Armenia Journal: June 5-18, 2004 – Chapter 1

Raleigh Biblical Recorder, NC
July 2, 2004

Armenia Journal: June 5-18, 2004 – Chapter 1
By Tony W. Cartledge
BR Editor
Chapter 1: From Raleigh to Yerevan, or Two Nights in a Plane and a Day
in Vienna

For a while it appeared the most difficult part of the journey would be
getting checked in at the United Express counter at RDU airport, but
after 45 minutes of slowly snaking through the line, I had no trouble
checking in. As we left, I thought the crowded plane would never get
off the ground, and wondered if it had anything to do with my heavy
At the Washington Dulles airport, I had an interesting conversation
with a Punjabi Sikh while waiting for the flight to Vienna. He asked if
he could join me at a table where I had sat down to eat a “genuine
North Carolina Barbecue” sandwich that was guilty of gross
misrepresentation. With a bright orange turban piled high on his head,
a long white beard and handlebar moustache, the man appeared to be some
sort of traveling swami. I asked if he was a spiritual teacher, and he
replied that, while “all of us need to be spiritual,” he is currently
more into politics.

He gave me his card: Dr. Gurmit Singh Aulakh, President, Council of
Khalistan, and I remembered that I was in Washington, D. C. A molecular
geneticist by trade who helped develop the swine flue vaccine (or so he
told me), he now devotes full time to Khalistan’s struggle for
independence from India, and lobbies Washington to support his cause.
Khalistan, also known as Punjab, is home to 70 percent of the world’s
Sikhs, he said.
I questioned him about the Sikh concept of God – which felt a bit
strange, since “Sikh” is pronounced “sick,” and “tell me about your
Sikh view of God” sounds impolite. He explained that Sikhs are
monotheistic, not “idol-worshippers” like the Hindus. They don’t cut
any of their hair, he said, because you shouldn’t mess with whatever
God gave you. There were no conversions, but we had a pleasant

The flight to Vienna was uneventful, though there were no frills at all
beyond the little video screen for each seat, and a selection of
movies. Unlike some long-haul airlines, Austrian Air (in this plane, at
least) provides no extra legroom – I had to lift my leg over the
armrest to get into the seat.
Beside me was a dark haired young woman who stared wistfully out the
window. She looked sad somehow, and seemed uninterested in
conversation, so I let her be. I set my watch forward six hours to
Vienna time and started mentally telling myself that it was past
midnight already, though the sun was bright on the runway.

I had hoped they would serve dinner early so there would be more time
to try and sleep, but it was more than two hours before they brought
around a choice between salmon and pasta. I chose the salmon (bad
choice), which was accompanied by green beans and a memorable salad
consisting of a half-dozen strips of colored bell peppers, either
pickled or slightly steamed and marinated in balsamic vinegar, along
with five or six marshmallow-like balls of really nice Mozzarella
I told my seatmate to wake me up if she needed to get out, and tried to
fall asleep, which was quite a challenge given the cramped quarters.
The overhead bins were full, so my travel bag was under the seat, and I
had no place to stretch my legs without infringing on my neighbor’s
space. I tried to bore myself to sleep watching a documentary about
ostriches, and it was boring enough (my seatmate watched “Win a Date
with Todd Hamilton”). I covered my face with my hat, and babies started
crying both fore and aft. I put in earplugs, jammed my good ear into
the small pillow, and finally drifted off. Since people continued to
talk (and babies continued to cry) for the whole flight, it was mostly
in and out, but did manage to snooze through at least a third of the
nine-hour flight.

As we neared Vienna, we were served a breakfast of cold cuts, and I
began studying my Eastern Armenian dictionary. The girl beside me
noticed the dictionary and finally brightened. It turned out that she
was an exchange student from Yerevan, returning home after a year in
Fargo at North Dakota State University (she won a scholarship, and
didn’t get to pick which school she would attend).
Her name was Hasmik (Armenian for “Jasmine,” apparently a popular
name). I practiced my minimal language skills on her, she helped with
pronunciation a bit, and we had a pleasant conversation the last
half-hour of the journey, prior to our 9:00 a.m. arrival time. She
didn’t realize until I told her that the next leg left at 10:20 p.m.
Vienna time, rather than a.m., as she had thought. Jasmine had no visa
for Austria, and was stuck in the small international terminal at the

The U.S. has an exchange agreement with Austria, so I didn’t need a
visa, and headed for the city as soon as I could get through passport
control. I changed $100 into Euros, but only got E 78.62, because the
dollar is so weak and the airport exchange was not particularly good. I
paid 15 euros for a ticket on the express train into town, and another
five for a 24-hour subway ticket (I learned later that I could have
gotten to town on the subway train, and about as quickly). At the train
station, an attendant charged me half a euro to use the bathroom.
Fortunately, I remembered enough German to read most of the signs and
find my way around. I went first to the Karlskirche, an impressive old
cathedral with tall, twisting towers outside that looked almost
Persian. A choir, hidden in a loft in the back of the church, was
practicing for a concert. They were from California State University,
on a European tour, and they were good. Their formal music danced
around the church’s many columns as I found a nice niche, dropped half
a euro in the basket, and lit a small candle in memory of Bethany.

I also walked by, but did not visit, the Musikverein, where there was a
jazz concert. Locals, all dressed in suits and ties or nice dresses,
crowded in for the Sunday morning performance.
The Staatsoper (State Opera) building was under construction, but
behind it I found an information agency. Unfortunately, they had little
information that was useful for a day tour. There were a number of tour
buses making the rounds of the city, but I decided to use my feet and
the subway to visit the sites most interesting to me.

Outside the Albertina, a large art museum, horse-drawn carriages were
lined up as in Central Park, with formally dressed drivers taking
tourists for a spin around some of the city’s more famous historical
buildings. Many of the horses wore form-fitting coverings over their
I walked into the Nationelbibliotek (National Library), but didn’t pay
to go further, as I didn’t plan to check out any books. Just beyond was
the home of the “Spanish Riding School,” home of the famous Royal
Lippazaner stallions. Just as I came by, I noticed an open door to a
courtyard, and stopped. Someone halted the traffic, and a group of
stewards led a procession of the white horses from the stables to an
indoor arena for their morning exercise. They were as beautiful as
advertised, but their abundant droppings smelled just like the leavings
behind the horse-drawn carriages.

I walked on through the huge “Hofburg” complex of ceremonial government
offices and official lodgings for the Austrian president. It seemed
that every building was covered with large, intricate carvings or
statues. Monuments were common, most involving men on horseback. A
beautifully landscaped park was flanked on either side by the
Naturhistorisches and Kunsthistorisches Museums (Natural History and
Fine Arts). I walked on to the “Museum Quartier,” but wasn’t interested
in paying to meditate on Goya or any of the other exhibits, though an
outdoor display of artsy aerial photography was nice.
Getting tired, I stopped for lunch at a place called “Wienerwald,”
which looks like “Wiener World,” but actually means “Vienna Woods”
(Vienna is Wien in German). The restaurant has a website at
I ordered a hearty chicken soup from the menu. Its
name was a mile long, but it was good. I also had a little
streuselkuchen – I didn’t eat any schnitzel, but figured I couldn’t
visit Vienna and not try the struedel. It would have been better
without the raisins.

I sweet-talked the harried waitress into letting me take a Coca Cola
glass with German slogans on it as a souvenir. She looked at me like I
was crazy (okay, she had a point), and I offered to pay for it (though
I couldn’t remember the German word for “buy” or “pay”). She went to
ask the manager, returned with a fresh glass in a plastic bag, and
didn’t add anything extra to my 13-euro tab. I left two euros as a tip,
and she seemed happy enough.
After lunch, I decided to fork over another 8 euros to visit the
natural history museum. They had some nice exhibits, an old style
museum in which it appeared that they wanted to have one of everything,
all kept in display cases, rather than the contemporary approach of
having fewer specimens in larger, more natural-looking settings.

The clean and efficient underground system (stations marked with a big
U in a circle) took me to Stephensplatz, home of the old St. Stephens
church in the heart of the city. Its steeple is currently under
renovation, with billboard-sized signs hanging from the scaffolding.
Parts of the cathedral reportedly go back to the 12th century. I found
the tall pulpit (accessed by an elaborately engraved staircase)
curious, especially since it was located only about a third of the way
into the building.
The plaza outside the church was reminiscent of New Orleans. It was
crowded with both tourists and locals, most eating locally made ice
cream (I had strawberry and banana later in the day). Street performers
were in abundance, including a clown/juggler who spoke English with a
distinctively southern accent. Silver or gold painted mimes dressed as
King Tut, Mozart, and a woman I didn’t recognize posed for pictures.
Teenagers cranked up their boom boxes and did break dancing for tips,
and a puppeteer entertained with a menagerie of characters.

I wandered down the “Graben,” a long, rectangular plaza crowded with
open-air cafes. In the middle was a monumental statue to the Holy
Trinity, erected (as many things were) in gratitude for the ending of
the Great Plague in 1679. At the end of the plaza was a building-sized
advertisement for the movie “Shrek 2.”
A crowd had gathered for an outdoor performance of “Moses” by the
Austrian Ballet Company-Tokyo. An Austrian man (the teacher, perhaps),
surrounded by a bevy of Japanese women, danced and posed meaningfully
to an English soundtrack about Moses leading Israel from Egypt. There
were a couple of female characters whose roles I never really figured

I attempted to walk to the Ruprechtskirche, but missed my turn on
“Fleishmarktstrasse” (Meat Market Street) and ended up, two blocks
later, on a bridge over the Danube River. I made my way down to the
riverbank and strolled in the gorgeous afternoon sunlight by the river
(which was brownish green, not blue, as claimed by the “Blue Danube”
waltz). Some flea market stands along the way would have looked
perfectly at home at any craft fair in American (one lady was weaving
and selling Native American dream catchers).
I sat by the Danube at an outdoor “biergarten,” rested my feet, and
paid about three bucks for the metric equivalent of a 6 ounce Diet
Coke, but it gave me ample excuse to sit and enjoy the day (and make
some notes).

Needing a bathroom as I left, I found a small, graffiti covered men’s
room built into the wall – and aptly labeled “Pissoir.”
>From the Danube I made my way to the Ruprechtskirche, reportedly the
oldest church in Vienna. It was largely covered in vines, very
picturesque (so I took a picture), but locked up and apparently no
longer serving as a church.

Trying to find something else, I stumbled across an Internet CafŽ and
stopped in to send Jan an e-mail. It was a trial, given that the German
keyboard reverses the “Y” and “Z,” along with moving a number of other
keys. The @ symbol was in a different place, and I had to ask for help
to learn that you have to press both Alt and Ctr (Str in German) while
hitting the key to make it work. After losing two messages and having
to pay for more time, I succeeded in sending a short message.
Fresh from that experience (but having rested my feet), I walked to the
Maria am Gestade (St. Mary’s on the Banks) church. It was reportedly
built in the 14th century, when that part of town was still on the
banks of the Danube.

Much of Vienna consists of charming, narrow cobblestone streets (most
of them marked “Einbahn,” for “One Way.” Buildings are so close
together that you can be next door to what you’re looking for, but
unable to see it. My picture of St. Mary’s captures only a steeple
between two other buildings.
I set out for the nearest Underground station but missed it and walked
back by many of the sites I had visited earlier on my way to the train
station. After retrieving my carry-on bag from the pay-locker where I
had left it, I tried a German version of a Big Mac at a McDonalds that
featured soccer-themed specials, then rode the express train (called
CAT, for “City Airport Train”) back to the airport about 7:00 p.m.
local time.

I had planned to check in and try to catch a nap before the plane left,
but in Vienna, security is done at each gate, and they only let you
through when your plane is next to leave. I did find an uncrowded
waiting room, where I stretched out on a row of seats with my shoes
tucked under my knees and my carry-on as a pillow. With my floppy hat
in place, I managed a 45-minute nap.
The plane from Vienna left at 10:20 p.m. – and served a meal about an
hour into the flight. Some sort of pork (I think), stewed with potatoes
in an orange-colored sauce that was very tasty. I even drank hot tea,
figuring I’d better get used to it. I set my watch another three hours
forward and tried to convince my body to keep up.

My two seatmates were young Armenian men returning home. They were
relatively quiet and there were no crying babies, so even though they
left the cabin lights on (while Adam Sandler’s “50 First Dates” played
on overhead monitors), with my trusty hat I managed to sleep for most
of the remaining three hours.
Having been assured by Asatur Nahapetyan that he would meet me at the
airport despite the 4:45 a.m. arrival time, I had no worries as we
deplaned, even though I didn’t see him anywhere. I guessed he might be
stuck behind security, though there were other escorts waiting on the
tarmac as we deplaned. One lady holding a board with a different
English name on it jumped in front of me to make sure I didn’t pass by,
brandishing her board in case the name on it belonged to me.

Asatur is General Secretary of the Armenian Baptist Union and Rector
(equivalent to “President” in U.S.) of the Theological Seminary of
Armenia. He normally sends someone else to do airport runs, but had
insisted on picking me up himself. Apparently, he was out of the habit.

The arrival area of the airport in Yerevan is tiny. Tiny. And a bit on
the grungy side. I had my $30 ready and purchased a visa with no
problem after a ten-minute wait in line. I then changed $100 into
51,300 drams (getting robbed in the process – the exchange rate in town
would have gotten me 54,700), and stood in line again for passport

Still no Asatur, so I assumed he would be in the baggage area, though
it seemed quite open. After finding the zuk’aran for a pit stop, I
collected my bags and breathed a prayer of relief that they were both
But Asatur was not, and it was 5:30 a.m. by now. Jim Burchette had told
me everyone at the airport knows Asatur, so all I’d have to do was
mention his name. But, even though I knew how to say Duk gitek Asatur?
(“Do you know Asatur?”), nobody did – but every cab driver at the
airport wanted my business, wanted to take my bags, wanted to take me
away from all the other drivers.

I asked where I could find a phone, and was told there was none
available that could call Asatur’s number. The cab driver who spoke the
best English kept insisting that one could not call that number from
the airport, so he would have to take me to the central cab office to
make a call. I was convinced that he was lying (he was), and said I
would wait.
After another ten minutes or so, he said, “Oh, is that a mobile
number?” (I’d already told him that). He said he would try calling
Asatur on his cell phone, and succeeded in waking him up. He tried to
talk Asatur into letting him deliver me, but Asatur said he would be
there in 15 minutes. I tipped the cabbie 200 drams (about forty cents)
for making the phone call, but he gave it back, as if insulted. He said
mobile phones were very expensive, and that it cost him half a dollar
for every minute (another lie). I gave him 1000 drams (just under
$2.00), and he seemed happier, reminding me of his valuable service of
providing information. About 20-25 minutes later, Asatur came walking
up, having had to park some distance away.

We loaded my bags into Asatur’s small, aging Russian Lada and finally
clattered away from the airport. He drove through a couple of villages
and missed the unmarked turn to Ashtarak in the early morning light,
but successfully delivered me to the seminary before heading back home
to shower and dress more formally. I had arrived.