When I came to Armenia, I hoped that my family would come to visit, but I thought there was no chance of it actually happening. My mom didn’t want to have to plan the trip, so in an attempt to convince her, I said that I would do all of the planning. It worked!!! They bought their plane tickets a few months back, and it even worked out for my brother Mike to come with them! I was so excited, but then that also meant that I had to plan.

Family selfie with All Saviors’ Church! (don’t worry, our selfie skills improved as the week progressed)

If you know me well, you’ll know that I’m a planner. A lot of people say that about themselves, I know, but sometimes I think that maybe I take it to an extreme level. I love to plan. I love schedules. I love organization. This year has made me better at being flexible and spontaneous and adjusting to changes in the plan, but when I’m responsible for something like a family vacation, I hold nothing back. I spent a solid week putting together our schedule, researching and digging into every detail so that there would be no surprises. I found a driver and an apartment and started grilling my friends for restaurant recommendations. Then, everything was ready, and I could just be excited about getting to see them.

Here’s our schedule for Gyumri Day! Slightly insane, maybe, but also spot on. This is the schedule template that Sarah (my best friend) and I created and use for all of our trips, so usually all of the columns are filled out, but it wasn’t necessary for this one.

I don’t think I realized how much I missed everyone. To be honest, I almost cried when they walked out of the airport. (To be extra honest though, I cry for just about anything, so I don’t know how much we can trust that as an emotional gauge.) We spent their first afternoon wandering around Yerevan and getting everyone acclimated a bit before our first day’s adventure to one of my favorite places in Armenia… Gyumri!

Get ready for this to be a theme throughout the family visit week… The fall colors were AWESOME all week, and Gyumri was our first glimpse at the fall beauty that lay ahead.

It was a little weird going back to my old home. In so many ways, I loved it more than Yerevan. The city feels like a home, the people feel like your neighbors, and everything has a special kind of charm. Everyone says that people are nicer in Armenia in general, but people are seriously nicer in Gyumri. The best place to look for kindness is on a crowded marshrutka. I’m telling you, this is one of my favorite things. People give up their seats without a second thought for people with kids, the elderly, or just anyone who might need a seat more than they do. If you’re standing and holding a bag, there’s a good chance that someone sitting will offer to hold it on their lap for you, and you’ll let them because it will be completely safe with them. Or sometimes, if there’s not a real seat for you, someone will move over and let you sit on half of theirs. If someone is struggling with their things or struggling to climb on, people rush to help them without hesitation. As much as I hated having to stand half bent over on marshrutkas, I loved getting to be part of the complex social dance that took place every time a new person got on.

The outside of my church… so ordinary looking, right?

Anyway, I know that’s a bit of an aside, but that’s one of the things that always comes to mind when I think about Gyumri. Yes, some of that happens in Yerevan too, but it’s not the same.

I was excited to show my family my favorite city in Armenia, and during the planning process, I was stressed about how to possibly do it justice in such a short time period. I ended up making a list of every activity I could think of and then paring it down to the absolute must-sees and my personal favorites.

We started out at one of my favorite churches, the Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs. It’s a newer church, opened in 2015, and is one of the few Catholic churches here, but I just think the ceiling is amazing. I raved about this before, I know, but here it is again. It looks like every other Armenian church on the outside and then the inside is this elegant, modern adaptation of the classic design. The fact that I still remember it perfectly after seeing nearly infinity more churches since then speaks for itself.

And then, the inside! I love love love it!
A stroll through the market

From there, we walked through the market to the main square. Last time I walked through that market, it was my second weekend in Armenia, and I had a mime exchange with a shopkeeper while trying to buy shower supplies. I’ve come a long way since then! We checked out the churches in the main square, Yot Verk and All Saviors’, and stopped by Ponchik Monchik for coffee/hot chocolate and a ponchik and monchik. There’s nothing better than a sugary start to your day! In case you have somehow forgotten, ponchiks are kind of like condensed milk cream-filled donuts except a million times better, and monchiks are filled with Nutella instead. If you come to Armenia, you NEED to eat (at least) one of each, and you NEED to go to Gyumri to have them because Ponchik Monchik has the best ones. I’m not being paid for that endorsement, it’s just a fact.

Credit for this shot goes to Dad… what a classic. Birds in the cage, cigarette in the mouth.
All Saviors’ Church, looking slightly different from the last time I was in Gyumri. The tower crane that used to be a permanent fixture next to the church is gone! Maybe they needed it for something else, or maybe they’re actually finished with it! We actually could see that some work has been done on the church recently. There were some new carvings and other little things that looked fresh.
I can’t get enough!

I showed them around my old office (GTC), the park, Mother Armenia, and the Black Fortress (Sev Berd). I had my first big Armenian test at Sev Berd. There’s a gatekeeper, and I heard through the grapevine that if you ask to be let in, you might get to see the inside! We decided to give it a try, and sure enough, I asked the gatekeeper if we could see the fort (in my fabulously fluent Armenian), he called someone to check, and in we went!

Slightly improved selfie skills at Mother Armenia
The pathway leading up to Mother Armenia. My parents really enjoyed the stairs… not.
Mike, enjoying the many recreational activities that Gyumri has to offer.
The stage in the middle of the fortress.

At the top of the hill, we were met by another guy who showed us around. We got to go inside!!! It’s so cool! They’ve redone the inside to make it an event venue, and underneath the stage, there’s a mini-museum with some old pictures of Gyumri and the fortress, plus you can see the old well! From there, he took us up to see the box seating and finally, the roof! We had a great view of the city and Mother Armenia and could even see Turkey to the west. The whole time, the guy was talking and talking in Armenian, and Dad and I were doing the best we could to translate. Honestly, I think we did a decent job. We were at least better than nothing, so that’s something! (hehehe)

The well!
Mother Armenia from Sev Berd’s roof
Box seating… for a princess maybe. The whole thing felt very medieval (but in a good, charming way)
Enjoying the view!
Our lunch crew… Dad, Mom, me, Sona, Mike, and Karen

The best part of the day, though, was probably lunch. Karen and Sona, the Birthright Gyumri coordinators from the summer, met up with us. I became good friends with both of them and was excited to introduce them to my family. You never know how things are going to go when you bring different groups together, but I always just assume that if I like everyone, they’re going to also like each other. It hasn’t failed me yet! Maybe I’m putting words in everyone’s mouths, but I think we all had a lot of fun.

 

Inside Ani church. In the two months I lived down the road, I never went inside. How’s that for laziness? I guess that just goes to show that when you live somewhere, you always make excuses or put off doing things because you think you’re going to have a million more chances, and then you never end up doing anything.

Our last couple of stops were Ani district, the neighborhood where we lived, and Marmashen, a monastery west of town. By the time we got back to Yerevan, everyone was wiped out but happy with the day. Phew! There’s nothing better than planning something and having it go perfectly. We had a VERY ambitious week ahead, so it was encouraging to get off to a smooth start.

The view of the river from Marmashen. See if you can see Mike, the little speck standing on a rock.

 

With a limited time left in Gyumri, we have been trying to do things around the city on the weekends so that we don’t feel like we’ve missed out on things when it’s time to move to Yerevan. A couple weekends ago (I know, I’ve been horrible at keeping up to date), Shant and I decided to cross off a few of our Gyumri bucket list items: Mother Armenia and the Sev Berd (Black Fortress).

Mayr Hayastan from the Sev Berd

You might remember that Yerevan has a Mother Armenia statue as well… it seems like that’s the thing to do here. Find a hill near the city, make a huge statue of a hardcore looking woman, and put her on a towering pedestal. This one was erected in 1975, and from the looks of it, no maintenance work has been done on it since then. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the whole area could definitely benefit from a little love. And cleaning. And weeding.

Sev Berd

The Sev Berd was built by the Russians in the late 1830s. It was never attacked, and today, it’s privately owned and used as a venue for different events. I know there have at least been concerts there, but I’m not sure about what else they do.

Shant and I walked from GTC and instead of taking the very clear, normal person path to get there, we followed the road for part of the way and then turned off onto a “path” (aka the grass was kind of flattened down) that looked like it was going in the right direction. It… kind of worked. I mean, we walked through some people’s yards (but that’s not so weird here) and blazed our own trails through some underbrush, but we made it there in the end so that’s counted as a success, right?

Supposedly she looks like a dragon from the back because that side is facing Turkey

We went to the Sev Berd first and took another slightly questionable path to get there. Were we trespassing? Who knows. Was the security guard very surprised to see us leaving after not seeing us come in that way? Yes. Did anyone give us a hard time about it? Nope, and that’s all that matters. I really wanted to go inside, but Shant and I are pathetic and didn’t want to go through the struggle of trying to speak Armenian. I know, I know, but there are some days when you’re willing to put in the effort and other days when you just can’t. That was a “can’t” kind of day. Some other (Armenian-speaking) volunteers went a different day and talked themselves into an impromptu tour of the inside, so I guess my punishment is having to live with that.

From there, we walked over to Mayr Hayastan (Mother Armenia) and took a lap before heading back into the city. Both things were interesting, but visiting Mayr Hayastan was a bit of a bummer because it was in such a sad state. There are all of these fountains/water features leading up to the statue, and it could be a really cool place to visit if it was kept up. Instead, like so many other things in Gyumri, you can see the former glory and present sadness of the city. It really makes me wonder what Gyumri used to be like, back in the days before the earthquake.

The next day, Shant, Carineh, and I went back to Sarnaghpyur, the village we visited my very first week here, to hang out with Karen in his natural habitat. He promised us a food and adventure-filled day, and it definitely didn’t disappoint.

We got there early in the morning and were treated to a breakfast of pancakes, hard-boiled eggs, bread, cheese, fruit, etc etc etc just imagine every food in the universe and it was probably there. After breakfast, we had ice cream and then hung out until lunch when we ate AGAIN. Very productive day so far, I know. I felt like my stomach was going to explode (which is pretty typical here, to be fair), and still I was being guilted into eating more. Ahhhh peer pressure!

Force feeding aside, it was fun getting to see Karen in his natural habitat. I love seeing how different and at ease people are when you put them in the places where they feel the most comfortable. It’s like you have the chance to peek inside their souls and see the real them.

The canyon

We finally decided to mobilize after lunch and go on a hike in the nearby area. The dinner food (because obviously we needed to eat AGAIN) was packed up, firewood chopped, and everyone got ready for an adventure. Karen led us through a canyon where we got to climb some rocks and strategize the best route to take. That’s one of my favorite kinds of hiking because it’s not just walking up a hill. It requires some thinking and planning and challenging yourself.

Hole cave! See me?

The best part of the hike was this one place where we found the coolest cave. There was a big cave with a bunch of other little caves and passageways inside. I obviously had to climb into as many of the holes as possible because I love holes. This is one of my Armenia-acquired most favorite hobbies (one of the others is discovering more Armenian invention claims… I’ll probably have to do a second post on those because I have a few new gems to share).

Climbing into my new hole home
The crew… Karen, Shant, Carineh, and me in the front

Random tiny church… of course because there are churches everywhere
Inside the little church. I added the little pink flowers to this wall of random things
Wouldn’t this have been the coolest place to play as a kid??

 

Quick nap while we waited for a taxi

From there, we made our way to a little picnic area to hang out and eat dinner. Armenia has the most randomly but conveniently located picnic tables I’ve ever seen. Anytime we’re out on some random adventure and decide that we want to stop for a snack, there’s a picnic table waiting for us. I don’t completely understand this phenomenon, but it’s one that I choose not to question. In typical Armenian fashion, the dinner plan was khorovats (barbecue). We had eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and pork, Karen and Shant grilled it all over the fire, and we ate it with lavash (soft, flat Armenian bread).

 

By the time dinner was finished cooking, it was pitch dark outside. Like not even a little moonlight to help us out. We ate by phone-light, and Karen called for reinforcements so that we didn’t have to walk all the way back to his house. His uncle drove as close to us as he could, and we trekked through the dark with his headlights as our guide. It was like the Armenia version of a helicopter rescue from the wilderness. I was completely exhausted and passed out the instant we got in the car. That’s how you know it was a good day!

The excursion for the weekend was to Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery, and I decided not to go because Sarah and I were JUST there. That left me with the challenge of deciding what to do instead, and after a whole long deliberation process, I opted to stay in Gyumri for the weekend. Everyone else was either in Yerevan for the weekend or going on the excursion, so that meant I had a day all to myself. That might sound horrible to some people, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I got! I hadn’t gotten a chance to really explore Gyumri, and I don’t want to leave at the end of August after living here for two whole months and not even feel like I saw any of the city. The solo part was great too because I got to pick and choose exactly what I wanted to do and then went at my own speed.

View of the square where the Birthright office is. How have I never noticed how cool the buildings around the square are??

I made a map of Gyumri with a bunch of tourist destinations on it, and I just hit up as many as I could stand. I started with a bus ride to the same stop where I get off to get to the Birthright office, but this time I was seeing it with different eyes. Isn’t it interesting how that can completely change your perspective? In daily life, how often do you look around to see what cool things surround you? I know that I have a habit of putting on my blinders and rushing through my day. I need to start making a conscious effort to stop doing that.

Random findings in the park in the circle…

Anyway, I took some time to appreciate the architecture of the square before making my way to my next destinations. I walked around a park in the middle of a traffic circle that I walk past regularly without a second thought and was amazed by how much they packed in there. See what happens when you open your eyes? Also, I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again. I have never seen a city with so many parks. Everywhere you turn, there’s another place for people to spend time outside, and it makes city life so much better! There are ALWAYS kids playing in them too.

It’s like the wilderness in the middle of the city.

My first go-inside destination was Surp Nishan Church. I was pleasantly surprised by how pretty it was, and the door was open, so I went in for a bit and sat. There was no one else there for most of the time that I was there, so it was perfectly distraction free and a good place to do some thinking. There’s something about a church that helps the thoughts and prayers flow too. I really enjoyed it. It’s much better than just going into a church for a second and then leaving. Why not use it?

The outside of Surp Nishan
Inside Surp Nishan!

From there, I headed to the main square where the City Hall building is and sat for a couple of hours sketching one of the churches there, Holy Saviour’s Church. The church was mostly destroyed in the earthquake, and they’ve been rebuilding it (rather slowly, I think). The outside looks like it’s mostly restored, but you still can’t go inside. I sat on a bench and made friends with some random men who spoke basically no English.

If only the tower crane wasn’t there…
My sketch attempt and also a failed picture where I tried to focus my phone on the sketch and take the picture with one hand while the other held my sketchbook. If that makes any sense…
City Hall!
The outside of the Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs. Looks like every other Armenian church, right?

After I finished, I looped around the square, stopping in another church, Yot Verk (there was a wedding going on!), and walking past City Hall to one of the market streets. I bought what I think is shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, but I guess I won’t really know until I try them out. I feel confident though because “shampoo” is basically the same in Armenian, and the thing that I think is conditioner is the same as the shampoo bottle except upside down. I then put on a fabulous charades performance to convey “shower gel”, and I think the shopkeeper and I were on the same page at the end.

I also went to another store and spent a solid 15 minutes trying to identify lotion. Everything was written in Russian, so I was that goober in the toiletries aisle using my phone to take google translate pictures of the labels. A woman came over to help me, and after I told her that I don’t speak Armenian, she just nodded knowingly, gave me a pitying look, and left me to my struggles. I bought something that is hopefully lotion.

I made one last church stop in the Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs after that. It’s a little Catholic church that was completed in 2015, and the ceiling was architecturally awesome. I love how they made it fit in with the traditional style of Armenian churches, but the inside is modern at the same time.

The museum of architecture and urban life
Gyumri views
There’s a random bridge with the names/logos of a bunch of bands painted on it. Random…
Our quest was for these mountains.

Sunday was unexpectedly awesome! I didn’t have any plans for the day until another volunteer, Lexi, texted me at around 10 and asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I figured why not? So we met at 11 and walked towards the mountains. That’s vague, I know, but she said that she wanted to get a good view of the mountains, and I had been thinking that same thing recently. We wandered through fields in search of a good view and eventually spotted a church in the distance that we decided was going to be our destination. The walk was way more of a trek than I was expecting, so I was also hoping that there would be water but didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Our first glimpse of the church that wasn’t from a mile away.

Luckily, we made it and there was water! And a cherry tree. I wasn’t a huge fan of them, but Lexi ate a bunch and then grabbed a handful for the road. From there, it was an easy walk back to Gyumri. We definitely took the long way there haha.

We made it!!
Note the water fountain in the front. I almost cried happy tears when I saw it.

We wandered around town for a couple more hours, just talking and doing a little shopping. It was nice having some time to hang out with her one-on-one because so much that we do here is in a group. That can get overwhelming, and I really enjoy getting to spend time with individuals or small groups. Much better for building good friendships! I know that if I’m going to be here for 4 months like I’m planning, I’m going to need some solid friends so that I don’t lose my mind.