Yerevan to Tbilisi via Lake Sevan, Vanadzor, Sadakhio & Marneuli
Oct 5, 2008
|October 5, 2008 – Sunday
We departed at the crack of dawn for the drive through northern Armenia in route to Tbilisi, Georgia. We passed Lake Sevan and its two ancient churches sitting atop a bluff overlooking the lake and then northwest up into the Areguniats Mountains through Dilijan, Vanadzor, Alaverdi and eventually the border at Sadakhio.
Somewhere not far north of Lake Sevan, our guide had the bus stop along the road and pointed us to a valley below where there was a village of Old Russian Believers. Wikipedia describes Old Believers more precisely than I can, so I will copy their description herewith:
In 1652, Nikon (1605–1681; Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1652 to 1658) introduced a number of ritual and textual innovations with the aim of achieving uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices. Nikon, having noticed discrepancies between Russian and Greek rites and texts, ordered an adjustment of the Russian rites to align with the Greek ones of his time. According to the Old Believers Nikon acted without adequate consultation with the clergy and without gathering a council. After the implementation of these innovations, the Church anathematized and suppressed the old liturgical rite itself as well as those who were reluctant to pass to the new rite with the support of Moscovite state power. The traditionalists endured severe persecutions from the end of the 17th century until the beginning of the 20th century as schismatics (raskol'niki, Russ. раскольники). They became known as "Old Ritualists" (staroobryadtsy), a name introduced during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great. At the same time they continued to call themselves simply orthodox Christians.
During subsequent periods of severe persecutions, Old Believers fled Russia as was the case of the ancestors of the people living in this village. Their lifestyle is one of simplicity if not primitiveness. In many respects the village reminded me of a poor man’s version of an Amish settlement.
It was a foggy, cool morning down in the village valley. The lanes were unpaved, rutted and often muddy. Being Sunday morning, activity was sparse save people coming and going to church. What few people we did meet politely ignored us except for a few teenage girls who, with a little encouragement, posed for photos. I and a fellow photographer found ourselves lagging behind the group as they headed up the hill via another lane. We tried to catch up but eventually came to a dead end surrounded by fences. We could see our bus 100 meters beyond but couldn’t find a way to get to it without infringing on property fences.
We had to walk back down the hill and back up the road that we came down. The bus sat up on the main road and our guide had the driver honk repeated blasts of his air horn. I fell behind Barbara on the steep incline and was 20 minutes late returning to the bus. I was greeted by jeers from the group upon my return, a truly humiliating experience for a Group Organizer.
The day became heavily clouded as we climbed to the mountain pass. The road between Yerevan and Tbilisi is lightly traveled and the few tourist facilities along the way close their doors by mid-September. We took a break along a picturesque, dashing mountain stream and used hot water from a thermos to make tea and Nescafes.
Afer a little more climbing we began a steep descent on to the rolling plains of the south Georgian hills. The weather cleared and we enjoyed blue skies for the remaining 4 hours of our drive to Tbilisi. You see cowboys on horses tending cattle and sheep. Georgians are expert horsemen. It is a little known fact that in the late 1800's Buffalo Bill recruited Georgian cowboys to appear in his Wild West Show because they were so good with horses (and probably worked for a lot less than American cowboys).
Along the way you see a lot of gutted factories from the Soviet era and a few shoddily maintained apartment buildings in rural settings. Laundry strung on the apartment balconies provides the only trace of color on these dreary structures. Given the low population denisity in the surrounding area, these seven-plus storey buildings look oddly out of place.
We arrived in Tbilisi by 4 PM and began our explorations of the city immediately at the Fine Art Museum. It contains a nice collection of Georgian historical artifacts from different eras. However, museum officials admit only ten people at a time, each group being accompanied by a guide who gives a tedious, heavily accented explanation of nearly every object in the museum. Photography is prohibited, making the one hour tour seem even longer. After the all day bus ride from Yerevan, many of us grew impatient with the snail’s pace of the museum tour.
There was a still some daylight left after our exit from the museum. Our hotel was on Freedom Square at the base of Rustaveli Ave., the main mile long artery of the part of town built during Tbilisi’s prosperous 19th C.
I have been to Tbilisi twice previously in 1988 and 2005. The first visit was just before the demise of the Soviet Empire and things were pretty drab throughout the city. Now, even more so than in 2005, the many neo-classical buildings lining Rustaveli Avenue have been renovated and painted thereby restoring the elegance of the 19th C. era.
Despite the current wave of prosperity and rennovation, we were uncertain that we would be able to visit Georgia this year because of the Russian invasion of the the northern and western sectors of the country just two months before our scheduled visit. During our visit the citizenry was noticeably edgy about the possibility of further Russian incursions and occupations that would reach deeper into the country, perhaps all the way to Tbilisi.
As of March 2009 the Russians still occupy areas to the northwest of Tbilisi and it seems unlikely that they will return them in the forseeable future. However, it appears the Russians don’t have immediate plans to occupy the entire country. The court of international opinion is probably the only thing preventing this from happening.
The hotel where I stayed in 1988 stands at the opposite end of Rustaveli Avenue. It was one of the top two hotels in the city at that time but that was during the Soviet era when the best was often none too good. My most striking memory of the 1988 visit was the sight of 30 Porches parked outside the hotel with hundreds of poverty striken Georgians walking by to gape at them from at a distance as they were not allowed in the hotel parking lot.
The Porches were driven by their western European owners who were having a road rally of some sort through the Caucauses. The contrast of this collection of finely engineered and maintained cars with the Ladas and other clunkers driven by Georgians in those days predicted the forthcoming demise of the Soviet Union. For better or worse, the streets of Tbilisi are now crowded with many expensive European autos.
When I arrived in Tbilisi in 2005, the hotel where I stayed in 1988 had been gutted and locals told me its rennovation was stalled because of inadequate financing. As I visit again three years later, retoration has resumed. Now, in March, 2009, as I write this from my notes, I wonder if the international recession will delay the completion or make the enterprise economically unviable upon completion of the restoration.