We got up early to start the last of the hair-raising journeys through Armenia, this time towards Yerevan. A local guy called Hayk collected us from the eco-resort in his clapped out car to take us to Goris, from where we could get a mini-bus.
He explained to us with words and gestures that today was his 21st birthday, and proudly showed us a carved wooden skull with rather alarming eye sockets, which was his birthday present. It was an ashtray, a fact he clearly thought was hilarious. As we bumped and flew over the pot holes and around the bends, it felt a little like a sign. A single standing stone obscured by the mist, revealed itself. He tried to make conversation with Scott, which consisted of him asking why he didn’t also have a car. Was he too poor? Each corner caused the wooden heart hanging from his rear view mirror to smash wildly against the windshield. And each time, like Sysiphos, he carefully disentangled it, only for it to tangle up again almost immediately. This one-handed attention to the wooden heart, and one-pointed attention to his wooden skull ashtray, did not make for a comforting journey, and I was relieved to wave him off to his birthday celebrations as he set off for Kapan, a town near the Iranian border. What would he do to mark turning 21, I wondered. Talk cars and smoke cigarettes probably, like every young man across the planet.
The five hour journey to Yerevan in a mini-bus could have been five hours of hell if I had not had any headphones. Apparently playing deafeningly loud Euro-pop in minibuses going to Yerevan is a thing in Armenia. I could tell Scott was secretly loving it, so I gave up attempting to talk to him over the din, and settled back against the window pane to listen to David Sylvian’s soothing chocolatey voice, with a smudgy layer of disco beats seeping through. The sun set as the journey progressed and as we swung round a particularly tight bend, the double peaks of Mount Arayat, both near and far, came into view.
Yerevan bus station in the dark – sudden city, dusty noise. We spent about three minutes considering public transport before heading for the taxi rank. I had booked a hostel months ago for the rock bottom price of about seven Euros a night, no breakfast. Still, it was called the Art Guesthouse so I imagined it would be full of weary arty travellers like us. We could lounge around on kilim cushions with red wine and share travel yarns. The first taxi driver looked at the address and turned away with a humpf. The second taxi driver was ancient, sounded like he was about to keel over from a rattling cough and wheezed down the phone to the guesthouse for a long time on Scott’s mobile. We set off with great banging and spluttering of the engine which sounded as sick as the driver, and then seemed to skirt a large empty space for many miles. I followed on google maps which was intermittent, but seemed to be showing us indeed skirting a large empty space with few roads. I had severe misgivings, was tired from the strain of five hours of my favourite singer being pop-icized, and wanted nothing more than a shower, a real meal in a restaurant and a bed. This was like a much more dangerous version of the taxi in Istanbul. Eventually we arrived at a bleak road which was full of tyre shops and car repair units. The driver indicated that we had arrived at the Art Guesthouse, and turfed us out.
In a dark corner near a stack of tyres appeared a dapper little man wearing a beret. He motioned us up some dark stairs and we followed him into an apartment. He motioned us up some stairs towards a bedroom with a glass door and no lock. Then he disappeared. There were some rather good oil paintings of Armenian churches on our walls. I put two and two together and realised that the beret and paintings constituted the ‘art’ part, but the ‘guesthouse’ bit seemed sorely lacking. We were fucking miles from Yerevan on some industrial belt in a residential house. It just got worse as we wandered in the freezing wind up and down a dual carriageway looking for any lights which might indicate a restaurant or hotel. But there was nothing. That night we huddled up in the nylon bedspread with some dried pastry thing that had once been fresh, a bag of crisps and a bottle of red wine which was wasted on us. With only one further night to go of the trip, I was determined that we would not spend it in the Art Guesthouse, and fired up Booking.com.
The next morning we got up early and found ourselves in a deserted house, locked in with no key. WTF I said to Scott. He was unperturbed and said leave it to him. Then he used Manc skills, and found a back door which led to a back garden which lead to a tyre shop courtyard which lead to a road. We made a run for it.
Villa Delenda was the most beautiful welcoming hotel and made everything OK. Most of Yerevan is not beautiful, but the few little 19th century houses of which the villa is one, was creaky and bendy and worn. Smooth brown wooden floors and spacious rooms and a little library with lamps and sofas and books. It was like being in an Italian pension from an E.M. Forster novel. They let us arrive early and stay into the middle of the next night for our early flight. They gave us coffee and a cups-and-saucers kind of a breakfast. They smiled and told us all about the ceramics pottery in the basement, the profits of which go to the Family Care Foundation, a not for profit institution that funds healthcare programmes in Armenia.
I am both an adventurous scruffy traveller who gets a kick out of roughing it in middle age, and a middle-class girl who likes cotton sheets. The latter took over with a vengeance and I used all the toiletries, the internet, rolled around on the bed, hung my filthy clothes up on coat hangers and dug out some makeup. Let’s have a city break! I said to Scott. He smiled at me in agreement, and said he was particularly impressed with the free slippers.
Yerevan is open, green and full of smog. It has wide streets and pockets of slums. It is full of new buildings and striking deco architecture. It has bland restaurants, hopeful modern bars and is wobblingly, sweetly finding itself. If a city is an expression of a community identity, Yerevan has just bought itself some new shoes but is not past the blister stage yet. I felt a kindness towards the whole place and I can’t put my finger on why. We walked around the old part, looking in windows, and eating three times at The Green Bean. A choice of vegetarian meals, real coffee, funky jokey blackboards – Europe style. They spoke English too here in the big smoke, and I felt a guilty pang that we hadn’t left our surly waitress in the eco resort a bigger tip.
We went to a puppet show in the afternoon at The Yerevan State Puppet Theatre. Somehow we didn’t think it through, and found ourselves the only adults with no child, amongst shrieking shouting five years olds, sitting through the three little pigs in Armenian, and trying to look less tall in the little seats. We sneaked out in the interval brandishing my camera, so it looked like we were there for work.
It was early November, and a deeply shadowed, sunny day where we could still drink wine outside. So we did, then climbed up the modernist Cascade building, which is a huge stairway made of limestone. Seven clunky escalators inside align modern art pieces. Residents who live high up above the city use the escalators to get into town. Chatting lip-glossed teenagers, and elderly people with carrier bags stand on the escalators, ignoring the sculptures and tourists. We climbed to the top where there was blue sky and geometric stone patterns and when we turned, we saw Mount Arayat floating above the city.
For the last night of our trip we decided to find the party in Yerevan, if there was a party to be had. Living in Berlin, we are spoiled for nightlife. We can go to the best techno any day of the week. We can go to the Kitkat club in our underwear every Saturday if we like. We can go to jazz. We can stay out for days at a time and never go home and still have change from a fifty. So we have been optimistic but ultimately disappointed in the last few years in our treks around Europe. We have looked for jazz bars and live music and dancing and parties everywhere. In Krakow, in Prague, in Amsterdam, cool as it is, it doesn’t compare. In Venice and Milan, admittedly we expected everything to close by ten, which it did. Even in Naples, cool and gritty, not a jazz joint to be found. So we did not have high hopes, but gave Yerevan the benefit of the doubt before adding it to the list. The night was to start at Malkhas Jazz Club, Armenia’s best apparently, and Lonely Planet said we needed to ‘dress to impress’. So I called to book a table, and put on my limp dress from the bottom of my rucksack and some lipstick. Scott looked impressed. Maybe this is where we would find the cool weary travellers to hang out and chat into the wee hours with….
It was orange and brown inside and had those promising black and white pictures of jazz musicians on the wall. Our table was in a corner behind a pillar. All we could see was a couple at the next table and each other. I ordered a drink that was the same colour as the decor and tasted like melted tangerine jelly. Muzak inspired tunes drifted from behind the pillar – cover versions of pop songs. This was the live band. I slurped down my jelly and we got the hell out. Next, we tried The Beatles Bar. There were Beatles pictures, Beatles words and boxes of Beatles tissues on every table. And eighties pop music. Still it was a popular place. Scott and I discussed what the Beatles may have thought about the bar and decided they wouldn’t have liked it. Three drinks down, we went to one last random bar, and realised we had found the place that typified Armenian underground nightlife. A whole way of partying, free from external influence, had built itself up in an independent bubble; and it rocked! The place was jammed full, and the guys behind the bar had a laptop from which they were playing the heaviest of heavy metal. Loads of ordinary hipsters with beards and trainers were all head-banging along with it in time. They knew every single word of every track and leaped and sang with gusto. We perched on a stool at one end of the bar in the sweat and heat and raucous joy. I ordered a dirty martini and it was the worst martini I have ever had -over-brined and under-chilled. But it didn’t matter; the unexpected wild affirmation of music and smoke and alcohol was infectious. On our way out, I asked a group of women if this was normal for a Saturday night in Yerevan. Yes, of course, she laughed – we love our city and we love this!
Twelve hours later I was lying on a comfy sofa in Brussels Airport waiting for our plane back to Berlin, snoozing. It was slick and proud and confident in that airport. Someone was playing classical music on the public piano and it drifted across the concourse. There was nothing loud, or stomach-lurching or surprising. We had followed our impromtpu Eurovision travel plan all the way to Armenia. I am still not sure I really got it though, as a country. It peeps out from behind the ranged mountain tops and through the cracked windscreens and from the ancient churches. Perhaps next time we should just go for it, and rent a car…