Today has been a whirlwind. Three very different TV interviews in Yerevan, a visit to the Genocide museum & memorial, a trip outside the capital to see a 1st century AD pagan temple and a monastry, a meeting with a dozen Armenian political bloggers, drinks with an organisation called Britain Connect and finally dinner with alumni of the John Smith Memorial Trust Fellowship programme.
Everyone here keeps asking if I am going to blog about today. To be honest I am so knackered I'd rather go to bed, but I guess I had better do my duty. The other thing people are very keen to find out is what I think of Armenia. I have to be honest and say it is one of the friendliest countries I have ever been to, even if the drivers are absolute lunatics! It's also a country with a tremendous sense of national identity and pride. There's a real can-do attitude and a desire to learn how to do things better, which is why the JSMT programme is so well received here. I really think I will try to come back here for a proper visit - two days is just ridiculous.
The TV interviews were mainly about the JSMT and internet politics. However, I was asked one curveball questions by an interviewer who is also writing next year's Armenian Eurovision entry (he hasn't got a hard act to follow). He asked where I thought Armenia would have moved to in 5-10 years. I was tempted to say that I suspected it would still be bordering Turkey, and Iran, but thought better of it. Instead I managed to compose a vaguely sensible answer about building better relations with Turkey and other neighbours. People recognise the value of restoring relations with Turkey, but Azerbaijan is a different kettle of fish. Travel between the two countries is almost impossible and there is a latent antipathy. For a landlocked country like Armenia, it is not good news to be at loggerheads with two such powerful neighbours. I understand the reasons, and they are perfectly valid, but bridges clearly need to be built.
One great thing about Armenia is that they cannot abide John Prescott. Apparently he came here as an election observer and achieved the unique distinction of annoying both the government and the opposition.
The genocide museum is located on top of one of the hills which surround Yerevan. It's location is superb. While it hasn't got the same emotional tugs as other genocide and holocaust memorials I have been to in Israel and Rwanda, its understatement is to its credit. It's not a large place and doesn't take very long to go round, but it does what it intends to. You emerge wondering how on earth it was allowed to happen. And you wonder at your own ignorance of the details. More than 1.1 million Armenians died. And finally you think to yourself, if only the world had acted to stop it, might the ensuing Nazi holocaust have been prevented. When asked about his plans for the "Final Solution " Hitler is reputed to have retorted "And who remembers the Armenians?" Well, I remembered them today.
The trip to Garni, about 40 minutes outside Yerevan was the highlight of the whole visit. There hadn't been time for sightseeing, but last night the British Ambassador urged our British Council visit planner Mariam (who, incidentally, is brilliant at her job) to find a gap in the schedule to take me to Garni. She did so and we headed off there mid morning in a BMW 4 wheel drive jeep driven by an absolute lunatic. Armenian roads and Armenian drivers are second only to Rwandans in thei unique brand of danger which they jointly present. Three times I thought we were a dead cert for a head on collision. No matter, we got there. And back. The monastry at Geghard was worth the whole trip. Unspoilt by tourists (so far) it dates back to the first century AD. The pagan temple at Garni was similarly impressive and also fates back to the same era.
We drove back for a meeting in the afternoon with a dozen Armenian political bloggers. They were a lively lot and it was interesting to see that we all experience similar issues. The Armenian blogosphere is in its infancy, and it is clear that there are issues of government censorship in Armenia, although the bloggers were at pains to say that it was more directed at the MSM. So far. Notes from Hairenik has blogged the event HERE. I promised them all a link, so here goes...
Notes from Hairenik
Samvel Martirosyan (Kornelij)
Tigran Kocharian (Pigh)
Gegham Vardanian (Reporter_Arm)
Artak Kirakosian Human Rights Armenia blog
Karen Vrtanesian (Ahousekeeper)
Shushan Harutyunian (Blansh)
David Sandukhchian (david_sand)
And there are more HERE.
If I have missed anyone out, please leave a comment below!
I head back to England tomorrow morning feeling that the trip has been worthwile, both from the point of view of its purpose of promoting the John Smith Memorial Trust but also because I learned a lot about a new country. One of the TV interviewers asked me my views of Armenia and if I liked it. At the end of my reply I said: "And in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, 'I will be back'". I meant it. Unfortunately the translator had never heard of Arnie and didn't both translating it!
And finally, a few words of thanks.
Firstly to Mariam (pic left) and her colleagues from the British Council who did so much to make this trip work. This was my first experience of the BC and I have to say I was impressed. I only hope the staff of the organisation in other countries are as efficient and helpful. And secondly thanks to the John Smith Memorial Trust for inviting me to go on the visit. I hope my "selling" skills were adequate! Aisling Conboy (pic 2nd left) has been a delightful travelling companion and has made a very good impression here on all the potential participants in their programme next year.
PS Most unexpected sentence heard today from an Armenian: "Give my regards to Andrew Rosindell"!
PPS I hope the headline is OK and I don't create a diplomatic incident. I got it from a website translation. It is supposed to mean goodbye. Someone please reassure me it does!
PPPS If you want to see the rest of the photos from my trip, click HERE.