In Armenia’s Pink City

Raul Dias | Updated on October 18, 2019

March past | The main spire of Yerevan’s Central Railway Station still sports a Soviet star   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, has an impressive cache of Soviet-era buildings

While I had heard a lot about the Armenian nationalistic pride — with the words “bordering on jingoism” loosely bandied about — I couldn’t have been more ill-prepared for what I was about to witness. And I had not even landed on Armenian soil. All it took was the sight of Mount Ararat in all its snow-capped glory, emerging from a cloudy veil on the port side of the aircraft, for pandemonium to ensue in the narrow cabin.

The man to my left quickly whipped out his phone for a series of selfies with the mountain in the background and the elderly woman to my right muttered something in Armenian, making the sign of the cross every 10 seconds or so. All this while reverently looking at the mountain where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to a rest after the great flood mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

Star of the Soviet

It was only a few hours after landing at Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan does the irony of it all strike me. Mount Ararat, one the greatest symbols of Armenia (emblazoned on everything from bottles of brandy and beer to chocolate bars) isn’t even located in the Armenian territory. In fact, it can be found just over the border, in present-day Turkey.

As I stroll through leafy Yerevan, with its Parisian-style boulevards and drinking water fountains called pul pulaks at every corner, I soon realise that for the former USSR country, symbolism is everything. How else does one explain the continued presence of a five-point Soviet star atop the main spire of the city’s Central Railway Station? A likeness of Mount Ararat below the said star is perhaps why the station still uses the Soviet coat of arms.

Reclaiming glory

Speaking of which, Yerevan’s grand Republic Square was once known as Lenin Square with a giant, mid-stride statue of Vladimir Lenin that was taken down post Armenia’s independence in the autumn of 1991. Today, the square is surrounded by grand architectural examples of Soviet modernism. The brutalist façades in the indigenous pink volcanic stone called tuff gives Yerevan its ‘Pink City’ moniker.

At another popular attraction — the hilltop Victory Park overlooking Yerevan — another former Soviet leader has been dethroned.Replacing Joseph Stalin’s monumental statue and seated at the same pedestal is the sword-brandishing, 22-m tall Mother Armenia made from hammered copper. Here, too, symbolism is on display. The statue is said to not only show peace through strength, but also mirror the role of prominent female figures who joined the men in fending off Turkish troops during the 1915 Armenian genocide.

Joining a group of the Yerevan Couchsurfing chapter on a post-beer walkabout the city, I learn about how in 2010 a Facebook group called “SAVE Cinema Moscow Open-Air Hall”, successfully petitioned the Armenian government to stall the demolition of the open-air hall of the Moscow Cinema on the city’s arterial Abovyan Street. Built in 1936 in the constructivist-style, a form of modern Soviet architecture, the cinema itself replaced the 5th-century St Peter and Paul Church. It remains one of the city’s premier recreational spots with its giant chessboard set shadowed by Armenian artist Ara Alekyan’s gigantic sculpture of a spider.

Parting shots

We walk towards the Republic Square Metro Station, where I notice how well the Soviet style of almost harsh, geometric accents is merged with the more oriental features of the station. The entrance has a decorative fountain of an eight-petal concrete flower in bloom, with a huge vaulted ceiling held up by plain columns with sculpted eaves in the shape of bird heads.

From Republic Square we take a metro train ride (100 dram or ₹15) to Charbak a few kilometres away to get the real feel of Soviet suburban Yerevan with its many ‘Khrushchyovkas’. Developed all over the Soviet Union during the early ’60s, these concrete-panelled apartment buildings were named after Soviet statesman Nikita Khrushchev and provided low-cost housing in a gargantuan communal setting.

It is from the terrace of one of these 15-storey (and elevator-bereft!) buildings that I spy the ultimate remnant of the Soviet past a few yards away, eerily backlit by the setting sun. Constructed in such a way that they spell out the alphabets CCCP (which is ‘USSR’ in the Cyrillic script) when seen from above, I’m told that they were built so that the Soviets could feel patriotic as they flew in from Moscow.

Truly, one man’s Mount Ararat is another’s Khrushchyovka.

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Travel log
  • Getting there and around

As there are no direct flights from India to Armenia, one can reach Yerevan by connecting flights from Dubai.

The easy-to-procure Armenian visa, which costs US$ 6 for a 21-day stay, can be sought either online (evisa.mfa.am) or on arrival at Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport.

Given its compact size, most of Yerevan can easily be accessed on foot or by its super cheap metro train system which comprises 10 stations.

  • Stay

Yerevan has accommodation options to suit all budgets: Double Tree by Hilton (₹6,600 for two with breakfast, doubletree3.hilton.com); Ibis Yerevan Center Hotel (₹3,200 for two with breakfast, accorhotels.com).

  • BLink Tip

From Tuesday to Sunday, 9pm to 11pm, the grand fountains outside the History Museum and the National Gallery in Yerevan’s Republic Square put on a very informative and free sound-and-light show with folk music and snippets of Armenian history narrated in both Armenian and English.

Published on October 18, 2019

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