Late July, 2013
Once named Kumayri, then Gyumri, Alexandropol, Leninakan and now Gyumri once again, this is a city that changes identity more than H changes socks.
Many locals still refer to the city by its former name, Leninakan – despite the most recent name change in 1990. That’s how H refers to it while asking around at the bus station in Yerevan. There’s only one daily train each way between Gyumri and the capital, taking almost five hours to rattle along 122km between the two cities. We already missed the train and are determined not to take a taxi.
We climb in and out of several marshrutkas (minibuses), before eventually getting into the suspiciously shiny and unmarked taxi that will drive us to Gyumri, Armenia’s second biggest city. Fortunately, it’s a shared taxi, meaning we share the cost of the cab with two other men we collect from the roadside along our way.
Simon discovers us in Ponchik Monchik two hours later, scoffing ponchiks and monchiks: fat bubbles of sugary dough, much like a doughnut. A ponchik is filled with Vanilla goo, a monchik with faux chocolate goo.
Some pictures I stole from Kris Mole:
When people ask Simon why he moved from Yerevan to Gyumri, he usually shrugs and says something enigmatic, like “I just wanted to see what it was like”, or “there are some really nice walks”.
While showing us around, Simon gives a run-down of everything he’s learned about the city so far: alcoholism is very high, unemployment is very high, domestic abuse is very high – estimated at 60% in Armenia generally, more in cities like Gyumri, with particularly turbulent histories.
The most important thing to know about Gyumri is the earthquake.
As an old town, Gyumri has a rich history and a unique style of architecture. Unfortunately, the city lost many of its historical and cultural buildings after the disastrous earthquake in December 1988.
Everybody in Gyumri has a relative who died in the earthquake. It’s said that the city has since received enough aid to rebuild a city the same size from scratch three times over, but it has all been embezzled. Today, twenty-five years later, many of the historic buildings remain as rubble and people are still living in ‘temporary’ emergency accommodation. The city is being rebuilt, but painfully slowly.
Gyumri was known historically as the “city of trades and arts”, famous for its schools, theatres, poets and musicians. During the pre-Soviet era, it was considered the third largest trade and cultural centre in Transcaucasia, after Tbilisi and Baku. It managed to somewhat regain this title recently, being officially declared Commonwealth of Independent States Cultural Capital of 2013.
Gyumri bears a close resemblance to Kars, her twin city in the snowy North-East corner of Turkey, what would be a short hop over the closed border. I have a soft spot for Kars and find myself pondering how they were once part of the same culture/land/empire. What was it like living in these places before successive wars and invasions ripped them apart?
As we climb the hill to where Mother Armenia gazes down upon the rubble, Simon tells us that more than half of the women working in his institution regularly come in with black eyes or worse. They are apparently quite open about the troubles at home. He seems at quite a loss to know how to react – the problem is so widespread, the help for these women is so scant and the social pressure to stay in a marriage is huge.
We gaze at the amphitheatre.
On the way back down the hill, H finds a sim card on the ground. I scoff at him when he picks it up and puts it into his phone, but soon he’s getting messages from a guy who says he lost it and can we go to meet him in town?
Two guys come to meet us in the eccentrically decorated ‘Oasis Restaurant’, thank us for the sim card and disappear. It’s a bit of an anti-climax, as we were hoping for some kind of adventure, or at least a social interaction with these native Gyumretsis.
We order beers and soak up the vibe, which admittedly is somewhat lacking.
Later, we will spend a quiet evening playing music and drinking beer at Simon’s institution, where he also lives in the adjacent hostel building.
A week later I will leave Armenia, soon to be followed by H. Simon, once our neighbour in Yerevan, will also leave the country in the next few weeks.
This is our final Armenian adventure.
Kris Mole’s rather more adventurous tales about Gyumri: