There’s a fine line between someone looking at you out of curiosity and that of an imposter. I’m quite used to the first by now, but here in Armenia there seems to be a lot of suspicion about who I am and what I’m doing here. Besides the glares, Armenia is the first country I’ve been to where they actually searched my bags at the border, along with three separate questionings and three passport checks. They even checked what medicine I was carrying, because, you know, some paracetamol and some plasters in a first aid kit is highly suspicious. Come on, like I would keep my stash in a first aid kit. A stark difference from exiting Georgia, where the three or four guards didn’t have one gun between them and couldn’t care less about waving me out.
I’m the only man I’ve seen in the whole of Armenia with long hair. Perhaps this could be a factor in the staring game. Maybe they think I’m a woman with a beard. Even the dogs seem to know I’m not from here, barking at me as I cross the wide, airy streets, which are often devoid of life. It’s peculiar that the streets are so wide given the lack of traffic here. One can only assume it’s designed to offer more space for the helter-skelter driving techniques. Crossing the streets in Armenia maybe isn’t as bad as in Georgia, but you still have to look about ten times before you think it’s safe or end up as an accessory on the bonnet of a stylish 80’s Lada. Of course, this I speak of towns. The countryside, at least what I’ve seen so far, seems unchanged for the last 300 years, which is quite humbling to a degree. There are endless grassy plains in Armenia, and it’s one of the highest countries in the world, accordingly much of the land is used for cattle grazing and not much else.
Accommodation works differently in Armenia too. Hostels seem to have a chic and boutique thing going on, as if people staying in hostels are after luxury. It’s like staying in a fancy hotel without the privacy. And they all seem hidden away as if it were something illegal. It took me half an hour and two phone calls to find a hostel without a sign which is inside a building inside another building. Like another Armenian hostel I went to, it has huge white and characterless walls, with staff dressed like advertisements for the Gucci bank-exec range. You’ll be lucky to see a map on a wall, book swaps don’t exist and I feel a little guilty for even looking like a traveller. Of course, I still haven’t visited the capital, and I reckon nearly all the tourists in Armenia will be there. But right now I feel like I’m the only foreigner in the country. In both places I’ve stayed here in Gyumri, the second biggest city, I’ve had the whole building to myself. I’ve only met one other traveller in Armenia so far, a guy from the US, and the only others he met were myself and a hitchhiker from Portugal. The same hitchhiker who I also met a few days ago on the side of the road in Georgia.
Armenia also seems at a loss for places to eat out. In Gyumri there are only a handful of restaurants located along two central streets in a city of 300,000 people, and these streets also feel gentrified and distinctly un-Armenian. The bewildering part is that it’s not expensive to eat out at all. A tin of beans from the supermarket costs the same price as a pizza in a restaurant and still comes in at the Armenian equivalent of a Euro. You can also add a pint of beer for the same price and throw in a pack of fags for 80 cents. Though selecting things from the menu is difficult because their script, like Georgian, is just a bunch of squiggles that looks like someone had fun throwing spaghetti at a wall.
Supermarkets are also an odd one. Amongst a splash of local and Russian products you can have three or more tills under the same roof—but they’re actually different shops and with different shopkeepers. All of course positioned in front of a shiny glass wall of every type of vodka and brandy that exists on Earth.
I really want to like Armenia. I’ve tried to grasp their culture and interact with people, but so few speak English that this might be the reason why there are so few interactions beyond a wave or a deafening car honk. Allegedly 75% of the population can speak Russian and so I can proudly add basic Russian to my regret-list of things I wanted to do before I left Greece and never got around to. I haven’t felt excluded in Armenia, but I haven’t felt totally included either. Loneliness isn’t something that bothers me. I have endless books, podcasts and other things that might not bore me to the end of my days. It’s the combination of curiosity in this place and the lack of answers that’s disheartening. I guess I just expected Armenia to cater more for people like me, visiting their country, when in fact tourists to Armenia are still quite a rare thing indeed. So until it happens, better learn some Russian, because you sure as hell aren’t going to learn any Armenian.