Insider’s Insight on Yerevan, Armenia: A Quirky Place Under its Intimidating Exterior

Insider’s Insight on Yerevan, Armenia: A Quirky Place Under its Intimidating Exterior

“There is no other land in the world so full of wonders as the land of Armenians” –Lord Bryon

My decision to go to Armenia wasn’t because of its wonders… mostly because its close and I was curious but I’m glad I got to explore this country, get past its intimidating appearance and get to know its softer, more hospitable side. Immediately after crossing the border, Georgia’s flat fertile fields of sunflowers turned into rocky outcroppings and piles of rusting construction equipment. The houses became more dilapidated, the vehicles became increasingly Soviet and the road became bumpy (very bumpy- I think I spent most of my time on Armenian roads levitating off my seat).

Mother Armenia... she's a little scary!

Mother Armenia… she’s a little scary!

Yerevan: First Impressions
As we entered the capital, things changed pretty drastically. It’s nick-name “the Pink City” might suggest a certain femininity but besides the pink tuff stones throughout the city, Yerevan is exactly the opposite. Even Mother Armenia has a masculine frame, built on Stalin’s old pedestal, mightily holding a massive sword and stomping on a shield. The city has a whole exuded a sense of sturdy strength: fortified buildings, soldiers walking around in uniform and an impersonal feel of modern efficiency. The people don’t tend to exude an overwhelmingly friendly feel either. While in Tbilisi, my hosts picked out Armenians by their big noses (which many of its citizens have recently tried to tone down with nose jobs… apparently, Yerevan a destination for medical tourism and plastic surgery in general) and dark features. The women walk around Yerevan dressed to impress, in teetering high heels (that look like they might break on cobblestone sections of sidewalk) and so much make-up that makes you wonder what lies beneath.

Republic Square: the center of the city with buildings made from the famous pink tuff stone

Republic Square: the center of the city with buildings made from the famous pink tuff stone

Although Armenia made an impersonal first impression, this immediately changed once I met its occupants. When trying to find my hostel, I asked a guy who didn’t speak English but asked around he found me a translator. Before long, I had an exponentially growing clump of middle-aged men, studying my map, scrutinizing my reservation, calling the hostel and even parading me safely across the street to the other side. The hostel owner greeted me with such enthusiasm and adoration, you would think that she’d been waiting her whole life for my arrival. The couch surfers I contacted from Armenia provided me with encyclopedias of advice and invitations for outings. The ones that I actually meet up with were so generous that I had to fight them to contribute to the dinner bill or cab fare. Here’s how the journey unfolded:

A Night On the Town with David
David was the perfect transitional couchsurfer (after swapping cities from Tbilisi to Yerevan) because lived in both (+Moscow), was Georgian by birth and was currently in residency for cardiology in Yerevan. As the sunset, the city awakened and people flocked outside, something that never really happened in Tbilisi. World Cup watchers filled the cafes, couples strolled the sidewalks and around the Opera, parents ate ice cream as they dodged children zooming around in electric kid-sized cars. David and I snaked through parks, past gangs of old men playing chess, got misted by fountains, and plopped down on a bench near the to-scale mini-model of Sevan Lake (the main lake of the country). We walked to Republic Square, which has a light, sound and water fountain show for a continuous three hours from 9-midnight. It seemed the whole city gathered (including a new bride in her wedding dress) to watch the water dance to a wide variety of Armenian, popular and classic tunes. My host pointed out a group of Iranian guys in the corner, talking to a prostitute. He complained that Iranian guys come here, see the modern city and scandalous clothing and think it’s “no rules Las Vegas” but often get in trouble with the locals who still uphold a relatively conservative culture.

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We walked to the Cascades, which is an impressive 572 stair-monument covered in statues that overlooks the city (whose absolute height is higher than the Eiffel Tower. One of the things I love most about Yerevan is its random collection of statues and the Cascade features many collected from all over the world. To get to the stairs, you walk past a flower garden with a fat lady lounging naked (this one supposedly caused a stir from the conservative residents of the city, a duplicate of which can be found in Colombia), a 12-ft tall bright blue penguin and a cat sticking out its tongue. On the Cascades itself, there’s a silver missile that looks ready to be launched into space, a giant lion made out of recycled tires and a Dr. Seuss-esque whimsical wind chime.
After we got our exercise for the day, we descended down the stairs to the bar district (the square of Parpetsi, Pushkin and Tumanyan streets) and did some local pub hopping. Yerevan has a much more international selection so we started in Cuba Pub, a cozy place downstairs with a big-haired bartender who loved to dance. Next, we moved to Stop Club, which was packed: people lounging on pillows, others smoking and chatting on barstools and others hanging out by the bar, heads brushing prayer flags. Alcohol seems far less central to Armenian culture but Armenians seem to enjoy socializing out on the town much more than Georgians. David’s life motto was “You have your whole life to sleep and stay at home when you’re old: live while you’re young”. I loved the sentiment but after a long day of travel, that was about all I could handle. However, in a place where girls dress so fancy, I loved the surprisingly laid-back, causal vibe of Yerevan at night.

Making traditional bread in the tandoor oven at Yerevan Tavern, Armenia

Making traditional bread in the tandoor oven at Yerevan Tavern, Armenia

Armenian Feasts with Mher and Grig
Throughout my journey, I tasted and learned about Armenian fare, which seems much more diverse than the heavy cheese- and bread- based dishes in Georgia.  The similarity to Turkish food was much strong and when I commented, “There seems to be a strong Turkish influence on Armenia”, I was instantly reprimanded, “Armenia influenced Turkey too” (so I changed my language to “Turkey and Armenia have a lot of similarities” which isn’t surprising since they spent 500 years together as part of the Ottoman Empire).

I learned the most from Mher, a computer scientist who spend much of his life in getting education in working in Yerevan. He took me to Yerevan Tavern, a rather fancy place specializing in authentic Armenian cuisine. We sat right next to the glass-window in the back where we could watch them roll out millimeter-thick lavash bread and fish boat-shaped thicker pieces of bread out of a toneer oven. Our meal began with watered-down and salted madzun (yogurt), kind of like the Armenian version of Turkey’s omnipresent aryan. Out came tabouleh salad (bulgur, parsley, tomatos, scallions and mint) and a spinach-walnut appetizer (similar to what I had in Georgia), both of which were perfect with the assortment of warm breads. For main dishes, we had dolma (ground meat in grape leaves) and assorted barbequed vegetables and chicken (khorovats), both famous Armenian dishes.

Zhingalov khans- lavash wrapped greens with an Armenian yogurt drink

Zhingalov khans (lavash wrapped greens) with an Armenian yogurt drink

Grig, a lawyer who works for Interpol, introduced me to many of Armenia’s tastiest snacks. Armenia is known for its fruits and apricot is king. We picked out a bunch for a roadside stand and I eagerly took a bite before Grig stopped me, for eating it improperly. To eat an apricot properly, twist the fruit in half, check for worms then enjoy! Most importantly, save the pit because it can be cracked open with a nutcracker and the seed inside tastes like a pistachio and arguably, may be the best part! The most visible popular snack in Yerevan is ice cream, which you see everywhere. For just a 100 dram (25 cents), you can pick up a cone, soft-serve style but that has a flavor closer to frozen yogurt than real ice cream (maybe that’s why Armenians are so skinny- at least the ladies!). Armenians also adopted the Georgian churchkhela, which is a sausage-shaped hanging candy where nuts are threaded on a string, dipped in thickened grape juice and dried in this weird shape. It tastes better than it looks! Finally, Grig introduced me to zhingalov khats, a flatbread stuffed with herbs from Nagorno-Karabakh (the area Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over). Leeks, scallions and parsley form a green mixture that is wrapped in lavash bread or a thin dough. Somehow the restaurant doubled our order and after snacking all day, we were pretty full but Grig made a conscious effort to finish it all, since if boys leave the end uneaten, they will have an ugly wife. I asked if any superstitions applied for females and he warned me not to sit on the corner of a table or I won’t get married.

Churchkhela and other Armenian snacks

Churchkhela and other Armenian snacks

Other City Attractions with Mher and Ruben
In addition to stuffing me full of traditional Armenian food, Mher took me to a couple attractions around the city. We looked at the city from above, from the base of a flower-shaped, giant monument at the top of the hill. The view was fantastic but the quirky collection of statues was even better- wire statues of elephant circus performers, a silver pirate, a cartoon-like tug boat and some straggly vultures that looks liked they came out of the Jungle Book.

Armenian carpets and traditionally dressed dolls at Vernaissage, Yerevan, Armenia

Armenian carpets and traditionally dressed dolls at Vernaissage, Yerevan, Armenia

Mher also took me to Vernaissages, an incredibly impressive weekend flea and art market. It had the usual random assortment of garage sale stuff (mismatched plates, old calculators and dusty books) but also an amazing collection of local handicrafts (carved chess sets, nesting dolls, lace, metal plates, pottery, paintings and a whole lane of carpets, Armenian hats and vests made out of similar material). I could have wandered for hours but it was time to transfer to my next host!

Traditional Armenian dance for Constitution Day outside the Opera House, Yerevan

Traditional Armenian dance for Constitution Day outside the Opera House, Yerevan

Ruben gave me my first couchsurfing experience staying with a family: his mom, sister and granny in an “average” Armenian apartment about a 20-minute bus-ride from downtown. He was an incredibly interesting guy, an Armenian but born in Argentina during their war, who constantly read travel blogs so he knew a million random facts about everywhere, even though he hadn’t traveled much himself. He wanted to show me the more local side of Yerevan so he took me to the neighborhood markets and we stumbled upon a random traditional dance party near the Opera House downtown. The square was covered in orange, blue and red, with people waving flags and wearing shirts with their country’s colors. A van blasted traditional music and people hopped around in a circular dance, with people of all ages tapping their toes in sync. A helicopter flew over the square, with a giant flag hanging from it. Ruben didn’t know it was a holiday but another couch surfer explained that it was Constitution Day, one of the many holidays the government created to show off happy Armenian people, singing, dancing and celebrating their national pride. It seemed to have worked for the day but no one I met in Armenia like their government. It sounds like they spend money on things like this without fixing the basic roads and country’s infrastructure. Supposedly, they tore down some of the historic downtown buildings, saved the tuff stone and plan to create an artificial “Old Town” out of the old bricks. Understandably, this idea has caused unrest and protests from locals who would rather their tax dollars be spent elsewhere.
I think this was just another example of why it’s important to not to take Yerevan at face-value but to explore the city more deeply. I’m glad I got to meet so many locals who gave me an idea of what Armenia is really like!
Song of the Moment: Ara Gevorgyan – Sardarapat, Narek Poghikyan, Arshak Sahakyan, Norik (this video will also give you an idea of the national dance/costume)
If YOU want to get to Yerevan: 98% of Armenia is populated by Armenian people but it was much easier to find English speakers here than Georgia. Armenia uses dram (1 USD ~ 405 Armenian dram) and things were even cheaper here than in Tbilisi- you can get beer for 250 drams, bread for 100 drams and public transportation costs 100 drams. Like Tbilisi, cabs are everywhere and cheap but Yerevan is a very walkable city so you can cover most of it on foot.  It feels like a very safe city and it’s relatively easy to navigate- the streets radiate outward in a circular shape with Republic Square at its center.

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