It’s been a long day, but I’m safe and sound in my hotel in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
We left Tbilisi today at 10 in a car driven by a big friendly Georgian man with the deepest, growliest voice I’ve ever heard. He was like a character from a cartoon – it was awesome. What was less awesome was the lack of seat belts in the back seat – for some reason, so many cars in Georgia have seat belts but then the buckle part has been taken out, and we have no idea why. Anyways, Dad made me ride up front where there was a seat belt, which meant I got some awesome views.
The drive to the border was pretty seamless. Roads in Georgia are relatively well-taken-care-of, and our driver didn’t seem to have a death wish this time around, so we felt pretty good. Georgia is still a country I can’t really figure out. You don’t see much poverty, although the average monthly income is only 300USD. Nothing in the capital is particularly fancy, but there is definitely a turn for modernity. In Tbilisi you can stand next to a church from the 11th Century and check out bridges and government buildings made entirely of glass built in the last few years. The contrast is very clear, but it seems to make sense. Part of the reason for this cohesiveness, I think, is because Stalin came from Georgia, so he paid special attention to the country during the Soviet era. The country has a strong russian influence, but it still feels uniquely Georgian in some sort of special way. It’s a cool country.
The border crossing was incredibly easy due to the fact that we were the only ones crossing. Georgia and Armenia have one of the only open border crossings in the region, but for some reason not many people were using it today. We cruised past a few trucks that were waiting for inspection, and then Dad and I went through passport control in order to leave Georgia. Next we had to get our visas. Getting visas at the border is always unpredictable, but again, this was no problem. We filled out our forms and before long the armenian border guide was sticking a beautiful armenian visa inside our passports, and we were off.
The armenian side of the border was completely different from Georgia. Immediatley, the paved georgian road turned into an armenian dirt road, and garbage was strewn all over the grass. Buildings were also less attractive-looking – everything seemed to be in slightly rougher shape.
As we started our drive into Armenia, I couldn’t believe how different it was. Not only was the landscape entirely different, but there was a lost more visible poverty as well. Somehow the Soviet era seemed a lot closer, even though Russia is geographically farther away. We drove past all sorts of abandoned old factories from Soviet times and passed lots of Soviet era trucks and other vehicles that were never replaced. It was really beautiful, but as we passed through mountain villages, it was clear they didn’t have the same sort of funding as the ones we’d seen in Georgia.
Despite this contrast, the drive through the moutains was really beautiful, and it was really cool to take it all in. We drove through a few tunnels, and I swear, one of them felt exactly like the tunnel from Thunder Mountain in Disneyland – the walls were roughly cut out of stone and the road was dirt – it felt like a ride.
As we drove on, the terrain eventually leveled out and we left the mountains for farm lands and reminded me a lot of Saskatchewan. This, too, was really beautiful, and it was really interesting to watch all the villages go by.
It took a total of five hours to reach Yerevan. From the outskirts, Yerevan doesn’t seem to have changed at all since the Soviet Union, with big communist apartment buildings all over the place. As we got closer into the centre of town, things started to change. Communist-style buildings were replaced with fancier apartments, and as we drove on, stadiums, monuments, and fountains started to appear all over the place. Finally we were dropped off in Republic Square, where we’re staying at the Marriott.
After getting settled, we started our first evening in Yerevan with some armenian sparkling wine at the cafe outside our hotel. Yerevan is said to be known for its cafe culture, and although we didn’t come across many on our tour of town, this one had the perfect location for people watching in Republic Square. Right off the bat, we noticed that people are a lot fancier here than in Tbilisi. Almost every woman who walked by was wearing heels and a nice dress, and men were also less casual than in Georgia. This was also quite different from the rural parts of Armenia we saw today, which makes me wonder about wealth distribution – I read that in 2011, Forbes listed Armenia was the second worst economy in the world! That seems crazy to me, but it definitely gives some context to what we’ve seen today.
Next, we hit the town. Central Yerevan has been totally redone, and it’s really beautiful. I was amazed by all its green space; not only were there beautiful parks and man-made ponds, but massive trees lined all the main avenues. We wandered up a fancy pedestrian street will Armani and Burberry towards Yerevan’s Opera House, which is in the middle of a beautiful, green park. People seemed all dressed up wherever we looked, but they all seemed to be hanging out in the park or wandering around – there didn’t seem to be any reason for the attire.
Dad and I had read about a restaurant area with all sorts of outdoor cafes, so we set out to try and find it. I’m alright with a map, but I know we went the right direction. We ended up on this street that very clearly did not fit in with the “new and improved” Yerevan we were just experiencing, but confident we would come across the restaurant area, we didn’t give up. We walked and walked and slowly all the other pedestrians disappeared, and we eventually realized we weren’t finding any outdoor cafes. We ended up cutting through a collection of old communist-style apartment buildings. This area did not fit the fancy reputation of central Yerevan, but it was really interesting to wander through and take in the contrast.
There started to be more people around here, but they weren’t the same fancy-dressed people we’d seen out on the boulevards. The difference was amazing, especially considering we’d only wandered a few blocks away. It seems as though so much money has been spent updating the very center of the city, but anywhere out of that area hasn’t been changed since Soviet times.
We eventually made it back to Republic Square, never coming across the famous cafe culture advertised here. Republic Square was amazing though – after 8pm, it gets lit up and it fills up with hundreds of people. They have a musical fountain which goes off every hour, and people gather around to watch. It felt very European, with a hint of something else.