Armenia: Twin peaks country

....And one of them is Ararat, where Noah floated his Ark

In the middle of the night we come down to earth with a bang, as if the captain of our brand new Airbus has set his instruments to land several feet beneath the pockmarked runway. As we disembark into the darkness, a busty blonde, clipboard-Communist type, stands at the bottom of the aircraft steps surrounded by Soviet-style soldiers with comic-size caps, directing the mixed horde on to geriatric buses. Welcome to Yerevan, capital of the Transcaucasian republic of Armenia.

In the middle of the night we come down to earth with a bang, as if the captain of our brand new Airbus has set his instruments to land several feet beneath the pockmarked runway. As we disembark into the darkness, a busty blonde, clipboard-Communist type, stands at the bottom of the aircraft steps surrounded by Soviet-style soldiers with comic-size caps, directing the mixed horde on to geriatric buses. Welcome to Yerevan, capital of the Transcaucasian republic of Armenia.

The terminal of Zvartnots airport looms in the darkness like a clapped-out Starship Enterprise. We swiftly negotiate passport control, then wait for light years by the creaky old carousel in the rusting concrete and glass hulk. From the inside, the Enterprise resembles a dim aquarium. Outside, dark handsome taxi drivers, who would not look out of place playing sexy interns on TV's ER, tap their car keys on the glass walls, vying for our attention, offering lifts into town. I am greeted by my guide, Nora, a delightful barrel-shaped lady, disguised as an ageing matryoshka doll with jet-black hair. Our driver, Babken, speeds us into the city past flashy neon-lit petrol stations, an indicator that this pot-holed republic is dragging itself into the 21st century.

When I mentioned to friends that I was visiting Armenia, nobody knew where it was or why anyone would want to go there. How exciting, I thought, to find a country where tourism is still in its infancy, so much so that world processor Lonely Planet has only recently published a guidebook on it. In fact, Armenia is one of the ancient centres of world civilisation, a spectacularly mountainous country full of soaring peaks and sweeping plateaux, littered with fabulous temples, monasteries, churches and fortresses.

This open-air geographical and archaeological museum, roughly the size of Belgium, is landlocked between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Armenia once stretched from the Black Sea to the Med and included much of what is now Turkey and Iran. But its prime position at the intersection of important trade routes guaranteed the country a turbulent history and the Armenian people have long faced adversity. In a genocide organised by the Turkish government, approximately 1.5 million Armenians were massacred in 1915. As a result, the Armenia diaspora is spread far and wide and reads like a Who's Who of the rich and famous. I was surprised to discover it included the financier Calouste Gulbenkian, crooner Charles Aznavour, film star and singer Cher, the Oscar-nominated film director Atom Egoyan, chess player Gary Kasparov and Kirk Kerkhonian of Daimler-Chrysler, to name but a few. Oh yes, and even the Princess of Wales was one sixty-fourth Armenian.

Armenia prospered under Soviet protection for nearly 70 years until it gained independence in 1991. Since then it has been an uphill struggle to stabilise its economy and the warm and welcoming Armenians, with a little financial help from their diaspora, are working hard to overcome adversity and become a cultural and economic centre of the Near East. No longer are people breaking up wooden park benches to burn in order to keep warm (few are left), but parts of the city still have no running water at certain times during the day and night.

After a couple of hours' sleep, Nora and Babken pick me up from Yerevan's old dowager Hotel Armenia for a city tour. I notice that Babken, a hunk of a man, answers curiously to both Pumpkin and Bobbin. But then I later discover that this is a land of inapt names; there's a soap powder named Barf, a perfume store called Ars and a Vank (and bear in mind that most Armenians pronounce the letter v as w) is a monastery.

In the bright spring sunshine, I encounter a gracious city of wide tree-lined boulevards and impressive buildings, dating from the 1900s, which have seen better days. At the centre of it all is the imposing Republic Square (formerly known as Lenin), flanked by the vast Hotel Armenia, the Armenian History Museum and the National Art Gallery, which houses one of the finest collections of art in Eastern Europe. Nearby, in the Matenadaran Library, 12,000 ancient manuscripts trace the country's heritage in an atmosphere of hushed reverence. Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity in AD301 and Armenian – written in an alphabet of 38 letters – is one of the oldest living languages.

The city is a mix of influences and extremes. It feels distinctly continental with its fountains, green parks and pavement cafés but also Middle Eastern and Russian at the same time. Wander through the arches of grand façades and you uncover a secret world of small courtyards and rickety old clapboard houses, held together with vines. Dusty mausoleum-like monuments sit side by side with crumbling apartments straight out of Dostoevsky. Eastern flavours are piled high in the cavernous covered market on Mashtots Avenue. Smiling women wearing heavy slap sit slumped behind sweaty beige cheeses and exotic spices. Mountains of pomegranates and strawberries make way for strings of soujuk (strings of nuts dipped in grape juice) and large lavash (pitta-style bread) are laid out like lumpy bathmats. Big plastic boxes are filled with giant-size crayfish crawling over each other, very much on their last legs. In the corners, old men with walnut-skinned faces sit gossiping and drawing on long cigarettes. As they smile, they flash gold – definitely a case of putting their money where their mouth is.

You can buy everything from sheet music to old scientific instruments at the bustling Vernissage weekend market. Vendors come from far and wide to set out their wares under the trees – most people are so poor that they even sell their shabby belongings to make ends meet. Along with Soviet memorabilia and rusting dentists' drills are kittens, puppies, ethnic musical instruments and garish paintings. The soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ, a collaboration between an Armenian composer and Peter Gabriel, featuring the local wind instrument, the doudouk, plays hauntingly in the background.

Lumpy old ladies wrapped up with straggly knitting wander through the crowd carrying cardboard trays of delicious custard-filled pastries. Nora teaches me what I think is the word for "thank you" and I spend the next few days getting very strange looks from people when I keep saying "kiamancha". The day before I leave I learn that kiamancha is a local stringed instrument.

A trip to Victory Park and the statue of Our Lady of Armenia (formerly of Lenin) rewards you with a great city overview. On the horizon, the twin-peaked Mount Ararat, the reputed resting place of Noah's ark, rises dramatically from the plain to over 5,000m (16,000ft). This soaring snow-capped mountain, formerly in Armenia and now in Turkey, is a harsh reminder of what the country has lost.

The busy streets are filled with knackered cars and battered buses emblazoned with bright red Kit-Kat and Coca-Cola logos. Suddenly, the traffic will stop as a mysterious motorcade zips past carrying VIPs in dark-windowed Zils. Most of the city is negotiable on foot, but a trip on the dinky two-line metro with 10 stations is a must. The stations are made up of labyrinthine stall-lined passages selling an assortment of bizarre goods from soft toys to soft porn. Trains arrive every six minutes but it's necessary to write down your destination and count off the stops as the signs are written in Armenian and Russian. Alight at Zoravar Andranik station and you are met with banks of ancient television sets connected to PlayStations, where grown men in their twenties and thirties sit entranced.

There are still few places to stay outside the capital, so most visitors take day trips. Once outside Yerevan it is easy to see why so many of its talented diaspora are so passionate about their homeland, for it is absolutely beautiful. Much of the country is more than 1,200m above sea level, giving extremes of geography and temperature – freezing in winter, blisteringly hot in summer.

My first stop is at Echmiadzin, the religious capital of Armenia. I enter St Hripsime Church, dating from the seventh century. In a dark, incense-filled interior, a gold-cloaked priest and two assistants who are dead-ringers for Rasputin, intone and shake tambourine-topped staffs on a raised dais. Pretty young nuns dressed in black and priests with black pointed hats sit on benches, wildly singing responses.

Echmiadzin is also home to the world's oldest cathedral and seminary. Here, handsome but sad-eyed young seminaries, dressed in long grey Nehru coats, wander around the gardens and cloisters. Inside the glittering candlelit cathedral they genuflect and touch the floor, as bells peal around them. Along with the many jewelled crosses and chalices in the treasury to the right of the altar is a spearhead said to have been part of the spear that pierced the side of Christ, which is mightily impressive, even for non-believers.

Brooding Lake Sevan is one of the highest freshwater lakes on earth. Sevan, a former fat-cat Soviet hotspot, is now somewhat run-down, but still manages to look stunning. The scenic drive from here to remote Haghartsin monastery takes you up and over mountain passes and through villages of shacks knee-deep in mud. Much of the alpine scenery resembles Switzerland and is in sharp contrast to the rocky, lunar landscape on the outskirts of Yerevan. Haghartsin, a treasury of devotion, sits on a spectacular hilltop and is reached by driving up a densely forested ravine which, like the rest of the countryside, would not look out of place in the film The Lord of the Rings.

A narrow gorge eventually gives way to a hidden valley housing Noravank monastery, which reminded me of visiting the rose-red city of Petra in Jordan. And the great thing about the Armenian sights is that because tourism is still in its infancy, you are more or less guaranteed to have them to yourself. Perhaps the most stunning of all, is the fortress monastery of Khor Virap. After driving through a village where nearly every telegraph pole is crowned with stork nests, Khor Virap suddenly comes in to view on top of a rocky outcrop, framed against the distant backdrop of mighty Mount Ararat.

Our overnight stop in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh, is an odd diversion. This independent state is not recognised by any country other than Armenia and has long been fought over with neighbouring Azerbaijan. The bombed-out former city of Agdam, which once had a population of 60,000, is now home to a few waifs, strays and rubble looters. Agdam stands as a grim reminder of man's inhumanity.

Most nights I am back in Yerevan to enjoy the abundant restaurants and nightlife. The cuisine is based on mezze-style starters; olives and salads, yoghurts and cheeses, followed by skewered meats and kebabs, served with copious amounts of wine, vodkas, beer and delicious brandy (Churchill would drink no other). The nightlife ranges from casinos to pole dancing.

Before I leave, I take part in Genocide Remembrance Day. Along with one million others I file past the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan and lay a flower by the eternal flame. Dressed sombrely in the sunlight, generations remember their past. Uniformed old soldiers carry grandchildren on their shoulders. Smart families in power suits march together. Cagey looking men in long leather coats, hangovers from the Soviet era, slip by.

But Armenia is looking to the future. And if you want to see a country on the cusp of change and at the frontier of tourism, I would get there now, before someone else publishes a guidebook.

Getting there

Ian McCurrach flew with British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.britishairways.com) to Yerevan. There are three flights per week starting from £386 return. Sunvil Discovery (020-8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk/europe) offers an eight-night tour from £1,577 per person, including return flights from Heathrow, accommodation, most meals, internal transport and the services of a guide.

Further information

An Armenian visas costs £25 and takes seven days to process from the Armenian Embassy in London. But it is best obtained through your tour operator. Armenian airport tax of $20 must be paid in US dollars on departure.

The local currency is the Armenian dram. Conversion rate: £1 equals approximately 800 drams. Currency in Sterling or US dollars can be changed in hotels and there are numerous ATM machines throughout Yerevan.

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