The only way into Armenia is through Georgia. Actually, it is also the only way out as the entire border with Azerbaijan has been both closed and fortified ever since the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh which started over twenty years ago. Armenia is sandwiched between two countries with which it cannot communicate. A strip of land in Southern Armenia harbours a customs-passage point with Iran. Moreover, in the South-Western part, Armenia also comprises Nakhchivan, the landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan, a region which has been the bone of contention between the Armenians and the Azerbaijani for centuries, a battlefield which has seen countless and repeated interethnic massacres.
For causes which have yet to be clarified, Georgia is very chary of highway maps – merchandise virtually impossible to find. The Google map doesn’t even feature the main roads. So we ended up losing our way from Tbilisi to Yerevan and reached an almost deserted and outlandish land border: Guguti-Tashir. The roads in and out of Georgia seem to be the subject of a defence strategy – they are destroyed by craters so that potential invaders make their way in slow motion.
We get our Armenian visa in ten minutes and optimistically receive the welcome greetings of the customs officers. Passing the customs point turns out to be quite a delicate operation – very representative of a country smothered by red tape and corruption. Five employees with various positions in one single office work for an hour and manage to provide us with ten different papers in order to let us go. In the end, all we see is the copy of some receipt. We pay about 70$ for a 14-day pass on the roads of Armenia. Otherwise, the group of officials is very friendly and kind. After repeated yells, the head of the customs officers even wakes up from the bed he had improvised behind the desk. He interrupts his afternoon nap and his subordinates follow suit. They stop their PC poker game to check if the car was stolen.
On our way to Yerevan, we pass through a barren and mountainous landscape, very similar to the villages in Kars, Turkey. For the first time on this journey, I have the distinct impression of having entered a Soviet country. The reason: the ubiquitous police with their brand-new cars, Western limos, though they display an attitude typical of the militia - the Soviet cap with its huge peak pulled back and a beer belly, proudly jutted out, pouring over their trousers.
The militiamen represent only the prelude to the similar atmosphere of Yerevan, the capital. At first sight, the city seems right in line with other Soviet cities: renovated buildings from Stalin’s days, large boulevards, generous monuments and squares, outskirts teeming with Communist apartment buildings. And yet, the atmosphere is a very relaxing one: hills near by, a row of greenery, downtown Yerevan encircled by crowded terraces. Moreover, unlike the landscape of Tbilisi, the shops, the streetlights and the crowds in any day of the week give one the impression of luxury. At sunset, in Republic Square, hundreds of people watch the show: an artesian well accompanied by a strobe light. The loudspeakers pour out music by Charles Aznavour, while, in the background, one can make out Mount Ararat.
Old, hidden and crammed houses from past centuries emerge from behind apartment buildings. Many tall buildings with luxury apartments have taken their place. Tourists often complain Yerevan is a very expensive city, especially when it comes to hotels. Two beds in a hostel downtown cost more than renting an apartment by the day. And yet, the boulevards are swamped with overcrowded cafés even at midnight.
Behind lit façades, poverty lurks. In the building where we rented an apartment, the water’s cut off from midnight till morning, and from time to time even the electricity. Depending on the area, the entire city suffers from regular shorter or longer water / electricity failures. The neighbour below us knocks alarmed at out door. He commands me in a shrill Russian voice to turn the water off and grabs me by the hand to show me the flooding. Although this is an ultra central building, the apartment hasn’t been renovated for tens of years. The kitchen is equipped with just a gas cylinder with a burner. On the balcony, the old man has built himself a little workshop where he works on some silvery daggers which he sells at the souvenir fair.