Thursday, March 8, 2007

Trip to Shirak Marz

On March 6, Irina (my Armenian colleague), Ruben (our driver) and I set out for a two-day trip to Shirak Marz, the northwestern region of Armenia. Shirak sits in the corner of Armenia formed by the Turkish and Georgian borders. One of its cities, Spitak, suffered a tragic earthquake in 1988, which registered 6.8 on the Richter scale, killed more than 25,000 people, and devasted the entire region. We didn't stop in Spitak, but did spend a lot of time in Gyumri, which also suffered a great deal of damage. Gyumri is the center of the region and the second-largest city in Armenia. Some effort was made to rebuild it, but reminders of the disaster are everywhere.

We stopped in Gyumri for a cup of Armenian coffee (that's what it's called here, but you may know it as Turkish coffee, Greek coffee or Arabic coffee) and then continued north to visit a couple of villages. Though spring has sprung in Yerevan, and to some extent in Gyumri, it definitely is still winter in northern Shirak Marz.

Our mission was to talk to people about the upcoming parliamentary elections, which will occur May 12. Unsurprisingly, we learned that politics is secondary to people who don't have gas or running water. The people of Ashotsk, the first town we visited, were happy with their current parliamentary representative, because he paid out of his own pocket for diesel fuel so that the snowplow could clear the path to the main road.

Poor quality roads are a chronic problem for the residents of Armenia's poor and remote villages, where most make their meager living by growing vegetables or milking their cows, and need an open artery to sell their products.

Many village residents are earthquake refugees from Spitak or Gyumri. Partially built apartment blocks, meant to house those who lost their homes in the earthquake but abandoned for lack of funds to complete them, are a common sight in the region.

We spent the night in Gyumri, at the one-story hotel Berlin (German-built, hence the name). The next morning, we met with human rights activists, the deputy marzpets (regional governors), and representatives of several political parties. As we drove from meeting to meeting, I couldn't help but notice how many statues there were.

Though I saw no statutes of Lenin in Gyumri (which was formerly called Leninakan), there was a prominent statue of Stepan Shahumian, the leader of the Baku Bolsheviks. Shahumian was a buddy of Lenin's, and translated the Communist Manifesto into Armenian. He was captured and killed by anti-Bolshevik forces in Transcaspia (now Turkmenistan) in 1918.

This is definitely my favorite statue in Gyumri. It is Charles Aznavour, a French singer of Armenian descent who one of the most famous Armenian diasporans in the world (see also Cher - born Cherilyn Sarkissian - and Dr. Kevorkian). As far as I know, Aznavour has lived his entire life in France, but he operates a charity in Armenia. There is a square named for him in Yerevan, as well. Last summer, he came to Yerevan last summer during his farewell tour, and sold out a concert in Republic Square, with tickets selling for more than $100 a pop.

This is Gyumri's World War II monument. It's not particularly noteworthy except for the fact that I think the woman looks like she is serving tea in a very adamant fashion.

On Wednesday, we left Gyumri, and stopped in several towns on the way back to Yerevan. Among them was Azatyan, whose faded sign still bears the seal of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. (It's much easier to forget, while in Yerevan, that Armenia used to be a Soviet country. Out in the regions, the Soviet Union doesn't appear quite dead. The picture underneath the Azatyan village sign is of a six-inch layer of cow dung, drying so that it can be cut into bricks that later will be burned for heat.

My experience upon returning to Yerevan after trips like this always seems the same. First, there is relief at returning to my comfortable, heated apartment with 24-hour running water. Once that wears off, discouragement sets in as I count the flashy SUVs on the street and note that, although life for the Yerevantsis has become easier during the two years I've lived here, life in the regions is as difficult as ever.

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