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Ani viewpoint & Iron Curtain

 
- darkometer rating:  4 -
 
Ani viewpoint 4 - Russian-guarded Armenia-Turkey borderOut in this remote location on the western edge of Armenia there is a chance to see some relics of the old actual Iron Curtain, i.e. the border fortifications that served to keep the Eastern Bloc secure from NATO member Turkey (or vice versa?) during the Cold War. Today it is still a heavily guarded border between ancient foes. From a couple of spots you can also gaze across the border to catch a glimpse of the ancient Armenian ruined city of Ani.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

  

More background info: Ani was once the great thriving capital of old Armenia until about a thousand years ago, when it was one of the world's foremost cities, a stronghold of power, riches and architectural splendour. It was one of the western Armenian spots on the legendary Silk Route. Historical changes, shifting powers and economies, a Seljuk Turkish invasion complete with massacres, pillaging and looting, as well as successive earthquakes (and botched contemporary "restoration efforts") have made Ani the city of ruins that it is today, where just a few once magnificent churches as well as the city walls partly stand.
 
It's a magical and eerie site in an almost mystically forlorn (and nearly forgotten) location. But to really see it, you'd have to go to Turkey and wander around the site itself to see it up close – for more on that see under Ani on this website – and, especially if you can't go there yourself, you could also at least take a virtual tour at the aptly named (and highly informative) specialist website virtualani.org.
 
The very fact that Ani, like the holy mountain Ararat as well as various other formerly Western Armenian sites are today on Turkish territory remains a thorn in the side of many Armenians. The feeling of historical injustice is aggravated by the memory of the genocide against Armenians at the hands of the Turks in the early 20th century (see also Tsitsernakaberd, Yerevan)
 
On April 24 (the official Armenian genocide commemoration day) local Armenians allegedly light bonfires along the border – apparently to remind Turkey on the other side of the border that they haven't forgotten (or forgiven) that darkest chapter in Turkish-Armenian relations …
 
For the dark tourist it is hence this very aura of this exceptional border that is of particular interest. But even more so it is the fact that this same border also formed part of the Iron Curtain of the Cold War era. In fact it was one of only two stretches of this mother of all fortified borders where the Soviet Union itself had a direct border with a member of its great enemy NATO, which Turkey was, and still is, a member of. (The other such stretch, much shorter and even more remote, was that between Russia and the northern-most part of Norway near Kirkenes.)
 
The border is even still today guarded by Russian military forces, who retain a strong presence in Armenia in general (partly as a safeguard for this tiny country against potentially not too well-meaning neighbours, including, but not limited to Turkey). And if that doesn't provide enough old Cold War-wise, time-travel-like déjà vu, then the fact that the border fortifications themselves are largely the same certainly does.
 
The fence that separates the border area from inland Armenia on this side of the border is indeed still the same barbed-wired construction that already stood back then. While almost everywhere else the Iron Curtain has simply disappeared (cf. especially the Berlin Wall and the various border museums in Germany), here it can still be seen.
 
 
What there is to see: At the Ani viewpoint the main item to look at is obvious: Ani – over in Turkey, out of reach. But from a dark tourism perspective the greater attraction is actually the border itself.
 
If you really want to see Ani properly, not just from a distance, then it is of course much better to go there directly, in Turkey, on the other side of the border (though you won't be able to do so from Armenia, since the border is still closed – you'd need to take the detour via Georgia).
 
But when in Armenia why not do as the Armenians do – and just gaze across with a pining feeling of lost greatness of days gone by … as well as with the piqued sense of injustice that the place now lies on the "wrong" side of the border, not where it belongs, but with the old enemy.
 
To do so you can go to one of a couple of Ani viewpoints on the Armenian side of the border. The one I was taken to was easily accessed. You can drive right up. There's a large information panel with a map of Ani and a list of individual sites within Ani, as well as a smaller panel with a historical introductory text about Ani in five languages (Armenian, English, Russian, French and Italian), put up by the Armenian Monuments Awareness Project.
 
When we were there it quickly became clear that foreign tourists at this remote spot are quite a rarity. We were soon joined by a bunch of curious kids (eight in total!) from the village of Haykadzor. The mother and grandmother soon after complemented the gathering. Lots of group photos were taken (the kids loved to pose) and our guide Alex had a field day lecturing the kids about the significance of Ani and letting them use his big binoculars. One of the smaller kids treated us to a song and recitation (of what I have no idea, of course, as it was all in Armenian – but it was an incredibly cute scene!). It all had an atmosphere quite different from that of a tense military-guarded border feeling. More a mere culture divide, but no more than that.
 
There is another Ani viewpoint that is closer to the actual place and that lies within the Russian border-guard-controlled zone along the actual border on the Akhuryan river gorge. And this is apparently a very different story. Going there also costs extra money – my guide said even bribes for the soldiers – so we didn't go there. But allegedly it gives you a better view of the ancient place across the gorge – plus potentially an additional "thrill" of being closer to the Russian border soldiers too … It appears that it this viewpoint that tour operators in Yerevan tend to use. (It is also the only one mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook.) Although I can see my guide's reasoning for preferring the other viewpoint, I still regret it a bit in hindsight that we didn't go to this Russian-guarded viewpoint as well, if only for the weird (if a bit uncomfortable) atmosphere. Well, maybe next time …
 
A very good spot to see the old Iron Curtain border fence close up is near the historically significant ruins of Yereruyk Basilica south of Ani, near the village of Anipemza. Here the approach road goes directly along the fence, affording a good view of it and a vague impression of the feel of the tense border atmosphere, even if it's no longer one of Cold War confrontation, but an even deeper, older animosity. You could even step right up to the fence and touch it!
 
The fence consists of T-shaped wooden poles with barbed wire attached to it to form a similarly T-shaped spiky barrier. There's a lower fence with more barbed wire running directly parallel, and cables are attached to the fence too – but it is clearly not electrified. Nor is there any other visible border security hardware as there was on the East-West border in Germany's most intense stretches of the Iron Curtain, esp. the Berlin Wall. A patrol track runs parallel to the fence and just beyond you can see the precipice of the gorge carved by the river Akhuryan that forms the actual border line around here (the same river that on the Turkish side is called Arpa).
 
Incidentally, historical architectural relics such as Yereruyk basilica (or of course Ani) are a good, generally agreeable justification for coming to such a spot as a tourist. Simply saying to a guide you'd like to see the old Iron Curtain is more likely to raise eyebrows than trigger enthusiasm, so it's better to say you want to see those old historical sights and be taken there (that's more like the expected tourist behaviour that guides are accustomed to) – and then use the opportunity to see the border fortifications in the process.
 
Also: just poking around directly by the border fence elsewhere, let alone near a border military post, on your own even, may rather arouse the suspicions of the border soldiers, and you'd rather want to avoid that. So better use the agreed historical-monument-point-of-interest strategy.
 
Military posts are dotted all along the Armenian side of the border with watchtowers visible from afar – where the Armenian and Russian flags often fly in staunch unison. You can expect that border guards will in fact be on top these towers watching their area. So don't get too close or do anything silly. Just take in the view of them from a distance and "admire" their contribution to the whole tense-border atmosphere.
 
And over in Turkey on the other side of the border (also a sensitive, military controlled strip, also with fences here and there, see Ani), the stand-off between the two sides is emphasized in places by means of large messages in Turkish etched into mountainsides facing Armenia. Whatever their exact wording, ultimately they seem to basically say "know your place!"
 
 
Location: The easy-to-access (and free) Ani viewpoint further north-east is located near Haykadzor village; the other, more tricky to access point closer to Ani is by the border military post at Kharkov, both in Armenia's Shirak region.
 
Google maps locator: [40.5243,43.6564], [40.506,43.595]
 
Ani itself is, of course, across the border in Turkey - Google maps locator: [40.511,43.572].
 
Yereruyk Basilica, a good spot for seeing the Iron Curtain fence up close, is near the village of Anipemza, 6 miles (10 km) south of Ani and ca. 8 miles (13 km) south of Haykadzor, about a mile west off the main H-17 road south (note the rusting metal Soviet monument by the roadside).
 
Google maps locator: [40.439,43.609]
  
 
Access and costs: too tricky to get to independently, you'll need a guide; one of the viewpoints costs money, the other is free.
 
Details: It's as good as impossible to make it here by public transport all by yourself. This means that unless you're prepared to drive a car yourself in Armenia (not really recommended) you will need a guide and driver to get there.
 
Some agents operating out of Yerevan may offer a stop-over at the Ani viewpoint as part of longer organized day excursions, usually to Marmashen monastery as the main port of call.
But it's much better to do this from Gyumri – where I can recommend the services of Shirak Tours (see sponsored page here).
 
The viewpoint favoured by them is free to access as such, but of course the guiding and transport will cost money. The other one, controlled by Russian border soldiers can incur a fee like 20 USD or so … or maybe some sort of bribe (as my guide had it and therefore preferred not to go there).
 
The border stretch near Anipemza and the Yereruyk Basilica is freely accessible too ... just make sure you don't attract the attention of any border guards that may be around.
 
 
Time required: Just a few moments to stop and gaze over at Ani – and a few moments more stopping at a couple of points where you get a good view of the border and especially the old Iron Curtain fence. Most likely these points will be built into a more extensive tour of the region and will form part of a whole (or at least half) day trip.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: The closest place of dark interest is Gyumri, the town so badly damaged in the Spitak earthquake of 1988. Gyumri is also a good base for excursions to this part of Armenia in general, and it's also not far from there to Vanadzor with its eerie derelict chemical pants from Soviet days.
 
Some tour operators also run tours to this part of the country as return trips from Yerevan.
One could argue that much of the region of Shirak is somewhat dark-ish, in so far as it is the least visited region of Armenia and in many places does indeed look and feel a bit desolate. In one village where we mainly went to see the ruins of an old fort, my guide also pointed out a dilapidated little building that once was a cultural centre (in Soviet times even small and remote villages and towns had such cultural centres). Through the broken windows you could see the abandoned books gathering dust on the shelves. This, I found, was also a kind of dark discovery. People don't seem care much about books any more here – they are (by necessity perhaps) more interested in making wool or engaging in other more agricultural activities …
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Armenia is full of churches, monasteries, and various other historic monuments, and Shirak region is no exception to this either.
 
Apart from the aforementioned Yereruyk Basilica (and Ani itself), there is for instance an old caravanserai and a small but interesting little church near the village of Jrapi by the bottom of the water reservoir formed by the border river a short way north of Haykadzor.
 
In the village of Gusanagygh a bit further north-east still, reached by a road branching off to the east of the reservoir, the ruins of an old fort can be visited. It was also here that I took those photos of the dilapidated former cultural centre.
 
The most famous sights in the area lie further east still, namely the Harichavank monastery near Artik, and the 7th century church in the vicinity.
 
More cultural (and other) sights can be found in and around the region's capital Gyumri further north.
 
Finally, the place most ordinary tourism operators primarily steer visitors towards in the Shirak region is the monastery complex of Marmashen, to the north of Gyumri.
 

 

  • Ani Viewpoint 3 - overshadowed beyond the border fenceAni Viewpoint 3 - overshadowed beyond the border fence
  • Ani viewpoint 1 - signpostedAni viewpoint 1 - signposted
  • Ani viewpoint 2 - Ani in the distance on the Turkish side of the borderAni viewpoint 2 - Ani in the distance on the Turkish side of the border
  • Ani viewpoint 4 - Russian-guarded Armenia-Turkey borderAni viewpoint 4 - Russian-guarded Armenia-Turkey border
  • Ani viewpoint 5 - Armenian Monuments Awareness ProjectAni viewpoint 5 - Armenian Monuments Awareness Project
  • Ani viewpoint 6 - multilingual signAni viewpoint 6 - multilingual sign
  • Ani viewpoint 7 - Turkish message on a hill across the borderAni viewpoint 7 - Turkish message on a hill across the border
  • Ani viewpoint 8 - Yereruyk basilica ruinAni viewpoint 8 - Yereruyk basilica ruin
  • Iron Curtain 1 - remote and neglected Soviet monumentIron Curtain 1 - remote and neglected Soviet monument
  • Iron Curtain 2 - border fence close upIron Curtain 2 - border fence close up
  • Iron Curtain 3 - watchtower with flagsIron Curtain 3 - watchtower with flags
  • Iron Curtain 4 - military border post seen from the other sideIron Curtain 4 - military border post seen from the other side
  • Iron Curtain 5 - the original border from the Cold War eraIron Curtain 5 - the original border from the Cold War era
  • Iron Curtain 6 - military border post from behindIron Curtain 6 - military border post from behind
  • Shirak region 1 - remote Armenian village with Soviet-era monumentShirak region 1 - remote Armenian village with Soviet-era monument
  • Shirak region 2 - a wall like a paintingShirak region 2 - a wall like a painting
  • Shirak region 3 - making woolShirak region 3 - making wool
  • Shirak region 4 - former cultural centreShirak region 4 - former cultural centre
  • Shirak region 5 - neglected ex-libraryShirak region 5 - neglected ex-library
  • Shirak region 6 - bringing cultural tours to the regionShirak region 6 - bringing cultural tours to the region
  • Shirak region 7 - a bright view out of the darkShirak region 7 - a bright view out of the dark

  

  

  

 

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