They’re building a new mall, and the lighting is so fun!

Sunday started off with khinkali for brunch. It’s not really a brunch food, but brunch also happened at about 1PM so at that point I don’t think it matters anymore. Khinkali is a classic Georgian food that you can also get in Armenia, and it’s one of my favorites… after I describe it, I’m sure you’ll be shocked. It’s basically a dumpling with any variety of things inside – beef, cheese, mushrooms, other meats, vegetables, etc – and either boiled or fried. They’re folded up to look like little money bags (I’m unfortunately not one of those “take pictures of my food” people, so you have to use your imagination), and you’re supposed to pick them up, bite the side, and drink the broth. Definitely not a first date food. Fried cheese khinkali is the best, in my opinion.

Maybe we didn’t go to the right place (though we did ask a bunch of people for recommendations), but I didn’t think they were much better than the khinkali you can get in Armenia. I mean, they were still great because how can you mess up khinkali, but I assumed that going to the source would result in a superior culinary experience. This is very Armenian of me. “Yes, khinkali is originally Georgian, but in Armenia, we do it better!” Not necessarily better, but about the same. Like I said, maybe we didn’t go to the right place.

The plan for the day was to walk down the main street, Rustaveli Avenue, and take in the sights along the way. The only other thing that I wanted to do was go to the church with the golden top. I had no idea what church it was, but it was bright and shiny, we saw it from every overlook in the city the day before, and I wanted to see it up close.

Our walk took us past the Opera and Ballet Theatre, a gigantic, wedding cake-looking building painted in yellow and maroon. The theatre was completed in 1851 and went through its most recent restoration just last year, so it was at its best for us. I wanted to go inside, but the doors were locked… I suppose that means I have to go back and buy some tickets to see a show! We tried to peer in through the windows which didn’t work very well. The glass was too dark to see anything more than the hint of some chandeliers. Darn.

Opera and Ballet Theatre

Movie theater. Clearly.

As we continued down the street, we started noticing some interesting outfits. Tara and I were in the middle of a “have you noticed that fashion is way more of a thing here?” conversation when we walked past the building where Tbilisi fashion week was in full swing. Oh. I guess that explains it. We tried to snoop around a bit inside, but we stuck out like sore thumbs in our bland clothing. We couldn’t get a good sense of what was going on before feeling like we should get our boring, regular outfits out of there.

We also saw Parliament, the Georgia National Museum, another church (because you can’t walk 5 feet without hitting another church), and the City Assembly before hopping on the metro to go see the shiny church! Turns out that church is called Holy Trinity Cathedral, and it’s basically the equivalent of St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan (with a little bit of Etchmiadzin mixed in). It was built to celebrate 1500 years of the Georgian Orthodox Church, is massive, and is still unfinished despite being “completed” in 2004.

City Assembly and Liberty Square
It’s huge

I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently, part of the church complex was built over an old Armenian cemetery, Khojavank. It started out as the site of an Armenian church, built in the mid-1600s, and the cemetery grew around it until the 1920s. It contained more than 90,000 graves and was the largest Armenian cemetery in Tbilisi.

The first destruction happened in the 1930s, ordered by a Georgian Soviet politician. The church on the grounds was demolished, and the church materials plus some gravestones and khatchkars (carved cross stones used for a variety of things including marking graves) were taken and reused in the construction of other buildings.

The Armenian Pantheon was opened in 1962 and contained saved gravestones and khatchkars and the remaining graves. When this new church was designed, it supposedly wasn’t going to touch Khojavank, but that wasn’t true, and a significant part of the park was dug up and destroyed. Armenians obviously weren’t thrilled about this, and during construction, they said that it was horribly disrespected. Bones and tombstones were dug up and scattered by excavators before getting carted off to some unknown location. Protests managed to stop construction for a second, but it soon resumed without any changes.

Inside Holy Trinity Cathedral

Now, a much smaller Pantheon houses the graves of numerous significant Armenians including Hovhannes Tumanyan (a poet/writer who has a lot of roads in Armenia named after him. Not to be confused with Alexander Tamanyan the architect who ruined Yerevan).

It was fairly dark outside by the time we made it to the church, but we still could have checked out the Pantheon had we known it was there. Some prior research in this situation would have been helpful. That’s one of the dangers of just going with the flow… sometimes you miss things. Well, in general, my conclusion after writing about the weekend is that I need to go back to Tbilisi to do the things we didn’t have time for, so I’ll add that to my list of places to visit.

The church, besides being built on the graves of Armenians, is pretty cool. It’s huge. Like super huge. It also has the same number of lights shining on it as the rest of Tbilisi combined. That’s made up, but I do have some night pictures of the city where the church is unarguably the brightest spot. It’s part of a whole complex that also has a monastery, seminary school, and more.

Can you guess where the church is?

I’m a fan of smaller churches because they usually have more personality, but there were definitely some nice features of this church. The carvings were spectacular. The inside was overwhelming, but honestly, it wasn’t my favorite. It was one of those “makes you feel like an ant” churches. I felt like it was too big. That’s okay though. I liked the outside much more.

Holy Trinity Cathedral on the epic approach
You can see that they’re in the middle of doing the carvings on this column. So cool!

After we finished getting lost in the church, we hightailed it back to the hostel to meet our ride. We had the same driver as on the way to Georgia, and it took the same impossibly long amount of time. I don’t know how. We didn’t get a flat tire or anything, and it still took seven hours. HOW?

The infamous tree

I passed out in the backseat and woke up to us stopping in the middle of nowhere. No lights. If we were in the States, I would have been sure that he was going to murder us, but this is Armenia so that never crossed my mind. My friend in the front seat said that he wanted to show her some tree. What. I got out with them because that sounded sketchy to me, but he literally just wanted to show her some gigantic, hollowed-out tree that has a church inside (of course). It was supposedly planted by Vartan Mamigonian… he’s an Armenian saint and military hero who was commander of the armed forces in the 5th century. He and his army fought in a battle against the Persians that is credited with leading to religious freedom for the Armenian people. They lost the battle and he was killed, but he “saved Christianity” in Armenia because eventually a treaty was signed allowing Armenians to worship freely. It’s a little depressing that the greatest Armenian military hero both lost and was killed in the battle he’s famous for, but we won’t get into that. Anyway, what everyone DOESN’T know about Vartan is that when he wasn’t fighting battles, he was planting trees in Sarigyugh. I’m sure.

If you look at a map, you’ll probably understand why it took us seven hours to get home because Sarigyugh is absolutely not on the way. Oh well. If it made sense, we wouldn’t be in Armenia.

Adventures on adventures! One of my friends asked a few weeks ago if I wanted to go to Georgia for a weekend, and of course I said yes! That’s Georgia the country, to be clear. It only takes about 5 hours (theoretically) to get to the capital, Tbilisi, by car from Yerevan, and most people go there when they need to renew their passport stamps because it’s the easiest open border to get to.

Here are some random Tbilisi views for your enjoyment. This is from one of the hills that overlooks the city.

Someone knew a driver and got in touch with him to organize rides to Tbilisi on Friday after work and back to Yerevan Sunday night. He asked if we could also take a woman to a village along the way, we agreed, and he subtracted her fare from our total. The drive started out okay. I mean, traffic was terrible getting out of Yerevan, but what do you expect when you leave at rush hour?

A Tbilisi street

This also was my first experience getting a gas refill in a car that runs on natural gas. I guess I never had to think about it before because I rarely even go to gas stations here. In hindsight, I realize that I’ve been in taxis with huge gas tanks in the trunk, and while I didn’t think twice about it at the time, those were probably natural gas-powered cars as well.

Armenia is apparently one of the biggest users in the world of natural gas-powered vehicles. I think it’s mostly just because it’s cheaper than gasoline, but it’s also kind of a pain. When you stop to fill the car, everyone has to get out and wait in a “safe zone” in case the car blows up. No big deal. As they say, as long as everything is installed correctly, it’s not dangerous… which is exactly my concern. I had a conversation with someone about this who said, “Oh they’re very safe. I’ve only seen a car blow up once.” Oh, well then! You’re right. No big deal. Know how many times I’ve seen a car blow up? Zero, and it would be nice to keep it that way.

I don’t know if the picture properly communicates the feeling, but this place looked like something out of a movie with elves in it. Something about the styles of the buildings and the colors and the way they’re all arranged on the hill… I don’t know. It was like something out of a fantasy movie.

Anyway, the stops to get gas took a bit longer than anticipated, and then, just as we dropped the extra woman off, we got a flat tire. Wonderful. As the woman is hopping out of the car (knowing full well that we have a flat), she gives a jolly, “Bari djanapar!” (have a good journey) and shuts the door behind her. My jaw dropped, and I literally gave a laugh of disbelief and a “she’s joking, right???” Who does that? “Oh, that’s too bad that you all have a flat, but here I am at my destination! How wonderful! Have a great journey!” Thanks a lot, lady.

These balconies used to be popular in Armenia as well, but they’re kind of a dying breed here (mostly because of the destruction of historic Yerevan and a lack of maintenance).

The joke was on her though because in classic Armenia fashion, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, we were invited to wait inside her friend’s house until the tire was changed. I guess it was someone’s birthday because cake was involved, plus the usual offers of coffee, tea, water, or anything else you could possibly want.

Finally, we set off again on the final stretch before the border. There’s nothing more fun than an 11PM border crossing! First, we got to the Armenian border. We all had to pile out of the car and walk through passport control while the driver went across with the car. Then, we piled back in, drove through what I assume is some sort of no-man’s land, and piled back out again at the Georgia border. We walked through passport control with our bags and met the driver again on the other side. Now I have passport stamps galore! From there, it was maybe an hour before we got to Tbilisi.

You know how long the whole thing took us? SEVEN HOURS. Instead of five. SEVEN. We got in after midnight, and I immediately passed out. I figured the sooner I slept, the earlier I could wake up and start exploring!

I think this is going to turn into a little Georgia weekend mini-series… I’m cutting part one off here because I don’t want to make your head explode. We’ll take it in small pieces instead, so stay tuned for a mini-Georgian/Armenian parallel history lesson.

For the next couple of days, Anisha, Neha, and I are on an adventure! School is closed for the summer holiday (which is a month long because it’s in the middle of the school year… and for the class 9 and 10 kids/teachers, it’s only a week long because the school decided that the kids are behind and need those other three weeks to catch up. Talk about a bummer), so we’re taking advantage of our brief freedom and going to Darjeeling, a popular tourist town in the mountains! Well, we’re actually staying with Anisha’s aunt and uncle in Sonada, a town about 17 km away. We’ll go into Darjeeling tomorrow, but just getting to Sonada from Jaigaon was enough of an adventure for one day!

Just to give you a sense of where we are, Darjeeling is about 5 hours west of Jaigaon (if you drove the whole way… as you’ll soon see, it can take far more than 5 hours to get there if you need to go on public transit).
Us on the train with some of Anisha’s cousins.

We left Jaigaon this morning at 5:00 and drove to the train station in Hasimara, about a half an hour away. From there, we took the train to Siliguri. The train took 3-4 hours, and we still had a looong way to go after that. The train was MUCH different from the trains at home. In India, there are usually different classes of train ticket that you can buy, but I’m not sure that our train even had a first-class-type car. We got our tickets (which cost about US$2) and found some space in a car with bench seats, broken fans, and glass-less windows.

There was no conductor or anything in our car, so after the train started moving, no one closed the door. It was just flapping around as we chugged along, and I don’t think anyone else even thought twice about it. The windows had shutters that you could slide up and down to block the sun, plus a glass window that you could also slide up to open. Can you imagine a train in the States where you could completely open the window?? There were a few horizontal bars across the opening, so it’s not like you could fit your whole body through, but there was certainly enough space to stick your arm out. Crazy!

On a separate note, one of the things that I CANNOT get used to is the way that people dispose of garbage in this country (to be fair, it’s not just here. There are a lot of countries/places where litter is a huge problem). When I’m traveling and eat a snack or something, I keep the wrapper in my bag until I can find a trash can. Here, you just throw it out the window. Anisha and Neha got some tea, and when they finished, out the window their cups went! Every time I see someone litter without a second thought (probably without even a first thought), it physically pains me. I want to just go and pick everything up! All of the trash cans here say “Use Me” on them, and at first, it’s kind of funny because you’re like, “Uhhh, why does the trash can have to tell you what to do?” Then, you realize that it really does need to be said, and it’s not quite as funny anymore.

The train is moving… and the train door is very open.
It’s not super obvious because I wasn’t taking this picture with garbage in mind, but if you look on the hillside to the right, beneath the road, you’ll see a bunch of white stuff. That’s basically a landslide of garbage. I assume that it must get dumped there because that’s not just from people throwing trash out of their car windows, but man. It’s just right there next to the road!
Train views…

When we finally arrived in Siliguri, we took a car the rest of the way to Sonada. It was basically the same concept as the mini-buses that I took in Ghana and Peru, but this was clearly made for the mountains. I’m not fully informed on car terminology, but I think it would be an SUV? I have no idea. It reminded me of an army vehicle or a hummer or something. Ugh, I don’t know. Just look at the picture. Ours also had caged chickens strapped to the top, so that’s fun.

This isn’t the one we took, but it’s basically the same (except for its lack of chickens).
Completely normal
Here’s a map view of the drive from Siliguri to Sonada. Needless to say, my stomach got a little queasy at times.

Leaving Siliguri, it was hot, dusty, and miserable. About half an hour into the drive, we started climbing up a mountain, and the air started changing. It got cooler and cleaner (or so it felt), and I felt like a new person. The drive took about 2-1/2 hours, including a lunch stop along the way at a little roadside shack. We got vegetable momos (steamed dumplings… sometimes also fried, but not most commonly… and stuffed with either a meat or vegetable filling), and I was in heaven because momos are quite possibly my favorite food in all of India.

I had no idea at the time, but momos are one of the most popular local foods in the Darjeeling area which means that even if it had nothing else to offer, I would strongly recommend that all of you go there. Of course, there are plenty of places where you can find momos in Southeast Asia (especially Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and parts of China), but man… the ones in Darjeeling are GOOD.

Views from the drive! This was still pretty early on, so were not very high up in the mountains.
Getting higher… look at those awesome views!
I just wish it wasn’t so foggy/smoggy
It’s still pretty spectacular, though
Hanging out of the car window
You can see the road zig-zagging up the mountain.
The roads are a little terrifying… and, since there is only one road to get up and down the mountain, this is also where people walk. And there are no sidewalks. And it’s not that wide. Like I said, terrifying.

We finally made it to Sonada a little before 1PM, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. I don’t understand why traveling is so tiring when all you’re doing is sitting for hours and hours! But of course, I couldn’t go to sleep quite yet. After we got settled, we wandered around town a bit and went to pick up a chicken for dinner.

Since Sonada is built on the side of the mountain, most of the town isn’t accessible to vehicles. There’s the one main road that we came on from Siliguri and that leads to Darjeeling, and the rest of the paths are more like this (or are made of rocks). Definitely not handicap accessible!
Yes, this is as steep as it looks in the picture
Another random “street” in town. I like this one.
The main road
Views around town

The dinner plan was chicken momos, and I was THRILLED. Yes, we did just have momos for lunch, but those were COMPLETELY different… vegetable vs. chicken… duh! Anyway, while we were out, we went to the butcher to get the meat. This was at another little roadside shack, and it was one of those times when I would have been okay with not knowing exactly where my food came from. The meat is all sitting out, and the flies are taking advantage. Eek.

After we bought the chicken, the guy chopped it up for us because it was being used for momos… and he did this with a cleaver on his chopping block aka tree stump, and I’m 100% certain than little pieces of wood ended up mixed in (because I pulled a tiny piece out of one of my momos later that night)… It was fine… But like I said, I would have been okay not knowing.

Since I love momos so much, I was determined to learn how to make them and saw this as a perfect opportunity. I’ve been trying to force my way into the kitchen this entire trip, but no one ever lets me help with anything because I’m a guest. Little do they know that my desire to help is completely selfish… I want to absorb their cooking knowledge so that I can enjoy momos for the rest of my life!

This time, I refused to take no for an answer, and I talked my way in just in time to learn how to wrap the momos! They had already made the dough and the filling by the time I got there, so that will have to be a lesson for another day.

I had to get a picture of this building because its painted one of my favorite colors… though in this context, I’m not sure, it could be a little much.
Dumpling wrapping!
The whole crew

The first one I wrapped looked horrible, and everyone (myself included) spent a solid 5 minutes laughing at it. I watched Anisha’s sister make about three more before I was convinced that I understood the technique, and from there, mine got better and better! By the end, Anisha’s sister said that mine were better than hers! Which, of course, I protested against, but I will say that I made vast improvements. Of course, each one took me about 1 minute to make while hers took maybe 15 seconds, but you have to start somewhere!

Tomorrow we’re going into Darjeeling, and I’m excited for more mountain views! The views were amazing on the drive up to here, and Darjeeling is even higher in the mountains.

Check out that beautiful detailing
I saw a lot of people carrying very heavy looking things this way. There’s a strap wrapped around the bundle, and then you wrap that around your head.
This guy had one of the most impressive loads. I tried to creep on the boxes as he walked past to see if they listed a weight, and I’m pretty sure one of them said 43kg. If that’s right and those boxes weren’t refilled with something else, that means he’s carrying about a 660-pound load!

** Note: This post has been edited since its original posting to include more information and photos.

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