Intersections: Discovering the heart of Armenia

On a mild summer day, itching to get out of Yerevan, I took a Soviet minibus known locally as a marshutka to the northern Armenian city of Vanadzor. After weeks in the congested capital, Vanadzor's lush landscapes, wide spaces and crisp air put me at ease.

Picnic blanket in hand, I walked past neighborhood backgammon games in the middle of the street and trunks full of watermelons for sale to a forested area where I was hoping to relax.

Instead, I ended up having lunch and several rounds of homemade vodka with three local builders who had just finished installing a khachkar, which is a stele that bears the image of a cross — a yearlong stonecarving project that had found a home in a city known for its Soviet chemical plant history and summer retreats.

Immensely proud of their city, they asked how I had ended up in Vanadzor, better remembered by its Soviet name of Kirovakan.

“I got tired of Yerevan,” I said.

“Well, there's no better place than Kirovakan,” said Karen, a migrant worker who regularly traveled to Russia in order to make ends meet and the youngest of the bunch while he poured more of the potent alcohol into my cup than I could handle.

Yerevan had started to make me dizzy after a month and a half. The claustrophobia set in and urgency to see the picturesque landscapes I had become so familiar with from afar nagged at me.

So I went to Vanadzor to have vodka with stone workers, and then to Gyumri to talk politics with a 70-year-old shoemaker. In Sisian, I attended a neo-pagan festival; in Goris, I met French and Italian tourists and offered my translating services to a bed-and-breakfast owner for two days, learning how to play backgammon and then having dinner with his extended family, where the vodka, (mulberry, in case you were wondering,) flowed as freely as the Vararak River that runs through the city.

In Alagyaz, I was invited into the homes of Yezdi Kurds for coffee and watermelon. In Ushi, I learned how to ride a horse. In Karakert, I witnessed a mass baptism, where residents as young as 5 months and as old as 55 became members of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In the internationally unrecognized but de facto independent region known as Nagorno-Karabakh, I was picked up by a family, taken back to their house deep within the rugged Caucasus mountains, fed honey straight from the comb, driven to the Amaras Monastery, the site of the first school that used the Armenian script, and given a shopping bag full of grapes to take back home.

By the end of summer, I was using Russian words while talking with locals and eating a traditional yogurt soup called spas four times a week — a dish I had refused to touch for most of my life back home.

Maybe it was my cultural background, the pull to discover a part of me that I felt needed unearthing (though it's worth pointing out that I have never felt more American in my life than I have in the time I spent in Armenia). Maybe it was my luck in acquiring a few great travel partners or the warm weather creating a near perfect environment for feeling adventurous.

Maybe it was the gravity of a country roughly the size of Maryland, almost completely reduced to smithereens over eons due to invasions and invaders. A gravity to discover, to move beyond the bars and cafés of its capital and muster up the courage to use crowded minibuses, not worry about how much you stand out, and take rides with shockingly hospitable strangers who want nothing more than to open up their homes to you, even if they don't even know your name.

Armenia is tiny. It's rough around the edges. It’s bleeding its population as socio-economic conditions worsen. It has a slew of problems too lengthy and depressing to go into here, and with Turkish and Azerbaijani borders closed, it will not be borrowing a cup of sugar from two of its four neighbors any time soon.

Despite all of this, Armenia offers the potential to explore its rugged landscapes, but it offers more than that. It offers an opportunity to meet the most generous people you will ever have the pleasure of conversing (and drinking) with, an offer that many, including its vast Diaspora, seem to pass up.

As tourism takes off in the South Caucasus, a serious attempt to discover the real Armenia, beyond the night life or typical tourist traps, without the cushy hotels and comfortable transportation, will leave you buzzing for more.

A recent TimeOut article called Armenia “Europe's most underrated destination” that “has a big heart.” Experiencing its rawness and discovering its crevices that remain hidden to most of the world has definitely earned it a place in mine.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a writer and editor who has been covering arts, culture and news in print and online for a number of years.

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