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.

Lake Sevan

Remember when I said that economical travel leads to a lot of weird and memorable experiences? Well, our trip to Lake Sevan was definitely both of those things. I don’t know how to explain it besides just telling the whole story, so here it goes…

So blue!

Lake Sevan is the largest body of water in Armenia, and it’s a popular summer beach destination. It’s at a very high altitude so the water is frigid, but supposedly it warms up a bit over the summer and becomes pleasant in July and August. The lake used to be even bigger and deeper than it is now, but it was used for irrigation and hydroelectric power when Armenia was part of the USSR which caused the water level to drop by almost 20 meters! There’s a monastery, Sevanavank, that is located on a peninsula, but it used to be on an island! They realized that this change in water level was starting to destroy the lake and its wildlife, so now they’re trying to bring it back up and have created tunnels from a couple different rivers to bring more water into the lake. Since they started, the water level has increased over 5 meters! That seems pretty good to me (I don’t know anything about this topic though, so who knows?).

Our plan was to go to the lake, visit a couple of monasteries and a cemetery, and go for a swim. Sarah was determined to dunk her head saying, “it can’t be colder than the water in Maine.” That logic made no sense to me… just because colder water exists somewhere in the world doesn’t change the fact that I have no interest in fully submerging in a freezing cold lake.

To get there, we took a city bus to one of the many inter-city bus stations in town. From there, we got a marshrutka to Sevan, a town on the lake. We were going to walk to the first monastery because it’s only about 3km from the town and then hopefully barter ourselves into a good deal for a cab to the other monastery and the cemetery (because bartering is super easy when you’re as fluent in Armenian as I am *internet sarcasm*).

Isn’t the lake pretty?

That’s how we found ourselves walking down the random little road, surrounded by nothing, where the real story starts. Sarah was grumbling about how the monastery looked farther than 3km away (and I was definitely thinking it, though I was the one who came up with that distance, so I never would have admitted it) when a car pulled up next to us. It was the first car we had seen since turning onto the road, and when the driver offered us a ride, we enthusiastically accepted.

There were also a ton of wildflowers in the area, and wildflowers are one of my favorite things. What girl doesn’t dream of frolicking in a field of flowers?

There were three people in the car: the driver and an older couple who were clearly coming back from grocery shopping. We assumed they were all related, but the driver dropped off the couple and kept going. Oh yeah, and no one in the car spoke English which meant that any communication depended on hand motions and the six words of Armenian that I know. We figured that he’d drop us off at the main road and we’d walk the rest of the way, but I’m sure we accidentally agreed to something along the way and instead ended up at a restaurant on the beach. He obviously knew everyone there, and the woman who owned the place quickly brought out cokes, bread, cheese, apricots, wine, bubbly water (Jermuk), coffee, and salad for us. Sarah and I exchanged a “what the heck is happening?” look and decided to go with it while simultaneously trying to figure out a way to get to Sevanavank as planned.

Jet ski! Don’t worry (Mom), I had a life jacket on.

Before we could even think about eating, Souren’s (our new best friend) son showed up on a jet ski, and Souren decided that Sarah and I needed to go for a ride. That’s on my bucket list anyway, so I said okay (and because I don’t think that “no” was an acceptable answer), and he took us out one at a time for a quick ride on the lake. It was pretty awesome actually, and for the record, the water is still VERY cold.

We got back inside and told Souren that we had to get going because we wanted to see Sevanavank, and we had a limited amount of time before the last bus back to Yerevan. Keep in mind that I’m saying “we told Souren”, but what I mean is “we attempted to express, through a series of elaborate charades and hand motions and a few mildly helpful Armenian words”. Communication is a funny thing. Finally, it seemed like we were on the same page, and off we went again (after trying to leave some money for the food and being refused).

The road we took up to the church.

Instead of taking us straight to Sevanavank (or letting us just walk the rest of the way), Souren first took us to a church with a nice view of the lake where we lit prayer candles, drank cold spring water, and each left with a huge bouquet of flowers. Finally, our next stop was Sevanavank!

There are khatchkars (stone crosses) EVERYWHERE in this country. This style of making crosses is very Armenian.

Souren clearly wasn’t planning on just dropping us and leaving, so off the three of us went, up the stairs to the monastery. Even if we’d had to walk the entire way there, trust me, it would have been worth it. The views of the lake were amazing, and the monastery looked like it belonged there. I think it made the lake look even better. Check out the pictures and tell me if you don’t agree, but I’m becoming a monastery addict (which is good because there are a LOT of them across the country).

Doesn’t it look like it belongs there?

Imagine getting to see this view every day.

Our awesome hosts.

We figured that there was no chance of us making it to anything else we had planned, so we told Souren we were just going back to Sevan to get the marshrutka to Yerevan. Before taking us to the station, we stopped by his house, and his daughter yelled out the window for us to come up for a bit before leaving. How do you say no to that? I don’t know that you can, so we said yes, and that’s how we found ourselves in Souren’s living room being force-fed apricots and soorj (Armenian coffee). I’m not a huge apricot fan, but I ate a couple anyway. I’m DEFINTELY not a coffee fan, and soorj is possibly the grossest thing I’ve ever tasted. I seriously couldn’t even begin to describe it so that you could fully understand, but it’s something like drinking mud. I don’t know if you might enjoy it if you like coffee, but I think even American coffee has too strong of a taste, and soorj is like if you ran that coffee through the coffee machine 100 times until the water was fully saturated with coffee taste. When you finish, there’s still a sludge left at the bottom of your cup, and that means that they made it RIGHT. I can’t handle it.

Moonstone. We had no idea what it was when Souren gave it to us, but we looked it up, and that’s actually what it’s called. One of the places in the world where you can find it is Lake Sevan!

Despite the best efforts of Souren and his wife to convince us to stay the night (remember that this is all happening in Armenian and hand motions), we stayed firm in saying that we had to head back to Yerevan. Their daughter and her boyfriend were also going to Yerevan, so Souren drove the four of us to the marshrutka station. He gave us parting gifts of moonstone from Lake Sevan, as if he hadn’t already done enough to welcome us, and set us on the marshrutka with big hugs and enthusiastic kisses on the cheek.

On the ride back to Yerevan, Sarah and I were just dazed. To say that things didn’t quite go according to plan would be an understatement. We rode on a jet ski. We drank mud coffee. We met the entire family of a guy who picked us up off the side of a dirt road. We went to a tiny church tucked up in the mountainside and left with massive flower bouquets. We collectively spoke maybe 50 words during the entire day that both parties understood, and yet, that didn’t seem to matter at all. Maybe it wasn’t what we planned, but I don’t think either of us would go back and do things differently. The unplanned was SO much better.