Gyumri

To fulfill my main goal of 2011, which is to get out and see the country, I visited Gyumri this weekend. Armenia’s 2nd biggest city had been beckoning, especially since there are a handful of PCVs there.

Sometimes it is easier to not do than to do. That is especially true when doing entails 10 hours in marshrutkas over a 48 hour period. But I’m very glad I went and experienced this city.

Gyumri is known for being one of the great Armenian cities. Like all things Armenian, it has a tragic history. The city was once the 3rd biggest in the Caucasus, after Tbilisi and Baku. During the 1900s the Soviets built up Yerevan, while Gyumri stood in line waiting for its primping. But it never came. Just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Gyumri suffered a devastating earthquake. I’ve read that nearly 50,000 died in that earthquake. While the epicenter was closer to Spitak, Gyumri suffered more casualties as it was a bigger city. The recovery effort was also tragically fumbled, as many people lived for years without basics like running water, electricity, or gas. No wonder many Armenians call those the cold dark years.

View from the altar of a partially collapsed church

Slowly, Gyumri climbed back to its feet. But as it was not completely leveled like Spitak was, it didn’t receive a complete overhaul. In fact, when walking around the city you might think the earthquake happened 2 years ago, not 23 years ago. There are still many destroyed buildings. Their main church has been undergoing careful reconstruction for many years. You can also see partially collapsed buildings where one portion has been renovated and someone is living inside. Domik (old soviet shipping containers) housing is unfortunately still a common site. The Armenians undoubtedly tried to make the most of their bad situation, as you can observe domiks that have been upgraded and added-to throughout the years. These were supposed to be temporary housing solutions for displaced persons, but the new house never came. I can only hope the same doesn’t happen in Haiti 20 years from now.

Despite all these things working against it, Gyumri stands out as a proud city with lots of character. It is a noticeably older city than Yerevan. Many of the buildings in Yerevan are new and rather bland. But in Gyumri there is quite a bit of imperial Russian architecture that survived. There are cobblestone streets and a few nooks and crannies that just give it that special flavor.

The people as well are known for their ridiculous sense of humor and their odd dialect. I can’t comment on the humor, but I did notice that Gyumri’s citizens were easily the tallest I’ve seen in Armenia. As I strolled through the streets with fellow PCV and former Solak village-mate John, both of us standing at a respectable 6’2”, there were several Armenians taller than us. And many were at our level. Don’t get me wrong, there were still many short Armenians waddling about, but for the first time there were plenty of tall outliers too. I also noticed we didn’t attract an inordinate amount of attention. There were stares and glances, but it was closer to being in Yerevan than being in Vardenis in that regard.

Since the city is about 120,000 people, there is plenty to do. There are lots of restaurants (maybe 20 or so), several large squares, parks with cafes, and a couple touristy type monuments. The city is rather spread out, which means that there are local marshrutkas scurrying about. No building stands more than 4 or 5 stories, and for good reason.

Schuka

The majority of my time was spent touring the city. There is a fantastic shuka (open air market) where you can buy everything from cow legs to giant grape leaves for dolma. They also have an interesting “mall” which is like a partially covered private storage unit facility. Rows of little garages come alive with old Armenian men and women peddling black clothes, shoes, and coats. It is bizarre to walk through a mall where every store sells nearly identical clothing. I wanted to provide a picture but it was so cold that my camera wasn’t working.

So, that was Gyumri. It was a good experience and something that I needed to do. I don’t know if I’ll be back. I would be going back to see my friends rather than the city. I think next up will be Vanadzor. I have been there once, but it was only for a couple hours; I didn’t really get to see the city.

With that I wish you a happy Valentine’s Day. Even if you are without a special someone, as I am, make it a great day anyway. I taught some Armenians how to say “Be my Valentine!”

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4 Responses to “Gyumri”

  1. Nancy Says:

    Interesting! I really enjoy your history lessons, Kevin!

    I missed some of your earlier posts, so forgive me if you’ve already answered these two questions:

    1. Growing up, I heard the phrase “poor starving Armenians”. Is that simply the continuing history of Armenia OR was there a specific event that brought about this saying?

    2. Are you enjoying the food?

    Happy Valentine’s Day, Kevin! You are much loved!

    Nancy

  2. icenugget Says:

    Hi Nancy!

    1. I don’t know of a specific event that led to that saying. I do know that in the early 20th century there were American movements to help save the Armenians from the genocide. You can see this propaganda in the Genocide Museum. Perhaps the starving Armenian saying was a continuation of that idea.

    2. Yeah, I really enjoy the food here! Although now I get less of it as I cook for myself. There have been only a couple things I haven’t cared for: figs, apricot soup, chicken neck and gizzard

    I haven’t been subjected to a couple of the potentially nastier meals. Khash is cow hoof that is made into a soup. Kella is a dish famous in Gyumri…basically you eat a cow head I think.

  3. cathy Kautz Says:

    Aunt Jo-Jo here- do you need anything for your new apt? I got you some insulated thermal underwear and a thermal blanket. Let me know what else to send. Love you mucho-Aunt Jo

  4. icenugget Says:

    Aunt Jo, hello! I am not in dire need of anything really. But I am always more than happy to accept whatever people send 😀

    I would say maybe some spices, like Italian seasoning or parmesean cheese (pronounced like Grammy). In fact, I will post a list of stuff on the main page, since many people ask me what I want/need.

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