Armenia: Your Gateway to the Caucasus
“Where are you going?”, my mother asks.
“I have a flight to Yerevan at around 8 tonight, mom.”
I saw her next question coming, “Huh, where?”.
I love underrated destinations; I love going to places where I expect nothing and leave impressed. I love how I am able to discover raw and unpopular cities and look back from a later time and I see bold and progressive transitions. After Qatar Airways has commenced flights to Tbilisi a few years back, my eyes were opened to the Caucasus. Then I started to read about the countries that comprise the region. Albeit a new and unfamiliar territory to the Southeast Asian in me, I felt excited to explore a region that was somewhat buried in time, overshadowed by its western neighbors despite its richness in history and ancestral heritage.
I cast no doubt you would be amused (with that element of surprise!) with Armenia’s cultural and historical timelines. Centuries before Christopher Columbus was born, Armenia was already a thriving nation-state in the Eurasian region. Back in 8th to 6th century BC, the roots of what is Armenia today was established. Armenia would soon become the first Christian nation in the world at 301 AD, and with many wars and eras in between, it soon became part of the Soviet Union, until its independence in 1991. I learned all of these from our tour guide named Vakko, who surprisingly, used to be a professional artist here in Qatar! He has paintings all over Katara and hotels in Doha. If you happen to visit Yerevan (most passports are given visa on arrival), I highly recommend doing his Yerevan Free Walking Tour (bookable on Facebook) around significant locations in the city and learn more about Armenia from no less than a purebred local.
Armenia boasts of a myriad of attractions and landscapes. I was particularly drawn to their tours just immediately outside Yerevan. Whether you choose to rent a car and do DIY, get a tour from your hotel concierge or haggle like a pro at the Republic Square where you will find vintage cars parked with posters of Armenian tourist attractions, I guarantee you would not regret doing these tours that cost less than a fancy dinner in London or Sydney.
From scenic lakes like Lake Sevan, to ancient monasteries, to fortresses, ruins and churches, there is no shortage of things to see and you will definitely wish you had more time to explore everything. The Geghard for one, is a medieval monastery from the 4th century believed to be founded by St. Gregory the Iluminator. History books claim that the apostle Jude Thaddeus brought to Geghard the spear that wounded Jesus Christ during His crucifixion. It is carved out of a mountain and its impressive landscape features caves, chapels and khachkars (carved slabs of wood or stone characteristic of medieval Armenian art) abounding in the complex sitting atop a hill. We visited Geghard with a pagan temple called Garni, an Ionic structure that was believed to be built in the pre-Christian Armenia period. If time permits, you can drop by (or sleep in) a town called Tsaghkadzor which has hotels, restaurants and a ski resort where you will find the longest ropeway in the world! I suggest a visit to monasteries called Khor Virap and Tatev to be done on separate days as they are quite a distance from each other—both offer history, tranquility, charm and breathtaking views. During the trip, you will be mesmerized by the beauty of the biblical Mt. Ararat peeking through at every turn.
It was a surprise to find out that the oldest cathedral in the world cannot be found in Rome, but in Armenia—the Echmiadzin Cathedral. This place holds a museum which houses many important relics of the Christian faith.
Armenia not only boasts of natural beauty but also of very warm locals. I remember reading from Wikitravel that a visitor to Armenia should not be surprised or feel strange when invited to a local’s home. True enough, a random woman we came across in the streets told us that in Armenia, they treat tourists as blessings; what a delight to hear that! At one point, our lovely driver Arthur took us to his rest house where Mt. Ararat was in full view. We had our taste of Armenian hospitality as he welcomed us in his home, treated us to traditional food like khorovats, sujukh and lavash, as we drank homemade cherry wine from his little vineyard and did a toast to a beautiful trip where we felt more like family than customers.
The city is quite compact, with the Republic Square as a focal point for sightseeing spots. Yerevan is easy to navigate with a thoroughfare of restaurants, shops and landmarks, which I have to say are incredibly cheap and are flocked over by locals and foreigners alike. The city is nothing like your usual tourist destination packed with lost travelers with selfie sticks, where you have to queue or conquer human or vehicular traffic—here, you blend with the locals. Armenians are arguably one of the warmest and kindest people I have met on my travels. I lost count of how many times someone came up to us to ask if we needed any help with the map I was holding. I left Armenia with not only good memories and photographs, but also friends who constantly reminded me that I am always welcome to come back—with or without a map.
Left side of the Republic Square (Lenin Square during the Soviet Period): the Government House
Facade of the Republic Square’s National Gallery
Cascade, downtown Kentron area
Top view of the Cascade after climbing the 1000-step stairway
Sevanavank (Sevank monastery) with Lake Sevan in the background
Ropeway in Tsaghkadzor
Fine (but cheap!) dining at Araks Old House, Yerevan