“Rome? This is the first time I've ever heard someone compare Yerevan to Rome,” our new friend from the bar laughed at my comment. The Armenian capital is just that classy. Probably due in part to living in the crowded chaos of Istanbul and not knowing what to expect from Yerevan, I was totally enchanted. Case in point:
Yerevan was largely built within the last five to ten years, and Liz pointed out that she didn't get a feeling for what exactly Armenian culture is from the city. It's a bit like Seoul in that regard. Modern and sophisticated, but what does that mean? The wide, tree-lined streets were clean and Armenians friendly, stylish, English speakers (except, oddly enough, the no less than three cab drivers who we asked to take us to the genocide memorial- even when we had someone translate it into Armenian they didn't know where it was). Maybe this language/modernity is due to the large Armenian diaspora that comes and goes in the city; I wonder how many residents of Yerevan were born and raised there. One of the young guys working at our hostel was a refugee that fled his home near Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1992, and the aforementioned bar friend is an Armenian-American who currently works in the city. Even with a Turkish salary it was easy to live comfortably in town, where we could indulge in chic restaurants and cafes at a very inexpensive price tag. Ringed by mountains including the Ararat of Biblical fame and with a city square surrounded by museums, banks and hotels built in the classical tradition, it's pretty damn elegant. There was also a small but lively pub scene located largely underground, literally subterranean (thanks for the tips Marjiorie ;)).
Yet almost immediately upon leaving the city center the landscape and vibe changes. Traveling by mashutka to the 1st century Roman Garni temple and mountainside Geghard cave monastery (featuring extraordinarily well-preserved kachkars, Orthodox Christian crosses carved into stone), we passed modest villages and quiet countryside that had a similar energy to those in Georgia but looked completely different.
Yerevan is small, you can walk from one end of the city center to the other in about 20 minutes, and the surrounding sights are interesting but few in number. As we found ourselves on the last day with an entire 24 hours to get back to Tbilisi, we figured why not take a longer trip than the insane one we arrived with to hitch a ride back to Georgia. The first guy to take us to the freeway entrance spoke perfect English and told us all about his passion for Armenia, which he's channeled into a film on the country's nature and sites: Unknown Armenia. As we drove he pointed out the Soviet housing blocks on the outskirts of the city that were erected to read “USSR” from an aerial view. “But the Soviet Union collapsed before they could build the 'R,'” he chuckled.
Our main driver, however, turned out to be quite different. Iago, a Georgian semi truck driver who spoke not a word of English (and I seriously mean not a word), is a 30-something single man who likes to drink chacha (Georgian grape vodka) and listen to Russian techno (sigh). That's about all we were able to ascertain from the seven hours on the road with him, but an interesting ride it was. While I look back on him fondly, he was a bit odd and I can't say I knew what he expected from us, he probably didn't know either. Upon starting our journey he pulled over to buy a bag of apples for us all, and offered chacha from a coke bottle with the label torn off. “Khorosho,” he insisted (“good” in Russian, the only word I figured out the meaning of). I sipped; it was just as gnarly as you can imagine chacha from a plastic coke bottle would be. He bought us a couple beers and would sometimes try to pinch our cheeks or put his arm around us, but we clearly put an end to that and Liz even said it seemed at times paternal. My conclusion is that he has a pretty lonely existence, and getting a glimpse into the trucker lifestyle was indeed a bit depressing. He pretty much lives in his semi, which he kept very neat and adorned with crucifixes and other Orthodox odds and ends. We examined each others passports, and he was fascinated by the stamps across Asia in mine and the Middle East in Liz's. His was filled with page after page of Armenia-Georgia-Azerbaijan-Armenia-Georgia-Azerbaijan. While I wish we could have communicated more, it might have been a blessing to keep each other at arm's length. For us though, there couldn't have been a better way to travel. Laying on the bunk bed and watching the breathtaking scenery roll by is something I won't easily forget.
the open road from our perch in the semi
After the border crossing we parted ways in a town outside of Tbilisi, where he tried to set us up with a taxi. Nobody was understanding each other as a mix of English, Georgian and Russian flew around. I began to type out numbers on my phone when we heard “otuzbeş.”
I looked up. “Türkçe biliyor musunuz?”
“Tabii,” the driver replied. Yes! Seven hours on the road communicating with the driver in only hand gestures and pictures (I had resorted to drawing a map of the US with our cities as well as a stick figure family) was exhausting and it was so nice to be able to speak again. With that, we bid Iago adieu with a single Georgian cheek kiss and hopped into Türk babası's taxi for Tbilisi. Türk babası, however, turned out to be Azeri babası, and had never even visited Turkey, his whole family residing in Georgia. “How do you know that guy, anyway?” Azeri babası asked us of Iago, laughing when I responded that we didn't. In any case, we had been freed of the shackles of Russian techno only to have it replaced by Tarkan. “Does he actually like this music?” Liz wondered, and when I asked him, he gave me another quizzical “Tabii!”
Thus I learned more about hospitality, taxi/mashutka/truck drivers and human rights theory (thanks Liz) than technical facts about the Caucases in our whirlwind week. It's certainly a fascinating region that's incorporated so many curious cultural tidbits from the centuries of Roman/Byzantine/Arab/Ottoman/Persian/Mongol control not to mention the USSR, though beyond the pervasive Russian spoken I didn't feel that influence as much as say, in Poland. Now I'll definitely have to seek out the Caucasian restaurants of Aksaray soon...