Editor's note: This is part 1 of a two-part series on travel in Armenia.The trip to Yerevan, Armenia, was long. From Washington, D.C., I flew to Heathrow and after a five-hour lay-over, I flew to Yerevan and arrived at about 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning. It was a 19 hour trip, and I arrived there late at night. It was interesting to see a number of brightly lit casinos on my way from the airport to my apartment in the center of the city. I've since learned that the majority of businesses for the entire country is owned by seven families in Armenia. Everyone else survives on what most Americans would consider to be low-income wages. I'm guessing those casinos make their money from the oligarch families and friends, and are probably a good way for the rich to launder the illegal portions of their revenues. Just a guess.Armenia is an interesting little country. It has the land mass comparable to Maryland. The city of Yerevan is at an elevation comparable to Denver with a view of Mt. Ararat that is comparable to that of Seattle's view of Mt. Rainier. Except that Mt. Ararat has two peaks: one somewhat similar in appearance and elevation to Mt. Rainier, and the second peak which reminds me of Mt. St. Helens before it blew its top. On a clear day, they're magnificent. Unfortunately, although it can't be more than 60 miles away, it is in Turkey and there are no border crossings between Armenia and Turkey. So, Armenians enjoy the view but they can't feel the exhilaration of climbing on its slopes or up to either of the two peaks.
There is a dj vu to more than just the sense of being near Seattle and looking at a magnificent mountain. The city of Yerevan reminds me of a scaled down version of Kyiv, Ukraine. This makes sense, since the Soviet Union replicated the architecture of the government buildings, concrete modular apartment buildings and similarly designed monuments in many of the former Soviet Republic's capitals. The subway (metro) is designed the same and so is the radio tower. However the difference here is that, no matter which direction you look beyond the city, you will see snow-capped mountains, instead of the plains that surround Kyiv.When I first arrived I hired a lady to come to the apartment once a week to do the shopping and cook enough Slavic dinners for a week. I was lucky because she was a very good cook! While I was in Yerevan, I had the pleasure of hosting two small dinner parties with colleagues. I also hooked up with the Yerevan Hash House Harriers. This is a chapter of an internationally infamous drinking club with a walking/running problem. At least, that's what the motley, irreverent riff-raff that attends their events like to say. Actually, it is a pleasant mix of local nationals and expats from a variety of countries that are in almost every capital or major city of the world that like to meet other free spirits. The common theme of all Hash House Harrier (H3) groups around the world is that they like to walk, run, have a few beers and enjoy the moment together. I've discovered that the H3 is a great way to make new friends in a new city.
On the second weekend that I was in Yerevan, I had the opportunity to go downhill skiing at Armenia's only ski area, Tsakadzor. Although the slopes are from beginner and modestly intermediate, the fresh mountain air at 6,000 feet and some exercise is always a pleasure. The third weekend after arriving in Armenia, I went with several other colleagues to the second largest city, Gumeryi, and near there, we went cross country skiing for a day. This area was devastated in 1988 by a severe earthquake that killed an estimated 25,000. It seems that earthquakes can happen on the floor of the ocean or at 6,000 feet in the mountains with the same deadly effect. We went cross country skiing in a little village that was predominantly Catholic and received support from the Roman Catholic Church. Notably, while we were there we visited the school building (built by the Vatican) and saw many pictures on the walls, including that of Jeb Bush. Bush visited the village and offered some assistance there after the earthquake. It was a very modest village, virtually in the middle of no-where, except being high in the mountains, near the border with Turkey. Although I didn't see any satellite TV dishes, the people I met seemed content with their lives. This was a place where cross country skiing is a winter activity for everyone in the village. It was fun to watch a group of about six pre-teenage boys out and about on their skis. They may not have had all the stuff that many American kids have, but they certainly appeared to have a healthier and perhaps happier life style than many American kids (except perhaps in the Colorado Rockies), at least on that day. While we were there, my colleagues and I were honored to be invited into the home of the village mayor and his wife, where they served us a delicious lunch of home-made soup and dolma (similar to stuffed grape leaves). I also enjoyed some of the local home-made moonshine. Their hospitality was genuine and we felt very welcome. These type of experiences are my most cherished memories of foreign travel and work.Bill Penoyar recently retired from the U.S. Agency for International Development. In addition to enjoying the Colorado winter from his condo in Silverthorne, he is completing an action/adventure movie script inspired by his experience working in the Iraq provinces during 2009-10. He can be contacted at email@example.com.