Two things about my trip to Armenia back in the mid 2000s.

1. I was fascinated by everything there. I had less time by far to shoot photography on this trip than normal and yet I still shot more pictures than any trip I have ever been on. And now I wish I could go back and shoot a lot more.

2. I began thinking and writing about my experiences much sooner than any other trip I have ever taken, and with more intensity. I normally write some notes about my adventures and post them. I have been working and reworking this page of text for a month. Very unlike me. I think the strength of experience that Armenia offers the visitor is probably from multiple sources. One, Armenia is always on the edge. It’s at the edge between east and west, Christianity and Islam, soviet and post soviet, and it’s changing very fast. I heard people talking about “old Armenia” and “old Yerevan” and that life in the city was not real Armenia. So it seems everywhere, there is an expectation of a big change being imminent. Armenia is a country that is still seeing a lot of “firsts”, whereas in the US, many things are developed and mature. I spoke to Americans living in Armenia now and they talked about wicked extremes and incredible opportunity in the country. But Armenia is like encountering a new world, full of undefined possibility, like landing on a new planet, but everywhere, the remnants and evidence of a history, richer than you could have ever imagined existed.

Day 1+ – Sunday, September 13 and Monday, September 14

Yerevan via Paris. Across the Atlantic was 6 hours, then 4 to Armenia, more or less. Flew over eastern Europe, the Black Sea(!), and Turkey. Jeff’s GPS worked from inside the plane. With a 9 hour time difference, we got into Yerevan at 9PM Monday night after leaving NYC at 9PM Sunday night.

Armenia is a country of extremes. Little illustrated the extremes of Armenia more than the airport. We flew into a beautiful, brand new, modern terminal. It could have been an airport anywhere in the world. Upon retrieving our baggage, we went outside and meandered through the old airport, built during Soviet times. Construction was progressing on another modern terminal but the roadways, parking areas and the old airport building was like something out of a James Bond movie shot in old Russia. It’s not that the architecture was even Soviet, and I’m not sure it was, but that was the impression it left me with. But the extreme difference between the new airport and old, in a matter of a few footsteps, was a theme that would be repeated during my stay in Armenia.

We were picked up by the Acopian Center crew: Martin, Karen, and Levan. Learned quickly that Armenians are good (skilled) but impatient drivers who consider road markings a suggestion at best. Mix of vehicles, from Russian cars and nice little Russian 4WD SUVs, to Mercedes and BMWs. Armenia at once seemed to have a lot Russian leftover influence but have retained strong and pervasive Armenian roots because of their efforts to remain independent.

We drove from the airport which is very near the capital city of Yerevan, through a new strip of gaudy casinos with neon and blinking lights. Past some embassies and petrol stations with very grandiose arched roofs of spiderweb steel. I don’t think I saw two petrol stations in Armenia that looked even vaguely similar to one another. The absence of big branding was noticeable and nice. No fast food. No “loglo”.

Got to the hotel in downtown Yerevan. Very nice hotel with very friendly staff. The hotel reminded me of the other places we’ve stayed at in Europe, especially Salzburg. Nice room with a balcony onto the street and French doors that opened to let in the night breezes. Beautiful granite staircase and a great wintergarden with a nice bar stocked with Armenian wine and cognac, and a very nice pool on the roof overlooking all of Yerevan. The hotel, Golden Tulip Hotel Yerevan, had the best ranked restaurant in the city, Rossini, an Italian one. We never had dinner there but I checked out all their Italian wines a couple of times. Oh, yeah, the hotel had the giant key chains like in Bavaria, and real keys that you could leave at the front desk when you went out. Room 303 was a great room, if you ever get to Yerevan, and you should.

By the time we checked in and got into our rooms, my body had no idea of what time to think it was. Tired but excited, we went to a very nice French restaurant. We ended up eating there several times and getting to know the owner, a French expatriate. At least Alex, one of my traveling companions, got to know the owner. I had Armenian red wine – Novavank 2007 (Areni grape), Jermuk brand Armenian mineral water, borscht which had the traditional beets, carrots, sour cream, and shredded beef. I got to try some things shared by others, including lamb meatballs with sour prune sauce. The wine was austere, tart and full, like a New York state Pinot in a very good year, or a leanish Burgundy.

Day 2 – Tuesday, September 15

Got to sleep and woke to a eurohotel-style breakfast. Armenian cheese, sliced meats, sausage, and stunningly good fruit. Fresh figs, plums and fruit in fruit juice (fresh apricots?). Plus excellent Armenian dried apricots and blackberry compote. And another small fruit with a pit that was made into a compote that I never identified. It was oblong, the size of a small kalamata olive and reddish.

Levan picked us up in his nice Peugot sedan and we went to the Acopian Center at the American University of Armenia. Met with most of the staff and went over the various programs they are involved in. Karen, one of the ornithologists, has won the Whitley award, one of the most prestigious conservation awards that exists, for his work with the white storks in Armenian villages. More about the center can be had at the website, to be up by January 2010 at the latest.

Dinner with some folks from the Armenian Society for the Protection of Birds (ASPB), who had helped with the center’s original mission, the creation of the Field Guide to Birds of Armenia, soon to be online. Dinner was at Charentsi 28, a very nice bistro-style restaurant with a grape vine hung patio and small minimalist interior with photos and music from famous movies. We had kebabs in spicy tomato sauce, a salad made from dark bread, tomatoes, feta, black olives, cucumbers (Armenian cucumbers and tomatoes are world class), peppers, and a nice French style dressing. The bread was crusty and on the bottom of the salad, in chunks. We had Old Yerevan 2006 red wine. We also tried a broth with tiny minced meat raviolis that was very good. Keith Bildstein, the director of the Center, who is also the conservation director at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, thought he had ordered a Georgian dish, called Khinkali, a Mongol inspired meat dumpling, with broth inside the dough, steamed. I plan to make Khinkali, since I did not get to try them in Armenia.

At this point, the difference between Armenia and America had me in a bit of shock. This was the first country I have been to that is mostly outside the main sphere of American influence and the first time I heard “Post Soviet Syndrome” in conversation, and was able to talk to people about it. People who had lived through the Soviet collapse. The other world view adjustment was that it seemed that Armenia, having been part of USSR, did not think entirely badly of that part of their history.

Levan gave a very moving toast to Sarkis Acopian at dinner. More toasts followed, toasts being a great Armenian tradition.

Days 3,4,5 – Wednesday – Friday, September 16 – 18

My big extreme memory from these days centered around cars. I had to get to the center on my own one of these days. I walked around Yerevan looking for a place to buy a nice leather bag for my wife but did not find any stores open. Yerevan stores apparently open and close late. So somewhere I hailed a taxi and got into an old Russian car with a lean, brighted eyed driver who asked something in Russian. We eventually settled on conversing in French, his far better than mine. I tried to get enough information for him to get me to the University and I got frustrated and showed some agitation with myself. My driver put his hand on my arm and said something that I immediately understood to mean “calm down” or “relax” and turned his taxi engine off. I realized just how different this was from the US with its road rage and tailgating and drive through food. The other end of the extreme in Yerevan is the way the traffic disregards pedestrians. I had to learn to be careful crossing broad traffic circle “squares”, even in pedestrian walkways. Its a wonder more Armenians are not killed crossing their streets.

These three days blended together as I learned a lot about the history and mission of the center. Like visiting and getting to know my own clients, the trip connected me to our mission in a way that could not happen from thousands of miles away. Many meetings with center staff, various government and environmental groups in Yerevan. Lunches of khorovats (grilled meats and vegetables) and kebab on these days. The kebab is ground, spiced meat on a metal spike that is barbequed and then slid off on a plate with onions and fresh herbs. Khoravats was barbequed chops and chicken served with plenty of lavash – a wonderful flatbread, chargrilled tomatoes, eggplant, onions and peppers, and always a plate of tiny green onions, fresh parsley and purple basil. Sometimes we had Armenian summer salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, so good, they needed no dressing, but served with a vinegar/oil dressing with herbs. On several occasions, we had homemade oghee – mulberry vodka. It was very strong and harsh to my taste. It was typical to have excellent fruit juice, mineral water, tea and Armenian coffee, as well as Russian, Armenian or Ukrainian beer and the home-brew mulberry vodka on the table.

Another dinner at Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s, with Jeff’s friends, members of the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble.

From their site: The group uses only traditional Armenian instruments, maintaining an authentic sound with the duduk, zurna, dhol, kanon, kamancha, shvi, and other instruments. Singers Hasmik Harutyunyan and Aleksan Harutyunyan are known throughout Armenia, the former Soviet Union, and Europe for their unique interpretation of Armenian folk and ashoughagan (troubadour) music.

Hasmik and her husband were charming and great fun. He is from Oregon and courted Hasmik and then asked her parents to marry her. They agreed as long as he moved to Yerevan and they have been there ever since. He told us he toasted his wife each morning with a shot of homemade vodka, and that legend in Armenia is that 7 almonds a day will keep you healthy. Some samples of their music:

Armenia Anthology
Performed by Hasmik Harutyunyan and Shoghaken Folk Ensemble

Khnotsu Yerk
Armenia Anthology
Performed by
Shoghaken Folk Ensemble

Mokats Mirza
Armenia Anthology
Performed by Aleksan Harutyunyan and Shoghaken Folk Ensemble

Friday night we went to the Ararats brandy factory and sampled Armenian brandy. We also sampled wines from 1944 and 1913 from the factory’s huge wine library. Amazing. Somehow, the cognac even made me photogenic for a few brief seconds – see photo at left. Armenian cognac at one point so impressed the French that they allowed the Armenians to call their brandy “cognac” (so the story in Armenia goes). I plan to learn to like it but so far it is pretty far above my understanding.

After the brandy factory, we went to a Yerevan cemetery and to the grave of one of the authors of the Birds of Armenia book, then to the family grave of Levan’s folks. Later, we went to Levan’s brother’s home, where they were house sitting. His wife made a huge meal and we spent a long time enjoying Armenian hospitality. This was another example of Armenian extremes. We drove through rutted, muddy roads and potholes the size of the car, past piles of scrap metal and stray dogs, and through a semi-maze of tuffi and scrounged stone walls, and stopped on the dirt road, in front of a metal door, in one of the walls. Levan opened the door, and inside was a nice garden with fruit trees and grass, and a house with all stone floors with radiant heat, granite staircase, modern appliances and bathroom with whirlpool tub. Beautiful home inside the walls. Extremely different outside.

Day 6- Saturday, September 19

Spent the day at Echmiadzin, (etch-me-ODD-zine) the seat of the Armenian Orthodox church. We had been invited to a 10 year celebration of the head of the church, in effect, their pope, or holy see. There was a dedication of a new building, then a lunch (with Armenian wine and brandy), and a tour of the education center with performances of music and dance by young Armenian children. Then, in the evening, an impressive performance of the Armenian Philharmonic and Chorale. Earlier in the day, Jeff captured my best impression of the secret service at Echmiadzin:

Day 7- Sunday, September 20

We got to go out of the city, into the country of Armenia. We took the new highway up to the alpine lake Sevan. This day really showed me a lot about Armenia. The abandoned Soviet era factories, the beauty of the countryside, the realization that Armenia’s environmental awareness is in its infancy. We got to visit two ancient church sites, both overlooking the lake. I really have a hard time describing the Armenian countryside. It’s faintly reminiscent of Colorado in parts, but with eastern Europe and Russian bits, and constantly, the new experience: Tarragon soda. Barbequed mountain-farmed trout “tacos”. A zillion brands of vodka in a store window. Homemade mulberry vodka as a national drink. Bright orange berries in the trees everywhere, and people, whole families, hunkered by the side of the road selling the berries and plastic bottles of the juice. A restaurant and bar with no outside signs or menus, but a buzzer bell in the private dining room to call for service. Ukrainian beer. Natural gas powered buses with a row of gas cylinders on their roof. Waiting for the bulldozers to move piles of dirt from the road so we can get through. Shepherds bringing their sheep down from the mountain meadows and blocking traffic on the muddy, rocky road around the lake. Yellow gas pipelines running on top of the ground and up around roads and paths in squared pipe sculptures. And everywhere, raptors. We saw at least 11 species of raptors that day. We saw groups of migrating black kites, a purple heron, northern shoveler ducks, a very rare black stork, egrets, and an aerial duel between a Levant sparrowhawk and a pair of goshawks. And we saw a pallid Harrier. Cool, but then, a female pallid harrier, the most beautiful bird I have ever seen, like something out of a Japanese anime. And after seeing all of this, just another day for the ornithologists at the center, a wonderful culinary surprise – Martin’s wife had made us Ant Hills. A delectable concoction of honey-peanuty-grainy stuff that was delicious, washed down with Armenian coffee made on a little gas stove. In that moment, with the fine grounds of coffee on my tongue, looking out across the national park at the ducks on the water, I understood for the first time what environmentalism and conservation really can be and why so many people believe in advancing the cause.

Oh. Did I mention the mountains of obsidian? Some of you know I’m a rockhound, but what you don’t know is that I used to send away to get obsidian. I tripped over it in Armenia. Black, brown, milky, striped. I think this sign in Armenian is “Watch for falling obsidian”.

Armenia was amazing in ways that France, Germany, and the other places I’ve been were not. For one thing, my ideas of the USSR seem to have been way off, as well as for Iran and Georgia and Azerbaijan. There is a lot written about the people who were forced to be part of the Soviet Union, and then gained their independence in the early 1990’s, so I won’t write anything here, but the point is, I didn’t really know much at all about something called Post Soviet Syndrome. And Georgia is no longer some vague idea of a place at odds with Russia. And the pieces of the USSR, I realized, were unique places, like the uniqueness between say, Maine and Louisiana in the US.

The people I met were probably a bit skewed demographically from the average Armenians, but I found them all much more serious and appreciative about their work, and much more knowledgeable about the world and international concerns, than anyone I know in the states. They cared about more than sports, movie stars and video games. There was a subtle humility among everyone in Armenia that I think Americans lack, and they were not addicted to TV or the internet like everyone in the US is. The American “100 mph to nowhere” is not mainstream there yet. Family seemed to be much more central to their culture as well as faith. There were no drug problems apparent to a casual visitor, though I understand there are some drug and gang issues, if only mild ones. Compare that to the average American big city. And they took time to slow down and have good food at their meals, even if simple, and talked about things that concerned them about Armenia and their work. I think America has incredible potential and opportunity to offer to everyone (witness Gates, Jobs and Obama to name just a few), but we often are blind to it, or don’t realize how precious it is. In Armenia, there is less expectation of opportunity, but more appreciation for what they have. I don’t know why exactly, but I think the trip made me braver to make decisions and be more direct where things need to be done in my life. I think I got a little enlightenment by experiencing things so far from American ways. At my dojo I have learned that enlightenment happens in tiny pieces. I feel like my time in Armenia was filled with a lot of these tiny pieces that I will slowly assimilate into my self. As my sensei would say, these pieces are important. Amazing Armenia.

Here is an article by a real writer I found helpful in understanding a little about Armenia.

NY Times articles

The birds we saw that day in Armenia.

  1. Common Buzzard (very much like our red-tail hawk)
  2. Pallid Harrier (male and the breathtaking white female with black wingtips)
  3. Eurasian Sparrowhawk
  4. Goshawk
  5. Levant Sparrowhawk
  6. Marsh Harrier
  7. Lesser Spotted Eagle
  8. Black Kite
  9. Common Kestrel
  10. Long Legged Buzzard
  11. Northern Hobbie
  12. Great Cormorant
  13. Armenian Gull
  14. Great Crested Grebe
  15. Black Stork
  16. Sky Lark
  17. Bee Eaters (swarming bees)
  18. Purple Heron
  19. Moopie
  20. Great Egret
  21. Great Heron