Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yerevan and Tbilisi: One Tourist's Superficial Impressions

We visited Armenia and Georgia this year. Prior to our trip, I didn’t have too many preconceived notions of life on the ground there, except for stereotypes about post-Soviet states. This was my first-ever time in the old Eastern Bloc of the Cold War. (I’d been to China and Vietnam, but they don’t really count -- Beijing and Hanoi never marched to the beat of Moscow’s drum.) I expected crumbling 20th-century factories and wonderfully ugly 20th-century Soviet architecture. And yes, I saw examples of both of those.

But both of these countries are also busily remaking themselves in the post-Soviet era. Now, I’m not going to say anything about either nation’s contemporary culture, because I don’t have the knowledge. I was just a tourist in both countries, drinking wine and visiting grand old stone buildings in the countryside. I’m so ignorant I still don’t even know how much I don’t know.

But what I can do is compare and contrast the two capital cities. Even to a casual visitor like myself, Yerevan, Armenia and Tbilisi, Georgia present very different images.

I liked both cities. I would happily spend a few more days in either city. And they look very different.


The city of Yerevan is built on an incline. South is downhill, north is uphill, consistently across the entire city center. At the “bottom” you’ve got Republic Square; at the “top” you’ve got the massive statue of Mother Armenia holding her sword and glaring across the valley at Mount Ararat in the distance. And she is standing next to a kiddie amusement park with rides and cotton candy, but you can’t see that from the downtown, you can only see Mother Armenia up there on the hill.

Yerevan is a city of big solid stone buildings, often adorned with plaques that tell you which government agency is located inside. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many big solid stone buildings taking up entire city blocks outside of Washington DC. Say what you will about the Soviet Union -- and there’s a lot you can say -- they were very good at large-scale stone architecture.

There’s not much that is old in Yerevan. There are a very few historic buildings in the city center. The tiny, ancient church known as the Katoghike is an exception, but its singular existence just makes the lack of other pre-20th century buildings even more noticeable. Just outside of the city center is a neighborhood called Kond, where old houses still exist, but next to the monumental architecture elsewhere, Kond looks almost like a neglected slum by comparison.

Yerevan's downtown was built, for all practical purposes, in the Soviet era and later. A map of the city center has a strong “planned community” feel to it, and with good reason: architect Alexander Tamanyan planned it in the 1920s. According to Lonely Planet, he deliberately oriented the grid system so that major avenues pointed to Mt. Ararat.

I am thoroughly unqualified to make more than the most superficial observations of Armenia. But as someone who makes a living from Taiwanese students’ need to improve their English in order to study abroad, I have to say it was a welcome knock to my worldview to come to a country where English isn’t the primary foreign language. Russian can be seen and heard everywhere in Yerevan, and I’m sure the majority of Yerevanites are perfectly capable of having a conversation in it. English is spoken by some, but we faced much more of a language barrier than monolingual Russian visitors would.

It makes me wonder what it’s like to be part of a small linguistic community. The total population of Armenia (even if you add Nagorno-Karabakh) is no more than the combined population of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. When we went to the supermarket, a few packaged food labels were in Armenian, but the vast majority were in Russian (plus some English). The washing machine in our accommodation was all in Russian, because why would a multinational company bother manufacturing and selling appliances with Armenian writing on them? I wonder if it’s possible to even live a modern lifestyle in Armenia if one only knows Armenian. There’s so much that we speakers of dominant languages take for granted.


Because we visited Yerevan first, my impressions of Tbilisi tend to be in contrast to Yerevan.

While Yerevan has very few pre-20th Century buildings, Tbilisi has loads of them, particularly south of the modern city center (in the “Old Town”). Tbilisi seems to have been a much more prominent city prior to World War I; back then, when it was known as Tiflis to non-Georgians, it was an important regional city of the Russian Empire and seems to have been known to internationally-minded people around the world.

While Yerevan has a very cohesive, well-defined city center. Tbilisi is more spread out, despite the two cities having comparable populations. As tourists in Yerevan, we only took the subway once (partly to see what it was like, and partly to reach the northern half of downtown without walking back up the incline). By contrast, in Tbilisi we took the subway rather more often, as stuff to do was dispersed over a larger geographical area. A map of Yerevan has a “planned community” look to it, but no one would ever get that impression from a map of Tbilisi.

I mentioned Mother Armenia standing atop a hill above Yerevan's city center, holding a sword. Well, Tbilisi has a Mother Georgia statue atop the hill overlooking the Old Town. She's holding a sword in one hand and a wine glass in the other.

While Yerevan doesn’t show signs of a major tourist industry, other than a couple of tour company offices in the city center, Tbilisi's Old Town is full of foreign tourists and companies catering to them (and I’m not making any judgements -- I myself was a tourist!). That is in addition to the extensive 19th and 20th-century city center, north of the Old Town on both sides of the river, which is full of not only photographable buildings, but also cafes and shops making their tourist-friendly nature clear through English signage. (Russian signage also exists, as in Yerevan.)

Visitors to Tbilisi see the streets full of cafes with tourists dining alfresco, hosts using English to beckon passers-by to come eat, and shops selling tourist souvenirs. This is common in many touristy cities in the world, but not in Yerevan (although Yerevan's got a miniature version near the bottom of the Cascade Complex). Georgia is putting a lot of effort into developing its tourist industry, and Tbilisi shows it.

Yerevan’s not a boring city. Far from it! I’m just saying it’s not obviously touristy. No matter where you are in the city, you get a local experience. You can get a local experience in Tbilisi too, but you just have to get away from the touristy bits.

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