Blog Archives

How to Extend Your Visa in Armenia

I’ve just applied to extend my Visa here in Armenia. This is perfect if you want to stay a few days past your official Visa exit date. For staying much longer or for getting a multiple entry visa the process is probably similar, though I don’t have direct experience with that. While the Visa extension process is fairly painless – easy and inexpensive – you do have to wait a few days. But it still may be a little intimidating for some so I’ll write this as a step-by-step guide for those who are researching how to do it.

For the impatient among us, here’s a bullet-point summary.

  1. Allow up to one week for processing.
  2. Budget 500 dram per day, plus 10-15% extra.
  3. Go to the Passport and Visa Department, room 212.
  4. Fill out the right forms, make copies of your passport and visa and deposit money in the right account.
  5. Bring all documents back to room 212 for their approval.
  6. Bring all documents to room 214.
  7. Return when they tell you.

First, make sure you’ve got a few days left on your Visa to begin with. My process will take 3 days, but I would guess that this could take up to a week depending on holidays and weekends. So as soon as you know you’ll need to extend it, start the process. You’ll also need to budget 500 dram for each day you want to stay, plus another say 10-15% for miscellaneous expenses. All together my 5 day extension cost just 2,840 dram, or the equivalent of $7. So it’s more expensive per day than getting a longer visa at the border but can be well worth it. In my case the extension saved me hundreds of dollars on airfare.

To apply you’ll need to go in person to the Passport and Visa Department, located at 13A Mesrop Mashtots Ave. The building is located in the courtyard behind the Artist’s House, which seems to be dedicated to performance music like opera and orchestra. You can enter through the alley just to the left side, when facing that building. Or you can enter through an alley just off of Mashtots on Amiryan St. The walls of this alley are painted with stylized versions of passports, travel documents and official looking stamps. The building itself is up a set of white steps with glass doors. The office is closed between 1-2pm.

The left side shows the location of the Passport and Visa Department. The right side shows the alley into the courtyard from Amiryan St.

Once you enter you’ll go upstairs and to the left, to room 212. Explain what you want to do and they will give you a form to fill in as well as a bank account number to deposit the funds. You’ll also need to make a copy of your passport’s face page and your current Armenian Visa. There are facilities close by to take care of this, see the map below for details. At the bank you’ll likely pay somewhere around a 10-15% transaction fee. To make copies it should be less than 100 dram.

Next you’ll return to the Passport and Visa Department, again to room 212. They will initial your form, tell you when to return and instruct you to take the paperwork to room 214. There you will drop off the paperwork (you keep your passport) and send you on your way.

Go back to their offices when they tell you. Go again to room 212 and tell them that you submitted your paperwork a few days before. They’ll look through a big stack of papers, find yours, take your passport and ask you to wait. 10 or 15 minutes later they’ll get the proper stamps and signatures and return your passport. Easy as can be!

How to Stay Dry on Vartavar – Armenian Water Day

Today is Vartavar in Armenia. It’s the pagan holiday which celebrates the goddess of beauty and water, Astghik. The original legend tells of people showering the goddess with roses. Today they use water, for unknown reasons. And they’ve also turned it into a Christian celebration – it is 98 days after Easter. The idea is that you go around splashing everyone or squirting them and everyone has a great time. In practice, though, it’s an excuse for horny teenagers to run around and dump buckets of water on busty young women. Kind of like a religiously sanctioned, country-wide wet t-shirt contest. Maybe that’s too harsh an assessment, but based on observations that’s what it seems to have become.

As I was sitting at the Cafe Central in Yerevan (they roast and grind their own coffee, by the way!) I watched the chaos. As the gangs of kids were running around splashing women, I noticed that some women were accosted and others weren’t. So I came up with some rules for staying dry on Vartavar.

  • Walk with a man, child or older person. Single young women or groups are more like to be hit.
  • Walk confidently. Keep walking, don’t stop and don’t back down. Stopping lets others catch up or surround you and emboldens them.
  • Tell them no. Look would-be attackers in the eye and tell them no (or ‘che’ in the local language).
  • Be alert. If you’re on the phone or otherwise distracted you are more likely to miss the attack.
  • Avoid them. Cross the street when you see them farther down, and avoid places where there are ample supplies of water like fountains. You can duck into a shop if you see them and wait for them to move on or to go after someone else.
  • Look for signs. If you see lots of women dripping water coming toward you, or if you see wet patches you may be approaching a danger zone. The gangs tend to stay in the same place.
  • Take a taxi and keep your window rolled up.

But even these tips may fail you, so it’s best to be ready.

  • Don’t wear or carry things easily damaged by water.
  • Bring an umbrella to block some of the water that hits you.
  • Wear your bathing suit under your clothes.

Or for an alternate, you can enjoy and take part in the fun. Grab a pail or gun, dress down and enjoy the cool water on a hot day!

A Tale of Two Brandy Factories

Armenia is famous for it’s brandy, which rivals some of the best in the world. The tradition of the two main brandy makers in Armenia goes back only to 1887, but they have a rich reputation. In 1902 an unlabeled bottle won first place at a brandy contest held in France, and was reportedly the only non-French drink ever awarded the right to call itself Cognac (though later legislation forbade this). Churchill favored the 50% Dvin style over all other brandies. And the Kremlin Award brand is the one used in official Russian state ceremonies.

Brandy is a distilled spirit made from fruits. In this case, nearly all of the Armenian brandy is made from grapes – a fruit which grows in great abundance here. Glass pipes transport the cognac between barrels. As cognac ages it is moved to older barrels, enriching the flavor. Once it has matured sufficiently, the liquid from each barrel is tasted, blended with others and mixed with water until it reaches the desired flavor and strength. Then the brandy is aged for a few months to allow the different flavors to marry with each other. The age marked on the bottle is the average age of each spirit which goes into the final blend. French Cognac is also made this way, but has the added distinction of having been born in the Cognac region of France and so can apply the trademarked label to its bottles. French Cognac also marks the bottles with a rating system which describes the youngest spirit in the blend, rather than the average. When drinking, you should always use a brandy snifter. The proper amount to have is just enough so that when you tip the glass on its side, it comes to the edge, but does not spill.

Today Armenia’s two main brandy factories sit across the road from each other. Having once been a part of the same company, their stories are intertwined and often confusing. But each factory site tour is interesting in its own right. So for you, dear reader, I have gone to the trouble of examining both and reporting back.

Common History

In the 16th century, Erevan Fortress was built just outside what is modern day Yerevan. In 1887, the fortress was turned into a winery. In 1902 the first brandy was bottled and won the aforementioned first prize. In 1920 the factory was one of the first to be nationalized by the state, and during this state-run period vodka production was begun as well. In 1945, Churchill enjoyed the spirit at the Yalta summit and Stalin sent him a case every month for the rest of his life. It’s said that when the flavor changed, he complained to Stalin who had to quickly retrieve the master distiller from Siberia where he had been recently exiled. In 1953 a new factory was built and brandy production moved to this new facility. In 1998 the brandy factory was sold to Pernod Ricard (rumor has it for a price less than the value of its assets) and at some point the original factory began making and selling brandy under a different name.

This split is what makes the history so murky. The current day location of this new factory houses the Yerevan Brandy Company (commonly called ArArAt), whereas the original location in the fortress is called the Yerevan Wine Company (commonly known as Noy). Since both companies have a similar lineage, both claim it proudly but ignore the elephant across the street, as it were. So it’s a bit hard to piece together the history into one single story. Each factory claims to be THE original brandy lineage and it seems each has a pretty good claim. So the real question then is how were the tours and how is the brandy?

Yerevan Wine Company (Noy)

The original Erevan fortress has been restored several times and is now in fantastic shape. There’s a legend about an old bell that one of the previous owners, Shustov, would ring after each batch of wine had been made. A replica has been incorporated into the building. The first stop on the tour is a large room with many bottled brandies in glass cases, along with some of the awards. There are photos all around of the new owner doing things and of the dignitaries who have visited. It seems very self-important and a bit pompous. There’s a large oil painting of the owner that looks over the room like in some creepy Scoobie Doo episode where the ghost is looking through the eyes of the painting. We were asked to wait here for 10 minutes while another group passed through and our guide went off to chat with her friends.

After being alternately rushed and asked to wait through a few more places telling the story of the place, we were taken down to the cellars. We had a special treat in front of us – the opportunity to taste a 1924 Madiera wine! It was very nice and smooth, and you could really taste the aging. I’m not sure I’ll ever top that again for sheer age of a beverage. It was impressive. They have enough old wine in the barrels down there to last visitors about a hundred years, they claim, since they don’t sell the wine.

Next we saw a couple of old caverns. Apparently they were dug by prisoners at some point, and were allegedly to bring in grapes from the surrounding areas to keep them cool. But that explanation didn’t make a lot of sense, because the grapes would have to come many miles before hitting a cavern. Instead I suspect that they were dug as escape and supply routes in the event that the fort were ever sieged. More recently they may have been made for more nefarious purposes, as one leads to the US Embassy.

Finally to the tasting. We were seated at a table with some difficulty – there were more people than places and this baffled our guide who spent a few minutes looking at the table, the people and you could almost see the gears turning. So with some difficulty the non-drinkers were asked to sit at another table (purgatory) while the rest of us enjoyed water, juice, fresh fruit and chocolate. Other than the logistics the tasting was quite nice and an Iranian group next to us took great pains to try to communicate with us and emphasize that they like America a lot.

This tour focuses on everything but the brandy. The factory, owners, old wines, etc. We were continually told to stop and wait while other groups either caught up or were given priority. And we were rushed through the brandy tasting too quickly to enjoy it. Overall I give the tour a D, the building and grounds a B+ and tasting an A+. If you’re planning to go, I would recommend you call ahead and reserve an English guide: +374 10 547048

Yerevan Brandy Factory (Ararat)

Yerevan Brandy Company (ArArAt)

This is the factory originally built in 1953. The tour here begins and ends in the gift shop. In comparison with the Noy tour, this one focuses much more on the making of brandy. And of course highlights the common history and modern differences. For instance, it’s at this distillery that visiting heads of state are given their own barrels of brandy to age and wait for the proper time to be bottled, as a present for the dignitary.

The guide went to a great length to make sure we all understood what she was trying to communicate. Both tour guides had obviously received training from a script, but the script here is much better and the guide seemed a lot happier to tell us about things. Always smiling and chaperoning us around in a well choreographed way.

The guide also told us many of the Armenian legends involving wine or brandy. One I recall was that tiny devils dance on the top of brandy glasses. When you clink glasses some fall away but what fall in your glass are what make you drunk. It’s not your fault nor that of the brandy, it’s just the devils. Another saying is that you should only ever have three glasses of brandy: “The first glass is only to slake thirst. Second is just joy. Third is happiness. Fourth is craziness.”

I would give the tour here an A, the building and grounds a B- and the tasting a B. Call ahead for reservations here too: +374 10 540 000 You can likely take care of both tours on the same day.

Who Are the People In Your Neighborhood?

You can run into lots of interesting people in such a small city that’s so important to the country. For example, there’s a guy who keeps his girlfriend company at the flower shop just outside my door. He’s been to Atlanta once, he said. In 1996. As an Olympic boxer. The guy still retains his size and muscle, looking imposing standing around. I always make an effort to say hello and I hope he thinks kindly of me, I’d hate to think it was the other way.

The past week the apartment above mine here has been rocking. Music plays starting in the morning around 8am and continues until well after midnight. And occasionally this is accompanied by loud thumping. What’s going on up there? Another interesting neighbor I suppose.

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard music coming from above. Usually there are faint piano sounds. Sometimes these are really basic, like someone practicing scales, and sometimes it’s more like someone rehearsing a piece. It’s always very quiet and I have to strain to hear it. Occasionally there is recorded music that sounds like it’s Arabic or Persian – it’s hard for me to tell.

But starting about a week ago activity increased. The music was louder and more frequent, often going the whole day and late into the night. And the aforementioned thumping started up. I’m not an expert in the region’s music, but it sounded like the same song over and over again. In between playings I’d sometimes hear people talking.

One night the music and thumping was especially loud. Dishes started rattling from all the thumping and it sounded like the ceiling was going to collapse. It was like living below an earthquake. So I went upstairs to see what was up.

I banged on the door trying to overshadow the music. It must have worked because the music stopped, the locks turned and the door swung open. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see behind it, but the sight surprised me.

When I opened the door I was greeted by something much larger and more intimidating than the boxer outside. A guy stepped out, about 6’5″ tall and with a lazy eye looking down at me, his mouth smiling. His shirt off, sweaty, out of breath and very muscular, it was a bit alarming, despite the big smile on his face. I don’t think I physically jumped back but in my mind I did.

I used my diplomatic tools to throw on a smile and speak first. “Do you speak English?”

“Hello. Hello. No English.” He reached out his large hand in a gesture of friendship to shake my hand. I took it.

Motioning to the ground with my other hand open and facing downward I said “It’s very loud.” Hopeful that I’d made my point, and relieved I’d managed to get to this point without physical harm I was bolstered a bit.

“Sorry. Sorry.” He offered his hand again, nodding, panting and still smiling. “Sorry.”

Nothing left to discuss at the moment, I bid him goodbye. He slipped back inside and I went back downstairs. The music resumed, but had quieted noticeably and the thunder seemed more distant too. “What was going on?” I was left to wonder.

I’ve made a few conjectures, but have no real evidence for my theories. From what I can make out, I think the guy above is a performer. Probably some kind of a dancer. I think he must have been practicing for an upcoming performance. Probably with a group, judging by the traffic up and down the stairs. The music has since subsided, so I assume that he’s done his thing and is back to learning piano.

I hope to run into him at some point and try to talk with him. Seems like an interesting person and if I’m right, I’d love to see him perform or something. Or at least satisfy my deepening curiosity. Like I said, you can meet a lot of interesting people in a place like this, and this person is particularly interesting

Taking the Metro in Yerevan

If you’re a veteran subway system user you probably won’t have any issues getting around on the Metro in Yerevan. It’s a lot like the ones in other former Soviet

Though there are only about a dozen Metro stations in Yerevan, they’re easy to find. Each has blue signs usually labelled in English on one side and countries, so if you’ve mastered those, this system will be a breeze. But for those who haven’t, read on.

what looks like a large flying “V”, marking the location. But barring that, look for the oddest Soviet modern art looking small building around and that may be a station. There aren’t any great maps I’ve found overlaid with the city. But you can print out and carry around something like the Urban Rail map of the Yerevan Metro system which might help you navigate around, especially when you’re on the line. I’ve also created a Google Map of the Yerevan Metro line, embedded below.

Here’s a typical trip on the Metro. Follow the signs and enter the door marked in green. Head over to the small window and buy a token by handing over some money (100 Dram at the time of this writing) and asking for one token – you can just use an upturned index finger. Then walk over and drop the token in the turnstile, walk through and descend on the escalator. It moves fast, so get on and off quickly and carefully. Follow the tunnel on around until you get to the platform.

There are signs on each side indicating the next stops. In many stations the signs are in English, Armenian and Russian, but in some English is omitted. So it helps to know how to pronounce Russian so you can sound out your station and find your way. On the wall of the platform where the train will be heading there is a clock that displays both actual time and the time since the last train left. This is handy, since trains come about every 5 minutes or so.

When the train comes in it will be rattling and clanking loudly. Feel free to put your fingers in your ears, as some of the locals do. Board and you’re quickly on your way. When you’ve reached your stop, disembark, follow the crowd up the escalator and to the exit. You’ve arrived – simple as that!

A Stroll Above the Cascade

I took a walk, starting by hiking up the Cascade in Yerevan. I should explain that the Cascade is a man made feature here that has steps, terraced greenery and at some point will probably have several water features, turning it into a waterfall of sorts. At the top it leads to a large platform from which you can look out on the city and, more impressively, Mt. Ararat beyond.

20120506-202547.jpgJust past the top of the Cascade is Victory Park (Haghtanak Park). Slightly worse for the wear since the collapse of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, it is still a serviceable green space. There’s also what they call an amusement park with the feel of a carnival – cotton candy, ice cream, shooting games, small rides and the like. The highlight is the Mother Armenia (Mayr Hayastan) statue, brandishing a sword and looking out towards Turkey to the west. Reinforcing the subtle point are several tanks, mortars, missiles and planes facing in that direction. All seeming to say “we’re ready to do this anytime you are.”

Kept walking down General Babayan St. which has a few embassies and other nice houses. Then through the Arabkir district. It’s a mostly residential area, with apartment buildings, small markets, beauty salons and the like. Some kids followed after I stopped to buy some fruit. They started shouting broken English – some of it rude – but eventually I turned and looked at them at which point they scattered.

Walked back along Marshal Bagramyan St. Stopped into a bizarre place called the Sherlock Holmes restaurant. Decorated in a style reminiscent of, but not quite capturing, an English Pub, a loud karaoke song greeted me. Before I had time to turn and run I was greeted and whisked to a table. The atmosphere turned out to be not too bad. The singers were ringers and it was not karaoke after all, despite the looks of it. I know because they charged $2.50 for it. And the wait staff were friendly and spoke English fluently. The food was alright. Not world beating but not awful.



One Month in Armenia, and Counting

I’ve been in Armenia about a month now and I’ve seen it go from miserable to welcoming. The weather has become very pleasant and with it the people are warming up as well. With the growing grass and budding flowers I find the city growing on me as well.

Yerevan is one of the easiest cities to navigate that there is. Laid out on a grid system with a perimeter encircling it, the city center is a small enough to get across easily by foot in a half hour. And taxis in Yerevan are plentiful and insanely cheap – it’s $1.50 minimum, which covers 5km. The Yerevan metro is alright for reaching the outskirts and is about $0.25 per trip.

The cost of living in Yerevan for other things is also quite low. There’s a market with fresh foods open every day, where you can get anything and everything and very cheap. Chain grocery store prices range from modest to outrageously expensive, depending on what you’re buying. But they also carry other necessities like toilet paper and Starbucks coffee.

The expat community here seems to be just the right size. It’s not massive like in many capitals, but it’s large enough to sustain many different groups of people who get together often. That’s nice because it means there’s usually something going on. Just about everybody knows each other or knows of them, and they’re all very receptive to new people, whether here to live or just passing through.

What’s not to like? Well I do have a few gripes.

Seems like people are hit-and-miss about ripoffs. I’ve got to review every bill to make sure somebody hasn’t added extra stuff or overcharged for things. Like the double espresso that was marked up as a double-double expresso. And the random things added to the bill every so often. Also I have been quoted prices in dollars, then they use a way low conversion rate. So I always have to confirm those prices in Dram before I agree. And sometimes when you go to pay, if you don’t have exact change they will just raise the cost. Sometimes they say it’s because they don’t have change, but sometimes they don’t try to make any excuses.

And certain things seem to be decades behind. Like smoking. Smoking is allowed just about everywhere – restaurants, bars, offices, public spaces, etc. The decor dates from between 1960-2000. It’s actually hard to find stores that sell modern looking things. The metro, even though it was built in the early 1980s seems to date from the late 1950s. Maybe the equipment was hand-me-downs from other Soviet countries. And the busses are also old and belch black smoke.

But all-in-all that’s not much to complain about. It’s a good place to be and I’m really enjoying it!

My Armenian Haircut

Today I subjected myself to my first haircut since arriving in Armenia. I survived and am actually pretty impressed with the craftsmanship and sense of purpose the barber showed. And I like the result, though it’s not my typical style.

I’ve been in need of a cut for quite some time now. As far as I can tell, the only place to get your hair cut is in a place marked Beauty Parlor or Beauty Salon. They serve both men and women – for men the going rate for places I’ve seen is 1,000-2,000 Dram, or about $3-5 USD. There are lots of these shops all over the city and there happens to be a place across the street from the apartment. That’s convenient. I went in and in broken English and broken Russian we mostly understood each other. Hair cut. Normalnaya? Da. Ok – Sit.

First wet and comb. Comb. Part. Comb. Part. Repart. The barber was meticulous, though I rarely my fingers through it much less a comb. He got the part straight as an incision. My hair lay open to his scalpel.

He started cutting by thinning first. Usually that’s saved for last. I was hoping he’d cut it shorter than it was at some point. Soon hair rained down Pools of hair form on the blue apron like dark rain on a tarp. After a while of this, it was indeed shorter. Just through attrition of the thinning shears eventually every hair was shortened to some degree.

Then he sets down the thinning shears and with a snap grabs clippers. Moves on to scissors again with a snap. A dozen or so changes, a dozen or so snaps. A couple of times he left it out.

20120430-191509.jpgAlways with the look of grim determination of a sculptor. Assessing, analyzing, adjusting. Every once in a while a look of surprise, then his lower lip would extend with a smidgen of pride. He labored over my hair with the intensity of one go has thrown himself into the task at hand. Every minute or so the comb would reappear to redefine the part and to straighten and push my uncooperative hair into shape.

The last step was a 15 minute comb solo, shaping, wetting, combing, blow drying, more wetting, a snip here and there for perfection. Finally, he proudly stepped back and with a pat on my shoulder silently announced that he was finished with me. A stylish Russian haircut.

What do you think of the result?


Sky Lanterns In Flight

Sea Monster