Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as time!
-William Burgon, “Petra,” (1844
I first saw Yerevan at midnight through tinted windows. I was on a bus going from the airport to our staging conference, resisting the pull of jetlag to get my first glimpse of the country. But looking at darkness through a dark window, all I could see were electric signs, the only ones still lit at midnight: strip clubs and gambling rooms on the airport road at the edge of town. The Armenian letters flew by too fast to read, but the buxom silhouettes and neon dice were clear enough.
This is the introduction most tourists get to Yerevan. In two years, I’ve never heard of a flight arriving at or departing from Zvartnots Airport before seven in the morning or seven in the evening, the airport road the only way into town, and the windows are always tinted—invaluable in the daylight of the Armenian sun, useless when it goes down. Night drives are a poor way to see the city.
My second visit to Yerevan was passing through a few days later, on the way to my training village. It was a drizzly day in March, the marshrutka coming out of a landscape of dirt, scrubland, and power pylons into a city that looked like a heap of bricks held together with highways of spackle. Up close, it was all Soviet apartment blocks, repair shops, and carwashes. We sped through the city in twenty minutes, skirting around the edge.
Although it was built around a cluster of hills, Yerevan is a city of the plains, broad and flat. From a small, orderly center, the city sprawls out for miles, boxy apartments giving way to meandering dirt roads and mazelike shanties. Like most cities in the developing world, Yerevan sucks in more life and capital than it gives out, with waves of villagers from every corner of the country accreting to the edge of town, looking for work and a better life. Few tourists or volunteers spend time in this part of town; passing through it to reach the center is enough. Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #10: Yerevan”