Armenia's latest struggle - the battle for tourists
This country is emerging from troubled times. The ceasefire is holding with Azerbaijan and the border with Turkey is due to reopen. Now it's welcoming new visitors. Mark Leftly reports
Sunday 15 November 2009
On a hillside in the outskirts of Yerevan, capital of Armenia, there is a black-and-white picture of a 24-year-old man. A head-and-shoulders shot, he is dressed in military uniform, has thick eyebrows, a wide nose and slightly cauliflower ears. So detailed is the photograph that even the curvature of his Adam's apple is clear.
He stares slightly away from the camera lens, a look suggesting irritation that the army has forced him to have his picture taken. On his grave lie two dried-out yellow flowers.
The majority of the hundreds of headstones in Yerablur cemetery have a reproduction print of the deceased's face on them. Here lie the Armenian victims of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which waged for six years to 1994, when an unofficial ceasefire was reached.
Armenia and its easterly neighbour, Azerbaijan, are technically still at war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Most importantly, Armenia's old enemy to the west, Turkey, supported Azerbaijan and closed its 330km (205 mile) long border with the land-locked country. Finally, in October, some real progress was made on economic and diplomatic co-operation between the countries, with the signing of protocols that will soon open up a common border.
Chief among the Armenian government's economic ambitions for the Turkey agreement is to boost the country's burgeoning tourism industry. The Ministry of the Economy estimates that 422,500 tourists visited the country in the first nine months of this year, up five per cent on the same period in 2008, and it hopes to increase this number further with stable borders.
Armenia has been openly wooing potential visitors: in September the country celebrated its first International Tourism Day, while earlier this year the entry visa at Yerevan's Zvartnots International Airport was slashed by 80 per cent to 3,000 drams, about $8 (£4.75). However, not having any local currency on me, I was charged 15 bucks.
Back in the graveyard, the heavily tanned man maintaining the graves (blue-collar workers tend to be darker skinned than the wealthier classes in Yerevan) shakes my hand, as though we have shared a common ordeal, which makes me wonder if the people will undermine the tourism push with their heavily anti-Turkey stance.
Later, a waiter tells me: "Most think these protocols are not good, 60 or 70 per cent are very angry. They think we will forget [the past]."
Many of Yerevan's major attractions symbolise its anger at a country that today governs more than 60 per cent of historic Armenia. Overlooking the centre of Yerevan, which is shaped like an amphitheatre as the city's altitude ranges from 900m (2,900ft) to 1,300m above sea level, is Mother Armenia (pictured on cover). Erected in 1967, Mother Armenia stands 21m high and sits on a plinth 43 metres tall that once formed the base for a statue of Stalin. She stares at Mount Ararat, now in Turkish territory, which is sadly largely obscured by smog the day I visit in an unseasonably warm, rainless October.
In Mother Armenia's right hand is a sword, lowered so it runs in front of her stomach. From a distance the silhouette of body and weapon forms a cross, apt for a country that was the first to adopt Christianity as its state religion. In front of the statue, written in the 1,700-year-old Armenian alphabet, are the words "We don't know your name, but your courage is immortal".
"She is ready to raise her sword to protect her sons," explains Elya, my tour guide, who hails from the northern provinces of the country. "It's kind of threatening towards Turkey." She says this last part with a chuckle, but there is seriousness behind the joke.
Elya describes herself as "a typical Armenian – that means patriotism". Armenians, she claims, have always been in danger of "being eliminated from this earth". Elya cites the words of one of the Young Turk leaders of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire early last century: "Only one Armenian must be preserved in the world, and that as an exhibit in a museum."
This vile statement repeats in my head as I travel from Yerevan, on the north-eastern plateau, to a hill to the west, where the Genocide Memorial and Museum is located. Here, the Armenian people set out their major grievance against Turkey. The museum, carved into the ground like a bunker, details the massacre of 1.5m Armenians by an extreme nationalist faction of the Young Turks.
A result of cultural and religious tension, the genocide is generally said to have started in 1915 in the wake of divided Armenian loyalties in the First World War. The museum's fluent English-speaking guide shows me exhibits related to Armenians who had won Olympic medals for the Ottomans in 1912, and then a gruesome photograph of their countrymen being hanged by that empire in Aleppo four years later. There are proclamations condemning genocide from international leaders, including a recent letter from California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Turkey denies Armenia's version of events, and it is this that divides Yerevan today. Unless Turkey acknowledges the genocide, many Armenians do not want to sign any agreement with their old enemy. Interestingly, the museum's guide does not take this view. "It is natural for neighbours to have good relations in a global world," it says.
I make my way to the centre, in search of cheerier experiences. It is the cleanest big city centre I've ever seen, washed and tidied each morning. This is very much for show – the view from Victory Bridge, which spans the Hradzan river, reveals tin-roofed slums on a not-too-distant hillside.
However, the centre is where most of the restaurants and bars are. And it is an urban planner's dream. There is a distinct road grid that neatly divides the city into easily navigable chunks, surrounded by a ring of green belt. There are fountains everywhere, none more impressive than those in front of the National Museum in the architectural extravaganza that is Republic Square, with its huge, beautiful buildings built between the 1920s and 1950s. Every day, just after 8pm, the museum's fountains are illuminated in blues, reds and greens, and dance to the notes of classical music.
Time for dinner, and I risk the veal tjvjik, an unholy dish consisting of heart and lungs, at the popular Caucasus restaurant. Remarkably, it is the overpowering taste of onion that ruins the meal. Other dishes are generally delicious, from the simple but usually well-spiced pork barbecue, to kyalagyosh, a porridge-like mixture of unleavened bread, beef, yoghurt and spicy garlic and lentils.
The restaurants are a little smoky, due to what seems to be the national pastime of puffing on a cigarette, but they are inexpensive. For example, Our Village, which is highly recommended by a local and is in the heart of what amounts to a tourist trap area surrounding the imposing Opera House, comes to little more than $30 for a meal for two, including starters, main courses, beers and extraordinarily powerful fruit-flavoured vodkas. Overwhelmed by the vodka and generally unimpressed by the beer – most locals prefer Kilikia, as watery and bland a lager as its 3.8 per cent strength would suggest – I am far more taken by the superb Ararat brandy.
Marspet, a taxi driver, sums it up best as we drive past the company's headquarters with its big yellow Ararat sign. "Very good," he says giving me the thumbs up and a wide grin of gold-capped molars. Such friendliness is typical of Yerevan. The people are also highly attractive and well dressed, bar the all too common sight of men and even little boys wearing Miami Vice-style white suits. However, the homogeneity of society – 98 per cent of Armenian society is indigenous – has an apparent downside. In one restaurant, a Frenchman of African descent snaps when asked the same question for what seems to him a hundredth time: "What does it matter where I am from?" Anyone who is not white and dark haired is going to stand out a mile here. Perhaps more tourism will change that.
I visit the Erebuni district to the south-west of the city. This is where Yerevan was founded in 78BC – 29 years before Rome. I stroll around the ruins of the Erebuni Fortress, which was known as the "Fortress of Blood" due to the number of red tulips growing on this hillside. The graffiti on the remaining walls here is quite affectionate by western standards, with big hearts and the word "kiss".
Protecting an overseas dignitary who is looking around the ruins are members of the military, a two-year service which is mandatory for men unless they are studying for a PhD or preparing for a religious life at a seminary. It is not hard work: they are laughing and flirting with my guide Elya, while the extraordinary sight of Ararat once again emerges on the horizon. The 24-year-old lying in Yerablur cemetery would be 40 today. As it stands, these men will not share his fate. Perhaps it is time to move on. Not forget, but move on.
HOW TO GET THERE
Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) offers an eight-night tour of Armenia and Georgia from £1,795 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights with bmi, transfers three nights in Yerevan and five nights in Tblisi on a B&B basis, some lunches, and excursions to Echmiadzin, Khor Virap monastery, Mtskheta and Davit Gareja.
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