Armenia

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Introduction to Armenia

One of the cradles of civilisation, Armenia offers visitors a refreshing experience - if they are prepared to occasionally pass on all the comforts of home. Facilities for travellers are few and far between, but then so are queues, and Yerevan's sidewalk cafes afford great people-watching.

Get out of the cities and the countryside is astonishing; cloaked in wildflowers, framed by snowy mountains, pitted with deep caves and endowed with more than 40,000 ancient churches and monuments. Its depths hold a bounty of natural resources, including gold, copper and precious stones.

Armenia has been trampled over by most of the ancient world's big players, and was nearly wiped out altogether in the early years of the 20th century. The Soviet Union dropped in unasked and stayed for 70 years, bequeathing monumentally ugly buildings and a taste for grand military parades. Tensions with neighbouring Azerbaijan flared in the early 1990s, and a continuing economic blockade has strained the economy, making fuel and some other commodities scarce. None of that has prevented Armenians from doing what they do best: celebrating their culture and enjoying their laid back lifestyle.

Caution

It's best to steer clear of the western region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijan-Armenia border region.

Although hostilities ceased in 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia have yet to settle their differences regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which in the meantime operates as a self-proclaimed, unrecognised republic with close but unofficial ties to Armenia. Armed clashes continue sporadically along the ceasefire line and the border with Armenia, and anti-personnel landmines are dotted throughout the areas close to the front lines.

Full country name: Republic of Armenia

Area: 29,800 sq km

Population: 3.5 million

Capital City: Yerevan

People: Armenians (93%), Azeris, Russians, Kurds

Language: Armenian, Russian

Religion: Armenian Orthodox (94%)

Government: Republic

Head of State: President Robert Kocharyan

GDP: US$12.13 billion

GDP per capita: US$3,600

Inflation: 5.7%

Major Industries: Machinery, clothes, chemicals, microelectronics, although a lot of industry has shut down since the disappearance of the USSR

Major Trading Partners: Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, Georgia

Member of EU: No

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Traveler Facts

Visas: You only need a valid passport and an onward ticket to be granted a visa for three or four weeks upon arrival.

Health risks: hepatitis

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +3

Dialling Code: 374

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Armenians make the most of any opportunity to celebrate, and hold concerts, recitals and traditional dance and music performances year-round. The New Year is the largest holiday of the year, where people exchange gifts and houses are opened to walk-in guests. Motherhood and Beauty Day is celebrated on 7 April, and Easter, in March/April begins with the cracking of boiled eggs dyed brown. The one who cracks another's egg without cracking their own gets their wish. Religious celebrations begin on Good Friday and last throughout the weekend. The Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 6 January.

The heroes of WW II come out in force on Victory Day (9 May), and stroll through the towns. They are still revered for their sacrifices, and the tradition continues of smaller children giving them flowers and a kiss, with older children offering shots of vodka and konyak. Most towns have a cultural and music festival to accompany the beginning of spring, and nearly every region has a series of traditional and modern festivals throughout summer. In June, the unsuspecting get doused by children until the adults take revenge and join in on Water Day. Sevan Lake hosts weekend celebrations and concerts over summer, and most towns with outdoor stages host traditional Armenian dancing and music, with crafts and food. The town of Hrazdan hosts an annual autumn festival, called Voski Ashun, with concerts, traditional dancing and music in October, and the cultural season begins in Yerevan with the harvest and the approach of winter. Vernisage Art Park in Yerevan hosts spontaneous concerts and the occasional impromptu dance recital on weekends throughout the year.

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Best time to Visit

Autumn (September-October) is probably the most beautiful season, with balmy days, crisp nights and beautiful colours floating around on the air. There's no peak travel season so you won't be competing with hordes of tourists for a room at any time of year. If you want to avoid winter's chill, any time from about May to October is fine. If you like sliding down the icy slopes with skis on then Armenia has excellent resorts, and at lower prices than what you'd pay in Europe. January and February is the time for skiing.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Dram

Meals

Budget: US$1-5

Mid-range: US$5-15

High: US$15-20

Deluxe: US$20+

Lodging

Budget: US$10-20

Mid-range: US$20-70

High: US$70-140

Deluxe: US$140+

Armenia will put a happy gleam in the eye of most budget travellers. The republic is cheap, and if you scrimp and save you'll get by for US$20-25 a day. It doesn't cost much to look at churches and ruins in the countryside either. But if you're used to a few more creature comforts and like to splurge occasionally, expect to pay around US$50 a day. If you want to pay more than that you can easily enough; Yerevan has some world class hotels with matching world class prices.

Changing money in Armenia presents a few more difficulties to travellers than in Western Europe. Exchange booths aren't common, and ATMs are rare. Change your dollars and cheques at the Arm-econobank in Yerevan, or try the market traders, who can usually change dollars for a reasonable rate. Since the collapse of the Russian economy there's no point in bringing roubles.

Tipping for good service is standard practice in Armenia - the usual 10% of the bill is normal.

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Attractions

Yerevan

Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, and has no fewer than 20 museums. Central Yerevan is a bowl ringed by hills on three sides, sloping gently from the northeast toward Mt Ararat in Turkey to the southwest.

The central streets are a skewed grid, focused on the grand Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square). On Republic Square are the State Historical Museum, the central post office, Hotel Armenia, and a healthy array of shops and foreign banks.

Artashat

The Khor Virap Monastery and ruins of an early Armenian capital are reason enough to visit Artashat. Legend has it that Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in a deep well at the Monastery, and the capital was founded there in the 2nd century BC.

Extensive ruins at nearby Dvin, another former capital (from about 340 AD), are under excavation and there's a small museum at the site. A bus from Yerevan goes to Artashat, which is 30km (18.6mi) south of the capital.

Ashtarak

The main features of Ashtarak are the grand 5th to 6th century Tsiranavor (Orange) Church and the small, 7th century Karmravor (Red) Church. Armenia's highest mountain is the 4090m (13,415ft) Mt Aragats, and at the 2300m (7544ft) level are the 11th to 13th century Amberd fort and church. At nearby Byurakan is the Observatory, 6km (3.7mi) off the Ashtarak-Talin road. Ashtarak is 22km (13.7mi) north of Yerevan, and a bus from the station is the way to go.

Echmiadzin

Echmiadzin was the capital from about 184-340 AD. Today the city is the site of the most important Orthodox cathedral, founded by Gregory the Illuminator on a former pagan site of worship. It is the spiritual home of the head of the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Supreme Catholicos.

It is a holy place for Armenians, owing to King Tiridates III's conversion to Christianity there in 300 AD. He had ordered a Christian virgin to be stoned to death, and subsequently went mad. A Christian prisoner named Gregory saved and converted him, and the whole country soon followed suit.

Lake Sevan

Lake Sevan is the largest lake in Transcaucasia. The lake lies 1900m (6232ft) above sea level, and used to cover 1360 sq km (530 sq mi) but the lake has shrunk by 420 sq km (164 sq mi) since the Razdan River - the source of the lake - was tapped for hydroelectricity and irrigation.

In the heroically grandiose style of the former Soviet Union, workers in the early 1980s cut a tunnel through mountains south of the lake to divert the Arpa River into it and keep the Razdan flowing. One effect of the depleting lake was to expose forts, houses and artefacts more than 2000 years old.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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