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  • Jerome Kocher

77. Armenia - First Impressions

My first impression was dramatic. In line at the passport control, the Armenian customs agent jumped out of his seat behind the glass window and came around into our line vehemently admonishing several locals (?) who had cut into the group of tourists. Finally someone who takes border enforcement seriously. I had not seen this at any other border. We were normally left to ourselves to protect our own space in line. Minutes before I had moved to the left with wide elbows to block two agressive women taking advantage of the gap between the Chinese and us. In sports terms, I was protecting the paint. But the customs agent was the ref blowing the whistle. Impressive. It makes sense when I was later told that Armenia is very safe, even at 2am in the morning. 

The next impression was an ice cream bar in the cooler at a border market. A version of hammer and sickle, with a field of red and gold star. Looks Russian to me. Hopefully dark chocolate. And that gives me a second window into the soul of Armenia. Russia is friend and ally. The passport control used Armenian and Russian language. That would be anathema at the Georgia control 100 meters behind us.

Russia has helped Armenia in the conflict of disputed territories (see map) against Azerbaijan. Actually since Stalin’s time Russia is again responsible for much of the tension because it pitted different ethnic groups against each other for leverage and control. Russian soldiers have a base here to protect Armenia from Turkey, a genocide denier. With all this, you can kiss any idea of joining the EU goodbye, not to mention NATO membership. Georgia is the only Caucasus country with any interest or chance of being invited to the Big Dance in Brussels. Or even wanting to buy a dress. Not even Turkey (a NATO member) is in the E.U. This region is too much of a stretch to claim to be part of Europe.

Within an hour of leaving the border with Georgia we already come to another border, this time with Azerbaijan that's closed. It’s the conflict zone with abandoned stone houses and scars of previous wars and current tension. A No Man’s Land with no Peace in sight. When I applied for my Azerbaijan Visa I had to declare I had never been there. I may not be able to say the same thing today.

After a meal of dolmas wrapped in both grape and cabbage leaves, we contnued into the mountains. But back to Russian dark chocolate. I was wrong. The wrapping is Soviet inspired, reminding Armenians that during the USSR this was in fact the best ice cream, and by inference a nostalgia for the “Good Old Days” of stability and security within the USSR. I asked my guide if her parents were nostalgic for the Soviet Union. No, she said. In fact in the early 90’s her parents fought for Independence. But thirty years later, today, if you asked them that same question, they will admit Independence was a mistake and they were better off as a Soviet Republic. That hammer and sicle ice cream tastes even better today. As good as the dolmas.

When you don’t have a job, or dolmas or even good ice cream, the need for freedom is over rated. Once again, stability and security are the foundation for a peaceful existence before you have the luxury to worry about satisfying higher levels on the pyramid of human needs. This is never more apparent than in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Armenia is the last country on my tour of the Silk Road. It coincides with a legend that when God handed out territory to different peoples, Georgia and Armenia were at the end of the line drinking wine, of course. Georgia said she was drinking to God’s health, so she was given the beautiful High Caucasus and the Black Sea. When Armenia tried to flatter God with the same excuse, it didn’t work. God said all that was left were some stones so he dumped them into the current mountains of Armenia. That image easily characterizes the history of Armenia, a step child that’s always persecuted and ends up with the short end of the stick. Driving through those stone mountains I’m surprised by the thick forested cover. Armenia may be landlocked with no naval access, but it’s surrounded by a sea of velvet lush green, especially now in June.

We went through an elongated mountain tunnel only to emerge in a different world. We were higher. The forests disappeared, only to be replaced by pastures of an alpine landscape. Armenia’s largest body of water, Lake Sevan, came into view crowned by an Armenian Apostolic Church with a commanding view of the lake. It’s called Apostolic because two of the apostles of Christ came here in the first century, making Armenia the first country to be Christianized.

With Soviet ice cream behind me and the capital of Yerevan yet to come, I was ready to see what Armenia is like, a country that I know little to nothing about, except for its unspeakable tragedy in the twentieth century. But that’s another story. 

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