Armenia – a Bonsai Country with a Big Heart

It’s not a large country. With an area of just 30,000 km (about half the size of Tasmania) and a roller-coaster terrain with mountains rearing up to 4,000 metres above sea level, 374-019Armenia is a bonsai nation whose people seem to have been hewn from the landscape itself.

Rugged, down-to-earth and open-hearted – these are the most endearing traits of Armenian people. They are constantly giving of themselves and expecting nothing in return, and if by chance you ARE able to offer something in return – even something as simple as a smile – then they appear to be genuinely delighted.

When you come to a country that has suffered and endured so much for so long (including Mongol and Persian invasions as well as the “Armenian Genocide” of 1915), you realise that contentment comes from small things, such as beautiful sunny weather, stunning natural scenery, bountiful nature and, it has to be added, plenty of home-made mulberry vodka.

Despite its small size, Armenia is divided into eleven provinces, each with its own dialect, climate and lifestyle. When it’s 40 degrees in the capital Yerevan, there are still snowdrifts on the high mountains of Syunik province. And while much of the country is devoid of tree cover, the river valleys are lush and fertile, yielding an astonishing range of produce – from the ubiquitous grape-vine to apricots, pomegranates (a national symbol), walnuts and organic vegetables.

And the honey! With a landscape carpeted in wildflowers throughout spring and summer, Armenia produces what has been described as the world’s best honey.374-485 “This is such a poor country that we didn’t have any pesticides to destroy the bees”, says beekeeper Mushé. “I have over 50 hives, and have never seen any decline in bee numbers.”

I set out to explore this intriguing country, starting in the northwest “art deco” city of Gyumri. Along the road to Gyumri the land seems and feels pre-ancient, strewn with limestone and tufa outcrops that seem to proclaim their right to rise above the earth and become part of the built environment. Indeed, throughout Armenia it is rare to find a building that is NOT constructed of stone – from salmon-coloured volcanic tufa to slate, limestone, basalt and porphyry.

A stroll through Gyumri, which was hit by a catastrophic earthquake in 1988 in which up to 50,000 people died in a space of just eight minutes, reveals the extent of the earthquake damage as well as the extraordinary rebuilding effort now underway.

One building that mercifully survived the quake is the 1898 Aleksandropol Brewery (after the city’s name during Tsarist times), a German-established plant that produces arguably the country’s best beer, Aleksandropol Lager. There’s even a pipeline under the road from the brewery to the funky Poloz Mukuch Restaurant, opposite.

Gyumri is also home to many other crafts, including intricate hand-crafted ironwork. 374-158One of the local blacksmiths, Aram Seksinian of the Irangyuni Forge, slaves away in 35 degree heat over a hot anvil, producing the ornamental wrought-iron scrollwork that will later decorate restaurants, galleries and private homes throughout the country.

One establishment using Gyumri ironwork is the 85 year old Voskevaz winery, in the Aragatsotn region northwest of the capital Yerevan, recently remodelled by artist Gago Ognassian. The vineyards, at an altitude of 1600 metres, produce a trademark wine using the millennia-old Areni Noir grape variety. It’s a stunning wine, with incredible depth enhanced by ageing in Armenian oak from one of the country’s few forested regions, the south-eastern Dilijan province.

At the nearby Agarak archaeological site, with over four square km of rock tombs dating back 3,000 years, archaeologist Boris Gasparyan points out the use of wine in the burial ceremony. 374-174To the ancient Urartians, wine served as “a covenant between gods and humans”. Wine vats have been dug out the rocks, with in many cases a horse-shoe shaped altar above the vat.

Even older are the wine vats in Areni 1 cave, in Khor Virap province. Seeds from the Areni noir grape variety – the same as that used at Voskevaz winery – were discovered in the cave in 2007, 374-337and have been dated to 4,200 BC, making this the world’s oldest winery. The excavations are a huge undertaking, and are expected to reveal many more finds.

The visitor to Armenia will realise before very long that this is a country with a profound intellectual heritage. With around 99% literacy and a unique 36-letter alphabet, the country punches way above its weight in the fields of education, science and technology. Chess is an integral part of the school curriculum. Sacred geometry and astronomy reached high points at the ancient temple of Garni and at Carahunge (or Karahunj), which is much older than Stonehenge and which allowed the ancient Armenians to measure the seasons and predict solar and lunar eclipses a whole millennium before the Egyptians were able to do the same.

Armenia’s famous monasteries and churches (the country claims to be the world’s first to have adopted Christianity as a state religion) are often built atop the ruins of ancient temples. The acoustics of many of these churches are totally gobsmacking, the sound reverberating within the walls and throughout your whole body as though the sound is coming from all directions at once.

There are those who say that the church has deliberately suppressed Armenia’s ancient past, But whether they are correct or not, it’s hard not to be moved by the music of the Armenian Apostolic Church. I’m privileged to visit the country’s principal cathedral at Echmiadzin, on the day of the Blessing of the Grapes – the most important event on the calendar after Christmas and Easter.374-295 Rival choirs on either side of the conical-domed church pierce the skies with their ethereal, age-old chants – and it’s not difficult to imagine that some of their harmonies have penetrated the very wine-producing essence of the grapes.

The province of Jermuk is one of Armenia’s greatest assets. During the days of Soviet rule, Jermuk was known as the best mineral springs resort in the whole of the USSR. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jermuk languished – unknown and unvisited, But now, with the opening of the new Hyatt Place Jermuk hotel, the resort with its internationally-renowned underground sources of medicinal waters is staging a big comeback.

The high plateau of Syunik province, in the very south of Armenia, is home to one of Armenia’s richest assets. Going off-offroad, we venture up to 3,400 metres above sea-level, onto flower-studded grasslands that yield both medicinal herbs and natural dyes for the country’s famous carpets. In just one 2.5 square kilometre area, German archaeologists have recently uncovered over 10,000 petroglyphs (rock carvings) dating back some 7,000 years, when hunter-gatherers lived on the plateau. The plateau stretches 30 x 240 km – so there is more than just a little work still to be done.

Finally, I arrive back in the Armenian capital Yerevan, a surprisingly cosmopolitan city, with a Canberra-like grid superimposed upon an ancient settlement (The city will be celebrating its 2,800th anniversary in 2018). 374-262People stroll the garden-filled squares at all hours, soaking up the sunshine and the heady range of civic attractions – from wine bars and jazz cafes to open-air music festivals.

No doubt about it – Armenia is a feast not just for the senses, but for the heart too.










The Thomas E King Memorial Library

Thomas E King, an esteemed member of Global Travel Writers, sadly passed away last year. He has left a vast collection of travel books, journals, maps and associated literature. Now, thanks to the efforts of award-winning travel writer Louise Southerden, Tom’s collection is about to find a new home in a cafe that will be devoting a whole room to the collection. Louise will also be giving travel writing workshops at the cafe. We’ll keep you posted as to the location and date of opening… provided that you promise not to spill your coffee on the books!

Off the Map

Never pass up a discount bookstore, because you just never know what you might find.  Not long ago I picked up a copy of Off the Map, an intriguing little paperback by British geographer Alastair Bonnett, who invites us on a tour of the world’s most ambiguous and ephemeral places.

Omani border with the United Arab Emirates - unrestricted, back then (1985)
Omani border with the United Arab Emirates, eastern Arabia – unrestricted, back then (1985)

Such places can be floating or newly-emerged islands, or even man-made; they can be unrecognised, self-declared territories and wannabe sovereign nations; or loosely-defined border zones.  They can be dangerous or nightmarish places whose existence is officially suppressed – think Wittenoon, Western Australia, or Chernobyl in the Ukraine – or they might equally be the magical retreats you shared with your childhood companions, places that adults never knew.

Bonnett’s mention of childhood retreats transported me straight back to the bush-clad hills behind our suburban home in 1950s Hobart, Tasmania.  Sunnyside Road ended in a cul-de-sac surrounded by native bushland, which to us kids (no ‘virtual’ amusements, remember!) represented a maze of paths and byways, of semi-secret
hiding places.  It’s all vanished now.

Set up to sleep rough under a railway bridge in Berlin, Germany
Ready to sleep rough under a railway bridge in Berlin, Germany

Ephemeral places also include those niches seized by the dispossessed, be they refugees, asylum-seekers or simply the homeless.

There’s nothing nostalgic about many other places Off the Map. Bonnett also remarks on Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan.

Entering the de facto Republic of South Ossetia (photo by Anatoly Zhdanov for Komsomolskaya Pravda, 2008)
Entering the de facto Republic of South Ossetia (photo by Anatoly Zhdanov for Komsomolskaya Pravda, 2008)

Taking advantage of age-old ethnic rivalries, Putin’s Russia has carved out at least four more pseudo-republics in eastern Europe, two (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) from Georgian territory.  These separatist enclaves are recognised by no other major nation and co-exist uneasily with their neighbours.  After hearing a hair-raising story about an injured and penniless Dutchman who had been stranded in Abkhazia, I abandoned the idea of attempting to cross from Georgia.  South Ossetia is, apparently, little more than a single valley.

Greece hosts the ancient monastic enclave of Mt Athos, where women have been banned for centuries.  But productivity, not piety, drives an oestrogen-free island in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf.  Many oil and gas industry workers shuttle back and forth from Das Island, 160 km offshore from Abu Dhabi.  This desolate landfall has become a vital production hub, covered with pipelines and pumping stations.

In the 1980s, at least, life on Das was not as bleak as this suggests.  The all-male community, 3000-strong, enjoyed a choice of catering ranging from mess halls to silver service restaurants, and superlative sporting and library facilities.

US border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
US border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Then there are the border zones…  who doesn’t get a buzz, an adrenaline rush, from crossing a foreign frontier?  So often, two cultures come face to face here, perhaps clashing, perhaps blending, perhaps mingling like oil and water, as the communities either side of the line draw life and purpose from each other.

Omani/UAE border post in the Wadi Bih, Musandam Peninsula, eastern Arabia
Omani/UAE border post in the Wadi Bih, Musandam Peninsula, eastern Arabia

In many parts of Asia and the Middle East, border fences and signposts are a recent innovation.  Tribal nomads often enjoy freedom of movement denied to the traveller on wheels, whilst townspeople flow back and forth on market days.  In Arabia’s barren wilderness, only the oases were traditionally attached to one realm or another.  The independent Sultanate of Oman is intertwined with the sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates, and many landlocked enclaves were crossed without formality until recent years.

Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas
Observing North Korea’s showcase Gaeong (Kaesong) industrial zone through telescopes at the Dorasan Observation Tower, DMZ, South Korea

Some borders still have to be observed from a safe distance.  The border between North and South Korea remains a ceasefire line; four kilometres wide and 248 kilometres long, the Demilitarized Zone is sealed against human intrusion and, ironically, has become a flourishing habitat for wildlife.

Off the Map reviewed in The Guardian.
This post was contributed by Philip Game

In the beginning… were travellers

From the late Sixties onward the great Asian overland road became a groove in the map, a well-worn route east from Istanbul into the wilds of Anatolia, on across the Shah’s Iran and anarchic Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and then India before reaching journey’s end at Kathmandu, where peace, love and hashish beckoned.

It didn’t just begin with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Right back in the post-war years, the early 1950s, a few intrepid would-be overlanders made tracks towards the Khyber Pass: Australia’s own Peter Pinney, a life-long wanderer – and larrikin – was one such.

Another, Eric Newby, famously tossed in his job in London’s rag trade to attempt a ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, and thereby made his name as a travel writer.

Two whose travels have remained virtually unknown in the English-speaking world were a pair of Swiss adventurers from Geneva who in 1953 struck out across the Balkans in a rattletrap two-seater Fiat car. Recently I stumbled across Nicolas Bouvier’s memoir The Way of the World, masterfully translated from the original French.

Thierry Vernet, on the road in Turkey
Thierry Vernet, on the road in Turkey

It’s a story told with consistent good humour and cultural understanding, a window into a vanished epoch; a time when two penniless travellers could settle into a remote but diverse community for months at a time, eking out a living by giving language lessons, by freelance writing or selling paintings.  Islamic fanaticism was not yet centre stage, if perhaps already waiting in the wings.

The 24-year-old Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet lived by their wits in an artists’ squat in Belgrade, then in provincial Macedonia. After hauling their little car across Turkey, the pair crossed into Iran, where heavy winter snowfalls forced a six-month layover in the ancient city of Tabriz.

Bakery in Herat, Afghanistan (1974)
Bakery in Herat, Afghanistan (1974)

An epic crossing of the deserts of eastern Iran at last brought the pair and their disintegrating chariot to the Pakistani garrison town of Quetta, gateway to fabled Afghanistan.

Their encounters here include such gems as Terence, the limp-wristed former British colonel now running a seedy bar.

The 1992 English-language edition of The Way of the World comes with an enthusiastic forward by the great (and now late) traveller and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. That enough is recommendation enough to look out for a copy.

Postscript: In 1957 six British students in two Land Rovers set forth on the grandly-titled Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition.  Buoyed by generous corporate sponsorship, this became the first – and for many years the last – expedition to succeed in crossing Burma and continuing down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore.  Their story is told in Tim Slessor’s First Overland.

This post was contributed by Philip Game.


Berlin: Ghosts of the Cold War


View from our apartment on Leipziger Strasse, Berlin
View from our apartment on Leipziger Strasse, Berlin

We’re staying right in the heart of Berlin, on the 19th floor of a refurbished apartment complex on Leipziger Strasse in the Mitte or Central district.

Two U-Bahn (Underground) stations lie within a few minutes’ walk. Strangely though, the 2-stop journey to the gleaming new glass-and-steel Hauptbahnhof (central station) requires a tortuous transfer at the gloomy old Friedrichstrasse station. Why so disjointed?

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central station) building
Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central station) building


And whatever happened to Unter den Linden, that once-grand boulevard running east from the Brandenburg Gate? It was a mess when we came last year, and much of it still is.

Such questions do have answers. Today’s Berlin makes better sense as you come to appreciate the city’s tortured history and the apparent determination to reunite East and West. Unter den Linden remains a construction site while work continues to restore the missing links in the U-Bahn (underground train) network.

Stasi Museum, Berlin, Germany
Stasi Museum, Berlin, Germany

Berlin’s idiosyncratic personality is said to date back to the Cold War days, when young West Germans made their way to West Berlin to enjoy free tuition and exemption from military service. West Berliners lived day-to-day alongside a hostile presence, the Wall and the regime behind it.

Today, the Berlin Wall has all but vanished, although token stretches remain as canvasses for street artists too young to remember life in a divided city (including the East Side Gallery and the Mauerpark, or Wall Park, in the gritty Prenzlauer Berg district).

Stallholder(s) at Flohmarkt am Mauerpark (Sunday flea market at Mauerpark) Berlin
Stallholder at the Sunday flea market at Mauerpark, Berlin

If you weren’t born yesterday, and remember when the Iron Curtain collapsed 25 years ago, do visit Berlin whilst you can still witness vestiges of the old, alongside the new.

This post was contributed by Philip Game
More images

Another look at the world refugee crisis: Cisarua, Indonesia


These guys at the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre, in the green hills above Bogor in West Java, Indonesia, are learning how to play Aussie Rules football. Unless Australia changes its hard-hearted attitude towards refugees, this could well be the nearest they ever get to becoming what used to be called “New Australians”. How is it that  Australia has become a world leader in institutionalised cruelty towards refugees and asylum seekers?