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!

Meghri

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.

Meghri

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.

See rectangular structure #1 on top of the jaggedy cliff mountain

Rectangular structure #1

The never-ending struggle of travelling alone is remembering to take pictures that you’re actually in… and also figuring out how to physically take those pictures. Selfies aren’t my favorite, and I usually have a mini tripod, but of course I forgot it and all of the pictures on this trip are going to have to be improvised rock tripod pictures.

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.

The faint mountains in the middle background are in Iran

Just enjoy the many mountain views… probably all the same mountains over and over again

Surprise church!

Another ruined building near the secret church

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.

Armenia on the left, Iran on the right

The murky looking squiggle is the Araks River. It runs along the Armenia/Iran border.

One of the arches inside Surp Sarkis

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.

Surp Sarkis and my new friend

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.

Surp Astvatsatsin

Inside Surp Astvatsatsin

Inside Surp Hovhannes. Check out those arches!

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.

Surp Hovhannes

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.

Me + Meghri

Rectangular structure #2

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!

Who doesn’t like a good ‘ole panorama?

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.

Yerevan Church Adventure

New church, Kathoghike Chapel

A couple weekends ago, my determination to not waste the time I have left in Armenia led me to a mini church tour around Yerevan. By the time I motivated myself to go outside into the cold weather, it was already the afternoon. That limited my options a bit, but there were a couple churches on my list of places to visit that are right in the Yerevan city center. I’ve walked past one of them probably twenty times and have always thought, “I’ll have to come back to look at this, but I just don’t have the time right now.” The other was a bit hidden, but I’ve been within a block or two of it more times than I can count. I guess this goes back to the whole “walking around with your eyes open” thing.

Carvings on the outside of the chapel

My first stop was the Holy Mother of God Kathoghike Church. It’s the oldest church in Yerevan, and it has an interesting history. According to inscriptions on the walls of the church, it was built as early as 1229. There was a large earthquake in 1679 that destroyed the other churches in the city, but somehow, this little chapel survived. A new church was built on the site in the 1690s where it sat until Soviet years.

Fast forward to 1936 when Soviet authorities ordered the demolition of the “new” basilica so that apartment buildings could be constructed in its place. They did make the concession that the large church could be disassembled and cataloged by archaeologists and historians, and during this deconstruction, the little chapel was found built into the larger church. They could tell that it was a different, older church because of the inscriptions carved into the walls.

Inside the chapel

After discovering this previously hidden cultural gem, archaeologists protested the demolition orders and asked authorities to spare it due to the historical significance of the structure. The request was granted! Buildings were constructed all around it, but the chapel was allowed to remain. After the end of the Soviet Union, the surrounding buildings were demolished, and now it’s a part of a religious complex that includes a new church and the Yerevan residence of the Catholicos.

The chapel is only used for praying because of its size. Unlike so many Armenian churches, the chapel and the new church are nice and bright inside. That’s because one entire side of the chapel is glass, and the church has two gigantic windows! I didn’t think twice about (or even really notice) the church windows until I was inside and was trying to figure out what made it feel so pleasant.

Lots of pretty carvings! And you can see the top of one of the windows too.

Carved cross at the entrance to the church

Inside the new church

HUGEEE window… and there’s another, identical one on the opposite side of the church

Looking up!

From there, I walked a few blocks to Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin Church. This place was barely on my radar and ended up being full of surprises! Getting there was the first adventure. It’s hidden in the middle of a bunch of tall apartment buildings. If I hadn’t read about it ahead of time, I would have thought that I was going the wrong way. I was still second guessing my route a bit, and then, out of nowhere, there it was! The church isn’t anything grand or magnificent, but I liked it. There was a service going on inside, and everything about the building felt cozy and homey rather than cold and impersonal like some other churches.

Discreet, right?

Eerie tree outside of Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin

The original church was part of a monastery complex built in the 1630s, but after the earthquake of 1679, the entire complex was destroyed. The church was rebuilt on the same site in the 1690s. The thing that makes this church unique is the second building on the grounds, Saint Ananias’ Chapel. In case your brain isn’t a Bible dictionary, here’s a refresher on Ananias. When Saul (later called Paul) was visited by the resurrected Jesus, he left the interaction blind. God spoke to Ananias, told him about Saul, and sent him to restore his vision. After Ananias prayed over Saul, he could see again, stopped persecuting Christians, and was baptized. That’s the only mention of Ananias in the Bible, but according to historians, Ananias was eventually martyred.

Did you know that relics are often actual body parts/bones? I didn’t. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. Is it just me, or is that a little weird?? When we went to visit the museum at Etchmiadzin, there were all of these “right hand reliquaries”. I thought that was just some clever name or weird Armenian Apostolic thing that I didn’t understand. Well, I guess the latter is partly correct, but I thought there was just some symbolic reason for the fact that they were shaped like hands… NOT because they contained ACTUAL parts of the saints’ hands! Freaky.

Saint Ananias Chapel in the front, church in the back

The chapel includes a mausoleum for Ananias. I’m not sure if there are currently any parts of him there, but they used to have his right hand reliquary until it was moved to Etchmiadzin’s museum. Each year, it is brought back to Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin for the commemoration of Saint Ananias. According to the signs at the chapel, “his sacred relics bear miraculous power”. Okayyy. I understand why people want relics if they believe that they bear power, but at the same time, wouldn’t it be nicer to leave people’s bodies intact?? I’m obviously missing some essential piece of understanding because I still don’t quite get it.

The church and the chapel are simple, but I thought they were beautiful. There are some nice carvings and pretty khachkars on the grounds. They also have heat in the building which I was not upset about because it was a chilly day. For a last-minute, reluctant sightseeing excursion, it was great! It’s amazing how many random, hidden gems there are to see in this city. You could live here forever and never see them all which is precisely why I need to make the most of my time here! Sometimes I peruse Google maps to see what less mainstream things might be worth a visit. That’s how I found Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin! There are SO many churches and other places to visit here that even some cool ones end up getting filtered out when you look for sightseeing recommendations. Goal: find and visit as many random, underrated sites as possible before leaving Armenia.

That’s going to have to wait for at least a week though because I leave tonight for Lebanon!!! I. Am. So. Excited!!!!!

Inside the mausoleum

Inside Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin

Charents Arch, Garni Temple, and Geghard Monastery

Okay, here we finally are… Day 7! The week with my family was simultaneously the longest and shortest week ever. Each day was a jam-packed experience, but when the week was over, it felt like they had just arrived. I think that’s just the way life goes. It feels long when you’re living through it, but looking back, it seems like it all passed in a second.

Charents Arch

In the last few years, I’ve been trying to really savor the good moments and those times when I have that feeling of inner peace like everything is as it should be. For me, that’s just making an active effort to recognize when things are great and memorizing everything about those moments. It’s almost like I take a second to step outside of myself, look at the scene around me, see the people, remember the feeling, and then go back into experiencing it. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but since I’ve started thinking that way, it’s made it easier for me to access those times and that peaceful feeling in my memory. Wow okay, bit of a sidetrack, sorry!

View from Charents Arch

Like I was saying, Day 7! Our final day’s schedule was to visit Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery with a stop at Charents Arch along the way. Another one of my brother Mike’s requests (besides the hiking one) was to go somewhere with a good view of Mount Ararat. As far as I know, the two best places to see Ararat from Armenia are Khor Virap and Charents Arch. Unfortunately, my family was here during an incredibly hazy/cloudy/foggy week, and despite scheduling Khor Virap and Charents Arch 5 days apart, the visibility was equally horrible on both days.

Hey, Ararat! Oh, you can’t see it? Yeah, exactly.

The arch was built in 1957, named after Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, and features words from one of his poems, For My Sweet Armenia, talking about how the beauty of Ararat is unrivaled in all the world. I’m sure we would have agreed if we had seen it, but mostly it just looked like someone pulled off an amazing magic trick and made the mountain disappear. I can’t complain though. If the worst part of the trip is the fact that we never got a good view of Ararat, I can live with that.

The fam with Ararat (supposedly)

Pretty tree

Charents Arch was a new stop for me, but I had already visited Garni and Geghard with Sarah. You can read more background information about those sites HERE.

Garni Temple

Views from Garni

So pretty!

Fall!

❤ ❤ ❤

Garni selfie

Geghard selfie

I did see some new things at Geghard, though. When I went with Sarah, we went with a taxi and had an hour to explore. This time, we had as much time as we wanted, and Mike and I did a little extra exploring. After we finished checking out the monastery and crawling into every nook and cranny we could find, we started heading back to the parking lot. Mike spotted a path going up the mountain and asked if I wanted to check it out with him. Hmm… random, semi-overgrown path leading to who knows where? Did he even have to ask? That practically screams “Lara!”

Tossing for wishes

Fall! Fall! Fall!

Inside Geghard with Mom and me peeking in from a hole at the top

Fancy khatchkar wall

Some cave holes and the cave chapel, including an itty bitty me and an itty bitty Mike hiding in the chapel (don’t even bother trying to see us because you don’t have a chance. Just trust me. You can see my mom though! Hey, purple jacket!)

I wasn’t exactly dressed for a side excursion (black pants = dirt everywhere, boots with no traction = possible death), but you can’t let small details like that get in the way of adventure! Mom had read about how the Geghard monks used to live in caves surrounding the monastery, so we were hoping that’s what we were about to find. There were a bunch of caves, plus another little cave chapel popping out of the side of the mountain. I’m not completely sure how they managed to build some of these things…

We went into a few different caves that were definitely monks’ quarters. In one of them, Mike tested out what looked like a bed nook, or a “monk bunk” as we decided they should be called. Very comfortable, I’m sure. The Geghard monks were known for their simple, minimalistic, and hermit-y lifestyle, and what better way to live that life than in a remote cave with a stone bed?

A lot of the cave homes have been destroyed by earthquakes, so there isn’t a definitive number for how many there were. Some estimates are in the hundreds, and they weren’t all as accessible as the ones we saw. Supposedly there are/were some that can only be accessed by ropes or ladders! I guess I’ll have to take my ropes and grappling hook with me next time I go.

Cave chapel with awesome carvings

The cave chapel we saw is named after St. Gregory, and it’s said that he lived in one of the cave dwellings back in the 4th century when he was preaching in the region. I personally am just amazed at the fact that St. Gregory managed to do something at practically every place in the entire country. “This is where St. Gregory was imprisoned in a pit.” “This is where St. Gregory lived in a cave while he preached in the surrounding area.” “This church was built on a rock where St. Gregory once sat to rest on a long journey.” “This monument displays the grain of sand that touched the actual foot of St. Gregory when he vacationed briefly at Lake Sevan to regain his tan after being imprisoned in a pit.” “St. Gregory had a vision that this field was filled with flowers and when he came here and sneezed, flowers immediately grew.” “This village is where St. Gregory once got a flat tire and had to stay the night until it was fixed.” It seems like no matter where you go, St. Gregory did SOMETHING there. (Okay, yes, I made some of those up, but they could just as easily be real claims.)

I know, I let myself get sidetracked again. Sorry. In summary: there are caves at Geghard where monks used to live. St. Gregory maybe lived there. Cave chapel. Monk bunk.

St. Gregory’s cave chapel

Mike on a monk bunk!

Cliffs and cave holes

After finishing up at Geghard, we headed back to Yerevan to wander around until dinnertime. I took my parents to see the office bunker where I work (it’s underground and has no windows), and we did some last-minute perusing at Vernissage.

Even though the planning for my family’s trip was a LOT of work, and I was semi-stressed the entire time because I wanted everything to go perfectly, it was so much fun to have them here. I certainly didn’t feel physically refreshed after they left (honestly, I could have used a vacation after the vacation), but I was emotionally refreshed.

Can you believe that practically everything went exactly according to plan? And the one thing I couldn’t control, the weather, was fantastic! I’m calling it a success! If you need an Armenia vacation planner, I’m basically a professional now.

Lake Sevan and Dilijan

The week is just flying by, isn’t it?? Day 5 was our Yerevan Day. We spent the morning at the Genocide Memorial and Museum, and it was just as exhausting as when I went with Sarah. Since I had already been, I perused a bunch of the photos and other materials that I skipped before. I think you would need to go back 10 times to see everything without your brain turning to mush.

At Vernissage. It kind of looks like we’re just at a football tailgate…

After that, we had a low-key rest of the day and went to Vernissage. Before coming, Mike told me that I needed to “speak Armenian like a local” so that he could get the best prices there. Thanks, Mike. No pressure or anything. I certainly didn’t pass as a local, but I think I at least projected the illusion of knowing what I was talking about. Hopefully.

Sevanavank, looking a bit eerie

Day 6 was another crazy, hectic, “what were you thinking when you planned this?” kind of day. I wanted to go to Lake Sevan and Dilijan, and the only way we were going to have time for both was if we did them in the same day. So what choice did I have? No choice, that’s right.

We made our way to Sevanavank first, the monastery on a peninsula that used to be an island until the water level of the lake dropped from overusing it for irrigation. The water in the lake is a beautiful, brilliant blue color when the sun strikes it, but we were there early in the morning and it was cloudy, so instead, it looked a bit spooky.

Hi, pretty lake.

Family selfie at Sevanavank

The door into Sevanavank.

From there, we headed to Dilijan. Back before I made the schedule for the trip, I asked everyone to send me anything that they definitely wanted to see or do. One of Mike’s requests was for us to go on a hike together. The best place for that is Dilijan, so I was left with the task of figuring out where Mike and I could hike that Mom and Dad could be entertained for the time it took us to complete our hike. Then, a stroke of brilliance!

Pre-hike by Parz Lich

There’s a hike in Dilijan that goes from Parz Lich (lake) to Goshavank, a church in the town of Gosh. I also knew that there’s another monastery in Dilijan that’s supposed to be very nice. I Google mapped it out, and my suspicions were confirmed. We could make it work out perfectly! Mike and I got dropped off at Parz Lich which is a beautiful place anyway and especially in the fall. Mom and Dad hung out there for a little and drank some coffee while Mike and I started the hike. After leaving the lake, they went to Haghartsin Monastery and then met us at Goshavank. Our hike was supposed to take 2.5 hours which we decided meant 2 hours for us, and the timing was spot on!

How cool is this???

Okay so I’m literally obsessed with fall right now. Just brace yourself for a whole lot of hiking through the pretty, fall-colored woods pictures.

I know, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Mike and I had an interesting hike. It had rained the night before, so the ground was super muddy in some spots. To make things worse, it’s that clayey soil, so by the time we were 10 steps in, our shoes were about 10 pounds heavier from all of the mud stuck to them. Luckily, the beginning was the worst part, and we were fine after Mike fashioned us some walking sticks.

The hike itself was fabulous. The trees were at that perfect point in the fall when they’re all yellow and there are still enough leaves on them that it looks beautiful instead of depressing. The sun was shining through the trees, making the leaves look golden and the forest look mystical. At the peak of the hike, you have an amazing view of the valley and the mountains in the distance. It seriously looked like something out of a stock photo. It was also nice to have some time with Mike. Hikes are great times for good conversations! (Brace yourself for  photo explosion but I seriously couldn’t pick just a few.)

Fork in the road

Quite the view, huh?

Headed down to Goshavank

We beat our parents to Goshavank by a few minutes and spent that time eating Cheetos (gotta love that good ‘ole American snack food) and cleaning the mud off of our shoes. When they caught up with us, we all went to check out Goshavank together.

It’s kind of castle-like, right?

Goshavank is a monastic complex whose main church was built in 1191. There are way more buildings than I anticipated, and while the whole thing is quite nice, the coolest part is the bell tower and book depository. The book depository is a big, boring room, but on top of it is a chapel/bell tower, and you can see it through a hole in the ceiling! I wanted so badly to go inside the chapel, but the only way in is by using these cantilevered stairs that are currently unusable. Maybe that’s why I think that was the coolest part, because I couldn’t actually go inside, and I SO wanted to.

Goshavank! See the book depository and bell tower to the left.

After Goshavank, despite the fact that Mike and I ate a bag of Cheetos, a granola bar, and a pack of M&Ms while waiting for our parents, we were starving. We went to a restaurant in Dilijan, Kchuch, that has the best pizza in Armenia (the competition, to be fair, is nearly nonexistent because I haven’t eaten many things here that could even realistically be called pizza, but it’s also good by real standards too). We had one of those stuff-your-face-and-then-wonder-why-you-ate-so-much-but-it-was-so-good meals before piling into the car to head back towards Lake Sevan.

Hayravank

We had two more stops on our list: Hayravank (another church, of course) and Noratus Cemetery. Both have some weird legends/stories associated with them, so brace yourself. Before I get into that though, let me just say that the drive from the town of Sevan to Hayravank is probably one of the best drives I’ve been on in Armenia. The road runs along the water, and the views are absolutely incredible. Even if there was nothing to see down there, I would still say that it’s worth the drive.

Lake Sevan from Hayravank

Hayravank itself wasn’t anything too spectacular, but the lake is awesome and so was the sky when we were there. The church is small and was built in the 9th century. Ready for the legend? Once upon a time, the Armenians were in a war (it seems like this is a common theme throughout history here). Some mean dude (that’s an understatement) named Timur was conquering his way across Armenia, killing everyone and destroying everything. When he went to Hayravank to kill the priest and destroy the church, the priest flung himself into the lake, and instead of dying, ran on the water.

Timur was amazed and told the priest he could have one wish (he was like a stingy genie – only ONE wish??). The priest asked him to spare the church and as many people as could fit inside. As more and more people piled in, Timur got suspicious and stepped inside just in time to see the priest turning the last person into a dove and releasing it out the window. The End.

Noratus. Don’t be weirded out by how awesome the gravestones and the sky look together. Okay, it’s a little strange to have a cemetery as a tourist destination, but somehow still so cool.

Baffling, right? And I’m left with so many unanswered questions. Did the people get changed back from being doves? Did they remember the time they spent as birds? Did they know that was going to happen to them when they stepped into that church? When they changed back into people (assuming they did), did they have their same clothes on? Why was Timur such a jerk? I’m afraid that I’m going to go through life never knowing the answers to these questions.

Finally, we went to Noratus. Noratus Cemetery is the largest collection of khatchkars. It used to be the second largest with the largest one in Nakhichevan, the territory to the southwest of Armenia that is currently controlled by Azerbaijan. That cemetery was destroyed by Azerbaijan between 1998 and 2005, and now Noratus takes the title.

The popular story about Noratus takes place during another time when Armenia was in a war. This time, an army approached from across the lake, and it vastly outnumbered the villagers. To make it look like they had more soldiers than they actually did, they dressed up the khatchkars in the cemetery with swords and helments. The army was fooled, and they retreated.

Okay, once again, SO MANY QUESTIONS. Who on earth had this idea in the first place? Where did they get so many extra helmets and swords? How dumb/blind was the army that they couldn’t tell that the “soldiers” they were seeing were a bit rectangular? I could keep going, but I’ll spare you.

It probably would have been interesting to go to Noratus with a guide who knew something about what we were seeing, but honestly, all I wanted was to go to sleep by the time we got there. It was another long day, and just stopping in and getting to check out the sunset was enough for me.

Sardarabad and Etchmiadzin

After the Day 3 marathon, I think everyone was happy with our shorter Day 4 plans. At the very least, everyone was happy about the later departure time – 10AM instead of 8. The schedule for the day was Sardarabad and Etchmidazin/the Vagharshapat churches. I was looking forward to Sardarabad because I hadn’t been there yet, and I was looking forward to the rest of the day because I actually know something about the churches we were visiting and could be a better tour guide than some of the other days.

The approach…

Sardarabad, an Armenian town west of Yerevan, is often considered to be the site of the most important battle in Armenian history. In January of 1918, the new Bolshevik Russian government ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasus. Ottoman Turkey saw this as an opportunity to not only complete their seizure of Western Armenia but to take over Eastern Armenia as well. This would have meant the complete the destruction of the Armenian nation.

Not a great pictures, but this is the only one we have of all of us from this day.

The Armenian army rushed to deploy forces to hold the positions formerly defended by the Russians. Only a fraction of the historical Armenian homeland remained unconquered by the Ottoman Empire, and hundreds of thousands of Western Armenian refugees had fled to safety there. In May, Ottoman forces marched into Armenia and attacked modern-day Gyumri. After Gyumri (then called Alexandropol) fell, the army turned towards Yerevan. They launched three simultaneous attacks in Sardarabad, Karaklisa (now Vanadzor), and Bash Abaran.

Fall. Is. The. Best.

The Armenian forces were vastly outnumbered, and a massive civilian recruiting effort was organized. There’s a story about the Catholicos at the time refusing to leave Etchmiadzin when people wanted to relocate him to safety. He said that he would fight if it came to that, and he ordered all of the church bells in the valley to ring for six days to recruit more people. People, regardless of age or occupation, volunteered to fight and were organized into civilian units. Women and children helped in various capacities as well, and I have no doubt that many even ended up in combat.

The belfry

Against all odds, the three battles resulted in Armenian victories, halting the advance of the Ottoman army and preserving the last bit of Armenia. They (once again, the mysterious “they” who have an opinion about everything) say that what the Armenian volunteers lacked in training, they made up for in determination and passion. For them, it was personal. They were fighting to protect their families and for the survival of Armenia.

The thing about war is that even when you win, you still lose. Thousands of lives were lost during the battles, and I’m sure that the families of those people didn’t much feel like celebrating. However, due to the courage and sacrifice of the army and those volunteers, Armenia exists today.

The memorial complex was built for the 50th anniversary of the battle, in 1968, and it’s kind of amazing. You drive straight at it on your way there and have an epic view of the bulls and the belfry. The bulls represent the united strength and persistence of the Armenian people. The bells are a shrine to those who were killed in battle and now represent victory bells. The eagles lining the path to the memorial wall are standing guard over the future of the Armenian people. The memorial wall depicts the battle (very symbolically I think because we totally didn’t get it) and the rebirth of the Armenian people. Finally, the museum is designed like an Armenian medieval fortress. All of the windows face interior courtyards except for two – one facing Aragats and the other facing Ararat. Everything is made from red tuff and is gigantic. On days when the sky is blue, the contrast between the red stone and the blue sky is pretty awesome.

One of the bulls

The eagle walk

The memorial wall

The fortress-like museum

The museum was built later and has two parts: the majority of the museum is filled with various historical and cultural objects (ethnography museum), similar to the Armenian History Museum in Yerevan, and the other part is dedicated to the battle. We went on a tour of the Ethnography Museum, and it was exhaustingly long but also very well done. It’s one of those places that’s almost not even worth visiting without doing the tour because you can walk around and completely miss the important things without realizing it.

I can never get enough of the painted ceilings at Etchmiadzin.

By the time we left the museum, I think everyone was ready for a nap, but we had more things to do! We drove to Etchmiadzin, and I walked everyone around my favorite parts of the complex. We also went to the museum inside Etchmiadzin which I was excited about because they have (supposedly) a piece of the cross, a piece of Noah’s Ark, and the spear that pierced Jesus’s side when he was on the cross. Each of these relics is one of many in the world with similar claims attached. The cross and Noah’s Ark could at least physically have multiple pieces in different places, but the spear is another matter. There can be only one. Obviously, all of the others are fakes and the Armenia one is real. It’s said to have been brought by the Apostle Thaddeus to Armenia and was housed in Geghard Monastery for a long time before ending up in Etchmiadzin.

The rest of the museum was less exciting. Lots of fancy Catholicos clothing and other reliquaries that didn’t have much information about what was inside them. Honestly, the museum could use a good labeling. I thought it was cool anyway and the rooms were beautiful, but I also wouldn’t have minded actually knowing what we were looking at.

Like seriously… is this not awesome??

Piece of Noah’s Ark. We were a little confused about this but think that maybe the brown stuff you can see behind the cross is the piece? Maybe?

The spear. The only real spear.

Here’s another confusing one. I guess the piece of the cross is inside, but you can’t see anything. For all we know, it could be empty. Or filled with cotton balls. Or Hello Kitty erasers. Or M&Ms. My point is, it could be anything. Or nothing.

Not a fantastic picture, but this is inside one of my favorite chapels at Etchmiadzin. When the sun is in the right positions, the light coming through the windows makes crosses on the ground or the walls. It’s cool!

From there, we walked to Saint Gayane Church and later drove to Saint Hripsime. There were weddings happening at both churches, so we pretended we were invisible and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. It was only semi-successful because at Saint Hripsime, if you want to see the tomb and the stones that supposedly stoned her, you need to get all the way to the front of the church. Not easy to do without being noticed. Anyway, I’ve written in great detail about the stories of Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime and the origins of Etchmiadzin, so if you want a refresher, you can check out those old posts HERE.

We were planning on stopping by the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral on the way back to Yerevan and decided to skip it because everyone was about ready to pass out. I think we made the right choice in the moment, but it’s still on my list. Maybe I’ll manage to get there one of these days!

Vanadzor and Vahagni

After our morning marathon of alphabet-related sightseeing, we made our way to Vanadzor and eventually Vahagni.

Random city views

Vanadzor is the third largest city in Armenia, after Yerevan and Gyumri, with a population of about 85,000 people. Like so many other cities in Armenia, it had its peak population around the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has been on the decline since then. At its height, it was an industrial city, home to Soviet factories and chemical plants. After the collapse, industry shut down, and thousands of people lost their jobs. The same type of thing happened in much of Armenia which is part of the reason (though there are plenty of other reasons as well) why the new republic struggled so much in the years following independence. Today, Vanadzor is back to being an industrial center but at nowhere near its former glory.

Despite all of this, I was pleasantly surprised by Vanadzor. Maybe my expectations for everything are very low because it seems like I’m pleasantly surprised by a lot of things, but hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our first stop in the city was the train station. Since I had never been to Vanadzor, I put together our sightseeing list from things I found online.

Inside the train station. I apparently didn’t take an exterior picture, but I think that you can kind of guess what the outside looked like based on this.

When we pulled up and saw the hideous block of a station, I thought, “What on earth was I thinking when I made that list?” Then, thankfully, I had an “aha” moment where I remember that it was described as being built in “classic Soviet architecture style”. So yes, that’s what we were there to see… its hideousness. The station used to connect Vanadzor and Armenia to Eastern Europe, but now you can only travel within Armenia and to Tbilisi on trains, leaving it eerily deserted most of the time aside from the bustling parking lot outside that serves as the central bus station.

The Russian Church

Right across the street, there’s a park with a church in it. According to Google, it’s called the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (quite the mouthful, huh?), but it’s also just called the Russian Church. There used to be a wooden church on the same site, and after that one burned down in 1826, the current stone structure was built to replace it in 1893. They were doing some construction inside, but I was just excited to see that there’s stained glass! Clearly not an Armenian church because that’s really not a thing here. It was cool to see a church in a completely different style from most of the churches we’ve visited.

Inside the Russian Church. Stained glass!

After the train station and church, one of Mike’s Vahagni friends, Hovsep, met us to say hi and show us around the city a bit. He speaks English and works in Vanadzor now, so it was nice for Mike to get to see him again and for us to have a little local knowledge leading the tour for once (rather than just me reading whatever info page I found on the internet).

The old church

Hovsep took us to the next thing on my list, the Church of the Holy Mother of God/Karakilisa Church/the old church. If you’re asking why these things can’t just have one name, I’m right there with you. On the walk there, he explained that not only are the churches in the town name confused, but actually the town itself has had a thousand names too (note: 1 thousand = 3). It started out as Gharakilisa, meaning “black church”, was renamed to Kirovakan during Soviet days, and was renamed again to Vanadzor, meaning “valley of Van”, after independence. Talk about an identity crisis.

Inside the old church. Check out those ceiling paintings!

The current “old church” was completed in 1831, replacing the previous structure that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1826. The orange and black tuff was brought from Gyumri, and it was one of the only churches that actually operated as a place of worship during the Soviet years. I loved the inside of the church. The paintings and patterns on the ceilings were absolutely beautiful. It’s the little touches of personality that you can find in each church that make it worth going to see more even when I’ve already been to what feels like a million churches in Armenia already.

There were a bunch of very old khatchkars outside the old church

The new church

Inside the new church

From there, we strolled the streets a bit, Hovsep took us to a spring with natural bubbly water, and we made our way to the next church, Saint Gregory of Narek Cathedral/the new church. It was completed in 2005, and like so many other new churches, it just didn’t have the same personality as the old church. I mean, it was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and it actually was much better than a lot of the new churches that feel stark, but I’d pick the old church any day. I did love the paintings though! Paintings and stained glass are almost guaranteed to make me like a church.

The park… I seriously can’t get enough of these fall leaves.

Before heading out, we stopped in the park across the street to enjoy the fall colors a bit before taking on the final stretch to Vahagni. Remember when I said that the road between Vanadzor and Vahagni was under construction? It. Was. Awful. The very few parts that were finished were fantastic, and the rest was horrible. I don’t even get carsick and I was feeling nauseous.

Fall fall fall!!!

When we finally made it into the village, some conversations with random, loitering strangers led us to Mike’s host family. Oh yeah, did I mention that no one spoke English? None of the people we were visiting. Zero. And how’s Mike’s Armenian, you ask? Ha. Haha. Hahaha. Dad and I were basically in the hot seats, responsible for translating and attempting to carry the conversation. I won’t lie; it was rough. We did our best, but Dad hasn’t spoken Armenian since he was last in Armenia 16 years ago and before that when he was like 4 years old. I’m 4 months in on basically learning from scratch. Not ideal, but somehow, we made it work. The conversation was never smooth, but conversation happened.

❤ ❤ ❤

Soon enough, we were all being force fed, and that’s basically same in every language. Things went more smoothly from there. I haven’t been force fed in a while, since I stopped living with a host family, so I had to dust off all of my “please stop feeding me or I’m going to explode” vocabulary. It ended up being a lot of fun, even if I had a headache from thinking so much/trying to understand what was going on.

Also, side note but there’s a big gap between understanding and translating. There were times when I understood the gist of what was being said but couldn’t have told it to you in words if you gave me a million dollars. Ugh. This Armenian thing is hard. Still, though, I felt good about the whole thing at the end because no matter how much I didn’t understand, there was a lot that I did, and that’s something to be proud of.

We popped in for a shorter visit with the other family in town, and that ended with me leaving with a new number in my phone and the invitation to come and visit anytime. Talk about the nicest people in the universe…

The family Mike stayed with while he was here

The family I was adopted into

The drive home was, as anticipated, pretty close to miserable. The Vahagni to Vanadzor portion of the drive was, once again, vomit-inducing, and about 5 minutes after reaching the end of it and driving on real road again, we got a flat tire. Oh, I wish I was kidding. Watching the tire-changing process was the most Armenian thing I’ve ever seen. All of the men got out of the car and looked at the tire. Okay, definitely flat. The tools came out. Everyone participated, either in action or in word. We didn’t have the right sized wrench. Cars driving by were flagged down. More men came to look at the tire. Still definitely flat. This guy doesn’t have the right wrench. Neither does that guy, but he says he’ll go get one and come back. Oooh! This guy has one! And against all odds, that tire got changed. Q: How many men does it take to change a tire? A: At least 8.

Oh yeah, and the guy who said he’d come back? He did, just as we were finishing up. Where does that happen? A stranger says he’ll go completely out of his way for you and then follows through. Despite the less-than-ideal situation, it did give us a chance to experience some good, old-fashioned kindness.

Tire change in process