Goodbye, Armenia

After my cousins left, my time in Armenia quickly wrapped up. I planned to leave the country two days later, and between the goodbyes and the packing, those days flew by. From the second their cab pulled away, I was running. I said goodbye to the Birthright staff and had a final dinner with work friends before going back to my friend Zoe’s apartment to start pulling my life together.

When I stayed at Olivia’s, we made our own khachapuri! Isn’t it beautiful?

I want to take a second to shout out to Zoe and Olivia for taking me in during my days of homelessness in Yerevan. They’re the best. Not only because of that, but yeah, they’re the best.

Zoe let me store my extra stuff at her place during the two weeks between my apartment move-out and my Armenia departure, and finally I couldn’t put off sorting through it any longer. Every time I move, I wonder the same thing… how on earth do I accumulate stuff so quickly?? I went to Armenia with a school backpack and a 55-liter backpack. I sent the school backpack home with my cousins, jam-packed with my Armenian notebooks and books and pairs of shoes (three! HOW??) and who even knows what else. That left me with one bag to hold the rest of my stuff, and the only options for each object were fit it or leave it.

I have this packing anxiety problem where I look at the pile of things to be packed, look at the bag, get stressed out, and decide that maybe it would be better to just ignore them both. As you can imagine, that’s maybe not the best approach to take because no part of it leads to me being ready to leave. I fought through it, and I don’t know how, but when I was finished, everything essential was inside my bag. It must be laced with a little bit of magic.

Me and Olivia, saying goodbye for now

My last night in Armenia was spent with Zoe and Olivia. We went to church together and then out to dinner, and I had that feeling again. You know, the one where you feel like everything is right. Like perfect contentment. There are a lot of reasons why I think I was meant to stay in Armenia as long as I did, and those friends are two of the major ones. If I had left when I planned to, I never would have met them, and trust me, that would have been a terrible shame. God definitely did a little divine plotting to bring us together, and I can literally pinpoint His reasons in each relationship. It’s cool to feel like I have such a solid confirmation that I took the right path.

The next morning, I took a cab to the marshrutka station to catch a marshrutka to Tbilisi, Georgia. Before I go home, I’m doing some travelling around because why not? I’ve been saying that I’m taking the long way home… the VERY long way. The plan for Georgia was to stay for about a week, spend some time recovering emotionally from leaving Armenia, and then move on to my next destination.

This is random but I’ve been meaning to take this picture for so long. These gas stations are everywhere, and they always make me laugh. They’re called “Flash” when you see it written in English, but the way it’s written in Armenian letters is “F-L-E-SH”… flesh. Something about that just cracks me up.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about leaving Armenia. On one hand, I think I was ready. I was ready for a change of pace and some different scenery. On the other, everything was starting to fall into place for me there. I had some great friends, I could communicate fairly well, and I felt comfortable. Maybe that’s part of the reason it was time to move on… time to be uncomfortable again, time for the next challenge, time to stretch myself in a different way. I guess we’ll see what happens in this next chapter.

To be honest, I don’t think it even registered that I was leaving for real this time. I had gone and come back so many times that my brain felt like this was a temporary trip again. Maybe I will go back to Armenia someday, but it’ll never be the same. I’m probably not going to have a life there again, and that makes me sad… but the fact that I’m sad makes me happy because that means I had a great experience. Leaving happy things behind is always sad.

Taking a marshrutka out was a weird way to leave. When you fly, you’re in the country and the next second, you’re gone. In a marshrutka, the leaving is gradual. After we pulled away from the station, I still had four hours of Armenia ahead of me.

Here are some through-the-car-window shots from the drive to Tbilisi!

I’m not going to say that I cried during the ride or anything. I’m also not going to say that I didn’t cry. I will say that I spent the ride looking out the window, admiring the Armenian countryside and having some feelings about what was happening. You can’t really let yourself cry in marshrutka though. How embarrassing. And it’s not like in the US where everyone would pretend that you weren’t crying and ignore you. No, someone would absolutely ask what was wrong and that would make everything even worse.

Pretty, green Armenia

The ride to Tbilisi from Yerevan is five hours, and it felt like nothing. I would have been fine with sitting in that car for another five hours, but I think part of that is the fact that I always have a little anxiety about transitions. When you’re in the process of something, you know what to expect and you know you’re on some track (whether it’s the right or the wrong track is a different question that we’ll leave for another time). The transitions are scary because they’re unpredictable. And when you’re travelling, the transitions are also when you have to lug all of your stuff around, and that’s no fun either.

Right at the end of the drive, you go through these awesome mountains. Like come on, Armenia, Are you TRYING to make me change my mind and stay?

When we got to Tbilisi, the driver didn’t let us off near a metro station like I expected. Instead, we were at this bus station that’s totally not close to anything. Okay, keep your cool and use your brain, Lara (my mantra in every situation where my instincts say to panic, shut down, and cry in a ball on the ground). I realized that while the marshrutka driver was still there, I should ask him for help. I told him where I needed to go in Armenian, he asked this Georgian guy next to him in Russian, and the Georgian guy gave me two bus numbers and pointed me in the direction of the bus stop. And that was the last moment when my Armenian knowledge was of any use. Bummer, right? It’s always sad to realize that it doesn’t matter if you speak two or three or fifty languages as soon as you go to a country that doesn’t speak any of them.

I made it to the bus stop no problem and checked out the arrival board to see when the next bus was coming. Thank goodness numbers are the same in practically every language because even if you can’t read the name of the bus route, you can at least see the numbers. After finding the right bus, the next step was figuring out how to pay. I got on, sat down (no small feat while also wrangling all of my stuff), and watched what other people did. Everyone got onto the bus, swiped their metro cards at this little terminal, and got a receipt. When I felt sure about the procedure, I left my stuff in the seats, went up to get my receipt while acting like I totally had things under control, and whacked my head on a bar as I walked back to my seat. So much for that.

At the end of the bus line, I decided to just walk the rest of the way to the hostel because it was only six blocks… which is nothing until you’re wearing your life on your back and it’s a good 10 degrees C (20 degrees F) hotter than it was when you got dressed. So anyway, that’s how I started off my post-Armenia life: walking the streets of Tbilisi, wearing a huge backpack that got heavier with each step, and trying to pretend that I wasn’t sweating but definitely was. Off to a great start!

Famous Armenians

I realized that I promised you a post WEEKS ago about famous Armenians and my visit to the Komitas Pantheon where a bunch of them are buried. Well, before I talk about leaving Armenia, I need to make good on my promise!

My trip to the Pantheon was part of a day full of adventures, and it ended up being one of the highlights! I didn’t even know it existed until blog friend Lori the Naz made the suggestion… sometimes the internet can be a wonderfully cool thing!

View of Komitas Pantheon

During my time in Armenia, I learned a lot about the different Armenian cultural heroes. It’s kind of awesome how much the arts are prized there. For example, all of the money features scientists and artists and writers instead of politicians like the U.S. money. Of course, Armenia doesn’t have hundreds of years of presidents to choose from, but still, it’s a nice concept. They’re updating the money this year and maintaining that theme. The new bills will have a writer, a composer, a painter, St. Gregory (first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church), and a former chess world champion.

Chess, you ask? It seems random, but people often joke that the national sport is chess, partly because Armenians generally aren’t the most athletic (though there is one very good wrestler at the moment, so it’s not unheard of), but also because there’s such a big emphasis put on it. The great chess players are celebrated like professional athletes are in the States. Chess class is mandatory in schools for kids aged 6-8! You can see old men playing chess in every park in the country.

In the realm of more traditional arts, music has always been a big focus area for Armenians. One of the best parts of going to the opera/ballet all the time was hearing the orchestra play. There are SO many amazing Armenian musicians. I met someone from Lebanon recently who joked that every single musical instrument teacher in Lebanon is Armenian. In summary, simply put, the arts are one area where the Armenians are doing pretty darn well.

It might seem like that was a big sidetrack, but it’s important to understand the role of the arts in Armenia before I talk about the people who are buried at the Komitas Pantheon. They are some of the most celebrated Armenians, and the majority of them are artists of some kind.

There are, of course, a million different artists I could probably talk about, but I’m going to focus on the ones I have heard of who are buried at the pantheon. Ready for a little Armenian culture lesson? (Just a warning that if you actually want to learn about these people, you should probably read something else because the summaries are maybe 50% fact and 50% Lara commentary.)

Aram Khatchaturian

Aram Khatchaturian (1903 – 1978)
Composer
Currently on the 50 dram coin

Khatchaturian is one of the most celebrated Armenian composers. He was born and raised in Tbilisi, but make no mistake, he was definitely Armenian! He composed multiple concertos and symphonies, plus the music for the ballets Masquerade, Gayane, and Spartacus. I went to see Masquerade and Spartacus, and they were both incredible (the music part at least). I also was amazed by how many of the songs I had heard before, and that’s because some of his work is pretty mainstream, not because I’m some Armenian music savant.

Komitas

Komitas (1869 – 1935)
Composer
To be featured on future Armenian money

Let’s start out with what I consider to be an essential fact… Komitas’s real name was Soghomon Soghomonian. No wonder he changed it. Komitas was an orphan and was taken to Etchmiadzin to be raised in the seminary there. He became a priest and then also studied music in Germany and is credited with saving thousands of Armenian folk songs from oblivion by collecting and transcribing them.

Komitas’s life story is tragic. He was one of the Armenian intellectuals/cultural leaders who was arrested at the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, and while he actually managed to survive the ordeal after being placed in a prison camp, it took quite a toll on him and led to a mental breakdown and the development of PTSD. He spent the end of his life in a psychiatric hospital which seems to me like it might have been an even worse fate.</span

Mher Mkrtchyan (1930 – 1993)
Actor

Mher was an actor during the Soviet years, and he went by a stage name, Frunzik. He was born in Gyumri, and there’s a museum there honoring him. (I went and had no idea what anything was and couldn’t speak Armenian at the time, so maybe it was interesting, but I wouldn’t know.)

He was known for his sense of humor and acted in many comedy roles, but he also had a true talent for acting and starred in a number of dramatic Armenian classics. He had an Armenian nose (aka it was very big), and he frequently joked about that.

I don’t know what it is about artists and having complicated lives, but similar to many others, despite his professional success, his personal life was a series of unfortunate events. His wife was diagnosed with a mental illness and lived the rest of her life in an institution, his son had the same illness, and his daughter died in a car accident at age 39. He may have been a funny guy, but he spent the end of his life in a deep depression.

This is from when we went to visit Mher’s museum… and the street in front was under construction so we had to adventure our way inside

Mher Mkrditchian

Sergei Parajanov

Sergei Parajanov (1924 – 1990)
Film director

 

I wrote a detailed post about Parajanov here when I visited his museum with a friend. He was quite the interesting guy, so I’d recommend checking out that post if haven’t already or don’t remember.

One-second summary is that he was a filmmaker during the Soviet years, he was imprisoned multiple times for made up reasons, his films were aggressively censored, and he funneled his creative energy into hilarious collage-making as a side activity (the “hilarious” part is not objective… that’s based on my personal opinion).

William Saroyan

William Saroyan (1908 – 1981)
Writer
To be featured on future Armenian money

Saroyan was a writer of novels, plays, and short stories. As is the Armenian way, the claim is that he is underrated, and his name belongs alongside those of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner. I haven’t read his stuff, so I can’t speak to that, but I can say that that’s the most Armenian thing I’ve ever heard.

It sounds like he was one of those slightly difficult artists… there was one project where MGM wanted to adapt a novel based on his childhood into a movie, and he was hired to help with the screenplay but refused to let them cut anything out. He was fired, and one day before the film was released, he released a novel of HIS version of the screenplay. After that, he refused to let his work be adapted into movies.

He was born in the US, so half of his ashes are buried there, and the other half are in Armenia.

Martiros Saryan

Martiros Saryan (1880 – 1972)
Painter
Currently on the 20,000 dram bill along with some of his work

 

Saryan was a painter during Soviet times. He wasn’t born in Armenia, but after he visited the country, he painted a ton of Armenian landscapes and also designed the coat of arms for the Soviet state of Armenia. Near the end of his life, he moved to Armenia, continued to paint, and also organized what is now the National Gallery of Armenia.

Hovhannes Shiraz

Hovhannes Shiraz (1914 – 1984)
Poet

Shiraz was a poet from Gyumri, and he is considered to be one of the greatest Armenian poets of all time. We read a bunch of his work as part of Armenian class to celebrate his birthday, and I got to read this depressing poem about apricot trees and how they can’t have children and no one loves them or something to that effect. Uplifting, for sure. My understanding is that he wrote a lot about apricots, his mother, and Armenian patriotism.

From our Shiraz poetry recital

Alexander Tamanian

Alexander Tamanian (1878 – 1936)
Architect
Currently on the 500 dram coin with a building he designed

Tamanian was an architect and urban planner during Soviet years who was responsible for creating the master plans for cities all over Armenia including Gyumri, Stepanakert, and the current center of Yerevan. I don’t know how I feel about him exactly, but I don’t think he’s my favorite. In the 1920s, Tamanian designed a new city center for Yerevan than resulted in the destruction of a lot of historic buildings, and they were replaced with these semi-European-looking buildings. To me, it’s like they’re not European and they’re not Armenian, so why?? The most famous buildings he has in Yerevan are probably the ones around Republic Square and the Opera House, and I’m not too keen on either of those. It could be because the exterior night lighting for both is terrible, or maybe I actually just don’t like the architecture either. It’s hard to separate them.

The Yerevan opera house

Republic Square

Mariam Aslamazian

Mariam Aslamazian (1907 – 2006)
Painter

Mariam and her sister, Yeranuhi, were both painters born in Gyumri. I went to their museum when I lived there, and they have some interesting stuff. Mariam is referred to as the “Armenian Frida Kahlo” because of her style, but don’t ask me who gave her that title. She did more than just paint… she also did a lot of ceramics work and various random other handcrafts.

Bonus!

There are a couple of people I want to talk about who aren’t buried at the Komitas Patheon, but I came across their graves in Georgia, and I feel like this is an appropriate time to bring them up.

Hovhannes Tumanyan

Hovhannes Tumanyan (1869 – 1923)
Poet
Currently on the 5,000 dram bill

Not to be confused with Tamanian, Tumanyan was a poet who is even more of a big deal than Shiraz. He didn’t stop at poems though, he also wrote novels, ballads, fables, etc. He’s the one who wrote the rhyming version of the Armenian epic about David of Sassoun (which I talked about when I visited the Sasuntsi David statue).

Tumanyan lived much of his life in Tbilisi, Georgia, so it makes sense that he’s buried there. His grave is in the Armenian Pantheon in Tbilisi, just outside of the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It used to be part of a huge Armenian cemetery there which was destroyed despite Armenian protests during the construction of the cathedral. I’m not sure if his body is actually underneath the gravestone or not because it sounds like things really got messed up during the demolition which is unfortunate.

The Armenian Pantheon in Tbilisi

Sayat Nova

Sayat Nova (1712 – 1795)
Poet, musician, composer

Sayat Nova was born in Tbilisi, Georgia and was named Harutyun Sayatyan. Sayat Nova means “King of Songs” in Persian. He wrote songs in Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Persian and performed in the court of Georgian King Heraclius II. Some of his poems are written in all four languages! (Which basically just means that almost no one can read them.)

Officially, he’s credited with writing 220 songs, though the real number is almost certainly much higher. He was killed after refusing to convert from Christianity to Islam. Sergei Parajanov directed a movie partly about him, The Color of Pomegranates.

Both the Georgians and the Armenians try to claim Sayat Nova as theirs, and while they both have valid points, sharing is obviously not an option. He was born and lived in Georgia, but he was ethnically Armenian. So, I guess they made a deal to agree on his burial location. His grave is in Tbilisi, but it’s outside of one of the Armenian churches. Seems like a decent compromise to me! Also kind of funny…

—–

Okay, so now you know more half-facts about famous Armenians than you probably ever wanted to know. You’re welcome. I promise I won’t do this to you again. Feel free to read up elsewhere on any of these people and then tell me what a mess of a job I did giving their mini-biographies.

Cousin Vacation!

One of many cousin selfies

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)

L buddies!

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).

    Getting out of the hole, post-phone retrieval. Our driver insisted on helping me out, but honestly I probably would have been better off without his help

  • 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.

Khinkali. It’s like a Georgian dumpling. There’s meat inside… I can’t remember what kind these were. I also always get them fried because if the choice exists, why wouldn’t you?

Barbecue

  • 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.

Mother Armenia (the weather was clearly not the best that day)

  • seeing a hamster riding on the back of a bunny outside one of the shops in Yerevan. Picture included below.

Hamster on a bunny!

  • 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!

With our driver at a gas station… day 1

Lake Sevan

Those long drives start to wear on you…

The genocide memorial at Etchmiadzin

Ice cream!

Alcohol display in our van. Because of course.

Pretend that you can see Mount Ararat in the background

A long pedestrian tunnel that I hadn’t visited before in Yerevan. It’s super weird. Why the zig zag??

This was one of the few beautiful weather days. Look at the sky!

At Goshavank

Selfieee

It was rainy at the Genocide Memorial which wasn’t great, but it made for a cool picture with the reflection

Lake Sevan

Garni Temple

Casual hang out

Hehe

Not posed at all

 

Shaki Waterfall and Karahunj

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.

View out the dirty marshrutka window… it was another beautiful drive from Goris to Sisian

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.

The river that runs through Sisian

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.

The path to Shaki

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).

First glimpse of the waterfall walking up the path

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).

Shaki Waterfall

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.

My mudshoes

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.

Super weird

See the hole at the top of the leftmost rock? That’s the type of hole that they’ve found in at least 80 rocks

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.

See the rock path? That’s part of the north/south rock squiggle

Me + Karahunj

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.

Looking out from the south end

I like how eerie the mountains in the distance look

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 kind of like the fact that there’s some mystery behind the site. It’s a weird experience going there, knowing that it’s so old and was clearly important to the ancient people, and having no idea how or why it exists.

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!

View of Ararat on the drive back to Yerevan

Khndzoresk

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.

Looking down the gorge. The land in the distance is Artsakh/formerly Azerbaijan-controlled land

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!

View of the city. It has those same weird rock formations as Goris! You can also see one of the churches, Surp Hripsime, in the bottomish right.

The village… mostly just looks like a cliff from this far away haha

Fake concrete

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.

Remains of a two-story rich person house

They have a little museum with a sample cave home that’s filled with things they found in the actual village. You can make alcohol with this thing. Pretty sure Ara said that he has the same thing at home now.

Cave living room. In the back left and right, there are two more little rooms that served as bedrooms.

A picture of a woman climbing up into one of the safe caves

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.)

Stable caves

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!

One of the many springs in town. I think this is the one that has a weird legend behind it. Back during one of the times when the village was under attack, the women fought alongside the men. One woman, Sona, was a widow with nine kids. She was killed in battle, and her father built this spring to honor her.

Inside Surp Hripsime

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.

Stairs into the gorge

Me on the questionably-500-person-capacity bridge

Bridge view

Church ruins near the cemetery

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??).

Ruins of the school near the graveyard

Mkhitar’s grave. Ara also showed me where his mistress is buried nearby. Apparently he was quite the stand-up guy (sarcasm).

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.

Goris

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)
Guy: Yes.
Me: Can YOU call?
Guy: Yes.

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.

Along the drive from Kapan to Goris. Excuse the fact that they’re blurry… the window was dirty and kept fogging up, so use your imagination.

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.

These mountains. Are so weird. But I love them.

Pretty Goris, pretty mountains.

Self timer + rock = pretend photographer

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.

Cave dwelling

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).

This is one of the caves I climbed into and immediately fell in love with.

Chimney above the window.

Door to the left, window to the right.

Cave window views.

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!

Picturesque

Here’s a series of my favorite random buildings from around town. I’m in love.

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.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Church. Check out the gate in front.

On the side of the church (between the door and the window to the left), you can see artillery shell damage from the war with Azerbaijan

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?

St. Hripsime

One thing that consistently makes me sad is the amount of trash that’s just laying around the country. This could be such a pretty river, but instead it’s polluted with garbage.

Field of trash encountered during my hike.

The central square

Spot the little cave door!

Kapan

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.

Kapan city sign

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.

Inside Surp Mesrop Mashtots

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.

Surp Mesrop Mashtots

The municipal building

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.

Finally off the main road

See the little peek of orange roof along the line between the brown front mountain and the darker back mountain? 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.

The river that runs beside the town

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.

Wild pigs along the way. The priest took it upon himself to tell me about all of the creatures that live in the mountains there, including bears, snakes, deer, pigs, creepy spiders, lizards, etc.

One of the priest’s favorite khatchkars. I think he said that a prayer is written around it asking for the prince to be healed.

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).

Vahanavank

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.

Surp Astvatsatsin Chapel

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.

The little indents in the side of the building are to help with side-to-side movements if there’s another earthquake.

The more reddish stones on the left are original, and the more orange ones on the right are the new ones.

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.

Apartment buildings along the way. Is it just me or do these look ridiculous?

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!