In the countryside of Armenia, Nokia brick phones rule. So do iconic 4×4 Lada Nivas. You might be wondering how those old Soviet rust buckets are still running? That’s because they were producing them up until 2011. Those things are said to be unstoppable. Well, except maybe by EU emission regulations.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to test these offroad Ladas. My experience was limited to the Lada Riva, which is the go-to model for any aspiring taxi driver in the country. Taking one of them on your own (there’s also shared ones) costs approximately 0.50 USD per mile.
It’s not only taxis and Airbnb hosts that are competitively priced, but mobile phone networks as well. For a SIM card, including 30 days of unlimited Internet, I paid a grand total of 8 USD.
Cheap mobile Internet is a game changer for travelers. Thanks to GPS and Google Maps you not only always know where you are, but can check for any interesting sights nearby. Which is how I came across a brandy factory. A quick inquiry at the reception yielded promising results: Yes, there is a factory tour and yes, it does include brandy tasting. Sweet.
Twenty minutes later, I’m listening to the soviet-style fact recitation by tour guide ‘Ella’. Thanks to comrade Ella I know that the company’s main brand ‘Noy’ is the Armenian name for ‘Noah’. That explains the life-sized, biblical mural covering half the room.
Language and history lessons weren’t what the mostly Russian, Turkish and Iranian tour attendees came for. The good stuff waited in a tavern-like hall: Drams of brandy, aged between 10 and 20 years, served with fresh fruit. A glass of 100 year old white wine was served in another part of the cellars. Whether the oak barrel-aged, golden-colored, Sherry-like tasting stuff was the real deal, I couldn’t tell. It was delicious though.
Upon leaving, I noticed that the company headquarters shared their office space with what seemed to be a political party. Turns out, the owner of the factory is also one of the most powerful politicians in Armenia. He probably wasn’t big on commuting, so he just moved the political office right into his company headquarters. Convenient.
Total cost of the tour including brandy tasting, a glass of vintage wine and the opportunity to make snide remarks about politics in Armenia: 9 USD.
Booze and entertainingly awful clubs aside, there’s other things Armenia’s capital has going for it. A noticeable presence of NGOs and embassies manifests itself in Starbucks-priced coffee shops and hipster-friendly supermarkets (0.2% fat cheese? sign me up!). The entire city center is walkable, offers lots of parks, and a ‘singing fountain’ show that draws a serious crowd every night. A newly built pedestrian zone reminded me of the inner city areas often found in Germany.
Figuring that I shouldn’t limit my stay to the appealing capital, I opted for a public transport excursion to one of Armenia’s most famous sights: The Garni Temple. It’s famous for being the ‘only Greco-Roman colonnaded building in the entire former Soviet Union’. I have a feeling my travel guide was grasping for straws there.
The day at Garni took a turn for the interesting when I was approached by an immaculately dressed, young guy who asked me in a French accent if I had a spare SD card.
No, I bring spare chargers, spare charging cables, a backup HDD, and Macbook that continuously backs up to the cloud in order to then show up with a single SD card. – Of course I do, here you go.
Turns out the fittingly dressed guy was a Paris-based archaeologist who was in Armenia as part of an international excavation project. I spontaneously decided to tag along on his camera-test-hike to a nearby canyon, before getting his contact details and heading off on my own to visit nearby Geghard Monastery.
Being owed an SD card seemed to be an excuse as good as any to get a close up look at the preparations needed for an excavation. Thus, after returning to Yerevan, I decided to head over to his place and meet him and his coworkers. Surrounded by their already assembled field supplies (mostly beer, some pasta, the rest I assume can be foraged) I munched on smoked cheese and sampled said beer while getting a first-hand introduction to their work. Cool. An actual team of archaeologists. On my way out I couldn’t resist congratulating myself for not being the first person in the room to say ‘Indiana Jones’. Another day that ended a lot more interesting than it started.
While Armenia was a pleasant surprise for me, it isn’t always all roses for residents. Taking a leak by candlelight might qualify as an entertaining experience for a tourist, but I assume the rest of the street wasn’t too thrilled about being without electricity for several hours. Then there’s also the ‘slight’ problem of being in a borderline open conflict with its neighbors: Georgia aside, most border crossings to neighboring countries are closed due to past or ongoing hostilities. The exception and single option for onward travel: A 35km shared border with a single crossing: Nordooz, Iran.