Monday, 12 November 2012

Day 228 – A Digger and a Film Maker. (Armenia)

Yerevan isn’t a hugely exciting city for tourism, but we found ourselves taking an unexpected liking to it. It reminded me of a mid-sized European city – not Berlin or Prague, but maybe Innsbruck or Bern. The place is alive and has everything one would need to happily live there, without the scale of hustle and bustle that some cities ooze. Despite the lack of glamour though, if you look closely enough there is actually quite a lot to keep one entertained.

We stayed with a friendly young Russian whose work has brought him to Yerevan for two months. While he worked during the day we explored the city and found a few treasures. The State Museum, despite its over-staffing and horribly squeaking floorboards, is home to a shoe that is claimed to be the oldest in the world. I’m not sure how many other museums claim to house the oldest shoe in the world, but regardless it is 6,000 years old and quite an amazing thing to have seen.

The Cascade Monument in the city centre is a vast expanse of stairs which was originally built in the Soviet era but never completed, the project only now being finished after the fall of the Soviet Union. While Ben, Tunkles and Denner climbed the steps I waited in the square below which is decorated with a variety of unusual modern art sculptures. My favourites of these were a comically overweight warrior clothed only by a helmet, a shield and a baton, and a matching naked lady lying ironically seductively on a podium and smoking a cigarette.

Tunkles stumbled upon a tiny article describing “Levon’s Divine Underground”, a group of tunnels that an eccentric old man dug by hand underneath his house in a village on the outskirts of Yerevan. We didn’t except it to be overly enthralling, but decided to pay a visit because of how unusual and obscure the place sounded. We found a selection of pieces of information on it, each one referring to it using a variety of names, and no directions or exact location whatsoever. Our plan of attack was to drive to the village and somehow find it once we got there, so that’s exactly what we did. Once in Arinj we turned down a residential alleyway and stopped at a monument where the first guy we asked for advice jumped in the car with us and directed us there.

Levon’s wife greeted us hospitably and using a torch, guided us through the freezing cold 21m deep maze of tunnels that her husband spent 30 years sculpting by hand. The work was intricate with even steps carved into the stone floor, and unique images of columns, jars, crosses and flowers carved into the walls. In places hand marks were visible where Levon had packed the dirt tightly by hand. Small rooms opened up from the spiral staircase, some plain, some filled with trinkets and even one with a fireplace and chimney. Light globes have been attached in a few places, incorporated into the artwork to complement some of the carvings in the walls. A huge circular hole reached all the way from the deepest point of the cave to the ground level entrance, providing a bizarre perspective on the depth.

The story goes that our guide – the wife of the tunnel-builder – asked her husband to make a small cellar to store their potatoes in, but once he started digging, God instructed him to keep going and that He would reveal His purpose later. Unfortunately we have no Russian and she had no English so we were unable to understand any of the things she was explaining to us, but we have read that the during his first ten years of digging, the rock was so hard that he would dig for 17 hours per day and only manage a hole of 7cm depth and 20cm width.

A room inside their house has been turned into a small museum exhibiting some books and magazines that Levon’s feat has been published in, photos of the work-in-progress, the tools that were used and some clothes that he wore during the process. Unable to communicate with the family and not having found any information elsewhere we can’t be sure, but there was a sense of bitter-sweetness about the place and our guide that leads us to suspect that Levon himself may have passed away. The experience was very haunting and is one of the most incredible things that we’ve witnessed on this trip.

Another personal highlight of Yerevan, though not on the same unique scale as Levon’s Divine Underground, was the Museum of Sergei Parajanov, Georgian-born Armenian artist and film-maker who was jailed during the Soviet era for his un-nationalistic work, under the pretence of homosexuality. I’m not a huge fan of obscure art for the sake of it, but this man’s work was amongst the most fascinating I’ve ever seen. Most pieces were displays, depicting situations in and around his life in an abstract fashion, varying from things such as the humorous “my childhood trunk turned into an elephant” to unflattering collages of world leaders and eerily dark sketches of fellow inmates from his days in prison. Despite the fact that there was no information in English other than the titles of the pieces, making our way through the gallery gave us a clear depiction of his life. Had we not arrived shortly before closing time we could have easily spent several hours perusing the works of Sergei Parajanov. I even bought a book to remind me of his art, which anyone who knows me will understand is quite out of character and a huge testament to the brilliance of his art.

The nightlife in Yerevan is far from note worthy on a world wide scale, but there are plenty of places to keep one busy, no matter what you might be looking for. Our most memorable night was at a modest basement bar called Bourbon Street which played everything from blues and jazz, to classic rock to current pop hits. What made it so exciting though were the patrons that we shared the venue with – some sort of EU delegation with representatives from all of Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Turkey and the Caucasus. As a very down to earth group of 20-somethings with English as a common language we chatted with a few of them and as well as having a relaxed and fun-filled evening, we obtained contacts in several countries.


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