Last Days in Tbilisi

During the rest of my time in Georgia, I’ll be honest… I didn’t exactly make the most of my time, if you’re looking at it from simply a sightseeing perspective. I, however, was thinking about it from more of a mental health perspective, and part of the reason I even planned to go to Tbilisi in the first place was because I wanted to feel like I could take some time to just relax without feeling the need to run around like a maniac and explore a new city. I had already seen a decent number of things there, and it made me feel like I could take some “me” time.

It also didn’t help that the weather was mostly a bummer. I was there for three days, and it was rainy and gross for two of them. My motivation was already fairly low, and the weather was all that was necessary to completely eliminate any chance of me being adventurous.

While traveling to more cash-based countries, I always have such an issue with the quantity of coins that everyone uses. I hate coins, but in Georgia, there’s a whole collection of them. Here we have the 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 tetri coins, plus the 1 and 2 lari coins. WHY SO MANY???

If only you could also smell it…

On my first day back after Batumi, I committed to doing the few things that I still had on my list. That list was admittedly pretty short, but I figured I should cross off the remaining items so that there was no danger of me leaving the country again without doing them. My first stop was in Old Town, right near the sulfur baths. There’s a sulfur waterfall there that we didn’t end up going to because everyone was hungry… the funny part about that is the fact that it took MAYBE 10 minutes to walk there from the location where that decision was made. It wasn’t anything jaw-dropping, but it was cool to think about the fact that I was standing in the middle of the capital city of Georgia, looking at a waterfall. Like… they have a waterfall in the middle of the city! Of course, it smells like sulfur and that’s gross, but conceptually very cool.

Love locks on the way to the sulfur waterfall

One of the buildings along the way to the waterfall. Not terrifying at all, right?

St. George’s Church with Sayat Nova’s grave marker to the right of the door

I also went back to St. George’s Armenian Church to pay homage to Sayat Nova, since I didn’t realize his gravestone was there until after we had already visited and left (I wrote more about that visit, who Sayat Nova is, and some other famous Armenians whose gravestones I visited here) and Ejmiadzin, the other major Armenian church that was closed last time we went. It wasn’t my favorite church from the inside, but I was excited to hear people speaking Armenian after only hearing Georgian for a few days, and I bought a candle to light just because I could. I asked for it in Armenian, the woman understood me, and I was thrilled to use my hard-earned language skills again, even for something so basic. It’s such a bummer when you spend all this time learning a language while living in the country where it’s spoken, get to a level of proficiency that makes you feel comfortable, and then leave the country and realize that everything you worked so hard to learn is completely useless in helping you to communicate in this new place. I know I’ve talked about this a lot, but it still frustrates me every time I think about it.

Inside Ejmiadzin Church

The door to Ejmiadzin

From there, I went back to the big Holy Trinity Cathedral that was partially built on the site of an Armenian cemetery. In my previous post about visiting there, I explained how the Armenian community freaked out about how the graves were being dug up without any respect, and the only appeasement offered was this little Armenian Pantheon that they hid behind the church. I say “hid” because even though I was looking for it, I STILL had trouble finding it. You might think I mean oh, if someone didn’t know it was there, they wouldn’t find it… no. I knew it was there, I had the location in front of me on google maps, and I still wandered around for at least 15 minutes before I figured out where it was and how to get there.

Holy Trinity Cathedral

Yes, figuring out where it was and then how to get there were two separate steps, and neither of them was particularly easy. I walked in the general direction that google pointed me, and I couldn’t figure out what I was even looking for. Luckily, there were some pictures, and I spotted the top of the highest point in the pantheon peeking over someone’s house. Okay, now I knew where it was… but HOW was I supposed to get there?? I tried taking a direct route, and I’m fairly certain that I walked down someone’s driveway and through their yard before realizing that I couldn’t see my reference point anymore, and there was a wall blocking me from going the way I thought I needed to. Finally, I figured out the roundabout way you have to walk there, including walking by a security guard who, I didn’t realize until afterward, was only there to make sure that unauthorized cars didn’t try to come into the church grounds. I thought I wasn’t allowed to leave that way, but he couldn’t have cared less about me walking past. Good to know.

The Pantheon was kind of sad, mostly because I knew that it was just a shadow of what it used to be. The most notable person buried there (in my personal opinion) is Hovhannes Tumanyan, the writer that I also talked about in my Famous Armenians post.

Remains of the original grave markers in the Armenian cemetery

The Armenian Pantheon. The big white thing in the middle is the only reason why I found my way there.

Having crossed those few things off my list, I felt pretty good about relaxing for the next few days. Well, I kind of relaxed. I had a bunch of things I needed to get done, and as is the way with those things, they all took longer than I expected. I also had some things come up related to planning the later stages of my trip, and planning-related tasks are always rabbit holes. You can spend an eternity on them without even realizing.

A piece of the Berlin wall, gifted to the people of Georgia from the people of Germany. It was given to the PM of Georgia when he visited Germany. My first thought was, “Oh, that’s so nice.” Second thought: “Do they just have pieces of the wall in a warehouse somewhere to give out as gifts?” Third thought: “Imagine going on a trip and getting a huge concrete wall to take home with you. ‘How am I supposed to get this home?? I only get two 23kg checked bags!'” (Yes, I’m joking. I’m aware that the PM of Georgia probably doesn’t fly commercial.)

The next day, I went on a sketching adventure. I’ve been carting a sketchbook around with me since I got to Armenia, and I’ve done barely anything with it. I decided that I might as well put it to use if I’m going to keep carrying it with me, so I walked around the downtown area and made a couple “quick-sketch” stops. I’m trying to get better at sketching quickly, rather than always spending hours on each drawing, so I limited myself to half-hour-long stops. After I get better at those, maybe I’ll cut down the time a bit more, but for now, I’ll just say that I need to keep practicing. You have to start somewhere!

I also spent a decent amount of time hanging out with the other people in my hostel. This hostel was much smaller than the ones I usually stay in, so it felt more like a little family. There were some cool people there, and we went out to eat together, played Jenga (Including potentially the world’s longest game where, by the end, we all just wanted to stop playing because it was way too stressful), learned about each other’s countries, and had fun just spending time together. Hostel living frequently becomes such an interesting way to learn more about the world because you get to hear the opinions of people who are actually from different places. We always hear one side of the global narrative in the States, and it’s whatever side the government wants us to hear. As much as we like to think that we aren’t fed propaganda, we are. It’s just slightly more subtle. It’s like the same thing I realized in Armenia… In the US, we have such a different picture of, for example, Russia, than they do there. In Georgia, I met a girl from Russia, and she obviously had another perspective to offer. It’s still not easy to pick out the “facts” (whatever that even means) about things, but hearing different views is a good way to make sure that you’re thinking critically about the information you’re given. That’s a good lesson for life in general.

Anyway, just more random musings. My next stop after Tbilisi was Istanbul, Turkey, and I had an inconveniently-timed 4:30AM flight there. I didn’t bother reserving a space at the hostel for the night because I knew I wouldn’t end up sleeping even if I did. Instead, I just hung around until midnight when I made my way to the bus stop to hop on an airport-bound bus.

There are certain times in particular that not being able to speak the language in a country becomes extra frustrating. One of those times is when announcements are being made, like on my delayed train to Batumi, and you have no idea what information is being shared. Another time is when people are having an argument or someone is causing a ruckus and you can’t determine what your response should be to their actions because you don’t know what the issue is. On the bus to the airport, this guy got on (let’s call him “yelling guy”) and started yelling about this and that… and I had no idea what this and that were because it was all in Georgian. Most people were just ignoring him. Eventually, some guy started shouting back at him and then got off the bus. Then a new guy came and started trying to calm yelling guy down, but I don’t think he made a difference. Eventually, the bus stopped and the driver and some other transit officer came back and then they were all shouting at each other, and calming guy was seemingly defending him…? But who knows because this entire analysis is based on body language and tone. Finally, they got him to settle down a little, and someone motioned for yelling guy to come sit next to him. THEN yelling guy started trying to talk to me (I was standing nearby), and I had the fun task of getting him to understand that I don’t speak Georgian… thankfully, the guy next to him figured it out and explained the situation, but somehow that never seems to stop anyone from still trying to communicate by just speaking AT you. After he was just told that I couldn’t speak, he continued to ask me questions which I responded to with wide eyes and a confused face. The guy next to him kept laughing and saying (I imagine), “DUDE! She can’t understand you!”

Finally, we made it to the airport, and I jetted off the bus. I still had some time to wait before I could check in, so I made myself comfortable on an airport chair and began a long night of non-restful sleep in various awkward and uncomfortable positions.

A Day of Questionably Good Ideas

I had a brilliant idea to maximize my sightseeing efficiency in Batumi: a sightseeing run. In hindsight, I see the million flaws with this idea and also the million better options, but I didn’t see those at the time, so here we are.

What is a sightseeing run, you ask? Well, exactly what it sounds like. Go for a run, stop at any sights, keep running. I thought this sounded like a perfect idea because I wanted to work out, I wanted to go sightseeing, and sometimes, I feel like walking between sights just takes too long. I planned to run along the boulevard by the beach so that I didn’t have to deal with cars and could have nice views of the water along the way.

More beach pictures! The weather was much better on Day 2.

Since I’ve given you no real information about Batumi yet, here’s a little background for you. Like I briefly mentioned, Batumi is the major beach resort of Georgia, located on the western side of the country along the Black Sea. It’s the second-largest city in Georgia after the capital city, Tbilisi, and its economy is centered around tourism, gambling, and its port which is the biggest in Georgia.

The harbor

Historically, the first record of a city on the site of Batumi was an ancient Greek city, Bathus, in the 4th century BC. The Romans conquered it in the 2nd century AD, and after that, it went through a series of rulers along with the rest of the cities in the region.

Architecturally, the city is particularly interesting. This is something I absolutely didn’t expect going in and was pleasantly surprised by (though of course, I knew nothing going in, so it’s not very surprising that I wasn’t ready for what I found). Many of the buildings are from the 19th century and are a mix of different styles: European and Asian, Georgian, Turkish, and Soviet, etc. There’s also a strong sea theme, so you can see a lot of mythical sea creatures woven into the architectural details. And the colors! There are so many pretty and unexpected colors.

The Batumi Drama Theater in the background with creatively-named Theater Square in front of it.

Recently, there’s been a push to grow Batumi, and these historic buildings have been joined by new, modern high-rise buildings. It was already a strange architectural mash-up, and now it’s even more so. Just wait… you’ll see what I mean in the pictures.

Okay, back to my sightseeing run. I hadn’t worked out in quite a while, so I thought maybe three miles (5k) or so would be a good start (I’m not a good runner AT ALL, so even this was kind of a stretch). Plus, with the sightseeing component, it allowed for “photo stops” aka “find something to take a photo of because you don’t want to run anymore” stops. It seemed like a good way to ease back into running. Maybe it would have been, too, but after I had gone two miles and hadn’t turned around yet, I saw some mountains in the distance and decided that I wanted to be closer to them. Very specific, I know. So, I kept going, and I kept thinking that I was going to reach the point where I had some epic mountain view and would know that it was time to turn around and go back.

The sky!!

So many shades of blue!!

The path was nice, too. It went right along the beach, there were interesting buildings to look at, and there were barely any other people around. Then, somehow I was more than four miles away from home and seemingly no closer to the mountains. I could have kept going. I kept thinking that if I just went a litttttttle farther, I would hit a good spot to turn around after the next bend. Or the next bend. Or the next bend. That maybe would have been fine, but I did NOT plan ahead for that kind of adventure and was carrying no money and no bus ticket. Not my brightest moment. Note to self: always bring bus money.

Found a hammock along the way…

???

No clue what this is but weird, right?


There’s also a ton of public art everywhere, including a series of silhouettes doing various things while holding hearts.

More public art


This fountain was cool… Her wheels spun around and kicked up water!

This is a tower celebrating the Georgian alphabet


View on the boardwalk during my sightseeing run

A park along the boulevard

“The Colonnade”, designed as an entrance to the beach. The concept, as you might guess, was developed by someone who had recently gone to Italy. Now it’s just a random and confusing monument, in my opinion. Though definitely pretty.

More interesting architecture

Finally, I had to accept that if I hadn’t gotten a good view of the mountains yet, it probably wasn’t going to happen and that I needed to turn back or risk collapsing from exhaustion. Oh yeah, I also didn’t bring any water. Or money to buy water. And I had only eaten a granola bar for breakfast. I know, I know, but remember that I was planning for a two- to three-mile jog/walk/stop, not an almost nine-mile (15k) adventure. Hehe. Oops.

The closest I ever got to the mountains… so not close at all

Right near my turn around point… good question, random street art. Where the heck am I?

My post-experience thoughts about this whole thing:

  1. What on earth was I thinking?
  2. Why didn’t I just rent a bike?
  3. What on earth was I thinking?
  4. I don’t even like to run.
  5. At least I got a good workout.

After I got back to the hostel, cooled down, drank some water, and ate something, I changed and went out again because despite the ridiculous distance I had covered, I had only seen the sights along the coast and still had the entire downtown area to check out. This time, I aggressively plotted my route to avoid covering any extra distance, and off I went.

I did NOT want to leave the hostel again after I got back and sat down, but it was my last day in Batumi, so I didn’t feel like I had a choice. My legs were killing me, and I walked at an impressively slow pace the entire time.

My loop around the city included a whole pile of churches, whatever parks I happened to stumble upon (because who doesn’t like parks??), some city squares, and a few of the tall buildings that I didn’t get to on my “run”. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves for the most part because it’s not even worth me trying to explain without visual aids!

A building on Europe Square. Does it not look like it was taken straight out of a fairy tale?

More buildings along Europe Square, all so different from each other!

There’s an astronomical clock on one of the buildings (farthest to the left in the picture above), and this was the diagram explaining it. I looked at it for about 5 minutes before deciding that there was too much going on and taking a picture to try to figure out later.

The astronomical clock from below

This statue on Europe Square is of Medea, a daughter of a Georgian king, holding the Golden Fleece. The story goes that she helped Jason, the legendary Greek hero, to steal the fleece.


St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

This thing is called Chacha fountain. Chacha is a classic Georgian alcohol made from distilled grapes, and supposedly you can get free chacha from the fountain for 10 minutes each day. Who knows if this is true or not but either way, hilarious.


This building, Batumi Tower, was designed by a Georgian architect, is 200-m tall (and is the tallest building in Batumi), and was supposed to house a technological university. Instead, it got sold and now it’s a hotel. And there’s a ferris wheel in the side. Did I mention the ferris wheel? Like… what????

Pretty sure these are condos


The Batumi Drama Theater in the background with creatively-named Theater Square in front of it.

Rocks!

This is a sculpture called Ali and Nino, inspired by a story about a Georgian princess, Nino, and an Azerbaijani Muslim, Ali, fall in love but are kept apart by WWI. It’s like the Romeo and Juliet of the Caucasus. The two figures move back and forth, literally through one another.

Holy Mother Virgin Nativity Cathedral. Quite the mouthful of a name… maybe it’s shorter in Georgian

Armenian church!


I had a train ticket to go back to Tbilisi the next morning, so as much as I enjoyed my time chilling in peaceful Batumi, it was time to move on to the next adventure. I asked at the hostel about how to get to the train station so early in the morning, and the guy said that the buses weren’t running yet, but I could probably get a marshrutka there.

An architecturally-hip Catholic church

I walked out to the bus stop around 6:45 because my train was at 7:30, and it was like I was the only person awake in the entire city. As you might imagine, I started doubting that there were even marshrutkas running after not seeing any for the first 10 or so minutes waiting at the bus stop. This one taxi driver kept asking me if I wanted a ride, but I was determined not to take a taxi. He asked where I was going, and I told him the train station (using a very unhelpful Georgian phrasebook I found online). He said he would take me there for 20 lari. HA! I literally laughed at him. I didn’t know how much it SHOULD cost to get there, but 20 lari is like $8 and is completely ridiculous for a 5-minute ride.

After I laughed at him, he lowered his price to 10 lari, and when I said no again, he changed it to free. I apparently am a phenomenal negotiator… This conversation all happened through hand motions and google translate because he spoke ZERO English. When he said he would take me for zero, I typed, “Why???” into google translate. I thought that was a valid question. He just looked at it, laughed, and gave me the “come along” hand wave.

And this is a hotel

At this point, I still hadn’t seen any marshrutkas drive by, and I was starting to get a little worried about missing my train. I figured what the heck, and off we went. Let me just say that if I was in practically any other country, I never would have done that, but this was Georgia and I was mostly not worried about it. We got close to the train station, and I started pointing that I wanted to go there. From our broken conversation, I gathered that we’d had a slight misunderstanding. I thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Batumi train station to take the train to Tbilisi. HE thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Tbilisi train station. I mean, I guess I technically did, but not in his car!

Thanks to my mostly worthless Georgian phrasebook, I knew how to say, “Stop here!”, and I said it on repeat until he listened. He kept trying to tell me that he would take me all the way to Tbilisi for free, and still I have no idea why. Eventually, I convinced him (in my fluent Georgian) to take me back to the Batumi station, and that was that. He didn’t ask for any money, and I’m almost positive that he would have been insulted if I had offered.

It wasn’t the most conventional method of getting to the train station, and I’m sure my mother is losing her mind right now, but hey, it worked. I’m happy to report that the rest of the trip was uneventful. I took the train, I took the metro, and soon enough, I was back at my hostel to enjoy a couple more days in Tbilisi.

Batumi

I took it slow during my first day in Georgia because I wanted to give myself some time to process everything going on in my brain. I checked into my hostel, sat in a park and journaled, and went to bed early because the next day, I had an 8AM train to Batumi.

Batumi is the major beach town in Georgia. It’s on the Black Sea, and I knew basically nothing about it going in except for those two things. Last time I was in Georgia, we met some people who said it was a great place to visit, and apparently that’s all I needed to be convinced. I also knew that I wanted to get out of Tbilisi for a few days, and Batumi seemed like as good a place as any.

I was definitely not prepared for such interesting buildings! The pointy one in the middle literally has a ferris wheel on the side of it.

The train ride was five hours which is maybe a lot, but at this point, unless a leg of my journey is more than ten hours, I don’t even think twice about it. Five hours is easy, plus on a train you have a bathroom and space to walk around if you want. Luxury!

After the all-too-familiar packing struggle, I pulled myself together and left the hostel around 7:15 to get to the train station early in case I had any issues. It was a little confusing to figure out how to get into the station, but with my “keep cool and use your brain” mantra playing on repeat in my head, I followed some people carrying suitcases and was delivered straight to my train. Fabulous.

To help orient you, Armenia is at the bottom (Yerevan is marked with green pin), Tbilisi is marked in blue, and Batumi is to the west in red

The train ride went smoothly until we were maybe 20 minutes from Batumi. We stopped at a station along the way and then didn’t start moving again. They made some announcement in Georgian and Russian, and people started freaking out. I asked some Russian-speaking girls sitting near me if they spoke English, and one knew enough to explain that there was something happening with the train and the tracks and the weather maybe? But the conclusion was that the train was not moving until whatever was resolved, and there was no timeline on when that would happen. Okay, cool. I settled in to wait it out because sometimes these things happen. Around me, it was chaos. People were yelling at the conductors in Georgian and Russian (as if that was going to change anything). Some were jumping ship and aggravatedly calling taxis to go the rest of the way. An English-speaking kid was whining about how the wifi wasn’t working, and his mom was going on and on about how she was worried that the train was going to leave us in the middle of nowhere as if she thought that was an actual possibility. And then she said, “and we’re running out of water,” as if we were stranded on a desert island and minutes away from death by dehydration.

Batumi!

About an hour later, we started moving again and made it to Batumi maybe an hour and a half behind schedule. Not a big deal. The next step was figuring out how to get from the train station to my hostel. The easy thing to do would be to take a taxi. When you’re trying to travel on a budget, you usually choose economic over easy, so I was taking the bus. I had scoped out the bus routes online, so I was fairly confident that I knew which numbers I could take. After a struggle figuring out where the bus stop was, I made it there and hopped on the first bus that came by.

Grey rock, grey sky

When I’m figuring out a new public transport system, I usually watch to see how everyone else pays and then just follow along with that. This time, I was the only one to get on, so that wasn’t an option. I sat down and stared at the various payment locations like maybe they’d make sense if I focused hard enough. Finally, a woman got on and I watched to see what she’d do. She took a chip card out of her purse and tapped it on one of the card readers. Okay, not helpful. I only had cash which meant that I needed to figure out the cash payment method. The woman looked nice, so I made eye contact (probably with a slightly panicked look in my eyes), held up some change, and made my best “how do I pay with cash?” face.

This is the way that travelling works when you don’t speak the language. Observation, facial expressions, sign language, and charades are key. She pointed to a woman who was sitting in the back of the bus, and the woman quickly came over to me. I pulled out the amount I thought I owed, she looked perplexed, and I dumped a bunch of change in my hand and held it out to her. She took what she needed, gave me some change, went to one of the machines to punch my ticket, handed it to me, and showed me that I had paid for two rides instead of just one which was why my ticket cost more than I thought. When we got close to my stop, my friend was getting off too. She offered to help me with my bags, and the ticket woman helped me to untuck my scarf which was stuck in my backpack. Basically, everyone was taking care of me. On the street, my friend introduced herself as Mina and asked if I needed a place to stay (via charades). I had a hostel booked so I was good, but I was definitely appreciative of the fact that everyone was so nice and helpful.

Since it’s still the off-season in Batumi and I was there during the week, I had the entire 6-person room in the hostel to myself! I was super happy to see how quiet and relaxed the city was because that’s exactly what I needed, a little escape from chaos and some time to think. I walked out to the harbor and followed the water to the beach where I had the BEST surprise. It was a stone beach! Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Lara, you went to this place without even knowing that the beaches weren’t sand? Did you read literally nothing about it??” The answer to that would be yes, and that is totally not like me but I’m trying this new thing where I go with the flow and don’t over-plan my life.

Okay so prepare yourself for a lot of rock pictures but like… I’m in love.

Anyway, that complete lack of research led to me being pleasantly surprised and extremely excited by what I found, so I’d argue that it was even better that way. In case you don’t know this about me, I despise sand. I don’t think I’ve ever truly liked it, but I successfully ignored that truth until a pivotal experience. Long story short, my friend Sarah and I went camping on a beach once because that’s such a romanticized idea and how cool to sleep on a beach… and by the morning, we were so over it. Three words: Sand. Gets. Everywhere. It was in the tent, in our clothes, in our mouths, all over everything. There was no shade because we were on a beach, and the tent was like an oven in the morning (that’s not sand’s fault, but it didn’t help the situation). We took showers and still felt sandy. We were on an island, and when the morning’s first ferry to the mainland pulled up, we couldn’t get on it fast enough. And that was the dramatic end to my already rocky (hehe) relationship with sand.

❤ ❤ ❤

Me pretending I wasn’t taking a picture of myself

So anyway, as I was saying, stone beach. I think this might be one of my new favorite things because besides the fact that there’s no sand, the stones were beautiful! They were a million different colors, smoothed out by the sea and with pieces of driftwood mixed in. I walked along the shore (note: walking on a stone beach is at least as awkward as walking on sand, especially as the stones get smaller. Also, infinitely louder. There’s no way to sneak up on someone on a stone beach) until I found a good spot devoid of weird beach couples, plopped down, and organized my rock collection.

I love rocks. Pretty much in every application. I love old buildings made of rocks and rock-filled ruins. I also LOVE smooth and colorful rocks, and that is exactly what I was surrounded by. Between the rocks and the sound of the waves, I was in heaven. AND the weather was perfect. I had a t-shirt on, there was a nice, warm breeze coming off the water, and I didn’t even notice the temperature which means it was exactly right.

Some of the best rocks that I picked up along my walk

After sitting there and sorting rocks for who even knows how long, I decided that I had to go and touch the water because it’s the Black Sea, and I’m trying to touch as many bodies of water as possible. Okay, always a difficult task when you’re trying to touch water that’s coming in waves and you don’t want the rest of you to get wet. As I got closer to the water, I realized that half of the sound of the waves was the rocks clinking over one another as the waves went back out to sea. Seriously one of the coolest sounds. So of course, I stood there for a bit just listening before I got back to my mission.

Wet rocks near the sea

I spotted a good strategic location… there was a concrete pier sticking out into the water, and I thought that would be the perfect place to stick my hand down and keep the rest of me dry. The only problem was that there was some guy filming a video of himself that seemed to go on and on forever. After he finished, I hopped onto the pier, did my water touch, and was about to leave when he asked me to take a picture. He was British, and we got to talking and that was the end of any plans I had for the day.

Me and the sea! Photo thanks to my new friend Ben

Meeting people is arguably the best part of travelling. I know, you can meet people anywhere, but it’s not the same. This guy, Ben, is in the middle of a motorcycle trip around the world. The purpose of his trip is to raise money in memory of his friend who passed away from Crohn’s disease, and it grew into a round-the-world adventure (if you’re interested in donating, you can do that here). He’s been going for eight months now and he thinks it’s going to take about four more years. Yes. Four years. He was planning to go through Armenia next, so we started talking about that and ended up getting dinner and hanging out for the rest of the day. That was the first time that I realized I’m now one of those crazy travel people. I looked at him and thought, “Look at this guy who’s doing this crazy travel thing!” and while we were talking, I was like, “Whoa, I can actually keep up with him. Look at this girl who’s doing this crazy travel thing!”

Ben and I got khinkali for dinner because he hadn’t had it yet, and it’s a classic Georgian dish. I always describe them as little meat-filled money sacks.

Nearly every travel friend I’ve made has taught me something about myself. I’ve met some incredibly insightful people, and despite the fact that those relationships are generally short-lived, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, an 8-hour friendship can have a lifetime impact. It’s a good reminder that every interaction, no matter how brief, has the possibility to shift someone’s life.

(P.S. Sorry for the philosophical musings, but they’re probably going to be semi-frequent. I have a lot of things to sort out in my head right now, so enjoy your complimentary window into my swirling thoughts.)

Goodbye, Armenia

After my cousins left, my time in Armenia quickly wrapped up. I planned to leave the country two days later, and between the goodbyes and the packing, those days flew by. From the second their cab pulled away, I was running. I said goodbye to the Birthright staff and had a final dinner with work friends before going back to my friend Zoe’s apartment to start pulling my life together.

When I stayed at Olivia’s, we made our own khachapuri! Isn’t it beautiful?

I want to take a second to shout out to Zoe and Olivia for taking me in during my days of homelessness in Yerevan. They’re the best. Not only because of that, but yeah, they’re the best.

Zoe let me store my extra stuff at her place during the two weeks between my apartment move-out and my Armenia departure, and finally I couldn’t put off sorting through it any longer. Every time I move, I wonder the same thing… how on earth do I accumulate stuff so quickly?? I went to Armenia with a school backpack and a 55-liter backpack. I sent the school backpack home with my cousins, jam-packed with my Armenian notebooks and books and pairs of shoes (three! HOW??) and who even knows what else. That left me with one bag to hold the rest of my stuff, and the only options for each object were fit it or leave it.

I have this packing anxiety problem where I look at the pile of things to be packed, look at the bag, get stressed out, and decide that maybe it would be better to just ignore them both. As you can imagine, that’s maybe not the best approach to take because no part of it leads to me being ready to leave. I fought through it, and I don’t know how, but when I was finished, everything essential was inside my bag. It must be laced with a little bit of magic.

Me and Olivia, saying goodbye for now

My last night in Armenia was spent with Zoe and Olivia. We went to church together and then out to dinner, and I had that feeling again. You know, the one where you feel like everything is right. Like perfect contentment. There are a lot of reasons why I think I was meant to stay in Armenia as long as I did, and those friends are two of the major ones. If I had left when I planned to, I never would have met them, and trust me, that would have been a terrible shame. God definitely did a little divine plotting to bring us together, and I can literally pinpoint His reasons in each relationship. It’s cool to feel like I have such a solid confirmation that I took the right path.

The next morning, I took a cab to the marshrutka station to catch a marshrutka to Tbilisi, Georgia. Before I go home, I’m doing some travelling around because why not? I’ve been saying that I’m taking the long way home… the VERY long way. The plan for Georgia was to stay for about a week, spend some time recovering emotionally from leaving Armenia, and then move on to my next destination.

This is random but I’ve been meaning to take this picture for so long. These gas stations are everywhere, and they always make me laugh. They’re called “Flash” when you see it written in English, but the way it’s written in Armenian letters is “F-L-E-SH”… flesh. Something about that just cracks me up.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about leaving Armenia. On one hand, I think I was ready. I was ready for a change of pace and some different scenery. On the other, everything was starting to fall into place for me there. I had some great friends, I could communicate fairly well, and I felt comfortable. Maybe that’s part of the reason it was time to move on… time to be uncomfortable again, time for the next challenge, time to stretch myself in a different way. I guess we’ll see what happens in this next chapter.

To be honest, I don’t think it even registered that I was leaving for real this time. I had gone and come back so many times that my brain felt like this was a temporary trip again. Maybe I will go back to Armenia someday, but it’ll never be the same. I’m probably not going to have a life there again, and that makes me sad… but the fact that I’m sad makes me happy because that means I had a great experience. Leaving happy things behind is always sad.

Taking a marshrutka out was a weird way to leave. When you fly, you’re in the country and the next second, you’re gone. In a marshrutka, the leaving is gradual. After we pulled away from the station, I still had four hours of Armenia ahead of me.

Here are some through-the-car-window shots from the drive to Tbilisi!

I’m not going to say that I cried during the ride or anything. I’m also not going to say that I didn’t cry. I will say that I spent the ride looking out the window, admiring the Armenian countryside and having some feelings about what was happening. You can’t really let yourself cry in marshrutka though. How embarrassing. And it’s not like in the US where everyone would pretend that you weren’t crying and ignore you. No, someone would absolutely ask what was wrong and that would make everything even worse.

Pretty, green Armenia

The ride to Tbilisi from Yerevan is five hours, and it felt like nothing. I would have been fine with sitting in that car for another five hours, but I think part of that is the fact that I always have a little anxiety about transitions. When you’re in the process of something, you know what to expect and you know you’re on some track (whether it’s the right or the wrong track is a different question that we’ll leave for another time). The transitions are scary because they’re unpredictable. And when you’re travelling, the transitions are also when you have to lug all of your stuff around, and that’s no fun either.

Right at the end of the drive, you go through these awesome mountains. Like come on, Armenia, Are you TRYING to make me change my mind and stay?

When we got to Tbilisi, the driver didn’t let us off near a metro station like I expected. Instead, we were at this bus station that’s totally not close to anything. Okay, keep your cool and use your brain, Lara (my mantra in every situation where my instincts say to panic, shut down, and cry in a ball on the ground). I realized that while the marshrutka driver was still there, I should ask him for help. I told him where I needed to go in Armenian, he asked this Georgian guy next to him in Russian, and the Georgian guy gave me two bus numbers and pointed me in the direction of the bus stop. And that was the last moment when my Armenian knowledge was of any use. Bummer, right? It’s always sad to realize that it doesn’t matter if you speak two or three or fifty languages as soon as you go to a country that doesn’t speak any of them.

I made it to the bus stop no problem and checked out the arrival board to see when the next bus was coming. Thank goodness numbers are the same in practically every language because even if you can’t read the name of the bus route, you can at least see the numbers. After finding the right bus, the next step was figuring out how to pay. I got on, sat down (no small feat while also wrangling all of my stuff), and watched what other people did. Everyone got onto the bus, swiped their metro cards at this little terminal, and got a receipt. When I felt sure about the procedure, I left my stuff in the seats, went up to get my receipt while acting like I totally had things under control, and whacked my head on a bar as I walked back to my seat. So much for that.

At the end of the bus line, I decided to just walk the rest of the way to the hostel because it was only six blocks… which is nothing until you’re wearing your life on your back and it’s a good 10 degrees C (20 degrees F) hotter than it was when you got dressed. So anyway, that’s how I started off my post-Armenia life: walking the streets of Tbilisi, wearing a huge backpack that got heavier with each step, and trying to pretend that I wasn’t sweating but definitely was. Off to a great start!

Famous Armenians

I realized that I promised you a post WEEKS ago about famous Armenians and my visit to the Komitas Pantheon where a bunch of them are buried. Well, before I talk about leaving Armenia, I need to make good on my promise!

My trip to the Pantheon was part of a day full of adventures, and it ended up being one of the highlights! I didn’t even know it existed until blog friend Lori the Naz made the suggestion… sometimes the internet can be a wonderfully cool thing!

View of Komitas Pantheon

During my time in Armenia, I learned a lot about the different Armenian cultural heroes. It’s kind of awesome how much the arts are prized there. For example, all of the money features scientists and artists and writers instead of politicians like the U.S. money. Of course, Armenia doesn’t have hundreds of years of presidents to choose from, but still, it’s a nice concept. They’re updating the money this year and maintaining that theme. The new bills will have a writer, a composer, a painter, St. Gregory (first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church), and a former chess world champion.

Chess, you ask? It seems random, but people often joke that the national sport is chess, partly because Armenians generally aren’t the most athletic (though there is one very good wrestler at the moment, so it’s not unheard of), but also because there’s such a big emphasis put on it. The great chess players are celebrated like professional athletes are in the States. Chess class is mandatory in schools for kids aged 6-8! You can see old men playing chess in every park in the country.

In the realm of more traditional arts, music has always been a big focus area for Armenians. One of the best parts of going to the opera/ballet all the time was hearing the orchestra play. There are SO many amazing Armenian musicians. I met someone from Lebanon recently who joked that every single musical instrument teacher in Lebanon is Armenian. In summary, simply put, the arts are one area where the Armenians are doing pretty darn well.

It might seem like that was a big sidetrack, but it’s important to understand the role of the arts in Armenia before I talk about the people who are buried at the Komitas Pantheon. They are some of the most celebrated Armenians, and the majority of them are artists of some kind.

There are, of course, a million different artists I could probably talk about, but I’m going to focus on the ones I have heard of who are buried at the pantheon. Ready for a little Armenian culture lesson? (Just a warning that if you actually want to learn about these people, you should probably read something else because the summaries are maybe 50% fact and 50% Lara commentary.)

Aram Khatchaturian

Aram Khatchaturian (1903 – 1978)
Composer
Currently on the 50 dram coin

Khatchaturian is one of the most celebrated Armenian composers. He was born and raised in Tbilisi, but make no mistake, he was definitely Armenian! He composed multiple concertos and symphonies, plus the music for the ballets Masquerade, Gayane, and Spartacus. I went to see Masquerade and Spartacus, and they were both incredible (the music part at least). I also was amazed by how many of the songs I had heard before, and that’s because some of his work is pretty mainstream, not because I’m some Armenian music savant.

Komitas

Komitas (1869 – 1935)
Composer
To be featured on future Armenian money

Let’s start out with what I consider to be an essential fact… Komitas’s real name was Soghomon Soghomonian. No wonder he changed it. Komitas was an orphan and was taken to Etchmiadzin to be raised in the seminary there. He became a priest and then also studied music in Germany and is credited with saving thousands of Armenian folk songs from oblivion by collecting and transcribing them.

Komitas’s life story is tragic. He was one of the Armenian intellectuals/cultural leaders who was arrested at the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, and while he actually managed to survive the ordeal after being placed in a prison camp, it took quite a toll on him and led to a mental breakdown and the development of PTSD. He spent the end of his life in a psychiatric hospital which seems to me like it might have been an even worse fate.</span

Mher Mkrtchyan (1930 – 1993)
Actor

Mher was an actor during the Soviet years, and he went by a stage name, Frunzik. He was born in Gyumri, and there’s a museum there honoring him. (I went and had no idea what anything was and couldn’t speak Armenian at the time, so maybe it was interesting, but I wouldn’t know.)

He was known for his sense of humor and acted in many comedy roles, but he also had a true talent for acting and starred in a number of dramatic Armenian classics. He had an Armenian nose (aka it was very big), and he frequently joked about that.

I don’t know what it is about artists and having complicated lives, but similar to many others, despite his professional success, his personal life was a series of unfortunate events. His wife was diagnosed with a mental illness and lived the rest of her life in an institution, his son had the same illness, and his daughter died in a car accident at age 39. He may have been a funny guy, but he spent the end of his life in a deep depression.

This is from when we went to visit Mher’s museum… and the street in front was under construction so we had to adventure our way inside

Mher Mkrditchian

Sergei Parajanov (1924 – 1990)
Film director

I wrote a detailed post about Parajanov here when I visited his museum with a friend. He was quite the interesting guy, so I’d recommend checking out that post if haven’t already or don’t remember.

One-second summary is that he was a filmmaker during the Soviet years, he was imprisoned multiple times for made up reasons, his films were aggressively censored, and he funneled his creative energy into hilarious collage-making as a side activity (the “hilarious” part is not objective… that’s based on my personal opinion).

Sergei Parajanov 

William Saroyan

William Saroyan (1908 – 1981)
Writer
To be featured on future Armenian money

Saroyan was a writer of novels, plays, and short stories. As is the Armenian way, the claim is that he is underrated, and his name belongs alongside those of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner. I haven’t read his stuff, so I can’t speak to that, but I can say that that’s the most Armenian thing I’ve ever heard.

It sounds like he was one of those slightly difficult artists… there was one project where MGM wanted to adapt a novel based on his childhood into a movie, and he was hired to help with the screenplay but refused to let them cut anything out. He was fired, and one day before the film was released, he released a novel of HIS version of the screenplay. After that, he refused to let his work be adapted into movies.

He was born in the US, so half of his ashes are buried there, and the other half are in Armenia.

Martiros Saryan (1880 – 1972)
Painter
Currently on the 20,000 dram bill along with some of his work

Saryan was a painter during Soviet times. He wasn’t born in Armenia, but after he visited the country, he painted a ton of Armenian landscapes and also designed the coat of arms for the Soviet state of Armenia. Near the end of his life, he moved to Armenia, continued to paint, and also organized what is now the National Gallery of Armenia.

Martiros Saryan 

Hovhannes Shiraz (1914 – 1984)
Poet

Shiraz was a poet from Gyumri, and he is considered to be one of the greatest Armenian poets of all time. We read a bunch of his work as part of Armenian class to celebrate his birthday, and I got to read this depressing poem about apricot trees and how they can’t have children and no one loves them or something to that effect. Uplifting, for sure. My understanding is that he wrote a lot about apricots, his mother, and Armenian patriotism.

Hovhannes Shiraz 

From our Shiraz poetry recital

Alexander Tamanian

Alexander Tamanian (1878 – 1936)
Architect
Currently on the 500 dram coin with a building he designed

Tamanian was an architect and urban planner during Soviet years who was responsible for creating the master plans for cities all over Armenia including Gyumri, Stepanakert, and the current center of Yerevan. I don’t know how I feel about him exactly, but I don’t think he’s my favorite. In the 1920s, Tamanian designed a new city center for Yerevan than resulted in the destruction of a lot of historic buildings, and they were replaced with these semi-European-looking buildings. To me, it’s like they’re not European and they’re not Armenian, so why?? The most famous buildings he has in Yerevan are probably the ones around Republic Square and the Opera House, and I’m not too keen on either of those. It could be because the exterior night lighting for both is terrible, or maybe I actually just don’t like the architecture either. It’s hard to separate them.

The Yerevan opera house

Republic Square

Mariam Aslamazian (1907 – 2006)
Painter

Mariam and her sister, Yeranuhi, were both painters born in Gyumri. I went to their museum when I lived there, and they have some interesting stuff. Mariam is referred to as the “Armenian Frida Kahlo” because of her style, but don’t ask me who gave her that title. She did more than just paint… she also did a lot of ceramics work and various random other handcrafts.

Mariam Aslamazian

Bonus!

There are a couple of people I want to talk about who aren’t buried at the Komitas Patheon, but I came across their graves in Georgia, and I feel like this is an appropriate time to bring them up.

Hovhannes Tumanyan

Hovhannes Tumanyan (1869 – 1923)
Poet
Currently on the 5,000 dram bill

Not to be confused with Tamanian, Tumanyan was a poet who is even more of a big deal than Shiraz. He didn’t stop at poems though, he also wrote novels, ballads, fables, etc. He’s the one who wrote the rhyming version of the Armenian epic about David of Sassoun (which I talked about when I visited the Sasuntsi David statue).

Tumanyan lived much of his life in Tbilisi, Georgia, so it makes sense that he’s buried there. His grave is in the Armenian Pantheon in Tbilisi, just outside of the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It used to be part of a huge Armenian cemetery there which was destroyed despite Armenian protests during the construction of the cathedral. I’m not sure if his body is actually underneath the gravestone or not because it sounds like things really got messed up during the demolition which is unfortunate.

The Armenian Pantheon in Tbilisi

Sayat Nova

Sayat Nova (1712 – 1795)
Poet, musician, composer

Sayat Nova was born in Tbilisi, Georgia and was named Harutyun Sayatyan. Sayat Nova means “King of Songs” in Persian. He wrote songs in Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Persian and performed in the court of Georgian King Heraclius II. Some of his poems are written in all four languages! (Which basically just means that almost no one can read them.)

Officially, he’s credited with writing 220 songs, though the real number is almost certainly much higher. He was killed after refusing to convert from Christianity to Islam. Sergei Parajanov directed a movie partly about him, The Color of Pomegranates.

Both the Georgians and the Armenians try to claim Sayat Nova as theirs, and while they both have valid points, sharing is obviously not an option. He was born and lived in Georgia, but he was ethnically Armenian. So, I guess they made a deal to agree on his burial location. His grave is in Tbilisi, but it’s outside of one of the Armenian churches. Seems like a decent compromise to me! Also kind of funny…

—–

Okay, so now you know more half-facts about famous Armenians than you probably ever wanted to know. You’re welcome. I promise I won’t do this to you again. Feel free to read up elsewhere on any of these people and then tell me what a mess of a job I did giving their mini-biographies.

Cousin Vacation!

One of many cousin selfies

My last week in Armenia was an intense test of everything I learned over the last nine months. Three of my cousins, Sharon, Mary Anne, and Lisa, came to visit, and I was the acting tour guide/translator for the group. Since they like eating and doing different things from me, I had to learn some new words (for example: salad and vegetable. I’m clearly not the healthiest eater… but the word for vegetable is banjareghen so can you really blame me for not learning it sooner?), and we had some dietary restrictions to convey. It literally took me the entire week to figure out how to explain them in a way that didn’t just confuse the server. At the last meal, I finally got it! Better late than never, right? (And the server complimented my Armenian so like no big deal or anything but I’m basically fluent 😉 hehe)

L buddies!

For the most part, we didn’t go anywhere I hadn’t already been. It was fun being the tour guide, though, and seeing just how much I’ve learned about the country and the different sites. Mary Anne brought a guidebook with her, and honestly, after reading what it said about the things we visited vs. what I’ve learned about those places, I think that they could have done a much better job. Based on the book, it sounds like there’s no reason to visit Armenia, there’s nothing interesting to see, and you’ll just be disappointed. Maybe I’m biased, but I strongly disagree. They didn’t even include most of the hilariously awesome stories and legends that are such an essential part of the country’s personality. I’m ready to write a new guidebook for Armenia! All I need now is some funding and a whole lot of time.

Highlights of the week included:

  • attempting to visit a fortress for literally our first sightseeing destination and getting stuck on the snow-covered road there. Did you know that as you move to higher altitudes, it gets colder? (I know, this is shocking new information, I’m sure.) So even if it’s not cold or snowy in Yerevan, that doesn’t mean it’s like that everywhere… especially at a fortress that is, by definition, built on high ground. Whoops.
  • maneuvering into and out of a 10ish foot deep pit after a certain person’s phone accidentally got dropped in (it wasn’t me! Name withheld to protect the innocent).

    Getting out of the hole, post-phone retrieval. Our driver insisted on helping me out, but honestly I probably would have been better off without his help

  • going out to dinner with my friends Olivia and Zoe and dancing to Armenian music like total lunatics (which is the only proper way to do it).
  • Like seriously every meal was fabulous. Because I did a WONDERFUL job of picking restaurants.

Khinkali. It’s like a Georgian dumpling. There’s meat inside… I can’t remember what kind these were. I also always get them fried because if the choice exists, why wouldn’t you?

Barbecue

  • going on a quest to find Lisa’s suitcase at the airport after it got lost and finally made its way to Yerevan three days later. This involved me asking multiple people at the airport for directions, being sure that I was misunderstanding, and eventually figuring out that I had it right. PSA if you ever need to get a lost bag at Yerevan airport: go outside, walk around the back of the airport to where it totally looks like you should not go, and enter through the unexpectedly offset sliding glass doors (I almost walked into a pane of glass after making it through the first set).
  • getting followed around Yerevan for about an hour by two random Armenian guys because that’s what guys do there because what else would you do when you see a group of girls? Not cool (also very non-threatening, but still), but an enlightening cultural experience for the group.

Mother Armenia (the weather was clearly not the best that day)

  • seeing a hamster riding on the back of a bunny outside one of the shops in Yerevan. Picture included below.

Hamster on a bunny!

  • going to a rendition of Romeo and Juliet that was nearly as unexpected as the Grinch puppet show. Everyone was dressed like they either lived underground in one of those post-apocalyptic movies or were part of a punk-rock band. They all had random leather accessories, and the set consisted of a series of platforms and ropes. I have no words to explain anything beyond that, but just know that I sat there with my jaw dropped for nearly the entire show.

In general, it was a lot of fun to spend time with my cousins and get to show them around. The four of us had never been on vacation together without the rest of our families, and it was exciting that it worked out so well. I mean, I guess it makes sense because our families have been travelling together forever, but still. Hopefully this is the first of many more cousin vacations!

With our driver at a gas station… day 1

Lake Sevan

Those long drives start to wear on you…

The genocide memorial at Etchmiadzin

Ice cream!

Alcohol display in our van. Because of course.

Pretend that you can see Mount Ararat in the background

A long pedestrian tunnel that I hadn’t visited before in Yerevan. It’s super weird. Why the zig zag??

This was one of the few beautiful weather days. Look at the sky!

At Goshavank

Selfieee

It was rainy at the Genocide Memorial which wasn’t great, but it made for a cool picture with the reflection

Lake Sevan

Garni Temple

Casual hang out

Hehe

Not posed at all

 

 

Shaki Waterfall and Karahunj

The last stop on my southern Armenia tour was Sisian, a town about 40 minutes north/west of Goris. Mary loaded me onto a marshrutka, and in no time, we were driving into Sisian. I had a reservation at a hotel in town that I made by emailing them and asking if there were any rooms available… after going there, I realize that was completely unnecessary. I knew that it wasn’t exactly high tourist season, but I honestly don’t know that there was anyone else staying there that night.

View out the dirty marshrutka window… it was another beautiful drive from Goris to Sisian

I had two things that I wanted to see while I was in Sisian – Shaki Waterfall and Karahunj. Both of them are reasonably walkable distances away from town, but the weather was gross, and I was feeling a little tired. I decided that the best way to guarantee that I would make it to them was to take a taxi. I asked the receptionist where I should go to find one (also, just keep in mind that any interactions I talk about in this post are happening in Armenian), and she gave me directions and said that it shouldn’t be more than 1500 dram (about $3) for each place I wanted to visit. She also insisted that it was an easy and short walk to Karahunj, so I planned to taxi to the waterfall and back and then walk there.

The river that runs through Sisian

Taxis usually just hang out in certain places around town until you go and hire them, so I went to one of the hang out spots and tapped on a guy’s window until I got his attention. I asked him how much it was to go to Shaki Waterfall, wait, and drive me back. He said 3000 dram, and I’m pretty sure I laughed. In response, he asked how much I wanted to pay, I said 1000, and he asked how long I wanted to stay there. I said half an hour because like… who knows? I knew you had to walk a little to get there, and I didn’t want to feel rushed. He looked appalled by that, so I said, “I don’t know? 20 minutes? I just want to see it.” I guess that was good enough for him because he agreed, and off we went!

We chatted during the ride there, and I was proud of how much I understood and how much I could say. He told me my Armenian was good which is always nice, but I also think that sometimes people just say that because they’re happy you can speak at all. It’s okay, I’ll take the compliment. When we got to the waterfall parking lot, he pointed me in the direction of the path that leads there and said he’d be waiting when I got back.

The path to Shaki

Shaki Waterfall, like everything else in Armenia, has a legend (or factual story, depending on who you ask) behind its origin. According to the story, an army invaded a nearby village and kidnapped 93 beautiful maidens to give to their commander. When they reached the river, the maidens asked if they could bathe in the water and make themselves presentable after the long, dirty journey.

When the army agreed, they all jumped into the water and “disappeared”. One of them, Shaki, tried to escape by swimming across the river. She was about to be recaptured when a rock came up underneath her, and she was concealed by the water flowing over the rock (aka the waterfall).

First glimpse of the waterfall walking up the path

I have a lot of questions about this story, especially because it’s incredibly vague about what happened to the maidens. They “disappeared”… which means what? I assume it means that they all drowned themselves, not that they went through some magical portal into another dimension. And Shaki? Did she also “disappear”? I don’t know. The legend is fine and all, but there are too many unanswered questions for my liking.

Anyway, the walk to the waterfall took less than 5 minutes which made the taxi driver’s reaction make more sense… a 30-minute stay would have given me more than 20 minutes to stand and look at the waterfall. It’s definitely nice, but like I said, the day was cold and wet, and after going and looking at it for a few minutes, I was ready to leave. I think I made it back to the car within 15 minutes, and the driver told me that I could have stayed longer. Geez, you can’t please anyone (hehe).

Shaki Waterfall

Soon after I got into the car to head back into Sisian, it started raining and I started rethinking my decision to walk to Karahunj. As we got closer to the city, I asked the driver how much it would be to go there as well. He looked at me like I was a nut and said that it wasn’t a good day to go and the path there would be very muddy. Oh, well. I was there for one day which meant that no matter how bad the conditions, if I wanted to see it, I didn’t have a choice. I explained that to him, and he said okay and that it would be 1000 dram. Totally reasonable and way better than what I was expecting, so I agreed, and off to Karahunj we went.

My mudshoes

He dropped me off on the main road because, like he said, the path was too muddy for him to drive up. From there, I walked, and he was absolutely right. Within just a few steps, my shoes were completely weighed down with mud. I walked for probably 10-15 minutes, thankful with every step that I had decided to wear my boots.

Karahunj/Zorats Karer is, to put it simply, the Armenian Stonehenge. Any proud Armenian will tell you, however, that it’s 3,500 years older than Stonehenge in England. I’m not really sure how they date something like that, though. It’s not like they can carbon date it… it’s just rocks placed in a certain configuration. “They” say it’s from around 5500BC and was used as a religious site and maybe more for around 5000 years or so.

They say that Karahunj is where the name “Stonehenge” comes from. “Henge” doesn’t mean anything in English (well, it does now, but that’s because of the Armenians of course), but Kara = stone and hunj = sound in Armenian, so Karahunj might mean Speaking Stones or something to that effect. They say that it’s an ancient astronomical observatory, despite the fact that the rock alignment doesn’t really make sense in that context. There are also random round holes carved into some of the stones, and they have no idea what those were for.

Super weird

See the hole at the top of the leftmost rock? That’s the type of hole that they’ve found in at least 80 rocks

In the center, there’s a temple to the primary god of the ancient Armenians, Ari, the sun god. Then, there’s a sort of circle of stones surrounding the central area and two squiggly arms that extend out to the north and south. There are 223 stones officially documented as part of the monument, and there are other broken stones around that may have originally been part. They’re of varying sizes, but the biggest ones weigh up to 10 tons! Eighty of those stones have a round hole carved into them. Like I said, there’s still no consensus about the purpose of the stone configuration. People have been able to draw some parallels between the layout and the stars, but there are also a lot of things that they can’t make sense of… so they don’t actually know anything for sure.

See the rock path? That’s part of the north/south rock squiggle

Me + Karahunj

It was cool to see, especially knowing that it has such a weird and mysterious history. Some of those rocks are HUGE, and seeing it inspired the same questions of, “How the heck did people move these?” and, “WHY?” that came about when I was in Peru seeing the stuff that the Incas built. Plus, the setting is beautiful. It’s up on a bit of a hill surrounded by valleys, so there are pretty views in all directions.

Looking out from the south end

I like how eerie the mountains in the distance look

After wandering around for a bit, completely mystified, I headed back through the sticky mud to my taxi. It started raining again when I was about a quarter of the way there, just confirming my decision to take a taxi instead of walking. That would have been miserable! My ears and nose were frozen, and the taxi driver gave me a knowing nod as I tried to scrape the mud off my shoes before getting back into the car and warm up my face on the drive back to the hotel. For sure worth the $4 that I paid for the taxi ride!

I kind of like the fact that there’s some mystery behind the site. It’s a weird experience going there, knowing that it’s so old and was clearly important to the ancient people, and having no idea how or why it exists.

I spent that night relaxing at the hotel and getting ready for my trip back to Yerevan in the morning. One of Mary’s friends who lives in Sisian helped me to reserve a seat on a marshrutka (even though we never met in person!). I don’t know how people are supposed to be able to do any of this travelling without the kind of support system that I had. Without that and without language skills, I imagine it would have been a very different and more frustrating trip.

The end of my south adventure wasn’t the end of my Armenia fun. The day after I got back, some of my cousins came from the States to visit! We didn’t do much that I hadn’t already done before, but I’ll share some pictures from that week in my next post!

View of Ararat on the drive back to Yerevan