Armenia: Gyumri – Ashtarak – Yerevan, 15 – 20 July 2015
Traveling from Gyumri towards Yerevan means to cross over some hilly, stony and dry ranges before we see the green planes full with apricot trees, cherry trees and vegetable gardens. The Aragats mountain (over 4000m) was calling us. We visited the Amberd Fortress (a fort from the seventh century, destroyed by Timur in the thirteenth century) on the slopes of the mountain and a lake (3170m) and while driving up we passed many high pastures where the farmer families with the cattle spend the summer month in plastic tents. The road to the lake is very narrow (in the list of the most dangerous roads of the world) but no problem for normal cars like ours. The night we have spent in a home stay in Ashtarak on the foot of the mountain, 20km away from the capital Yerevan. Our host was the 22 year old son of the family. Their house is surrounded with fruit trees and a huge wild garden. In booking.com the host offers a room with balcony and mountain view but the cherry tree in front of the window covered the view with all the nice sweet fruits. In Yerevan we stay in „Villa Delenda“. It belongs to the same owner, (an Italian) like Villa Kars in Gyumri. Their philosophy is to support with the income different local NGO`s for family care and production of ceramic art. The Hotels themselves are decorated with special artifacts like old furniture, carpets and ceramic items and they are located in old but renovated buildings. Yerevan is a colorful and lively city. In the evening everybody is on the road just for walking, or sitting in one of the numerous street cafes or garden restaurants. Fountains with music , parks with a stage for concerts and playgrounds for the kids with bicycles and cars are the attraction for the young and old citizens and all the tourist from Iran and other countries around Armenia. From our point of view the life on the roads of Yerevan shows a big contrast to the atmosphere we were experiencing, while visiting the national museum with their presentation of the very old, old and younger history of the Country.
Armenia: Wednesday, 15 July 2015
Gyumri (or Alexandrapol during the Tsar’s time), is the second largest city in Armenia and situated at 1500m altitude and thus enjoys a cooler climate during the summer months. Here the climate was still pleasant with around 25°C (when Tbilisi and Yerevan accounted for 37°C). Gyumri is also the city of the cantonments for 5000 Russian soldiers within the military alliance contract between Russia and Armenia.
The layout of the city is marked by rectangular arranged streets. The centre has representative large squares and fountains, and broad boulevards with gardens in the central parts. We started the day with a visit to the Folk Architecture and City Life Museum located in the best known and most beautiful patrician house build by the rich family of Ts’ithoghtsyan in 1872. The facades of the house are beautifully arranged in black and red tuff stones. The museum offers an insight into the life of people of the past centuries and of the emerging trade and industrial period end of the 19th/beginning 20th century. The one story adjacent building includes at least 30 death masks of people from Gyumri of the years of 1930’s – a rather macabre exposition. A series of additional well build patrician villas of the end of the 19th century can be admired along the Abovyan street. They are, however, in a very bad shape, close to their collapse.
Gyumri left a very ambiguous impression. Most of the central, originally well laid out parks are not maintained, the grass is standing dry and uncut, the benches broken, the once beautiful patrician houses falling apart. The streets next to the central avenue/boulevard were in dilapidated conditions, similar to most of the houses, many of them still unrepaired after the 1988 earthquake.
A visit to the green parks west of the centre with the amusement structures has given no other impression. The paths and staircases disintegrate and trees overgrow the out-of-order installations. A centrally located huge hall with in-door tropical plants, a large stage and a tiger, a lion and wild boar decorating the top of the bar rounded up the impression of strangeness and morbidity. Later on we learned to know that this hall was/is a mafia place where not a long times ago vendettas with Kalashnikovs were carried out right in the restaurant hall.
While discussing our impression with Armenians we learned that Gyumri is still ruled by the Armenian mafia, as the country is divided up in zones of control by powerful individuals and families. 1/3 of the country’s economic sectors are controlled by one single oligarch; 2/3 of the economy’s sectors are controlled by one or two oligarchs only. This wealth for few has been accumulated during the past good 20 years and originate from common people’s property. Is this the reason, why, according to opinion polls of the Eurasia Foundation (http://caucasusbarometer.org/en/), 2/3 of the youth (18 to 35 year old) would like to leave the country for good, if they would have an opportunity – the no future generation? We know that the country’s population is shrinking; presently there are not more than around 2 million. From the discussions with local people we learned that this process of emigration is faster than ever before. While travelling through the countryside and visiting the few villages one recognises that the rural areas are nearly empty. The few people one can make out are old men and women. If this process is not stopped the country will implode. While the government of Armenia just celebrated the memorial year of the Genocide and emphasis the country’s difficult relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, it does not recognise the inner enemy which seems to be much more destructive and powerful: the Armenian mafia and the corruption, the grid for power and wealth by the political elite betraying their own population. I fear, if this process will continue, a great, rich culture and nation that thrived over thousands of years will vanish – extinct not by the external but the internal enemy, the today’s political elite of Armenia.
Seit Dienstag 14. Juli sind wir in Gyumri (Armenien). Das Verkehrschaos in Tiflis hat uns noch ein bisschen zurückgehalten und standesgemäss verabschiedet. Die Ruhe und ein letztes georgisches Mahl in der Mühle von Bolnisi haben den Abend abgerundet.
Eine ungeplante Begegnung am nächsten Morgen in Dmanisi mit einer Archäologin und Freunden aus Tiflis, ermöglichte uns einen tieferen Einblick in die historische Wichtigkeit dieses Ortes. Hier wurden in den letzten 17 Jahren wichtige Fundstücke von Tieren und Menschen ausgegraben, welche die Geschichtsschreibung bezüglich der Entwicklung des Menschen revolutioniert. Ein toller letzter Tag in Georgien.
Jetzt sind wir in Gyumri, der zweitgrössten Stadt Armeniens und sind umgeben von einer sehr eigenen Stimmung. Die Parkanlagen und Fusswege sind vergammelt, wunderschöne Tuffsteingebäude aus der Hochblüte der Stadt sind dem Zerfall geweiht und das Museum in einem ehemaligen Patrizierhaus unterstreicht die aufgekommene triste Stimmung mit dunklen Gemälden, verblichenen Fotos, stickigen Zimmereinrichtungen und Büsten von toten Helden in ungepflegten Hallen. Die einst wunderschöne Gartenanlage ist verwildert. Genau solche Ecken und dazwischen entdeckte Paradiesli haben uns dazu bewogen, noch eine Nacht länger hier zu bleiben. Wir sind in einer Stein-Villa untergebracht mit tollem Innenhof und einem Hotelbesitzer (Italiener), der Ruedi im Moment in entwicklungspolitische Diskussionen verwickelt.
Darum habe ich Zeit, diese Zeilen in Ruhe zu schreiben.
Georgia: Tuesday, 14 July 2015
The planned journey of the day was to bring us across the border to Armenia. Our destination was Gyumri, the second largest city of Armenia in the Shirak marz at the border of Georgia. First, however, the road led us through the open gold mines close to Bolnisi. Along the road side one passes the oldest gold mine of the world of Sadkrisi, estimated to be around 4000 years. During the past years we closely followed up the sad story of its deliberate destruction. Those who would like to know more, please check the websites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakdrisi; http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27499882. The short version of the story is that last year the gold company RGM in a surprise coup blew up and destroyed the whole ancient mine. The background of this move is that the open mining of gold in the region creates most serious environmental hazards with the heavy metals washed out into the rivers that are used for agricultural irrigation downstream and thus ends up in the nutrition value chain through tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes etc. sold in the markets of Tbilisi and other places. During our earlier visits to the miners’ settlement we learned from the local people that the cancer prevalence and skin diseases are many times higher than average. The records are available but not disclosed publically. It is assumed that the mining company fear the regular visits of the ancient historic site by tourists as this may display and eventually disclose the environmental hazards to a wider public according to the motto: no historic site, no problem.
The major highlight of the day however was the visit to Dmanisi. Next to the medieval ruins of the old city that was destroyed by Timberland (or Timur, the ruler of a vast empire with the capital Samarkand to today’s Uzbekistan), is an excavation site that changed the understanding of the human history with the spreading of the homos sapiens beyond Africa. Till to the 1990’s, one believed that the first homo sapiens have left Africa around 1 million years ago. The Georgian anthropologist David Lordkipanidze discovered in 1991 a jawbone of a human being that was considerably older. Due to the turmoil in the early post-soviet period, he did not disclose his findings immediately. Anyway, later on, when the first results were published that the age must be 1.8 million, the science community did not believe him, till he found a well preserved scull and confirmed the first findings. The other stunning discovery was that the sculls of the same age showed features that earlier were interpreted as different branches of human beings of different age periods. In addition, one of the jawbones had no teethes anymore which indicates that the ancient community has taken care of the individual, who must have been an old person – a unique human behaviour. For more details please see https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_georgicus. During our visit to the archaeological site we met Laurie, a friend of Gabi she knew from the Intern. Women Assoc. (IWA). Laurie was on a day visit with husband and friends and was guided by one of the Georgian archaeologist working with David Lordkipanidze since the first discovery. What a luck for us and benefit to get a really competent scientific guide. Thank you, Laurie, to have been able to join and learn through your knowledgeable guide.
In the afternoon we followed the very bad and bumpy road through a beautiful green and hilly forest landscape to the border. The Georgian and Armenian border guards were friendly and efficient and within half an hour we could continue our journey. At the Armenian side we crossed a vast plateau with a new and well paved road. In the early evening we reached Gyumri, the second largest city of Armenia and the capital of the Shirak marz. We checked in in Hotel Art Berlin, a clean and nice Boutique Hotel right in the centre of the town.
Georgia: Monday, 13 July 2015
Goodbye tension, hallo pension – that was the maxim enshrined on a T-shirt ceremonially handed over to me by my Tbilisi staff at the farewell party on Friday last week. Today, Monday, 13 July 2015 was the day to leave, to say goodbye to Tbilisi. First, however, I still had to clean up my office desk, to archive all the official emails of four years and last but not least to close our private bank account. Thanks to Eka Chigogidze, who intervened at the higher management level of TBC to have the lower ranking officials allowing me to close the account (the problem was that some of our payments by credit card were not transferred by the bank; the solution has been to transfer the amounts of pending payments to a separate account that needed to be opened and the permission given to the bank to close it once the money has been released; to fulfil all the administrative obligations took me 2 hours of waiting and signing nearly a dozen of papers). If I would not have managed we would have had to stay another night in Tbilisi – thank you Eka once again for your help! At five o’clock the last hugs were given and tears shed. I quickly went home; Gabi was wait since long. The car was loaded and off it has gone, right into the traffic jam of an endless car queue living Tbilisi after working hours. The exit road to Rustavi was under repair. Stop and go, all in walking speed. In one hour we covered two to three kilometres of distance. The last time we could experience the innovative art of the Georgians to overtake in places without any space, to squeeze their car into traffic bottlenecks that afterwards nothing was moving anymore for 15 to 20 minutes. Goodbye tension, hallo pension!
We made it not very far. Some 50 kilometres outside of Tbilisi in Bolnisi, an old German settlement, we booked a room in Gasthaus zur Alten Mühle and spent there our first night on our long journey home. Not even the imaginary clatter of the mill wheels was able to disturb our good and deep sleep.
If you want to know more about the Germans past in Bolnisi please consult: http://www.muehle-bolnisi.com/?page_id=25. In the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century the region also hosted around 100 Swiss farmers, who specialised on cheese making, among Emmentaler (the big cheese with the big holes). All the Swiss farmers have left Georgia during the revolutionary turmoil, some of them back to Switzerland and others to America.