Bill Penoyar
Special to the Daily

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March 24, 2012
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A different sort of adventure

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on travel to Armenia and Georgia.

During February and March, I had the opportunity to spend seven weeks working in Armenia and visiting Georgia. On the third weekend that I was in Armenia, I went with a friend to one of the oldest churches in Christendom; the Khor Virap church, located near the Turkish border and Mt. Ararat. According to Armenian history and Wikipedia, this area was a Roman Empire outpost (before the church was built).

The Kingdom of Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates III and members of his court, an event dated to AD 301. Details of the conversion may be found in Wikipedia. However, the short of it is that King Tiridates made the conversion after Gregory restored the king's health, even though the king had imprisoned Gregory in a pit for 13 years. When Gregory healed Tiridates, he immediately declared Armenia to be a Christian nation, becoming the first official Christian state. Armenia and Georgia both claim being the first Christian country.

I had an opportunity to climb down into the pit where Gregory was imprisoned for 13 years, but declined. In retrospect, I should have taken a look.

According to legend, Noah and his Ark eventually ran aground on Mt. Ararat. I've re-read the story of Noah in the book of Genesis and didn't find any mention of this. However, that's the legend.

The city of Yerevan, Armenia, likes to remember Noah (Noy) in many ways. The most common reminder is one of two predominant cognacs (brandies) that are distilled here. A weekend tour included the Noy distillery. When I saw the old stills used for making the cognac, it reminded me of my high school extra-curricular chemistry activities. At the conclusion of the tour we had the opportunity to taste some of their product. It is pretty good!

The only weekend that I had no other engagements, I did a walking tour of Yerevan. It is a typical ex-Soviet city. However, it does have its unique history, culture and places to visit.

One interesting place was the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, built into the side of a very large hill and terraced into different floors and art galleries. The benefactor of the center is Gerard Cafesjian, who is an Armenian-American success story. He made his fortune in the publishing business and used his wealth to finish a project, the "Cascades," which was started by the Soviets, and now houses the center.

The most interesting aspect of the center is its very large private collection of glass art by a Tacoma, Wash., artist, Dale Chihuly. I was surprised and pleased to see Tacoma, represented by Chihuly's art, half way around the world in Yerevan. I also spent an interesting couple of hours touring the long, turbulent and sometimes tragic history of the Armenian people at their National History Museum on Republican Square, not far from the apartment where I was staying.

One of the nice things about the career which I recently retired from is that, after a few years and a few different assignments around the world, good friends whom I've met in one country are re-discovered in a very different time and place. The reunion with these friends is always a treat and frequently, their familiarity with a new location makes the experience that much more rewarding.

While in Yerevan, I met two friends, John and Maria, whom I knew and worked with 10 years earlier in Kyiv, Ukraine. Both have lived in Yerevan for several years and know the area well. Soon after we re-connected, they invited me to join them for a Saturday day trip to a pre-Christian temple; a 1,500-plus-year-old monastery and another ancient church on Lake Sevan in northern Armenia.

I also had the opportunity to hitch a ride to Tbilisi, Georgia, with colleagues. They drove down to Yerevan and were returning to their home on Friday in Tbilisi. I never pass up an opportunity to visit a new place on the cheap, for a Saturday of site seeing in a very picturesque capital city. Tbilisi is only a five hour drive over the mountains from Yerevan.

Since the Rose Revolution, which took place in 2003, when Mikheil Saakashvili, a Kyiv, Ukraine University and George Washington Law School educated Georgian lawyer inspired the population to peacefully protest against the rampant corruption of the existing government of President Eduard Shevardnadze on Nov. 23, 2003. He succeeded in creating a more democratic and far less corrupt new government of Georgia. Saakashvili has had his share of problems. But, he has done a good job with transforming a dangerous and corrupt country with a stagnant economy into a reasonably safe country with a growing economy. In addition to the very picturesque drive to and from Tbilisi, my one day walking tour (perhaps 6-8 miles) was well worth the trip.

I stayed at an inexpensive hostel for $40 per night, which is what I usually do when I'm traveling alone. I much prefer to visit more interesting places than to spend three times as much to stay at Western hotels which look the same in Detroit or D.C. as they do in Tbilisi or Yerevan. Besides, the people that I meet along the way are far more out-going and interesting than the usual three- or four-star hotel crowd.

Unlike Yerevan, Tbilisi has retained its historic, 19th century architecture and buildings, and ensured the new architecture complimented what was already there. Yerevan removed most of what may have existed prior to 1920. So, although Yerevan is a very pleasant walkable city, it doesn't have a fraction of the charm that Tbilisi does.

During the Spring Equinox, the Iranians celebrate their New Year. Many use this time of the year to travel on vacation to neighboring, less restrictive Armenia and Georgia. I noticed many cars and busses with Iranian license plates full of families on holiday. Perhaps some Americans, who are influenced by the hype from some American TV networks and hawkish politicians, think that Iranians are very different and have very different values than the U.S.

Interestingly, the Iranians that I observed, as we toured the same places and stopped at the same rest stops between Armenia and Georgia are, surprisingly, just like Americans in appearance, family values and civility. I enjoyed watching Iranian children play near an ancient Georgian church and wondered what Sen. McCain was thinking when he said, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." These kind of threatening statements that are made by U.S. politicians to please the unknowing and unthinking Americans among us certainly seem immoral when watching these innocent children at play.

My final weekend in Yerevan was capped by helping organize the walk/obstacle course/run for the drinking club with the running problem, the Yerevan Hash House Harriers. It was a nice Saturday and an amicable group of hashers.

The trail was set along, over and under the river in the gorge that ran through Yerevan. A fellow hasher used his pedometer to measure the distance start to finish, being about 3.6 kilometers. Since I had to do this twice, once to set the trail and next to walk it with the hashers, plus walking halfway through the city to the YH3 meeting place, I was pretty tired by the end of the day and ready for the drinking part of the activity. As always, the Hash House Harrier outing was fun.

If you're looking for a different sort of adventure vacation that combines a different mountain scenery, history, gracious people and relative safety, Armenia and Georgia may be two interesting small countries to consider visiting.

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 2009-2010. You can contact him at wfpenoyar@hotmail.com.


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The Summit Daily Updated Mar 24, 2012 09:39PM Published Mar 24, 2012 09:32PM Copyright 2012 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.