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.

Erebuni Fortress

I’ve been aggressively tackling my Armenia bucket list over the last few weeks, and this past weekend’s item was visiting Erebuni Fortress. The way I’ve been making my bucket list, especially around Yerevan, is this: I go to google maps. I click on random things on the map that look like they may be interesting. If it looks like anyone has ever been there and liked it, I add it to the list. That means that, besides the mainstream sights, I really have no idea what to expect from things because I don’t actually know other people who have been to them.

Erebuni Fortress was one of those mysteries. I found it while browsing maps and was like, “Oh yeah! This is where the city of Yerevan started!” and I added it to my list. I don’t know anyone else who has been there, besides one old volunteer friend who I found out actually volunteered there… but clearly, it meant nothing to me when she told me that the first time, and I immediately forgot. I suckered Olivia into coming with me, and the plans were set!

Me and Olivia

Erebuni Fortress, also called Arin Berd, is on top of a hill in the southern part of modern-day Yerevan. It was built in 782 BC by King Argishti I and was part of the kingdom of Urartu. It was one of a series of fortresses built along the kingdom’s northern border and became an important political, cultural, and economic center. The name “Erebuni” is thought to mean “capture” or “victory” (but maybe not because there are like 50 other guesses to what it might mean). If you visit the site, the location they selected makes perfect sense. The hill seems to come out of nowhere. Surrounded by flatness, it’s a random mountain, rising up 65 meters (about 215 feet).

Walls and walls and I don’t know what this is because it wasn’t labeled on the map.

A town was constructed at the base of the mountain, and the fortress had a view of the town, the surrounding settlements, and all roads leading to the fortress. They think that the walls used to be 12 meters high! And if that wasn’t enough defense, there were three layers of walls. And they tied in with the slopes of the mountain, making access seemingly impossible. The fortress had a triangular plan and included a main courtyard, temples to Haldi (the supreme Urartian god) and Ivarsha (some other god), the palace, grain storehouses, and guards’ and servants’ quarters.

The formerly-but-not-currently-12-meter-tall walls

Looking towards the center of Yerevan.

The existence of the fortress was forgotten until excavations in 1950 rediscovered it and revealed inscriptions crediting King Argishti with the construction. They also found the citadel walls, pipes for running water, frescoes, statues, ornaments, weapons, and over 20 cuneiform inscriptions. The water pipes were one of the craziest things because they’re made out of stone, and one of the signs in the museum said the water was piped in from GARNI. That’s like a 40-minute drive from Yerevan which doesn’t sound like much, but it is when you’re CARVING STONE PIPES to span the distance. Crazy.

These are some parts of the water pipe system. The extra hole in the middle one was for maintenance. Can you imagine having the job of carving out all of those stone pipes??? Do you know how hard it is to carve a hole through stone without splitting the whole thing apart?

This wine jug was in one of the temples. It’s also huge.

There are also some awesome mural paintings on the walls of the palace and temple. It’s amazing to think about the fact that those paints have survived for almost 3000 years! Mostly, the paintings are just patterns, but some of them also show scenes of the gods.

In celebration of Yerevan’s 2750th birthday in 1968, the fortress was partially restored, and a museum was built on the grounds to display some of the artifacts found during the excavations.

We visited the museum first, and it was kind of underwhelming. I’d still do it again though because it was only 1000 dram (about $2) for admission to the museum and the ruins, so it’s not like I felt gypped. We also didn’t get a guide which maybe would have been a good idea. Eh, it was still interesting enough, and they had some cool stuff in there like the stone water pipes. I think part of the problem was that it was kind of dark and the font on the signs was small, so I just felt like I should be falling asleep.

Museum views. Kind of dark, right?

They had a reconstructed model of the site, and when we looked at it and noticed the painted walls, we thought that the modeler had just taken some artistic liberties. When we walked up to the fortress and saw painted walls in the very first building, we were VERY excited and also made mental apologies to the modeler for doubting him/her. To get to the ruins from the museum, you have to walk up a LOT of stairs. Olivia and I pretended to stop periodically to “check out the view”, but we were both just pretending that we weren’t getting winded. I used the excuse that since we were walking up a mountain, the air was thinning out so it had nothing to do with our physical shape and everything to do with the lack of oxygen in the air.

Model of the fortress. the part at the bottom of the triangle is the religious part of the fortress with the main temple, the top left part is the palace complex including the smaller temple, and the top right is mostly servants’ quarters.

To be fair, the view was pretty great. If we had gone on a clearer day, it would have been spectacular. It’s without a doubt the best view of Ararat in the city, and you can see Yerevan stretching out in every direction around you. I always forget what a sprawling city it is because I live near the center, and if I don’t have a specific reason to go into the outskirts (such as a random sightseeing excursion), I never do.

Hey hey, Yerevan! And Ararat is lurking under a whole load of clouds.

I don’t know what I expected from the ruins, but I think I imagined them smaller and in worse condition. They are not small, and it looks like they did a decent amount of work rebuilding things. The walls are only maybe three meters high, and I can’t even imagine how imposing it must have looked when they were 12 meters. We entered through the original entrance to the fortress on the southeastern side, walking past the famous cuneiform stone about King Argishti coming to this place where there used to be nothing but desert and accomplishing great works upon it… or something to that effect. Very modest guy, that King Argishti.

This was the outer post where visitors came before getting admitted to the fortress. This is when Olivia and I realized the wall paintings were real

They must have looked amazing when they weren’t 2800 years old!

Entrance stairs into the fortress.

We wandered around the ruins for a bit and marveled at how extensive they were. We also both ranted about how no one respects history and “kids these days” because a bunch of the murals had names and other jibberish carved into them. Like come on… do you really have to do that? No one cares about your declaration of love or the fact that you “wuz here” (I don’t know if that was actually written anywhere, but probably). Why can’t people just go somewhere, admire it, and then NOT deface it? I know, crazy talk. Sorry for even suggesting it.

The main courtyard, looking towards the servant quarters.

Looking towards the temple area from the main courtyard.

Temple hall with vandalized walls.

If we had explored the entire fortress, we could have spent hours and hours there. Instead, we explored a decent amount of it and then decided we were hungry and went to get dinner. I think we were still there for a considerable amount of time though because I ate before we went and was famished by the time we left (we’re apparently going to reference my stomach clock instead of actual times… mostly because I don’t remember those).

Anyway, all I can say about the general experience is thank you, google map browsing, for preventing me from missing out on a Yerevan not-so-hidden-but-definitely-underrated gem. Why on earth don’t more people go there???

Courtyard in the palace area.

Palace… kind of… used to be.

The temple area is to the left, and the palace area is to the right.

Return to Gyumri

When I came to Armenia, I hoped that my family would come to visit, but I thought there was no chance of it actually happening. My mom didn’t want to have to plan the trip, so in an attempt to convince her, I said that I would do all of the planning. It worked!!! They bought their plane tickets a few months back, and it even worked out for my brother Mike to come with them! I was so excited, but then that also meant that I had to plan.

Family selfie with All Saviors’ Church! (don’t worry, our selfie skills improved as the week progressed)

If you know me well, you’ll know that I’m a planner. A lot of people say that about themselves, I know, but sometimes I think that maybe I take it to an extreme level. I love to plan. I love schedules. I love organization. This year has made me better at being flexible and spontaneous and adjusting to changes in the plan, but when I’m responsible for something like a family vacation, I hold nothing back. I spent a solid week putting together our schedule, researching and digging into every detail so that there would be no surprises. I found a driver and an apartment and started grilling my friends for restaurant recommendations. Then, everything was ready, and I could just be excited about getting to see them.

Here’s our schedule for Gyumri Day! Slightly insane, maybe, but also spot on. This is the schedule template that Sarah (my best friend) and I created and use for all of our trips, so usually all of the columns are filled out, but it wasn’t necessary for this one.

I don’t think I realized how much I missed everyone. To be honest, I almost cried when they walked out of the airport. (To be extra honest though, I cry for just about anything, so I don’t know how much we can trust that as an emotional gauge.) We spent their first afternoon wandering around Yerevan and getting everyone acclimated a bit before our first day’s adventure to one of my favorite places in Armenia… Gyumri!

Get ready for this to be a theme throughout the family visit week… The fall colors were AWESOME all week, and Gyumri was our first glimpse at the fall beauty that lay ahead.

It was a little weird going back to my old home. In so many ways, I loved it more than Yerevan. The city feels like a home, the people feel like your neighbors, and everything has a special kind of charm. Everyone says that people are nicer in Armenia in general, but people are seriously nicer in Gyumri. The best place to look for kindness is on a crowded marshrutka. I’m telling you, this is one of my favorite things. People give up their seats without a second thought for people with kids, the elderly, or just anyone who might need a seat more than they do. If you’re standing and holding a bag, there’s a good chance that someone sitting will offer to hold it on their lap for you, and you’ll let them because it will be completely safe with them. Or sometimes, if there’s not a real seat for you, someone will move over and let you sit on half of theirs. If someone is struggling with their things or struggling to climb on, people rush to help them without hesitation. As much as I hated having to stand half bent over on marshrutkas, I loved getting to be part of the complex social dance that took place every time a new person got on.

The outside of my church… so ordinary looking, right?

Anyway, I know that’s a bit of an aside, but that’s one of the things that always comes to mind when I think about Gyumri. Yes, some of that happens in Yerevan too, but it’s not the same.

I was excited to show my family my favorite city in Armenia, and during the planning process, I was stressed about how to possibly do it justice in such a short time period. I ended up making a list of every activity I could think of and then paring it down to the absolute must-sees and my personal favorites.

We started out at one of my favorite churches, the Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs. It’s a newer church, opened in 2015, and is one of the few Catholic churches here, but I just think the ceiling is amazing. I raved about this before, I know, but here it is again. It looks like every other Armenian church on the outside and then the inside is this elegant, modern adaptation of the classic design. The fact that I still remember it perfectly after seeing nearly infinity more churches since then speaks for itself.

And then, the inside! I love love love it!

A stroll through the market

From there, we walked through the market to the main square. Last time I walked through that market, it was my second weekend in Armenia, and I had a mime exchange with a shopkeeper while trying to buy shower supplies. I’ve come a long way since then! We checked out the churches in the main square, Yot Verk and All Saviors’, and stopped by Ponchik Monchik for coffee/hot chocolate and a ponchik and monchik. There’s nothing better than a sugary start to your day! In case you have somehow forgotten, ponchiks are kind of like condensed milk cream-filled donuts except a million times better, and monchiks are filled with Nutella instead. If you come to Armenia, you NEED to eat (at least) one of each, and you NEED to go to Gyumri to have them because Ponchik Monchik has the best ones. I’m not being paid for that endorsement, it’s just a fact.

Credit for this shot goes to Dad… what a classic. Birds in the cage, cigarette in the mouth.

All Saviors’ Church, looking slightly different from the last time I was in Gyumri. The tower crane that used to be a permanent fixture next to the church is gone! Maybe they needed it for something else, or maybe they’re actually finished with it! We actually could see that some work has been done on the church recently. There were some new carvings and other little things that looked fresh.

I can’t get enough!

I showed them around my old office (GTC), the park, Mother Armenia, and the Black Fortress (Sev Berd). I had my first big Armenian test at Sev Berd. There’s a gatekeeper, and I heard through the grapevine that if you ask to be let in, you might get to see the inside! We decided to give it a try, and sure enough, I asked the gatekeeper if we could see the fort (in my fabulously fluent Armenian), he called someone to check, and in we went!

Slightly improved selfie skills at Mother Armenia

The pathway leading up to Mother Armenia. My parents really enjoyed the stairs… not.

Mike, enjoying the many recreational activities that Gyumri has to offer.

The stage in the middle of the fortress.

At the top of the hill, we were met by another guy who showed us around. We got to go inside!!! It’s so cool! They’ve redone the inside to make it an event venue, and underneath the stage, there’s a mini-museum with some old pictures of Gyumri and the fortress, plus you can see the old well! From there, he took us up to see the box seating and finally, the roof! We had a great view of the city and Mother Armenia and could even see Turkey to the west. The whole time, the guy was talking and talking in Armenian, and Dad and I were doing the best we could to translate. Honestly, I think we did a decent job. We were at least better than nothing, so that’s something! (hehehe)

The well!

Mother Armenia from Sev Berd’s roof

Box seating… for a princess maybe. The whole thing felt very medieval (but in a good, charming way)

Enjoying the view!

Our lunch crew… Dad, Mom, me, Sona, Mike, and Karen

The best part of the day, though, was probably lunch. Karen and Sona, the Birthright Gyumri coordinators from the summer, met up with us. I became good friends with both of them and was excited to introduce them to my family. You never know how things are going to go when you bring different groups together, but I always just assume that if I like everyone, they’re going to also like each other. It hasn’t failed me yet! Maybe I’m putting words in everyone’s mouths, but I think we all had a lot of fun.

 

Inside Ani church. In the two months I lived down the road, I never went inside. How’s that for laziness? I guess that just goes to show that when you live somewhere, you always make excuses or put off doing things because you think you’re going to have a million more chances, and then you never end up doing anything.

Our last couple of stops were Ani district, the neighborhood where we lived, and Marmashen, a monastery west of town. By the time we got back to Yerevan, everyone was wiped out but happy with the day. Phew! There’s nothing better than planning something and having it go perfectly. We had a VERY ambitious week ahead, so it was encouraging to get off to a smooth start.

The view of the river from Marmashen. See if you can see Mike, the little speck standing on a rock.

 

Smbataberd

My first weekend in Yerevan, I decided to go on the Birthright excursion because the description said hiking, and the location seemed too far out of the way for us to easily get there on our own. The trip was to Smbataberd, a fortress in the Vayots Dzor Province. That’s south of Yerevan by a couple of hours and is right at the beginning of the skinny tail of Armenia.

The view on the way up. Pretty, right?

Here’s your history lesson of the day: The first mention of the fortress came in the 5th century when it was used in the Vardanak War. They think (“they” being whatever people study and come up with these things) that it was built up much more in the 9th and 10th centuries when it was used by the Syunik princes. Unlike a lot of the fortresses we’ve visited here, this one actually saw a lot of action throughout history. They think that it was involved in some attacks again during the 11th century, built up even more and attacked again in the 13th century, and finally was abandoned in the 17th. Who knows how much of that is accurate, but it’s probably safe to conclude that it’s old and has had its ups and downs through the years.

Mountains are the best.

There’s one story floating around about how it was ultimately defeated. The water to the fortress used to come from a nearby monastery, Tsakhats Kar, through an underground clay pipe. The attackers did the classic “thirsty horse sniffs out water pipeline” trick to cut off the water to the fortress and eventually capture it.

IT’S SO COOL!

I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. I had never heard of this fortress before, and after being there, I would say that it’s waaay underrated. To start, it was much bigger than I expected. The walls enclose an area of about 65,000 square meters and are around 2-3 meters thick and 10 meters high. There are a bunch of round guard towers along the walls, and everything on the exterior is in decently good shape, especially considering the age of the ruins. They’ve done some preservation work, pouring concrete on the tops of the walls to keep them from crumbling further and making it possible to walk on them. I thought the whole thing was super cool.

It kind of reminded me of the Great Wall of China. Except smaller. And completely different.

Most of the interior buildings are much worse off. You can still make out their ruins though, and the keep is kind of intact. Even without the fortress being awesome, the views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are worth the trip. I seriously don’t know why more people don’t go there.

There was a horse water trough on the way down the mountain that was filled with algae! It was super cool and looked like green clouds floating in the water, so obviously I wanted to touch it. So obviously I did. It was just as soft as it looked.

Okay maybe it was a little steep at times…

At the top!!

How. Cool. Are. These. Walls.

Talene and me on the walls.

We walked up and it took a couple of hours, but I think it would have gone pretty quickly with a smaller group. Also, there are tire tracks that lead all the way to the top, so with the right car (or with a normal car and an Armenian driving it), you could easily drive there. It gets a strong recommendation from me! You would definitely need a private car to take you there because it’s not super close to any public transit routes (at least not that I could find… which means nothing because Armenia public transit and the internet have a complicated relationship), but like I said, I thought it was great. Honestly, it’s probably one of my favorite places I’ve visited so far in Armenia.

Can you find me in this picture? I’m in a tiny hole in the wall at the bottom of this picture.

Super cool lighting

Sev Berd, Mayr Hayastan, and Sarnaghpyur

With a limited time left in Gyumri, we have been trying to do things around the city on the weekends so that we don’t feel like we’ve missed out on things when it’s time to move to Yerevan. A couple weekends ago (I know, I’ve been horrible at keeping up to date), Shant and I decided to cross off a few of our Gyumri bucket list items: Mother Armenia and the Sev Berd (Black Fortress).

Mayr Hayastan from the Sev Berd

You might remember that Yerevan has a Mother Armenia statue as well… it seems like that’s the thing to do here. Find a hill near the city, make a huge statue of a hardcore looking woman, and put her on a towering pedestal. This one was erected in 1975, and from the looks of it, no maintenance work has been done on it since then. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the whole area could definitely benefit from a little love. And cleaning. And weeding.

Sev Berd

The Sev Berd was built by the Russians in the late 1830s. It was never attacked, and today, it’s privately owned and used as a venue for different events. I know there have at least been concerts there, but I’m not sure about what else they do.

Shant and I walked from GTC and instead of taking the very clear, normal person path to get there, we followed the road for part of the way and then turned off onto a “path” (aka the grass was kind of flattened down) that looked like it was going in the right direction. It… kind of worked. I mean, we walked through some people’s yards (but that’s not so weird here) and blazed our own trails through some underbrush, but we made it there in the end so that’s counted as a success, right?

Supposedly she looks like a dragon from the back because that side is facing Turkey

We went to the Sev Berd first and took another slightly questionable path to get there. Were we trespassing? Who knows. Was the security guard very surprised to see us leaving after not seeing us come in that way? Yes. Did anyone give us a hard time about it? Nope, and that’s all that matters. I really wanted to go inside, but Shant and I are pathetic and didn’t want to go through the struggle of trying to speak Armenian. I know, I know, but there are some days when you’re willing to put in the effort and other days when you just can’t. That was a “can’t” kind of day. Some other (Armenian-speaking) volunteers went a different day and talked themselves into an impromptu tour of the inside, so I guess my punishment is having to live with that.

From there, we walked over to Mayr Hayastan (Mother Armenia) and took a lap before heading back into the city. Both things were interesting, but visiting Mayr Hayastan was a bit of a bummer because it was in such a sad state. There are all of these fountains/water features leading up to the statue, and it could be a really cool place to visit if it was kept up. Instead, like so many other things in Gyumri, you can see the former glory and present sadness of the city. It really makes me wonder what Gyumri used to be like, back in the days before the earthquake.

The next day, Shant, Carineh, and I went back to Sarnaghpyur, the village we visited my very first week here, to hang out with Karen in his natural habitat. He promised us a food and adventure-filled day, and it definitely didn’t disappoint.

We got there early in the morning and were treated to a breakfast of pancakes, hard-boiled eggs, bread, cheese, fruit, etc etc etc just imagine every food in the universe and it was probably there. After breakfast, we had ice cream and then hung out until lunch when we ate AGAIN. Very productive day so far, I know. I felt like my stomach was going to explode (which is pretty typical here, to be fair), and still I was being guilted into eating more. Ahhhh peer pressure!

Force feeding aside, it was fun getting to see Karen in his natural habitat. I love seeing how different and at ease people are when you put them in the places where they feel the most comfortable. It’s like you have the chance to peek inside their souls and see the real them.

The canyon

We finally decided to mobilize after lunch and go on a hike in the nearby area. The dinner food (because obviously we needed to eat AGAIN) was packed up, firewood chopped, and everyone got ready for an adventure. Karen led us through a canyon where we got to climb some rocks and strategize the best route to take. That’s one of my favorite kinds of hiking because it’s not just walking up a hill. It requires some thinking and planning and challenging yourself.

Hole cave! See me?

The best part of the hike was this one place where we found the coolest cave. There was a big cave with a bunch of other little caves and passageways inside. I obviously had to climb into as many of the holes as possible because I love holes. This is one of my Armenia-acquired most favorite hobbies (one of the others is discovering more Armenian invention claims… I’ll probably have to do a second post on those because I have a few new gems to share).

Climbing into my new hole home

The crew… Karen, Shant, Carineh, and me in the front

Random tiny church… of course because there are churches everywhere

Inside the little church. I added the little pink flowers to this wall of random things

Wouldn’t this have been the coolest place to play as a kid??

 

Quick nap while we waited for a taxi

From there, we made our way to a little picnic area to hang out and eat dinner. Armenia has the most randomly but conveniently located picnic tables I’ve ever seen. Anytime we’re out on some random adventure and decide that we want to stop for a snack, there’s a picnic table waiting for us. I don’t completely understand this phenomenon, but it’s one that I choose not to question. In typical Armenian fashion, the dinner plan was khorovats (barbecue). We had eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and pork, Karen and Shant grilled it all over the fire, and we ate it with lavash (soft, flat Armenian bread).

 

By the time dinner was finished cooking, it was pitch dark outside. Like not even a little moonlight to help us out. We ate by phone-light, and Karen called for reinforcements so that we didn’t have to walk all the way back to his house. His uncle drove as close to us as he could, and we trekked through the dark with his headlights as our guide. It was like the Armenia version of a helicopter rescue from the wilderness. I was completely exhausted and passed out the instant we got in the car. That’s how you know it was a good day!

A Whole Lot of Ruins

It looks pretty good from this side, right? Don’t let yourself be deceived.

Armenia has a lot of churches. When I say “a lot”, I mean like a waaay lot. You know how people say that Rome has a lot of churches? Basically, it’s like the entire country is Rome. Every village, every hill, every spring, every mountain, every location with a nice view… they all have churches. It’s like our Armenian ancestors wanted to guarantee that no matter where you are in the country, if the mood strikes and you need a place to pray, there’s a church within 100 steps. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but just trust me. There are churches everywhere.

So much natural light in this church! hehehe

Check out how tight those joint are!

There are excursions planned each weekend to different parts of the country, and the destinations for my first weekend were Talin, Dashtadem, and Aruch. None of the places we visited are really on the tourist circuit, so it was a cool chance to get off the beaten path.

Our first stop was the Cathedral of Talin (pronounced tah-LEEN), or at least what used to be the Cathedral of Talin. It was built in the 7th century which probably sounds old, but that’s like a teenager compared to a lot of the other churches here. I’m already becoming immune to these numbers, and when I take a second to think twice about it, it makes me laugh a bit.

Guide: This church was built in the 15th century.

Me: It’s new??! Wait so why are we even here? I’m not impressed anymore.

Guide: This church was built in the 7th century.

Me: If they just built it, why is it already in ruins?

Guide: This church was built in the 4th century.

Me: I bet you think that’s old, right? But did you know that they found the world’s oldest leather shoe in Armenia and it’s from around 3,500 BC? Now THAT is old.

That big hole at the top is where a person can climb in, and you can sort of see hand/footholds leading up to it. It still doesn’t seem very easy.

There were earthquakes, one in the mid-1800s and one in the early 1900s, that destroyed the church. It has been partially reconstructed, but that work was never completed. It’s interesting because you can tell how big a city used to be by looking at the size of the church there. This church was HUGE, and that is enough to know that the city of Talin used to be much larger than it is now.

One cool thing that we saw there is little hideouts for the priests/monks. There are two prayer rooms on the sides of the altar, and inside, there are sneaky hand and footholds that lead to a hole in the ceiling where someone could climb up to hide or escape if the church was being attacked. They could cover the entrance hole with a rock, or else they could defend themselves fairly easily from that position. There are also places to hide books, basically holes in the walls that you can cover with a rock.

From there, we went to Dashtadem where there’s a not-that-old fortress that was used from the 10th-19th centuries. Now it’s in ruins, and until recently, there were families living there and taking rocks from the keep to use in their houses. There have been renovations and excavations going on… I’m not sure that anything is happening there now, but within the last 10 years work was going on. You can go on top of the keep, and the views from there are really nice. There are also a TON of birds nesting in the ruins, so there’s a 90% chance that you’ll get pooped on if you go. Apparently that’s a new problem.

The fortress!

Check out that view

Pretty ruins, huh?

Bird poop covered wall

Here’s the wall I climbed down. Not from the top! But you see where the rough stones end on the left side, that’s where I came out, right where there’s the gap. I wish a person was in there for scale, but even when I was hanging straight armed from the wall, I still didn’t feel like I was close enough to the ground to just let myself fall

Someone convinced me to take the “secret exit” out of the keep, aka a not very big tunnel through the wall, and failed to mention that once you make it through the tunnel, you need to find your way down from the top of a probably 10-12 foot high wall. Luckily there were a few other people there who had just made it down, so I had some spotters looking out for me.

For lunch, we went to the house of some guy who one of the Birthright directors met one time when they visited the fortress. He agreed to host the future groups for lunch and music and dancing, so that’s how we ended up with 70 people in some random guy’s house, eating enough food for 150. At the end of the meal, he and his son and another guy who was probably related played some Armenian music for us, and after a few songs, we headed outside to dance! It was fun, and I also realized that while my Armenian language skills aren’t the best, I can hold my own on the dance floor (or dance field). Thank goodness for hantes (Armenian dance recitals back in grade school) and Armenian weddings!

The dance group that led us

By the last stop, I think everyone was ready to collapse. We went to one more church, Aruchavank, which was built sometime in the 7th century. It was also damaged during earthquakes, but the structure has been completely restored with the exception of the dome. It is also huge, though the cathedral in Talin was bigger. You can see the remnants of some frescoes above the altar, and I love closing my eyes and trying to imagine what it was like back in its glory days. Anyway, that’s all. Here are some pictures, if you can even stand to look at more pictures of churches.

Aruchvank. Doesn’t it kind of just look like a big house without the dome?

It’s kind of funny that the only thing missing is the dome…

There are crosses carved EVERYWHERE