It’s two in the morning and I’m in an Armenian nightclub. Wednesday morning. The British Ambassador is sitting next to me. Or was that on Tuesday, and was it one in the morning? Or maybe it was Thursday and 3am? After a few days in Armenia the nights all blur into one long party. The only certainty is that brandy was involved.
Armenian brandy slides down the throat as smoothly as a juicy slice of fruit. Taking a slug is like picking a grape off a bunch. One is never enough. It begins with the meal, a hazy slosh of brandy, vodka, wine and water, and then you remember the beer you had in the bar beforehand – or was it three? – and now it’s two in the morning and even the British Ambassador has loosened his collar a little. And why am I sitting next to him anyway?
At one end of the long, dim cellar is the weird mournful wail of Armenian music, four men playing clarinets while a fifth man beats a Grim Reaper rhythm on a drum resembling an Irish bodhran. Armenians have got much to be mournful about and it comes out in the music, which makes Leonard Cohen sound like The Laughing Policeman. Then the tempo changes, the wails turn to wa-hays and we’re in an Asian bazaar and you wouldn’t be surprised if a belly dancer wiggled in.
In fact it’s the Armenian group from the table at the other end of the room. Someone’s birthday, we’re told. Two sisters strut their stuff, arms twirling wildly, as if a Balinese dancer had become a traffic policeman. One’s wearing a black skirt so short I’ve seen more material in a table napkin, and a white top so tight you can see that not all of her is moving quite in time to the music. Being British, we sit and watch, and drink. Especially the quiet guy sitting opposite me. Paul, the one who’s feeling ill. Paul, the one who works in a shoe shop and who’s now on his feet and sinuously wriggling as if he’s got as much Armenian blood in him as he has brandy. Hands clap, feet stamp, sweat pours and Paul sits down to a round of applause, puts his head on the table and falls asleep.
Giles asks the British Ambassador how much he earns. He doesn’t put it quite like that, but says he’s got a brother who’s a civil servant… so what grade’s the Ambassador on? The Ambassador tells him. He then tells me that his wife runs an organic farm in Wales and he gets a free flight home once a year, otherwise he has to pay. His wife is into alternative medicine, so looks after her career at home while he remains Our Man in Yerevan. And very good he is too, a credit to the British Foreign Office.
We wake up Paul and form a procession back to the hotel, unfortunately passing the bar before we get to the lifts. Or was that the previous night? And who else is in Armenia, apart from diplomats and the first wave of curious tourists? Engineers like Darren from Durham for one, who’s in the bar playing pool and thinks Armenia’s a shit-hole, but then he’s only been here a day. His Long Tall Texan buddy (the stetson the size of a UFO was a bit of a giveaway) is leaving tomorrow and will miss the place. ‘Great country,’ he slurs inbetween rapid visits to the pool table, ‘great people… FUCKING GOOD PEOPLE, MAN!’ He’ll be sorry to go, but he’s laid his share of pipeline, and other things besides, and now it’s some other guy’s turn.
Next morning I look in the mirror, and two red pool-ball eyes stare back at me. In reception our group is somewhat subdued. Shades are being worn. Only our guide, Rosanna, is jolly and perky. We’re going on a coach tour to Lake Sevan, up in the hills, famous for its trout and a popular holiday spot in summer. The lake itself is a gorgeous expanse, but marred by the Soviet architecture of the town, as if a litter-strewn housing estate had been dumped on the banks of Windermere. Over a cup of tea in the lakeside café, Rosanna tells us how popular Shakespeare is in Armenia. ‘Many Armenian men have names like Richard, John and Hamlet.’ She tells us the washrooms are round the back, where there is ‘something like a toilet.’
As we drive on up into the wooded hills, we see a man standing by the side of the road with his arms stretched out, a surreal sight. ‘He is selling fish,’ Rossana explains, ‘and that is the size of the fish he has.’ So at least some Armenians are optimists.
The road winds up through villages, a mixture of rustic huts and functional breezeblock. Pigs, hens, dogs all scratch around at the side of the road. Until 1991 Armenia was a Soviet Republic, but has taken longer to get back on its feet than other such places, like its neighbour Georgia, or the much more westernised Baltic States. Imagine eastern Europe ten years ago, or Britain in the thirties. Tourism is in its infancy, and that’s a great part of its charm. Travelling is slow because the roads are pot-holed, there’s little public transport, few hotels and the only taxis are in Yerevan. Plans are, shall we say, flexible. It is well after 2pm when the coach is straining its way up a steep mountain road, and our stomachs are rumbling. What a place, though, to be coming for lunch… remote mountain restaurant, hearty food, eagles soaring and perhaps wild boar for lunch. My hangover seems to be disappearing.
But no, we’re just a little behind schedule and we’re heading for the monastery of Hakhartsin, where the gnome-like Father Minas greets us in a mix of Armenian, Arabic, French and quirky English. He came back to Armenia after years of working in Syria, he explains, which is where his wife and children still live. He shows us the monastery dining room, and Rosanna translates for us: ‘This dining room dates from 1240 and was the last building to be built on this site. It was used as a college for the monks and is also where they ate and slept.’
‘Yes, yes,’ says Father Minas suddenly in English, ‘Conference Centre!’
‘Come, look, church Gregory,’ he says, scuttling into the next building which is dedicated to Armenia’s patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator. It was Gregory who caused the country to become Christian in 301AD, the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion. The Armenian King at the time, Tiradates III, stoned to death a Christian virgin for refusing to marry him, but then he went mad and thought himself to be a pig. He was cured, so to speak, by another Christian, a prisoner named Gregory, as a result of which Tiradates converted both himself and his whole country to Christianity.
Yet another church at the monastery, the Church of St Stefan, is 12th century and was used as a music hall for the monks, according to Father Minas. It is now used for baptisms, which explains the small white enamel bath on the altar. With no prompting, Father Minas sings the beginning of the Armenian church service, the Horan, which dates back to the 12th century yet again. It was written and performed here in this church for the very first time and to be here in this mountain monastery, listening to the priest’s pure voice rising up to the shadowy dome above us, is like stepping back 800 years. When he finishes, no one speaks. It is one of those heart-stopping moments which remind you why you travel: to be here, now, privileged to be listening to this and wanting to be nowhere else in the world.
Father Minas breaks the spell, and tells us that the name of the monastery, Hakhartsin, means ‘Play of the eagles’. We are 4600ft high at the head of a green valley which falls away at our feet. At the foot of the valley is the nearest town, Dilizhan. ‘Do you think,’ someone asks, ‘we might be able to get some lunch there?’ Father Minas tells us where there’s a restaurant.
A Doubting Thomas in the group says, as we pull up outside the unlit restaurant, that at this time of day in a small town in the middle of Armenia, we have two chances of getting some food: fat and slim. However, we’re not in England so we’re made very welcome, the lights go on, we’re ushered to a private room, and within minutes the table is filled with plates of tomatoes, cucumber, cheese, yoghourt, bread, sausages, cold meat, onions, herbs. Soon there’s the smell of pork shashlik sizzling in the kitchen, and the clink of glasses can only mean one thing: Armenian brandy is on the way. And vodka, and bottles of beer. Oh dear. It’s 4.30 in the afternoon. Here we go again…