Taking the waters soviet style
18/5/11 14 °C
After a relatively short Mashrutka trip past the glorious view of the twin peaks Mount Ararat across the border in Turkey, through some very red hills, some bare mountains, and a pocket of rich farmland, we arrived in our first planned stop. As the distances are so short in Armenia, we'd left in the afternoon and there was about an hour of daylight left.
The little town of Vayk had sounded quite attractive, but in reality it seemed little more than a dusty street containing a few shops and cafes and the promised beautiful surrounding hills looked very uninspiring. As we got off, we were immediately harassed by taxi drivers, who seemed bemused by our decision to stay the night in the town and having spotted a shop/cafe, we sat escaped there for coffee and to decide what to do next. The woman in the shop was very pleased to see us and rushed to make us some strong Armenian coffee - known as Sorch. I looked up and down the street, wondering where the welcoming homestays were that we'd been told about and thinking how different it felt there, not only from Georgia and Azerbaijan, but from Yerevan. One of the taxi drivers came over and tried to communicate with us the stupidity of staying in the town, saying that we should let him drive us to another town in the mountain where we had intended to go the next day. We'd heard that one before! Taxi drivers always tell you that there is no bus, the last one is gone, the hotel you want is closed, whatever it takes to get some custom! In the end he phoned an English speaking friend, who repeated the advice and in we eventually struck a surprisingly reasonable deal for him to drive us to the 20 km up the mountain. This definitely put me in a better frame of mind - until the nice cafe woman tried to charge some ridiculous amount for the coffee. Its so easy to forget the basic rules of travel when you are tired or distracted: always ask the price first, especially if you've just arrived in a place, and especially if they smile a lot!! And don't always mistrust taxi drivers, but do be very careful!
The village or small town we arrived in that evening turned out to be a good decision, the good old taxi driver went out of his way to find us a bargain, which, as it was just out of season, definitely was a bargain! There were 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and sitting room where we had a massive breakfast brought to us in the morning. It had all seen better days, of course, but the best of all was the ancient but effective central heating to protect us from the cold mountain evening. All for considerably less than a cramped room in Yerevan, though without the friendliness of our one is previous hostess.
What a strange place Jermuk was. Its about 2,000m above sea level and surrounded by wooded mountains, which looked beautiful in the autumn sunshine. Its famous for its water, and quite rightly so. People have been coming there since ancient times to "take the waters" and now it's bottled and sold all over the world. In the 1940's it started to become a popular Soviet health resort. There's a lake surrounded by woods and hills. Next to this lake is a building called the "Gallery of Waters", which consisted of an arched wall with a series of taps, from which water from the hot springs flowed into stone basins. Each tap has water of different temperature, ranging from warm to "drink it straight from the tap if you think you're hard enough"! The temperature of each water was written next it and they were all meant to have different therapeutic properties. There was a constant stream of people coming to drink the water, some had special cups that the brought there every visit. The water tasted faintly metallic but quite nice.
Around that area are a few stalls selling some natural cures, mainly herbs and fruits and around the lake are some large modern hotels/health spas and a deserted one that had obviously been pretty impressive in its hey-day. There was also a new one being built, right in the way of the beautiful views! The rest of the town consisted of some pretty dilapidated old soviet blocks of flats and house another disused, massive hotel. There were no cafes around so we had to make use of the (very) minimally equipped kitchen, but the shopping in Russian and about three words of Armenian was great fun. I was puzzled, though, as to why a lot of the shops seemed to be selling 80's sports wear as well as food.
It was interesting to walk around the area and to see the old Soviet remains and the new building that were going up, which also had the feel of the new Soviet era. Its funny that years ago the stereotype Russian woman (mainly from James Bond films I suspect) was built like a shot putter and had very few feminine qualities about her, I'm trying to be correct here, but we are talking about stereotypes! Nowadays Russian women are usually portrayed as beautiful blonde man-eaters, waiting to trick men into marriage at the first opportunity. The fashions of architecture are equally changing and the austere soviet buildings are now being replaced by a newer, slightly more welcoming ones, but still intimidating for us feeble westerners.
And so it seemed with the health spas, which were in the new soviet-style hotels. Of course, how could I be in a health spa town without trying out the goods, especially at out of season prices. Rob bravely decided to come too and thus became the only man under 60 they had probably seen in a long time! Though I don't think he quite got the idea that you were meant to enjoy it, afterwards I realised he might have had a point. The hotel we chose definitely had the new soviet veneer and once we passed the forbidding grey exterior.
In the clean white carpeted foyers people were hanging around in 80's style sports wear whilst waiting for there various treatments. People often come here for a week of tow of treatment, seemingly either from Yerevan or Russia. There is a long history of soviet health tourism, which I saw remnants of in Kyrgyzstan. We had opted for a day's series of treatments and swim and I had visions of soft white toweling robes and towels and being pampered and pummeled and stuff happening with clay and oils, though I wasn't quite sure what.
Our first port of call was the doctor, apparently for a medical check-up, but in actuality seemed more concerned with what we were prepared to pay. The nice lady from reception, who spoke English and had promised us a day package had miraculously disappeared but we negotiated the same price, minus the swim. It never ceases to surprise me, coming from NHS Britain, not that you have to pay for treatment, but how often the doctors, therapists etc. get involved in haggling prices beforehand. Anyway, we were pronounced fit enough for the treatment and were prescribed a hot spa bath, a gum massage, an oxygen drink and a normal massage.
My first port of call was the gum massage room. Images of what it could mean flashed before my mind as I was efficiently rushed to the room. Looking at the rows of old-fashioned sinks lining the walls, I was again struck by the modern veneer put on the old soviet systems. I was sat at a sink and given a tube that was hanging from a leaking mineral- greened tap. Probably nothing could look new for long with this water running through it constantly, but I was glad when I was also handed a plastic mouthpiece. I then had to sit over the sink, a plastic bib tucked around me while I moved the mouthpiece around my teeth. "Keep moving it" I was sternly warned, and so I expected some pretty gum-tingling pressure. It was mildly invigorating, but maybe the mineral content was doing unseen things to the health of my mouth.
After about 15 minutes, my personal nurse came back and brusquely rushed me to the mineral bath. Again this looked like something from some old Russian film! There were cubicles of baths, divided by curtains, everything was green and the hot spa water continuously ran into old-fashioned bath-tub and out of the overflow. I was told to get undressed and get in the bath, handed a timer and told " 10 minutes only, keep heart out of water!" and a timer was placed on the grubby rack over the bath. "Whatever!" I thought, maturely, and proceeded to sink right into the lovely hot bath English-style for a wonderful 20 minute metallic smelling mineral soak. After 2 rounds of the giant egg-timer my nurse hurried me to a white sofa-ed waiting area, where I was soon joined by an equally bemused Rob. I felt a bit like a bag lady in my odd assortment of light clothes and bags of warm clothes for outside - so much for my idea of soft white toweling robes! We adjourned to the coffee bar upstairs to wait for round two.
Again, the imagined pummeling massage from the old shot-putter style Russian turned out to be a disappointingly light rub-down by a slight blonde and then it was time for the intriguingly named oxygen cocktail. I was led to a small sitting area where the oxygen machine was run by the first, and only, smiling woman of the day. She took a glass containing a coloured sugar solution and pumped it full of oxygen from a tap on the machine. It tasted like a sugar solution with air pumped into it, but was told the oxygen would counter the effects of the high (all of 2,000 m) altitude. And that was it - an interesting, but not impressively healthy health spa.
After a day of rain we headed back early in the morning in the only Mashrutka of the day to Vayk, where we intended to catch another one onto to the town of Sissian, about 40 km away.