Yerevan offers a stark contrast from the rest of Armenia. When you go to any other city in Armenia, it will most certainly feel unlike anything else you’ve previously experienced. Most cities feel as though they have not been updated since the 1980’s. Megalithic brutal skeletons of Soviet decaying buildings loom over cities, casting shadows upon any chance of progress. Movie theaters and Soviet malls, which once were bustling with young Armenians going out on the town now have broken windows and a man selling a hacked-up sheep from the trunk of his Lada in the parking lot.
Countryside Armenia is decidedly more rural and drastically more conservative and shy. Aside from Gyumri, the second biggest city, there is hardly another city to mention, just a few towns with people who look at you asking themselves, “why are you here?”
It is rare to find anyone who speaks English, and who can blame them. Most tourists that come out to these parts are Russian, Iranian, or possibly lost. The result is a landscape that can appear hostile. We did not converse with many locals beyond pleasantries, and most cities felt unwelcome to the non-Russian speaker.
Dilijan was a prime example. The government has put a lot of money into making this city feel like the “Switzerland of Armenia.” And it is cute and gorgeous. There are adorable boutique shops, and we even stayed in a beautifully built wooden cabin house with a family of rats living in the ceiling. But get outside the city, and you will find dilapidated abandoned Soviet buildings and locals who don’t really know what to do with you.
But Yerevan is different. People are gorgeously built and put extraneous effort into the clothes they wear. The women look as though they have never touched a plow, their nails recently manicured and their hair recently conditioned. Their male counterparts keep their untamable beards modestly trimmed and only drink the socially acceptable amounts of vodka. The streets are decidedly more metropolitan, filled with hip cafes and bars, packed with the handsome youth of the upper echelons of this country. There are vast art museums, gorgeous parks, and smiling people who are willing to help and be kind. For someone who had spent ten days in the hinterlands of Armenia, Yerevan felt like an entirely different world.
To be honest, I loved Yerevan. It is certainly my favorite city in the Caucacus region and by far the most hospitable. While Tbilisi is beautiful, it’s a bit too spread out to be enjoyable for the walking nomad. Baku is disturbing in its fakeness, a playground built only for the oil-lubricated elite.
Yerevan is perfectly sized to walk around, the locals are incredibly friendly and welcoming, and there is a fair amount to see and do. The buildings are all built from a similar pink shade of stone, giving the architecture a beautiful unity. Here as well, you will find people who speak excellent English. A lot of people who were born in the Armenian diaspora, like Beirut or Southern California, move back here for the affordable living costs and the ability to bring their families back to their homeland. We met some American-born Armenians who had moved here, and I have heard that a lot of American Armenian retirees move here as their pension can go quite a bit further. These diasporas support the city in its art and cultural escapades, helping to make the capital in the mountains stand out from its neighbors.
Yerevan, with its pleasant metro system and easy walkability, is perfect for a several-day city break. We perused the many local book shops and wandered aimlessly for hours around the cute rosy streets. For those who want a taste of the old Armenia, I can do nothing but recommend the GUM market to sample the local flavors. Hawkers will sell their walnuts and dried fruits to you, giving you delicious samples to win you over. Here you can also find any form of meat, pickled veggie, or cheese product you could ever need.
Flip the Yerevan coin back over, and you’ll find a city filled with art and culture on par with any “Western” city. The most famous art installation of course being the Cascade, a large staircase leading to a viewpoint over the city with holy mount Ararat in the distance. Take a peek inside for a walk through modern art galleries and historical exhibitions.
Along with the modern comes a tremendous amount of history, such as the traditional mosque. This building was once buried under rubble, until discovered and given to the Iranians to restore and beautify the city.
But perhaps with all cities, my favorite aspect comes in investigating the humans. All cities are dusty and noisy at the end of the day, but every city is filled with its own breed of folks who work hard to make ends meet, and create a distinct way of living in the process. Yerevan is a town of delicious foods, upscale boutiques, and a lot of people trying to survive by the best means possible.
For me, this will be my everlasting image of Armenia. A country that has endured so much, yet still finds a way to be proud through all the dust as it settles. This is a group of people who have waited far too long to have their chance to shine, and hopefully, that time will come soon.
Special schools are now open to younguns, which allow them to come in after class to learn anything from coding, language, music, or whatever else their interests may delight in. Armenia takes its future generation seriously, knowing that the only way forward is to create a country of people proud of their land and of the knowledge they have acquired. They look ahead while trying to hold on to the past they have worked so hard to grasp in the first place, and they have done so with a tremendous amount of empathy and loyalty to what lays ahead.