Travel: A nation of survivors

Armenians suffered centuries of massacres and oppression, but now their land is their own, reports Jeremy Atiyah

What bad luck! To have been born between two such big and unfriendly powers and in a chronic earthquake zone to boot! I'm talking about the peoples of Mount Ararat. All but exterminated by Turks and suppressed by Russians, the Armenians surprise me today by having a country at all.

I fly to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to find out what they are doing with that country. My Swiss Air flight from Zurich is nearly empty; when I arrive it is 4am local time and Soviet-looking military men are standing on the tarmac. I'm met by a representative of a local tour firm: a dark, glamorous woman called Shakih with big hair and nasal voice. One of those admirable Soviet people who has learnt English without ever having met a native English speaker. "Welcome to our improving country," she declares in a proud voice.

I'm back in the former USSR all right. By most people's standards, Yerevan is a dump, though I find this an attraction. The air is yellow. Probably these are what toxic chemicals smell like. The town rises and falls - mostly falls - across brown hills and valleys. Pretentious police Ladas career about with loud-hailers and flashing lights. Some local storm in a tea cup, I suppose.

Around my hotel I notice the ruins of mud huts with feral cats picking over them; it is as though nobody has bothered to remove the wreckage of previous civilisations before building the new ones. Does this mean, I wonder, that Soviet civilisation will never disappear?

The vast and gloomy Hotel Dvin is a perfect example of an unreconstructed Soviet hotel. It is attended by a somnambulant Russian staff who cannot grasp why there are no guests any more. The pillow on my bed is so heavy and bulky I can hardly lift it. The toilet has a plastic seat that falls off when touched. The television breaks into a loud humming noise just as I am getting to sleep. I nominate floor attendant in the Hotel Dvin as the saddest job in the world. Was there ever a time when these bedside lights, sofas and curtains seemed new? When the sculptured totem poles, tile murals, wooden ceiling panels, dark maroon table cloths and plastic flowers in the dining room looked funky? When the two Russians drinking vodka for breakfast looked out of place? Come to think of it, did the designers of the great square fountains and pools (now defunct and rubble filled) in the city centre ever feel good about themselves or their work?

In the morning I drop by the office of my tour firm to meet Shakih and her boss; they seem to be squatting at a desk in someone else's office. Either that or they combine their tourism business with trade in agricultural machine spare parts and fishing rods. But more endearingly honest people you could not hope to meet. What might a tourist want, they ask me? What does a tourist do? What in fact is a tourist? I tell them everything is lovely. They look pleased. Perhaps too pleased. Outside, the city looks like nothing has been repaired or painted since the death of Stalin. Tomorrow we will drive round half of Armenia and it will cost me only $55.

Later I am watching TV in my room. It's Euronews, in English. Suddenly the channels start to change by themselves. Polish TV, then Romanian TV, then BBC World. Then a sexy woman taking her bra off. Then TV Espana. Then back to the sexy woman. Finally I get it. The channel controller is trying to decide what to transmit next.

I go out for my first meal in Armenia, tiptoeing out into the scary Yerevan night. There is a smell of smoke and there are no street lights. I keep falling into invisible holes. I hope, very fervently, not to get lost here. But not to worry: the smoke merely represents a generation of New World entrepreneurs cooking shashliks on open-air grills. I enter one restaurant and am served excellent grilled mutton in flat bread at a table in the front room. Other people eat aubergines in the bedrooms. The washing-up is done in the bathroom, and the cooking in the porch. The waitress looks like a sad tart.

The guests all wear black coats, black jackets, black waistcoats, and black polo-neck sweaters, as though they have entered a fancy dress competition as mafia thugs. "Normally drunk is half-litre vodka, really drunk is one litre!" one of them shouts. "How much blood is there in your alcohol?" shouts another.

The next day I'm in the car with Shakih. She's wearing her regal expression. "You see how much better we live now. Before it was really bad." We pass burned out tractors and other agricultural wreckage, rusting under walnut trees. But first things first: when the clouds retreat I want to see Mount Ararat. And there it is! Like a stray planet, an interstellar object that has floated near to earth by cosmic error, filling half the sky. It is not the same as worldly objects. Down below I see green fields with smoking chimneys in them. But up there, hanging like an ancient god, are vast crevasses and snow-filled fissures.

Suddenly we're sliding in mud. The roads are so pot-holed that they are half way to becoming raw earth and gravel. We need a Toyota Landcruiser and we've got a Lada. All the old women of Armenia are selling vegetables and toffee apples by the roadside. In the shadow of Mount Ararat, I see picket fences, apricot trees, marshes, nuclear power stations, country houses, electricity pylons and grassy orchards.

Whoa! Just bombed in and out of the biggest pothole I've ever seen. But how's this for odd: a relic from the ancient world, miraculously marooned in the former USSR! I can see it on high, like an eagle's nest. Wild cliffs and mountains loom all around, distant waterfalls roar. But the 2,000- year-old temple of Garni looks like, and indeed is, a Greek temple.

If that isn't odd enough, a group of college kids from Los Angeles suddenly rolls up in a tour bus. Out they step, tanned youths with backward baseball caps and smiles wide as Caucasian republics. It turns out they are all Armenian by origin, exiled first to Lebanon, then to the US. And now they are coming home at last. I look down and there's a mosaic floor depicting fish and ancient sea gods; I look up and there's a luscious Californian girl rewinding her camera.

The sun's coming out and I'm feeling hot. We drive past apple orchards to another eagle's nest: this time it is the Monastery of Geghard, lurking in the mountains. Ornate crosses have been carved by hand into cliff-faces. I scuttle into a small church building to avoid the hot sun, only to find that the entrance leads into a series of hidden chambers, hewn out of solid rock.

Deep within the monastery, the Californian kids are piously burning candles and praying. The walls are wet and streaked. Lurking high above my head I see inset carved columns, ancient reliefs of lions and eagles seizing goats by their talons. The innermost spirit of Armenia? Later I meet a priest in black, one of only two remaining, who has been living up here close to God for the past 22 years. "This is a holy place," he tells me, gently. "Not an Armenian national place." Shakih is a little contemptuous: she tells me he loves God more than his own mother.

Back in Yerevan we intensify the search for Armenia. We eat lahmajun, thin flat breads with meat toppings, washed down with a yoghurt drink just as in Turkey. "Armenian food," insists Shakih, between mouthfuls. She drives me up to Madenataran, a shrine to Armenian letters, where the entire canon of Armenian literature is held safe even from nuclear attack. She marches me through the national museum to examine the 8th-century- BC cuneiform inscriptions of King Argistis, the ancestor of the Armenian people.

Finally, on a bleak hill overlooking the town, she takes me up to the Memorial to the Victims of the Genocide of 1915. A wall records the names of long vanished Armenian communities: Trabzon, Zeitoun, Adana, Erzurum, Beyazit, Bitlis... Shoddy recordings of funereal music waft ceaselessly from between the blocks where an eternal flame burns. "Yes, we have a lot of difficulties here," says Shakih. "Everything gets destroyed here in the end." Well, I wanted to point out, at least you have a country now. But her hair is looking dishevelled. She blows her nose and trudges back to the car.

ARMENIA

GETTING THERE

Jeremy Atiyah flew to Yerevan as a guest of Swiss Air (tel: 0171-434 7300), which flies on Thursdays and Mondays via Zurich. Fares from pounds 356. Access to Yerevan is also possible by train from Tbilisi in Georgia, or by bus from Turkey.

WHERE TO STAY

The author's hotel booking in Yerevan was made through Interchange (tel: 0181-681 3612). They can put together a package including five nights' b&b accommodation in the Hotel Dvin, plus return British Airways flights, for pounds 599 per person, based on two sharing. The writer booked tours locally with a company called Avarayr (tel: 00 374 2 56 36 81, or via e-mail at office@avarair.arminco.com). One day outings to Garni and Geghard, including car and English-speaking guide, cost less than US$100 for a complete day.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Visas can be obtained in advance or on arrival in the airport at Yerevan. Either way they are expensive, up to US$100, depending on where you get it. Contact the Armenian embassy in London (tel: 0171-938 5435). There are still relatively few guide books to the Caucasus region, though Bradt's Georgia guide (pounds 13.99) contains a chapter on Armenia, as does Trailblazer's Asia Overland Guide (pounds 13.95). Good travel literature includes The Crossing Place by Philip Marsden.

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