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Phespirit goes to Armenia
Yerevan     May 2008

Sometimes travel is on a whim, usually it involves a bit of preparation, and just occasionally it is the realisation of long-nurtured hopes. For Phespirit, a tour of the southern Caucasus had been years in the mulling and months in the planning. At last, in May 2008, there came the day for the doing. Over a period of more than two weeks he would travel by plane to Armenia, by bus into Georgia, and by train into Azerbaijan, before flying back to the U.K. via Latvia. At each country he would make base in the capital, starting with Yerevan.

Inauspiciously, Phespirit's British Midland flight from London Heathrow departed a whole hour behind schedule due to a party of fifty American teenage passengers arriving late at the terminal. Phespirit was not encouraged by the prospect of enduring a five-hour flight amidst hoards of adolescents with almost unlimited potential for getting on his nerves. In fairness, though, they were reasonably well-behaved throughout and the hours passed without event. Indeed, the flight-time was shorter than expected, and the cabin crew served Phespirit quality food and lashings of wine, so he was comfortable and content when the plane touched down at midnight, local time.

On Armenian soil, his first task was to acquire a visa. Poor research had lead Phespirit to believe that the visa fee was thirty U.S. dollars, but the true figure turned out to be fifteen thousand Armenian dram, equivalent to about fifty dollars. Sufficient monies were acquired after some tiresome queuing at a solitary money changer's booth. This culminated with Phespirit being short-changed to the tune of about twenty pence. Mercifully, queuing for the visa was trivial compared to queuing for the money to pay for it. Moving on to passport control, not one but three controllers rigorously examined Phespirit's passport front to back, back to front, under ultraviolet light and intense scrutiny. Phespirit just smiled and took to staring out the window while they mentally limped to the inevitable conclusion that he was safe to let in.

When Phespirit belatedly passed through to the airport arrivals hall he was relieved to find his pre-arranged transfer driver still patiently waiting for him. All accommodation, transport and transfers in the Caucasus, along with a few days' guided excursions, had been booked before departure through Regent Holidays. This simplified matters enormously. Their service, and that of all the local guides and drivers that Phespirit met, was excellent. In central Yerevan, he eventually hit the sack in his hotel at around 1:30am. At the time he was still quite alert, but when he woke up five and a half hours later (3:00am U.K. time) he felt absolutely shattered. Even so, he crawled out of bed, freshened up, unpacked his bags, grabbed some breakfast and gamely ventured off into the city.

Phespirit had nothing booked for his first day so he made use of it to walk the length and breadth of Yerevan. This was quite tiring as temperatures were uncomfortably in the mid-thirties with a burning sun permanently overhead. He must have got through at least two litres of water whilst roving around all the places he'd earmarked to visit. The effort was well rewarded, though. He thought the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum on Tsitsernakaberd Hill was particularly well conceived. There's a crass way and a sensitive way of commemorating such enormous human tragedies and this one is definitely in the latter camp.

The next day Phespirit travelled in the best of company beyond the limits of Yerevan. He was greeted at his hotel by his Armenian guide, Sara, and was reunited with his driver from the airport, Samson. This trio headed way out west to Echmiadzin, the religious heartland of Armenia, and then worked steadily eastward, calling at Zvartnots, passing back through Yerevan and out the other side; stopping to admire the view from Tcharents arch, taking lunch at Garni within walking distance of the ancient temple, and finishing with a visit to Geghard Monastery. This sunny day's sightseeing ended back at his hotel around 5:00pm, whereupon it immediately started raining.

The following morning found Yerevan cloudless and hot once more. Phespirit started out ambling along various streets that he hadn't previously ambled along, and visited the memorial museum of celebrated artist Martiros Saryan. In the afternoon he rejoined Sara and Samson to venture 60km+ north to Lake Sevan, a huge inland source of clean fresh water at 1,900m above sea level. Two small churches of Sevanavank monastery stand high upon a peninsula that juts into the northwest arm of the lake, adding to the natural spectacle. As could be expected, it was much cooler in that part of the country. The sun remained hidden behind grey clouds that issued occasional spots of rain and more frequent rumbles of thunder, but nothing to spoil a pleasing trip.

It was a pleasure to see Armenia, and a privilege to see it with Sara. Phespirit could not have met a more informative, educated and cultured guide. Through her hospitality and kind consideration she conveyed to him the spirit of a young, outward-looking nation with ancient, unshakable traditions. Her knowledge and expressiveness may have been honed as a Director of Arts at the National Academy of Sciences, but her patience, openness and generous nature were borne of a kind Armenian heart.

Phespirit had warmed to Armenia almost immediately. Georgia and Azerbaijan would have a tough act to follow as he continued his journey around the Caucasus. For the second leg of his tour he travelled overland by bus from Yerevan to Tbilisi.

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