Jul 30 2006

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

by in Armenia, Eastern Europe & the Caucasus

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)

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

  1. From Cincysundevil:

    I love these posts where you put up pictures and narrate. I feel like I’m living vicariously through you! Good stuff!!

    Posted on August 2, 2006 at 3:43 pm #
  2. From shill:

    Thanks for the write up on your trip. I very much enjoyed it!!! Excellent pics and ineresting story!!

    Posted on April 20, 2011 at 11:32 am #


  1. Armenia: Avoiding massive potholes in a Soviet-era Volga | At Home In The Wasteland - August 2, 2009

    […] to the Haghpat and Sanahin Monasteries in northeast Armenia, about a three hour drive from Yerevan. Unfortunately, the Ford minivan we were riding in broke down shortly before arriving at the first mo…. Our driver had somehow managed to enlist the help of one of his friends, and we soon found […]

  2. 2006 Year in Review Extravaganza!!!!!!!! (with photos!) | At Home In The Wasteland Travel Blog - September 17, 2011

    […] Laura and I boarded a British Airways 747 to visit Liz and Taline, who were working in Yerevan. We visited some monasteries, drank too much vodka, and argued with taxi drivers in Armenia, and then drove to Tbilisi to gorge […]

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