While I can’t understand the words the taxi driver is screaming at me as I shut the car door, I can only assume they have something to do with my payment failing to cover the cost of the ride. The shortcoming is unfortunate, but when I arrive at the Tbilisi train station, ten Georgian Lari—which equates to a little over four American dollars—is all I have left after three days of hiking the Caucuses and getting drunk off of foot-stomped wine.
I leave the comfort of an overcrowded home-turned-hostel with insufficient cash and a backpack as bloated as I was after a bottle of the cheap stuff. I am headed to Yerevan, Armenia and am definitely not following a charming Italian man I had met at the aforementioned hostel.
I resolve to get there by sleeper train, the more economical but time-consuming travel option. I purchase my ticket an hour before its 10:30 pm departure, but it takes me an extraordinary amount of time to run back for my belongings, as I must complete what has become a ritual of mine in which I become lost without knowing it, then walk half a mile along the wrong cobblestone street. 10:36. Shit.
I scramble to Platform 1 to see nothing and no one, a sight I have been yearning for since I arrived in the busy city, though not at this particular moment. If I am going to avoid an exhaustion-induced breakdown, I need to see a crowd queued up to enter the dank sleeper cars; instead, I look down to see emptiness and a short, bald man speaking to me in Georgian. He tries Russian after my incredulous expression gives me away. Niet.
I rush to the ticketing office, the man a few paces behind. The pretty woman behind the counter informs me that my train has just departed, and my face becomes hot with feelings I am too flustered to discern. Then the mystery man swoops in to tell the ticketing clerk something that she begins to translate. He’s offering me a ride to the Georgia-Armenia border, where I will meet the train at its first stop. For whatever reason, it seems paramount that I get on this particular train on this particular night, so I agree to pay the driver 60 Lari. And like that, I’m whisked off into the darkness by a man with whom I have no way to communicate, a recurring theme in my travels thus far.
In the passenger seat of an old Soviet car, I watch as the city, which had just moments before seemed so overwhelming to me, become a light in a valley of mountains. I am too tired to gesture or mispronounce the few Russian words I’ve learned, but the driver doesn’t seem to want to talk anyway.
We ride in silence, passing meticulously organized stands selling what looks to be detergent. The shops would be of little note if it were not for their frequency and the uniform way in which the merchandise—the same merchandise—was presented at each stand. The bottles all lined up in rows, like people lining steep bleachers at a stadium. Every five miles was another stand.
When we arrive to the border an hour later, the driver sees me off and leaves me in the hands of town police officers. I wait at the station, which consists of one open-air platform with five men, none of whom speak English. I think they’re being friendly though, and one laughs as I tease a stray kitten with a strap on my backpack.
At 1 am the train arrives, and although the cabin looks and smells like a tenement house filled with half-naked bodies gurgling and snoring atop each other, it’s a sight for sore eyes. I make my bed and sleep for what feels like 20 minutes before the sun rises. My window-side seat is the perfect introduction to the beauty of Armenia. While my fellow passengers thrash with discomfort, I’m transfixed by farms, mountains, arid scrubland. A nine-hour ride isn’t long enough.
We pull into the Yerevan station early that morning and I begin to panic. I hadn’t made sleeping arrangements, and I had no sense of where I might be going. My only guiding light is an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians wherein the family takes a trip to Armenia to experience their late father’s heritage. I take out some Dram from an ATM at the station, without knowing the exchange rate or how much I’ll need, then head to the metro station below.
Way below. In fact, the escalator ride underground is so steep and long that from the top, there’s no view of the bottom. My Italian friend (we’ll call him Jack) gave me the name of his hostel a few days earlier, and every metro station in Yerevan has public wifi, so after a few rides in the wrong direction, I’m on my way. It’s an uncharacteristically auspicious start.
The metro stations are immaculate and architecturally impressive, with vaulted ceilings better suited for a cathedral than an underground transit system. But cathedrals are so ubiquitous in Georgia and Armenia, why shouldn’t every building look like one? I get off at my stop and again mount the amusement park ride that is the nearly perpendicular escalator.
The streets are wide and clean. I walk along the sidewalk until I reach Lover’s Park, which I begrudgingly rename Lonely Park, because I will return to it again and again sans lover, or anyone else for that matter. The park, like almost every other Yerevan park, has free wifi, lush greenery, and little bodies of water under little bridges—so I stay awhile. After orienting myself, I meander to the hostel, stopping to fill up my water bottle at one of the ornate fountains along the way. The water is perfect—cold and not as soft as Georgian water. When I arrive at the hostel, there is plenty of space in one of the dormitories, so I set my stuff down and walk to the kitchen for breakfast and coffee.
Around the dining table, I meet an unfriendly German couple, backpacking their way through Armenia and Azerbaijan, and strangely enough, a local Armenian guy, living at the hostel to save a buck. This, I would come to find, is not all that uncommon. I speak to the Germans in the Deutsch I had acquired from a few beginner courses in college and three months studying in das Mutterland. Not to perpetuate any cultural stereotypes, but they are amusingly unamused at my fumbling attempts. Fortunately, Jack walks in and quells the awkwardness by asking me to join him for a jaunt around the city. Okay, attractive man that I didn’t follow to another country.
We walk side by side, past grocery stores and restaurants serving all manners of exotic food, around immense traffic circles that will eventually confuse me to the point of near insanity, and we’re there: The Cascade. The building is a terraced monstrosity, constructed in the Soviet era, but its lawn looks like a manicured golf course, dotted with sculptures. I tell Jack that they look like Boteros, but why would they be Boteros? It turns out they are Boteros, and there’s a Rodin down the street. This is my first taste of Yerevan as a center for high art.
Jack and I climb all 572 steps to reach the flat top of the Cascade; apparently there’s an escalator somewhere, but I never see such extravagances. At our feet is Yerevan with its meandering roads, and straight ahead stands Mount Ararat, with its snowcap glistening in the cloudless horizon. Ararat is somewhat symbolic in Armenian culture, although, technically, its peak lies in Turkey. It’s touted as a main attraction, but Armenia offers only an incredible view. Fortunately, Ararat from a distance is enough for me.
Jack points directly above to what looks like a modern office building on a cliff, designed tastelessly with glass panels and out-of-place columns. He tells me it’s a house belonging to a famous Armenian musician, though I don’t recognize the name. We scale back down the structure, not realizing that a treasure of a modern art museum is ensconced inside. We catch our breath in the courtyard and retire to a cafe for a glass of wine at 11 am, which, according to my new friend, is completely kosher in Italy. I oblige, so as to be an accommodating travel partner, and have two glasses.
The waitstaff in Yerevan invariably speaks English, which is a departure from Tbilisi, where, in my experience, English is rarely spoken. But, like Georgia, Armenia has its own decent wine for the cost. In fact, it’s one of the oldest wine-producing nations in the world, and it seems as though at any given moment, one need only reach up to pluck a succulent, green grape.
It is at this Cascade-facing cafe that I learn about the only two Armenian wines I will ever see on a menu: Karas and Areni. I consistently order the Karas, because it’s a few thousand Dram cheaper, and the bill never comes out to more than two or three American dollars per glass. As the story goes, an Argentine winemaker ventured out into the fertile valleys of Armenia to invest in vineyards, and thus Karas was born, marking the “rebirth” of the Armenian wine industry. I’m tipsy off the stuff before noon, but when in Rome, I suppose. Wait, where am I? Jack tells me he has to leave to meet a friend, so I’m left only with my drunken bewilderment.
I navigate one of the godforsaken traffic circles to check out the opera theatre, a round, symmetrical building that houses the cultural arts of Yerevan. In front of the entrance is a statue commemorating the founder of the Armenian National Symphony, and an open, paved area where children ride around on bikes and skateboards. There’s a defunct club tucked next to a side entrance. “Opera Disco,” says an unlit fluorescent sign above a boarded door—very Lynchian.
A few steps and there’s another ten-spigot brass water fountain, so I fill up and head to the Armenian State Museum in Republic Square. Using a map I swiped from the front desk of the hostel, I find my way to a pedestrian road lined with cafes and shops. The narrow cobblestone street is teeming with people, even a few tourists. I get to Republic Square to find that it’s not really a square at all; in fact, it’s a trapezoid with yet another one of those terrifying roundabouts in front, in which luxury cars speed through what look to be pedestrian crosswalks, though there’s really no way of knowing. I see a BMW peeling donuts in broad daylight.
The State Museum and the National Gallery of Art are housed in the same building, which causes all kinds of confusion. Because there is no discernible flow to the layout, pushy museum staff direct visitors to the proper exhibit. I go from floor one to floor three, then back down and back up, a British couple following all the way like I’m Tenzing Norgay.
Organizational struggles aside, the museum is impressive, laden with artifacts and information spanning from Neolithic to contemporary times. Of course, the Armenian genocide by Turkish forces is covered extensively, as is the Soviet invasion. But prehistoric tools and structures are prominently featured, as is art from all of the great empires to which Armenia once belonged (there are a lot of them). The most compelling of the museum’s vast collection is a row of 3-foot penis sculptures, which I snicker at before whipping my phone out for a picture. I’m admonished by one of the monitors, as photography is forbidden. An employee follows me through the rest of the exhibit, but sometimes you have to smash a few tiny grapes to make Armenian wine, right? I leave a couple of hours later, around five when the museum closes, and walk to an outdoor cafe to drink and catch some wifi.
When I arrive at the hostel, Jack once again wants to go for a walk. I’m hoping he’s being euphemistic, but no. We walk around downtown, lost for an hour near Republic Square, before stopping for a glass of wine. Lest you, dear reader, worry that I may have some kind of drinking problem, let me assure you that the intoxicating effects of my alcohol consumption are somehow negated by the sobering effects of navigating an unfamiliar city. It’s just science. Or magic, I don’t know.
Jack tells me that all bars close early in Yerevan, which turns out to be only partially true, as some clubs stay open until the wee hours, though the city is almost eerily quiet on weeknights. The droves of people that swarm the streets during the day clear out by 9 pm, and save for the stir of the occasional tourist drinking wine on a patio, Yerevan becomes totally still. I arrive back at the hostel to find that I’m sharing my room with two Russian guys, who despite not speaking any English, make me feel very at home by offering some sludgy stew that they had prepared earlier. I politely decline, mentioning that I don’t eat meat. They offer me a hot dog, instead.
The Russians stay up all night, talking to one another at full volume from their bunk beds, but beyond making some guttural sound of disapproval, I have no way of telling them to shut up. So suffice it to say, I don’t get my full three hours that night.
The next morning I decide to travel to Lake Sevan, a crystalline, high-altitude lake that was mentioned in a brochure that I had picked up at the train station. The hostel administrator gives me explicit instructions on how to get there by bus, which, against my better judgment, I blatantly disregard. She writes what could be hieroglyphics on a piece of paper, and tells me to show the bus driver the message. That driver will then stop at another station, where I will show yet another driver another set of hieroglyphs. Okay.
I get on my first city bus and, for whatever reason, show the guy sitting next to me the slip of paper. He doesn’t speak English, but gestures for me to get off the bus and follow him around the block. He asks a passerby who points into the distance, then he makes a phone call, goes into a grocery store, comes back out, and gestures for me to get back onto the same bus I had just gotten off of. The man apologizes as best he can and tells me he’s from Moscow, so he doesn’t know his way around. I huff around a bit, even smoking one of his cigarettes as he waits for the next bus with me. But I imagine all of the times I’ve given tourists bad directions in my own country, and by the time bus 89 reaches the station, I’ve started to soften on the guy.
I finally make it to Lake Sevan about an hour-and-a-half later, but the stop is inconspicuous, to say the least. I’m dropped off in a gravel field next to a large lake, but there are no visitors or sights to speak of, so I walk around aimlessly for a few minutes before buying a bottle of wine at a convenience store. I have a few sips and walk toward any sign of life, eventually making it to a bustling parking lot below a castle on a hill. (A hill by Eastern European standards anywhere else in the world would be considered a mountain.)
I walk up the first few steps with my wine in tow, but the altitude or the alcohol or some combination of both are not sitting well, so I retreat to an isolated area. There is no experience more dichotomous than being awestruck by the tranquility of the natural world while blowing chunks into the wind.
I feel better after the brief purge, and slowly schlep to the top of the mountain. After touring the umpteenth Greek Orthodox cathedral of my trip, I sit alone to take in the incredible views through my phone camera. A group of Iranian men approach to ask where I’m from, then, for reasons unknown, they ask to take a photo with me in front of the incredible backdrop. I oblige, we become Facebook friends, and all the time I’m grimacing from trying to hold down my own vomit.
I find a man in the parking lot willing to take this once prize-winning pony to the glue farm. I pay him about 10 USD to drive me back to Yerevan, because I don’t have the energy for cryptic notes and strangers glaring at me as I sing Donna Summer in a smelly van.
The driver and I become fast friends, despite having no common language. I’m half a bottle in when we pull over for “petrol”—finally a word I understand. We stop at a gas station in the middle of brushy nowhere, where I’m instructed to leave my bag and get out of the car. An attendant gets into the driver’s seat, and with all my earthly possessions and my only way back, drives off. I’m feeling too sick to panic, so instead I buy a cappuccino from a kiosk and start babbling to some bored employees huddled around the front door. They don’t even pretend to understand, but the car pulls back around and my driver reappears. My stuff is intact in the front seat and off we go.
Upon arriving at the hostel, I immediately slip into my bottom bunk and fall asleep at 8 pm. My strangely caring Russian roommates wake me twice to ask if I’m feeling alright, and I flash them the universal symbol for “I’m very sick, please stop bothering me”: a big thumbs up.
The next morning I’m awake and already seeking the indescribable high of being overwhelmed, helpless, and alone in a foreign and potentially dangerous place. I have an extra little pep in my step as I walk to the Genocide Museum, but not because of, you know, the genocide. Finally, without the help of a guy who disappeared after I didn’t follow him almost 300 miles from Tbilisi, I am beginning to orient myself to the city.
The Genocide museum is small, but steeped with information and heart wrenching accounts of Turkish aggression throughout the 20th century. To this day, Turkey’s government has yet to acknowledge the gruesome elimination of Armenians by Turkish forces. As enlightening as I find each exhibit, I can’t help but think that Armenia committed similar acts against Azerbaijan during the Khojaly Massacre in the 1990s. Before I am overcome with sadness while contemplating the atrocities of human civilization, I leave to check out some art.
As I mentioned earlier, the National Gallery shares a space with the State Museum, so I’m prepared for a few hours of being not-so-gently redirected through crawlspaces and trapdoors. Like the State museum, the entrance fee is just over four American dollars, which, after two days of drinking two-dollar wine, seems like a rip-off. The gallery begins on the top floor, and a rickety little elevator is to take me up there. I have a sort of elevator phobia, which is difficult to explain because it’s not quite claustrophobia, nor is it a fear of heights, cables snapping or the car falling down the shaft. Instead, I am afraid of becoming trapped in the elevator and the embarrassment that would ensue after I passed out due to panic. I realize the stakes aren’t that high, but we don’t choose our phobias.
Hands clammy and tummy queasy, I make it through what feels like a half-hour elevator ride up eight levels. I shuffle across old parquet floors until an employee confirms that I am indeed in the right place. The first painting I see is an ovular Botticelli hanging unassumingly a few feet above me. After visiting a few underwhelming Tbilisi museums, I assumed Yerevan’s art collection would leave me equally uninspired. But no. I walk past works by Kandinsky, Chagall, Nesterov (my favorite), and plenty of Armenian artists that, though unfamiliar with, I was just as impressed by.
Upon leaving Republic square, I amble over to what has become my usual cafe and try a few glasses of the local rosé. Although the wine was nothing to write home about, it was enough to send me across the street to check out an Armenian rug store. Immediately, the musk of my grandmother’s house several thousand miles away pervades my impaired senses. A young man begins speaking to me in near perfect English, and I feel a rush of relief—he’s American, from L.A., but born in Armenia. He introduces himself as Adam, and tells me he’s in Yerevan for the summer helping his family run the carpet shop. Adam invites me to the back of the store and offers me a little glass of familiar clear liquid—chacha, a triple distilled Georgian vodka.
Knowing he’s getting me nice and lubricated for what he hopes to be a lucrative sale, I throw the shot back. He shows me several rugs, all well out of my price range. I tactlessly ask to see the cheapest, and one catches my eye—a small $300 tribal piece with loose threads hanging from the backside. I’m not sure whether it’s the rosé, the chacha, or Adam’s proficient English quelling my homesickness, but I agree to the purchase after some haggling. The interim shop-keep invites me across the street for a celebratory drink. He muses about the differences between Armenian and American culture, and the ease with which he code switches between the two. He glances toward my sweatpants and t-shirt to subtly acknowledge that Yerevan women would never be seen in such disarray, though he’s affable and understanding, nonetheless.
I make plans to go out with him and his friends that night, but become skeptical when he tells me that we’d be sleeping at his Aunt’s mansion. Adam follows me back to my hostel where he tells me to shower and change, and, even in a drunken haze, I want to flake on these plans. My protective Russian hostel mates accost me with questions about the stranger waiting outside, and before I can ease their concern, Jack walks in.
Adam leaves in a huff once I tell him that I won’t be joining him and his friends that night. Jack and I decide to walk back to the Cascade, near the cafe where our love first blossomed. A bottle of wine in tow, we run spiritedly up the terraced building that felt insurmountable a few days earlier. It’s a warm night, and the city lights wax and wane below. We take turns on the bottle for what seems like hours, and at midnight we stumble back to the hostel, where the nocturnal Russians are yelling—or speaking—to one another; I can’t tell. Indifferent to the activity a few feet away, Jack and I slip into my bottom bunk and entangle ourselves in my rough, synthetic bedsheets. We kiss in semi-darkness, and he tells me to quiet down. By now the Russians are writhing in bed, courteously feigning sleep while my Italian and I fumble around in a failed attempt at lovemaking. Just as I begin drifting off, Jack jumps to the ground, quickly pulls his jeans on, and leaves without another word.
I wake up with a violent headache and parched lips. The Russians watch as I walk to the bathroom to brush the purple off my teeth, but I avert their gaze. Jack is also up and avoiding me, so I take heed and retreat to the patio to take my gritty morning coffee. I have a sudden urge to take the first train out of Yerevan back to Tbilisi, so I wander to the front desk, hoarse and irritable, to inquire about the train schedule. Lily, one of the hostel employees that I’ve come to like, tells me that trains aren’t running today, because it’s a national holiday—Armenian independence day. Defeated, I take a metro to the train station anyway, not that I question her guidance, but because I’m not sure what else to do with myself. I meander corridors of the station until confirming that, indeed, no trains are running today and the ticketing counter is closed.
I get back on the metro and, at the next stop, swaths of people swarm in with flags in hand. I’m inspired to check out the festivities at Republic Square, so I squirm my way out from the crowd and dart through the schoolchildren and families to find the celebration. It’s a conspicuous gathering; every Yerevanian must be in the square today. A raised platform acts as a huge stage, where a band plays traditional Armenian music. They are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Armenia’s independence from the USSR, but I wander purposelessly, hungover and unpatriotic.
I sit on a bench to smoke a cigarette and wallow in my disillusionment, and an Armenian family sits next to me. A young boy attempts to speak to me in English that he’s learned in school, and his mother encourages him, giggling. This lifts my spirits a bit. Two men approach us to paint the children’s faces with hearts and Armenian flags. Without asking, the street artists double team me and go to work on both my cheeks simultaneously. I guess park-bench family is amused by this, because they take a few photos of us “kids” all gussied up in red, blue, and orange. By then I’d had enough of the heartwarming exchange, and ran off to find solace in the bottom of a round glass. By now, the servers at my cafe of choice know my name. It’s like Cheers, but the conversation is stilted and the waitstaff is more concerned by my ubiquity than Sam Malone would ever be.
After dousing myself in a bit of red-tinted fortification, I return to the Cascade, where the love affair began. The love affair with Yerevan, that is—the other affair met its early demise when Jack snubbed me that morning. I’m surprised to find a substantial contemporary art museum hidden within the angled building, and it’s open on holiday. The Cafesjian Center for the Arts is named for the man who donated many of the works from his private collection. The exhibits showcase sculptures and conceptual pieces by renowned artists, most of whom I’ve never heard of. While the collection is extensive and diverse, modern art has never quite been my thing, so I breeze through, more struck by the inside of this architectural monster than the art itself.
I leave the museum in search of more artistic fulfillment, which I find in a pavilion in front of the opera house. Vendors and artists line a park with paintings and prints, some original, others not. I’m fixated by a small Impressionist oil painting, and the artist runs to greet me, speaking broken English. We barter for a while, then finally I shell out $50—a steep price by Yerevan standards. I’m compelled to seal the deal, though, because purchasing local art is one of my more self-indulgent travel habits. That and the wine. I return to Lover’s Park to bask in the romance of solitude one last time, and I sit next to a man who asks to be Facebook friends, an odd request that I’m too defeated to question. I walk to another area of the park, and the man proceeds to message me virtually, 15 feet away. That’s my cue to leave.
My last night at the hostel is quiet. I sit outside, bonding with the Russians I’ve spurned for four days. Realizing that I haven’t eaten much of anything in nearly a week, I accept their hospitable offer of sludgy meat-filled grime.
The next morning, I shove my things into a backpack, roll my new rug, stuff the painting into a tote, and high-tail it to the train station, where I find that the only train from Yerevan to Tbilisi leaves at 3 pm. I’m early for the first time in recorded history. After a few hours’ wait, I enter the empty sleeper car, where my bunkmate, a German girl named Hilda, accompanies me a few minutes later. We commiserate on the struggles of solo traveling in Armenia, but agree that we’ll both be back for another taste of that mediocre wine soon enough.
Gabrielle Gimson is an actor and freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She enjoys traveling and time spent with her pitbull, Dee Dee RaBone.
Copyright © 2016 Gabi Gimsom