Jimmy Jimmy … Aaja Aaja…The old lady looked at me as she sang softly the words barely audible. I smiled at her and she smiled back pointing to the neatly packed figs, apricots, and other dried and candied fruits which she was selling. She offered me a taste of those dry fruits which I accepted readily as I was starving by now. I bought some of those delicious fruits and turned to Anya, our guide. How does she know this song? It’s been ages since I heard it on radio in India so how come a lady in Armenia is singing this song? Anya explained that Bollywood movies and music was quite popular in Armenia a few years back and parents would often take the kids out to watch Bollywood movies add that the most popular Bollywood actors of all times was none other than Mithun Chakraborty. It is interesting that the Indian street and the Indian Cinema in Armenia was called “fatherland.” Armenia was surely proving to be a country full of surprises!
Armenia which borders Turkey, Georgia and Iran proved to be as exotic as it sounded. Our journey started in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The mountainous country located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia is a nice mix of European & Asian influences. We checked into the historic Yerevan hotel and as I went to the window in my room I was rewarded with the first magnificent glimpse of the biblical mountain Mt. Ararat. The sun was almost setting and with the snow peaks shining against the pink sky it made a very pretty picture. The mountain with two peaks lies physically in Turkey but is very significant in Armenian culture. Legend has it that Noah’s ark came to rest on the Mountains of Ararat. Through the next few days as we travelled across Armenia, it was a comforting sight as we didn’t lose sight of the mountain.
Our first stop was the Matenaderan, a research centre and museum which houses many medieval manuscripts and books from all around the world, some of which were from India. It turned out to be an interesting visit and it struck me how beautifully the manuscripts were preserved. The next day we set off to see the first monastery on the list, the beautiful Khor Virap monastery where St Gregory the illuminator was kept imprisoned for 13 years. We stopped just before reaching the monastery for a picture perfect photo opportunity of the monastery against the back drop of Mt. Ararat. The most interesting part of the monastery was climbing down the dungeon where St. Gregory was kept imprisoned. Armenia was the first country in the world to become a Christian nation and St. Gregory we learned had an important part to play in the same.
We drove on further to Noravank monastery another wonderful masterpiece with its beautiful holy mother of god church. We climbed up the steps and were struck by the amazing beauty of the gorge all around with its red cliffs against which the pink stone of the monastery stood out remarkably. After visiting the monastery we were in for a bigger and better surprise as we had lunch in a cave restaurant near the monastery. The huge salad spread was served with goat’s cheese, lavash bread and followed by barbecued potatoes and lamb. With a delicious authentic Armenian lunch we set off towards Lake Sevan, one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. Here, it was an amazing experience to cruise Lake Sevan on board the Cilicia a ship that was built in recent times with ancient technology. By now it was quite cold as strong winds blew over the vast stretch of the lake. After dinner we were quite happy to reach the comfortable Marriott hotel in Tsaghkadzor. It was past 9.30 in the evening but never too late to enjoy a swim and sauna in the wonderful hotel complex. We woke up to a completely white Tsaghkadzor the next morning as it had been snowing in the night. The Armenians definitely picked the best locations to build their monasteries as we marvelled at the monastery of spear which was carved into sheer rock. We went into the rock grotto and listening to the church choir in the grotto was a very soul stirring experience. Next on our list was the temple of Garni whose columned structure stood out as an excellent example of Hellenistic architecture. I was loving this trip as a visit to a monastery or temple was always followed by an interesting lunch and today was no different. We ate at a rustic house in Garni. The best part of the meal was that the lavash was being prepared right in front of our eyes in the tandoor very similar to our very own roomali roti.
Our short but sweet trip to Armenia was drawing to an end and as we passed the dramatic landscapes to return to the comfort of Yerevan, we decided to have one last celebration at Malkhas jazz club, where the great man himself was present to entertain us till the wee hours of the morning. Armenia was definitely European in looks and Asian at heart!