Syunik Marz

Yesterday I returned on my most ambitious trip to date within Armenia. I visited the dirty south, otherwise known as Syunik Marz.

Armenia has 10 marzes plus Yerevan. Syunik is easily the most remote and farthest removed from Yerevan. Nestled into mountains along the single 2 lane highway that winds to neighboring Iran, there are only a handful of population centers. Kapan is the biggest at about 30,000. Then there are also Goris, Sisian, and Meghri. My trip was 1 night in Sisian and 3 nights in Kapan. I also passed through Goris, so I can say I’ve seen most of the major cities.

The first day of the trip, Sunday, I traveled from Vardenis to Sisian. I arrived in Sisian in the late afternoon. Sisian is home to a large group of PCVs from my group. There are 4 volunteers in Sisian proper and then another 5 in surrounding villages. As such, they have a tight knit bond. Their distance from Yerevan means that they tend to spend almost all their time together in their community (which is what I think PC has in mind for all of us, but travel is too easy here). It has also led to this legend of Sisian and how great it is. While I was impressed and it seemed like a nice enough place, it didn’t really have a lot more going for it than Vardenis does. Similar populations (around 10,000), some nice parts and some crappy parts, and the same hard life you can find in all the regions of Armenia outside of Yerevan.

Throwing Shit in the River

The biggest difference between Sisian and Vardenis is that they have a river flowing through the town. This resource opens up a world of options. Thus, the favorite past time of PCVs in Sisian is Throwing Shit in the River. They have also used their collective creativity and boredom to create other games, such as Wizards and Warlocks, which unfortunately we were rained out of. It involves a lot of aluminum foil, a whiffle ball bat, and roman candles.

In Sisian I stayed with my Solak friend Ashley, along with a couple other PCVs. It’s always interesting for me to see how other PCVs live. It’s always quite drastic from our perspective as people who have been in-country for over a year, but really it is a lot like communism. We all have almost all the same things, just with slight variations. If the PCV lives in an apartment, then their building will make you feel like you are at home. Open, dirty, poorly-lit concrete stairwells with two tone walls dot the buildings with 3-4 apartments on each floor. Ashley’s particular apartment had the most impressive kitchen I’ve seen so far, with a nice open floor plan, shelf and counter space, and a nice dining table in the kitchen as well. Most of us have galley-type kitchens, or in my case, a room that is maybe the same square footage as a galley but a different squarish layout.

Sisian seems to have a bit more tourist development than most Armenian places. There was a nice looking hotel. They also have a big write-up in Lonely Planet, whether it’s worthy of it or not. There is a nearby stone formation that is like their Stonehenge, although I didn’t see it.

Monday morning a group of us took off towards Goris, where we would catch another marshrutka to Kapan. The ride to Goris was surprisingly quick and easy. Highlights of the trip included a falsetto Armenian song that was even making the Armenians laugh, 4 Americans with big backpacks crammed into the back row all speaking loudly in English, and at the end of the trip the Armenians talking about us and wondering if we knew where we were going and where we should get out, to which I answered, “We all understand Armenian.” Priceless.

A very nice girl from our marshrutka offered to show us the way to the Kapan stop in Goris. As we were exiting the marshrutka and it was driving away, one of my fellow PCVs realized he left his phone in the marshrutka. At this point it was raining, we had a lost phone, and we were holding up this nice girl who was trying to show us the way. A couple of us decided to go with her to see the stop, while the other 2 stayed in hopes that the marshrutka would return (we got out in a place where it usually waits to go back to Sisian). After walking a bit, seeing the stop, getting price quotes on the marshrutka and on taxis, we realized it would only be 500 dram more per person to do a taxi. We were pretty sure we would do that instead, as it affords a guaranteed seat, better ride, and more space. We met back up with the others. Continuing the search for the phone, we were approached by a nice old taxi guy who started asking if we needed to go somewhere. We explained the dilemma to him. He got on his phone and within minutes reassured us that the Sisian marshrutka would come back by so we could get the phone. Sure enough, it did, and then we happily got in his taxi to go to Kapan.

His taxi was old, but that is pretty common here. The guy was really cool and was familiar with some other PCVs. He spoke that kind of clear, slow Armenian that makes having a real conversation possible. Unfortunately, about halfway up the major mountain pass, he admitted something was wrong with his car. We got out and he said there was a rock that got into the innards of the wheel (my car ignorance is shining through here) and broke something so that the tire was obviously further out from the frame than the others. But this is PC Armenia, so we happily waited on the side of the road for about an hour for another taxi to come, fix his car a bit, and then take us the rest of the way. I’m not sure if we are not annoyed by these experiences because that is the kind of person that PC attracts, or if it’s because we have so much time here and no reason to be in a hurry. I think a big part of it is adjustment to a different sense of time and living in the daily reality that anything can go wrong at any time.

Broken down on a mountain side

The trunk of the repair taxi: Spare tire, check. Bucket, check. Eggplant, check.

Kapan is like the Yerevan of the south. When we arrived I was impressed by an array of high-rise soviet apartment blocs, cafes, nice streets, and a river flowing through the city center, which is in a deep valley. I could feel the difference in culture between Kapan and Vardenis. The women seemed a bit more liberated and free, hope was apparent in the air, and you could see a couple walking down the street together holding hands.

Armenians love flying horse monuments

In Kapan I stayed with another Solak friend, Lizzie. She has a nice apartment with an amazing balcony. I ended up sleeping on the couch on the balcony 2 of the nights, which was terrific. Since she lives on a hill she has a nice view of the surrounding hills and all the houses tucked into the greenery.

There isn’t a lot of touristy stuff to do in Kapan, but for PCVs the reason for a visit is usually just to interact with other Americans. There are 3 PCVs in Kapan, so we rotated dinner parties between their apartments. One day we walked up to a big park that has a big pond thing that has old soviet paddle boats. We also stopped in at the American Corner, which is a program from the US Embassy that provides English libraries to disadvantaged regional centers. It was a bit sad to see it basically empty besides the Armenian staff, the books hardly opened if not brand new. Your tax dollars at work, unfortunately. The rest of our time was spent in cafes, at Lizzie’s apartment, or the other 2 apartments.

The city is hailed for its beauty. Unfortunately the weather was pretty crappy while I was there and we couldn’t see their most prized mountain peak in the distance, but despite that I can say it is beautiful there. Green mountains, raging rivers, and winding hilly roads make for an Armenia that I had not yet experienced.

Green is not to be taken for granted in brown Armenia

Since the road to Kapan is also the road to Iran, you get to see a lot of Iranian cars and freight-trucks rolling in and out of Armenia. I have no idea how the massive semi-trucks make it on the narrow winding roads. One thing I saw that really caught my attention, on multiple occasions, was something I would never see back home: a semi-truck with Iranian plates parked on the side of the road with a compartment under the trailer opened up. On the compartment door, propped up like a little table shelf, a hookah and a tea pot brewing hot tea. A far cry from beef jerky and a big gulp.

Yesterday it was time to leave. I had a nice time but was ready to come home, just like you should be after a good mini-vacation. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to screaming bowels that indicated a trip to the bathroom would be a good idea. I proceeded to unleash fury for half an hour while contemplating the herculean trip ahead of me. Should I choose to accept it? Or should I stay one day and try to recover from this sudden-onset sickness? At 6:00 I felt okay enough to risk it. Pepto was a large factor in this decision. I got ready and left at 6:30 in order to make the 7:00 marshrutka.

I arrive at 6:40 to a few Armenians hovering around the dispatcher. He said there was no space and that we had to wait. “Did you call ahead?” No! I didn’t know I needed to do that! I began to worry that I might not get a seat at all. There are only a handful of marshrutkas to Yerevan out of Kapan each day. As more and more Armenians came, the picture looked grimmer and grimmer. At 7:30 we were still standing around and I began having evil thoughts towards the dispatcher. Finally a taxi of 4 pulled up and they took up a lot of the remaining seats. Damn call-aheaders. There were just a few seats left. The dispatcher said to no one in particular, “One person!” I was a bit confused and didn’t really understand what was going on. Then he picked some guy out of the crowd who came at least 20 or 30 minutes after me to sit in the front seat. Damn! I should have said something. Then, “One more person, for the stool.” All of the Armenians refused. The dispatcher looked at me and asked if I wanted it. I was thrown at this point and mumbled some incomprehensible Armenian while trying to figure the best course of action.

You see, the stool, or in Armenian atorr (chair) is the infamous seat in all marshrutkas that they use when all the real seats are taken. It means sitting in the aisle without a back on your seat for a prolonged period of time. Considering my irritable bowels, propensity for motion sickness on switchbacks, and the general uncomfortable-ness of riding on such a thing for 6 hours, I did what any 20-something that joins the Peace Corps would do.

I said what the hell, yes.

And the amazing thing was, despite the gingivitis/coffee breath of the lady next to me, her grandson puking into a plastic bag next to her, and dense fog that really made things interesting along an intense mountain pass, I didn’t poop my pants or puke. Great success!

Anyway, I made the trip all the way from Kapan to Vardenis and promptly passed out in my bed for a few hours. It was a new record for time spent in marshrutkas in one day for me, at about 9 hours. On top of that, not eating anything but half a shwarma and a Fanta, let’s just say I wasn’t feeling so hot.

Luckily today is another day off so I can continue recovering and also take the time to write about the trip. Would I do it again? Totally. I had a lot of fun and the travel was part of the adventure. It was a big check off the to-do list. Now I have been to almost all the PCV marzes. I have stayed with or been in the apartment of 3 more Solakites. And I saw a part of the country that most Armenians don’t even get to see. Plus, it was a great example that a trip doesn’t have to be packed with special activities or entertainment. Great food, conversation, and camaraderie made this trip special. And there is just something about reading a book on a balcony upon waking, after sleeping outside that feels perfect.


6 Responses to “Syunik Marz”

  1. Peter Says:

    Sounds like you have all but scoured an entire country!

    “We all understand Armenian.” awwwwwww hell! KC throwing down the gauntlet!

  2. icenugget Says:

    With a country this size there is no excuse not to. It’s great to see how many different environments and climates there are within such a small space.

  3. Peter Says:

    That’s sweet. I have always thought that of California and Italy as places with such varied destinations that you can have cool ski destinations (Tahoe, Torino) all the way to hot beaches (San Diego, Sorrento) within a couple hours train ride.

    I felt torn during my study abroad experience because I only had 4 1/2 months and I wanted to see as much of Rome, Italy, and Europe as I possibly could. Obviously it’s a losing battle to even attempt, but I got a pretty decent taste of all three. You, on the other hand, have a much more achievable goal.

    What’s next, Tavush or Armavir?

  4. icenugget Says:

    Yeah you faced an uphill battle trying to get all of Italy covered in 4.5 months. It sounds like a long time on paper, but when you get there it’s a different thing. Even 2 years is seeming short in SOME ways, especially when I think about travel within the country. Perhaps 4.5 months lights a fire under your ass but you never really have enough time to be satisfied, whereas 2 years leads to complacency and “I’ll do it later, I still have time.”

    Tavush will be the next one. Honestly I will probably never go to Armavir, unless I go to Echmiadzin (the holy capital of the country right outside Yerevan), but even that I’ve heard lackluster reviews of. Armavir is known as the “Moon Marz” because it is flat, dusty, rocky, and treeless. Just miles of red rocks. Tavush on the other hand is known as the “Bear Marz” – lush forests, a couple coolish cities, and bear attacks! Totally going there.

  5. Peter Says:

    We have had some bear attacks in Chicago recently, almost exclusively in the Boystown neighborhood. 😉 😉

  6. ejehle86 Says:

    hahaha so the 3 northern most regions of Cameroon are referred to collectively as the Grand North and you know what we call the rest? Exactly. The Dirty South.

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