I hadn't even left Moscow before I had my first dose of Armenia's Middle Eastern-style hospitality and friendliness. Alvart, a businessman on his way back home, introduced himself to me by thrusting out his hand. "Let's be friends," he said. And so we were.
"I'll show you everything there is to see," he promised. "We'll have shashlik and drink vodka. My friends will take care of us." Normally, I wouldn't accept the hospitality of a random stranger, but I soon learned that in Armenia, it was the natural thing to do.
Visas are $35 and should be acquired at the embassy before leaving, but you can get them at Zvarnots airport as well. After passport control, you make your way to a crumbling conveyor belt to collect your luggage, then walk past the sleepy-looking customs officials, who sometimes wake up long enough to pocket a little money from innocent passengers.
Alvart took me by the arm and led me through the crowd. "Don't talk to anyone," he said. "If they find out you're American it will be very expensive to leave here." After a few minutes, we located his friends and were on our way. Cabs from the airport normally cost foreigners $30, but Alvart and his friends gave me a ride into town in exchange for a few dollars in gas money.
Yerevan is very dark at night. The war with Azerbaijan has resulted in a joint Azerbaijani-Turkish embargo, leaving Armenia with limited access to energy. Most people don't heat their homes or leave lights on at night. Stores leave their lights on, probably to deter theft, and gas stations flaunt their energy with neon lights, like casinos.
After a few missed turns, I settled in at the Shirak hotel for $30 a night, probably the Russian price, since Alvart negotiated the rate for me. Lodging is expensive in Yerevan, since most of the hotels are four- or five-star establishments for the occasional traveling politician and businessmen. My hotel had hot water, though, which I would later learn is a rarity in budget accommodations. The most affordable option is the towering Youth Palace on top of a hill overlooking the city. The view is fantastic, but the rooms are pitifully run down, with a scalding trickle of hot water in the shower and a non-functioning bidet. In Soviet days, the hotel used to be packed with tourists, but now the huge wooden reception desk is always empty.
There's little to see in Yerevan except the incredible view of Mt. Ararat, which overlooks the city. Armenian culture is a bizarre blend of Western-style clothes and manners mixed with traditional Middle Eastern-style hospitality and conservative values. The most popular pastime seems to be taking walks in parks and dressing up to go and drink Turkish coffee in one of the city's countless cafes. There are plenty of bars and clubs, but most of them are filled with teenagers and the city's small underground gay scene.
The most exciting thing to do is to grab a car and leave the city. The mountainous countryside is full of old-world beauty, including ancient fortresses, monasteries and churches. I took a trip with Alvart to his hometown, a small village just outside the city of Goris.
Armenian families are tightly knit. All of Alvart's relatives lived in the stone house that his father built many years ago. Homes are usually large, whitewashed stone buildings, built side-by-side, so that the neighbors share common walls. We spent the evening in the kitchen by the stove, feasting on fresh lavash bread and homemade apricot vodka, while he and his friends told me the typical post-Soviet rural story. The factory had long since closed, after the owner sold it to a foreign buyer. "He's afraid to show his face in town anymore," Alvart said of his former employer. Now, people live a subsistence-level existence.
Later, we took a trip to the republic of Nagorno-Karabakh to visit Alvart's old friends who moved back after the conflict ended. The territory has yet to be recognized as an official part of Armenia, but President Robert Kochairan is a native of Stepankert and provides economic incentives for those willing to move back and repatriate the region.
Technically, visitors to Karabakh are required to purchase a visa at the entry post, but the guards we met were content with a small pile of lavash.
With the exception of bombed-out homes and bullet holes, there are few reminders of war left, although Alvart claimed the conflict could start again at any moment. Stepankert was quiet and peaceful on the Sunday afternoon when we visited.
I'm sorry to say that I insulted my guests with my Western business-like ways the following Monday. It was time for me to return to Yerevan and get my Russian visa. "But our neighbors just had a baby, and my cousin caught an eagle and we're going to have eagle shashlik!" Alvart said, looking worried. I had to put my foot down and insist that we leave. He just sighed and said, "Okay, but eagle is good meat."
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