The Last Week In Armenia

We stayed in the Maghay Guesthouse in Vanadzor, which was a very nice, European-style house with high ceilings and china closets and the works. It was a bit more expensive than wed been paying, but it was quiet, nice beds, and internet. And included breakfast for 20$ p/p. For an extra 10$ p/p she served dinner, which was an expensive but really expansive dinner; soup, several eggplant dishes, the omnipresent tomatoes/cucumbers, a meat dish, fruit, the works. Strangely, we were never offered wine at this place. And we actually ate with the family, which was pleasant. Breakfast was equally large, though based around grits or oatmeal, with eggs and other side dishes.

We went the next morning to Fioletovo and just got dropped off. We walked through town, for several miles, looking at the people, who were clearly a different ethnicity than the rest of the Armenians; strong, big bones, blue eyes, blond hair, and had a serious thing for flowers. All the yards were bursting with them, as you can see in the pictures below.

As near as I can understand it, in the 1850s a group broke off of the Russian Orthodox Church protesting the restrictions against drinking milk during lent. A few other doctrines were also different, but the milk thing got the most publicity, so they were dubbed the milk-drinkers, and apparently persecuted quite severely and fled to other countries. There are several pockets of them around the world, in many ways they are like the Amish or Mennonites. They keep to themselves, dont intermarry with the peoples around them, and so on. The seem to make their living selling their produce and milk in nearby towns.

Well, as we walked through there we definitely could tell this was different. The men all wore long beards, the women had shawls on their hair, the houses all had flowers and many had haystacks taller than the house itself. Then we walked out of that village and a little while farther along into another one, which just as clearly was different. Different people, not as well maintained, not as neat.

We tried striking up conversations with several people, but they are rather closed and suspicious of outsiders. Some waved back, some didnt, when I waved first. We had wanted to ask them several questions about their lifestyle and the milk, but with the language barrier on top of their aloofness, it just wasnt possible for us. We thought perhaps wed bring back the daughter of the owner of the homestay the next day for an interpreter, but naturally she left for Yerevan before we could do that. No one else spoke good enough English to act as interpreter that we had met.

So we just decided to enjoy Vanadzor, which has a huge market, and a pleasant one at that, and then go to Yerevan on Friday. So far this is the least hectic trip weve ever taken, with us spending several days in each place. Of course, these are the smallest countries weve ever been in too, so nothing was that far away from anything else.

Arriving in Yerevan Friday around noon, we set out for the Armenian Museum of history; it was a large museum, but the parts I really wanted to see – the 7th century BC to the 4th century AD – was closed. So we decided to try a different museum on Sunday. Then we discovered it was closed Sunday AND Monday. We found another museum on Monday, but of course, it was closed Monday too. We decided it was conspiracy.

It seemed like everything we wanted to do in Yerevan we couldnt, because it was closed. The Opera was closed until September 20th (this being the 12th). The chess club was closed Monday, and I didnt find it until Monday. The food market was open Monday, but the shoe market was closed and Crystal wanted some slip-on shoes for the flight. So we gave up and just ate and walked around town. Spent some time socializing with the other backpackers at the hostel. Tried to soak up sleep for the brutal flight back home – even more brutal now because we had changed our plans again. Instead of flying home to Dallas, we decided to fly straight to San Francisco and spend 3 weeks traveling around there, meeting up with my parents and renting a house for a week or two.

Meanwhile, back in Yerevan, it was Sunday and we went to the famous Vernissage market, a place where you go to buy gifts for home or a faucet for your apartment. Enormous and sprawling, it mostly had carvings, jewelry, clothes, and soviet memorabilia – in case your collection back home is missing an army hat or a medal of honor. They had some nice chess sets, but they were priced rather high – about 100$ for the cheapest normal-sized one.

But I found a used soviet-era chess set, about 30 years old, for MUCH cheaper, and in many ways it was even nicer because it had character. I bought it for one of my employees and bought a painting on a log-slice for another employee.  (And I liked it so much, I bought another for myself!)

As we wandered through the market, I spied a chess set (one clearly not for sale) with its owner nearby, and walked up to him and said shakmat? (Chess?) and pointed to myself, and then at him. He understood and went to get someone else, who apparently was a better player (or maybe more interested?). Regardless, we sat down and played. Soon we had a half-dozen people watching and smoking. It was quite a unique experience. After playing him, I played another player there, which was a very hard fought game – mostly my own fault, since I told Crystal early on in the game, before castling queen-side, you know how sometimes you see a move thats a lot of fun, but that youll probably regret later this is one of those oh well, why not?

He almost had me at one point, but let me slip away. Anyway, it was great fun and I think he enjoyed it too. So we parted before I bored Crystal too much and grabbed a kebab and soup for lunch. Monday we went to the market again for some dried fruit to take home on the plane. Found a stand, and didnt even need to ask for samples; we had, literally, handfuls of them shoved at us. And before we could finish those, he gave us samples of something else. And something else. About 10-12 things we sampled, by which time we were really full. We bought some of the best-tasting stuff, and then had to face the challenge of finding a box to put all of our things to take home – which tallied at roughly

5 kilos (11 pounds) of dried figs

5 kilos of golden raisins

3 kilos of cured meat [note written after we arrived: all the meat was confiscated; apparently no meat, cured, cooked, or otherwise is allowed in, period – everything else made it through customs fine]

1 kilo of dried cherries

¼ kilo of dark raisins

One chess set

Two small paintings-on-logs

One string of walnuts dipped in something that looks like paraffin but isnt. I still dont know what it is. Oh, and he insisted on giving us some fruit lavash – we call it fruit leather back home – for free. So the box had to be fairly large, and so we walked all over the back streets trying to find a box someone had thrown out, since the grocery stores said it was too late to get any from them that day since theyd gotten rid of them already.

We walked about 10 blocks, finally stopped at a pharmacy and after explaining ourselves badly in horrible Russian we managed to convey our need, she gave us a box, and we kept walking. Found a market to buy a roll of tape, then we were walking past a small restaurant and I said something cooking on a spit, idly, as we walked by, and then I heard this voice saying chicken! – apparently the owner understood English. So I was hungry and I hadnt eaten this yet, so we got it and went.

Somewhere in all this we had bought a bunch of peaches and grapes, fresh. I knew we probably couldnt get them back into the USA through customs, but if we could take them on the plane with us until we got there, we could survive the ordinarily horrible airline food. And it worked! Countries seldom care what you take OUT of their country – only what you bring in. So we can bring fresh fruit on the flight, as long as its gone by the time we arrive. At least, we did here. So we chopped them up, put them in our handy containers for the trip, and put them in the fridge to chill. And thats about it, really. We woke up at 4:45 AM to catch the taxi to the plane, and as I write this we are over Sweden.

Many more things happened to us of course, but some of them Ive forgotten and some, you just had to be there. All in all, Georgia and Armenia are the most hospitable places Ive ever been in. The capital cities not so much, but if you get away from the pressure of Tbilisi and, to a lesser extent, Yerevan, they are wonderful places. The food really is outstanding and across the board, most produce tested out higher on a refractometer than the equivalent would back home – in some places so high it was off the chart.

As for the longevity we set out to find we discovered it was actually Abkhazia which had the longevity, primarily, which is technically part of Georgia but is now occupied by Russia and you cant get there from Georgia. The other place is in Dagestan, which is also Russia, on the other end of the Caucasus. So we really werent able to find anything out about that this trip. Like the guy says in National Treasure theres always another clue!

Posted on December 12th, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | No Comments »

Omalo To Vanadzor

Sorry its been several months getting this posted; obviously I made it out of the mountains and back home. In fact, Im getting ready to leave for Colombia. But last time you read, we were in the mountains of Omalo, Georgia, eating good food and seeing beautiful mountains.

The next day we set out for a place even more remote and farther into the mountains, a village called Dartlo. It was an hour jeep ride and perched on the bank of a river a little village of stone castles, which are very common here. The people who lived here 300 years ago were constantly at war with the people across the mountains in Dagestan, and so they built castles out of the plentiful slate stone for defence; castle isnt quite the right word, mostly they are a single turret about 20 feet square and perhaps 50 feet tall. Regardless, there was an unbroken network of these stretching across the mountains for many miles. This way they could warn one another if the evil Dagestanis came pillaging. I don t know if the Dagestanis had some similar defensive measure against the evil Tushetians or not.

There was a new hostel there which was not too cheap but not too expensive, and it was perched on the edge of the river with a fine view of the narrow valley. We spent first one day there, then decided to just stay there and be for a few days. The first day we ate the food, which was good, but not as good as other places wed been. The room was half the price with no meals, so we arranged to have no meals but get 6 liters of milk a day and do the milk diet for a few days. The milk here tested between 10-12 brix depending on the milking, so it was plenty good enough for the purpose.

We had difficulty conveying this idea to them however, since they spoke little English and we spoke even less Russian. They still made us lunch the next day, after we told them not to. Then they wanted to make us dinner, and we again said that no, we only wanted milk. We did this for several days until they finally realized that we werent going to eat anything but milk, which they didnt mind telling us, they thought was a little odd.

The milk diet was quite popular in the USA a hundred years ago and was widely used to treat and cure many diseases, usually by living on nothing but milk for six weeks or so. Always raw milk, unpasteurized. While we were doing this, we met a backpacker from the UK who told us about a group called the Molokani, a Russian word meaning milk drinkers. They apparently live in an enclave in Fioletovo, a village in northern Armenia where we were planning to go anyway, so we decided wed definitely hit that on the way home.

He helped us by translating some phrases into Russian to talk to them when we got there, and then left for farther up the valley. All in all, it was a peaceful way to spend several days. I have a 12-hour battery and a 5-hour battery for my laptop, both of which were full on arrival. We got about 2 hours of charging each night from the generator, which with my usage during the day meant I gradually lost more and more power each night – but it came out perfectly with us leaving for Omalo on the day I was finally completely drained of power!

We returned to Omalo with the intent to catch the plane the next morning. Unfortunately, the plane wasnt going to run again for another week, despite being scheduled for the next day. I never figured out exactly why. But we were stuck going back down the mountain again by Jeep.

We spent the day in Omalo with the homestay wed stayed at on the way up, who were getting ready to leave the mountains for the winter and go back to their home in Alvani, in the valley. So they fed us breakfast, then invited us to their going-away lunch party with their friends, which was an interesting experience. The food was good, as always, and the people were nice. This was the first time wed actually eaten *with* the locals – up to here, they had always served us in our own table by ourselves. But it was interesting to watch them eat and interact.

They have this thing about cold bread here. The local bread comes in two forms; lavash, which is basically a 2×1 flour tortilla, and something like a giant 2 long croissant. At every meal, they have this croissant cut up into 2 squares, and it is always served cold. I dont understand why, but its never toasted, never served hot, and seldom even used as a dipping agent – usually just eaten plain, cold, chewy and all. No butter on it, nothing. I tasted a bit to see if it was something special, and it was just like youd expect day-old bread to taste – nasty. But they consume a great deal of it here, and had trouble understanding why we didnt.

They made corn Khachapuri here, which means a corn quesadilla. They were fairly good, although being used to Mexican foods, I felt they needed salsa and some guacamole on top, but oh well :)

Speaking of which, they dont use spice at all. I mean spicy foods like peppers and such. I think I only had black pepper in a dish once. Most everything else is prepared very simply. They put a type of sweet basil here in a lot of things – it is a *very* sweet basil, almost like eating stevia. They use a few other spices of that nature, but mostly they let the foods speak for themselves, which they do quite well.

There wasnt much else to relate about Tusheti as a region, it was pretty, but heavily overgrazed by sheep thanks to Soviet planning and so erosion was pretty heavy in some spots and mountains that would otherwise be bright green were thin and sparse. Mostly we just relaxed and enjoyed the milk.

During our ride down the mountain with the taxi driver Gogi and his family, one thing happened which, to me, still doesnt seem funny but it was apparently very funny to the others. As we were going down a very dusty hill and turning a corner, with the windows rolled down, the wind picked up and blew all the dust wed just kicked up right through the car, especially the front seat where I was riding shotgun. Coughing and sputtering, I muttered Karasho, which means Good in Russian. I dont know why, it just seemed like the thing to say at the time. Well, the rest of the car went into an uproar over that. It still doesnt sound funny to me. But then about 10 minutes later, our driver playfully drove into another cloud of dust and announced Karasho!. That, I concede, was funny.

We arrived at the bottom of the mountain after dark; just after pulling into the town where Gogi lived, the jeep had a flat tire. Better here than some of the places wed been earlier! So it took a few minutes to change that, by which time the homestay where we were staying, 40 minutes away, had been notified to come pick us up. Gogi and his family insisted on waiting with us in the middle of town, even though it was about 9 PM, and I told them wed be fine, but they were firm that they didnt leave until we had a ride. Which was rather touching, I thought.

Anyway, we said goodbye to them and went to the homestay in Telavi, spent a night there, left the next morning by Marshrutka for Tbilisi, where we immediately caught another Marshrutka for Vanadzor. We were planning to find a place to stay in Fioletovo, a beautiful area just west of Vanadzor, where the Molokani lived.

So we went to the market, checked Email for the first time in a week, then caught a taxi to Fioletovo. I knew from the start it wasnt going to go well because the taxi driver was intense, impatient, and didnt seem to know the area at all. Plus of course, he spoke no English. But we conveyed we wanted to go to Fioletovo and find a hotel, and we went and then he couldnt find one; he asked some people, impatiently, with the tone of these stupid Americans dont know where a hotel is, DO YOU??? – well, to make a long story short we spent about a half-hour looking for one with him getting more and more impatient – the taxi was on a meter, so it wasnt like he wasnt being paid – but finally I realized this wasnt going to work and conceded defeat for the night. We went back to Vanadzor and stayed in a B&B I found in the guidebook, and the story will properly pick up there next time.

Posted on December 5th, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | No Comments »

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