The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Yerevan day trips: Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery

There are two obvious day trips from Yerevan, both fascinating and absolutely worth the effort: Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery. Both of these sites are located less than an hour from Yerevan by car, along scenic roads that afford, here and there, great views of Mount Ararat. Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery are compact and easily reachable sites of broad interest to many different kinds of visitors.

Garni Temple dates back to the 1st century, if not earlier–so far back, in fact, that it predates Armenia‘s conversion to Christianity. The temple was originally dedicated to Helios, the God of the sun. Its first modern excavation took place in the early 20th century. The rebuilt temple’s physical setting is also pretty amazing, situated on a bluff surrounded by rock cliffs.

To the side of the temple is a Roman bathhouse, nicely preserved. The hill above the baths affords more opportunities for appreciating the site’s scale and enjoying views over the area.

At the parking lot leading into the complex, there is a souvenir shop and a cluster of people selling various products. The most interesting objects for sale include compact discs of recorded traditional music and ropes of pastegh, a delicious candy of nuts and grape juice, often translated as “fruit leather,” which is also found in Georgia.

Geghard Monastery, about five miles on from Garni, is a site of rich and extensive interest for visitors, with several churches and chapels within the complex. Some chapels are built into the rock itself. The monastery complex is reached by foot from a parking lot along a slippery cobblestone road.

The monastery’s central church and its vestry, constructed in the 13th century, are cavernous. The vestry’s carved ceilings and ghostly streams of light make for a striking impression.

It is the chapels, however, built as they are into rock, that are arguably the most exciting part of the complex. One features a stream of spring water deemed to be holy. Many Armenians visit Geghard Monastery in order to splash themselves with water from this stream.

An easy way to visit Garni and Geghard Monastery in tandem is on a five-hour tour from Yerevan. The going price for this tour is 5500 dram ($14.50), and it includes a small snack and a drink. I went with Hyur Service for my tour. The guide was lively though frankly I would have preferred to get my information from a guidebook. There are two advantages to setting up a tour with Hyur Service or another tour company: the convenience of not having to organize transportation by bus and taxi and its relatively low cost.

Be sure to check out previous installments of the Far Europe and Beyond series.

Two Yerevan tips: Lagonid Bistro-Cafe & Sergei Paradjanov Museum

Here are two Yerevan tips. Though both make it into some guidebooks, neither would probably be an obvious choice for a Yerevan sojourn: the Syrian-Armenian Lagonid Bistro-Café and the Sergei Paradjanov Museum.

I never meant to wander into Lagonid Bistro-Café (37 Nalbandyan Poghots), a Syrian-Armenian restaurant in Yerevan. I wanted to eat something distinctly Armenian, or at least something within the ex-Soviet sphere. But the best sounding restaurants along these lines in my rag-tag Lonely Planet to the Caucasus were closed, some apparently for several years, restaurants with enticing names like Color of Pomegranates (Armenian and Georgian cuisine, reportedly) and Bukhara (Uzbek cuisine).

I kept walking in search of a decent lunch, and Lagonid Bistro-Café looked like it might have potential. I ordered labne, hummus, mutabel, and pomegranate juice. The hummus was creamy with lots of olive oil, better than any hummus I’d had since an eye-opening feast at Fakhr El-Din in Amman several years ago. (After Fakhr El-Din I couldn’t eat hummus for months and months. Their version was so far superior to any hummus I’d ever had previously that I wasn’t willing to pollute my palate with bad hummus.) The labne was tart and the mutabel (a puree of roasted eggplant and garlic) was spicy and satisfying. That feast ran me 3300 dram ($8.70), and frankly the only thing on my mind as I walked away was if I should return later that day or the next.

Another Yerevan tip: The Sergei Paradjanov Museum (15-16 Dzoragyugh Poghots). Paradjanov, born to an ethnic Armenian family in Georgia in 1924, was a bad boy of avant-garde cinema at a time when dissident behavior had frightening consequences. Uncomfortable working within the social realist confines of Soviet cinema, Paradjanov was imprisoned several times on various charges, including immorality and bribery. He had many international champions in the arts, and many famous writers and artists campaigned for his release during a long imprisonment in the 1970s. Even when Paradjanov was no longer in prison, Soviet authorities monitored him and limited his ability to work creatively.

The museum presents a psychedelic hodgepodge of Paradjanov’s artistic activities and aesthetic influences. Especially interesting items include the shrine (above) and Paradjanov’s dolls and collages. Photographs, various objects, and the artist’s collages, some very intricate, cover the walls. Paradjanov developed the collage form while he was imprisoned.

Admission to the museum is 700 drams ($1.85).

Be sure to check out other Far Europe and Beyond series installments.

Soviet Yerevan

The architectural influence of the Soviet years cannot be missed in Yerevan. Two examples in particular viscerally embody the grandiose massive-scale drama associated with Soviet architectural projects: the Armenian Genocide Monument and the 50th Anniversary of the Soviet Armenia monument. The latter can be reached from central Yerevan via the Cascade stairway.

The Armenian Genocide Monument at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex is moving and stark. The monument consists of a tall spire next to 12 enormous slabs of rock positioned in a tilted form around an eternal flame. With ghostly music playing on a loop in the background, the site is a powerful, emotionally-laden place of remembrance. The broad plaza around the monument is so big that it could easily accommodate hundreds of visitors simultaneously and not feel full. The monument dates to 1967.

The monument’s starkness has nothing on the neighboring museum, however, which documents the harrowing genocide of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman soldiers across Anatolia from 1915 through the early 1920s. The museum approaches its tragic subject matter in an extremely methodical manner, listing the regions where Armenians were killed and in what numbers, and providing various forms of documentation of Armenian cultural life during the era in question. Entry to the museum is free.

The Cascade leaves a less troubling impression. If the Genocide monument is irrevocably painful, the Cascade is joyful, utilized more or less as a park. An enormous terraced staircase, the Cascade connects central Yerevan with the Monument to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. Construction on the Cascade began in the 1970s, and the stairway’s development has stopped and started a few times. Currently, the Cafesjian Center for the Arts is housed within it.

The Monument to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia towers above the Cascade. It is visible at the top of the image above. The monument has three features of note: a stone column, a low-lying rectangular building, closed to visitors, and a massive landing with great views over Yerevan. Cursory research has revealed that this monument was never completed. Today it towers over the city, commemorating Armenia’s tenure as a republic of the Soviet Union prior to independence.

These monuments are interesting and significant places for grasping Armenia’s recent past and current presence. They are essential stops for any visitor to Yerevan.

Check out other stories in Gadling’s Far Europe and Beyond series.

Yerevan: Covered food market

Markets are great places for getting a sense of what makes a place tick, for grasping both the local agricultural bounty of a place and its culinary inclinations. Yerevan’s covered food market presents no exception to this general principle.

It’s physically a very impressive site, looking for all intents and purposes like an ornate Jugendstil airplane hanger. It is lively and fascinating, a great place for observing life in the capital of Armenia as well as for shopping for fruits, vegetables, and spices.

Stall owners at the covered food market have perfected the art of the medium sell, occupying that fantastic space between insouciance and overbearing intensity. Visitors are invited to inspect and taste products by salespeople, who in turn know how to read cues and back off when appropriate. My half-hour stay resulted in a dozen offers to try samples of nuts, dried fruit, and various spices. One fellow was so rapid-fire with his offerings of dried and candied fruit that I had to bow out. There is, after all, only so much dried stone fruit that a person can eat in 90 seconds. The entrepreneurial instinct turns the market into a hands-on place. At one point, a salesman dipped his finger into a bag of cardamom and brought it to my lips.

Pricing at the market is pretty reasonable, which makes it a great place for picking up food for immediate consumption and gifts alike. My wishlist was short: saffron and honey.Saffron is particularly well represented at the market, with many stands offering the very pricey spice. A small cup of saffron costs 1000 drams (about $2.65); a special rare saffron of identical weight was priced at 5000 drams ($13.20). Iran currently produces most of the world’s saffron, and Iranian saffron can be purchased all over the market. The Iranian saffron on offer is professionally packaged (in distinction to the local variety, which is very informally enclosed in lidded plastic condiment cups) and also considerably more expensive. The ubiquity of Iranian saffron here can be explained by proximity. Armenia’s border with Iran is just five hours by car from Yerevan.

My honey needs were easily met. Several vendors sell the stuff in old soft drink bottles among other repurposed containers. For anyone wanting to purchase a labeled jar of honey, there is a stall under the arcade on the right side of the market (entering from Mesrop Mashtots Avenue) that sells delicious honey by Multi-Agro, a local brand. A small 150 gram jar costs 550 drams ($1.45).

The market’s visitors are mostly residents, with a handful of tourists wandering through. If you don’t look like a local you will probably attract a fair amount of attention from stall operators.

Check out other posts in the Far Europe and Beyond series.