After yesterday’s glum-fest, I didn’t think things could get any more glum. I WAS WRONG! After leaving my (Overlook) hotel I went over to the train station/bus stand to try to get a bus up the valley to go and explore the old monasteries up there. A guy called Gary offered to take me in his clapped out old Lada taxi around the sites for twelve euro. That’ll do, I thought, and hopped in.
Man oh man, I heard the Soviets were awesome at sucking the beauty out of everything like some kind of giant aesthetical vampire, but I was NOT prepared for the devastation they had wrought on the Debed Canyon. If, as it states in the Lonely Planet the Debed Canyon “manages to pack in more history and culture than just about anywhere else in the country” then I didn’t miss much by not visiting the rest of Armenia.
Once upon a time, the Debed Canyon was a picturesque wooded valley, dotted with small settlements and medieval monasteries. Then the Soviets rucked up in their big clod-hopper boots and managed to somehow take this pristine wilderness and turn it into the most heartbreaking bags of arse I have ever seen. They installed a copper mine, HIGH-RISE FLATS (seriously!) and a railway line. And in doing so they thoughtlessly meffed-up Armenia’s heritage in a way that would make the most capital of capitalists blush.
The railway line wouldn’t be so bad (I have no objection to a pair of nice clean rails running through the countryside) if they hadn’t decided to solve the obvious drainage/subsidence problem in the most ham-fisted way imaginable – by steering the rainwater OVER THE TOP of the railway using wide, brutal concrete drainage channels every kilometre or so. These drainage channels sat perched in the air over the railway and looked like half-finished concrete bridges of the kind dreamt up by over-zealous town planners in the 1960s who thought that they could create a new world order out of concrete and asbestos.
The trees of the valley are now all but gone and all that remains of the good old days are a handful of small monasteries in various states of dilapidation. I spend a good few hours exploring them in the rain – Sanahin and Haghpat are UNESCO World Heritage Sites – but aside from the joy I got from the inscriptions carved on the wall in the Armenian alphabet (it looks soooo much like it was done by aliens) it was about as much fun as a wet weekend in Rhyl.
Did I mention it was raining? Oh, yeah, I did, but I thought I’d mention it again as it adds to the dark, grey gloominess of the valley. What’s that? Oh, another factory, another derelict warehouse or two… or four… or thirty-six. Concrete hell-holes with all their windows smashed in, covered in graffiti and despair. It’s like somebody read my mind (or my blog) and devised the perfect opposite of my personal vision of nature and architecture entwined in some kind of ethereal beauty.
In short, Rivendell it was not.
I soon decided it would be best to head back to Georgia, which I duly did, losing another precious page of my passport in the process (despite my valiant efforts!). I met with Rati at his home and we had dinner – some kind of Russian concoction, a bit like meatballs wrapped in pasta. It was pretty good, I have to say. Later we left to head into town and meet up with a couple of guys that Rati had been in contact with through CouchSurfing – Michael and Martin.
Michael is from Germany and Martin is from Austria. Michael’s supposed to be kipping at Rati’s gaff but I’ve nicked his spot (ha!), no fear though – he’ll be joining us tomorrow night and taking the spare room. We found a little pub in downtown Tbilisi (if you like a drink or two, Georgia is gob-smackingly cheap) and settled in for the night. But remember – NEVER toast with beer in Georgia – only wine or spirits may be used to propose a toast. If a Georgian toast you with beer, you are their enemy, which is a great way to catch somebody out who’s pretending to be Georgian and isn’t.
Turns out Michael was working in Cambodia for a couple of years before deciding to travel his way back home – which meant that I could happily pick his brains about the old border formalities of China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran et al. Thanks to him, I’ve altered my schedule slightly and will now be attempting to enter China from Pakistan rather than Nepal (I was hoping to pull some strings, but I gave up hope of special favours a loooooong time ago).
So what’s up next I hear you cry?
Well, obviously I need to sort out my visa for Azerbaijan still, and once I’ve got that I’ll high-tail it over to Baku, the capital. From there I’ll be heading to Kazakhstan, the home of a certain Borat Sagdiyev and then pressing on to Uzbekistan (for which I will (hopefully) have a two-entry visa) and beginning the process of getting my Turkmenistan transit visa (it can take up to TWENTY days). While I wait for that to come through I’ll visit Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan before returning to Uzbekistan to pick up my Turkmenistan visa (for one day’s worth of travel, I might add) and thunder on through Turkmenistan down to Herat in Afghanistan where I’ll take a sharp right like Bugs Bunny at Albuquerque and plough head-first into Iran.
Good. Now first things first… I need a new visa for Azerbaijan.