In the spring of 2005, to gather ideas for my second unfinished book The Anti-Guidebook, I travelled, solo, to Armenia. Why Armenia? Because, I had “done” South-East Asia and Europe – proper Europe – was insufficiently exotic. Surveying the map, Armenia was perfect, and perhaps after my first failed trip to Iran – with my Iranian visa arriving on 9/11 – I stood a chance of a land crossing into Iran.
By far, Armenia is my number one travel recommendation for any traveler. You should go. Geographically, politically, religiously and culturally, Armenia has it all, with the tastiest of food. The capital, Yerevan, also gave me the best night out of my life, in which – ridiculously – I bought everyone in a swanky bar a shot of vodka at a cost of something like $10. Bucket list item ticked-off.
I’m blogging about this trip now, due to the recent traumatic news emanating out of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, sandwiched between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Until that trip, I hadn’t heard of the self-proclaimed country of Nagorno-Karabakh, either.
When the Iran Embassy refused to give me a visa, I successfully obtained a visa for NK, as it is known. Nestled in the mountains, access from Armenia was along a winding dirt track. I was to stay with a family, who knew my hosts from Yerevan. None spoke English.
Although fighting between Armenians and the Azerbaijanis had largely cooled, on some roads there was the risk that an Azerbaijani unit would take a potshot at you, but that didn’t come to pass. The family who hosted me were kind and accommodating. Although we couldn’t communicate in words, there was an air of sadness throughout the humble house, due to the loss of the husband in the recent war, leaving two young boys to grow up fatherless. Their grandfather came to the house regularly to provide some male guidance.
On one day, the grandfather took me for a drive, with both boys, in a 40-year-old Lada, over the hills, just to show me around. He took me to beautiful churches – for this region was the first to become Christian – to bombed-out cities, smashed tanks and, poignantly, to the graveyard where the boys’ father, his son, was buried. We lit candles.
On another day, the boys took me on a walk to the national football stadium, and then into the woods around the capital Stepanakert. During this walk, I realised that I was about to step on what appeared to be a landmine, buried in the ground. With luck on my side, somehow, I dodged it, then skedaddled home, scalding the boys the best I could for them taking me such a dangerous route. I cannot say for certain that it was a landmine, or an unexploded ordinance, but it was of military origin.
I have no words of wisdom to offer on the rights and wrongs of the conflict, but I can tell you that my hosts were kind, tough and trustworthy. I wish them well. Steinbeck wrote: “I have homes everywhere, many of which I have not yet seen. That is perhaps why I am restless: I haven’t seen all my homes.” I know how he feels. This home now has new masters
(Given the issues in the region, I have not published images of my hosts).