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HindustanTimes Sat,23 Aug 2014
A love affair with Armenia
Amrah Ashraf, Hindustan Times
March 15, 2014
First Published: 14:18 IST(15/3/2014)
Last Updated: 19:35 IST(15/3/2014)

Oh, another trip to Europe?” quipped a friend, after I told him I was visiting Armenia. “Err… Armenia is in Asia!” I said. He laughed and placed a bet that it was in east Europe, next to Georgia. “But Georgia is also in Asia,” I pointed out. We raised the stakes.

Long story short: I won Rs. 5,000. Armenia is in Asia. And so is Georgia.

I can hardly blame my friend. Armenia is incredibly obscure. But it’s got plenty to talk about. The country was the first one to adopt Christianity as its state religion (as early as the fourth century!); it has its own script and language and it was a part of the Soviet Union. The Kardashian family (they of the reality show, 72-day marriage and sex tape) originated from Armenia, though I doubt it’s a point of pride for any of its three million population.

This much I knew even before I visited. What I didn’t know was that it would only take only three days for me to be mesmerised by its beauty, seduced by its history and fall in love with its people. Here’s how it happened.

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The Courtship
My love affair with Armenia started in the most unusual way. Not a big fan of air travel, I woke up, startled, to bone-rattling turbulence. A vast expanse of blue, motionless water stretched out below, reflecting the sky above. Lurking somewhere in between were mountain peaks so close to the aircraft, I was certain we’d have speed breakers of the fatal kind. But one peak rose higher than the others, haloed by clouds, and glowing with a sunny amber hue. And there, amidst the jolts and bumps, I had my “at first sight” moment – and we hadn’t even landed yet!

Armenian men and women performing a traditional dance
Back on terra firma at the capital’s Yerevan Zvartnots International Airport, I took in a big gulp of fresh air, grateful to be alive. I spotted that gorgeous sun-kissed peak again, far away, between the clouds and the mist. On our drive to the historic Yerevan Hotel, where we were to spend the night, I saw the misty mountain again. But it wore a veil of grey clouds and I still couldn’t see my seducer.

Our tour guide, Anna Stepanyak, told me the peaks would reveal themselves that afternoon. But they didn’t. It was an unusually dull and dusty day. And thus began the game of hide and seek.

Thankfully, we spent the hot afternoon indoors at the Matenadaran, one of the world’s oldest repositories of ancient manuscripts. A giant statue of Mesrop Mashtots – the man who compiled the Armenian alphabet in 396 AD – greeted us at the entrance. Once inside, we ambled from shelf to shelf looking at the manuscripts, learning the history behind each – one dating back to 887AD, another written in pure gold.

When we walked out of the Matenadaran, dusk was upon us. I thought of those peaks again, but now the sky bore a dull shade of grey and the peaks were lost in the opaque sky.

Mother Armenia, a female warrior, overlooks all of Yerevan

Miffed, I was still willing to give Yerevan a chance to seduce me. Instead, we were made to do some customary touristy things – pay our respects to Mother Armenia, a war museum and a reminder of the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1991; visit the Cascades for an aerial view of the city and take pictures at Republic Square. Charming, but meh!

My eyes instead were drawn to Armenia’s cobbled streets, small taverns that reeked of brandy, breezy cafés, and bustling crowds. I saw young ladies strutting in high heels, boys eyeing them while puffing on cigarettes and kids running around City Square. The city was impressive, but I was still waiting for that something special. As I walked around the city, I realised that a country, so alien to me, still made me feel right at home – a restaurant we dined at played Bollywood songs just for us, everyone knows of Mithun Chakraborty, and on our way back, we crossed the Indian Street. It’s named after a cinema hall that used to play old Bollywood movies exclusively.

That night as we walked, laughed, talked and ate, I realised that I had developed a small crush on Armenia.

The Relationship
The following morning, I woke up with butterflies in my stomach. The previous night, the city had charmed me. And I was ready to be swept off my feet. That morning, as we drove south through the arid Ararat valley, I didn’t think much of the surroundings. But a sharp turn sprung a surprise. Something rose from the horizon, something large and majestic.

And there they were – the biblical Mount Ararat, the twin peaks where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest after the Great Flood. This time, the mountains were free of clouds. Transfixed by their beauty, I pleaded with Anna to stop, but she refused. We were on a tight schedule and the Khor Virap monastery was our next stop.

We stopped at the foot of a hillock on top of which sat the Khor Virap monastery (a collection of churches). The trek up looked daunting. But on Anna’s insistence, I huffed and puffed to the top. At the gates of the monastery, I realised why she had been so insistent. To our left were those twin peaks, closer than I’d seen them from the ground.

Inside the church, in the pits of which Armenia’s connection to Christianity began, we realised Khor Virap’s importance. Under the church is the dungeon where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years for following a heretic faith, Christianity. Apart from the fact that the dungeon was swarming with snakes and scorpions, he wasn’t given a morsel of food. And yet he came out alive. It is believed that a woman, who loved and revered him, broke a small section of the wall with her bare hands and threw some food for him every day, keeping him alive. When he emerged out of the pit alive to cure the ailing king of Armenia, the king converted to his faith. He declared Armenia a Christian nation in 301 AD.

The legendary 13th century Noravank monastery

Today, people believe that if you go down the dungeon and make a wish, it comes true. So down we went, one by one, to make a wish. I made one too, for love, like that woman. Her wish came true; I’m still waiting.

Later, as we drove to a 13th century monastery in the Noravank region, Anna told us numerous tales of love – how a mountain peak was named after a princess who dared to love a commoner and paid for it with her life, local songs about women waiting for their long lost loves; and the great architect, painter and sculptor Momik.

Momik today is hailed by the Armenians for his fine carving of khachkars (Armenian cross stones) found at the Noravank monastery. But back then, he wasn’t so lucky. He fell in love with the king’s daughter and the king called for his head. While crafting khachkars on the second floor of a church, Momik was pushed to his death by the king’s men. His grave stands on the exact spot where he fell and the second floor still stands incomplete.

Later that night, we were invited for drinks at Cilicia, a replica of an ancient Armenian ship, nestling at Lake Sevan. The captain and his mates manually raised the mighty sails and welcomed us on board. As we drifted slowly on the deep blue waters, I realised that my wish had indeed come true. I was in love... with Armenia.

The Break-Up
The next day, in the snow-covered region of Tsaghkadzor, everything looked austere. Maybe because I knew that was my last day in the country.

We visited the only surviving pagan temple in Armenia, Garni. One look at the temple from the valley makes you realise how perfect the world was then. The stone structure stands in the sun all day, but once a day in the afternoon, the sun plays so beautifully upon the stone that the entire structure shines.

After a long lunch at a local villager’s house, we drove back to Yerevan. On the road, I couldn’t help noticing abandoned vintage mini buses along the way and people still travelling in beat-up classic Camaros. If you’re lucky, you might find a cell phone tower or two. The sense of isolation may have been unsettling for others, but I loved the feeling. The thing about Armenia is that outside Yerevan, it seems to be stuck in a time warp.

The bustling Republic Square

We had the last evening to ourselves. I made the most of it by walking through the streets, shopping for souvenirs, watching a jazz concert, tasting brandy (never again! It’s too bitter) and munching on local candied fruits.

Later that night when everyone retired to their rooms, I decided to step out, one last time. I walked past Republic Square, sat outside the Opera House, walked along the boulevard – there was silence around me. The air was still reeking of brandy, but the bar stools were empty. I knew my love affair was coming to an end. This was our last night together. Break- ups are hard, but this was always meant to be a very short love story.

(The writer’s trip was sponsored by Air Arabia.)

TRAVEL INFO
There are no direct flights to Armenia. Air Arabia has daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Sharjah. There are flights to Yerevan four times a week from there.

Travelling within Yerevan is easy and cheap. Hop into a taxi or a Marshutka (minivans). Taxi fares starts at 101AMD which is `15.
A bottle of water is approximately 150AMD, which is `23. But a pint of beer is less than `80.

The best time to visit Armenia is end of September to early November. Summer is mostly harsh, with temperature crossing 40 degrees C. Winter is extremely cold and it occasionally snows in north Armenia.

Photos: Getty images, Shutterstock, Thinkstock

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From HT Brunch, March 16

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