“Move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
– Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown
The first day we arrived in Yerevan, we discovered Anthony Bourdain had just released a new episode of Parts Unknown set in Armenia. It was classic Bourdain, who always seemed to make his later shows more about reality, connection and compassion than about hipster food obsessions and dramatic selfie locations.
Bourdain’s story of Armenia painted a picture of a sophisticated land with a long and challenging history. We were grateful for that. It gave us a nuanced cultural starting point to explore Armenia on our own.
Watch Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown episode on Armenia here:
Armenia has surprised me a little. For obvious reasons, Armenia has been a special journey for us, and a very personal one for Karen [Post: An Armenian goes to Armenia]. Just being here for a few weeks has shed a little more light on a person I’ve known for twenty years. There were no great revelations, but there are many small things that now make much more sense after visiting a country of three million other Armenians.
Prior to coming here, I had given Armenia little thought, either as country or regional culture, and that is a mistake. I think this country and the cultural history of its people have lived in a Western blind spot for too long. Armenia deserves more credit and more attention for its history and its gifts to world culture.
First of all, Armenia – and Armenian culture – is ancient. Incredibly so. The earliest historical mention of Armenia dates from just the sixth century BC. But Armenia’s current capital city, Yerevan, was founded in 728 BC. And there are archaeological artefacts of civilization dating back nearly 13,000 years: the world’s earliest evidence of wine-making, including a wine press, was found recently in Areni (southern Armenia) along with the world’s oldest shoe – complete with laces.
The Persians, Turks and Indians who nowadays lay claims to creating carpets of exceptional beauty learned this skill from the Armenians. The oldest fragments of woven carpet on earth are Armenian from the 7th century BC. The oldest single carpet is 2400 years old, also Armenian.
One of the earliest historical Armenian kingdoms, the Hyasa-Azzi, dates from the 16th century BC.
The Armenians themselves trace their origins back to a mythical founding hero king named Hayk, the great-great-great-grandson of Japhet, one of the sons of Noah. Noah obviously rates a central position in Armenian culture and explains the spiritual significance of Mt Ararat.
Armenian culture has survived many political eras from the ancient Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans to the modern Ottomans, Imperial Russians and Soviets. Armenians were the first people to officially Christianize – in 301 BC – decades before the Roman Empire became Christian under the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
The Armenians were here long before most of the other empires and later people who have in turns dominated this region. All of Turkey was once Armenian. Indeed, compared to the age of Armenian culture and history, Turkic people are recent immigrants from the grassland steppes of Asia. That is saying a lot because the Turks themselves are not cultural lightweights.
Modern Armenia, defined by current political borders, is a tiny remnant of what it was. Historical Armenia was a region that reached its greatest extant in the first century BC. It encompassed modern Turkey, Syria, Azerbaijan, Georgia and parts of Iran.
Armenia is a place more fascinating than I had ever imagined. And it’s incredibly beautiful, something we learned as we journeyed across the country. From food to religion, the arts and the landscapes, Armenia is a story best told in images.
We took day trips to the famous monastic sites of Khor Virap, Noravank, Geghard, Sevan Church and Hayravank.
Then we left the capital and headed into the Armenian highlands and the rural countryside. That’s when the real and hugely underrated beauty of this country became obvious. We drove through vast rolling grasslands to the mountainous national park of Dilijan.
You can’t visit Armenia without mentioning food
It’s both distinct and familiar, a cuisine with roots among peasant shepherds that has integrated the food of dozens of other cultures and yet remained uniquely Armenian. They have a fussy insistence on freshness here that we’ve long given up in North America. I can tell you confidently you don’t remember what a real tomato, apricot or fig tastes like. But come to Armenia and they’ll remind you. There’s not much in the way of fast food here. They’ve somehow managed to escape the KFC and McDonald’s diabetes onslaught thus far. Farm-to-table is not the pricey, hipster nonsense we have. In Armenia, it’s just called food. Wherever we stayed outside of Yerevan, people have chickens, cows and goats or sheep in the yard and vegetable gardens.
The Armenian Silk Road
Armenia was an important part of the Silk Road. I have long been interested in Silk Road history and yet this fact had somehow escaped me. For centuries, caravans carrying goods from China and India would snake their way along a route that took them through Selim Pass in central Armenia on the way to Yerevan and Van and on to Anatolia and Greece. Goods from the West would take the same route back.
On our way from Dilijan to the southwestern highlands of Tatev, we drove the ancient silk route. Along the way, you can see the remnants of a way of life that hasn’t changed much in many centuries.
We spent the last four days staying in the remote mountain village of Tatev. The site is famous for being home to one of the country’s most cherished religious sites, Tatev monastery. It sits atop a steep mountain cliff, accessible either by a winding, muddy track of road or by boarding a modern ‘wonder’, the Wings of Tatev – the world’s longest cable car. It runs from the mountain top village of Haradzor, over a tall peak and on to Tatev.
I was going to tell you a story of how much Karen enjoyed the cable car ride hundreds of meters above the mountain cliffs. How she giggled with sheer joy as we floated effortlessly above the misty mountains. But of course I can’t. She has a complex relationship to all manner of machines that fly. Nothing on earth was ever going to get Karen onto the “Wings of Tatev”. Especially since it isn’t necessary to experience the beauty. You can drive. And so we did.
Though it’s rural and remote, it is also probably Armenia’s most important tourist destination. It is now seeing many thousands of visitors, most still Armenians or Russian tourists. The tourism is facilitated by the cable car. The vast majority of visitors are day-trippers who come in for selfies at the monastery and some lunch at the nearby café. They rarely venture into the village. But there are plans afoot to change things.
To really see the place, you need to stay at one of Tatev’s few B&Bs. Then you have the village and the monastery to yourselves when the cable car isn’t running. Though it rained every day we were there, it was breathtakingly beautiful, very peaceful and quiet.
We loved it. But we worry about what will happen to these places in Armenia as the global surge in tourism discovers this country and threatens to overwhelm and spoil it, as it has everywhere else.
Our experience of Armenia these past few weeks has really underscored something we’ve learned in all our years of travel to the world’s many corners. Tourism, often viewed as a blessing in countries needing economic development, can also be a curse. What we love so much about travel is often exactly what gets wrecked when tourism reaches a certain point. Armenia remains very much a unique place. People here are still curious about foreign travelers. They are honest and hospitable. They have a unique culture and they are incredibly proud and eager to share it.
But if the country doesn’t carefully manage the inevitable inflows of European, North American, and Asian tourists, they will suffer the fate of many other places like Spain and Italy, Thailand, Nepal, and Burma. A collective cynicism can set in among local people as they experience the economic inflation and vertical integration created by corporate tourism. The benefits often don’t get evenly spread. Added to the feeling of being overwhelmed by outsiders in your own country, and it’s a recipe for turning historically important and culturally authentic places into cartoon parodies of themselves.
Anthony Bourdain always seemed to have an intuitive understanding of this. We’ve often felt a sort of fellowship with him. Not of course in the way he drank or smoked or yammered on about how much he hated vegetarians; but in his presentation of travel. Bourdain forced his viewers to think about the social, economic and cultural context of the places he highlighted. He never shied away from the other side of history, the non-gratifying, and not selfie-worthy side of the places he visited. Whether it was the horror of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge or the atrocities committed by Americans in Vietnam, the ongoing brutality and complexity of occupation in Palestine, the insanity and state terror of the military junta of Burma, he always presented the underbelly along with the polished insta-worthy image of a country. He focused on ordinary people and their stories.
Often, he also confronted the unpleasant realities of modern tourism and its effect on local cultures. It’s what set him apart from the food and travel spam that dominates cable and the Internet. And for that we always appreciated his work.
If you’re listening, and you travel slowly and long enough, with your heart open, it will force you to confront the reality of the world. You can’t avoid what you embrace on its own terms. Travel shouldn’t make us despair; rather it makes us more aware. For all that Parts Unknown was series of long monologues, Bourdain was actually a listener at heart: “Travel isn’t always pretty,” he once said.
“It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
We leave Armenia tomorrow a little reluctantly. We’re taking many things with us. I think also we’re leaving a little of ourselves behind. Hopefully some of the good parts.