BJNI, Armenia — The riverside village of Bjni possesses all the ingredients to blossom into a tourist haven for visitors new to this landlocked country in the South Caucasus and for Armenians themselves.
What visitors don’t see right away in Bjni, where a $3 million Russian-financed United Nations tourism project is in the works, is an artisanal noodlemaker; a beekeeper who dabbles in homemade apricot vodka and other delectables; and a few family homestays ready for business.
Bjni is an hour from Yerevan, the capital, where two-thirds of Armenia’s three million people live. The main route to the village is a straight, climbing highway, followed by a meandering road through a canyon valley that runs parallel to a narrow river. Orchards and rose bushes soothe the tumbleweed landscape as you enter the town, population about 5,000, passing a grocery store, an auto-mechanics garage and a beauty salon until you realize you have arrived at your destination.
On the opposite side of the river, an 11-century Apostolic church nestles in the steep foothills, with remnants of a seventh-century church perched on a knobby cliff above. The factory bottling the village’s nationally known mineral water is unassuming enough to miss.
But what is abundantly clear to newcomers to Armenia is its relentless sunshine, which accounts for its luscious fruit: quinces, plums, peaches, apricots and melons that grow to dimensions unseen anywhere else. What Bjni lacks — fast wifi, hiking trails and possibly more than one English speaker — could be made available sooner rather than later.
As Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, the Armenian ambassador to the UN, said in an interview in New York recently, “Tourism is a huge potential” for Armenia, with the private sector building hotels and the government “setting the tone” by liberalizing visa rules, prodding the tourism industry by increments, not leaps and bounds.
That is the hope for Bjni — which Armenians pronounce Bij-ni or Beezhni, depending on whom you ask — a small paradise that the UN’s development agency has chosen to help build rural tourism in Armenia. The country’s economy may be gathering steam after becoming independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, but the GDP is only $3,600. Its biggest challenge is balancing its complicated relationship with Russia while pursuing the democratic values and investments of the West.
It is Russians, to the vast north, that have been coming to Armenia for eons, enjoying its bargains and escape from gloom and doom back home, their language spoken throughout Yerevan and outside it, their ruble welcome. Iranians, coming from the south, throw off their strictures, with women forgoing scarves and donning short skirts or shorts. The Turks, Armenians’ enduring enemies, and Azerbaijanis, currently warring neighbors due east, steer clear of the country.
And it is Armenians, desperate to see a coast, who find the five-hour drive to Georgia, another northern neighbor, a respite on the Black Sea. But Armenians also love to spend time in their own country, including its main ski resort, Tsakhkadzor, where, Mnatsakanyan conceded, it is just beginning to open cafes and other sophisticated attractions.
As Armenia builds up rural tourism, similar projects are being taken up throughout Central Asia through some assistance from the UN Development Program, as countries in the region realize they could be luring more outsiders to their untrammeled countrysides. At the same time, Central Asian countries are working on reforms to improve foreign investment and diversify as they shed their post-Soviet shackles.
It is hard to make a living in Armenia’s villages, said Arman Valesyan, an economist and manager of the tourism project for the UN Development Program, during an interview in his office in Yerevan. Rural villagers head to Russia for work, mainly in construction, and return home months later, where women have been running the households. It’s a situation that sows domestic tensions that can turn into hard statistics, including high rates of violence.
Valesyan, a gregarious man, said that another multimillion-dollar project financed by Russia’s government — representing a rare investment by the country in the UN Development Program — is piloting a greenhouse venture close to Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. Russia hopes to adapt the two Armenian projects to its own struggling villages.
The UN tourism project in Bjni faces daunting deficits, like corralling the “human resources” of the villagers, who don’t fully grasp the worthiness of tourism and having to spend money to make money, Valesyan explained.
Day trips of vans from the capital to take tourists to see the country’s rich lode of medieval churches are easy to find but an overnight stay in a town in the middle of nowhere? Only the intrepid dare it. Or as one Bjni homestay owner said, a few Germans and French visitors have made the trek to her business so far.
“Imagine a place that has never been a tourist place,” Valesyan said. His office did the assessment and mapped the project’s potential for a village candidate, deciding on its attractiveness and ability to “see things completely differently.”
Bjni was prime territory: close to Yerevan for day-tripping, a source of natural spring water, some willing residents to convert their homes to bed and breakfasts, an ancient church and quirky locals like Artak, the beekeeper. Bjni is also in between two tourist spots for Armenians: Tsakhkadzor, the ski resort, and Aghveran, a year-round mountain setting.
On a visit in September to Bjni, during a blistering-hot day, to understand the efforts of turning the village into a tourism site, I met with Lilit Hayrapetyan, who represented the UN Development Program at the time; and An Papoyan, a translator and also Bjnian. We started with the church, Blessed Virgin Mary, which is dated 1031 but has stone crosses and other artifacts from centuries earlier. Some of the country’s best hajcara — carved angel hands in stone — are here, derived from a Bjni fortress nearby, lying in ruins.
Inside, the almost lightless space offered a reprieve from the boiling sun. Manuscripts were written in the monastery that was once physically attached to the church, with one such book sitting on the altar. Over the centuries, Armenia, an east-west “crossroads of many civilizations,” as the Armenian ambassador put it, was subjected to so many invaders from so many empires — Romans to Persians to Arabs to Ottomans — that Bjni naturally became part of those onslaughts. At one time, a tunnel was dug under the church in which the priests could escape, but it is no longer accessible.
Listening to An and Lilit describe the history of the church reinforced the sense of vulnerability of Armenia and its extreme idiosyncrasies, as one Armenian described it. It is a Christian-majority country surrounded by neighbors of varying geopolitical weights. Some of the countries are Muslim-majority, while others are more Christian. Russia has a military base parked in Armenia, helping to protect its border with Turkey.
And then there is the Armenian genocide committed by the Turks, from 1915-1918 and from 1920 to 1923, leaving approximately 1.5 million dead. It is a purge that the United States and the UN don’t recognize officially and that has since created a diaspora estimated to be six million people. It is this diaspora, flung across the world, from Moscow to Paris to Los Angeles, whose unbreakable alliance to Armenians’ home country, feeds “our long memory,” Mnatsakanyan said.
Armenians also contend with another source of violence: the current “conflict,” as they refer to their festering war with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. The conflict began in 1991, spurred by hostilities between the area’s ethnic Armenians, who are the majority of the population, and Azerbaijanis. Talks have recently resumed to negotiate a permanent cease-fire, with Russian and European parties leading the mediation. (Russia, an equal-opportunity weapons dealer, sells arms to both sides in the conflict, although Azerbaijan, an oil economy, has far more than Armenia.)
Yet there is no mistaking what part of the world Armenia longs to join. “Armenia is part of Europe,” Mnatsakanyan said, a country “driven by values and historical background” that places it close to the continent. As a member of the Council of Europe, he added, Armenia is building its national institutions based on the “common values” of the European Union, while cooperating with NATO. But it must dance with Russia, an “extremely important partner to Armenia.”
The US presence is significant, visually apparent on American Avenue, the highway leading from Yerevan’s airport to downtown, where the US embassy compound is the size of a college campus, walled in and across the way from the imposing Ararat Brandy Company. The Americans engage with Armenians in such ventures as trade and promoting English. An American company assessed Armenia’s gas-shale reserves (apparently too costly to develop); others are investing in hydro and solar energy, while a fruit-drying plant got going with US money. (Armenia gets its oil and gas from Russia and Iran.)
Despite the charm of Bjni, in many Armenian villages, men often migrate to Russia to work. They return to their families with desperately needed cash. They may also return with two socially silent epidemics — HIV and hepatitis C, said an official with Médecins san Frontières in Yerevan. The charity is operating a vaccination program to combat hepatitis and TB. And while the men who work in Russia have no access to health care there, the Armenian government is taking over the vaccination program from the charity, the official said.
Domestic violence is another silent symptom in Armenia, a problem that gets little public attention but thrives in villages and cities, says a nonprofit group in Yerevan, Stop the Violence. Armenia’s domestic-violence law could soon become a reality, after years in the making. Sex-selection is another problem in Armenia, which UN Women says is the third-highest nation in the world practicing sex-selective abortions. Latest statistics show the rate of male to female population from ages 1 to 4 to be 110 to 97.
In Bjni, however, the dark side of Armenia was not evident. After we left the church, we visited a woman who was making arishta — spaghetti noodles — in the cool confines of her cellar. Made from egg-salty dough, Margarita used a rolling pin to flatten a pizza-size circle that she then sliced through a hand-cranked machine to produce strips to dry on a clothesline in her courtyard. The cellar was stocked with canned fruits and pickles, with everything for sale.
A few hundred yards away, a new homestay owned by an older couple, the Grigoryans, offers not only a room in one of the house’s pristine bedrooms but also three meals and maybe some Armenian vodka, all for 12,000 drams, or about $25. As an example of the tough road ahead for tourism in Bjni, the Grigoryans do not have a website advertising their business.
Artak Honey is the nickname of Bjni’s popular beekeeper. Artak, who served in the Armenian military in Afghanistan, takes pride to a new level: his bees work in large wooden boxes he built himself, with a window for viewing. He teases visitors by opening the lid of a box to let some bees escape, which he grabs with his bare hands and flings aside.
The bee boxes are one part of his large orchard, where he escorts visitors through, ending the tour under a grape arbor with a sampling of his honey spooned into fresh apricot halves and downed with tan, a yogurt drink. Artak’s apricot vodka is part of the getting-acquainted.
Artak volunteered to send a batch of honey to America but didn’t know how he should send it. He thought he could mail it to a relative in Philadelphia, who could somehow get it to Brooklyn, N.Y., but it was pointed out that wouldn’t be convenient.
Disappointed by his inability to send this American off with his honey, we took group photos with our cellphones and Artak showed off his horses across the road. We all hugged goodbye and drove off in our taxi, leaving Artak in our wake, basking in the sun.