You’ve probably heard of the country as “where the Kardashians are from”, pun intended. But, there’s actually more to it than that.
I started 2017 on a high with Coldplay – still not over it. The only way to top it is to pack my bags and go somewhere. On the contrary, this trip was planned long before that.
My plan to go solo backpacking in an almost non-English speaking country did not materialize as I imagined it. However, it pushed through on a whole different terms. I was rolling my eyes, timid and doubtful if this was a good idea turned bad. And because I’m the kind of person who lets it all play out first before passing judgment, I said yes with a lot of reservations. The reason being, although I do not like the idea of traveling with a crowd, I opened my mind thinking this would turn out okay.
I’m not a social person – my social skills are perfectly fine but I’m not all sunshine and rainbows. Hence, I am fine doing things on my own or with little help. And with travelling, I realized that I can only fend for myself. There’s just a lot of hustling involved in travelling that you do not have time for stuff that do not concern you – packing, bookings, checking in, baggage drop, immigration check, airport security, sitting on a restricted space in a plane for long periods of time, loading/unloading your stuff, etc. But, because all beautiful things require hard work, I’d gladly do it again and again so I can see the world.
So, flying to Armenia with a girl squad of 6 sounds like the #SquadGoals in millennial slang. On the surface, I’d admit it does look like it. You know what they say you’d only really know a person when you have travelled with them? This was kinda it. I realized quickly that any #Goals require a lot of hard work. The nature of the trip was laid on the ground months before with everyone preparing almost to a point of severe ridiculousness. Then again, better safe than sorry.
Since it was my first time to fly with a group, my only concern is whether we’ll be able to pull this off smoothly and safely. Also, because I’m not a huge fan of posting updates on social media while travelling, I wasn’t sure if that is happening on this trip –therefore, ground rules. We set limits and agreed on a compromise – what to share and who wants to share. Call me discreet, but, I like my privacy.
With my hesitations slowly melting away – I have to own up something here: These were all just in my head. I don’t openly discuss and bore people with my issues – I was resolved to have fun and YOLO this trip, issues or not.
Airport checks out of the window, we board our flight to Yerevan and I was starting to loosen up a little bit. You know the cliché: plan for the best, expect the worst – I could not get it out of my mind. I suppressed it real quick or I am totally sabotaging this long-planned, self-funded trip intended to de-stress and renew my sense of life.
One good habit I’ve learned over the years is to sleep on plane rides. I doze off quickly, oftentimes with a mix of alcohol so I don’t have to entertain myself. I’d wake up near landing time and I’m all set for the adventure.
Airport check through the host country was longer than I imagined because of long queues, but nothing out of the ordinary. We went through smoothly without lost bags and before we knew it, we were on our way to meet Kuya Froy – who will host us for the whole five days, not a big thing.
Weather was freezing at -8°C. You don’t know what that feels like until you are there. My five-year-old self cannot contain my excitement to touch and feel snow for the first time – that childhood dream came true? This was it.
We landed in Yerevan when the entire city was covered in white with a huge chance of snow fall in the night – meaning, there will be a new blanket of snow when we wake up the next day. While we were making our way out of the airport and slowly getting to know the city, I found myself lost for words and dumbfounded at what my eyes are seeing. I already have an image in my head, but when the illusion becomes real, it takes you to another dimension – that’s exactly what I went through during the whole 25-minute drive to Kuya Froy’s place. He was such a gracious host and the perfect local guide; I could not imagine pulling off this trip without him.
Did I say it was cold? I mean, it really is cold I cannot describe it enough unless you’ve tried it. If it’s your first time like myself, I spent a good amount of time researching about the weather, in effect you’d know what to pack and what to wear. It is almost as important as any other travel details to read and look into the weather forecast of your host city so you can wear the right clothes when you go out for sightseeing. In this case, we splurged on clothing and footwear. I’ve tried winter in Istanbul last year so I already have few pieces of clothing that can get me through this trip. Fashion should be comfortable and stylish without compromising on either one. How’s that possible when you have layers of clothes to think about? My two cents is this: have the basics and go from there. Basics would be: footwear – choose an insulated footwear like the reliable Ugg Boots – it’s what got me through the whole trip; windbreaker – this is a no brainer, you need it. The warmer, the better; Trench coat – if you want to look stylish, don’t think twice on this; Thermal garments – you need cold gears so you will not die of frost bite, and your thermal garments will be your best friends while you’re in the snow; accessories – I mean scarf, beanie, gloves, thermal socks, etc. The rest of your clothes you have to pack should pass through the layering test – the trick is to learn how to layer 3-4 clothing pieces, every time. It does sound a lot, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be fine. You know dress rehearsal? You should do that. Your travel outfits can make or break you.
Shortly after arranging our stuff, we wasted no time and we’re on our way to check out the city at night and try an Armenian dinner. One of my favorite part of this trip was that we took public transportations. I promised myself that I will use public transportation for as long as I can, both in my everyday life or while travelling. Also, the experience allowed us to rub elbows with the locals and be one of them. In fact, it’s one of my to-do things when I travel.
Food is probably the universal language, with each place serving a different flavor, but with one purpose – to fill an empty stomach. I am a foodie, almost to a fault. If you noticed, I put an extra effort to blend and be a chameleon wherever I am. I want to feel how it is to be one with the people who lives in the country I’m visiting. My travel inspiration has always been Anthony Bourdain (I’m obsessed with Parts Unknown), so I try to copy his eating style whenever I travel – dine in places where the “regular” people eat, sit with them and engage in conversations, observe their eating habits, eat a home cooked meal, etc. Food is probably the easiest part of your trip – prepare to be surprised, but be open to any flavor that they offer. Also, alcohol. Vodka is the same price as water. You can fill in the blanks. Wine and champagne are cheap too.
We stayed in Yerevan but we’re able to visit almost all of the must visit sites of Armenia. We were lucky, Saro, our rented chauffer, was such a pleasant and reliable guide. He brought us to places not everyone gets to visit. During our first day, we ended up visiting all the places I was planning to see for two days – he was that awesome. Armenia has accessible roads; you’d be surprised at the country’s infrastructure. The mountains were all white and feel surreal to look at – it’s breathtaking. We first went to Garni, a Hellenistic temple just outside of Yerevan. We were the first visitors that day and had the place all to ourselves for about an hour – we went back to being children and started throwing snow balls. I will go through all that cold weather one more time so I can throw snow balls again. We then went to Geghard, a nearby medieval monastery and is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site – that’s one thing off the bucket list. Parts of it are carved out of the mountain – that’s an even unreal detail. In here, my love for dried figs, prunes, and apricots grew ten times more and will probably be one of the reasons I may be visiting Armenia again, soon. Next up, we were cruising through roads and trees and climbing mountains to get the best view of Lake Sevan and the Sevanavank Monastery – it is the highlight of that day. I left my heart in Lake Sevan – there were frozen mountains and a flowing lake. My jaw dropped at the grandiose and postcard perfect views. Lastly, what’s a snow holiday without a trip to a Ski Resort? Armenia’s ski park is the famous Tsaghador Ski Resort, and we were not disappointed. I don’t know how to ski and will not risk my life and limbs for that, so we chose a less dangerous activity to check out the slopes – the ski lifts. It was scary and freezing on the ride – you’re about a hundred feet from the ground at an elevation of 2820 MASL. That’s no joke. Also, the lifts were open and brutally freezing on top – I honestly could not feel my face and ears. Then again, you have to hide that fear and take it all in. I’m actually proud of myself for a first timer – I did not mess that up and will definitely do it again. It was so beautiful at the top, I can still replay those images in my head. This was a long day, and we ended it with a nice meal and a glass of champagne.
I liked it that during this whole trip, we were all punctual and all ready at call time. The next day, we went even further and visited parts of Armenia that are no longer included in a regular tour package – this was thanks to Saro, who went out of his way and brought us to as far as the border between Armenia and Turkey. Our cellular reception was already TurkCell, so it is legit. Khor Virap Monastery is about 100 meters away from the closed border with Turkey with fences and barbed wires are stones’ throw away. In here, we climbed a mountain hoping for a better view but, a heavy fog did not allow us to see Mt. Ararat. We somehow got a compromise; we met local tourists, mostly students, who were also visiting the place. This was the point where I wish, everyone in this planet can speak the same language so we can easily interact and share stories. My heart broke a little because I can see that Armenians are genuinely nice and warm, not to mention, good looking people, and I cannot have a conversation with them. Another time I guess. I got over that easily when I realized that we were stopping by Areni Winery and will have lunch there. I was not expecting this during this trip so it was a pleasant surprise – wine tasting, visit a wine cellar – I’m floored. My travel brain could not take in all the wonderful things this trip has given me. And also, after this, we’re off to Noravank Monastery and the view was just beyond my comprehension – the canyon is brilliantly carved and frozen like someone built it recently. There was too much prettiness and astonishment this day that I almost hyperventilated. Even as I write this, I still get butterflies.
On our second to the last day, we checked out the city and went to an outdoor bazaar so we can buy keepsakes and souvenirs for this trip. It was minus 12°C that day and I couldn’t feel my nose and my ears. But, we pushed through and went on to roam around the streets and be charmed by the city once again. Yerevan has ginormous and stunning parks and a skating rink to boast – it’s nothing like NYC’s Central Park, but it definitely serves its purpose for that matter. Freedom Square, Republic Square, Victory Park were all charming and picture perfect scenes, just like the movies. The Armenian Genocide Memorial is both serene and beautiful with a dramatic backdrop – you can definitely feel goose bumps in here, there’s an unwritten calm and quaint feeling in the place. I do not really know how to put that into words. If you ever find yourself in Armenia, and you can only visit one place, this is the place you should go to. Not for anything, but because it is innate to them and you cannot find another place like this.
Just when we were about to leave, snow fell on our last day and we got to see real snowflakes – like the ones in photos, they look exactly like those. That was the finale of this trip. I could not have imagined a better ending. Snowflakes fell on my hands and melted.
Breath taken away.
PS – Enjoy the photos, x