My last week in Armenia was an intense test of everything I learned over the last nine months. Three of my cousins, Sharon, Mary Anne, and Lisa, came to visit, and I was the acting tour guide/translator for the group. Since they like eating and doing different things from me, I had to learn some new words (for example: salad and vegetable. I’m clearly not the healthiest eater… but the word for vegetable is banjareghen so can you really blame me for not learning it sooner?), and we had some dietary restrictions to convey. It literally took me the entire week to figure out how to explain them in a way that didn’t just confuse the server. At the last meal, I finally got it! Better late than never, right? (And the server complimented my Armenian so like no big deal or anything but I’m basically fluent 😉 hehe)
For the most part, we didn’t go anywhere I hadn’t already been. It was fun being the tour guide, though, and seeing just how much I’ve learned about the country and the different sites. Mary Anne brought a guidebook with her, and honestly, after reading what it said about the things we visited vs. what I’ve learned about those places, I think that they could have done a much better job. Based on the book, it sounds like there’s no reason to visit Armenia, there’s nothing interesting to see, and you’ll just be disappointed. Maybe I’m biased, but I strongly disagree. They didn’t even include most of the hilariously awesome stories and legends that are such an essential part of the country’s personality. I’m ready to write a new guidebook for Armenia! All I need now is some funding and a whole lot of time.
Highlights of the week included:
attempting to visit a fortress for literally our first sightseeing destination and getting stuck on the snow-covered road there. Did you know that as you move to higher altitudes, it gets colder? (I know, this is shocking new information, I’m sure.) So even if it’s not cold or snowy in Yerevan, that doesn’t mean it’s like that everywhere… especially at a fortress that is, by definition, built on high ground. Whoops.
maneuvering into and out of a 10ish foot deep pit after a certain person’s phone accidentally got dropped in (it wasn’t me! Name withheld to protect the innocent).
going out to dinner with my friends Olivia and Zoe and dancing to Armenian music like total lunatics (which is the only proper way to do it).
Like seriously every meal was fabulous. Because I did a WONDERFUL job of picking restaurants.
going on a quest to find Lisa’s suitcase at the airport after it got lost and finally made its way to Yerevan three days later. This involved me asking multiple people at the airport for directions, being sure that I was misunderstanding, and eventually figuring out that I had it right. PSA if you ever need to get a lost bag at Yerevan airport: go outside, walk around the back of the airport to where it totally looks like you should not go, and enter through the unexpectedly offset sliding glass doors (I almost walked into a pane of glass after making it through the first set).
getting followed around Yerevan for about an hour by two random Armenian guys because that’s what guys do there because what else would you do when you see a group of girls? Not cool (also very non-threatening, but still), but an enlightening cultural experience for the group.
seeing a hamster riding on the back of a bunny outside one of the shops in Yerevan. Picture included below.
going to a rendition of Romeo and Juliet that was nearly as unexpected as the Grinch puppet show. Everyone was dressed like they either lived underground in one of those post-apocalyptic movies or were part of a punk-rock band. They all had random leather accessories, and the set consisted of a series of platforms and ropes. I have no words to explain anything beyond that, but just know that I sat there with my jaw dropped for nearly the entire show.
In general, it was a lot of fun to spend time with my cousins and get to show them around. The four of us had never been on vacation together without the rest of our families, and it was exciting that it worked out so well. I mean, I guess it makes sense because our families have been travelling together forever, but still. Hopefully this is the first of many more cousin vacations!
The last stop on my southern Armenia tour was Sisian, a town about 40 minutes north/west of Goris. Mary loaded me onto a marshrutka, and in no time, we were driving into Sisian. I had a reservation at a hotel in town that I made by emailing them and asking if there were any rooms available… after going there, I realize that was completely unnecessary. I knew that it wasn’t exactly high tourist season, but I honestly don’t know that there was anyone else staying there that night.
I had two things that I wanted to see while I was in Sisian – Shaki Waterfall and Karahunj. Both of them are reasonably walkable distances away from town, but the weather was gross, and I was feeling a little tired. I decided that the best way to guarantee that I would make it to them was to take a taxi. I asked the receptionist where I should go to find one (also, just keep in mind that any interactions I talk about in this post are happening in Armenian), and she gave me directions and said that it shouldn’t be more than 1500 dram (about $3) for each place I wanted to visit. She also insisted that it was an easy and short walk to Karahunj, so I planned to taxi to the waterfall and back and then walk there.
Taxis usually just hang out in certain places around town until you go and hire them, so I went to one of the hang out spots and tapped on a guy’s window until I got his attention. I asked him how much it was to go to Shaki Waterfall, wait, and drive me back. He said 3000 dram, and I’m pretty sure I laughed. In response, he asked how much I wanted to pay, I said 1000, and he asked how long I wanted to stay there. I said half an hour because like… who knows? I knew you had to walk a little to get there, and I didn’t want to feel rushed. He looked appalled by that, so I said, “I don’t know? 20 minutes? I just want to see it.” I guess that was good enough for him because he agreed, and off we went!
We chatted during the ride there, and I was proud of how much I understood and how much I could say. He told me my Armenian was good which is always nice, but I also think that sometimes people just say that because they’re happy you can speak at all. It’s okay, I’ll take the compliment. When we got to the waterfall parking lot, he pointed me in the direction of the path that leads there and said he’d be waiting when I got back.
Shaki Waterfall, like everything else in Armenia, has a legend (or factual story, depending on who you ask) behind its origin. According to the story, an army invaded a nearby village and kidnapped 93 beautiful maidens to give to their commander. When they reached the river, the maidens asked if they could bathe in the water and make themselves presentable after the long, dirty journey.
When the army agreed, they all jumped into the water and “disappeared”. One of them, Shaki, tried to escape by swimming across the river. She was about to be recaptured when a rock came up underneath her, and she was concealed by the water flowing over the rock (aka the waterfall).
I have a lot of questions about this story, especially because it’s incredibly vague about what happened to the maidens. They “disappeared”… which means what? I assume it means that they all drowned themselves, not that they went through some magical portal into another dimension. And Shaki? Did she also “disappear”? I don’t know. The legend is fine and all, but there are too many unanswered questions for my liking.
Anyway, the walk to the waterfall took less than 5 minutes which made the taxi driver’s reaction make more sense… a 30-minute stay would have given me more than 20 minutes to stand and look at the waterfall. It’s definitely nice, but like I said, the day was cold and wet, and after going and looking at it for a few minutes, I was ready to leave. I think I made it back to the car within 15 minutes, and the driver told me that I could have stayed longer. Geez, you can’t please anyone (hehe).
Soon after I got into the car to head back into Sisian, it started raining and I started rethinking my decision to walk to Karahunj. As we got closer to the city, I asked the driver how much it would be to go there as well. He looked at me like I was a nut and said that it wasn’t a good day to go and the path there would be very muddy. Oh, well. I was there for one day which meant that no matter how bad the conditions, if I wanted to see it, I didn’t have a choice. I explained that to him, and he said okay and that it would be 1000 dram. Totally reasonable and way better than what I was expecting, so I agreed, and off to Karahunj we went.
He dropped me off on the main road because, like he said, the path was too muddy for him to drive up. From there, I walked, and he was absolutely right. Within just a few steps, my shoes were completely weighed down with mud. I walked for probably 10-15 minutes, thankful with every step that I had decided to wear my boots.
Karahunj/Zorats Karer is, to put it simply, the Armenian Stonehenge. Any proud Armenian will tell you, however, that it’s 3,500 years older than Stonehenge in England. I’m not really sure how they date something like that, though. It’s not like they can carbon date it… it’s just rocks placed in a certain configuration. “They” say it’s from around 5500BC and was used as a religious site and maybe more for around 5000 years or so.
They say that Karahunj is where the name “Stonehenge” comes from. “Henge” doesn’t mean anything in English (well, it does now, but that’s because of the Armenians of course), but Kara = stone and hunj = sound in Armenian, so Karahunj might mean Speaking Stones or something to that effect. They say that it’s an ancient astronomical observatory, despite the fact that the rock alignment doesn’t really make sense in that context. There are also random round holes carved into some of the stones, and they have no idea what those were for.
In the center, there’s a temple to the primary god of the ancient Armenians, Ari, the sun god. Then, there’s a sort of circle of stones surrounding the central area and two squiggly arms that extend out to the north and south. There are 223 stones officially documented as part of the monument, and there are other broken stones around that may have originally been part. They’re of varying sizes, but the biggest ones weigh up to 10 tons! Eighty of those stones have a round hole carved into them. Like I said, there’s still no consensus about the purpose of the stone configuration. People have been able to draw some parallels between the layout and the stars, but there are also a lot of things that they can’t make sense of… so they don’t actually know anything for sure.
It was cool to see, especially knowing that it has such a weird and mysterious history. Some of those rocks are HUGE, and seeing it inspired the same questions of, “How the heck did people move these?” and, “WHY?” that came about when I was in Peru seeing the stuff that the Incas built. Plus, the setting is beautiful. It’s up on a bit of a hill surrounded by valleys, so there are pretty views in all directions.
After wandering around for a bit, completely mystified, I headed back through the sticky mud to my taxi. It started raining again when I was about a quarter of the way there, just confirming my decision to take a taxi instead of walking. That would have been miserable! My ears and nose were frozen, and the taxi driver gave me a knowing nod as I tried to scrape the mud off my shoes before getting back into the car and warm up my face on the drive back to the hotel. For sure worth the $4 that I paid for the taxi ride!
I spent that night relaxing at the hotel and getting ready for my trip back to Yerevan in the morning. One of Mary’s friends who lives in Sisian helped me to reserve a seat on a marshrutka (even though we never met in person!). I don’t know how people are supposed to be able to do any of this travelling without the kind of support system that I had. Without that and without language skills, I imagine it would have been a very different and more frustrating trip.
The end of my south adventure wasn’t the end of my Armenia fun. The day after I got back, some of my cousins came from the States to visit! We didn’t do much that I hadn’t already done before, but I’ll share some pictures from that week in my next post!
Things we all know about Lara:
Lara loves rocks.
Lara loves caves and other enclosed spaces.
Lara loves climbing things.
Lara loves pretty views.
These are four very basic Lara facts. These four facts also make Lara sound like she might be four years old, but that’s not the point. The point is that, while travelling southern Armenia, Lara finally found the place where she belongs. That place is, quite unfortunately, a deserted cave village, but we don’t need to dwell on the little, insignificant details like “deserted”. That just means there’s more room for me!
Where is this magical, mystical place? Khndzoresk, aka the future site of Larkzoresk. The village is only a 40-minute drive or so from Goris where I was staying for a few nights with my new friend Mary, and she connected me with a guide, Ara, who grew up in new Khndzoresk. I know, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Typical.
Khndzoreskis a village in the eastern part of Armenia, right on the border of what is now Artsakh. One name-origin theory is that “Khndzoresk” comes from the words “Khor Dzor”, meaning “deep gorge” in Armenian. At the beginning of the war with Azerbaijan, the village was so close to the fighting that some of the shepherds who lived there were kidnapped and killed. Anyway, the village has been occupied since ancient times, and until the end of the 1800s, Khndzoresk was the most populated village in eastern Armenia! At its height, there were around 24,000 people living there (though who knows how accurate that number is… that’s what I was told, but it seems like something that probably everyone has a different answer for). The thing that makes it so interesting is that it was a cave city… until the 1950s!
It’s made up of both natural and man-made caves situated in the cliffs along a gorge. Many of the houses had a cave in the back and then a structure built in front of it, and the roof of one house created the floor for the next. Ara explained that there were three different kinds of caves: houses, stables, and safe houses. The houses had the highest ceilings and often consisted of multiple rooms. They had holes in the ground for cooking and for storing grain. Chimneys were carved out to allow smoke to escape. If someone had a two-story structure as the front part of their house, it meant they were rich because it was expensive to build like that. The house structures were built out of stones, and they didn’t use concrete. Instead, some used just clay/mud, and others used a mix of clay, eggs, and water.
The stables had lower ceilings and didn’t have any additional construction in front. The safe caves were located high up in the cliffs. They could only be accessed by ropes which were supported by pieces of wood set across the cave entrances. In times of danger, the women and children would climb up and pull the ropes in to prevent invaders from reaching them. (Questions about this… did the women and children train for this?? It’s not like it’s easy to climb a rope into a cave! And I assume that a lot of the kids had to get carried up which means that the women must have been incredibly fit. Though I assume that everyone in the village was fit because you had to climb to get practically anywhere. Okay, I’ll stop. I just think the whole thing is kind of marvelous.)
There are four churches in town. The oldest is in a cave and dates back to 305AD! That’s impressive because Armenia adopted Christianity only four years earlier in 301AD. There were also schools, shops, businesses, springs for fresh water… it was a town, so there was everything a town needs. Ara’s father was born in old Khndzoresk, but in the 1950s, the Soviet leadership decided that the town should be moved to the flat land above. I asked why, and he said that it was closer to the existing infrastructure and people’s gardens (they were already on the flat ground). Most people moved out in the 1950s and 1960s, but the last family didn’t leave until 1974!
After the exodus, the cave town fell into disrepair. Ara said that he used to play in the caves with his friends growing up. He can still point out where his grandparents’ cave was, though it’s now overgrown by plants and inaccessible. The town also is kind of in ruins because when people moved, they took the stones from their cave houses to use in their new ones. Now, it’s a government protected area, so people can’t take materials or anything. They’re slowly cleaning up and restoring different parts of the town, such as one of the newer churches, Surp Hripsime, that was built in 1665. For a long time, it acted as a stable, so as you can imagine, it was filthy. Now, it’s been cleaned, and there are plans to fix parts of it. It was also cool because there are just random pictures and other documents inside the church. I asked Ara where all of the pictures came from, and he said that when the old town started attracting attention, villagers began bringing pictures and other things that they had laying around that they thought might be of interest.
There have been various improvements made to the old town over time. Ara explained that there’s a kind of unspoken rule that if you move out of the town and make a lot of money, you come back and build something. He said that some of those changes are good, but each one makes the town less authentic. I completely understand what he means… you want people to be able to access and see this awesome place, but you don’t want those changes to take away from its history and personality.
So far, the improvements have included a lookout point, stairs down into the gorge, paved paths leading to some of the sights, and a suspension bridge across the gorge. Supposedly there are plans to build a cable car down from the new town, but that seems like overkill to me. He told a story about the bridge, which looks somewhat terrifying, and said that it was built by hand by three guys: the one who was financing it, plus two others from the village. They didn’t have an engineer or anyone with bridge knowledge helping them, and when it was completed, someone complained to the government saying that it might not be safe. In response, the government sent out some engineers to evaluate the bridge, and they determined that it was strong enough to hold 500 people at once. As usual, who knows how true any of these stories are, but that’s all part of the fun.
On the opposite side of the gorge from the main part of town, there’s a little area with ruins of a church and school and a cemetery. The cemetery contains the grave of an Armenian war hero, Mkhitar Sparapet, who fought with another hero, David Bek, leading the Armenian liberation efforts against Safavid Iran and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Sparapet had a cave fortress at the top of the gorge. He was eventually murdered by some villagers who wanted him to move his fortifications away from the village because they were worried about what would happen if the enemies found him hiding there. They delivered his head to the Ottoman leader who apparently found their actions despicable and had them killed. Now, Iran still has his head (I have SO MANY questions about this… where have they kept it all these years? Why? In what conditions? I just don’t understand!), but they’ve agreed to give it back (ALSO so many questions about this… I asked what they’re going to do with it, but Ara didn’t know. What are they going to do with it? Bury it with the body? How will this handover occur? In person? By mail? Who will it be delivered to? Does anyone besides me think that this is the weirdest thing? Was that part of some big diplomatic discussion between Armenia and Iran? This whole thing is weird, right??).
In the past, if you said the words “cave town” to me, I would have thought it sounded like the kind of thing I’d be interested in. Now that I’ve been to a cave town, that thought has been MORE than confirmed. If anyone out there is trying to start a cave town and needs resident volunteers, count me in!!! I already know exactly how I’d set up my cave.
My southern adventure continued with a relocation from Kapan to Goris. The hotel staff in Kapan spoke no English, so I had to rely on my Armenian skills to figure out how to get there via public transportation. Here’s basically how my conversation with the hotel guy went:
Me: Tomorrow I want to go to Goris. Is there a marshrutka?
Guy: Yes, at 9 and noon.
Me: Do I have to call? (to reserve a seat)
Me: Can YOU call?
I crossed my fingers that I had actually said what I wanted to say, and sure enough, the hotel guy knocked on my door at 8:50, right as I was getting ready to walk out. He walked me out to the street, the marshrutka came, and I was off! Nice.
In Goris, I was staying with one of Kelsey and Olivia’s friends, Mary, who I had never met but has an extra room and was willing to take me in. Cool! She was going to call me when she finished with work for the day, but by chance, we bumped into each other on the street! Goris is a decently big town, so I think that’s impressive. She was walking up the street towards me, I looked at her and thought, “Hmm… she doesn’t fit here,” and I gave her an inquiring look. She apparently thought the same about me and said, “Are you Lara?” So that’s how we met.
Goris is a city (town?) of about 20,000 people. I wasn’t expecting that when I got there. I guess I always think that places are going to be tiny little villages with nothing going on because everyone always acts like there’s nothing happening in the country outside of Yerevan. I was pleasantly surprised! It’s nestled in the mountains, right near the eastern border with Artsakh, so the scenery is stunning. The area has been occupied since at least the 700s BC, and for much of that time, people lived in caves in the weirdly shaped mountains around the town. The caves were inhabited until the 18th century!
I think one of my favorite things about the south is that in every place I visited, the topography was sooo different. The cities aren’t even that far apart, but they look nothing like each other. In Goris, if you walk around the “Old Goris” area, it’s like you stepped onto another planet. I can’t even begin to describe the rock formations, so check out the pictures to see what I mean.
Mary and I walked around Old Goris a bit during the evening after I got into town, and I went on a more intense trek the following day. I tried to follow an actual hike through the mountains, but it was poorly marked and very confusing. Instead, I ended up wandering around on random cow paths that went into some of the strangest places. Oh, well. That was more interesting anyway… at least, I assume it was but couldn’t tell you for sure because I still don’t know where I was supposed to walk.
As far as I can tell, the actual path doesn’t go past any of the coolest things. My favorite part of the walk was checking out some of the cave homes. So many of them had doors that you needed to rock climb into, and you could see where the previous inhabitants had chipped hand and foot holes into the rock to help them climb up. Can you imagine having to rock climb into your house?? My reaction to that question is, “IS THAT NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD?” but I imagine that some of you are probably more on the, “Ummm that sounds horrible,” page. I love enclosed spaces which means that caves are just about my favorite thing, and I’ve now officially decided that my dream home is a cave home (with a very comfy couch inside, of course).
After I finished getting lost in the weird mountains and creeping around abandoned cave houses, I headed into town to check out a few of the sights. I have to say that the buildings in Goris are some of my favorite in the whole country. I love stonework, and the town is overflowing with pretty stone buildings. Even the abandoned buildings look beautiful!
I visited two churches in town, St. Hripsime and St. Gregory the Illuminator. St. Hripsime was originally built in the 4th century, and St. Gregory was built in the early 1900s. St. Hripsime is small and pretty and was rebuilt a few times, first in the 1500s and then in the early 2000s. the inside feels like you’re inside a cave… appropriate. St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is slightly more Armenian-church-typical. The inside is plain, and the outside design is nothing extraordinary, but the stone color is a pretty grey that I enjoyed. They also had a very nice gate entering into the grounds, and metalwork is another craft that I’m a big fan of.
Between the natural beauty of the surroundings and the man-made beauty of the town, it’s definitely on my list of favorite places in Armenia. Mountain views, easily accessible adventure, caves, stone buildings… what more do you need?
My trek from Meghri to Kapan started VERY early in the morning, especially by Armenia standards. The marshrutka left at 7:30AM, but it actually wasn’t too hard to get up on time… thanks to all of the walking the day before, I had a fabulous, comatose night’s sleep.
Kelsey was going all the way to Yerevan, about eight hours, and I was hopping off in Kapan after about two. It was nice to have some company for the ride! I’m so used to going places by myself now that it always throws me off when I have a friend.
The marshrutka dropped me off right in front of my hotel for the night. I didn’t do much pre-planning for this trip (I’m trying to learn how to “go with the flow” and be okay with that), so I looked for somewhere to stay only one night in advance. According to the internet, there weren’t many cheap choices left. In hindsight, I feel like I should have just gotten dropped off in the city center and wandered around asking hotels if they had vacancies. Anyway, I didn’t do that, so I stayed at an inexpensive and NOT centrally located hotel. Everything except for the location was great! But that resulted in me having another ridiculous walking day.
I had two sightseeing goals for the day, Halidzor Fortress and Vahanavank. According to google maps, it was a 15 km walk to Vahanavank, and Halidzor is in the same general area. I looked at that and thought, “Oh hey, that’s not bad! Only 3 hours!” Any rational person would have looked at that and said, “I’m going to ask the hotel to call me a taxi.” Oh, well. I figured that I would walk there and then find an alternate method of transportation back.
I walked about 40 minutes just to get to Kapan. The thing is, though, that you can’t just think of it as a long walk. You have to think about the fact that you’re seeing things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise because you don’t enjoy the scenery as much when you’re in a car. See? That’s my way of rationalizing my decision and telling you that it was the right one to make (though strong recommend that you just get a taxi if you’re ever in this situation). On my way through Kapan, I went to see the church, Surp Mesrop Mashtots. If you feel like you’ve heard this all before, it’s because every city/town/village in Armenia seemingly picks from the same list of five church names and ten street names, and things can get confusing very quickly.
From there, I roamed a little more, stopped in a store to buy some snacks (where they stared at me like I was a Martian and forgot to put my human suit on – classic Armenia moment right there), and continued on my way. I walked more… a lot more… and eventually realized that I could have taken a bus nearly the ENTIRE way that I walked. Well. I got some good exercise, and I REALLY saw the scenery. After maybe 11 km, I finally got to the point where I turned off the main road and started heading up to Vahanavank.
I was probably 20 minutes from the church when a car came up behind me. I did what I usually do and pretended that I had everything under control and totally wanted to be walking up a mountain after already walking for almost three hours… and at that moment, I got caught on a spiky plant and had to stop to untangle myself. So much for looking like I knew what I was doing. The driver pulled up next to me, rolled down his window, and asked if I was going to Vahanavank… as if there was any other reason I would be walking on a random mountain road that literally only leads to the church. I said yes, and he told me to hop in. I’m not too proud to accept a ride, especially when my legs are ready to fall off, so I got in and we were at the top in three minutes.
When we got to the church, there was actually a priest there! I was so thrown off. I think that’s literally the first time I’ve ever seen a priest in a church who wasn’t in the middle of conducting a service. The guys who picked me up seemed to be buddies with him, and I heard them telling him that they picked me up on the side of the road. I started poking around the church, and the priest invited me to drink tea with them… which he was in the process of heating water for on his little propane tank. Ha! It was a little chilly up there, and I was kind of hoping for a ride back down the mountain too, so I said okay.
The priest spoke some English, so our conversation was actually pretty good. I spoke broken Armenian, he spoke broken English, and we figured it out. He was excited that I’m an architecture person (no one knows what an architectural engineer is, so they usually just decide that I’m an architect), and after tea, we walked around the church and he pointed out different architectural features.
Vahanavank was founded in 911 by the prince of Kapan, Prince Vahan, who supposedly became a monk to cure himself of a demonic possession. The main church is called… wait for it… Surp Grigor Lusavorich aka Saint Gregory the Illuminator Church. It functioned as a monastery and a spiritual school for some time, and there are a bunch of graves in/around the church, including Prince Vahan and many other kings and princes of Syunik (the province where Kapan is located).
There’s another little chapel on the grounds as well, Surp Astvatsatsin, that was built by one of the Syunik queens, and it also serves as a mausoleum for her and her relatives. It seems like people just built churches when they wanted fancy places to be buried.
There was an earthquake that destroyed practically everything on the grounds, and they just recently did some restoration work that was never finished. The main chapel of Surp Grigor Lusavorich Church was completely restored, but the vestibule on the side is only partially completed. The priest showed us where they put in different structural features to help if there’s ever another earthquake and the difference between the original and the new stones. The original stones were quarried from a neighboring mountain, but the new ones were brought in from elsewhere.
I stayed at Vahanavank MUCH longer than anticipated. If I had gone on my own, I probably would have stayed 15 minutes max and then kept going to Halidzor. Instead, I was there for more than an hour. When they asked where I was going next and I said Halidzor, everyone looked at me like I was a lunatic. They went on and on about how it had just rained and the path was going to be muddy and I shouldn’t go. Usually I’m not one to listen to things like that, but I was kind of cold and the sky had been overcast and dark all day, and I was a little worried about getting stuck out there in the dark. The priest gave me his phone number in case I decided to go and needed help, but I ended up deciding that I had walked enough for one day. I asked the guys who gave me a ride where they were headed, and they said, “Wherever you’re going.” I kind of assumed that would be the answer. People are too nice.
They drove me all the way back to my hotel, laughing the entire time about the fact that I had walked all the way there. I’ll tell you this much – it seemed like a long way even in a car! At least I got my exercise in for the day! I was happy to have some extra chill time at the hotel to take an incredibly long, hot shower and attempt to warm up. The weather was much colder than I expected, and when I stopped walking at my breakneck pace, I think my body got pretty cold.
Anyway, it was certainly an adventure, and now I still have things to do the next time I go to Kapan! This trip is just making me even more sure of my thoughts that I need to come back to Armenia someday. Maybe Sarah and I will do another trip to conquer all of the hiking destinations!
After my long day of travel from Yerevan to Meghri, I hit the ground running the next day and did some intense Meghri sightseeing. Kelsey had work, so I was on my own. I got tips from her about what to do in town, and then I did all of it. In Meghri, the major attractions are parts of the old Meghri Fortress (four parts, though who knows, there might be more), three churches, and a nice view of Iran. I started with the two fortress parts on the ridge closest to Kelsey’s apartment, and the trek there involved some sketchy felt-like-trespassing-but-what-does-that-mean-in-Armenia-anyway moments. There are houses all along the bottom of the mountain ridge, and I had to get past the houses somehow… I walked through someone’s open gate and no one said anything, so that was that.
I’ve decided that the Meghri mountains are my favorite for climbing. They’re very rocky and steep which means that climbing them involves a lot of basic rock climbing/scrambling. It makes things interesting! I think that’s way more fun than just hiking. The views from both places were awesome. Throughout the day, I took about a million pictures of the same mountains over and over again because they never got less cool.
From there, I adventured down the other side of the ridge because I saw a road that I thought met up with the one I wanted to take to see Iran. That was kind of right… I got there eventually, so that’s all that matters. I also found a bonus church! I was walking down the street past some ruined buildings, and I saw a little peek of an arch that looked like part of a church. I decided to check it out, assuming that, as usual, no one would care that I was poking around, and sure enough, there was an altar inside! Who knows what happened to the church, but now it’s filled with grass and, based on the poop, grazing animals. I felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden treasure.
Finally, I found myself on the road to the view of Iran. I mean, you can see Iran from pretty much the whole town, but there’s a road that zigzags in that direction, so I walked down until I hit a little ridge that had a clear view of the Araks River and the border. Of course, I climbed the ridge because why not? I also took a bunch more pictures of the same mountains until it started drizzling and getting pretty windy, and I decided it would be wise to head down and avoid getting blown off the mountain.
Luckily, the rain didn’t last too long. I say luckily because I didn’t have any rain gear (following a morning conversation with Kelsey where she checked the weather and assured me that it wouldn’t rain… oops), and that earned me a stern talking-to from an old woman who I passed on the street. Instead of taking the main roads, I chose adventure and walked down some dirt roads that seemed to be heading in the direction of the church I wanted to see next. It kind of worked… after some winding around, I popped out on a main road again, and from there, I headed to the 17th century Surp Sarkis Church (thank goodness for phone GPS). Again, I didn’t really know where I was going. I walked on the roads that looked like they were going in the right direction until I hit a dead end and asked some nearby old men how to get the rest of the way there.
My Armenian isn’t fabulous, but it’s usually good enough to understand directions. This time, not so much. He said something about taking the high path and then turning after going under the balcony and then something something something and I was completely confused. After one explanation attempt, the guy giving me the directions gave up and just went with me. I definitely would not have figured it out on my own. I don’t think I would have understood even if he had told me the directions in English. We went up this little path, walked under a balcony, around the corner, up some steps, across a rock, up some more steps, and we were there.
The inside of the church is filled with frescoes, and based on the scaffolding inside, I’d guess they’re getting restored. That exciting because they’re really nice already, and if the colors were a little bolder and less chipped, they’d be breathtaking.
When I was finished looking around, my friend and I headed back to where I picked him up. He invited me to come in for coffee, but I said “no, thank you” because I had a packed schedule to keep. My next church was in the middle of town, Surp Astvatsatsin Church (17th century). The main part of the church is stone, and the cupola is brick. Brick isn’t that popular in Armenia, so it’s a little weird to see that on a church. It was pretty though. Again, the inside was filled with frescoes in the same style as the first church.
My last church stop was Surp Hovhannes. It’s in the worst condition out of the three churches and is undergoing some significant restoration work. Kelsey said some French organization is restoring it. It has a shiny, new roof on the cupola and there’s scaffolding all over the inside. The major interesting feature of the church is the arches inside. They look like Persian arches and were intentionally designed that way so that the Persians wouldn’t destroy the church if they came in and conquered the town.
Since I still had plenty of time in the day and I wasn’t completely exhausted yet, I decided to climb to the other two fortress parts. I don’t know what way you’re supposed to get to them, but it’s definitely NOT however I went. I looked incredibly suspicious as I tried to find a way around all of the houses, and then I for sure walked straight down someone’s driveway and through their garden when I got tired of looking. Oh well. The climb to the first structure on the ridge was the most intense and highest climb of the day. I don’t completely understand what the different things, but two of the structures I went to were rectangular and two were round. I guess the round ones are watchtowers, and who knows about the other two. I tried to understand via the internet, but that was less than helpful.
After climbing to the highest point, it seemed almost pointless to go to the last watchtower, but I figured it was basically on my way down… and I hoped that from there, I’d be able to see a less shady way off the mountain. Sure enough, I saw exactly the way I should have come up. It wasn’t through anyone’s yard or garden, and it would have made things a whole lot easier. Oh, well. Live and learn!
This is another one of those times when I wish I had a fitness watch or had thought to turn on a GPS tracker because it would be interesting to know how far I walked. Based on how my legs felt, it was a looong way. I was walking/climbing for probably like 5 hours, excluding stopping time and such. My conclusion about Meghri? It’s beautiful, the mountains are the best, it was absolutely worth visiting, and if you’re a lunatic who likes climbing things, you’ll probably agree.
My south trip started with a long marshrutka ride. I decided to go all the way south and then slowly work my way back because that seemed like the plan that made the most sense. My first stop was Meghri, a town almost right on the border with Iran and the last major town before the border crossing (the border town is still after that, but it’s very small). I wanted to go to see the town and because you can see the mountains of northern Iran from the Armenia side which is the closest I can get.
My friend Olivia has a friend in Meghri, Kelsey, and she graciously offered to let me stay with her while I was there! It worked out perfectly because I took the marshrutka there, stayed with her, and when I was planning to move to the next town, she was planning to go to Yerevan, so we took the same marshrutka (but I got off MUCH earlier). I’m getting very ahead of myself, sorry. Let me go back to the beginning.
I took a marshrutka from Yerevan to Meghri. It takes around 8 hours and involves a lot of windy roads. The same marshrutka passes through every town that I’m planning to visit on this trip, so it was like I got a little sneak preview of the rest of the week… when I wasn’t sleeping at least. We left at 7:30, I woke up at 5AM because I hadn’t packed (of course), and around 7, I called a taxi to take me to the bus station. I was assigned a seat next to an old woman, and soon after our intended departure time, we were off. This was one of the marshrutkas where you’re supposed to call to make a reservation, so I asked Zoe’s roommate to help me out the day before by calling to save me a seat. Part of the goal of my trip IS to work on my Armenian, but speaking over the phone is HARD! Especially when you’re asking someone to do something for you, and you’re not really sure how to ask them properly.
The long marshrutka rides always involve a lot of stops. You stop to let people on, you stop to let people off, and you stop so that all of the men can smoke (and so people can eat and go to the bathroom I guess, but mostly so that the men can smoke). During one of the stops, I started talking to my seatmate. She was very patient with me, letting me try to speak and speaking to me. Her name is Laura, she’s 78 years old, and she is from Meghri but lives in Yerevan with her husband. She was very excited about the fact that I also speak Spanish (though at this point my Spanish skills are at a pathetic level), and I felt like she kind of adopted me. Eventually, another woman sat on my other side, and when we got to our “lunch” stop, I was force-fed from both sides. Laura asked if I ate breakfast that morning and I said yes… and then she proceeded to put food in my hands, ignoring my insistent “no thank you”s. I was piled high with lavash bread, pork khorovadz (barbecue), cheese, peppers, lunch meat, sesame seed dessert things, and hard candy. Anytime I stopped eating, she pointed at my food and said “Ker!” which is essentially the equivalent of “Eat!”
For the most part, the rest of the ride was filled with me sleeping or just closing my eyes so that I wouldn’t feel like I wanted to throw up. I’m not usually one to get carsick, but whipping around those windy mountain roads in a marshrutka is enough to freak out even my stomach. Plus, it’s a little disconcerting to see the little gravestones lining the roads from cars that almost certainly fell off the side… I’d rather not think too hard about how much I trust the marshrutka drivers. The one benefit of keeping my eyes open was that the view was beautiful. The mountains were just the right amount of snow-covered, and the sky was clear and blue… so I switched between forcing my eyes to stay open and look out the window and closing them so I wouldn’t feel nauseous.
You kind of feel a sort of kinship with the other people on the marshrutka on those long trips. I felt like we were all on a grand adventure together. The ride is also very entertaining because people on the marshrutka will drop off bags of stuff with people who are waiting on the side of the road. One woman hailed a taxi in a town along the way and asked it to take a bag of stuff to a village nearby. The coordination that goes into those roadside handoffs is impressive. Also, the marshrutka will stop wherever you want it to, and sometimes, people get off in what seems like the middle of nowhere. After one woman got off, the driver asked her if she was sure because there was literally nothing around. Anyway, it’s all very interesting.
Kelsey said she’d meet me in the center of town, and I was worried that I wouldn’t know where that was. Hehe. Worrying not necessary. I knew when we were entering Meghri, and as soon as we pulled up somewhere that had a little plaza in the middle of a roundabout, there was no question that I was in the right place. Kelsey was there when I got off, and we spent the rest of the day hanging out, eating pizza (actually pretty good!), and roaming around town a bit. My major Meghri adventures happened the next day, but I’ll save that story for the next post…
I’ll be honest, I kind of felt like I was going to be here forever. Once I decided to extend for four months, I stopped worrying about what it would be like when I finally had to leave. That was something that could be left for later, something that could be easily ignored. Somehow, here we are in March, and “later” is now. Last week, all of the things that have become constants in my life here changed.
Language class. Language class became one of the highlights of my week. I finally ended up in a class that was perfect for me. It was just me and one other guy, Zadig, plus our teacher, Inga. Zadig is hilarious and a super-fast learner. He’s been here far shorter than I have, but his vocabulary and speaking confidence are waaay beyond mine. Inga is the coolest. She’s the teacher I was assigned to when I first moved to Yerevan, and the more time I spent in her class, the more I realized how good she is at altering her teaching style to suit the people in the class. With Zadig and me, she gave us fun homework writing prompts, she made us speak ALL the time in class, and she came with different games and activities to help us grow our vocabularies and learn to speak about a wide range of topics.
Every class made me laugh, every class made me feel like I was learning, and every class made me want to stay even longer so that I wouldn’t have to leave Zadig and Inga and could keep practicing. During our last class, Inga had us debate on if all of the cars in Armenia should be required to be yellow. I, of course, got assigned the “yes” stance, and I was impressed with how many words I knew and how quickly I managed to plan out and write my arguments in Armenian. I certainly still have a long way to go (and Zadig’s Armenian is about 200 steps beyond mine already), but I’m really proud of what I managed to learn and how confident I’ve become (which is still not as confident as I probably should be, but it’s better than the mute I was before).
At the end of my last class on Thursday, I gave Inga a card I made for her and then sprinted out of there before I could start crying. I’ve become quite the emotional mess over the last couple of years. No matter how many times you go through it though, it never gets easier to leave behind something that feels perfect and that you know will never be the same again.
Work. My job at Aleppo-NGO was ever-changing, but that’s one of the things I loved the most about it. I’ve always been someone who has a lot of different interests, and I’m always looking for ways to engage all of them. This job did it. Sure, there were plenty of times that were frustrating and tiring, but I felt like I was being pushed to learn new things and think outside the box. I felt like ALL of my different skill areas were being used. My last project was helping to redesign/update the website, and that involved rewriting EVERYTHING, making graphics for the different programs and projects, and coming up with ways to tweak the existing design to make it look better. I got to write, design, be creative, and use my brain. It was awesome!! Though don’t look at the website right now and think that it’s the work I did… they’re still putting everything together, and my stuff isn’t on there yet.
Besides the actual work I did there, my relationships with my coworkers really took off during my last couple months. I hung out with them outside of work, we had more fun at work, and I generally I just felt more comfortable being there and talking to them and like I was accepted as part of the team.
Living situation. I moved out of my apartment at the end of February. Currently, my stuff is stored at my friend Zoe’s and I’m wandering like a nomad. I had my share of apartment struggles, including not being able to communicate with the property manager guy and him constantly judging me for “not knowing Armenian” (though really he just terrified me because I knew that he was judging me), I had a constant place where I could be alone, organize my stuff, and unwind.
My last week was filled with various walks around the city, listening to sad, overly dramatic music (because what better to do when you’re on the constant verge of tears?), and reminiscing about my time in Armenia. On my last day of work, Mount Ararat was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. You could see Masis and Sis (the tall and shorter peaks), plus the rest of the mountain range. I’ve literally never seen the range before because usually, the entire base of the mountain is clouded, and you can just see this mystical peak coming up above the clouds. It was incredibly cool, and I kind of felt like God was giving me a little present for my last day. It certainly made things a little less bitter and more sweet in the whole “bittersweet” equation.
For the rest of my time in Armenia, I’m doing fun thing after fun thing. It’s hard to be sad when there’s so much cool stuff ahead (though trust me, I’m still managing). This week, I’m spending some time travelling around the southern part of Armenia. I haven’t spent much time in that part of the country, and there are a few things that I’d definitely like to see before I leave… plus, why not? Next week, my cousins are coming, and we’re going to have another Armenia adventure + tour guide Lara experience. After that, I’m going on a end-date-TBD wander around Europe and places (get excited for some cool new countries and cities in the future!… also, now accepting suggestions if you have any places I should definitely visit!) before going home and having a big “WHAT IS MY LIFE?” existential questioning (I don’t want to use the word “crisis” because that makes it sound negative when it’s actually a very exciting positive).
So… things are changing, whether I’m ready or not. The future is fun and exciting, and don’t ask me what’s next because at this point, your guess is as good as mine. Stay tuned for adventures from the south.