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Charm of an unchanging Armenia

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Ho Ai Li on 30 Jun 2019

The Straits Times

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The country has held onto its identity through the centuries, despite it occupying a fraction of its former territory

 

The skies are overcast and seagulls are circling around Lake Sevan, which takes up a huge chunk of Armenia's land area in the east.

 

I climb to the top of a narrow peninsula overlooking the highland lake, a greyish blue expanse fringed by powdery dark green mountains. Little white and yellow flowers sway gently in the cool wind.

 

It is at this scenic spot that I find myself having an impromptu history lesson - Mr Tigran Khachaturian, 40, my guide, is marking out on the gravelly ground how the borders of Armenia have changed over the ages.

 

He draws a large circle representing Greater Armenia, stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. He carves it into two - one side taken over by the Turks and the other by the Persians. He draws more lines - the area gets divvied up further in later years.

 

Armenia, one of the oldest Christian civilisations in the world, today occupies just a sliver of its territory at its peak. But despite being in a tight spot among Iran, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan - it has bad blood with two of the four - Armenia is no hot spot, but a laid-back and charming destination.

 

The country was one of the 15 republics under the former Soviet Union, which lasted from 1922 to 1991. While it is not part of central Asia - that is Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - it has been described by some as being in Western Asia.

 

In any case, the capital Yerevan feels like a compact and refined European city, pretty in pink - the predominant colour of its stone buildings.

 

I feel the breeze on my face one morning while I stroll on the leafy streets near my hotel in the city centre. There are roses on the sidewalks and florist kiosks at street corners. The sidewalk cafes and food vans offering coffee at around 200 to 300 drams (about 60 to 90 Singapore cents) have not opened, but I take a sip of the spring water from a water cooler.

 

A street sculpture of a jovial-looking trio catches my eye. Jivan Gasparyan (1928-), Vatche Hovsepyan (1925-1978) and Levon Madoyan (1909-1964) are masters of the duduk, an Armenian woodwind instrument made of apricot wood.

 

As I notice later on the drives out of Yerevan, accomplished Armenian artists, musicians and writers are held up on billboards along roads.

 

The Armenians are a people with a long history and strong identity who are proud of having their own alphabet, which was developed around AD405 and has 39 letters.

 

I glimpse the name of Mher Mkrtchyan (1930-1993), or Frunzik, an actor who starred in a popular 1960s Soviet comedy movie called Kidnapping, Caucasian Style, about a bumbling trio who kidnap a bride.

 

Coincidentally, a stone's throw from my hotel is a restaurant themed on the movie, with bronze figures of the three anti-heroes a comical sight to behold.

 

AN IMAGINED ARMENIA

 

At the square outside Grand Hotel Yerevan one evening, youngsters in jeans and short skirts wait in line to order an iced Nescafe or popcorn bubble tea from the Coffee House food truck. Others take pictures of the giant spider or chessboard sculptures near a fountain.

 

I see few Asians on the streets, but I feel no unease in standing out - Yerevan feels safer than many other cities, though there was an armed conflict in the nearby Nagorno-Karabakh area as recently as the 1990s.

 

Like Singapore, military service is compulsory for 18-year-old males here and spans two years. And like the Republic, Armenia has casinos - I pass by one called Shangri-La.

 

Overall tourist arrivals to Armenia increased from 1.25 million in 2016 to 1.65 million last year. Visitor numbers from Asia have also gone up, including those from Singapore, which nearly doubled from 377 arrivals in 2017 to 826 last year.

 

While Armenia is relatively small and inaccessible, its cultural influence extends far and wide.

 

Russia, France and the United States are among the countries where many Armenians have migrated to. The Armenian diaspora, made up of those who have emigrated and their descendants, are more than double Armenia's nearly three million people.

 

At Khor Virap, a monastery overlooking the Turkish border, visitors go down a 6m-deep ladder to the dungeon where the man who would become St Gregory the Illuminator, was kept for 14 years before he was called up to cure King Tiridates III of illness. This led Armenia to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in AD301, the first to do so. St Gregory was the first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

 

Visitors also go to Khor Virap for a closer view of Mount Ararat, a national symbol of Armenia and the place where Noah's Ark is said to have landed. But Mount Ararat, which is made up of two peaks, lies not in Armenia but on Turkish soil.

 

One afternoon, at Tsitsernakaberd (Swallow's Fortress) overlooking Yerevan, Mr Khachaturian points to the silhouette of Mount Ararat in the distance. It seems to haunt the city - sometimes it hides in plain sight, its snow-capped peaks camouflaged among the clouds; at other times, it suddenly appears as a mournful presence in the background.

 

We are there for the Armenian Genocide Monument, a memorial to an estimated 1.5 million Armenians massacred in the Ottoman Empire around World War I. It is made up of a spire and 12 slabs - representing the Armenian provinces lost to Turkey - which encase an eternal flame.

 

Turkey has denied that it is a genocide. Pine trees planted by diplomats and world leaders in a garden near the memorial take a quiet defiant stand against that.

 

FRUIT FOR THOUGHT

 

As much a symbol of Armenia as Mount Ararat are pomegranates, also a symbol of Christianity. Engravings of the fruit can be seen on a door at Geghard monastery, named after the spear used to wound Jesus Christ at the crucifixion.

 

Part of the monastery is carved out of the adjacent mountain and some of its rooms are like caves. Elaborate crosses, similar to those found on stone crosses outside the building, are carved into the walls.

 

I hear the sonorous voices of a five-person choir before I see them - the men in white and the women in red - in a room lit by light streaming in from a skylight in its domed ceiling.

 

Outside the monastery complex, three men, with greying hair and potbellies, strike up a tune with flutes and drum as five kids join hands for a folk dance.

 

I spot a cage filled with doves near the entrance to the monastery. For a fee, you can release these birds, which symbolise the Holy Spirit.

 

On the way to Geghard and other places, I often pass people waiting by the roadside, selling food from apricot or walnut jam to watermelon and even fish.

 

In the Lake Sevan area, men stretch out their arms as cars approach. Hitch-hikers? No, they are fish sellers trying to impress passers-by with the supposed length of their catch, says Mr Khachaturian.

 

On my last and third day in Armenia, he drives me to the Ararat Plain in the western part of the country in search of apricots, also a symbol of Armenia and whose scientific name is Prunus armeniaca.

 

June is when the apricots are ripe for the picking.

 

Women and men in long sleeves pick low-hanging fruit and use metal hooks to pull down tree branches laden with fruit. Others climb up the tree to collect the fruit.

 

Mr Khachaturian shows me an apricot seed and tells me how living in Armenia, when it was under the Soviets, he and his friends would cut open one side of the seed and use it as a whistle. "We had no toys. We had to use our imagination," he says.

 

One reminder of the Soviet era in Armenia is the matchbox-like Lada, which is common in the countryside and seem to come in all colours.

 

"Unkillable," says Mr Khachaturian of these cars, adding that they are good for bumpy country roads.

 

I seek respite from the dry summer heat in a restaurant after visiting the Garni Temple, the only pagan temple left in the country.

 

Meals in Armenia are well-balanced affairs, starting with lavish bread and cheese and salads of carrots, eggplants, zucchinis, followed by a main course, which can be a beef and potato stew or grilled pork.

 

I wash down my meals with a cup of thick black coffee, usually served with desserts such as yogurt.

 

The dish I like best is dolma, made of steamed minced beef and rice wrapped in grape leaf - the leaf can be eaten and is soft and aromatic. The zucchini salad also stands out for its piquant and smoky flavour.

 

While there are one or two KFC or Burger King outlets in Yerevan, Starbucks and McDonald's have not made a dent in Armenia.

 

I think of what Mr Khachaturian had said about how the Armenians have historically survived various attempts at assimilation. For example, despite the clampdown on religion during the Soviet era, Armenians have mostly stuck to their Christian faith.

 

It is a reflection perhaps of Armenia's particular charm: It has seen its lands carved up by foreign empires down the ages, but has clung onto its identity, relatively untouched by foreign influences.

 

• The writer's trip was supported by the government of Armenia.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

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