I actually woke up at 7am, but Rati was still asleep, so that gave me an excuse to go back to sleep until noon. Rati’s apartment is lovely on the inside, but it is housed within just one of many ugly concrete tenement flats from the closing days of the USSR.
There is something tremendously soul crushing about Soviet architecture, maybe that was the idea – to invoke a dab and dreary landscape from which escape seemed impossible. The conspicuous lack of any elegance, refinement, beauty or romance is echoed in many buildings all over the world; not least in the UK, were I implore anyone with even a modicum of interest in architecture to go compare the graceful Liverpool Infirmary (designed by Waterhouse and built in the first decade of the twentieth century) to the painfully dispiriting home for the undead that is the ‘modern’ Royal Hospital opened in 1979 – the year of my birth.
Look at the statues from the era – not exactly slender, svelte and sinuous are they? Just brutal, ugly and overbearing. They look like they were carved by the Bitmap Brothers. Whilst wearing boxing gloves. But when it comes to all things oppressive, blocktacular and downright ugly, the former USSR wins hands down.
Right now the Azerbaijan Embassy doesn’t open until Monday, so I may as well go get another country under my belt: Armenia.
This entailed going to the bus station which looked like the cargo hold of the Nostromo, if it had been made of concrete. Rati came with me and plonked me on a shared minibus to the border, 70km away. It rained all the way there, but gave me the chance to catch up on my blog. Unlike Georgia, I do need a visa for Armenia, but you can get it on the border and it’s only a fiver for three days, which is way more than I needed. The border guards decided to take me to one side and go through all my things asking questions. It was only when one of them took out the Toblerone I had bought at the Duty Free shop and asked me what was in it and what it was for that I fired my best comedy “what is this guy on?” look to his mate who promptly cracked up laughing.
They let me in, no worries!
But by the time everyone was through it was dark and so then the bus drove through the Debed Valley, which the Lonely Planet tells me is the more picturesque bit of Armenia, at night – so it’s fair to say I didn’t see much. I stayed the night in the town of Vanadzon at the south end of the Valley. Arriving at 9pm, I thought I’d check into the cheap little hotel, find a nice little place to eat, maybe have a beer or two… no.
Everything – and I mean EVERYTHING was closed. Saturday night in Armenia is not my idea of fun. It’s not anyone’s idea of fun. Unless you’re Morrissey perhaps. It was pissing down with rain, the people where either glum or rude (or both!) and after a fruitless hour of pottering about getting very wet and even more hungry I found a 24 hour supermarket (wonders never end!) which actually had a kebab (souvlaki) stand in it. Thank the maker! The kebab, I have to say, was the BEST I have EVER had. If there is one (and there may be only one) redeeming feature of this place, I think that will have to be it – the kebabs. The secret? Ah – that’d be the crispy bacon!!
Welcome to Armenia.
After yesterday’s glum-fest, I didn’t think things could get any more glum. I WAS WRONG! After leaving my (Overlook) hotel I went over to the train station/bus stand to try to get a bus up the valley to go and explore the old monasteries up there. A guy called Gary offered to take me in his clapped out old Lada taxi around the sites for twelve euro. That’ll do, I thought, and hopped in.
Man oh man, I heard the Soviets were awesome at sucking the beauty out of everything like some kind of giant aesthetical vampire, but I was NOT prepared for the devastation they had wrought on the Debed Canyon. If, as it states in the Lonely Planet the Debed Canyon “manages to pack in more history and culture than just about anywhere else in the country” then I didn’t miss much by not visiting the rest of Armenia.
Once upon a time, the Debed Canyon was a picturesque wooded valley, dotted with small settlements and medieval monasteries. Then the Soviets rucked up in their big clod-hopper boots and managed to somehow take this pristine wilderness and turn it into the most heartbreaking bags of arse I have ever seen. They installed a copper mine, HIGH-RISE FLATS (seriously!) and a railway line. And in doing so they thoughtlessly meffed-up Armenia’s heritage in a way that would make the most capital of capitalists blush.
The railway line wouldn’t be so bad (I have no objection to a pair of nice clean rails running through the countryside) if they hadn’t decided to solve the obvious drainage/subsidence problem in the most ham-fisted way imaginable – by steering the rainwater OVER THE TOP of the railway using wide, brutal concrete drainage channels every kilometre or so. These drainage channels sat perched in the air over the railway and looked like half-finished concrete bridges of the kind dreamt up by over-zealous town planners in the 1960s who thought that they could create a new world order out of concrete and asbestos.
The trees of the valley are now all but gone and all that remains of the good old days are a handful of small monasteries in various states of dilapidation. I spend a good few hours exploring them in the rain – Sanahin and Haghpat are UNESCO World Heritage Sites – but aside from the joy I got from the inscriptions carved on the wall in the Armenian alphabet (it looks soooo much like it was done by aliens) it was about as much fun as a wet weekend in Rhyl.
Did I mention it was raining? Oh, yeah, I did, but I thought I’d mention it again as it adds to the dark, grey gloominess of the valley. What’s that? Oh, another factory, another derelict warehouse or two… or four… or thirty-six. Concrete hell-holes with all their windows smashed in, covered in graffiti and despair. It’s like somebody read my mind (or my blog) and devised the perfect opposite of my personal vision of nature and architecture entwined in some kind of ethereal beauty.
In short, Rivendell it was not.
I soon decided it would be best to head back to Georgia, which I duly did, losing another precious page of my passport in the process (despite my valiant efforts!). I met with Rati at his home and we had dinner – some kind of Russian concoction, a bit like meatballs wrapped in pasta. It was pretty good, I have to say. Later we left to head into town and meet up with a couple of guys that Rati had been in contact with through CouchSurfing – Michael and Martin.
Michael is from Germany and Martin is from Austria. Michael’s supposed to be kipping at Rati’s gaff but I’ve nicked his spot (ha!), no fear though – he’ll be joining us tomorrow night and taking the spare room. We found a little pub in downtown Tbilisi (if you like a drink or two, Georgia is gob-smackingly cheap) and settled in for the night. But remember – NEVER toast with beer in Georgia – only wine or spirits may be used to propose a toast. If a Georgian toast you with beer, you are their enemy, which is a great way to catch somebody out who’s pretending to be Georgian and isn’t.
Turns out Michael was working in Cambodia for a couple of years before deciding to travel his way back home – which meant that I could happily pick his brains about the old border formalities of China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran et al. Thanks to him, I’ve altered my schedule slightly and will now be attempting to enter China from Pakistan rather than Nepal (I was hoping to pull some strings, but I gave up hope of special favours a loooooong time ago).
So what’s up next I hear you cry?
Well, obviously I need to sort out my visa for Azerbaijan still, and once I’ve got that I’ll high-tail it over to Baku, the capital. From there I’ll be heading to Kazakhstan, the home of a certain Borat Sagdiyev and then pressing on to Uzbekistan (for which I will (hopefully) have a two-entry visa) and beginning the process of getting my Turkmenistan transit visa (it can take up to TWENTY days). While I wait for that to come through I’ll visit Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan before returning to Uzbekistan to pick up my Turkmenistan visa (for one day’s worth of travel, I might add) and thunder on through Turkmenistan down to Herat in Afghanistan where I’ll take a sharp right like Bugs Bunny at Albuquerque and plough head-first into Iran.
Good. Now first things first… I need a new visa for Azerbaijan.