The lesser known and less-traveled of the three caucasian republics, tiny Armenia is mostly widely recognized for its association with the Kardashian family and an early twentieth century genocide.
There’s not much I can contribute in the conversation on either, but I did enjoy my short impromptu detour into the quirky post-Soviet country.
The Journey to Yerevan
Upon crossing the Georgia-Armenia border, there was almost no traffic, so I feared I would have no way to get to the capital. Eventually a car did pass me, and it slowed down as if it was going to pull over for me. It stopped a hundred meters down the road – but for another hitchhiker who apparently they had noticed first.
I think my disappointment must have shown because the driver of the car looked back at me and beckoned for me to join as well. I rushed over and showered the middle-aged Armenian couple in the front seat with thanks.
Much to my surprise, they spoke perfect English. Apparently they had just dropped their children off at an English summer camp in Georgia, and they were on their way home to Yerevan, when they spotted Vladmir and I on the side of the road.
“You see that over there?” Arman, the husband, said, pointing to a distant hill. “That’s Azerbaijan. If you were to walk down by the lake, you’d probably get shot by the snipers.”
I could not personally see the sniper positions, but Arman assured me they were there. Arman spoke at length on the villainous misdeeds of Azerbaijan and Turkey while Anna continually reached into the back seat to feed us cookies.
Vladmir, the other hitchhiker, spoke only Russian, but Anna and Arman translated for me. Apparently he had hitchhiked to Armenia from Moscow on a tour of all the former Soviet Republics. He carried a tent and sleeping bag with him to camp out in the wilderness each night.
Arman and Anna treated us to some traditional Armenian pastries and then took us to see an ancient monastery en route to Yerevan.
As the first Chrisitan nation on Earth, Armenia is known for its simple cruciform medieval monasteries.
Built on a small island in Lake Sevan in 874 AD, the isolated Savanvank Monastary was built for monks who had sinned and needed redemption.
Yerevan, the capital
By early evening, Arman and Anna had dropped us off at a hotel they own in the capital, Yerevan. They had their servants bring us sugared strawberries and then bid us farewell as they set off for their home.
Yerevan, and Armenia as a whole, has a distinct style of heavy solemn architecture which makes use of voluminous walls, mute colors, and early medieval Romanesque elements.
The style is most clearly articulated in Republic Square, the civic center of the city, which was designed by Alexander Tamanian in 1926 as part of his grand plan to transform a sleepy provincial city into the modern Armenian capital.
Like most Soviet squares, Republic Square is enormously out of scale and miserable to cross in the scorching heat of summer. This is not how you design public spaces for humans to enjoy and use!
Yerevan’s landmark Casacade is colossal limestone staircase packed with sculptures with a subterranean arts complex underneath. Until the early 2000s, Cascade was an incomplete holdover of an abandoned Soviet public project, when an Armenian-American philanthropist and tycoon took over the crumbling structure and renovated it into its current state.
Tigran, a 20-year-old Armenian university student, graciously offered to show me around Yerevan. With impeccable English and an impressive knowledge of U.S. politics, Tigran explained that he chose to study computer science because he thought it would maximize his chances for getting a US green card.
This stern grey basalt temple houses the largest collection of Armenian manuscripts anywhere.
The one splash of color in the capital is Yerevan’s Blue Mosque, which stands as a reminder of Armenia’s past life before the Russian conquest of 1828 as a province of Iran. The Soviets converted the blue mosque into a history museum in 1931, but the mosque was heavily restored with Iranian funding in the 1990s.
Etchmiadzin, Armenia’s Vatican
Etchmiadzin is a sleepy suburb of Yerevan near the Turkish border which once served as the capital of the ancient Armenian Empire. Today it remains the seat of the Armenian Church. It is also Tigran’s hometown.
Tigran was very critical of the church, which he considered to be a reactionary influence on Armenian society. The Church has played an active role in the ongoing persecution of queer and trans Armenians, though it, like the Catholic Church, has been rocked by frequent sexual abuse scandals of its own.
Rumors abound of church patriarchs living lavish lifestyles at public expenses, cozying up to Russian businessmen, dealing in political favors, and molesting underaged church-goers. Still, the Armenian Church remains a powerful influence on Armenian society and one that has only grown stronger in recent years.
My next destination after Armenia was Azerbaijan. Ongoing hostilities between the two meant that crossing into Azerbaijan directly would be impossible. Instead, I made plans to hitchhike back to Tbilisi, Georgia, spend the night, and then hitchhike out to the Azeri border the next morning.
Regrettably, I didn’t set out for Tbilisi until 3:00 PM — much too late in hitchhiker’s time!
I was very pressed to cover the 6 hour journey before sunset. I knew I at least had to make it across the border before dark.
As sometimes happens when hitchhiking, I caught a ride that set me back a lot. It was an old guy driving a beat-up jeep who drove very slow and seemed to be in no particular rush. He stopped to visit a friend’s house for what felt like an eternity. I tried to change rides but he insisted I’d be better off just waiting for him.
At last, the man came back and we resumed. He dropped me off along the road outside his house, which was about an hour from the border.
As night began to fall, there was almost no traffic to hitch, and I began to consider the very real possibility that I would need to spend that night in the wilderness.
Luckily, a shepherd herded his flock into the middle of the street forcing what little traffic there was to stop, at which point I could then solicit rides. A pair of border guards in a police vehicle stopped and offered me a ride to the border.
Night fell just as we arrived. The two guards bid me good luck, and I went to wait in the immigration queue. By the time I made it to the Georgian side, there were no more cars leaving. According to Google Maps, it would take 6 hours to reach the nearest town by foot, so I set out into the dark of night to do just that.
There were no streetlights there nor starlight nor moonlight, so I felt like I was perfectly alone in a dark void of nothingness. After about a half hour, I saw a sign painted in glowing neon paint outside the entrance of a farm. I decided that if any car were to pass, I would be most visible if I were standing in front of that sign, so I did.
Eventually a car did indeed pass, but it sped right past me.
A minute later it backtracked to pick me up, and I was on my home to Tbilisi.