Included on my list of “must do” things before leaving Armenia was going back to visit Gyumri for a weekend. One of my friends, Lexi, had an apartment there until the middle of February, so I went a couple weekends ago and stayed with her. There wasn’t anything too crazy on the schedule… mostly I just wanted to hang out and enjoy being back in my old hood.

There are three ways that you can get to Gyumri from Yerevan without having your own car (excluding walking):

  1. Taxi – takes 2 hours (unless you have a psycho driver who makes it in 1:30… but that’s really not safe), costs 10,000 dram (about $20) so 2500 each when you have four people
  2. Marshrutka – takes about 2.5 hours, 1500 dram (about $3)
  3. Train – takes 3 hours, 1000 dram (about $2)

This may seem strange to you. In what universe is the train the slowest and the least expensive mode of transportation?? Answer: the strange, strange universe called Armenia. I guess it makes sense that when one of those is true, the other also is… but like, when is the train the slowest mode of transportation??

Inside the train

Despite this, the train is without a doubt my favorite way to travel. As long as you’re not in a rush, it’s fantastic! There’s space to stretch, you can walk around if you want, there’s a bathroom, you can get work done because you’re not cramped, and the scenery is beautiful. It’s slightly less beautiful in the winter when everything is brown, but at least the mountains are still there, and they look great coated in snow.

Enjoying all of my space on the train

I woke up bright and early on Saturday to take the first train of the day at 8AM. I had an incredibly productive ride… I worked on my blog, I worked on my journal, I studied some Armenian, I looked out the window… and then just like that, we were in Gyumri!

I didn’t have much of a plan for how to get from the train station to Lexi’s apartment, but turns out that I didn’t need one! I walked out of the station, saw a #12 marshrutka, and vaguely remembered that maybe it went to the right neighborhood. They do have a list of stops written on the side, but there’s no chance it was going to sit there while I tried to figure things out. And I guess I could have asked the driver, but sometimes I like to look like I know what I’m doing so I blend in better. I figured that worst case, I would get off in whatever random part of town I ended up in and call a taxi. Thankfully that wasn’t necessary because we ended up exactly where I thought we would. Score one for my memory!


I dropped my stuff at Lexi’s apartment, and we went to have breakfast at her friends’ house. They’re trying to start an animal shelter in Gyumri which is definitely needed. They still have to raise money and work out more of the details, but in the meantime, they’re rescuing dogs on their own and working to find homes for them, both in the US and in Armenia. It’s actually kind of amazing (you can check out their facebook page here). In general, people here don’t see animals as creatures with any value (though there are certainly exceptions to that). There are stray dogs and cats everywhere, and people mistreat them all the time. I’ve seen people kick dogs, people get paid to shoot them, dogfighting isn’t uncommon, and even people who own pets don’t necessarily know how to take care of them.

We went over to their house to see three puppies that they had found roaming around on the side of the highway the day before. After checking out the situation, they realized they had been dumped there and left to die, probably because they were all female puppies, and people want males for dogfighting. They took the puppies in, got them checked out by the vet, and were starting to look for permanent homes for them. Lexi loves puppies, so off we went. I’m not a huge animal person (as in, I’m not interested in picking up poop or getting my face licked, so I’m fine with not owning any myself), but who doesn’t like puppies?

Isn’t it a little weird?

After a little puppy time, we went to cross off the only three things I had on my list for the weekend. I hadn’t been to the Russian church in town, St. Nikolai the Wonderworker Church, so that was my first must-do. It was built in 1880 and is located in what is now a Russian military cemetery. It’s an interesting looking building because the bottom part uses black tuff stone which is classic Armenian, but the roof gives it away as a Russian church. Its nickname is “the shimmering chapel” because of the shiny roof.


The cemetery with the church in the background
Painting in progress!
Pretty cool!

I stopped by a few times back when I lived in Gyumri, but it was never open. This time, we were in luck! We walked around the grounds first and then went inside. I guess they’re in the middle of some restoration work because now they’re in the process of painting the walls and ceiling. They look awesome!!! I love painted churches. They still have a bit of work to do, but I can just imagine how incredible it will be when it’s finished.

Number two on my list was kind of stupid, but there’s this road in town that was under construction all summer and is finished now. I mostly was just impressed that a construction project was completed in a reasonable amount of time, so I wanted to check it out. We took a drive down the new street, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s probably the nicest road in town now.

Number three was really the most important. I wanted to have ponchiks at Ponchik Monchik. I am convinced that they make the best ponchiks in Armenia (they’re basically like the most wonderful cream/chocolate-filled donuts). They always make them fresh for you, they’re nice and crispy, and I love them. In their terminology, a ponchik is a vanilla one, and a monchik is a chocolate one. And they’re both delicious, so I got one of each. And I obviously didn’t take a picture of them because that would have kept me from eating them immediately, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. As if those weren’t already enough sugar, I got a hot chocolate too. If that’s not the perfect meal, I don’t know what is. WAIT. I do. Add ice cream to that, and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Unfinished ceiling of the Russian church

The rest of the day/night was spent hanging out, talking, and playing Rummikub (best game ever). It was relaxed and fun, and I think it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes it can get exhausting living in Yerevan. I know that’s crazy to say considering I used to live in Philadelphia which is at least equally as chaotic, but it’s the truth. Yerevan feels like a big city, and Gyumri feels like home.

On Sunday, we took a trip to the vet to get the puppies and Lexi’s cat checked for worms. Ew. I was slightly less than thrilled with the situation because the vet’s office is tiny, and it was packed. There was an old woman with her little dog, a couple of guys with their cat, and a few other dog owners came and went. The woman was losing it a bit because they had to drug her dog. She was so hysterical that I wanted to give her a big hug, and I’m not a hugger. It was nice to see that there are some people who care about animals. She clearly loved that dog. When she and the other people in the office heard the puppies’ story, they declared that whoever left them was a monster. Maybe there’s hope after all!

Post-vet, Lexi and I spent some time wandering around the fields near the neighborhood. We walked around the same fields back in July when we first met (throwback here), so it was a fun full circle for our friendship. There was still some clean, untouched snow to play around in out there, and the mountains in the distance were beautiful and snow-covered. Field walks are also always good for conversations, and it was nice to have some time to catch up.

It wasn’t a very clear day so you can’t see the mountains very well, but just trust me when I say they looked great
Me and Lexi
You can kind of see the mountains better here… kind of

We had just enough time to eat before I had to get to the train station to catch the last train back to Yerevan. It was kind of crowded this time, so I ended up in the window seat on top of the heater… which tried very hard the entire ride to burn my butt. Slightly less than pleasant, but at least I couldn’t complain that I was too cold! I still managed to be productive though, so it clearly wasn’t that bad (after I folded up my scarf and sat on it!). I finished my Armenian homework, made some flashcards, and by the time we were back in Yerevan, I had them memorized.

I thought the weekend might feel rushed since I was only there for one night, but I’m so glad I went. It was just the relaxing escape I didn’t know I needed!

Each week, there are other activities planned besides just going to work and language class. They’re supposed to expose us to different things and teach us about Armenian culture, history, etc. We had a couple of extra activities last week, and they were both awesome.

Inside some really old church. I obviously forget how old, but it’s somewhere in the single-digit centuries. No, the metal roofing is not original.

One day, we took a trip to the village where one of the Gyumri Birthright coordinators, Karen (pronounced KAH-ren, or Garen in Western Armenian), grew up, Sarnaghpyur. He took us to check out an NGO that he started and manages there, and it’s actually a really interesting idea.

The basic concept is that whatever kids are interested show up, and they teach each other different skills. The organization renovated three rooms in an abandoned building, and kids can go there whenever they want to meet. It’s the summer now, so there were about 16 kids. During the school year, they said they can get up to like 70 kids.

There’s a kid who’s good at painting, and he teaches a class on painting. Some of the girls teach English, dance, and singing. There are other kids who teach sports or chess. One girl went to a piano school outside of the village, and when she came back, she taught the other kids some of what she learned. It seems like such a “duh” kind of concept. Why shouldn’t the kids share their skills? It makes sense, but I don’t think I ever would have thought of it. All the organization has to do is provide a space to meet and the resources the kids need for their different classes. Karen’s also trying to get a grant to organize some leadership training with the kids. The whole thing is kind of awesome.

The famous spring.

He said that the idea started with a group of his friends when he was in high school. When it got to the point where it needed to become an official thing or else be left to die out, the NGO was started and he secured funding to renovate the building so that they could have their own space. Before that, the group was meeting in one of the community buildings, and they didn’t have as much flexibility because they could only access the space at certain times.

After that, we went around and saw some of the sights in the village. Of course, we had a few churches to visit, and there’s also a “cold spring” (that’s what the name of the village means) that supposedly has some special powers. I don’t know about that, but it was definitely cold! On top of the cave with the spring, you can get an awesome view over the village. We stayed there for a bit and then went to the “forest” (aka maybe like 25 trees) to eat snacks and hang out. I somehow got wrapped up in making flower crowns for a couple of the guys (no, I had never made a flower crown before, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard) and then we had the weirdest photo shoot. It’s good that there are some people here that are just as weird as I am, and I’ve already managed to find them. What a relief!

The cave in all of its cluttered, eclectic glory.
The overlook
Have I mentioned how much I love wildflowers?
The lake
I made the flower crowns of the two guys. This is just one in a series of odd fruit pictures.
Some monastery we visited on the way back from town. It looks like literally every other monastery.
Kneading the dough.

A couple of nights later, we had a baking night at one of the host houses and made ponchiks (I’m sure that is the wrong way to pluralize that word, but we’re going to go with it) and peroshki. They. Were. So. Good. Omg. There are no words to fully convey how incredible they were. They both use the same dough, and ponchiks are fried and filled with either like a condensed milk filling or a whipped cream-ish filling. Peroshki (peroshkis?) have mashed potatoes mixed with some herbs inside and are also fried. And delicious. And both of those names are definitely Russian, in case you were thinking that they don’t sound very Armenian.

I ate WAY more than I should have and felt a little bit like I was going to throw up, but my brain was still telling me that I should eat another one. And another one. And another one. I do have SOME self-control, luckily, because while my brain was saying yes, my stomach was screaming, “NO!!!!”

I wouldn’t exactly say that I learned how to make them, but honestly, that’s probably for the best. I’m not trying to gain 600 pounds. Only 300. Kidding.

Peroshki in progress.
PONCHIKS! The cream ones are on the left and the other ones are on the right.