Notes From Hairenik
November 30, 2004
Although I vowed never to set foot into a Yerevan minibus again after my arrival two months ago, I now find myself taking back my word after realizing the costs of transportation by taxi. I finally chose to abandon traveling by minibus after becoming involved in several arguments with drivers for overfilling beyond the accepted capacity by law and also common sense. Too many times have I sat in minibuses only to have someone else sit on my lap or kneel in front of me, or even stand on the step at the passenger sliding door. Last winter there were at least two reports of fatal accidents occurring when two overfilled minibuses tipped over, killing nearly everyone inside. A municipal law was passed forbidding drivers from packing their minibuses, which was enforced strictly for several months, but now I see that when such minibuses are pulled over the driver steps out to shake the officer’s hand palming a few thousand dram, then goes on his way. Passengers are also equally to blame, failing to wait a few minutes more for a less-crowded minibus. But many travelers, especially women, are in too much of a hurry with no where especially urgent to go, manage to cram themselves in quite uncomfortably for everyone inside, thus the continuing “vochinch” mentality.

Now I wait at the bus stop for several minutes until I find a minibus that seems to be reasonably tolerable to sit on, preferably one that has an empty front passenger seat. That way I do not have to deal with who is kneeling where or how an older woman with a wide behind is going to share a narrow, rickety seat with a 17-year-old girl holding on her lap two full-sized shopping bags filled with turnips, potatoes, “basturma”, cabbage, and laundry detergent.

The cost of a one-way fare by minibus—from any one stop to the next on a particular route is 100 dram, the approximate equivalent of $.20. Taxis by order usually cost 100 dram per kilometer, with a flat fee of 600 dram, or about a $1.20. The distance from Central Yerevan to ‘Raikom’ is about six-seven kilometers, depending on where you are coming from, and the maximum fee is about 800 dram. But if you pick up a taxi on the street, depending on how honest the driver is and whether his car runs on propane gas or gasoline, the cost for the same distance will be anywhere from 1000-2000 dram, even more. At one time I found myself spending at least 1600 dram or more a day on taxi rides, and sometimes as high as 5000 dram, which I spent the other day when traveling to Ejmiatsin to make arrangements at St. Hripsime church for Karen’s wedding. So my VIP days are suspended until further notice, especially when I move back to the center, where I can depend on my legs to get me where I want to go.

To go by foot to Raikom is not as easy. The shortest way to that area is to drive up Freedom Drive—a good 1.5 kilometer climb until reaching Victory Park—then through the ‘Monument” residential district before finally reaching Raikom, which is another 2-3 km. But walking up Freedom Drive is treacherous and even stupid as there is no sidewalk at all and cars are constantly competing with one another for road dominance in both directions—auto accidents are not infrequent on this stretch. Thus the only alternative, which is not too daunting, is to take on the Cascade monument head on, either by foot the whole way which is madness, or by the renovated escalator system housed inside, opened sometime last year. It takes about 15 minutes to ride the escalators comfortably along the 1+ km distance, and then once at the top of the still unfinished Cascade steps it is another 300 meters or more on foot until reaching the war monument overlooking Mount Ararat and the entrance of Victory Park just across the way. I have had a few occasions to travel from the center this way with about 45 minutes to kill and it is quite pleasant. I can’t wait to try walking up towards Raikom from Victory Park with six inches of snow and ice on the ground.

In order to understand one facet of what daily life is like for hundreds of thousands of citizens in Yerevan, it is necessary to travel by minibus twice a day every day for at least one week. It is a pity that I only remember seeing one fellow diasporan Armenian already seated on a minibus when I stepped on traveling along Marshal Baghramian Avenue towards Friendship Square, just over two years ago. There seems to be an aversion to the minibus from outsiders, with the assumption that it may be too common a way to travel for them. Then again, very rarely do I see diasporan Armenians outside of Central Yerevan for that matter, and even then only confined to certain sections or avenues. The minibus system is one of the most complicated yet extraordinarily convenient and affordable means of transportation I have ever come across or heard about. There are hundreds of routes that literally zigzag through the city. Those that go though Central Yerevan most certain pass by at least two of three important bus stops: Cinema Russia just across from St. Gregory the Illuminator cathedral, Opera Square smack dab in the middle of the center, and Freedom Square, at the top of Baghramian Avenue. Several routes bypass the center altogether and only run cross-town connecting the Malatia-Sepastia (a.k.a. Bangladesh) and Zeitoun municipal districts, for example. I noticed there is a method to the minibus route madness, for example routes that ended in a six, namely the 86 or 96, travel towards Central Yerevan by way of Gomidas Avenue, which turns into Baghramian after crossing Friendship Square. Those routes that end in a five, such as the 45 or 95, head towards the center by means of Freedom Drive, but so does the 33 for that matter, which is the only route number that ends with a three traveling from Raikom, from what I know.

Another mode of transporation which is relatively fast and reliable is the Karen Demirchian Metropolitan, more commonly known as the metro. The fare is only 50 dram, and trains arrive at each station on average every five minutes. The single route travels from northbound Friendship Square to southbound Karekin Njdeh Square, located in the "Third District" of Yerevan.

Yet traveling by minibus or metro, although not expensive at all compared to similar modes of transportation in the West, will exceedingly become less affordable for everyday citizens due to the sharp deflation of the dollar, the dollar-to-dram exchange rate dropping from 505 dram 15 days ago to 490 dram today. As a result the vast majority of citizens will have much less money to spend on groceries, considering that a kilogram of bread costs as high as a dollar, and that the monthly salary rate still considered to be normally accepted is about $60 or slightly more. However, prices for foodstuffs, namely the cost of bread—the most important diet staple in Armenia with the potato as the second—have not yet succumbed to inflation—at least for now.

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