A Journey in Armenia: Vanadzor, Gyumri & Yerevan | Sacha Torikian

In which city should I volunteer in Armenia? What should I expect?

Congratulations! You took the plunge and are about to leave to Armenia for an unforgettable experience. Yes, but what city should you choose? Are you more of a city person, with a preference for nightlife, regularly hanging out with volunteers, or one who’d rather experience totally new things by getting out of your comfort zone?

Note that you can (and I strongly recommend you do so), during your stay, leave and go to another city to give your experience a bit of a refresh! For that, all you need to do is speak with the AVC staff when you make your decision. From there, count 2 weeks minimum so they can find you a host family, and new jobsites. Once that’s done, you’re all set for a new adventure!

In this article, I’ll talk about the three biggest cities in Armenia that I also volunteered in: Vanadzor, Gyumri and Yerevan.

But make no mistake; when I say “biggest cities”, this actually refers only to the relative population numbers. Don’t forget that Armenia is a small country, sparsely populated. Therefore, your experience will be very different from one city to another.

 

Vanadzor

                                                                   Vanadzor, view from the heights

Note: Vanadzor is the 3rd most populated city in Armenia, with approximately 80.000 people. It is located in the Lori region and used to be named Kirovakan during the Soviet Era. Furthermore, the program there is currently only open during the summer!

The main reasons that drove me to go to Vanadzor were;

  • Nature
  • To leave the comfort of the city to better and more closely experience Armenian culture.

I left for Vanadzor 2 days after my arrival in Armenia. At this point, I knew nothing of the city, other than it is surrounded by nature. On the way from Yerevan to Vanadzor, I realize that it’s true; while crossing Dilijan and the Dilijan National Park, I get to see wonderful sceneries.

When I arrive, I get a prince’s welcome from my host family, Hasmik and her son Armen. A bond very quickly develops, despite my apprehensions about the language barrier. (I didn’t know that they would speak neither English nor French.) With the help of Google Translate, and working on myself, everything went fine and we got along so well! They listen to me, and, we chat and speak, more and more, little by little, while I learn Armenian and get used to my new environment.

My stay in Vanadzor, to me, remains the highlight of my journey. It is where I got to experience at its strongest the Armenian culture, with its qualities but also its flaws.

PROS OF Vanadzor:

-Nature (some forums incite us to go discover it, with little trips outside of the city)

-The authenticity and the character of the people; cultural shock is guaranteed!

– Small group of volunteers; great to make friends

POTENTIAL CONS:

  • The staring. The people of Vanadzor aren’t yet used to seeing many tourists or volunteers, thus they might stare at you. (Most of the time, even if we’re unaware of it, our clothes, tattoos or piercings draw attention to us.) That staring can sometimes feel intense or uncomfortable, but most of the time, people are just being curious.
  • For the reasons I just mentioned, or potentially others (for example if you’re smoking outdoors as a girl) your host family or even strangers can come and tell you that what you’re wearing or what you’re doing is weird or inappropriate. Remain calm! Cultural differences are a fact and if you want to avoid those situations, consider adapting at least a bit or being discrete.
  • The absence of activities. There are a couple of restaurants and cafes in Vanadzor, as well as a movie theater and a few bars, but you’ll be done with them soon enough. You’ll probably end up going back to your host family early or simply enjoying strolling around the city.

The places I recommend:

  • Oasis Cafe: The fruit salad, lava cake, chicken sandwich as well as their cocktails are pretty good! It has a very nice atmosphere and it is really comfortable. It has a second level with a terrace.
  • Jazz Cafe: Good prices and quality, this cafe is very comfortable. Furthermore, at least once a week one or a couple of artists play live on the terrace.
  • Solenoid: Located very close to the hraparak (the main square), this closed bar and its underground style are very nice, if you want to go for a drink or party. On Saturdays, they have DJ sets and small concerts happen from time to time!
  • Dsegh: Small village where the famous Armenian poet Hovannes Tumanyan was born, it is located approximately 40 minutes from Vanadzor. There, you can visit the house (that has become a museum) of the poet. Besides, the nature around Dsegh is gorgeous!

                                                           Forum: Bicycle hike around Dsegh

                                                          Day in Dilijan with fellow volunteers!

        Photo in the school that we worked to renovate with the weekly CSP (Community Service Project) with kids a few days before classes actually resumed!

                                                 Forum: Dolma workshop then dinner together!

Gyumri

                                                              Gyumri in Autumn, Victory Park

Note: Gyumri is the 2nd most populated city in Armenia, with more than 120.000 people, and is the cultural capital of the country. It used to be named Gumayri, Alexandropol (in honor of Tsar Nicholas I’s wife, Alexandra) then Leninakan during the Soviet Era, before eventually changing to Gyumri after Armenia got its independence

The main reasons that drove me to go to Gyumri were:

  1. The fact that it is the cultural capital
  2. The diversity of the architecture, that I got to see beforehand when we had an excursion there

After 2 months and a half spent in Vanadzor, and after having spent 2 days there during our excursion, I depart for Gyumri. This time, less apprehension; my Armenian has improved, thanks to the language classes and my daily life with my host family, and a couple of friends are moving there too, on the same day. Once I arrive, I meet with my host family: Anush and her son Jora. He speaks fluent English; communication becomes way easier. Such a relief! As time passes, I meet with the volunteers that were already there, and get familiar with the city.

For similar reasons to those of Vanadzor, my stay in Gyumri was important; I thought that because the city was the cultural capital it would mean that the people there would be more used to seeing foreigners and would be more open-minded. It is partly true; the staring, still there, felt less brutal to me than in Vanadzor. We also become used to it, of course. Furthermore, like I mentioned earlier, the architecture of the city is very interesting. In Ani District, also called 58 (hissoun out taghamas in Armenian, because of the 58 buildings that got rebuilt after the earthquake of 1988,) you can definitely see the “soviet touch”, like in other places around the city, often the neighborhoods a bit far from the center. But as we get closer to it, we can see more modern and historical buildings.

Architecture aside, it is still the hospitality and the kindness of the people that made my stay in Gyumri memorable.

THE PROS OF GYUMRI:

  • A city with a very rich and diverse architecture, surrounded by mountains
  • The authenticity and character of the people, cultural shock is still there!

THE POTENTIAL CONS:

-The staring and remarks are still common in Gyumri, although less “aggressive”; try to not to dwell on it too much

-The winter. If winter can be tough in some regions of Armenia in general because of a glacial wind that comes from Siberia, the cold can be horrible in Gyumri. If you plan on going there or spending the winter there, plan for it and pack some really warm clothes — and expect snow, lots of snow!

The places I recommend:

  • Ponchik Monchik: You can find 2 of those cafe restaurants in Gyumri; one is located on the Sayat Nova Ave, near the theater, and the other is on the main square (Hraparak) of the city. Their specialty is, of course, ponchiks, Armenian donuts filled with cream or chocolate. Both are very comfortable and you can also order food and drinks there!
  • Trezzo Cafe: Located on Rijkov Str, that Italian restaurant serves good food and is very comfortable!
  • Amigos Bar: Located on the Sayat Nova Ave, that bar is pretty big and comfortable. Very nice to go for a drink after language classes or work!
  • Central Park: Located in the center close to Hraparak, that park is really big and is very nice. You can even find rides there like a Ferris Wheel, Flying Chairs and more! Each ticket costs 200 drams.

                                                          View from the Ferris Wheel in Gyumri

                                   Sharing between volunteers and staff in the Gyumri office’s garden

                   Forum: Cotton factory visit, where the workers showed us how to use the machines!

                                         Night out with the volunteers, in front of the Amigos Bar!

Yerevan

                                                                View on Yerevan from Cascade

Note: Yerevan is the most populated city and the capital of Armenia, with over 1 million people.

The main reasons that drove me to go to Yerevan were:

  1. Get closer to the center of activities of the country as well as the other volunteers
  2. Live by myself or with friends
  3. Give a little boost to my social life

After a total of approximately 5 months out of the city, I bid farewell to the “countryside” and depart for Yerevan. This time again, I feel rather light; I’ve been in the country for a while, my Armenian has improved, I now know a lot of volunteers and made some good friends.

For different reasons, my stay in Yerevan was important to me and life there proved to be easier than it was in Gyumri and Vanadzor. In those cities, I had moments of being down, of feeling like I was stared at and judged by the people, making me feel like an intruder. In Yerevan, because it is the capital, the staring and remarks almost disappear, and we can use the English language way more. The language barrier becomes way less of an issue, and we’re well surrounded, both by the staff and the volunteers!

THE PROS OF YEREVAN:

-Activities regularly organized between volunteers

-The possibility of living out of a host family

-More jobsites and more choice

-If you live close to the center, you have everything close to you; shops, cafes, bars…

-The subway, very simple to use and cheap (100 drams for a one-way trip)

THE POTENTIAL CONS:

  • The annoying things inherent to a city: more noise, smells, traffic
  • Summer; if winter is generally cold or even very cold in Armenia, summer in Yerevan can be very hard and suffocating because of the very dry air, making it warmer than the other cities, with temperatures that can remain around 77 or 86 degrees F (25 – 30 degrees Celsius) at night.

The places I recommend:

The list could be very long here, so I’ll only write about a few!

Around Yerevan:

  • Garni Temple: Located at approximately 30-40 minutes from Yerevan, it is the last Greek-Roman pagan temple that still stands in Armenia and the region.
  • Geghard Monastery: Located 30-40 minutes from Yerevan too, that monastery dates from the 4th century and is partly carved into the mountain. A must-see!
  • Khor Virap Monastery: Highly holy place in Armenia, that monastery is located in the

Ararat plain and is, according to legend, the place in which Saint Gregory the Illuminator was             imprisoned for 13 years. You can still visit the pit in which he would have been confined.             Furthermore, it is the closest point from which you can see the Mount Ararat.

-Lake Sevan: That lake is the largest body of water in all Armenia and the Caucasus, and one of the highest-altitude lakes in all Eurasia. We could be tempted to swim in the lake during         the summer when the heat becomes too much, but the water is glacial! Still, the lake and its surroundings are very nice.

In Yerevan:

-Black Angus: Located near Republic Square on Abovyan str, this restaurant serves excellent             burgers and is open until 2 AM.

-Mirzoyan Library: Located Mher Mkrtchyan Str, that library also has a cafe with a terrace. Events are also organized there from time to time!

-3 Bros Corner Grill: This little fast food place is located on Pushkin Str, and is one of the rare places where you can get food until 4 am!

-Cascade: Monument built during in the 70’s, Cascade shelters a museum and links the center to the neighborhoods of Zeytoon and Arabkir as well as to Victory Park and the monument celebrating the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia. Cascade is very touristic with lots of cafes and restaurants!

                                                                              Lake Sevan’s shores

                                                             Ice-Skating with fellow volunteers!

                                                           Football match Armenia – Greece!

                                                                                       Geghard

In conclusion:

To me, there isn’t one city “better” than another for volunteering. Wherever you go, you will need time to adapt and things won’t always be easy. Don’t forget that you’re not alone! Your fellow volunteers and the staff are there and some might be going through the same things as you do.

That being said, it is by overcoming these challenges, staying united, and more importantly welcoming the new experiences, and having realistic expectations, that you will meet wonderful people and live incredible things that you won’t have expected at all!

Have an amazing trip and enjoy Armenia!

 

Sacha Torikian

France, 2019

05/13/2020