Notes From Hairenik
I would like to point out an interesting article that appeared on ArmeniaLiberty.com yesterday about traffic police corruption in Yerevan and even along regional borders. The article also covers dangerous driving. As a pedestrian in central Yerevan, I find it difficult to cross the streets since clueless, inexperienced drivers abound terrorize other motorists and people trying to walk about. Motorists driving particularly SUVs and expensive European cars often ignore all rules of the road--which are for the most part international--like stopping at red lights and waiting for oncoming opposite traffic to go by before making left turns. People also drive exceptionally fast for some reason despite all the construction that is narrowing some roads and people trying to cross the street (who are also careless). The racing in Yerevan which I discussed previously is out-of-hand--drivers even race to stop first at red lights (those that actually stop).

I'll have to say that I am routinely stopped by police, but as soon as they see that I carry a US driver's license they let me go. Some bozos try to extort a bribe but eventually just tell to continue on and drive safely.

In any case, you can read the article here.

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August 29, 2005
I have not posted as many entries as I would like of late since my time is restricted by work and wedding planning (the date has been set for September 17). Plus, my iBook has been sent twice to the US for repair in the last three weeks and thus access to the Internet from home has been limited. I've recently resolved that problem by setting up another computer but I still have not had much time to write--my apologies.

In any case, I have been working for the last seven weeks or so for a start-up company based in California that has just recently set up shop here in Yerevan. The company is called Integrien and there are about five of us working in a small rented home near the corner of Abovyan and Tumanian Streets. My position is technical writer, although I am doing a bit of graphic design as well. So far, so good--the company seems to be in good shape and the people here are great.

In any case, there are many new developments in Armenia, such as the bracing for voting on a new Constitution recently and finally approved by the Council of Europe--that referendum is set to take place in November. During the past weekend apparently there were talks between President Aliev of Azerbaijan and President Kocharian about resolving the Karabagh issue. US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice in a phone conversation with Pres. Kocharian apparently vehemently expressed the US Government's wishes for the swift resolution to the conflict and for democracy to take a greater stride in Armenia. I can't say whether increased US involvement in the conflict's resolution is good or bad, but I do fear that Armenia may be pressured into taking steps it will regret later on.

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August 22, 2005
Last night Ariga and I found a new restaurant that combines an "authentic taste of India with Chinese, Lebanese, and Armenian cuisine." The place is called The New Delhi and it is located on 29 Tumanian Street, across from the Opera Circus (formerly the Opera Park). The restaurant is in the location of a former mini disco-club that finally closed probably due to lack of interest and thus has inherited the mirrored walls and glitter ball hanging from the ceiling. But the food was fantastic.

I was never a big Indian food eater, as I was always overwhelmed by the curries, some of which are very potent, the strange-looking dishes and so forth. But I opened the menu and saw some of the dishes that were familiar, such as Chicken Vindaloo and the nans and other Indian breads. So, I figured it would be the same kind of stuff I tasted in Boston several times.

Ariga wanted to try the Chinese hot and sour soup, which also tasted and looked similar to what I was accustomed to: basically a dark, soy-based broth with shredded pieces of carrots, water chestnuts, and other herbs and spices. It wasn't bad at all.

Then I ordered hummus as for some reason I had been craving it having eaten some the day before at home. We leared that they were all out so we ordered upon suggestion some spicy vegetable fritters called Pakoras. This dish was unbelievable good. Basically the appetizer consisted of sliced eggplant, green pepper, onions, potato, and cubes of cottage cheese coated in an egg-like batter, infused with ground red and black pepper as well as diced scallions. They were served with a light mint-yoghurt sauce on the side.

The main dish was the Kadhai Chicken accompanied by Pulao chawal (rice) with vegetables. The chicken was cut into pieces and coated in a thick red curry sauce with onions, peppers, and ground black pepper as well. This dish was truly excellent. I have never tasted anything like it before--the spices were perfectly balanced, the chicken moist, the sauce not too oily. It was a far cry from the suspicious, bland by comparison Indian food I have had. The rice was also fantastic, perfectly cooked but lightly spiced, and contained peas as well as cubed carrots.

We finished our meal with a lynchee fruit sundae served with vanilla ice cream and fresh brewed lemon ice tea. Of course I washed down everything with two bottles of Jermuk as well, being a Jermuk addict. They serve the "1951" Original Jermuk here, which is in my opinion the definitive natural mineral water.

In any case, this place has hospitable, excellent service--the owner, whose name is Sanjiv Savaille, and the head waiter, both from New Delhi and are charming, young guys, literally wait on you hand and foot. It is great to see more ethnic restaurants opening in Yerevan, as it is a sign of cultural transformation and an embrace of foreign traditions. Cultural diversity is a much needed commodity in Armenia for sure.

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August 18, 2005
For the last 15 days or so I have been battling on and off a malady that I have never before endured. The symptoms were high temperature, pain in the neck, mild to extreme headache as well as body ache, dizziness, slight nausea, and sensitivity to brightness. The frightening thing is many of these symptoms are similar to those of meningitis as I read in the Internet. Fortunately in my case, it was only the fever.

The fever started quite suddenly on Friday night, August 5, when at home. I was sitting in bed and suddenly noticed there was a change occurring inside me, and I instictly felt the need to lie down. That evening I went to the bathroom about five times and thus I slept little. In the morning I was dehydrated but after chugging a liter-size bottle of spring water I recovered slightly for our early afternoon trip to Vanadzor. By the time we reached Dilijan I was nearly ready for bed.

That weekend I spent in a horizontal position, barely able to sleep. For food I ate some bread and butter, if I could manage to stomach it, as well as raspberry preserves, as supposedly raspberries are good for fever reduction. Yogurt was also allowed for me to eat, according to my soon-to-be mother-in-law, as it also is a natural fever reducer.

Late Saturday evening I endured the worst pain ever in my life, during which time I thought my eyes would shoot out of their sockets at mach speed from all the pressure building up in my head. I experienced some of the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life. My temperature was high but it was not taken at that point (later it was registered to be about 38.5 degrees C, but that evening it must have been higher). My forehead felt as though it would simply explode. The pressure pounded against my eardrums and behind my eyes, so that I was extra sensitive to light. My entire body ached, the slightest touch to my skin was unbearable. It was extremely painful to move even an inch. The only relief at my immediate disposal was to sweat profusely.

After three days of continuous sweating under two heavy homemade wool blankets (basically comprising shredded and stretched clumps of wool inserted into a body-length cotton casing), promoted by drinking several cups of hot tea and some tea-like medicide called Fervex (which I do not recommend as it does nothing) as well as cheap Russian aspirin, I was finally able to get out of bed and thus back to Yerevan on Tuesday morning, August 9.

The fever it turns out did not completely subside but rather went into a dormant-like state. It emerged again in true force after a swim the following weekend at Lake Sevan. I went into the water twice as it was fabulous, the water was warm and exceptionally clean on the beach we picked. That evening, however, the pressure built up yet again and I was confined to bed for an additional two days, but luckily the intense head pains did not return. This time Ariga managed to find Bayer aspirin as opposed to the cheap Russian stuff, which reduced my pain and helped me to sweat.

We were able to find a doctor that my work manager recommended who came to the apartment, and she declared that I did not have any kind of virus (as I feared) but simply a bout of fever. She recommended that I take more aspirin, some antibiotics, and drink plenty of liquids (the standard remedies for fevers I presume) as well as eat yoghurt.

In any case, the fever seems to have been put down. If you happen to contract a fever in the future, I recommend eating as much yoghurt as humanly possible. It definitely works.

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There are a few options for quick-fix meals in Armenia, Yerevan especially, as the concept of fast food has still to take true hold here. In many places, especially shopping areas and near universities or institutes you can always find someone slicing shawerma (which originated in the Middle East and entails slowly roasting layers upon layers of chicken, beef, or pork on a rotating vertical spit) or grilling kebab beside a makeshift grill that faintly resembles the guts of a toaster. However, because there are really no enforced laws about meat preparation and especially storage in Armenia you never know what you’re going to get in terms of freshness and quality. Another option is to eat lahmajo, a.k.a. lahmejune, which also can be found most anywhere but also varies quite a bit in quality.

And then there is khachabouri, which is a type of pastry usually in the form of a triangle and is supposed to have a bit of cheese in the middle. Khachabouri is a Georgian delicacy, and from what I understand dozens of variations of the dough-and-cheese concept can be found throughout the country. It is very similar to “bureg” which is found in Western Armenian cuisine and also has several incarnations. A few such khachabouri variations managed to find themselves in Armenia.

Finding the right khachabouri is tricky though. The stuff they sell on street corners and small kiosks for around 100 drams are usually very brittle and as soon as you bite into crumble into small, annoying bits that you spend 10 minutes or more picking off your clothes. They are usually tasteless and difficult to digest. And from what I understand some street khachabouri does not even contain cheese (usually lori or chanakh I believe) but instead are sprinkled with simply salty water to give a slightly mock cheese flavor.

Khachabouri in its basic form is just densely layered paper-thin dough with a small amount of good cheese in the middle that melts when baked, shaped in a triangle or a square. In my experience the triangular ones sold by street vendors should not be consumed unless you are desperately hungry. You should try to find small bakeries or even some high-quality grocery stores to eat something decent.

The place to go, however, by those who know is called, oddly enough, Khachabouri, which has two locations in downtown Yerevan—one on Sayat Nova Street near the Ani Hotel and one on the corner of Khanjian and Alaverdian/Hanrapedutian. This place is fantastic, and if you have never eaten a khachabouri go here first to understand what it should be. Here it is fairly large, soft and chewy, with real cheese that you can see inside. The pastry dough is similar to a croissant as there are several layers, but the result is soft, slightly puffy. Each khachabouri costs about 150-200 dram but the quality is unmistakably good. They are continuously churned out throughout the day in small batches so that they are always fresh and warm. Here as well, other variations of authentic khachabouri can be found, including meat, which contains sautéed ground beef-onion-parsley mixture, and also ajama, which is a lasagna-type dish that has layers of cheese wedged between sheets of dough.

There are two other places that feature khachabouri on their menus, both Georgian restaurants, which is supposed to be the most close to authentic that you can find anywhere in Yerevan at least. One place is called Caucasus and is located at the very beginning of Alaverdian/Hanrapedutian Street. They have ajama as well as something that resembles a small pizza, with two layers of dough and fantastic cheese that oozes out one you cut into it. Old Tbilisi on Alec Manoukian Street near the Sayat Nova intersection supposedly has the best khachabouri in town with a very good selection, although I regrettably have not yet been there.

Then there is “Ajaragan” khachabouri, which originated supposedly in Ajaria. This dish is a oval shaped type of bread with a high crust but a shallow base, filled with thinly sliced cheese and a bit of oil, then baked for about 5-10 minutes. It is removed from the oven and an egg is cracked in the base, on top of the cheese, then baked again for 5-10 minutes, until the crust browns and the egg cooks (the yolk is meant to be runny). You can find this khachabouri at most restaurants throughout Yerevan. If I go someplace with a friend and am hungry but I don’t know how good the kitchen is, I usually order the “Ajaragan” since it’s a safe bet and is hard to screw up.

If you happen to be traveling though Dilijan by way of Sevan, stop by the bus station just before you enter the main rotary in the center of town, then cross the street and head towards the vendors there. They have a khachabouri there that is excellent, although it is triangular. It is soft as well as chewy, and a melted sprinkle of cheese can be found on top.

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August 12, 2005
Someone just left a comment in response to the last entry, inquiring about the Yerevan metro and how it compares to subway systems in other countries.

I can say that I have ridden the metro close to a hundred times or even more, and I have really never been disappointed by the service. The Karen Demirjian Yerevan Metropolitan subway system was constructed during the 1970s and 1980s. In all there are 10 stations, from “Paregamutiun” (Friendship Square) to “Karekin Njdeh Square” in the “Third District” of Shengavit. It takes about 35 minutes or so to go from one end of town to the other. There is only one line, although there is a special train that goes to “Charbakh” station, completed in 1996, when transferring at the “Shengavit” stop. There were two other stations to have been built north of “Paregamutiun”—one in the lower Achepenak district on Halabyan Street and also one in Davitashen, but the stations were never completed due to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Trains come every four to six minutes, but during off-peak hours they come every 10 minutes or so. The metro remains the safest, most reliable and affordable means of public transportation at 50 drams, versus now 130 drams for the minivan routes that zigzag throughout Yerevan—vans are always overfilled, uncomfortable, and dangerous, as many of them teeter on the verge of completely breaking down due to their age.

In terms of how the metro compares with that of other cities, with my experience the Yerevan metro shares the same traits as many other metros I have traveled on, like a few stations have water leaks and thus there are lingering odors of mildew. The stations’ walls are lined with marble (they are virtually identical to the metro stations of Moscow), and each station has something characteristically aesthetically different from the other. Platforms are always clean as they are patrolled by special guards (usually women). The trains, however, are darker than I remember a few years ago, as for some reason maintenance workers can’t be bothered to change a few 30 cent light bulbs. I would say that for instance, compared with the Boston T subway system—one of the oldest in the world—the main difference is that Boston trains are modern, long and well lit, while the stations are dumpy, dirty, and stink of urine. Luckily I have not encountered any smells of pee in the Yerevan stations themselves, although the tunnel that connects the Republic Square metro entrance to the other side of Nalbandyan Street (which exits just at the foot of my building) sticks to high heaven, as no public restrooms are available in that area.

In any case, for romantic tourists who desperately need to see the impressive David of Sassoon statue that Armenians hold so dear to their hearts as a symbol of their homeland, take the metro to the “Sasoonsti Davit” station, walk up the stairs, and go in the direction of the entrance to the Central Train Station (considered outside Armenia to be an interior architectural wonder, by the way). Once you emerge into the light the statue can be seen just a few feet away.

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August 5, 2005
A friend of mine once said to me not long ago that "Armenians are always in a hurry, but they have no place to go."

There's a lot of truth in this statement. Granted, people need to get to work on time or be at some important event, but for the most part Armenians here, particularly in Yerevan or those from Yerevan visiting areas outside the capital, are rushing constantly. Armenians being generally competitive and arrogant by nature must participate in one kind of race or another.

For instance, when a light is red only some cars actually wait in their respective lanes to proceed when the light turns green. Many drivers totally bypass the lanes to pass all idle vehicles on their left, only to go through the light or make an illegal turn left. You can see incidents of careless driving occurring every 30 seconds or so, maybe even shorter, at the intersection of Khanjian and Tumanian or Sayat Nova Streets and at the traffic light at Sakharov Square on Nalbandyan Street. These two intersections are extremely dangerous, especially for pedestrians. The red light is short and if some vehicles proceed through it before others actually stop there is not much time to cross Nalbandyan before engines are revving again.

But pedestrians don’t seem to mind. You can always find some stranded on the line between lanes as cars speed by them. I don’t’ know how many times I’ve seen cars graze by these people—they remain unaffected.

Armenian drivers also do not like halting near the stop line at red lights. They usually creep forward until the light turns green or if they suddenly decide to run the red light.

Then there is the race to get to point x. Along the highway that leads from the city towards Lake Sevan I have been nearly sideswiped at least five times in the last few months because people do not bother looking in their rear-view mirrors to see if there is a vehicle passing them on the left. Last week I almost got into a near-fatal accident with one such idiotic driver, who did not understand what all the fuss was about when I cursed him out. On this same highway you can find cars that are going in excess of 150 km/hr in their BMWs or Mercedes Benzes (Russian cars cannot reach such speeds). They have no concern for speed limits or driving etiquette, and thus road accidents are occurring more frequently.

The main culprit in careless driving is the department of motor vehicles in Yerevan. Anyone that pays the required bribe can obtain a driver's license without ever having sat behind the driver's wheel. I don't understand how such people actually start out driving but they manage. I suppose they slam their foot on the gas pedal and then step on the brakes when absolutely necessary, judging from what I’ve seen.

Although there are rent-a-car agencies in Yerevan, such as Lemon Car Rental (note the name), it is very difficult to drive in Armenia—not so much in the regions but in Yerevan especially. I refuse to drive in Central Yerevan because there is no point if I can get around by foot or the metro. Again, driving on the highways that exit the city can be dangerous as cars seem to come from nowhere and want to pass you, harassing with their horns or high beams until you give them way. Driving in Boston was challenging, but Yerevan does not compare. However, I've heard that Yerevan still is not that bad, as in Baku drivers reportedly drive on sidewalks when they're really in a hurry.

In any case, if you're visiting Yerevan and want to drive or even walk, be very careful. You never know what crazy Armenian might smash into you.

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