Armenia shows signs of a past beset by man-made and natural disasters

By Tyler Guthrie
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 21, 2010

The bus stopped at the Armenian-Georgian border, and as the only American on board, I was ushered past soldiers lazily holding assault rifles to a shed where my passport was checked. A shirtless border guard who had been cooking soup moments before quickly printed a $15 entry visa from an HP LaserJet but flatly refused Georgian lari as payment. Luckily, I was able to bum enough drams from a stranger on the bus to Gyumri, Armenia's second-largest city, to cover the cost.

Rumors of an Asian brandy so good that the French once bestowed upon it the appellation "Cognac" had brought me to this podunk border crossing in the middle of the Southern Caucasus. In the land between continents, I was taking a side trip from Turkey and Georgia to visit Armenia and the famed Yerevan Brandy Co., purveyors of a "diplomatic brandy" that had reportedly kept Stalin and Churchill talking through the early days of the Cold War.

After waiting 20 minutes while our driver finished a game of backgammon, we were finally back on the road, watching sexy music videos on an old television set suspended from the ceiling. Karni, the woman who'd lent me the money for my visa, offered me apple slices, pastries and gum -- gifts I was happy to accept on that long, slow rural road. The bus took us past soft rolling hills, ancient churches and an endless stream of garbage thrown from the windows of passing cars. After decades of communism and the Brezhnevian stagnation of the 1970s, conservation of resources is considered important here, but waste management is not.

* * *

Arrived in Gyumri, I found a large, drab city that must have been beautiful once. Most of the buildings of note date from the Russian imperial period, but their beauty has been worn away by time and a lack of fresh coats of paint. While the skies above the city center were denim and the clouds were among the most stunning I'd ever seen, everything around me seemed to be a shade of gray. Desperate for a bit of local color, I went exploring before meeting some American aid workers for dinner.

The first modern Armenian republic ended its short two-year life in 1920 in Gyumri after its defeat in the Turkish-Armenian War and its subsequent reannexation by Soviet Russia. Much of the city was destroyed in 1988 by the Spitak earthquake, which claimed 25,000 lives and leveled large sections of downtown. More than 20 years later, collapsed apartment blocks and broken buildings throughout the city are still waiting to be noticed.

On a nearby hill, the Soviet-era monument known as Mother Armenia looks out over the city, promising peace through strength, but most residents don't pay much attention to her anymore. After checking out a few pretty churches and the most dangerous power-relay station I'd ever seen, I hailed a cab and rode out to the Marmashen Monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church, not far from town. On the way, we passed a large, bustling Russian army base and a long stretch of forgotten apartment buildings -- a graveyard of concrete and rusted steel beams along the main road.

The monastery's main church, built 1,000 years ago, is surprisingly well preserved, considering the state of Gyumri. The cab driver and I walked around the complex as he took me to a stream feeding into a small gorge that cut its way through the valley. With carelessly dumped household garbage strewn at his feet, he smiled and said, "Ochen krasivaya, da?" ("Very beautiful, yes?") Then he tossed his cigarette butt into the water, just one more piece of someone else's problem.

That night I heard the good and the bad about living in Armenia from the aid workers. Like many of its neighbors, they told me, Armenia is a conservative, religious nation that's sometimes difficult to understand. Though innately hospitable, the people can seem standoffish at first, or downright depressed. The country is still struggling to overcome high unemployment and corruption as it attempts to find its way out of a Soviet breakdown nearly two decades old. That, a fierce regional grudge with Azerbaijan and a disagreement of genocidal proportions with Turkey have shrouded the populace in a sense of malaise.

We were eating surprisingly good, farm-fresh fish at the hard-to-find Fish Farm outside town. The Americans were interested to hear that I was on a quest to taste Armenia's famous brandy. "Counterfeit bottles of that stuff are almost more common here than counterfeit bills," said Scott, the aid worker I was staying with. For the next several hours, we drank mediocre beer and talked about mundane things. One common experience my companions drew my attention to: local youths' habit of dubbing every American "Johnny."

* * *

The next morning, I set off for Yerevan. Karni, my new friend from the bus, met me at the transit station and insisted on giving me bars of Russian chocolate before saying goodbye. A taxi driver smooth-talked me into sharing a ride with a young soldier wearing a crisp new uniform; we rode the two hours to the capital in complete silence. When we got there, the first teenager I saw came up to me shouting, "Hey, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny!" The giveaway must have been my being tall, pale and stupid enough to lug around a brightly colored, 60-pound backpack.

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