About 75 miles north of Armenia's capital sits a quiet town near the closed Turkish border named Gyumri. Few travelers venture here, a city bursting with history, hospitality, humor and — as is common in the Armenian story that spans eons — tragedy.
The 1988 earthquake did a number on Gyumri, killing upwards of 50,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. The city's magnificent and distinct style of architecture also suffered, with many of its buildings still in remnants, and thousands of its people still living in temporary metal containers called domiks.
Once an important trade and cultural center with roots in the 8th century B.C., Gyumri remains a shadow of itself. Emigration has depleted the town and government assistance barely, if at all, reaches Armenia's second largest city. Corruption runs rampant, while the struggle for day to day living has taken its toll on the residents who remain.
Many long for the days of the Soviet era, where factories, and by proxy, jobs were abundant and worrying about whether your child would eat or stay warm during the city's harsh winters was practically nonexistent.
Mkrtich is one of them. A 73-year-old shoemaker, he toils in his small shop, full to the brim with the shoes of Gyumri, and a photo of Joseph Stalin on his wall. He romantically reminisces of what life in the city used to be like, before the earthquake killed one of his sons and the Soviet Union collapsed.
“This town used to be full of life, but now it's empty. When you go outside and look at people's faces, they're half there, half gone” he says.
He's not a fan of any of the current government, or any past ones, that emerged after communism. Affluent diasporans like Kirk Kerkorian and Charles Aznavour havedonated millions to help Gyumri recover, he says, but the money instead found its way into unknown pockets.
Despite its circumstances and hardships, the soul of Gyumri shines through its people, like Mkrtich, whose dialect, peppered with western Armenian words and phrases, is a trait unique to the area.
Sitting on his tattered sofa, next to the high-heeled shoes of Gyumri's women on each side, all pairs waiting to be repaired after use on the cobblestoned streets, Mkrtich told me about his worries and frustrations and what the city he loved so dearly lost. In those moments, had I closed my eyes, I could have been speaking to my grandfather. Mkrtich's warmness and willingness to treat me not as a tourist, a diasporan, or even an Armenian, but as a human who had showed up in his shop on a random Wednesday, asking about his life, left otherworldly impressions on me.
This was a quality reflected in everyone I met in Gyumri, including the arcade owner and her shop full of Soviet-era relics any old-school gamer would have salivated over. There was the street seller who carried a vintage coin in his pocket, and after finding out I was visiting from the U.S., asked me to identify the home state.
As I rode the three-hour train back with locals, I felt Gyumri had shown me a slice of the real Armenia — a place where history and hospitality overshadowed stereotypes and swank, a place with nothing, yet everything.
Gyumri reminded me why I had come to Armenia, but it also reminded me of why I loved Los Angeles — with its sprawling traffic and Hollywood hype tainting its world image. The best places, experiences and people can be found in places so few strive to look for, in the corners and crevices of bustling neighborhoods that much of the country and the region for that matter, doesn't know about.
And yes, even the Jewel City, with its homey feel, convergence of culture and passionate residents, is a diamond in the rough. From Gyumri to Glendale, I've discovered that seeking the road less traveled is more rewarding than you think.
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a writer and editor who has been covering arts, culture and news in print and online for a number of years.