Armenia Dispatch: 3 Tourism

Well I have to confess that today was a day of rather basic sightseeing. I got hooked up with a group that headed out into the Armenian countryside to see some of the old monasteries and to hang out at Lake Sevan.

The drive out of Yerevan was wonderful. Armenia, you might remember, was a Soviet satellite state, part of the Soviet Union, albeit one of the smaller, more distant places within Moscow’s reach. But that didn’t stop the Soviets from erecting all sorts of clunky, but strangely fascinating, iconography around the country. Many of the buildings in and around Yerevan bear the ugly stamp of Soviet era architecture. Still, as unsightly as some of these places are, there is something about them, because we know the era is now dead, that gives them an odd appeal; they have become kitsch.

This morning, we headed out on the highway first thing…well, not first thing, first thing was to grab a cup of Armenian coffee, thick, gritty stuff that packs a wallop. It is wonderful. And entirely sufficient to start the day. There are no Starbucks in Yerevan. Not yet.

We drove out the highway to Garni Temple, a fancy little Greek-like structure on a plateau in the mountains. The temple itself was rebuilt recently, and while it was pretty cool, the surroundings, the wide open mountain faces around the temple, were actually more interesting.

We then headed to a really cool place called the Geghard Monastery, which is nestled in the mountains about 30 miles outside the city. This is a lovely place. The rocks are a magnificent reddish color, and they loom over the temple like a massive wall. Inside, the temple was nearly black, except for the glow of candlelight which barely lit the haze of incense smoke to create a very cool effect. An Armenian priest inside swung a pot full of burning incense, so that the smoke permeated the air.

There were some Armenian pilgrims there, lighting candles and saying prayers. There were also a few tourists, but they were all Armenian. None of them were either American or European. This brings up a very interesting thing about being here right now. Armenia is largely undiscovered. For three days now the only Americans I’ve seen have been Diaspora Armenians from Glendale or Fresno. I did see one French and one German group of tourists at lake Sevan, but that is it. As a result the hucksters at the tourist areas number only a few, and the ones that are there, selling bread or handmade jewelry, are not ornery or aggressive as they are in places like India.

I guess the point is, if you are looking for a place still raw and unbesmirched by tourism, Armenia is certainly one place to consider.

Well, I am off to a dinner, so have to cut this entry short, but I’ll file again when I am back later tonight.