Three Po-Pos, No Money, and One Border Crossing

Trip Start Nov 05, 2010
Trip End Mar 27, 2013

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Flag of Armenia  ,
Sunday, June 17, 2012

At 1am the train comes to a sudden halt and the screeching brakes wake us up from a deep sleep.  In a loud, husky voice speaking with a strong Armenian accent a po po yells


Three police officers board the train and usher all the tourists off the train into the headquarters. There were tourists from Czech, us two and one American named Robert. Half-asleep we followed the crowd into a room full of desks and computers. The walls are so white, the office could be easily confused as a mental ward (not that we have been in a mental ward, but like a mental ward you see on T.V.) The police officer randomly picks up a passport from a pile of tourist passports given to him by the train staff. Po po starts photo copying them and realized afterwards the passports he photocopied already had Armenian visas. Duh!

So he finally gets to the Armerican, "Robert, MONEY MONEY." Either Robert was asleep or didn't understand what the po po was asking him. Robert looked like he paid no attention. We had to tell him, they were asking for his fee.

It was time for us to pay for our Visa, it was smooth sailing except for one thing, Po po didn't have any change. We had only US currency on us and a $50 at that. We asked around to see if anyone had change. No one did. The sleepy American gave us enough to get our Visas. What an angel! 

But the po pos (Police) did give us the "STARE." You know the one where they look you straight in the eyes as if they want you to confess to a heinous crime. We almost did since we were sooo tired.  The crime, not enough sleep! We had a babushka (grandma) sharing a cabin with us and she snored all night! It sounded like there was a monster truck competition going on in the same room!

The aging train seemed like it never left the Soviet era. Brown dirty carpet with fake wooden walls. There were hardly any windows and it was sweltering hot inside. Hard to believe we paid top dollar for a sweat-a-thon. At least we detoxed, that was good for our bodies.

Yerevan at last
Walking around Yerevan was similar to walking around Tbilisi except the streets were in better shape.  It was no surprise that the main part of the downtown core was looking fairly modern and clean yet a few streets behind were falling apart. It is not hard to find numerous streets filled with Soviet apartment blocks.  Not just Soviet type apartments but grey, dilapidated with clothing lines full of wet laundry dangling. What a drag! Also, it was not unusual to walk below one of these buildings only for it to start raining on your head. Meaning, the water from the wet laundry dripping to you know where.

Since our time in Armenia was short we decided to see the highlights of the countryside by going on a tour. It allowed us to see numerous sights in a day. Many sights were scattered and not reachable by public transit. Having a good guide was a bonus.

Come along Comrades

There were six tourists and three staff members on the tour. The driver did not say a word. He only made his presence known by sudden jerky motions to avoid major potholes. Our guide, Mane, was very knowledgeable and spoke very good English. She even tried to translate some Armenian jokes for us. Mane did not stop talking all day and told us lots of random facts about Armenia. Sasha especially remembered that people that are forced to bend when standing inside a marshrutka are called chess knights.

So, we arrived at lake Sevan, the biggest body of water. The scenery reminded us of Tibet, a high altitude desert. Mount Ararat was majestically permeating the horizon, both the big and the small peaks. According to the Bible, Noah's Arc landed on top of that mountain. The nearby fields were green but there were not too many trees. Unfortunately, Armenian soil was very infertile throughout most of the country and depended heavily on food imports. The lake water is finally rising after decades of Soviet attempts to drain it for irrigation. The water was reasonably warm and the swimming season was due to start within a week or two. Commercial fishing in the lake was not permitted but people used tricks such as transporting fish in caskets in order to smuggle it to Yerevan. 

Our group stopped for lunch with a local family. After having yogurt soup we were served chicken with beans. Beans were meant for vegetarians and chicken for everyone else. Armenians ate three courses just like the Russians did: a soup, a main course and tea.

Armenians say they were first!
Most are surprised to learn that Armenia was the first country in history to embrace Christianity as a state religion. The Armenian church is unique, just like the Armenian language. The churches have no icons because it was considered idolatry. The church door was always located in the west while the altar was east facing the rising sun. The doors were low so you must bow to enter. There were no benches and the congregation stood during the service. Everyone was welcome anytime to stop by and speak to the priests if they wished to do so, Armenians and non-Armenians alike. Our guide requested to translate for a group of Mormons that visited Armenia and were interested in learning about their faith.

Armenia was not just about churches. There was one mosque in town adjacent to the Iranian cultural centre. Additionally, there was one pagan temple that was preserved from Roman times. It was built to honor a Persian god named Mitra. Inside, it looked like a smaller version of the Pantheon and it miraculously survived for two millenia being a property of local officials.

Visiting cemeteries is usually not a very exciting prospect; therefor local cemeteries were different. Each gravestone had a scene that depicted how a person died. One of them showed a fisherman that died from a snake bite; another had a bride and groom that was killed by Mongol invaders during their wedding ceremony. 

Despite having gone through so many tragedies, Armenians still retain their sense of humor. Most people were highly educated and arts including theater, opera, ballet were very popular subjects. People were politically aware and knew a lot about their country. It seemed Armenians were proud of maintaining good relations with Russia, the US and Iran at the same time. We hope that conflict with Azerbaijan and disputes with Turkey will be resolved shortly, for the benefit of all. 

One thing is for certain, most Armenians stated,

¨life was better in the Soviet Union.¨

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