy. We didn’t know where the McDonald’s was, so we pulled over and asked a babushka for directions. She didn’t know, and shouted something to an elderly man missing most of his teeth. He hobbled over, and we asked again “Excuse me, do you know where McDonald’s is located?” He grinned and nodded “Ah, McDonald’s! Yes, yes!” and gave us proper directions. Now imagine this, a group of five American girls driving around Tbilisi in an SUV asking the locals where McDonald’s is. How…cliche.

McDonalds in Tbilisi
The all too familiar golden arches

The reason we had to go to McDonald’s is because there isn’t one in Yerevan, and Liz and Taline were craving a taste of home. I don’t blame them, as in my trips abroad, especially in Russia, I occasionally partook in a burger and fries. It’s always interesting to visit a McDonald’s in a foreign country, and is almost like a weird social experiment. Everything is so familiar (the smells, the taste, the decorations, the uniforms) yet so foreign (the incomprehensible menu, the locals, the cleanliness, yes! cleanliness).

After the expats had their fill of McDonald’s, we checked into our hotel, a charming lodge named Betsy’s Place. As soon as we pulled up to the hotel we noticed that ALL of the cars were SUVs with red diplomatic plates. Apparently this was the place to be if you were a diplomat. God only knows how I ended up there.

View from our hotel in Tbilisi
The view from our room. I could sit on our balcony for hours and just stare at the city below.

Once we checked in, Liz, Laura, and Taline promptly fell asleep, while Crystal and I headed out to explore the city. We wandered around for awhile, with no exact destination in mind, and passed the flea market where elderly Georgians stood around gossiping and begging passers-by to purchase their broken rotary telephones and yellowing photos of Stalin. We hailed a taxi and had the driver take us to Narikala Fortress. His car couldn’t make it up the steep hill, so we had quite a workout walking up there, which was great considering I was still feeling the effects of the previous night’s drinking. It was worth it, though, as the view from the fortress was incredible.

Narikala fortress in Tbilisi
Narikala fortress – its earliest walls date from the 4th century

Tbilisi
Looking down on Tbilisi

Mtkvari River in Tbilisi
Houses on the cliffs overlooking the Mtkvari River. They looked as if any moment they could fall into the water below.

Narikala fortress in Tbilisi
Back of the fortress

We walked down the hill and hailed a taxi to take us back to the hotel in order to meet the rest of our group for dinner. We ended up with a friendly guy who didn’t know where our hotel was, and to be honest, neither did we. We just knew the address, not any details of where it was located in the city. We knew it was near McDonald’s, so had the driver take us there. When he dropped us off, though, I was a bit perplexed, as this McDonald’s looked a bit unfamiliar. Yes, that’s right…it was a different McDonald’s. You mean to tell me there are two McDonald’s in Tbilisi and Yerevan doesn’t even have one? Amazing.

After spending the entire day eating American junk food (donuts AND McDonald’s?! I mean, really!) we opted to have dinner at a traditional Georgian restaurant. Shashlik, kebabs, meat, meat, meat, red wine, and two different types of artery-clogging, heart stopping khachapuri. Khachapuri, a type of bread filled with cheese (and sometimes slabs of butter and eggs) is incredibly delicious, incredibly addicting and INCREDIBLY bad for you. It’s practically the national dish of Georgia, and can be found at virtually any kiosk or restaurant in Tbilisi.

We ended the night with drinks in the hotel bar and headed off to bed. Our electricity kept flickering on and off while we were trying to read ourselves to sleep. Welcome to the former Soviet Union.

(So I lied, took me longer than a week to get the next post up…I’m too lazy about posting, I realize…this is bad. Next up: we spend some more time in Georgia and then fly to Baku, Azerbaijan)

August 6, 2006

The South Caucasus: Military hardware, art, and too much vodka

Mount Ararat from Yerevan

For our second day in Armenia, we promised Taline and Liz that we would be staying in the city of Yerevan rather than gallivanting around the northern regions of the country. This time, we assured them, we would definitely make it to dinner. Our first sight of the morning was the Cascade, a series of steps built into a hill. At the top of the Cascade is a monument commemorating the 50th anniversary of Armenia’s integration into the Soviet Union. In other words, the Cascade is another typical grandiose and useless Soviet-era construction project. The construction of the Cascade was never actually finished, as the funding dried up after the Soviet Union collapsed. Rather than climbing the 800 steps to the top, Laura and I opted to take the indoor escalators that run along the side of the Cascade. The escalators don’t actually run the entire length of the Cascade, so we did have to hike to the top of the monument. The view of Yerevan that awaited us at the top was totally worth it, though.

Mount Ararat from Yerevan

We got our first glimpse of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia. There are literally hundreds of products and institutions that are named after this mountain: Ararat wine, Ararat vodka, Ararat cognac, Ararat bank…it’s even on the Armenian coat of arms. In a sad twist of irony, however, Mount Ararat lies not within the borders of Armenia, but those of Turkey. While the citizens of Yerevan may gaze upon Ararat, they may not cross the closed Armenian-Turkish border and travel the mere 20 miles to actually visit it. What a cruel joke has been played on the Armenians, to place their national symbol within the borders of a country responsible for the genocide of 1.5 million of their countrymen.

Mount Ararat is also supposedly where Noah’s Ark landed, if you believe that a 600 year-old man single-handedly rounded up “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female” and put them in a large boat. Personally, I don’t, but that’s just me.

Statue in Yerevan
An odd statue near the top of the Soviet monument

After risking our lives by running across several lanes of traffic, we arrived at Victory Park, an overgrown wooded area with a typical Soviet-era amusement park. While the rusty ferris wheel and roller coaster looked tempting, we chose to visit the “Mother Armenia” statue instead.

Mother Armenia statue

Mother Armenia statue
Mother Armenia looks toward the Turkish border.

This being a Soviet-era monument, there was plenty of military equipment around the plaza.

Armenian artillery
Artillery pointed towards Turkey.

Soviet tank in Yerevan
Soviet tank

Soviet Katyusha
Katyusha rocket launcher

Soviet missile
Missile


I had too much fun here.

Inside the Mother Armenia statue there is a small museum dedicated to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The entire museum was in Armenian though, so we could only look at the pictures, dioramas, and military equipment and guess what the labels said.
Our final sight of the day was the National Art Gallery. It was definitely an impressive museum, but my knowledge of art is a bit lacking, so I can’t really describe the place very well (as in the various artists and so forth). Oddly enough, there were artists in various rooms that were painting exact copies of some of the museum’s artwork. And some of them were actually better than the originals.

After the art museum, we met up with Liz, Taline, and Crystal and headed over to a restaurant to meet up with some of their expat friends and enjoy a delicious khoravats meal.

To be honest, I don’t really remember most of it, due to the amount of Russki Standart that I consumed. This was a very, very, bad idea considering we were leaving Yerevan at 8:30am tomorrow to go to Tbilisi. I do remember that the food was incredibly good, though. That’s gotta count for something, eh?

Russki Standart Russian Standard vodka
Best vodka ever


Brian, the toastmaster


Oh God…not another toast.


Uhhh we have to wake up at 8am tomorrow and drive to Tbilisi. Insert obligatory “I’m never going to drink this much again.”

(Next up: Five American girls go on a road trip to Tbilisi. I promise it won’t take me a week to get that post up.)

July 30, 2006

The South Caucasus: Bribes, monasteries, and a broken down van

Factories on the way to Haghpat in Armenia

The phone started ringing at 10:30am. Slightly annoyed at this unwelcome interruption to my wonderful, deep sleep, I rolled over, fully intending to ignore it. I then remembered that the night before, Crystal said she would call us in the morning in order to make plans for the day. I stumbled out of bed, narrowly avoided tripping over Liz’s cat, and ran to the phone. I had guessed correctly – it was Crystal. She explained that there was a tour of some monasteries that was leaving the Marriott at 11:30am, so we had better get our asses down there. I protested that I had only just woken up and Laura was still asleep, but she told us that she would call a taxi for us, and it would pick us up from Liz’s apartment at 11am sharp. We stepped outside the apartment at 11:05, and by that time the taxi was nowhere to be found, so we had to hail one off the street.

If you’ve never been to Eastern Europe before, you should realize that a taxi in the former Soviet Union is not at all like a taxi in London, New York City, or D.C. Most of the “taxis” in this part of the world are just guys who are lucky enough to own a car, so they go out and purchase a plastic “taxi” sign, stick it on the roof of their car, and they are now officially in business. As I would learn, this unregulated taxi system usually translates into the cab drivers having no freakin’ clue where you want to go. We hopped into a rusting Lada, and I told the driver, in Russian (this entire conversation is in Russian, but I am obviously retelling it in English), that we wanted to go to the Marriott hotel, to which he replied “Marriott hotel? I don’t know this.” Oh, great. Thinking that perhaps they pronounced “Marriott” differently in Armenia, I started rattling off as many different pronunciations as I could think of: “Uh, Merr-i-OH-T? Marr-I-at? Marr-ee-AT?” He continued to shake his head. No problem, comrade taxi driver, let me just grab my Lonely Planet guide here and I could tell you where it is. I flipped open to the map of Yerevan, located the dot that represents the Marriott, and ah, here it is…it’s on…Hanrapetutyan Hraparak…what the fuck? How do you pronounce this? I showed him the map, but he only reads Armenian and Cyrillic characters, so it’s useless. I tried my best to pronounce it, but “Hanrapetutyan Hraparak… Hanrapetutyan Hraparak…” was met with a blank stare. Finally, I just said, “Uhhh…take us to…the big square” and that seemed to work well. Of course, an hour later I was kicking myself for not using the Russian “respublika ploshchad”, since Hanrapetutyan Hraparak translates into “Republic Square.” I was still tired from the flight, and had apparently left my brain back in Washington. We finally arrive at Republic Square, and the Marriott is hard to miss. I ask the guy how much I owe him, but he replies with “How much do you want to pay?” Dammit! This is why we need a goddamn metering system! I throw about 1200 dram his way, which is probably way more than the ride was worth for being such a short distance, but it’s less than the cost of a frappacino, so I’ve got nothing to complain about.

Our driver and guide pick us up from the Marriott in a Ford Windstar van. As soon as we reached the outskirts of Yerevan, we were pulled over by the hated GAI (traffic cops). Their modus operandi is to stand on the side of the road next to their battered police cars and wave a black and white striped baton at motorists who they intend to pull over and collect bribes from. Since our driver was just tagged as the unlucky motorist of the moment, he hops out of his car and walks over to the policeman. They exchange pleasantries, and then shake hands in order to disguise the fact that our driver was slipping a few thousand dram to this wonderful police officer. The officer quickly glances at his hand in order to ensure the bribe is of a proper amount, and promptly waves our driver off to show that he is pleased with the transaction. We get on the road again, but less than five minutes later, another police officer directs our driver to the side of the road, and the process repeats itself. And wouldn’t you believe it, but our poor driver is pulled over again after that, resulting in his third, and thankfully final bribe of the day.

At first we didn’t realize how far away these monasteries were, until we consulted our Lonely Planet guides and discovered that we were driving all the way to northeast Armenia, almost to the Georgian border. It took us about three hours to reach our destination, but the drive itself was an excellent opportunity to view the varied landscape of Armenia. Driving thirty miles outside Yerevan, the rolling green hills reminded me of Ireland, while an hour later the mountainous landscape could very well have been that of Montenegro. The isolation was occasionally broken up by signs of human activity, as we drove past beekeepers tending to their traps, shepherds leading flocks of sheep across the road, and young children playing outside the dilapidated concrete and tin roofed houses in the small villages.

Farther north, we drove through the cities of Vanadzor and Alaverdi, textbook cases of cities that suffered greatly from the economic fallout following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once a major center of Soviet chemical production, Vanadzor’s sprawling chemical factories are now vacant, derelict buildings with broken windows, silent smokestacks, rusting pipelines and empty chemical tanks. I tried to visualize what these cities must have looked like before the economic collapse, with a bustling workforce fulfilling the asinine five year plans issued by GOSPLAN bureaucrats in Moscow. These days the orders from Moscow no longer come, and now the men stand idly by the side of the road.

Factories on the way to Haghpat in Armenia
One of the few working factories we passed

Factories on the way to Haghpat in Armenia
I imagined that the overgrown jungles and scum-filled ponds were once well-manicured gardens populated by gossiping mothers doting on their Soviet tykes.

Haghpat monastery, our first stop, is situated on a mountain with beautiful views of Debed Canyon below. Unfortunately for us, as our van started to climb the mountain, it became engulfed in smoke and started to emit some oily substance. Ah, American-made automobiles at their finest! As we sat in the car, cursing Detroit, a large village bus rounded the corner. Our driver flagged it down, and motioned for us to get out of the van while the bus driver honked impatiently. We climbed into this rickety old bus, filled to the brim with villagers bringing back their purchases from the city below. Our fellow passengers looked none-too-pleased to have us on the bus, most likely because we had interrupted their journey for several minutes, and they would now be squeezed even more tightly amongst their fellow citizens. The bus lurched up the winding road, and I became convinced that one rough bump would send Laura flying out the flimsy doors and off the side of the mountain.

village bus near Haghpat in Armenia
This is how we roll

Once we actually got to the village, we trudged up to the Monastery. The Monastery was founded in 976, and then further developed in the 12th century. In 1996, Haghpat, along with Sanahin Monastery, were deemed UNESCO World Heritage sites. The landscape was breathtaking, with the surrounding mountains covered in clouds like a comfortable, soft blanket. We were also the only tourists there, a welcome break from the overcrowded tourist meccas of Rome and other western European cities.

Haghpat monastery in Armenia
Monastery grounds

Debed Canyon as seen from Haghpat monastery in Armenia
Debed Canyon

When I stepped into a part of the church, a small bird flew right at me, prompting me to run around in circles and scream “ACK! This goddamn bird is trying to attack me!” The bird continued to fly after me, and then proceeded to attach itself to my backpack. I ended up carrying around that bird for the entire tour of the monastery, which lasted about 45 minutes. A little girl that lived in the village guided us around for most of the time. Her grandfather was the caretaker of the monastery, and explained much of the history of the buildings to our guide in Armenian, who then translated it to us in English.


My newfound friend

Haghpat monastery in Armenia
Messing around

Khachkars at the Haghpat monastery in Armenia
Khachkars – Armenian carved memorial stones

Haghpat monastery in Armenia
The girl who showed us around the monastery

After we finished touring the monastery, the question presented itself: how exactly were we going to get down the mountain to our van? An Armenian family approached our guide and explained that our driver had flagged them down, and they offered to give us a ride back to our van. When they first approached us, I was a bit perplexed. They were Armenian, and speaking to our guide in Armenian, but looked like they had just stepped out of an episode of the O.C. (not that I actually watch that show…their wardrobe and mannerisms were just thoroughly Californian, ya know what I mean?) The mother turned to us, and asked in English where we were from. “Well I’m from California,” I replied, and they mentioned that they were from Los Angeles. Ah, it all became clear then. Diaspora. We crammed into their van, and they dropped us off at our van halfway down the mountain. Our driver said he thought the van would be OK, but we ended up having to coast down the mountain in neutral. When we got to the bottom, and turned onto the main road, we came to a complete stop. Car fixed, indeed!

We needed to kill some time while we waited for our driver’s friend to pick us up, so we trudged down the highway in search of a restaurant. We finally came across a roadside café nestled amongst abandoned gas stations and auto repair shops. The owner of the café led us around to the back, and into a small room with a table and chairs, and crackling speakers on the wall that blared horrible Russian pop music. She asked us what we wanted to eat, and we inquired if there was a menu. There wasn’t, as it simply served “khoravats” – Armenian barbecue. Our choices were pork or lamb, and how many kilograms did we want, by the way? We opted for a kilogram of each, along with grilled vegetables, lavash, yogurt, and, at my suggestion, a bottle of vodka. The food was plentiful and incredibly tasty. I was a little wary at first, as I’ve had far too many bad experiences with sidewalk or roadside food in Eastern Europe, but it was delicious and certainly a great way to waste a few hours. Anyways, I figured the vodka would kill off any parasites that might be lurking around. We ended our meal with a sweet Armenian coffee and a huge platter of watermelon. All together, each person paid less than $5.

Walking in Debed Canyon in Armenia after our car broke down
There’s gotta be a Taco Bell somewhere around here

Restaurant in Debed Canyon in Armenia
Ah, finally, a place to eat

Restaurant in Debed Canyon in Armenia
Our own private dining room in the back

Abandoned repair shop in Debed Canyon in Armenia
Too bad the auto-repair shop next door wasn’t open…I guess we were a decade or two too late

Khorovats at a restaurant in Debed Canyon in Armenia
Khoravats! Delicious

Vodka from a restaurant in Debed Canyon in Armenia
Vodka for lunch

Fifteen minutes after we left the restaurant, (again coasting in neutral and occasionally accelerating on the gas pedal of our dying vehicle), our new driver came to the rescue in his Soviet made Volga. Ah, the ever reliable Volga. The kitschy 70s era flowered upholstery looks like it came from your grandmother’s house, and the car’s interior may have an overpowering scent of gasoline, but the Volga will always get you where you need to go. Our first driver was a very cautious young fellow, but this new guy, an older man, drove quickly through the pothole plagued roads, swerving to avoid the occasional pig or cow. We had nothing else to do but sit in abject terror and watch as the cross necklace sitting on the dashboard swung wildly from side to side.

Volga car in Debed Canyon in Armenia
Soviet Volga to the rescue


We finally arrived at Sanahin Monastery, the second and final monastery we would be visiting that day (which was quickly turning into night). Built in 928, “Sanahin” means “older than that one”, in reference to the monastery in Haghpat. Much like Haghpat, it was deserted, but of the two monasteries, I preferred Haghpat, as the view was much more beautiful. We didn’t spend as much time at this monastery, though, because we still had a long drive ahead of us.

Sanahin Monastery in Armenia
Sanahin Monastery

Sanahin Monastery in Armenia

We eventually got back to Yerevan around midnight, five hours past schedule. That night, we were supposed to have dinner with Taline, Liz and their friends, as a sort of “welcome to Yerevan” dinner, but due to the vehicle troubles, we missed our own damn welcome dinner. We met up with Liz, Taline and their friends at a bowling alley, where I totally schooled Crystal in air hockey.

(Wow, that was an incredibly long post. The next one won’t be as long. Coming up: We actually see stuff in Yerevan…and get totally wasted at our rescheduled welcome dinner)

July 25, 2006

The South Caucasus: Breakfast in London and a nightcap in Yerevan

Armenia. Georgia. Azerbaijan. I’ve become used to the odd looks when I tell someone where I’m going – most people haven’t a clue where these countries are located, and to the others I might as well have said Afghanistan, as visions of men with AK-47s pop into their heads. Most people are content to lie on white beaches, sipping mai tais and occasionally taking a dip in the crystal-clear water. Not me. I want border crossings in dilapidated taxis, languages I can barely understand, gold-toothed men hawking shawarma from sidewalk eateries, and babushkas selling the mushrooms they picked at their dacha the day before.

Last year, my mom would always ask, “Why Egypt? Why Croatia? Why not Italy?” (she was finally thrilled when I announced that I would, in fact, be visiting Italy – a “normal” country). It’s not that I don’t want to visit places like Spain, Germany, or Austria, I just feel that these countries won’t be that much different ten years from now. Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, on the other hand, are at a unique period in their respective histories – 70 years of communism followed by bloody civil wars and regional conflicts, and each now pursuing varying stages of economic development. I love “Old Europe” but it can wait for a few years, as I have some other passport stamps I need to collect first.

As mentioned in previous posts, I have two friends – one from GW and the other from LSE – who currently work in Armenia. I promised them that I would visit, and started researching tickets in May. My roommate, Laura, another friend of Liz’s, decided that she, too, would like to see Armenia, and so on the evening of July 4th we found ourselves boarding a British Airways flight that would take us to London and from there, Yerevan. Ah, British Airways, how I love you! The cheery “hullo” when you step onto the plane, free alcohol, tea, Cadbury chocolates…civilization!

I’m usually incredibly lucky when it comes to domestic flights (a whole row to myself, a flight attendant who sneaks me some of the freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies from first class, and so on) but it seems that whenever I fly internationally, the forces of nature conspire against me to ensure that I have a long, uncomfortable flight over the Atlantic. This most recent flight to London was a perfect storm of misery: a screaming baby in the row ahead of me, the knee of the passenger behind me permanently ingrained in my back, and the lady next to me literally spilling over into my seat, thus occupying 15 or so percent of the tiny personal space that British Airways allotted to me.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t sleep on planes (flight insomnia…it has to be a medical condition), so I usually watch movies or listen to some music while everyone else sleeps. I was thoroughly pissed that this lady was occupying a good percentage of my seat, though, and soon after she fell asleep I turned on the bright-as-the-goddamn-sun overhead light. Her eyes immediately fluttered open, nose scrunched up, and she turned to me and sputtered, “Can you turn the light off?” I just grinned, pointed to my book and notepad, and replied, “Well, I’m reading, you see.” She spent the next few hours tossing and turning (yeah, the light really is that bright). If she wanted to sleep that badly, she could have put on her BA-issued eye mask.

We arrived at Heathrow airport around 8am, an hour later than expected. Only a year ago I was living here in London, researching my dissertation topic, looking forward to meeting my family in Dublin, fixing the porn-laden laptops of idiotic LSE students, planning a trip to Prague, and totally unaware that a few days later some idiots would blow up our beloved Underground transportation system. Damn, I miss this city.

After convincing passport control that we were only staying in the country for lunch, we hopped the Heathrow Express to Paddington and took the tube to Notting Hill Gate. We had a pot of tea and scones with jam and clotted cream at Patisserie Valerie, and then wandered down to the Hillgate pub for a morning drink. We arrived at the pub at 10:45am, only to be told that they didn’t open for another 15 minutes, so we walked around Notting Hill and arrived back at the Hillgate promptly at 11am. First customers of the day. Life goal #372 accomplished!

“A pint of Strongbow please.”

I imagined that the bartender must have thought to herself, “Oh, here come the bloody alcoholic Yank backpackers.” But oh, that Strongbow tasted so good.

We got back to Heathrow at 12:45pm for our 2:30 flight, and finally arrived in Yerevan at 12:30am, an hour behind schedule. Passport control was a typical example of Eastern European bureaucracy, with one disinterested guard for every fifty passengers, no semblance of order whatsoever, and a fair amount of pushing and shoving from hyperactive babushkas who spied their family members waving to them behind the plate glass windows beyond the control booths. We finally got out of passport control after 45 or so minutes, collected our luggage, and were met by a driver from the U.S. embassy who would take us to Liz’s apartment.

As we pulled out of the airport, one of the first questions he asked me was, “Do you like Mexican food?”
“Man, I’m from California – I love Mexican food!”

“Good, because I am taking you to Mexican restaurant ‘Cactus.’ Liz is there waiting for you.” We then proceeded to debate the finer points of Mexican cuisine. Tacos, burritos, what are the best?

Driving into Yerevan, one of the first things that struck me about the city was the complete darkness. None of the streetlights were on, and most of the apartment buildings emitted hardly any light. The darkness was occasionally interrupted by the neon glow of the casinos that dotted the road, most of them with names that were ripped-off from their big brothers in Vegas: Bellagio, Caesar’s, etc. I suppose that they are the only ones who can afford the high electricity rates in this part of the world.

We arrived at ‘Cactus’ and met up with Liz, Taline, Crystal (another LSE alum, she had flown in from San Francisco that morning), and their expat friends, who were watching one of the World Cup matches. Can I just tell you how surreal it felt to be standing there, at 2am, in a Mexican restaurant in Yerevan of all places, surrounded by friends from both GW and LSE? It was like a very, very weird dream. After finishing off someone’s Piña Colada, we headed back to Liz’s place, where I showered and finally crashed around 4am.

Next up: We visit some monasteries, our van breaks down, and we are stranded in Northern Armenia

July 23, 2006

364 photos of South Kavkaz goodness

As always, here is a small sample:







The album is located here.
I actually have a few more I need to upload, and I will get those up soon (You’re probably thinking, “MORE?!”…yes, more)

Now comes the fun part, though…writing the travelogue of our trip around the South Caucasus. I promise that I will try to make it as entertaining as possible.

Also, Crystal and I are convinced that the NYTimes is stalking us. EVERY TIME we go somewhere, an article will appear in the NY Times travel section soon thereafer. Take, for instance, this article on Georgia that recently came out: “Dodging Traffic and Pitfalls in Gourmet Georgia

Trendsetters? Yes we are.

July 16, 2006

I will bring you stories and bleary-eyed photos, like a regular tourist

After 24 hours of non-stop traveling (damn you Heathrow!), I’m finally back from my incredible journey to the Caucasus. I took over 400 photos, so it will take me awhile to get them all sorted, labeled, and uploaded, but I expect that by the end of this week they will be available for your viewing pleasure. In addition, I’ll be posting a day by day account of our travels throughout the South Caucasus so you can read all about our road trip to Tbilisi, broken down car in northern Armenia, interactions with crazy local cab drivers, and more!

July 4, 2006

“Don’t get shot”

caucasus_map.gif

I’ve had two people tell me this in the past week…and these are friends of mine who studied the region at LSE. Comrades, be reasonable! I’m not looking to grab an AK-47 and hop into one of the various post-Soviet conflicts plaguing the region, I just want some homemade Georgian khachapuri and Armenian cognac. Besides, they are all under cease-fire agreements…right?

“Intermittent armed clashes” aside, I’m really looking forward to this trip, for a variety of reasons. My friend Liz (from GW) is a foreign service officer at the U.S. embassy in Yerevan, and Taline (from LSE) heads the NDI program over there. My roommate, Laura, also a friend of Liz’s, is coming along, and Crystal (LSE) is flying out from San Francisco.

So, here is our itinerary, which, of course is subject to change given the nature of traveling in the Former Soviet Union:

caucasus_map.gif

July 4: Leave DC
July 5: Arrive in London, the greatest city in the world. Seven hour layover, then depart for Armenia.
Arrive in Yerevan at night.

July 6 and 7th: Yerevan, Armenia

July 8: Drive to Tbilisi, Georgia

Overnight in Tbilsi

July 9: Tbilisi (perhaps stop by Misha’s office to sing the GW fight song together)

Overnight in Tbilisi

July 10: Fly to Baku, Azerbaijan

Overnight in Baku

July 11: Spend a day at one of the lovely beaches of Baku

az_beach.jpg

Overnight in Baku

July 12: Fly to Tbilisi, drive back to Yerevan (yes, it would be lovely to fly directly to Yerevan from Baku, but the two countries HATE HATE HATE each other and there are no flights between the respective capitals)

July 11-14: Armenia

July 15: Depart Armenia, seven hour layover in London (anyone up for a pint?), unfortunately back to Dullsville, aka the District of Columbia

Ethnic conflicts, low-grade civil wars, massive environmental pollution, landmines, intermittent electricity, and political repression. Sounds like a place you’d love to vacation in, no?

May 16, 2006

Going to Armenia this summer

armenia_map.jpg

armenia_map.jpg

I finally booked my plane ticket to Yerevan today. I’m leaving DC on the evening of July 4 and coming back on July 15. On my way to Yerevan, and my way back to DC, I have 7+ hour layovers in London. As such, I intend to hop the Heathrow Express and have a few pints at a pub in Paddington in between my flights.
Why Armenia? I have two friends that currently work there – one for the U.S. State Department, and another for NDI. And how could you pass up the opportunity to visit a former Soviet republic? If all goes as planned, we may make a quick trip across the border to Tbilisi in order to enjoy some khachapuri and Georgian wine. My roommate, Laura, will be joining me (her first time in the former Soviet Union…always an interesting experience) and Crystal might fly out to Yerevan for a few days. Should be an interesting trip.

Also, I’m thinking of flying to Kiev for the Thanksgiving holiday so I can go on the Pripyat-Chernobyl tour. It’s actually cheaper to fly to Ukraine than to Palm Springs (figures, eh?) If anyone out here on the east coast is up for the trip, let me know and we’ll start hashing out the details.