A Travellerspoint blog

May 2011

Sissian and how to get there

Armenian Stonehenge

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We got up at a unpleasantly early time to take the only Mashrutka back to my favourite town of Vayk, then quickly catch another south to a town called Sissian. We'd become spoilt in the last few days by being brought breakfast in our warm sitting room. These breakfast were so large and diverse that we'd saved them for lunch too. We got to the only bus stop in town early and waited in the cold rain for the bus, which was late. A taxi driver came up and told us we were at the wrong place, the right one was miles away, but he could take us there for a large sum of money and if we hurried we would catch it. I was pretty unimpressed, cold, wet and bored with all the slyness we'd met so far. When the Mashrutka came it soon filled up with equally grumpy passengers.

What a difference arriving back in Vayk this time! Instead of being dusty, late and uninspiring, it was wet, early and uninspiring! I know I'm being unfair to the town as I only saw a tiny part of it, I'm sure if I'd spent time there I would have started to know and like the people.

But what I did see this time, was different cafe next to the Mashrutka stop, run by a cheerful, friendly woman who plied us with hot Sorch at the correct price and we chatted about our lives, not an easy task with my limited Russian and Armenian and her limited English, often using scraps of paper to illustrate. Meanwhile taxi drivers hovered around outside like wasps. She tried to explain the transport system there, which seems obvious now, but then it just seemed so confusing, though it gradually began to sink in. Basically, a lot arrived there from the capital, Yerevan, in the north, hovered outside tantalisingly for a few minutes, turned round and went back again. Some didn't turn round but were already totally and utterly full and were mainly going to Stepanakert, the capital of a country that officially doesn't exist, which I'll tell you about in a future blog. We wanted to go to a town a few miles off the main road, so there weren't many buses going there. The map I'd looked at didn't make it clear that it was so far off the main road, which added to the confusion. Don't worry, she said/mimed someone will tell us when one gets here, maybe one hour.

We spent several hours there. The rain eased and I went outside to find a French couple we'd met in Yerevan cycling along the road and chatted for a while. There were a couple of make-shift stall around with people selling phone credit, fruit and veg and the ubiquitous seeds. Seeds aren't something that we do in England, but they are common in so many other countries and I learned how to eat them in China. They are toasted, salted and are usually sunflower, pumpkin or melon. The knack that works for me is :- hold them sideways up, point inwards, between the teeth and push them slowly into your mouth as you give three or four gentle cracks along the sides with your teeth. The third or fourth time it should open enough for you to hook your tongue inside and scoop out the whole kernel, leaving the empty case in your hand. The best ones pop into your mouth by themselves and the worst just disintegrate into a mixture of shell and seed. Its a fantastic way to pass the time, waiting for a bus, sitting on one, or just contemplating life in general. Crack, crack, crack, scoops, eat, crack, crack, crack, scoop, spit, eat and so on. Squatting while you eat them makes them taste better even better. Squatting is something that's not done a lot of in England either and although I've got a lot better at it, especially when my feet are pointing downhill, after a few minutes my legs start to hurt and I have to stand up and pretend to be interested in something else.

The seeds are usually incredibly cheap and usually the street vendors are pretty poor. I bought some from an old lady, who cried as I bought them, and said something long and rambling in Armenian, probably about the plight of seed sellers, and we hugged each other. After that people became a lot friendlier and actively started to help out with Mashrutka situation. Armenian has its own writing, but as I already knew Arabic and most of the Russian letters and had recently learnt the Georgian alphabet, I'd decided not to strain my poor brain with learning yet another - especially as we were only spending three weeks there. However, I couldn't resist pulling out the dog-eared paper with the alphabet on and trying to decipher the destination boards on the Mashrutka windscreens. If I'd be hoping to impress any of the locals, I was sadly disappointed, but I had great fun working them out and cheered myself every time I got one. Eventually I read one that said Sissian, which belonged to an incredibly full Mashrutka and managed to persuade the driver to let us on, the whole town must have been fed up with me by this time and probably begged him to take us away!

I realised, after the last blog, that you, dear readers, mostly get to read the edited highlights. This of course is right, You don't often need to know the details of what I ate for breakfast, the boring times, the details of the haggling, hassling, delays, total incomprehension or any really personal stuff. But, just this once, to give a slightly closer idea of the reality of travel, I've forced you to stick around with me, in a bad mood in boring Vayk while I ramble on about seeds and Mashrutkas.

Anyway after two hours of uncomfortable travel with some friendly people, passing through some breathtakingly beautiful scenery, we arrived in Sissian. We spent some time looking for the cheap hotel only to find it was the big relatively impressive one we'd passed. We asked for one of the cheap rooms which had a balcony and looked out onto the fountain and rose-beds, the helpful English speaker manager came back from her shopping to explain how to walk to Carahunge, or Stone-Henge a few miles away, which was one of the reason we'd come there.

We walked quite a lot of the several kilometres towards Carahunge until a man in an expensive car stopped and insisted on giving us a lift. The majority of Armenians I met don't really see the point of walking for pleasure, so he was quite insistent. We'd had a long day so far, and so we got in. He told us he owned the big hotel, which he pointed to in the distance, spoke perfect English and didn't seem at all worried about driving his car over the bumpy track that led to the site. "Any problems at all, just contact me", he told us as he dropped us off at the entrance.

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What an impressive site! The sheer number of stones is what hit me first - they seemed to stretch on forever. They varied in size between small child and a large adult, some of them had holes in them at a variety of angles, some pointing at the sky and some at the horizon. Some of the stones were set straight and others were leaning in different directions, maybe having been placed that way or had settled there over the hundreds of years. They seemed to be arranged in a circular pattern, which I walked around taking in the atmosphere and inspecting the separate stones.

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Even without the stones, the scenery would have been beautiful. It's granite cragginess, which I hadn't seen before in the Caucasus, reminded me of Ireland. It was greener than most of the areas I'd seen around, which were mostly parched and yellowish after the long summer, fairly high up and surrounded by mountains, some of which had the start of the winter's snow on their peaks.

We had the place to ourselves, except for small shop and were free to wander wherever we wished. As the sun was getting ready to set, it rained a little, producing a rainbow that stretched over the hillsides. I'd been thinking about a close friend of mine and how much she would have loved it there. She'd had so many misfortunes over the last two years, but was getting married the next day in England. As I watched the rainbow I wished them both better times and a happy marriage.

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We went into the shop before we left, which sold a few postcards and had a small collection of books and was run by a young man. He made us welcome and told us his friend was coming to pick him up soon and we could have a lift back into the town. I looked at the diverse books, some of which were in English. Apparently Carahunge or Zorats Karer, is about 7 hectares in and consists of hundreds of standing stones and over 200 stone tombs around the area. I mentioned the stones with holes in and these are thought to have been made to take readings of the movement and positions of the sun, moon and stars. Its been estimated that its at least 7,500 years old, predating our own Stonehenge. There was even a claim that Ancient Britains originated from Armenia and built Stonehenge using their ancient knowledge. A lot was mentioned about it being the point of a special sort of triangle, to do with ratios, between Stonehenge and The Pyramids. The jumble of claims and theories became harder to understand and so I sat and looked at the pictures and chatted to the man in the shop. Soon his friend arrived and we headed back into the town.

Posted by sue deegan 01:54 Archived in Armenia Tagged mountains village sites backpacking ancient armenia carahunge Comments (1)

Jermuk

Taking the waters soviet style

sunny 14 °C

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted by sue deegan 10:21 Archived in Armenia Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains people water springs village hot mineral armenia Comments (0)

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