The years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union were dramatic and bleak for Yerevan – blackouts, food shortages and a feeling of hopelessness defined a candle-lit existence of scarcity.
Today, Yerevan appears up and coming. Moments of widespread scarcity are a distant memory, at least in downtown Yerevan where new buildings, cafes, restaurants, and sophisticated store fronts line the city streets. Large SUVs compete with BMWs and Mercedes as kings of the road, while those with Soviet-era Ladas and Volgas keep their cars sparkling clean in order to earn their place on the streets. The black clothing we had grown accustomed to seeing in Tbilisi is replaced by colorful and fashionable attire worn with confidence and a hip strut to match. Image in Yerevan is king. During our first evening stroll, our mouths remained agape in continual surprise. We wondered how we had accidentally ended up on the streets of Los Angeles.
Armenia is land-locked and not terribly rich in natural resources. So, where does all this money come from? Most people we spoke to pointed to a combination of diaspora and mafia money, with the edge going to the diaspora.
Take multi-billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, perhaps the most famous member of Armenia’s diaspora. Like Hungary’s George Soros, Kerkorian has given billions to his homeland, helping to rebuild Armenia’s roads and sustain its charities. The story goes that Armenian passports normally declare “This person is protected by the Republic of Armenia.” whereas Kerkorian’s Armenian passport now reads “The Republic of Armenia is protected by this person.”
Armenia’s diaspora not only send money back. They send family, too. Returned diaspora are an active, visible presence on Yerevan’s streets. Groups of young Armenians, obviously raised in the west, wear knit shirts declaring “Armenia is my home.” The magnet back to the motherland is strong; it draws family back in droves.
Our hostess Zina, an Armenian woman in her early 60s, offered a contrast to Yerevan’s new money. She converted one of the rooms in her flat into a separate bedroom for tourists and she runs a homestay (a sort of makeshift bed and breakfast). The income she earns from her guests supplements that of her accounting job and helps her to pay for bills related to the care of her live-in diabetic sister.
An engineer by trade, Zina employed her know-how to construct an elaborate water collection system to ensure that her apartment always had water, even when the municipal water was turned off between 11 PM and 8 AM. She represents the generation that has been left behind in the boom, but she knows how to accomplish a lot with very little.
“Good morning, my dears!” Zina would welcome us energetically to the breakfast table each morning. She’d light up her cigarette over a small cup of strong “oriental” coffee and launch into how she was certain Marlyn Monroe was really part Armenian. “It’s all in her low-hung bottom.” Or how she had her refrigerator (still functioning) delivered from Minsk, Belarus in the mid-1980s. “It took six months for it to arrive. Delivery was delayed because the trains were used to supply the war in Afghanistan.”
Our days ended pleasantly with her as we shared our discoveries and she shared lessons on Armenian history and details of her life as a computer engineer traveling across the Soviet Union. We were always sent to bed with a hug and “Good night, my dears.”
People like Zina represent the heart and soul behind Yerevan’s shiny, new exterior. Here’s to hoping that Yerevan doesn’t lose sight of its human heritage and its past as it boldly seeks to build its modern future.
Practical Details – Transport to and Accommodation in Yerevan
How to get there: Buses from Tbilisi’s Ortajala bus station take between 6-9 hours (15 Lari). Flights are available from Europe and Turkey.
Where to stay: Hotels in Yerevan are expensive, so for budget travelers the best option is to stay in someone’s apartment ($10-$15/person including breakfast). The well-equipped Yerevan Tourist Office maintains a list of home stays, including many families centrally located on Sayat Nova Street. Or, you can contact us for the details of our outstanding home stay (our hostess asked us not to post her information on the web).
Where to eat: Caucasus Tavern (82 Hanrapetutyan Street) has a wide selection of Armenian and Georgian food. Mimino (7 Alek Manukian Street) offers some exceptionally good Georgian and Armenian fare as well. For a change of pace, the Indian Restaurant, New Delhi, at 29 Tumanyan Street is more expensive, but top notch. Nury on Teryan St. #62 has Lebanese specialties with traditional (pre-Soviet) Armenian and Middle Eastern dishes on offer. The owner is a friendly Syrian-Armenian who knows his food. Kebabs rolled up in flat lavash bread are a good, cheap ($0.50) and ubiquitous street food option.
What to do: We highly recommend the Sergey Parajanov Museum. Parajanov’s collage and mixed media installations are visually striking and humorous. The Matenadaran houses Armenia’s manuscripts dating back to the 6th century; it’s worth splurging a few extra dollars for the guide. Walk around the city, visit the weekend Vernissage (art and flea market) and experience one of Yerevan’s many street-side cafes when you need a break. Various day trips are plentiful and easy to arrange from Yerevan.