Rustaveli Avenue and Holy Trinity Cathedral

They’re building a new mall, and the lighting is so fun!

Sunday started off with khinkali for brunch. It’s not really a brunch food, but brunch also happened at about 1PM so at that point I don’t think it matters anymore. Khinkali is a classic Georgian food that you can also get in Armenia, and it’s one of my favorites… after I describe it, I’m sure you’ll be shocked. It’s basically a dumpling with any variety of things inside – beef, cheese, mushrooms, other meats, vegetables, etc – and either boiled or fried. They’re folded up to look like little money bags (I’m unfortunately not one of those “take pictures of my food” people, so you have to use your imagination), and you’re supposed to pick them up, bite the side, and drink the broth. Definitely not a first date food. Fried cheese khinkali is the best, in my opinion.

Maybe we didn’t go to the right place (though we did ask a bunch of people for recommendations), but I didn’t think they were much better than the khinkali you can get in Armenia. I mean, they were still great because how can you mess up khinkali, but I assumed that going to the source would result in a superior culinary experience. This is very Armenian of me. “Yes, khinkali is originally Georgian, but in Armenia, we do it better!” Not necessarily better, but about the same. Like I said, maybe we didn’t go to the right place.

The plan for the day was to walk down the main street, Rustaveli Avenue, and take in the sights along the way. The only other thing that I wanted to do was go to the church with the golden top. I had no idea what church it was, but it was bright and shiny, we saw it from every overlook in the city the day before, and I wanted to see it up close.

Our walk took us past the Opera and Ballet Theatre, a gigantic, wedding cake-looking building painted in yellow and maroon. The theatre was completed in 1851 and went through its most recent restoration just last year, so it was at its best for us. I wanted to go inside, but the doors were locked… I suppose that means I have to go back and buy some tickets to see a show! We tried to peer in through the windows which didn’t work very well. The glass was too dark to see anything more than the hint of some chandeliers. Darn.

Opera and Ballet Theatre

Movie theater. Clearly.

As we continued down the street, we started noticing some interesting outfits. Tara and I were in the middle of a “have you noticed that fashion is way more of a thing here?” conversation when we walked past the building where Tbilisi fashion week was in full swing. Oh. I guess that explains it. We tried to snoop around a bit inside, but we stuck out like sore thumbs in our bland clothing. We couldn’t get a good sense of what was going on before feeling like we should get our boring, regular outfits out of there.

We also saw Parliament, the Georgia National Museum, another church (because you can’t walk 5 feet without hitting another church), and the City Assembly before hopping on the metro to go see the shiny church! Turns out that church is called Holy Trinity Cathedral, and it’s basically the equivalent of St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan (with a little bit of Etchmiadzin mixed in). It was built to celebrate 1500 years of the Georgian Orthodox Church, is massive, and is still unfinished despite being “completed” in 2004.

Parliament

City Assembly and Liberty Square

It’s huge

I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently, part of the church complex was built over an old Armenian cemetery, Khojavank. It started out as the site of an Armenian church, built in the mid-1600s, and the cemetery grew around it until the 1920s. It contained more than 90,000 graves and was the largest Armenian cemetery in Tbilisi.

The first destruction happened in the 1930s, ordered by a Georgian Soviet politician. The church on the grounds was demolished, and the church materials plus some gravestones and khatchkars (carved cross stones used for a variety of things including marking graves) were taken and reused in the construction of other buildings.

The Armenian Pantheon was opened in 1962 and contained saved gravestones and khatchkars and the remaining graves. When this new church was designed, it supposedly wasn’t going to touch Khojavank, but that wasn’t true, and a significant part of the park was dug up and destroyed. Armenians obviously weren’t thrilled about this, and during construction, they said that it was horribly disrespected. Bones and tombstones were dug up and scattered by excavators before getting carted off to some unknown location. Protests managed to stop construction for a second, but it soon resumed without any changes.

Inside Holy Trinity Cathedral

Now, a much smaller Pantheon houses the graves of numerous significant Armenians including Hovhannes Tumanyan (a poet/writer who has a lot of roads in Armenia named after him. Not to be confused with Alexander Tamanyan the architect who ruined Yerevan).

It was fairly dark outside by the time we made it to the church, but we still could have checked out the Pantheon had we known it was there. Some prior research in this situation would have been helpful. That’s one of the dangers of just going with the flow… sometimes you miss things. Well, in general, my conclusion after writing about the weekend is that I need to go back to Tbilisi to do the things we didn’t have time for, so I’ll add that to my list of places to visit.

The church, besides being built on the graves of Armenians, is pretty cool. It’s huge. Like super huge. It also has the same number of lights shining on it as the rest of Tbilisi combined. That’s made up, but I do have some night pictures of the city where the church is unarguably the brightest spot. It’s part of a whole complex that also has a monastery, seminary school, and more.

Can you guess where the church is?

I’m a fan of smaller churches because they usually have more personality, but there were definitely some nice features of this church. The carvings were spectacular. The inside was overwhelming, but honestly, it wasn’t my favorite. It was one of those “makes you feel like an ant” churches. I felt like it was too big. That’s okay though. I liked the outside much more.

Holy Trinity Cathedral on the epic approach

You can see that they’re in the middle of doing the carvings on this column. So cool!

After we finished getting lost in the church, we hightailed it back to the hostel to meet our ride. We had the same driver as on the way to Georgia, and it took the same impossibly long amount of time. I don’t know how. We didn’t get a flat tire or anything, and it still took seven hours. HOW?

The infamous tree

I passed out in the backseat and woke up to us stopping in the middle of nowhere. No lights. If we were in the States, I would have been sure that he was going to murder us, but this is Armenia so that never crossed my mind. My friend in the front seat said that he wanted to show her some tree. What. I got out with them because that sounded sketchy to me, but he literally just wanted to show her some gigantic, hollowed-out tree that has a church inside (of course). It was supposedly planted by Vartan Mamigonian… he’s an Armenian saint and military hero who was commander of the armed forces in the 5th century. He and his army fought in a battle against the Persians that is credited with leading to religious freedom for the Armenian people. They lost the battle and he was killed, but he “saved Christianity” in Armenia because eventually a treaty was signed allowing Armenians to worship freely. It’s a little depressing that the greatest Armenian military hero both lost and was killed in the battle he’s famous for, but we won’t get into that. Anyway, what everyone DOESN’T know about Vartan is that when he wasn’t fighting battles, he was planting trees in Sarigyugh. I’m sure.

If you look at a map, you’ll probably understand why it took us seven hours to get home because Sarigyugh is absolutely not on the way. Oh well. If it made sense, we wouldn’t be in Armenia.

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Sulfur Baths and the Bridge of Peace

Sulfur stream. You can see the baths to the right side of the picture.

A trip to Tbilisi isn’t complete without a trip to the famous Tbilisi sulfur baths. According to legend, the sulfur hot springs are the reason why a settlement was started in that location in the first place. “Tbilisi” comes from the Georgian word for “warm”, tbili. The sulfur baths are still going strong today, and there are a few different bathhouses to choose from, ranging from super shady looking to super expensive looking. Supposedly, the water is great for your skin, and you can get a body scrub and massage to go along with it. There are public baths (separated by gender) or private, and I’m guessing most tourists go with the private option. There are stories about mothers going to the public baths to scope out wives for their sons because that’s not weird at all (everyone is naked, in case you didn’t catch that). I personally don’t understand why I would want to soak in questionable rotten egg water for an hour, but maybe if I go back I’ll have to check it out as one of those “try it once” experiences. Eh. Or maybe not.

Doesn’t this look like something out of a fantasy movie? Elves. Definitely elves in this movie.

 

Do you remember Mike’s friend Hovsep who showed us around Vanadzor? If not, Mike (my brother) has a friend, Hovsep, who he met about 4 years ago when he was in Armenia doing a service project. When my family went to Vanadzor, where Hovsep lives, he showed us around.

While we were loitering by the sulfur baths, plotting our next move, I saw a guy who looked vaguely familiar walking up the sidewalk. I was 80% sure that it was Mike’s friend, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name (there are too many Armenian “H” names – Harout, Hagop, Hrant, Hovsep, Hovhannes, I could go on). I wasn’t willing to commit to a hello on the 20% chance that I didn’t actually know him, so I instead stood there, stared at him, and gave the world’s least awkward wave when he looked at me. I could practically see the gears turning in his head and the face of recognition once he remembered how we knew each other. The whole thing was incredibly weird. I don’t even see people I know in Armenia… How on earth did I manage to see someone I know in GEORGIA? He gave us a few recommendations of things to check out, and we parted ways. I think both of us were still baffled by the time we said goodbye. Talk about random.

Windows of Tbilisi

Still obsessed with the river

Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Once I recovered, we realized we were starving and went to grab lunch/rest our aching feet. It was way after normal lunchtime, so by the time we finished and hit the road again, it was starting to get dark. No matter though, we still had things to do and places to see! We were close to the former “Armenian quarter” in the city and decided to head there next. On our way, we saw a sign for Queen Darejan Palace and figured we might as well check it out. We had no clue what we were headed for, but isn’t that half the fun of exploring?

On our way there, we passed a church playing beautiful music on its speakers outside. I thought it was just some mood music, but nope! There was a service going on, and the singing alternated between the priests and a group of five women. I don’t know if it was the night, the church acoustics, the lighting in the church, or just the harmonization, but it was magical. Every time the five women sang, I got chills. I’ve never heard anything so awesome. I know that’s a bold statement, but seriously, they were incredible. I’m sure the ambiance didn’t hurt… I was getting a little lightheaded from breathing the air in there (based on the excessive incensing, I assume it was a Georgian Orthodox church).

When I was about ready to pass out from the fumes, we went outside, looked out over the city, and tried to process everything. My friend Tara said it was the most magical thing she’s ever experienced, so there’s some proof that it wasn’t just me! There was something awesome happening in that tiny church, and we got to be part of it because of a last-minute detour.

View of the city from the palace/magical church… plus a terrifying number of birds (bats??) that happened to be flying by

The palace is right next to the church and was closed, but it didn’t even matter. We peered at it over the fence and then kept moving. We decided to make a new rule for our exploring – no backtracking. That means that if you make a wrong turn, you can’t just turn around. You have to keep going and figure out a new way. If you’re trying to get somewhere on a schedule, I strongly discourage this approach. If you’re in it for the adventure, strong recommend. We wandered past the other Armenian church, Etchmiadzin (creative name, right?), and the Presidential Palace (it has a glass dome!), made a few less-than-ideal street crossings, and eventually made our way to the most futuristic-looking bridge in the city, The Bridge of Peace.

The Bridge of Peace, fully illuminated

Okay, when I said that Narikala Fortress is my favorite thing we saw in Tbilisi, I forgot about the bridge. We can let them share the #1 spot, but seriously… This. Bridge. Is. So. Cool. It’s a pedestrian bridge over the Kura River (the one that runs through the middle of Tbilisi), and I’m sure it’s one of those things that everyone complained about when it was built because it’s modern and doesn’t match anything in the city. I don’t care about any of that. All I care about is the lighting. THE LIGHTING. I was losing my mind and no one else seemed even remotely excited or impressed. Apparently, there are four different lighting programs that change hourly, and if I had been there by myself, I might have stayed for four hours to see them all. There are lights in the canopy over the bridge AND in the glass handrail panels. I’ve never seen anything like those panels before… the LEDs were in a grid between two sheets of glass and looked totally seamless. It was like magic.

The program running when we were there was mesmerizing. The canopy was lit in white and red, making the Georgian flag, and the lights brightened and dimmed in waves. That was coordinated with the handrail lights which turned on and off in waves, so when you walk across, a wave of light shoots past you and fades into the distance. It was like something out of the future. Like I said, no one else’s excitement level was even close to mine. Bummer. I need to go back so I can stare at the lights again, this time unburdened by guilt from making people wait for me while I nerd out.

Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition… quite the mouthful, huh?

Our intended destination after the bridge was a restaurant, but our “no backtracking” rule had us going in all sorts of wrong directions (also because I wasn’t trying very hard at navigating. We’ve already talked about this – going the right way takes the fun out of everything). We popped into another church that we happened to pass (because why not?) and then made a last-minute turn into the Tbilisi History Museum. You usually have to pay to go in, but there happened to be a temporary modern art exhibition opening that night. We walked right in and got to experience the joys of modern art including amusing ourselves by pretending that normal things in the room were part of the exhibition. Tara and I spent a good five minutes scrutinizing an air conditioner and were thrilled when a woman came over and gave it a second look. Otherwise, it was pretty much par for the course on modern art. Some of it looked cool, some of it looked unfinished, and most of it looked weird.

By the time we made it to the restaurant, everyone was ready for a good nap. My feet wanted to fall off. I consider that the sign of an exploration day done right, so hooray for us! I slept VERY well that night.

The ceiling in Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition

Cool part of the modern art exhibit. Don’t ask me what the point is because I don’t know. I just like how it looks.

The main atrium in the Tbilisi History Museum. I love that so many buildings actually have lighting that someone put effort into. What a concept.

Tbilisi and Narikala Fortress

Green wall! On the outside of a building! Whose colors are changing for fall! Cool.

Welcome to Tbilisi! I know it probably felt like we were never going to make it, but here we are! Despite our late-night arrival, I was determined not to waste any time! I woke up at 8 on Saturday, took a shower, got dressed, and returned to the room to find everyone else still passed out. It didn’t look like they were getting up anytime soon, so I sent them messages saying I was out for a walk and to text me when they were awake. After getting a map from the front desk, I set off with no plans beyond walking generally south where I knew I’d eventually hit a river.

First reaction: It was weird being in a foreign country that wasn’t Armenia. It made me realize how comfortable I’ve gotten here! Yes, I can’t have an in-depth conversation in Armenian (or even a non-in-depth conversation about anything besides where I’m from, what foods I ate today, or whether or not I’m married), but I can at least say enough to find my way around, say hello and thank you, and feel like I’m not a mute. I hate having to rely on other people being able to speak English because it makes me feel like a bum… I guess, though, that’s mostly because English is my first language. If my first language was Spanish and I knew English to help me when I travelled, I wouldn’t feel like I was just expecting everyone to cater to me. I would feel like we were speaking the international language of travel. But alas, English is my native language, and it doesn’t matter how many other languages I learn if I’m not in a country that speaks one of them.

I think this is an office building. I was sure it had to be something artsy to deserve such a cool facade, but I don’t think so. How about that!?

I tried to learn a few basic Georgian phrases, but I forgot how hard it is to remember things when you’re not used to the sounds. It’s almost better to not know how to say “hello” in the local language because then people know immediately that they need to speak to you in English. I guess after that you can say, “Do you speak English?” but I only like to do that if I can say it in the language. Too many words, so I focused my efforts on “thank you” and “excuse me”. It never really clicked… my default now when I hear other people speaking a non-English language is to start speaking Armenian, and I had to fight against that reflex the whole weekend.

Flea market

Anyway, my first impression of Tbilisi was that it’s not so different from Armenia. Maybe that’s because, if you remember from my Armenian Inventions post, Armenians built Tbilisi. It is true that there was a significant Armenian population in Tbilisi at some points in history (in the early 1800s the city was almost 75% Armenian), but who knows how much the Armenians can factually take credit for. I mean, practically, they’re happy to take credit for all of it. Factually, I’m not sure.

One big difference between Tbilisi and Yerevan is the river. The Kura River runs right through the center of the city, and it makes everything look a thousand times cooler. It’s also not super flat there, so the city is naturally more visually interesting. There are some skyscrapers and a few examples of weird modern architecture, making it feel more western. What’s a modern city without weird, modern buildings, right?

The Presidential Palace, complete with a glass dome, and a weird modern building that I called the macaroni building but that someone else more accurately described as a blood vessel building.

The river and the Bridge of Peace

Cliffs in the middle of a city… See how cool rivers are??

Cliffs cliffs cliffs

The coolest

Me and Tara

After wandering around for almost an hour, I made my way back to the hostel to check on my friends. They were just about ready for breakfast, and after eating, we headed back out onto the streets. Since I basically knew my way around the whole city by then, I was in charge of sightseeing destinations and navigation (though the latter is mostly because I had functional maps on my phone). We walked around a bit just to get a feel for the city before taking a cable car up Sololaki Hill to see Kartlis Deda, Narikala Fortress, and the National Botanical Garden.

Kartlis Deda is basically Georgia’s “Mother Armenia” equivalent (so… Mother Georgia). She was erected to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1500th birthday, and she has a bowl of wine in one hand for those who come as friends and a sword in the other for those who come as enemies. There’s also a fantastic view of the city from there, and after taking a million of the same picture, we headed to the fortress.

Kartlis Deda! Well, from behind. You really can’t get a good picture of her from up on the hill

The view from the top of the hill!

You can see the cable car and the park where we started our ride

The botanical garden plus a coolio building with a partial green roof/underground portion

World’s steepest steps, Noravank style

Narikala Fortress was established in the 4th century by the Persians. Since then, it was expanded and repaired in the 7th and 8th centuries, the 11th, and the 16th and 17th, all by different people… you know, whoever had control of Georgia at the moment. So basically, who knows what the heck it looked like in the 4th century, but it sure didn’t look like it does now.

The fortress is awesome!! It’s probably one of my favorite things that we saw all weekend. We should have just waited until we got there for our view of the city! I love the places where you can go and climb around on things and no one’s yelling at you or telling you not to go somewhere, and this was one of those. No entrance fee, no security people. Just the expectation that you’re not going to do anything stupid. Ah, the expectation of common sense is so rare these days.

We took our time wandering around and investigating as many nooks and crannies as we could find. There’s also a church in the center that was built in the 1990s to replace the previous one which burned down. It was beautiful on the inside (paintings galore!), but I don’t know what they were thinking when they picked the stone for the outside. It kind of looks like it was made of plywood. Ick.

Plywood Church

Narikala Fortress. Doesn’t it look like it’s just growing out of the top of the hill?

Have I mentioned that I want to live in a castle someday?

This was completely safe.

*insert emoji with heart eyes*

See the cliffs by the river?

Okay so every picture is practically the same, but the view is so cool that you feel like you need to keep taking them

Outside of St. George’s

From there, we walked down the hill with nothing more than a general direction to guide us (probably everyone else thought that I was actually leading the group based on the map or some plan, but they say ignorance is bliss, so sometimes there’s no reason to burst that bubble). By chance, we stumbled upon one of the two functional Armenian churches left in the city, St. George’s Cathedral.

There’s some disagreement about when St. George’s was built, so we’ll say it was maybe built in the 13th century and that maybe there was a 7th-century church there before that. It’s also the seat of the Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church and, which in my opinion should be the church’s biggest claim to fame, the burial location of Sayat Nova! He’s the namesake of about 50% of the streets in Armenia and was a poet and musician who, though he lived in Georgia, was Armenian. And don’t you ever forget it! HE WAS ARMENIAN.

I know, I got distracted again. Back to the church. It has a brick/stucco exterior, common to churches in Georgia, and the inside is covered in murals. It was interesting to see how different it is from churches in Armenia. Everything is way more ornate than in most churches here, and the murals are extensive. I could tell that all of us felt at ease there, maybe because we felt like we were among people with whom we could actually communicate. Oh, the luxury.

Inside St. George’s

After our brief taste of home, we were off again, trekking through the streets in a semi-planned direction. Our next stop was Juma Mosque… which may or may not have been the mosque I was aiming for, but no one has to know that. I actually don’t even know. There are two mosques on the map, and we made it to one, so that’s called a success. (I want to clarify the fact I CAN read a map. The issue, which I can refer to you my university cartography professor to hear about in more detail if you’re interested, is these darn tourist maps that try to be all artsy and end up making a map that’s barely usable because things don’t actually show in the right places. Isn’t the whole POINT of a map to show things in the right places??)

The mosque is plain looking from the outside, just a simple brick building, and we would have completely missed it if the doors weren’t open. The inside, on the other hand, is spectacular. The ceilings, the walls, the everythings were beautiful. I’m a big fan of blue, and it seems like that’s a popular color when it comes to mosque decorations. I was curious about the reason behind that, so I looked it up. It doesn’t look like there’s any connection between Islam and blue, but in the Middle East, blue represents safety and protection as well as immortality, spirituality, and heaven. Those seem like some pretty good reasons to pick blue for the primary color in a religious building! I don’t usually think much about it, but the psychology of colors is interesting. Blue does suggest a kind of peacefulness that seems appropriate in the worship context. Hm.

I didn’t take a picture of the outside of the mosque, but just picture a nondescript brick building and you’ve got it. The inside though… definitely not nondescript

The ceiling

I’m going to give you some time to ponder color psychology, mostly so that I don’t include a full novel in one post. If you’re busy, you can go do your busy person things. If not, look up the meanings of colors in different cultures. It’s interesting, I promise. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Mini-Georgian/Armenian History Lesson

Random Tbilisi street with more of those classic balconies (similar to ones you’ll see in Armenia)

As promised, brace yourself for some history! I’m sure most Armenians would never admit it, but Georgia and Armenia have had somewhat similar historical experiences and are similar culturally. Both countries declared Christianity the state religion in the early 4th century, though any Armenian will quickly tell you that Armenia was first in 301 AD. Georgia followed not long after in 337 AD. Predictably, the populations today are majority Christian, though it would be interesting to know how religiously active people in Georgia are. In Armenia, practically everyone will say that they’re Christian and practically no one regularly attends church. I imagine a lot of that has to do with the 70 secular years of the Soviet Union which would mean that you’d expect Georgia to be in a similar situation. I don’t know if that’s true or not, though.

As usual, I’m getting ahead of myself… I could go into detail about the years between the beginning of the world and modern times, but that could take all day. Let me focus on the highlights.

The oldest wine jars in the world were found in Georgia. This is apparently a commonly ignored fact by the people who insist that Armenians invented wine because the world’s oldest winery was found here. The wine jars are around 2,000 years older, but I’m sure that any good Armenian would quickly recover and maintain their claims by telling you that either 1. wherever those jars were found used to be Armenia, 2. whoever made the wine was definitely Armenian and the Georgians just bought some because it was so good, or 3. the Georgians were jealous, so they fabricated history and the jars are a lie.

This is the “Mother Language Monument”. During Soviet times, there was an attempt to impose Russian as the official language in all Soviet republics. Georgians protested, and as a result, they were allowed to continue with Georgian as their official language. The story in Armenia is pretty much exactly the same with the Armenian language.

Throughout history, both countries spent a considerable amount of time getting conquered and reconquered by different empires and dynasties. They each had their golden ages when they were on top, and those were both short-lived. For a while, the Byzantine Empire and then Ottoman Turkey controlled both western Georgia and Western Armenia. Eastern Armenia and eastern Georgia were under the rule of the Persians and later the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire managed to win back many of the Ottoman-controlled regions of Georgia, reuniting the country. Western Armenia, on the other hand, remained under Ottoman rule. (Side note: this long period of being ruled by different empires is much of the reason for the linguistic and cultural differences between Western Armenians – most of the Diaspora – and Eastern Armenians – most of the people in modern-day Armenia.)

In 1918 at the end of World War I, both Armenia and Georgia set up their first republics and swiftly got into a border conflict with one another. It seems like every single one of these stories has the same plot line. Two countries. One believes that the land should be allocated based on historical claims or majority populations. The other believes that the land should be allocated based on a random line drawn by some random, powerful country. You can probably guess that each chooses its stance based on which is most beneficial to them. They fought for about a month until the British got involved, and the border landed where it is now with part of the disputed territory in each country.

I thought this poster was interesting because of how the museum is clearly presenting the Soviet years. Even without seeing the exhibit, you can tell that it’s all going to be very negative. In Armenia, on the other hand, it doesn’t seem like most people look back on the Soviet years with the same intense negative feelings.

Both countries had short-lived independence as they got sucked into the Soviet Union in 1921. They were combined with Azerbaijan to form the “Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic” until it was re-split into those three parts in 1936. After 70 years as part of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Georgia became independent again in 1991 and formed their second republics.

Now, Georgia is an important trade partner for Armenia because the Armenia-Georgia border is the largest open border that Armenia has left (since the west and east borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed due to the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan in Karabakh). However, Armenia is allied with Russia and is on bad terms with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Georgia is having its own territory issues because two of its regions have declared independence, supported by Russia, and Georgia refuses to recognize them. So, Georgia and Russia are on bad terms, and Georgia is allied with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Does your head hurt? My head hurts. You don’t even know how much I left out, but just say thank you. The Armenian/Georgian relationship is fragile at best, but the Armenian government at least isn’t going to do anything to mess it up. It hasn’t recognized either of Georgia’s “independent” regions, but that’s not surprising because it also hasn’t recognized Karabakh/Artsakh as independent even though the Armenian military is physically involved in that conflict. I think Armenia’s international stance is “we really can’t afford to get on anyone else’s bad side so let’s be as diplomatic as we can about everything and not make anyone mad”.

On one of the bridges in Tbilisi.. See the hammer and sickle in the middle? I guess there’s some limit to the Georgian determination to erase the memory of Soviet years… or maybe they just haven’t gotten to this bridge yet.

Okay, so there you go! Some mind-numbing historical background. I guess my point was to show that the two countries have kind of been living parallel histories, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve reacted in similar ways to some things and in very different ways to others.

I’ll get into fun sightseeing stuff in the next post. No more long history, I promise! (Short history though… there will likely be some short history.)

The Road to Georgia

Adventures on adventures! One of my friends asked a few weeks ago if I wanted to go to Georgia for a weekend, and of course I said yes! That’s Georgia the country, to be clear. It only takes about 5 hours (theoretically) to get to the capital, Tbilisi, by car from Yerevan, and most people go there when they need to renew their passport stamps because it’s the easiest open border to get to.

Here are some random Tbilisi views for your enjoyment. This is from one of the hills that overlooks the city.

Someone knew a driver and got in touch with him to organize rides to Tbilisi on Friday after work and back to Yerevan Sunday night. He asked if we could also take a woman to a village along the way, we agreed, and he subtracted her fare from our total. The drive started out okay. I mean, traffic was terrible getting out of Yerevan, but what do you expect when you leave at rush hour?

A Tbilisi street

This also was my first experience getting a gas refill in a car that runs on natural gas. I guess I never had to think about it before because I rarely even go to gas stations here. In hindsight, I realize that I’ve been in taxis with huge gas tanks in the trunk, and while I didn’t think twice about it at the time, those were probably natural gas-powered cars as well.

Armenia is apparently one of the biggest users in the world of natural gas-powered vehicles. I think it’s mostly just because it’s cheaper than gasoline, but it’s also kind of a pain. When you stop to fill the car, everyone has to get out and wait in a “safe zone” in case the car blows up. No big deal. As they say, as long as everything is installed correctly, it’s not dangerous… which is exactly my concern. I had a conversation with someone about this who said, “Oh they’re very safe. I’ve only seen a car blow up once.” Oh, well then! You’re right. No big deal. Know how many times I’ve seen a car blow up? Zero, and it would be nice to keep it that way.

I don’t know if the picture properly communicates the feeling, but this place looked like something out of a movie with elves in it. Something about the styles of the buildings and the colors and the way they’re all arranged on the hill… I don’t know. It was like something out of a fantasy movie.

Anyway, the stops to get gas took a bit longer than anticipated, and then, just as we dropped the extra woman off, we got a flat tire. Wonderful. As the woman is hopping out of the car (knowing full well that we have a flat), she gives a jolly, “Bari djanapar!” (have a good journey) and shuts the door behind her. My jaw dropped, and I literally gave a laugh of disbelief and a “she’s joking, right???” Who does that? “Oh, that’s too bad that you all have a flat, but here I am at my destination! How wonderful! Have a great journey!” Thanks a lot, lady.

These balconies used to be popular in Armenia as well, but they’re kind of a dying breed here (mostly because of the destruction of historic Yerevan and a lack of maintenance).

The joke was on her though because in classic Armenia fashion, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, we were invited to wait inside her friend’s house until the tire was changed. I guess it was someone’s birthday because cake was involved, plus the usual offers of coffee, tea, water, or anything else you could possibly want.

Finally, we set off again on the final stretch before the border. There’s nothing more fun than an 11PM border crossing! First, we got to the Armenian border. We all had to pile out of the car and walk through passport control while the driver went across with the car. Then, we piled back in, drove through what I assume is some sort of no-man’s land, and piled back out again at the Georgia border. We walked through passport control with our bags and met the driver again on the other side. Now I have passport stamps galore! From there, it was maybe an hour before we got to Tbilisi.

You know how long the whole thing took us? SEVEN HOURS. Instead of five. SEVEN. We got in after midnight, and I immediately passed out. I figured the sooner I slept, the earlier I could wake up and start exploring!

I think this is going to turn into a little Georgia weekend mini-series… I’m cutting part one off here because I don’t want to make your head explode. We’ll take it in small pieces instead, so stay tuned for a mini-Georgian/Armenian parallel history lesson.

Work and Life and Work

I haven’t given a work/general life update in a while, so let me try to catch you up! After my family left, it was a bit of chaos. I spent the first two weeks back at work running around like a lunatic. The plans needed to be finalized for the project and ASAP. In the week that I was gone, things just piled up, and when I got back, it was a combination of catching up on what I missed and trying to cross tasks off the list.

Festive stairwell decorations at work.

There were also meetings. A lot of meetings. Also, a lot of meetings that I had little to no notice of. For example:

“Hey, Lara. The people from the electrical utility company are going to visit the property to see where we want them to bring the electrical service.”

“Okay, no problem. When are they coming?”

“They’re already there. Can you go meet them now?”

I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, but how the heck did they put up these clotheslines??? They are NOT close to the ground, and some of them aren’t even close to a window on the opposite building. I don’t get it.

I mean, luckily there hasn’t been anything yet that I couldn’t handle. I knew what I needed to tell the electrical guy, and when the same thing happened later with the structural/seismic engineer, I knew what I needed to talk to him about too. He was another person who I was immediately impressed by and respected. He was nice, remarked that I look like his brother’s granddaughter, and told me that my Armenian is good. (True or not, I’ll take the compliment. I think that my accent is decent, so people always assume that I can speak a lot more than I actually can. At least that’s one less thing I need to work on.) Besides just being a nice guy, I could tell that he knew what he was talking about. He helped to design the original building, so I felt pretty confident that if he told us it wasn’t going to fall down if we cut a door out of one of the walls, he was right.

Besides the many surprise meetings, in classic building design fashion, everything changed about 100 times. Here’s the general summary of the last three weeks:

  1. Have a meeting.
  2. Make decisions.
  3. Lara makes a design based on the decisions.
  4. Everyone accepts the design.
  5. Something changes. Or someone changes their mind.
  6. Repeat infinitely.

It rained a couple of days, and this is the exit from my building. You couldn’t get anywhere without walking through like 3 inches of water. I got downstairs in my sneakers, opened the door, and turned right around to go and change into waterproof shoes.

If you think that sounds exhausting, you’re right. If you think that sounds frustrating, it probably should be, but I’ve decided I’m just going to go with the flow. Otherwise, I would have lost my mind by now. As if things couldn’t get any more ridiculous, I got back from Thanksgiving to learn that the construction deadline has been moved up from the end of the year… to December 4th. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. That. Is. Crazy. They started working on the walls and the ceiling last week, but how on earth are they supposed to be ready for the equipment in 5 days?!? That’s a whopping two weeks total for construction, and that’s ridiculous. I mean, I guess technically almost anything is possible, but only if either money or quality compromises are made. I don’t know. I’m just going to do my best because that’s all I can control.

Me with Nareg and Rachel, my work friends who left me 😦

Aside from work, life has been good! I mean, life is good even with work, but everything else is good too. I feel like I’m making progress again in language class, and that’s a huge relief after feeling like I was stuck in place or even regressing. The week before I flew home for Thanksgiving, I was the only student in my language class, and it was awesome! My teacher and I went over a bunch of things I wanted to learn and did a lot of speaking practice. I still am far from good, but my vocabulary is improving and I’m feeling more comfortable. It’s exciting! I also feel like I’m getting to know my teacher better, and that makes class more fun in general.

Practicing our funny faces. This kid has an evil eye like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Now, I’m back after spending Thanksgiving at home. It was kind of a whirlwind week. The goals were to see some friends and spend as much time with family as possible, and I’d say I achieved both of those. It was another one of those “not exactly what I would call restful” vacations, but a good emotional recharge nonetheless.

The best thing to come out of the week (besides a lot of baby smiles) was the scheduling of another family vacation to Armenia! This time, three of my cousins are coming in March! The whole thing went from a semi-joking, “Hey maybe I’ll visit you haha,” from one of them into a, “Hey our vacations match up! The three of us should actually go,” in about 5 minutes, and two days later, the plane tickets were purchased. Talk about major spur-of-the-moment decisions! If you’re thinking, “I thought you were leaving at the end of February,” well… make that March.

In the time that I was away, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees (F), all of the fountains in the city got embellished with fancy lighted sculpture things (they already drained them a few weeks ago), and two of my co-volunteers at Aleppo went home. Lots of changes, but I’m still here! It’s cool getting to see how the city changes throughout the year. Can you believe that December is the beginning of my 6th month in Armenia?? Me. Neither.

One of the fountain sculpture things. It’s not lit up, but maybe there’s some fountain lighting day that hasn’t happened yet (or it was just too early in the night).

Charents Arch, Garni Temple, and Geghard Monastery

Okay, here we finally are… Day 7! The week with my family was simultaneously the longest and shortest week ever. Each day was a jam-packed experience, but when the week was over, it felt like they had just arrived. I think that’s just the way life goes. It feels long when you’re living through it, but looking back, it seems like it all passed in a second.

Charents Arch

In the last few years, I’ve been trying to really savor the good moments and those times when I have that feeling of inner peace like everything is as it should be. For me, that’s just making an active effort to recognize when things are great and memorizing everything about those moments. It’s almost like I take a second to step outside of myself, look at the scene around me, see the people, remember the feeling, and then go back into experiencing it. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but since I’ve started thinking that way, it’s made it easier for me to access those times and that peaceful feeling in my memory. Wow okay, bit of a sidetrack, sorry!

View from Charents Arch

Like I was saying, Day 7! Our final day’s schedule was to visit Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery with a stop at Charents Arch along the way. Another one of my brother Mike’s requests (besides the hiking one) was to go somewhere with a good view of Mount Ararat. As far as I know, the two best places to see Ararat from Armenia are Khor Virap and Charents Arch. Unfortunately, my family was here during an incredibly hazy/cloudy/foggy week, and despite scheduling Khor Virap and Charents Arch 5 days apart, the visibility was equally horrible on both days.

Hey, Ararat! Oh, you can’t see it? Yeah, exactly.

The arch was built in 1957, named after Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, and features words from one of his poems, For My Sweet Armenia, talking about how the beauty of Ararat is unrivaled in all the world. I’m sure we would have agreed if we had seen it, but mostly it just looked like someone pulled off an amazing magic trick and made the mountain disappear. I can’t complain though. If the worst part of the trip is the fact that we never got a good view of Ararat, I can live with that.

The fam with Ararat (supposedly)

Pretty tree

Charents Arch was a new stop for me, but I had already visited Garni and Geghard with Sarah. You can read more background information about those sites HERE.

Garni Temple

Views from Garni

So pretty!

Fall!

❤ ❤ ❤

Garni selfie

Geghard selfie

I did see some new things at Geghard, though. When I went with Sarah, we went with a taxi and had an hour to explore. This time, we had as much time as we wanted, and Mike and I did a little extra exploring. After we finished checking out the monastery and crawling into every nook and cranny we could find, we started heading back to the parking lot. Mike spotted a path going up the mountain and asked if I wanted to check it out with him. Hmm… random, semi-overgrown path leading to who knows where? Did he even have to ask? That practically screams “Lara!”

Tossing for wishes

Fall! Fall! Fall!

Inside Geghard with Mom and me peeking in from a hole at the top

Fancy khatchkar wall

Some cave holes and the cave chapel, including an itty bitty me and an itty bitty Mike hiding in the chapel (don’t even bother trying to see us because you don’t have a chance. Just trust me. You can see my mom though! Hey, purple jacket!)

I wasn’t exactly dressed for a side excursion (black pants = dirt everywhere, boots with no traction = possible death), but you can’t let small details like that get in the way of adventure! Mom had read about how the Geghard monks used to live in caves surrounding the monastery, so we were hoping that’s what we were about to find. There were a bunch of caves, plus another little cave chapel popping out of the side of the mountain. I’m not completely sure how they managed to build some of these things…

We went into a few different caves that were definitely monks’ quarters. In one of them, Mike tested out what looked like a bed nook, or a “monk bunk” as we decided they should be called. Very comfortable, I’m sure. The Geghard monks were known for their simple, minimalistic, and hermit-y lifestyle, and what better way to live that life than in a remote cave with a stone bed?

A lot of the cave homes have been destroyed by earthquakes, so there isn’t a definitive number for how many there were. Some estimates are in the hundreds, and they weren’t all as accessible as the ones we saw. Supposedly there are/were some that can only be accessed by ropes or ladders! I guess I’ll have to take my ropes and grappling hook with me next time I go.

Cave chapel with awesome carvings

The cave chapel we saw is named after St. Gregory, and it’s said that he lived in one of the cave dwellings back in the 4th century when he was preaching in the region. I personally am just amazed at the fact that St. Gregory managed to do something at practically every place in the entire country. “This is where St. Gregory was imprisoned in a pit.” “This is where St. Gregory lived in a cave while he preached in the surrounding area.” “This church was built on a rock where St. Gregory once sat to rest on a long journey.” “This monument displays the grain of sand that touched the actual foot of St. Gregory when he vacationed briefly at Lake Sevan to regain his tan after being imprisoned in a pit.” “St. Gregory had a vision that this field was filled with flowers and when he came here and sneezed, flowers immediately grew.” “This village is where St. Gregory once got a flat tire and had to stay the night until it was fixed.” It seems like no matter where you go, St. Gregory did SOMETHING there. (Okay, yes, I made some of those up, but they could just as easily be real claims.)

I know, I let myself get sidetracked again. Sorry. In summary: there are caves at Geghard where monks used to live. St. Gregory maybe lived there. Cave chapel. Monk bunk.

St. Gregory’s cave chapel

Mike on a monk bunk!

Cliffs and cave holes

After finishing up at Geghard, we headed back to Yerevan to wander around until dinnertime. I took my parents to see the office bunker where I work (it’s underground and has no windows), and we did some last-minute perusing at Vernissage.

Even though the planning for my family’s trip was a LOT of work, and I was semi-stressed the entire time because I wanted everything to go perfectly, it was so much fun to have them here. I certainly didn’t feel physically refreshed after they left (honestly, I could have used a vacation after the vacation), but I was emotionally refreshed.

Can you believe that practically everything went exactly according to plan? And the one thing I couldn’t control, the weather, was fantastic! I’m calling it a success! If you need an Armenia vacation planner, I’m basically a professional now.