29.06.2017 - 29.06.2017
Day 36 Thursday 29 June 2017
Dzoraget to Dilijan via Odzun & Vanadzor
- The road closure (extensive reconstruction of tarmac surface ) means that we cannot explore further into the Debed Canyon nor visit Dsegh. We decide to leave Dzoroget on Thursday, bring forward all subsequent hotel reservations by one day and spend three nights in Yerevan instead of two. There will be enough to do in Armenia's capital city to justify the extra time. As you can imagine this takes some organisation. It is fortunate that we are staying all, except one night, with the Tufenkian hotel group. We do not have to pay any late cancellation charges.
- A few things we need to remember about Armenia as we travel around:
- Today it is the smallest & poorest of the three Caucasus countries we visit. It has a population of about 3.5 million and that number is fairly static. It is estimated that the Armenian diaspora living all over the world is about 10 million.
- It is landlocked by 4 countries - Turkey, Georgia, Iran & Azerbaijan. For political reasons, only its borders with Georgia and Iran are open. The long term dispute with Azerbaijan about the Nagorno-Karabakh region is unresolved and bitter. Although there has been a cease fire since 1994, it is feared the troubles could flare up again at the slightest provocation by one side or another. Turkey naturally supports its fellow Muslim and Turkic speaking ally, Azerbaijan. So both borders remain closed. This inevitably means Armenia's economic growth is adversely affected.
- Armenia's geographic position should mean that it benefits from the region's trade and commerce but it has been deliberately sidelined by Turkey & Azerbaijan in several major 21C projects- the oil (BTC) and gas pipelines (SCP) that run from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. Similarly the Baku Tbilisi Kars railway, which has just been completed. This allows a freight train to travel from South Korea to Istanbul in just 15 days. Armenia has been bypassed and not included.
- But how times have changed. Historic Armenia was a massive, rich Kingdom. Inevitably empires rise and empires fall. This happened to Armenia, sitting as it did on the Eurasian crossroads of trade & power. In the early centuries of the 1st Millenium AD it became a buffer between the Greeks & Romans from the West and the Persians & Arabs from the East. Gradually Great Armenia's territory was reduced and occupied. Then along came the Ottomans with aspirations against the Persians ( 16C onwards ) and then the Russians ( 18C onwards ) with their territorial ambitions against the Ottomans. It's complicated and you may be interested in checking out for yourself just how and when Great Armenia became the small country it is today.
- As for the 21C, while Azerbaijan develops, thanks to its rich natural resources & while Georgia benefits from its politically more neutral status and its crucial geographical position, poor old Armenia is still recovering from the Soviet era.
- Armenia, although independent from Russia since 1990's, has opted to look to Russia rather than West for support & protection. The war against Azerbaijan has left Armenia economically isolated. More than 20% of its exports go to Russia, it is a member of EEU ( Eurasian Economic Zone which is Russian led) and it has contracted to buy its fuel only from Russia. This is no doubt as a safeguard against any future troubles with Turkey & Azerbaijan.
- Unfortunately the Russian economy has its own huge problems and is not the source of subsidies that the EU is to Georgia. Add to that the systemic corruption within government, a President ( Serzh Sargsyan ) who at times uses democratic tools to reinforce and perpetuate his power and you get the formula for poverty and lack of social justice.
- The bottom line of this history lesson is that Armenia is poor. And this will be obvious from the photos. According to IMF its GDP ranking in 2011 was 122 out 185 countries.
- Anyway back to the trip.
- Actually the enforced detour may not be a bad thing. We must drive up out of the Debed Gorge onto an extensive plateau area ( 1500-1800 m ) via Odzun to Vanadzor where we pick up our intended route. The countryside is lush & green with beautiful wild flowers in full bloom.
- At Odzun we stop to visit the Church of St Astvatsatsin Church. Legend has it that St Thomas buried Christ's swaddling clothes here during 1C AD. Some of the building we see dates from 5C.
- Restoration work has started at this monastery complex - there is no evidence of who is funding the project. To attract tourism to Armenia, its churches & monasteries do require some TLC. But let's hope that this is done sympathetically and in a way that allows the imperfections of old age to remain!
- At Vanadzor we visit the local food market and buy some provisions for a picnic lunch. A fair few stalls are selling coffee beans. The Armenians enjoy drinking coffee too. We have already been offered a cup several times today. It is a sign of hospitality.
- After 150 km or so we arrive at Dilijan and check in early to our Tukenkian Hotel. Because we have changed dates we wish to ensure we have a room. The bedrooms have been converted from original houses that lined the old street of Dilijan before the main road was built. Views of the valley are very pleasant. In case we have time on hands the hotel has a small museum, craft workshops and of course several souvenir stalls on site. We don't.
- We of course have another monastery to visit. We drive 20 km or so from Dilijan to Haghartsin where we see an example of a fully restored 10-13C church complex. Apparently it has been funded entirely by the Sheikh of Sharjah ( not sure what his connection is or why ). It is perhaps also an example of renovation work that is too pristine. There are even electric lights in the old refrectory. It makes us appreciate, retrospectively, Akhtala, Haghpat & Sanahin that we visited yesterday.
- Opposite our hotel an enterprising young Armenian girl has opened up a coffee shop called Caffeine. It sells coffee freshly ground to order, herbal teas and delicious carrot muffins. Wifi signal is good and the music chilled. On our return from Haghartsin we recharge our batteries.
- By the way the truck battery has started recharging. SG is allowed off the naughty step.
- For supper we decide to walk 1 km or so to the Flying Ostrich restaurant owned by the same Armenian American as the famous Dolmama in Yerevan. Jirair Avanian happens to be here on site this evening and he plans our menu and recommends our wine. We are in good hands and his choice is delicious. He explains that here in Dilijan he has developed a farmhouse style of menu whereas in Yerevan it is more sophisticated. By the way there is ostrich on the menu and it is locally reared.