Beautiful view of the lake with sky blue water

The W Trek, Day 3 – Lake Nordenskjöld

Our third day of the W trek started out much better than the second. There was no wind in the forest where we were camping. I didn’t wake up terrified of blowing away. Nothing disturbed us until my alarm went off at 8AM which means Mike slept for 14 hours straight and I slept for 11.

We treated ourselves with a late morning because we had our shortest day of hiking ahead, just over 10 miles. Plus, we were both exhausted, and I think my body would have full-on rebelled if I had tried to wake up any earlier. Even with the extra rest, I wasn’t thrilled about having to move.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted

Here’s the map again! Day 1 was up and down the pink line, Day 2 was along the blue line and then up and down the vertical part, and Day 3 was along the orange line.

There was no sense of urgency in getting ready to go. We didn’t even have a tent to pack up (we spent that night in a rented tent because it was the only option left when we were booking), and it still took us until about 9:30 to get completely ready (okay… probably it was mostly me taking my sweet time, but we really had no reason to rush). Mike and I met at the trailhead… and it looked like we were dressed for completely different seasons. I was feeling the morning chill, so I had leggings and my winter coat on. He was in his lightweight hiking pants and a t-shirt. The difference is that he’s more often hot than cold, I’m the opposite, and we dress accordingly. Sometimes we’re both right about what will work for us, but this did not end up being one of those times. Who do you think was wrong?

Okay, okay. It was me. I think we walked for 10 minutes before I felt like I was going to melt into a puddle. There was way more sun than I was expecting, plus I hate starting out cold even when I know I’m going to warm up from the exercise.

Lake Nordenskjöld

First views of the lake

Another view of the lake

That. Water.

Our segment for the day was the second bottom part of the “W” which meant we had to take all of our stuff with us again. Since there weren’t any big viewpoints along the way, I thought it was going to be an underwhelming day. HA! You’d think I would have figured it out by then. Maybe there weren’t any mind-blowing, mountain-surrounded valleys, but the scenery was still amazing. Soon after we left our campsite, Francés, the forest thinned out, and we started walking downhill towards Lago Nordenskjöld (that’s about when I decided I needed to take my coat off).

Epic mountain

Yeah, the views were still pretty fantastic

After about an hour, we made it all the way to the edge of the lake! I had no idea that we were going to get so close to the water. It was beautiful! And we walked along a little rock beach which made me like it even more because you know how much I hate sand (and if you don’t, just know that I hate it a lot and do my very best to avoid it).

The rocky shores of the lake

Don’t you just want to go for a swim?

Pretty lake view

If this wasn’t only an hour into the hike, I would have tried to convince Mike to take a snack break so I could stare at the water for longer.

Walking along the lake shoreline

<3 <3 <3

The route for the rest of the day followed the edge of the lake pretty closely, though that was the only time we were actually within touching distance of the water. From there, the trail headed uphill and back into the woods for one of the only shaded stretches of the day. That’s when we reached our first landmark, another campsite, Cuernos. Cuernos is another site where people sometimes stay after the hike we did the day before, and all I can say is thank goodness we got a spot at Francés. No chance would I have survived another two hours of hiking the night before (either my legs would have rejected me, or Mike would have killed me out of annoyance).

Mike filling his water from a rocky stream

This was the actual best thing… I loved being able to drink straight from the rivers! Mike is filling up his water bottle.

The lake

And I thought it was going to be an underwhelming day. HA!

Mike and me with the lake behind us

Lake selfie!

With our fresh day 3 legs, the hike to Cuernos took only about an hour and a half. We stopped briefly to put on sunscreen which turned out to be a VERY good idea, though we probably should have also reapplied because my face was very pink at the end of the day. And my arms! Oh, my poor arms. I was wearing long sleeves, so I didn’t put anything on them… and when I started getting overheated, I pulled my sleeves up to my elbows without even thinking about it. I had an embarrassingly distinct line on my forearms which I hoped would even out the next day a bit. (Spoiler alert, it’s been like a month and a half since this day, and I STILL have a line on my arms. So the moral of the story is to WEAR SUNSCREEN.)

A rocky mountain peak with a little waterfall

Spot the waterfall!

The lake from above

Bye, bye shoreline! Up we go…

After Cuernos, the hike felt a bit like walking through the desert. Any hint of the morning cool was long gone, and there was NO shade, just low plants. It was pretty, that’s for sure, but it was also exhausting. It kind of ended up working out in my favor because usually, Mike is like, “Meh meh meh, I don’t need a break,” but he was definitely feeling the heat too. It also helped that we had such a short day, so we didn’t feel like we needed to hurry.

The rocky trail with some low plants

The trail. Pretty plants, but not great for shade

Me with the lake

I hope you like lakes because this isn’t even close to the last lake picture

The trail bending away from the lake

Is that a picturesque trail, or what?

A particularly rocky stretch

I can’t say my feet appreciated those rocks, though

Elevation-wise, the whole day was a constant up and down and up and down. The good news was that my knee wasn’t hating me as much, plus I had a fresh strategy for the downhills to keep it that way (aggressive use of my hiking poles mixed with a slight side turn, in case you were wondering). Thanks to that fortunate development, we managed to keep a good pace throughout the day. I was surprised by how fast we could comfortably go when I wasn’t crippled by blisters and throbbing knees! And it was so nice to be able to focus on enjoying the hike.

 

Me walking across a suspension bridge

Another suspension bridge! And another 1 person at a time limit

Mike crossing a suspension bridge

Mike making the trek across

Pretty red and orange streaked rocks

LOOK AT THE COLORS OF THESE ROCKS

Another gorgeous trail pic

Ugh so many ugly views I can’t even stand it

Weird-looking cliffs by the trail

Funky mountains. Seriously what is happening with those cliffs?

Beautiful view of the lake with sky blue water

I don’t know what was going on with the light and the water when we got to this point, but yes, this is what it actually looked like and no, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Another view of the lake with pretty colored rocks

Imagine a pterodactyl in this picture and try to tell me that it doesn’t look like it belongs.

The lake with clouds reflecting on the surface

I CAN’T DEAL WITH THIS. How are these colors real? How is this place real? How did we get so freaking lucky with the weather? WHY CAN’T I LOOK AT THIS VIEW ALL THE TIME FOREVER FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE?

Mike and me with a mountain backdrop

I’m sure you’re sick of lake pictures by now, so here’s us with some mountains instead (except just kidding because how could you ever get sick of those???)

Me gazing out at the lake

So darn pretty

Crossing the river with no bridge

Pretty sure it looks like I’m smiling because I’m laughing about how I’m definitely not going to make it. Mike took this picture and then attempted to direct me across. Once I accepted that water was going to get into my boots, it wasn’t as hard.

Our next landmark was a fork in the trail. The left fork continues along the route of the W, and the right fork leads to the campsite where we were spending the night (because the more convenient campsite was booked… that’s what happens when you book things only 2 weeks ahead of time. No complaints from me, though. I was just happy we could make it work!). I knew our campsite was kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t realize just how out of the way it was. I estimated it was maybe another hour after the fork in the road. It was not. Try 2.5 hours.

Soon after the fork, we found ourselves at the edge of a river that absolutely should have had a bridge. It was wide, the current was strong, and there was literally no way to get across without getting water in your shoes. I was mostly worried that I was going to fall over and get everything in my bag wet, but my hiking poles saved the day once again, and my socks were the only thing that didn’t come through unscathed.

From that point on, there was truly no shade. Mostly, there weren’t even ground plants. Just rocks. On the bright side, it was fairly flat. I spent most of the walk marveling at the colors. It seems almost stupid when I write it out, but the colors just seemed so vibrant in comparison to other places. Like I was walking around with color filters over my eyes that made everything look unrealistically saturated (so if you’re thinking that my pictures look like I did a little too much filtering, I promise I didn’t. It somehow does actually look like that).

Mountain views

Oh, you know. Just another stellar landscape

Red and black rocky stretch along the trail

This is definitely the surface of another planet. Check out those rocks!

Eventually, once I realized that my time estimate was WAY off, I got to the point where I transformed into Mike (a terrifying image). I was trucking because my knee didn’t hurt, and I just wanted to get to the end. No breaks! No pictures! (Kidding, there’s always time for pictures.) No snacks! I was determined to keep moving at my aggressive pace and left Mike behind at some point. Who knows what he was doing back there, but I was not stopping. Then, we got to the place where I thought the campsite was, and nope. There’s a hotel there, Las Torres, and I thought the campsite was close to there. It’s not. We still had at least another 30 minutes.

Me walking down into the valley

“Mike! What’s taking you so long?”

The valley

THE COLORS

The trail running through a field of weird, low bushes

So… these plants are weird.

More weird bushes

Within minutes, we went from the surface of another planet to this… also possibly another planet but like… what?

River running through the valley

At this point, I was ready to be at the campsite. When I took this picture, I probably thought we were almost there. NOPE. This was still maybe 40 minutes away.

By the time we arrived at the campsite, I was beyond ready to sit down. At least my knee wasn’t hurting, though! And I wore approximately 85 pairs of socks (+/- 83 pairs), so I didn’t get any new blisters! So many victories!

We set up the tent, showered, and went to sleep as soon as we could manage because we had a fun 5AM start the next day. Our last day in Chile!

Ghosts, Trolls, and Giant Worm Monsters

Last time we left off at a tense moment (not really). Mike and I had just come across a cave hole in the ground and were trying to decide whether or not to go in. I could tell that Mike wasn’t sure about it, but if I said yes, he would be all in. He’s used to going on vacation with a friend who is also ridiculous, and the two of them take pride in things like doing two days’ worth of hiking in one day. Knowing that, my general attitude towards the trip was “don’t hold Mike back.” So, I said we should go for it.

Down he goes! Byeee Mike!

We ran back to the car to grab flashlights (and learned our lesson about travelling prepared for anything) before climbing down into a big, open space. It looked like it ended right there until Mike found another hole in the back. That led us into a hallway-like area with a high ceiling, and at the end of that, there was a short hole into one final room at the back. That had a low ceiling and was much wider. The ground was all very soft dirt, and it was the definition of pitch black. Maybe there was a tiny hole that would have let us keep going, but we decided to turn around. Our curiosity was satisfied, and I personally wasn’t interested in getting even dirtier.

Journey to the center of the earth

Explorer Mike

Check out the colors on those rocks!

Turns out that there was no need for me to worry about climbing out. It was way easier than expected because it wasn’t a hanging rope climb… I just used the rope to support my arms, walked up the cave wall, and found a ledge to stand on while I squeezed out through the hole to the surface.

Me, climbing out

I’m glad we went. Otherwise we would have spent forever wondering about what was down there and how far it stretched and if maybe it was a passageway to the center of the earth or a troll treasure trove.  (I don’t even know if troll treasure is a thing, but if it is, Iceland would be an ideal place to go looking.) Plus, when adventure calls, I want to be the kind of person who responds with an enthusiastic “YES!” I’m going to say that I passed my adventure test of the day.

The colors! We saw these rocks during our hike back to the car.

Love those groundscape shots!

On the way back to the car, we stopped at Gunnuhver, a geothermal area. It’s different from other hot springs because it’s so close to the ocean that it uses seawater. The steam coming out is 570⁰F (300⁰C)! Eek! The name of the hot spring comes from a legend. This was our first exposure to an Icelandic legend, and they quickly became another of my favorite things about Iceland.

Gunnuhver from afar

This story is about a woman named Gunna who lived on a farm owned by a lawyer. She failed to pay her rent, and the lawyer took away the only thing she owned – a cooking pot. Gunna grew furious to the point of madness and died. On the day of her funeral, the men carrying the coffin felt it get lighter, and people heard a voice during the grave-digging, saying, “No need deep to dig, no plans long to lie.” The obvious conclusion to all of this was that Gunna was a ghost, and she soon took her revenge on the lawyer who was found dead and beaten. Gunna continued to wreak havoc on the peninsula, killing the lawyer’s wife and leading to the deaths of others who saw her. Finally, a group of men was sent to seek the help of a sorcerer. He gave them a ball of yarn and explained that if Gunna grabbed the loose end, the ball would roll her to a place where she could no longer cause harm. It worked (because I guess ghosts really like yarn?), and the yarn rolled Gunna into the spring. It is said that those with “the second sight” can still see Gunna following the ball around the edge and screaming as she falls. (Story adapted from the sign at Gunnuhver.)

Gunna was hungry and she ate this formerly-functional bridge. But actually, the geothermal area expanded and consumed the former viewing area… who’s to say it wasn’t Gunna’s doing?

One of the interesting things about the story, to me, is the fact that since the Icelandic settlers kept such complete records, there’s a census from 1703 that lists her name. So a woman actually existed and lived in the area… and some freaky things happened that may or may not have been caused by her ghost… that’s up to you to decide, but it’s a fact that she lived. Creepy.

The census listing Gunna’s name is one example of the meticulous recordkeeping that allowed the creation of an incredibly complete genealogic database. Nearly all Icelanders can trace their genealogy back to the original settlers. In the early 1990s, an Icelandic software engineer started the first electronic database. This got even further developed in the late 90s when a genetics company signed on. With the help of census data and marriage, birth, and death records, the database is said to include 95% of Icelanders who lived in the last 300 years. It’s been used for genetics research as a way to trace genes to understand how diseases are passed down through generations. The information is available to all Icelanders, so people can see how they’re related to famous Icelanders or their friends and coworkers. When two Icelanders meet for the first time, it’s common to exchange the question, “Who are your people?” as a way to understand someone’s lineage since family names aren’t passed down. There are also jokes about using the database to make sure that no one is dating a family member, but in practice, that’s likely not a problem because most people know their close relatives.

After learning all about Gunna’s demise, we hopped in the car and made it about three minutes before getting sucked in by another sign. This one was for Brimketill, a naturally-formed rock pool along the coast. It looks like a little hot tub (ignoring the facts that the water is frigid and if you tried to sit in it, you’d get crushed within minutes by the waves and the rocks).

The waves were nice and calm near Brimketill… scroll down for the aftereffects.

It wouldn’t be Iceland without a troll-related legend about the pool. This one is about the night troll Oddný. She frequently bathed in the “surf cauldron” (that’s what Brimketill translates to), and on one particular night, she went to retrieve a whale carcass that had washed up on shore. On her way home, she stopped for a rest in her pool, and it was so relaxing that she stayed much longer than intended. She rushed to get home before the sun came up, but she didn’t make it in time and was turned to stone. The pool is sometimes also called Oddnýjarlaug, meaning Oddný’s pool, after her. There was a sign at Brimketill that told the whole story, including specific details like where she lived and the names of her husband and son. Those Icelanders don’t mess around with their legends! Or maybe those details mean it really happened, just like the story of Gunna.

Can you see it? The little hot tub?

We started heading in the direction of Reykjavik and only made two more stops along the way. I’m pretty sure that both of them were unplanned (Mike was driving and did the “planning”, so maybe he knew they were there or maybe it was just luck… I think the latter). We also had to really pep-talk ourselves out of the car because the weather was getting grosser and grosser by the second. Essential Iceland packing list: waterproof jacket. And shoes. And pants.

Despite the fact that one of our stops was at a geothermal area aka where heat from inside the earth is coming up to the surface, it was still freezing. Maybe you have to throw yourself into the bubbling mud in order to feel any warmth. Anyway, the area is called Krýsuvík, and – wait for it – it’s super weird. The soil is multicolored and seems like it couldn’t possibly be natural. Have you ever seen red, yellow, green, and grey soil in the same place? It was baffling. I guess the grey was mud, but still. It was bubbling up like there was a lava monster living under the surface.

Bubbly mud

Count the colors

Weird.

Mike insisted on touching whatever water we were close to in order to report on its temperature. That seemed pretty dumb to me, but it’s not my hand, so go ahead, Mike. He did, fortunately, steer clear of the spots with signs warning you to stay away or the ones with steam pouring out.

 

There were some hiking trails leading up a nearby hill which Mike wanted to check out, but it was getting late and I was starving and my big toe was still not recovered from whatever I did to it in the UK *facepalm*. And my nose was running because I was trying to fight off a cold. You can’t do it all. (And just like that, my “don’t hold Mike back” mantra completely failed. Oh well.)

Boardwalks that hopefully won’t get consumed by steam like the one at Gunnuhver

What is this place?!?!

We were sure that we were going to go straight to Reykjavik from there… butttt then we drove past this beautiful lake, Kleifarvatn, and we HAD to stop and get out to stare at it. And then get back in and drive another couple feet and get back out and stare at it again. And touch the water. Temperature report: FREEZING. Mike said that he would swim in it. I stared at him like he must be some sort of alien because my fingertips almost froze off in the one instant they were immersed, and you couldn’t have possibly paid me enough to make me go in there. Plus, there’s supposedly a whale-sized, worm-shaped monster living in it, and I’m not interested in getting ingested by a giant water worm (I’m telling you, if there’s anywhere that the stories of these funky creatures would be true, it’s Iceland). If Mike and I didn’t look exactly the same, I would question our relation.

A pretty view with a goofy Mike on the side

Pretending I’m not cold. Are you convinced?

Funkyyy rocks

The black sand shores of Kleifarvatn and the water that almost froze my fingers off.

After THAT stop (x4), we went STRAIGHT to Reykjavik to meet up with Mike’s friends, Tony and Alex, who were living in Iceland for a month. We went out to dinner at about 10PM, it was still as bright as day outside, and we ate the most expensive Thai food of my life. The End.

Our drive along the lake

Dinner! From left to right: Tony, me, Alex, and Mike

A Day of Questionably Good Ideas

I had a brilliant idea to maximize my sightseeing efficiency in Batumi: a sightseeing run. In hindsight, I see the million flaws with this idea and also the million better options, but I didn’t see those at the time, so here we are.

What is a sightseeing run, you ask? Well, exactly what it sounds like. Go for a run, stop at any sights, keep running. I thought this sounded like a perfect idea because I wanted to work out, I wanted to go sightseeing, and sometimes, I feel like walking between sights just takes too long. I planned to run along the boulevard by the beach so that I didn’t have to deal with cars and could have nice views of the water along the way.

More beach pictures! The weather was much better on Day 2.

Since I’ve given you no real information about Batumi yet, here’s a little background for you. Like I briefly mentioned, Batumi is the major beach resort of Georgia, located on the western side of the country along the Black Sea. It’s the second-largest city in Georgia after the capital city, Tbilisi, and its economy is centered around tourism, gambling, and its port which is the biggest in Georgia.

The harbor

Historically, the first record of a city on the site of Batumi was an ancient Greek city, Bathus, in the 4th century BC. The Romans conquered it in the 2nd century AD, and after that, it went through a series of rulers along with the rest of the cities in the region.

Architecturally, the city is particularly interesting. This is something I absolutely didn’t expect going in and was pleasantly surprised by (though of course, I knew nothing going in, so it’s not very surprising that I wasn’t ready for what I found). Many of the buildings are from the 19th century and are a mix of different styles: European and Asian, Georgian, Turkish, and Soviet, etc. There’s also a strong sea theme, so you can see a lot of mythical sea creatures woven into the architectural details. And the colors! There are so many pretty and unexpected colors.

The Batumi Drama Theater in the background with creatively-named Theater Square in front of it.

Recently, there’s been a push to grow Batumi, and these historic buildings have been joined by new, modern high-rise buildings. It was already a strange architectural mash-up, and now it’s even more so. Just wait… you’ll see what I mean in the pictures.

Okay, back to my sightseeing run. I hadn’t worked out in quite a while, so I thought maybe three miles (5k) or so would be a good start (I’m not a good runner AT ALL, so even this was kind of a stretch). Plus, with the sightseeing component, it allowed for “photo stops” aka “find something to take a photo of because you don’t want to run anymore” stops. It seemed like a good way to ease back into running. Maybe it would have been, too, but after I had gone two miles and hadn’t turned around yet, I saw some mountains in the distance and decided that I wanted to be closer to them. Very specific, I know. So, I kept going, and I kept thinking that I was going to reach the point where I had some epic mountain view and would know that it was time to turn around and go back.

The sky!!

So many shades of blue!!

The path was nice, too. It went right along the beach, there were interesting buildings to look at, and there were barely any other people around. Then, somehow I was more than four miles away from home and seemingly no closer to the mountains. I could have kept going. I kept thinking that if I just went a litttttttle farther, I would hit a good spot to turn around after the next bend. Or the next bend. Or the next bend. That maybe would have been fine, but I did NOT plan ahead for that kind of adventure and was carrying no money and no bus ticket. Not my brightest moment. Note to self: always bring bus money.

Found a hammock along the way…

???

No clue what this is but weird, right?


There’s also a ton of public art everywhere, including a series of silhouettes doing various things while holding hearts.

More public art


This fountain was cool… Her wheels spun around and kicked up water!

This is a tower celebrating the Georgian alphabet


View on the boardwalk during my sightseeing run

A park along the boulevard

“The Colonnade”, designed as an entrance to the beach. The concept, as you might guess, was developed by someone who had recently gone to Italy. Now it’s just a random and confusing monument, in my opinion. Though definitely pretty.

More interesting architecture

Finally, I had to accept that if I hadn’t gotten a good view of the mountains yet, it probably wasn’t going to happen and that I needed to turn back or risk collapsing from exhaustion. Oh yeah, I also didn’t bring any water. Or money to buy water. And I had only eaten a granola bar for breakfast. I know, I know, but remember that I was planning for a two- to three-mile jog/walk/stop, not an almost nine-mile (15k) adventure. Hehe. Oops.

The closest I ever got to the mountains… so not close at all

Right near my turn around point… good question, random street art. Where the heck am I?

My post-experience thoughts about this whole thing:

  1. What on earth was I thinking?
  2. Why didn’t I just rent a bike?
  3. What on earth was I thinking?
  4. I don’t even like to run.
  5. At least I got a good workout.

After I got back to the hostel, cooled down, drank some water, and ate something, I changed and went out again because despite the ridiculous distance I had covered, I had only seen the sights along the coast and still had the entire downtown area to check out. This time, I aggressively plotted my route to avoid covering any extra distance, and off I went.

I did NOT want to leave the hostel again after I got back and sat down, but it was my last day in Batumi, so I didn’t feel like I had a choice. My legs were killing me, and I walked at an impressively slow pace the entire time.

My loop around the city included a whole pile of churches, whatever parks I happened to stumble upon (because who doesn’t like parks??), some city squares, and a few of the tall buildings that I didn’t get to on my “run”. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves for the most part because it’s not even worth me trying to explain without visual aids!

A building on Europe Square. Does it not look like it was taken straight out of a fairy tale?

More buildings along Europe Square, all so different from each other!

There’s an astronomical clock on one of the buildings (farthest to the left in the picture above), and this was the diagram explaining it. I looked at it for about 5 minutes before deciding that there was too much going on and taking a picture to try to figure out later.

The astronomical clock from below

This statue on Europe Square is of Medea, a daughter of a Georgian king, holding the Golden Fleece. The story goes that she helped Jason, the legendary Greek hero, to steal the fleece.


St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

This thing is called Chacha fountain. Chacha is a classic Georgian alcohol made from distilled grapes, and supposedly you can get free chacha from the fountain for 10 minutes each day. Who knows if this is true or not but either way, hilarious.


This building, Batumi Tower, was designed by a Georgian architect, is 200-m tall (and is the tallest building in Batumi), and was supposed to house a technological university. Instead, it got sold and now it’s a hotel. And there’s a ferris wheel in the side. Did I mention the ferris wheel? Like… what????

Pretty sure these are condos


The Batumi Drama Theater in the background with creatively-named Theater Square in front of it.

Rocks!

This is a sculpture called Ali and Nino, inspired by a story about a Georgian princess, Nino, and an Azerbaijani Muslim, Ali, fall in love but are kept apart by WWI. It’s like the Romeo and Juliet of the Caucasus. The two figures move back and forth, literally through one another.

Holy Mother Virgin Nativity Cathedral. Quite the mouthful of a name… maybe it’s shorter in Georgian

Armenian church!


I had a train ticket to go back to Tbilisi the next morning, so as much as I enjoyed my time chilling in peaceful Batumi, it was time to move on to the next adventure. I asked at the hostel about how to get to the train station so early in the morning, and the guy said that the buses weren’t running yet, but I could probably get a marshrutka there.

An architecturally-hip Catholic church

I walked out to the bus stop around 6:45 because my train was at 7:30, and it was like I was the only person awake in the entire city. As you might imagine, I started doubting that there were even marshrutkas running after not seeing any for the first 10 or so minutes waiting at the bus stop. This one taxi driver kept asking me if I wanted a ride, but I was determined not to take a taxi. He asked where I was going, and I told him the train station (using a very unhelpful Georgian phrasebook I found online). He said he would take me there for 20 lari. HA! I literally laughed at him. I didn’t know how much it SHOULD cost to get there, but 20 lari is like $8 and is completely ridiculous for a 5-minute ride.

After I laughed at him, he lowered his price to 10 lari, and when I said no again, he changed it to free. I apparently am a phenomenal negotiator… This conversation all happened through hand motions and google translate because he spoke ZERO English. When he said he would take me for zero, I typed, “Why???” into google translate. I thought that was a valid question. He just looked at it, laughed, and gave me the “come along” hand wave.

And this is a hotel

At this point, I still hadn’t seen any marshrutkas drive by, and I was starting to get a little worried about missing my train. I figured what the heck, and off we went. Let me just say that if I was in practically any other country, I never would have done that, but this was Georgia and I was mostly not worried about it. We got close to the train station, and I started pointing that I wanted to go there. From our broken conversation, I gathered that we’d had a slight misunderstanding. I thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Batumi train station to take the train to Tbilisi. HE thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Tbilisi train station. I mean, I guess I technically did, but not in his car!

Thanks to my mostly worthless Georgian phrasebook, I knew how to say, “Stop here!”, and I said it on repeat until he listened. He kept trying to tell me that he would take me all the way to Tbilisi for free, and still I have no idea why. Eventually, I convinced him (in my fluent Georgian) to take me back to the Batumi station, and that was that. He didn’t ask for any money, and I’m almost positive that he would have been insulted if I had offered.

It wasn’t the most conventional method of getting to the train station, and I’m sure my mother is losing her mind right now, but hey, it worked. I’m happy to report that the rest of the trip was uneventful. I took the train, I took the metro, and soon enough, I was back at my hostel to enjoy a couple more days in Tbilisi.

Batumi

I took it slow during my first day in Georgia because I wanted to give myself some time to process everything going on in my brain. I checked into my hostel, sat in a park and journaled, and went to bed early because the next day, I had an 8AM train to Batumi.

Batumi is the major beach town in Georgia. It’s on the Black Sea, and I knew basically nothing about it going in except for those two things. Last time I was in Georgia, we met some people who said it was a great place to visit, and apparently that’s all I needed to be convinced. I also knew that I wanted to get out of Tbilisi for a few days, and Batumi seemed like as good a place as any.

I was definitely not prepared for such interesting buildings! The pointy one in the middle literally has a ferris wheel on the side of it.

The train ride was five hours which is maybe a lot, but at this point, unless a leg of my journey is more than ten hours, I don’t even think twice about it. Five hours is easy, plus on a train you have a bathroom and space to walk around if you want. Luxury!

After the all-too-familiar packing struggle, I pulled myself together and left the hostel around 7:15 to get to the train station early in case I had any issues. It was a little confusing to figure out how to get into the station, but with my “keep cool and use your brain” mantra playing on repeat in my head, I followed some people carrying suitcases and was delivered straight to my train. Fabulous.

To help orient you, Armenia is at the bottom (Yerevan is marked with green pin), Tbilisi is marked in blue, and Batumi is to the west in red

The train ride went smoothly until we were maybe 20 minutes from Batumi. We stopped at a station along the way and then didn’t start moving again. They made some announcement in Georgian and Russian, and people started freaking out. I asked some Russian-speaking girls sitting near me if they spoke English, and one knew enough to explain that there was something happening with the train and the tracks and the weather maybe? But the conclusion was that the train was not moving until whatever was resolved, and there was no timeline on when that would happen. Okay, cool. I settled in to wait it out because sometimes these things happen. Around me, it was chaos. People were yelling at the conductors in Georgian and Russian (as if that was going to change anything). Some were jumping ship and aggravatedly calling taxis to go the rest of the way. An English-speaking kid was whining about how the wifi wasn’t working, and his mom was going on and on about how she was worried that the train was going to leave us in the middle of nowhere as if she thought that was an actual possibility. And then she said, “and we’re running out of water,” as if we were stranded on a desert island and minutes away from death by dehydration.

Batumi!

About an hour later, we started moving again and made it to Batumi maybe an hour and a half behind schedule. Not a big deal. The next step was figuring out how to get from the train station to my hostel. The easy thing to do would be to take a taxi. When you’re trying to travel on a budget, you usually choose economic over easy, so I was taking the bus. I had scoped out the bus routes online, so I was fairly confident that I knew which numbers I could take. After a struggle figuring out where the bus stop was, I made it there and hopped on the first bus that came by.

Grey rock, grey sky

When I’m figuring out a new public transport system, I usually watch to see how everyone else pays and then just follow along with that. This time, I was the only one to get on, so that wasn’t an option. I sat down and stared at the various payment locations like maybe they’d make sense if I focused hard enough. Finally, a woman got on and I watched to see what she’d do. She took a chip card out of her purse and tapped it on one of the card readers. Okay, not helpful. I only had cash which meant that I needed to figure out the cash payment method. The woman looked nice, so I made eye contact (probably with a slightly panicked look in my eyes), held up some change, and made my best “how do I pay with cash?” face.

This is the way that travelling works when you don’t speak the language. Observation, facial expressions, sign language, and charades are key. She pointed to a woman who was sitting in the back of the bus, and the woman quickly came over to me. I pulled out the amount I thought I owed, she looked perplexed, and I dumped a bunch of change in my hand and held it out to her. She took what she needed, gave me some change, went to one of the machines to punch my ticket, handed it to me, and showed me that I had paid for two rides instead of just one which was why my ticket cost more than I thought. When we got close to my stop, my friend was getting off too. She offered to help me with my bags, and the ticket woman helped me to untuck my scarf which was stuck in my backpack. Basically, everyone was taking care of me. On the street, my friend introduced herself as Mina and asked if I needed a place to stay (via charades). I had a hostel booked so I was good, but I was definitely appreciative of the fact that everyone was so nice and helpful.

Since it’s still the off-season in Batumi and I was there during the week, I had the entire 6-person room in the hostel to myself! I was super happy to see how quiet and relaxed the city was because that’s exactly what I needed, a little escape from chaos and some time to think. I walked out to the harbor and followed the water to the beach where I had the BEST surprise. It was a stone beach! Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Lara, you went to this place without even knowing that the beaches weren’t sand? Did you read literally nothing about it??” The answer to that would be yes, and that is totally not like me but I’m trying this new thing where I go with the flow and don’t over-plan my life.

Okay so prepare yourself for a lot of rock pictures but like… I’m in love.

Anyway, that complete lack of research led to me being pleasantly surprised and extremely excited by what I found, so I’d argue that it was even better that way. In case you don’t know this about me, I despise sand. I don’t think I’ve ever truly liked it, but I successfully ignored that truth until a pivotal experience. Long story short, my friend Sarah and I went camping on a beach once because that’s such a romanticized idea and how cool to sleep on a beach… and by the morning, we were so over it. Three words: Sand. Gets. Everywhere. It was in the tent, in our clothes, in our mouths, all over everything. There was no shade because we were on a beach, and the tent was like an oven in the morning (that’s not sand’s fault, but it didn’t help the situation). We took showers and still felt sandy. We were on an island, and when the morning’s first ferry to the mainland pulled up, we couldn’t get on it fast enough. And that was the dramatic end to my already rocky (hehe) relationship with sand.

<3 <3 <3

Me pretending I wasn’t taking a picture of myself

So anyway, as I was saying, stone beach. I think this might be one of my new favorite things because besides the fact that there’s no sand, the stones were beautiful! They were a million different colors, smoothed out by the sea and with pieces of driftwood mixed in. I walked along the shore (note: walking on a stone beach is at least as awkward as walking on sand, especially as the stones get smaller. Also, infinitely louder. There’s no way to sneak up on someone on a stone beach) until I found a good spot devoid of weird beach couples, plopped down, and organized my rock collection.

I love rocks. Pretty much in every application. I love old buildings made of rocks and rock-filled ruins. I also LOVE smooth and colorful rocks, and that is exactly what I was surrounded by. Between the rocks and the sound of the waves, I was in heaven. AND the weather was perfect. I had a t-shirt on, there was a nice, warm breeze coming off the water, and I didn’t even notice the temperature which means it was exactly right.

Some of the best rocks that I picked up along my walk

After sitting there and sorting rocks for who even knows how long, I decided that I had to go and touch the water because it’s the Black Sea, and I’m trying to touch as many bodies of water as possible. Okay, always a difficult task when you’re trying to touch water that’s coming in waves and you don’t want the rest of you to get wet. As I got closer to the water, I realized that half of the sound of the waves was the rocks clinking over one another as the waves went back out to sea. Seriously one of the coolest sounds. So of course, I stood there for a bit just listening before I got back to my mission.

Wet rocks near the sea

I spotted a good strategic location… there was a concrete pier sticking out into the water, and I thought that would be the perfect place to stick my hand down and keep the rest of me dry. The only problem was that there was some guy filming a video of himself that seemed to go on and on forever. After he finished, I hopped onto the pier, did my water touch, and was about to leave when he asked me to take a picture. He was British, and we got to talking and that was the end of any plans I had for the day.

Me and the sea! Photo thanks to my new friend Ben

Meeting people is arguably the best part of travelling. I know, you can meet people anywhere, but it’s not the same. This guy, Ben, is in the middle of a motorcycle trip around the world. The purpose of his trip is to raise money in memory of his friend who passed away from Crohn’s disease, and it grew into a round-the-world adventure (if you’re interested in donating, you can do that here). He’s been going for eight months now and he thinks it’s going to take about four more years. Yes. Four years. He was planning to go through Armenia next, so we started talking about that and ended up getting dinner and hanging out for the rest of the day. That was the first time that I realized I’m now one of those crazy travel people. I looked at him and thought, “Look at this guy who’s doing this crazy travel thing!” and while we were talking, I was like, “Whoa, I can actually keep up with him. Look at this girl who’s doing this crazy travel thing!”

Ben and I got khinkali for dinner because he hadn’t had it yet, and it’s a classic Georgian dish. I always describe them as little meat-filled money sacks.

Nearly every travel friend I’ve made has taught me something about myself. I’ve met some incredibly insightful people, and despite the fact that those relationships are generally short-lived, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, an 8-hour friendship can have a lifetime impact. It’s a good reminder that every interaction, no matter how brief, has the possibility to shift someone’s life.

(P.S. Sorry for the philosophical musings, but they’re probably going to be semi-frequent. I have a lot of things to sort out in my head right now, so enjoy your complimentary window into my swirling thoughts.)

Khndzoresk

Things we all know about Lara:
Lara loves rocks.
Lara loves caves and other enclosed spaces.
Lara loves climbing things.
Lara loves pretty views.

These are four very basic Lara facts. These four facts also make Lara sound like she might be four years old, but that’s not the point. The point is that, while travelling southern Armenia, Lara finally found the place where she belongs. That place is, quite unfortunately, a deserted cave village, but we don’t need to dwell on the little, insignificant details like “deserted”. That just means there’s more room for me!

Where is this magical, mystical place? Khndzoresk, aka the future site of Larkzoresk. The village is only a 40-minute drive or so from Goris where I was staying for a few nights with my new friend Mary, and she connected me with a guide, Ara, who grew up in new Khndzoresk. I know, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Typical.

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

Khndzoreskis a village in the eastern part of Armenia, right on the border of what is now Artsakh. One name-origin theory is that “Khndzoresk” comes from the words “Khor Dzor”, meaning “deep gorge” in Armenian. At the beginning of the war with Azerbaijan, the village was so close to the fighting that some of the shepherds who lived there were kidnapped and killed. Anyway, the village has been occupied since ancient times, and until the end of the 1800s, Khndzoresk was the most populated village in eastern Armenia! At its height, there were around 24,000 people living there (though who knows how accurate that number is… that’s what I was told, but it seems like something that probably everyone has a different answer for). The thing that makes it so interesting is that it was a cave city… until the 1950s!

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

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

Fake concrete

It’s made up of both natural and man-made caves situated in the cliffs along a gorge. Many of the houses had a cave in the back and then a structure built in front of it, and the roof of one house created the floor for the next. Ara explained that there were three different kinds of caves: houses, stables, and safe houses. The houses had the highest ceilings and often consisted of multiple rooms. They had holes in the ground for cooking and for storing grain. Chimneys were carved out to allow smoke to escape. If someone had a two-story structure as the front part of their house, it meant they were rich because it was expensive to build like that. The house structures were built out of stones, and they didn’t use concrete. Instead, some used just clay/mud, and others used a mix of clay, eggs, and water.

Remains of a two-story rich person house

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

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

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

The stables had lower ceilings and didn’t have any additional construction in front. The safe caves were located high up in the cliffs. They could only be accessed by ropes which were supported by pieces of wood set across the cave entrances. In times of danger, the women and children would climb up and pull the ropes in to prevent invaders from reaching them. (Questions about this… did the women and children train for this?? It’s not like it’s easy to climb a rope into a cave! And I assume that a lot of the kids had to get carried up which means that the women must have been incredibly fit. Though I assume that everyone in the village was fit because you had to climb to get practically anywhere. Okay, I’ll stop. I just think the whole thing is kind of marvelous.)

Stable caves

There are four churches in town. The oldest is in a cave and dates back to 305AD! That’s impressive because Armenia adopted Christianity only four years earlier in 301AD. There were also schools, shops, businesses, springs for fresh water… it was a town, so there was everything a town needs. Ara’s father was born in old Khndzoresk, but in the 1950s, the Soviet leadership decided that the town should be moved to the flat land above. I asked why, and he said that it was closer to the existing infrastructure and people’s gardens (they were already on the flat ground). Most people moved out in the 1950s and 1960s, but the last family didn’t leave until 1974!

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

Inside Surp Hripsime

After the exodus, the cave town fell into disrepair. Ara said that he used to play in the caves with his friends growing up. He can still point out where his grandparents’ cave was, though it’s now overgrown by plants and inaccessible. The town also is kind of in ruins because when people moved, they took the stones from their cave houses to use in their new ones. Now, it’s a government protected area, so people can’t take materials or anything. They’re slowly cleaning up and restoring different parts of the town, such as one of the newer churches, Surp Hripsime, that was built in 1665. For a long time, it acted as a stable, so as you can imagine, it was filthy. Now, it’s been cleaned, and there are plans to fix parts of it. It was also cool because there are just random pictures and other documents inside the church. I asked Ara where all of the pictures came from, and he said that when the old town started attracting attention, villagers began bringing pictures and other things that they had laying around that they thought might be of interest.

There have been various improvements made to the old town over time. Ara explained that there’s a kind of unspoken rule that if you move out of the town and make a lot of money, you come back and build something. He said that some of those changes are good, but each one makes the town less authentic. I completely understand what he means… you want people to be able to access and see this awesome place, but you don’t want those changes to take away from its history and personality.

So far, the improvements have included a lookout point, stairs down into the gorge, paved paths leading to some of the sights, and a suspension bridge across the gorge. Supposedly there are plans to build a cable car down from the new town, but that seems like overkill to me. He told a story about the bridge, which looks somewhat terrifying, and said that it was built by hand by three guys: the one who was financing it, plus two others from the village. They didn’t have an engineer or anyone with bridge knowledge helping them, and when it was completed, someone complained to the government saying that it might not be safe. In response, the government sent out some engineers to evaluate the bridge, and they determined that it was strong enough to hold 500 people at once. As usual, who knows how true any of these stories are, but that’s all part of the fun.

Stairs into the gorge

Me on the questionably-500-person-capacity bridge

Bridge view

Church ruins near the cemetery

On the opposite side of the gorge from the main part of town, there’s a little area with ruins of a church and school and a cemetery. The cemetery contains the grave of an Armenian war hero, Mkhitar Sparapet, who fought with another hero, David Bek, leading the Armenian liberation efforts against Safavid Iran and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Sparapet had a cave fortress at the top of the gorge. He was eventually murdered by some villagers who wanted him to move his fortifications away from the village because they were worried about what would happen if the enemies found him hiding there. They delivered his head to the Ottoman leader who apparently found their actions despicable and had them killed. Now, Iran still has his head (I have SO MANY questions about this… where have they kept it all these years? Why? In what conditions? I just don’t understand!), but they’ve agreed to give it back (ALSO so many questions about this… I asked what they’re going to do with it, but Ara didn’t know. What are they going to do with it? Bury it with the body? How will this handover occur? In person? By mail? Who will it be delivered to? Does anyone besides me think that this is the weirdest thing? Was that part of some big diplomatic discussion between Armenia and Iran? This whole thing is weird, right??).

Ruins of the school near the graveyard

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

In the past, if you said the words “cave town” to me, I would have thought it sounded like the kind of thing I’d be interested in. Now that I’ve been to a cave town, that thought has been MORE than confirmed. If anyone out there is trying to start a cave town and needs resident volunteers, count me in!!! I already know exactly how I’d set up my cave.

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!

The Road to Meghri

My south trip started with a long marshrutka ride. I decided to go all the way south and then slowly work my way back because that seemed like the plan that made the most sense. My first stop was Meghri, a town almost right on the border with Iran and the last major town before the border crossing (the border town is still after that, but it’s very small). I wanted to go to see the town and because you can see the mountains of northern Iran from the Armenia side which is the closest I can get.

My friend Olivia has a friend in Meghri, Kelsey, and she graciously offered to let me stay with her while I was there! It worked out perfectly because I took the marshrutka there, stayed with her, and when I was planning to move to the next town, she was planning to go to Yerevan, so we took the same marshrutka (but I got off MUCH earlier). I’m getting very ahead of myself, sorry. Let me go back to the beginning.

I took a marshrutka from Yerevan to Meghri. It takes around 8 hours and involves a lot of windy roads. The same marshrutka passes through every town that I’m planning to visit on this trip, so it was like I got a little sneak preview of the rest of the week… when I wasn’t sleeping at least. We left at 7:30, I woke up at 5AM because I hadn’t packed (of course), and around 7, I called a taxi to take me to the bus station. I was assigned a seat next to an old woman, and soon after our intended departure time, we were off. This was one of the marshrutkas where you’re supposed to call to make a reservation, so I asked Zoe’s roommate to help me out the day before by calling to save me a seat. Part of the goal of my trip IS to work on my Armenian, but speaking over the phone is HARD! Especially when you’re asking someone to do something for you, and you’re not really sure how to ask them properly.

Here’s approximately the route we took to get from Yerevan to Meghri (the blue pin all the way in the south). The other destinations for my trip are the orange pins. From south to north it’s Kapan, Goris, and Sisian.

The long marshrutka rides always involve a lot of stops. You stop to let people on, you stop to let people off, and you stop so that all of the men can smoke (and so people can eat and go to the bathroom I guess, but mostly so that the men can smoke). During one of the stops, I started talking to my seatmate. She was very patient with me, letting me try to speak and speaking to me. Her name is Laura, she’s 78 years old, and she is from Meghri but lives in Yerevan with her husband. She was very excited about the fact that I also speak Spanish (though at this point my Spanish skills are at a pathetic level), and I felt like she kind of adopted me. Eventually, another woman sat on my other side, and when we got to our “lunch” stop, I was force-fed from both sides. Laura asked if I ate breakfast that morning and I said yes… and then she proceeded to put food in my hands, ignoring my insistent “no thank you”s. I was piled high with lavash bread, pork khorovadz (barbecue), cheese, peppers, lunch meat, sesame seed dessert things, and hard candy. Anytime I stopped eating, she pointed at my food and said “Ker!” which is essentially the equivalent of “Eat!”

The Meghri city sign, with the faint outline of mountains in the background

For the most part, the rest of the ride was filled with me sleeping or just closing my eyes so that I wouldn’t feel like I wanted to throw up. I’m not usually one to get carsick, but whipping around those windy mountain roads in a marshrutka is enough to freak out even my stomach. Plus, it’s a little disconcerting to see the little gravestones lining the roads from cars that almost certainly fell off the side… I’d rather not think too hard about how much I trust the marshrutka drivers. The one benefit of keeping my eyes open was that the view was beautiful. The mountains were just the right amount of snow-covered, and the sky was clear and blue… so I switched between forcing my eyes to stay open and look out the window and closing them so I wouldn’t feel nauseous.

You kind of feel a sort of kinship with the other people on the marshrutka on those long trips.  I felt like we were all on a grand adventure together. The ride is also very entertaining because people on the marshrutka will drop off bags of stuff with people who are waiting on the side of the road. One woman hailed a taxi in a town along the way and asked it to take a bag of stuff to a village nearby. The coordination that goes into those roadside handoffs is impressive. Also, the marshrutka will stop wherever you want it to, and sometimes, people get off in what seems like the middle of nowhere. After one woman got off, the driver asked her if she was sure because there was literally nothing around. Anyway, it’s all very interesting.

Kelsey said she’d meet me in the center of town, and I was worried that I wouldn’t know where that was. Hehe. Worrying not necessary. I knew when we were entering Meghri, and as soon as we pulled up somewhere that had a little plaza in the middle of a roundabout, there was no question that I was in the right place. Kelsey was there when I got off, and we spent the rest of the day hanging out, eating pizza (actually pretty good!), and roaming around town a bit. My major Meghri adventures happened the next day, but I’ll save that story for the next post

Meghri at night

Yerevan Botanical Garden and Blue Mosque

I had another adventure day with Victoria! She wanted to go to the botanical garden in Yerevan, so we decided to go and check it out. We didn’t have any expectations, and that’s probably a good thing. The botanical garden was built in 1935, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, funding stopped and things started to fall apart. During the energy crisis in the late 1980s, the trees in the park (along with pretty much all of the trees in the country) were cut down for firewood. At its height, there were 1240 species of plants in the gardens. Now, I don’t know the exact number, but I can tell you that it’s far reduced from that number.

I think this got stepped on by a giant.

Our first struggle was figuring out how to even get in. The entrance location wasn’t very clear on Google maps, so we may have taken a less-than-official entry route once we got tired of walking around without success. That was another one of those “I would never do this at home” moments.

I think they just patched these things back together with whatever random scrap metal they could find…

The thing about visiting a botanical garden is that you expect to see a lot of plants. And you expect those plants to be alive. Anyway, I haven’t been to a ton of botanical gardens, but this one was like if the world ended, all of the humans disappeared off the planet, and the plants were allowed to grow wild. Like so many other places here, it had that “former glory” feel where you can tell that it used to be pretty cool until *fill in the blank* disaster happened and nothing ever got totally fixed.

The most intact greenhouse

There was this big row of greenhouses where it was clear that someone was doing things with the plants inside, but none of them had intact windows anymore. The broken window fragments were still scattered on the ground. Like couldn’t someone spend a few minutes cleaning things up? Maybe my priorities are out of whack. Maybe they want it to look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie.

The impenetrable greenhouse

The biggest confusion and frustration of the day was this one giant greenhouse that kind of looked like a spaceship. It was round and strange looking, and Victoria and I wanted nothing more than to go inside, but every little window hole that we could have squeezed through was blocked off with a collage of rusty sheet metal, fencing, broken glass pieces, and barbed wire. For as little effort as they put into actually fixing anything, they were very determined to keep us out of there. We circled the building twice, pounded on the door hoping someone would let us in, and tried in vain to find a ground-level hole to sneak through…  I mean, to find a respectable entrance… obviously.

There were a few broken windows we could have made it through, but they were probably 10 feet up and I wasn’t in the climbing mood… plus I don’t think the “I don’t speak Armenian” face of innocence can explain “accidentally wandering” through a 10-foot-high hole. It looked like someone was taking care of things inside, and I was bummed that we couldn’t check it out more closely (you know, besides what we could see in the cracks between the sheet metal and barbed wire). But yeah, like I just said… no matter how much we wanted to see the inside, we would NEVER go in without a clear, official entrance to go through.

This is like land coral

Taking advantage of the good lighting with some completely normal picture posing

Inside one of the functional greenhouses

These things are the coolest

Okay, so there were some cool plants

Flower pathway!

Random sculptures

The green is overwhelming!

Since we didn’t have a third person to take a picture, we just took two pictures and I photoshopped them together. I’m like Peter Pan… my shadow is disconnected from the rest of me!

Plant tunnel on the way out of the botanical garden. This was probably the coolest part of the whole experience.

We wandered out the official exit to the botanical garden (simultaneously finding the way we were supposed to have entered) and across the street to a very green and empty looking park. It caught our eyes as we were walking to the bus stop, and we felt like we had to go investigate. There we found weird lollipop trees, questionable Christmas light wiring, random exercise equipment, and a large statue of a woman miming screwing in a lightbulb. Just kidding. Probably. I’m not quite sure about what her pose was supposed to be.

We couldn’t understand why so much effort and money clearly went into this strange park on the side of the highway that isn’t near any houses and really isn’t accessible. Meanwhile, across the street, there’s a botanical garden that could use a lot of love. And funding. And lollipop trees. I guess that’s just another one of those Armenia mysteries of life. Probably someone donated a bunch of money and wanted a park, so they made one even though it doesn’t make sense.

Midday workout

Victoria, doing her best statue impression. You can see some lollipop trees in the background.

Christmas light wiring… they took normal, plug in Christmas lights, pulled out the metal parts of the plug, and shoved some wires in. Safe, I think.

On our way back into the city, we realized that it was still visiting hours at the Blue Mosque. I stopped in for a minute when I first came to Armenia with Sarah, but we could only go into the courtyard because it wasn’t during visiting hours. This time, the timing was right, but I was completely unprepared for a mosque visit. Luckily, Victoria had a hood AND a scarf. She used her hood and let me borrow the scarf so that we could both go inside at the same time.

Opposite the courtyard from the mosque

The Blue Mosque/Persian Mosque/probably some other names is the only functioning mosque in the country and was built in 1764. During Soviet times, it survived because it served as the Museum of the City of Yerevan. It was renovated in the late 1900s through a mutual effort with Iran who now also owns it. It’s a symbol of the friendship between Armenia and Iran, and with two out of Armenia’s four borders currently closed, maintaining friendships with the other two is probably a good idea.

I thought it was beautiful. The outside is tiled which is always fun, and the interior is simple but elegant. One of my favorite things in the whole world is stained glass, so the fact that they had some was enough to completely sell me on the building. Stained glass in churches unfortunately isn’t a thing here.

The front of the mosque

The inside. So pretty!!

Anyway, it was fun to spend the day seeing something a little different. Rare for an excursion in Armenia, we actually visited zero churches. The botanical garden maybe wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but I’m still glad we went. It gave us some time to pretend that the world had ended and we were the only two humans left.

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!