The Land of Petrified Trolls

Continued from the previous post

Our next stop was to see a glacier! I was excited because it was our first one of the trip. We weren’t sure if it was worth stopping just to take a look, but we figured why not? The glacier is called Mýrdalsjökull (jökull = glacier), and we went to this one part that sticks out a bit called Sólheimajökull. At least that’s what I think the situation is with the names, but honestly it’s a little hard to keep track, especially with all of the crazy Icelandic names. Mýrdalsjökull is on top of Iceland’s largest volcano, Katla, which is due for an eruption anytime. The big eruption in 2010 that sent ash all over Europe was from a smaller volcano nearby… and usually, the eruption of one leads to the eruption of the other within a decade. Katla is very closely monitored because even minor eruptions can result in major flooding from the glacier melt.

Me with Sólheimajökull! Mýrdalsjökull, the full glacier, is the 4th largest in Iceland.

I thought the glacier was awesome, but we were pretty far away so we didn’t get the full effect. It would have been cool to do some glacier hiking or whatever it’s called. I’ll have to add that to my list of things to do when I go back to Iceland one day!

Mike, me, and Tony

Sibling pic on some petrified trolls. Mike said I could go on a higher one so that I could be taller for once. Thanks, Mike.

This is where the craziness of Iceland’s landscape diversity comes in… We were at a glacier, and then 30 minutes later, we were on the beach. Reynisfjara is a black sand beach, but the really cool thing is the rock formations there. They look like a bunch of pencils bundled together and sticking up at different heights. There are two options for how they were formed:

  1. The columns are trolls that were turned to stone when they were caught outside at dawn.
  2. They’re basalt columns (basalt is one of the rocks formed by lava). They’re formed when lava cools and contracts, making hexagonal rocks.

Guess which option I prefer.

It was more of a pebble beach than a sand beach. The ground looks super cool!

Mike holding up the entire cave with his super strength

There’s also a cave at the beach which, of course, has a name of its own: Hálsanefshellir. The rock formations in there are similar to the petrified trolls, but since it’s a cave, they’re coming in from all directions instead of being just straight up and down. I think we got lucky because we were there at low-ish tide, so we could get into the cave. It was still a bit of an adventure because we had to run towards the ocean as the water retreated to get to the other side of the troll rocks and then run away as the waves came back in, re-separating the two parts of the beach. And, we had to watch out for sneaker waves…

I love all the shades of blue and grey in the water and the sky

Inside the cave

Tony and Mike messing around

Full view looking out from the cave

Sneaker waves are basically waves that are much bigger and come much farther into shore than the others, hence the “sneaker” part of the name because they can sneak up on you. The concept of sneaker waves is not at all funny… people have died from getting swept out to sea by the strange and unpredictable tides. We were quite entertained by the signs though, and the fact that they’re called sneaker waves never fails to make me giggle.

The sign says:
DANGER
– Very dangerous sea currents
– Deadly sneaker waves
– Never turn your back on the ocean
– Supervise children
The graphic in the middle shows the danger zone close to the waves that you should avoid, the light blue ones are “ordinary waves” and the dark blue ones above are “deadly sneaker waves”.
To the right, it gives information about a tourist death due to the waves.

I kept imagining someone standing on the beach with a big cartoon wave behind them, tapping them on the shoulder… Surprise! The signs tell you to “never turn your back on the ocean!” We had a lot of fun yelling that at each other. And then we turned our backs on the ocean a couple times (unintentionally!) and found ourselves sprinting up the beach to avoid getting soaked by surprise waves. So that’s what we get for not listening. (Strongly recommend that you heed the signs.)

Standing at the edge of a foamy wave, definitely keeping one eye out for sneaker waves…

Mike doing some earthbending

I found the perfect spot to protect me from the sneaker waves!

Cool rocks near the cave

There are also some rock formations out in the water, Reynisdrangar. In typical Iceland fashion, each of the three rocks also has its own name because why not. They are the remains of two trolls who went to help tow in a large ship… and then the dawn came and petrified the trolls AND the ship. Trolls must be extinct considering how many rock formations are attributed to their failure to keep track of time.

Hooray for black sand beaches!

We had a little more driving to do before we got to our campsite for the night, but we still had plenty of daylight (thank you, super long days). We’d hit all the major destinations for the day, so we consulted Aunt Judy’s list of notes to give us some ideas for a few more stops to make along our route.

On our way to see a cave from her list, we passed a sign marking the start of a hike on Hjörleifshöfði mountain. I have no idea what convinced us to do it, but we had some time and why not? Okay, I’ll take the blame. I didn’t think it seemed that long. In the end, I’d say that at least 50% of it was underwhelming mostly because the entire world was brown (it’s probably fab in the summer), but in terms of Icelandic history significance, it wasn’t a complete bust! We trekked across the treeless mountain, through mud and snow and little ground plants, until we finally reached the top of the mountain where there’s supposed to be an amazing view of the surroundings… and guess what? A heavy fog set as we were approaching the top, so we couldn’t see anything except the faint outline of some strange stone structure.

Looking back at the path as we climbed up

Mike surfing a dirt wave on a dirt surfboard

Multicolored mud

So. Weird.

Ground plants!

Mike paying his respects

It turned out to be a Viking graveyard! This is one of those situations where we wouldn’t have been surprised if we had done ANY research or had even just read the signs before starting the hike because it’s kind of a big deal. Oops. Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson is buried there, the “second settler of Iceland”. His brother was Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler. Hjörleifur only survived one year on Iceland before he was killed by his slaves. He was avenged by his brother, and apparently, the mountain is now haunted by him… add that to the list of things we didn’t know. Maybe that explains the fog.

The graveyard itself was very confusing. There was this big cylinder/cone thing that was next to the plot of land where the graves were. I thought maybe it was some weird Viking burial thing since it didn’t seem to serve any obvious purpose, but turns out it’s a marker built by Danish surveyors.

Hjörleifur’s grave

Family plot from some more recent inhabitants of the mountain with Hjörleifur’s grave mound in the background

Finally, as we started to walk down from the gravesite, the fog cleared and we had a view of the seemingly endless lava fields stretching in every direction. The mountain we were on must have dropped out of the sky because it’s the only one in the area, and around it is flat, flat, flat.

Going down

Mike and Tony, thrilled to be here

The top of the mountain was weird

Lava fields stretching to forever

On the way back to the car, we passed some ruins/old foundations of two farms. The former farm inhabitants are buried on a plot next to Hjörleifur. I thought the whole thing was kind of cool. Mike and Tony were probably just trying to figure out why they’d listened to me about the hike. Sorryyy.

Farmhouse ruins

Walking back down into the valley

Hjörleifshöfði cave

Since we were already so close, we did stop by our original target (2 hours later…) Hjörleifshöfði cave. It was probably worth a quick stop, but at that point, I think we were all tired and hungry and slightly grumpy. After a brief poke around, we headed to the campsite for another much-needed sleep on the cold, hard ground. This night was extra cold. Ugh.

Little caves along the base of Hjörleifshöfði mountain

Our car outside of the cave. Doesn’t this look like a car ad?

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

Into the (Icelandic) Wild

My thoughts for our entire time in Iceland can be summarized into one sentence… “WHAT IS THIS PLACE??” Yeah, I know that doesn’t make it sound like there’s much going on in my mind, but oh well. I could NOT get over the landscape. Everything looked like nothing I had ever seen before and was completely baffling to me.

Mike on the moon

Many things seem to defy logic. When Mike and I were trying to put together plans for our first day (okay, to be fair, any credit for the miniscule amount of planning that happened belongs to Mike), we looked at going to the Blue Lagoon. If you’ve ever seen the pictures of people in massive hot springs with seemingly unnatural blue-green water, that’s probably where they were. So the question is, “Hmm. Do you want to put on a bathing suit and go outside in this place where a winter coat is much more appropriate? Don’t worry, the water is warm.” Right but then there’s the air. Which is NOT warm. At all. “Want to go sit in some lava-heated water?” LAVA?? Does that really sound wise?

We ultimately decided to skip it (not because of any of my questions) because it’s not cheap (nearly $100 each) and neither of us had any strong feelings about going. The Blue Lagoon takes the output water from a nearby geothermal power plant and feeds it into a man-made pool. I was more interested in hunting down some natural hot springs (because going in unregulated lava-heated water sounds like a much better idea, doesn’t it?). Fun facts though: the mineral-rich water at the Blue Lagoon is thought to help with certain skin conditions like psoriasis (there’s even a research facility there). Icelandic doctors will literally prescribe visits as part of treatment, and patients visit for free.

What is this place??

Instead, we went in a completely different direction (geographically and conceptually) and made our way to Garður, once the most populous town in Iceland… but definitely not anymore. Now, the population is around 1,500, and as far as we could tell, the major (only) sights there are two lighthouses. The first was built in 1897, replacing a giant, 50-year-old pile of stones that was used for wayfinding. The second was built in 1944 and is much taller than the first – 28m compared to 12.5m. That makes it the tallest lighthouse on the island, and according to a survey, it’s the second most favorite lighthouse of the Icelandic people. No, I didn’t make that up. These are the divisive questions facing the people of Iceland.

Very confusing beach-scape

Spot the lighthouses! The one on the right is the second favorite. Can you see why? (Don’t ask me, I have no idea.)

When we got out of the car, we 1. almost blew away because the wind was completely out of control, and 2. got our first glimpse of the Icelandic terrain. Well, make that Icelandic terrain type 1 because as we soon learned, nowhere looks like anywhere else on the island, but everything looks weird. In Garður, there are white sand beaches… but they’re spotted with big black lava rocks, in case you managed to forget for a second that you’re on a volcanic island. If I wasn’t worried about unintentionally taking flight, I probably would have spent longer admiring the combination of pretty blue water, dark lava rocks, and light sand. Fair warning that I’m going to completely overuse the word “weird” anytime I try to explain what anything looked like. But like… weird.

Blowing away

From there, we went to a bridge that’s probably not what you imagine when you think “bridge”. This one doesn’t span a river… nope, it spans the gap between two tectonic plates. Like I explained in my Iceland History post, Iceland is along the ridge between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, so there are a few places on the island where you can see a gorge that I guess is basically a giant earth crack. How weird is that? (I know, I said it again.) This was also where we had our first experience with black sand. I was completely fascinated by it and took a picture of my feet, kicking off my trip-long obsession with Icelandic groundscapes.

Headed to the bridge between continents…

Black sand!

The bridge!

Mike is hiding again. Also, this sign makes it seem like you’re standing on two continents at once, but really, you’re on neither.

Spot camouflage Mike in the earth crack!

During his research, Mike spotted some craters on Google satellite view, so that was our next target. The only issue was that he wasn’t sure exactly where they were along the road or what they were called… good, right? And you might think that it would be clear, but there are pull-offs and places to turn to see different things about every 5 feet, so the chances of you finding what you’re looking for are slim. We saw a car pulled off the road somewhere, decided to check out whatever they were checking out (this is like 90% of our decision-making process, “Oh, there are a lot of people there so it must be something cool. Let’s go.”), and realized it was Mike’s craters. Of course they have a name, the Stampar craters, because everything in Iceland has a name. Again, weird and spacey, but this time a different planet. There were some places where the rock looked like it had been liquid lava only seconds before. It was cool to be able to see so clearly how it was formed. Also, totally insane because like… lava.

Crater field

Colorful!

Me and some craters

LAVA!

We were exploring the southwest corner for the day, and there’s another popular lighthouse in the area called Reykjanesviti. Let’s take a moment to talk about Icelandic names. I mentioned this when talking about my first impressions of Iceland, but they’re ridiculous so I’m going to rant again. I don’t know much about Icelandic, but it’s one of those languages where they like to mash things together, especially in names, so instead of it being Reykjanes Lighthouse (yes, I realize that’s longer but SHH!), they just put their word for lighthouse, viti, onto the end. That leads to a lot of incredibly long names and a lot of laughing while attempting to pronounce ANYTHING correctly. Usually you get halfway through the word, reach the point where you’re just tired of making so many sounds, and give up. When you’re driving, you read about half of the word and then you’ve driven past the sign so it’s a lost cause anyway.

Reykjanes Lighthouse

Anyway, as I was saying. Reykjanesviti. It was built to replace the island’s first lighthouse because they were worried it was going to fall into the sea. So, they blew it up (you can still see the foundations) and built a new one farther inland. The same erosion (caused by a combination of storms, the sea, and earthquakes) that threatened the first lighthouse formed cliffs, Valahnúkamöl (see what I mean about the names??). They are beautiful! We climbed up to the top of one of the cliffs and were mesmerized by the sight and sound of the waves crashing into the rocks. We were also absolutely freezing, and it was windy enough to make you think you were going to get blown into the ocean. On the positive side, it wasn’t raining at that particular moment (it was off and on all day).

Valahnukamol cliffs

View from the cliff

The coastline was really pretty, so when Mike suggested we follow some ATV tracks that went out in that direction, I was all in. We walked through expanses of colorful ground plants (I’m not sure if those are natural or if they were planted as part of the efforts to stabilize the soil to eventually reforest) and finally made it to the lava-rocky coast. Again, baffling. I’m not going to waste my time trying to describe it and instead will just direct your attention to the pictures.

Views from our walk

The coastline

Other-worldly

When we’d had enough of getting drenched with sea spray, we kept moving. I think Mike was getting annoyed at me because I was walking like a lost child. I was definitely not going quickly because how was I supposed to walk and take in the fascinating landscape at the same time?? Like I said, every other thought was, “WHAT IS THIS PLACE??” I stepped off the path to see what the ground felt like where the plants were (I know, you’re probably not supposed to do that but I was curious!), and it was like stepping on a pile of cotton balls. No impact, just a slowww sink of your foot.

We eventually ended up at a crater where Mike found a cave opening with ropes hanging down. I’m sure there’s some technical name and explanation for what it is and how it was formed, but I’m going to call it a cave because I don’t know any of that. We couldn’t see very far because it was pitch black. If we wanted to know what, if anything, was down there, our only choice was to go in. We looked at each other, the question hanging between us. I, for one, wasn’t worried about the cave or what was in it. I was primarily concerned about having to trust the sufficiency of my upper body strength to get back out because I haven’t done a rope-climb since elementary school. I don’t know what Mike was thinking, but he didn’t come up with a quick answer either. Explore or play it safe? What do you think we should have done? What do you think we did?

The crater where we found the cave

The cave in question

This is a PERFECT time to leave you with a “to be continued…” cavehanger (it’s like a cliffhanger but this was a cave, soo…).

Check out the continuation post HERE!

Goris

My southern adventure continued with a relocation from Kapan to Goris. The hotel staff in Kapan spoke no English, so I had to rely on my Armenian skills to figure out how to get there via public transportation. Here’s basically how my conversation with the hotel guy went:

Me: Tomorrow I want to go to Goris. Is there a marshrutka?
Guy: Yes, at 9 and noon.
Me: Do I have to call? (to reserve a seat)
Guy: Yes.
Me: Can YOU call?
Guy: Yes.

I crossed my fingers that I had actually said what I wanted to say, and sure enough, the hotel guy knocked on my door at 8:50, right as I was getting ready to walk out. He walked me out to the street, the marshrutka came, and I was off! Nice.

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

In Goris, I was staying with one of Kelsey and Olivia’s friends, Mary, who I had never met but has an extra room and was willing to take me in. Cool! She was going to call me when she finished with work for the day, but by chance, we bumped into each other on the street! Goris is a decently big town, so I think that’s impressive. She was walking up the street towards me, I looked at her and thought, “Hmm… she doesn’t fit here,” and I gave her an inquiring look. She apparently thought the same about me and said, “Are you Lara?” So that’s how we met.

Goris is a city (town?) of about 20,000 people. I wasn’t expecting that when I got there. I guess I always think that places are going to be tiny little villages with nothing going on because everyone always acts like there’s nothing happening in the country outside of Yerevan. I was pleasantly surprised! It’s nestled in the mountains, right near the eastern border with Artsakh, so the scenery is stunning. The area has been occupied since at least the 700s BC, and for much of that time, people lived in caves in the weirdly shaped mountains around the town. The caves were inhabited until the 18th century!

I think one of my favorite things about the south is that in every place I visited, the topography was sooo different. The cities aren’t even that far apart, but they look nothing like each other. In Goris, if you walk around the “Old Goris” area, it’s like you stepped onto another planet. I can’t even begin to describe the rock formations, so check out the pictures to see what I mean.

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

Pretty Goris, pretty mountains.

Self timer + rock = pretend photographer

Mary and I walked around Old Goris a bit during the evening after I got into town, and I went on a more intense trek the following day. I tried to follow an actual hike through the mountains, but it was poorly marked and very confusing. Instead, I ended up wandering around on random cow paths that went into some of the strangest places. Oh, well. That was more interesting anyway… at least, I assume it was but couldn’t tell you for sure because I still don’t know where I was supposed to walk.

Cave dwelling

As far as I can tell, the actual path doesn’t go past any of the coolest things. My favorite part of the walk was checking out some of the cave homes. So many of them had doors that you needed to rock climb into, and you could see where the previous inhabitants had chipped hand and foot holes into the rock to help them climb up. Can you imagine having to rock climb into your house?? My reaction to that question is, “IS THAT NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD?” but I imagine that some of you are probably more on the, “Ummm that sounds horrible,” page. I love enclosed spaces which means that caves are just about my favorite thing, and I’ve now officially decided that my dream home is a cave home (with a very comfy couch inside, of course).

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

Chimney above the window.

Door to the left, window to the right.

Cave window views.

After I finished getting lost in the weird mountains and creeping around abandoned cave houses, I headed into town to check out a few of the sights. I have to say that the buildings in Goris are some of my favorite in the whole country. I love stonework, and the town is overflowing with pretty stone buildings. Even the abandoned buildings look beautiful!

Picturesque

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

I visited two churches in town, St. Hripsime and St. Gregory the Illuminator. St. Hripsime was originally built in the 4th century, and St. Gregory was built in the early 1900s. St. Hripsime is small and pretty and was rebuilt a few times, first in the 1500s and then in the early 2000s. the inside feels like you’re inside a cave… appropriate. St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is slightly more Armenian-church-typical. The inside is plain, and the outside design is nothing extraordinary, but the stone color is a pretty grey that I enjoyed. They also had a very nice gate entering into the grounds, and metalwork is another craft that I’m a big fan of.

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

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

Between the natural beauty of the surroundings and the man-made beauty of the town, it’s definitely on my list of favorite places in Armenia. Mountain views, easily accessible adventure, caves, stone buildings… what more do you need?

St. Hripsime

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

Field of trash encountered during my hike.

The central square

Spot the little cave door!

Kapan

My trek from Meghri to Kapan started VERY early in the morning, especially by Armenia standards. The marshrutka left at 7:30AM, but it actually wasn’t too hard to get up on time… thanks to all of the walking the day before, I had a fabulous, comatose night’s sleep.

Kelsey was going all the way to Yerevan, about eight hours, and I was hopping off in Kapan after about two. It was nice to have some company for the ride! I’m so used to going places by myself now that it always throws me off when I have a friend.

Kapan city sign

The marshrutka dropped me off right in front of my hotel for the night. I didn’t do much pre-planning for this trip (I’m trying to learn how to “go with the flow” and be okay with that), so I looked for somewhere to stay only one night in advance. According to the internet, there weren’t many cheap choices left. In hindsight, I feel like I should have just gotten dropped off in the city center and wandered around asking hotels if they had vacancies. Anyway, I didn’t do that, so I stayed at an inexpensive and NOT centrally located hotel. Everything except for the location was great! But that resulted in me having another ridiculous walking day.

Inside Surp Mesrop Mashtots

I had two sightseeing goals for the day, Halidzor Fortress and Vahanavank. According to google maps, it was a 15 km walk to Vahanavank, and Halidzor is in the same general area. I looked at that and thought, “Oh hey, that’s not bad! Only 3 hours!” Any rational person would have looked at that and said, “I’m going to ask the hotel to call me a taxi.” Oh, well. I figured that I would walk there and then find an alternate method of transportation back.

I walked about 40 minutes just to get to Kapan. The thing is, though, that you can’t just think of it as a long walk. You have to think about the fact that you’re seeing things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise because you don’t enjoy the scenery as much when you’re in a car. See? That’s my way of rationalizing my decision and telling you that it was the right one to make (though strong recommend that you just get a taxi if you’re ever in this situation). On my way through Kapan, I went to see the church, Surp Mesrop Mashtots. If you feel like you’ve heard this all before, it’s because every city/town/village in Armenia seemingly picks from the same list of five church names and ten street names, and things can get confusing very quickly.

Surp Mesrop Mashtots

The municipal building

From there, I roamed a little more, stopped in a store to buy some snacks (where they stared at me like I was a Martian and forgot to put my human suit on – classic Armenia moment right there), and continued on my way. I walked more… a lot more… and eventually realized that I could have taken a bus nearly the ENTIRE way that I walked. Well. I got some good exercise, and I REALLY saw the scenery. After maybe 11 km, I finally got to the point where I turned off the main road and started heading up to Vahanavank.

Finally off the main road

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

I was probably 20 minutes from the church when a car came up behind me. I did what I usually do and pretended that I had everything under control and totally wanted to be walking up a mountain after already walking for almost three hours… and at that moment, I got caught on a spiky plant and had to stop to untangle myself. So much for looking like I knew what I was doing. The driver pulled up next to me, rolled down his window, and asked if I was going to Vahanavank… as if there was any other reason I would be walking on a random mountain road that literally only leads to the church. I said yes, and he told me to hop in. I’m not too proud to accept a ride, especially when my legs are ready to fall off, so I got in and we were at the top in three minutes.

The river that runs beside the town

When we got to the church, there was actually a priest there! I was so thrown off. I think that’s literally the first time I’ve ever seen a priest in a church who wasn’t in the middle of conducting a service. The guys who picked me up seemed to be buddies with him, and I heard them telling him that they picked me up on the side of the road. I started poking around the church, and the priest invited me to drink tea with them… which he was in the process of heating water for on his little propane tank. Ha! It was a little chilly up there, and I was kind of hoping for a ride back down the mountain too, so I said okay.

The priest spoke some English, so our conversation was actually pretty good. I spoke broken Armenian, he spoke broken English, and we figured it out. He was excited that I’m an architecture person (no one knows what an architectural engineer is, so they usually just decide that I’m an architect), and after tea, we walked around the church and he pointed out different architectural features.

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

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

Vahanavank was founded in 911 by the prince of Kapan, Prince Vahan, who supposedly became a monk to cure himself of a demonic possession. The main church is called… wait for it… Surp Grigor Lusavorich aka Saint Gregory the Illuminator Church. It functioned as a monastery and a spiritual school for some time, and there are a bunch of graves in/around the church, including Prince Vahan and many other kings and princes of Syunik (the province where Kapan is located).

Vahanavank

There’s another little chapel on the grounds as well, Surp Astvatsatsin, that was built by one of the Syunik queens, and it also serves as a mausoleum for her and her relatives. It seems like people just built churches when they wanted fancy places to be buried.

Surp Astvatsatsin Chapel

There was an earthquake that destroyed practically everything on the grounds, and they just recently did some restoration work that was never finished. The main chapel of Surp Grigor Lusavorich Church was completely restored, but the vestibule on the side is only partially completed. The priest showed us where they put in different structural features to help if there’s ever another earthquake and the difference between the original and the new stones. The original stones were quarried from a neighboring mountain, but the new ones were brought in from elsewhere.

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

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

I stayed at Vahanavank MUCH longer than anticipated. If I had gone on my own, I probably would have stayed 15 minutes max and then kept going to Halidzor. Instead, I was there for more than an hour. When they asked where I was going next and I said Halidzor, everyone looked at me like I was a lunatic. They went on and on about how it had just rained and the path was going to be muddy and I shouldn’t go. Usually I’m not one to listen to things like that, but I was kind of cold and the sky had been overcast and dark all day, and I was a little worried about getting stuck out there in the dark. The priest gave me his phone number in case I decided to go and needed help, but I ended up deciding that I had walked enough for one day. I asked the guys who gave me a ride where they were headed, and they said, “Wherever you’re going.” I kind of assumed that would be the answer. People are too nice.

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

They drove me all the way back to my hotel, laughing the entire time about the fact that I had walked all the way there. I’ll tell you this much – it seemed like a long way even in a car! At least I got my exercise in for the day! I was happy to have some extra chill time at the hotel to take an incredibly long, hot shower and attempt to warm up. The weather was much colder than I expected, and when I stopped walking at my breakneck pace, I think my body got pretty cold.

Anyway, it was certainly an adventure, and now I still have things to do the next time I go to Kapan! This trip is just making me even more sure of my thoughts that I need to come back to Armenia someday. Maybe Sarah and I will do another trip to conquer all of the hiking destinations!

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.

Havuts Tar Monastery

Victoria and I decided to make our own excursion and visit Havuts Tar Monastery. It’s in ruins, but I read that the view is great and it’s a short hike from Garni. We wanted to hike somewhere close to Yerevan, and this was on my list, so we decided to give it a try.

Azat River!

I wasn’t so sure about the logistics of hiking there because it’s located inside of Khosrov Forest State Reserve. It’s one of the oldest protected areas in the world, supposedly established by King Khosrov in the 330s. I think he just wanted something to name after himself. It was reestablished in its current form in 1958. There are four different landscapes within the park, ranging from desert to alpine meadow, and a ton of different plant and animal species. There are 41 mammal species!

You can see a little speck on top of the mountain in the background, right side… that’s Amenaprkich Church

If you follow the Khosrov website, visiting the park seems like a huge pain. It says that you have to hire a guide and get a permit if you want to hike in the park, and it’s a bit expensive. In all of the reviews I read, no one said anything about a guide. We figured we would go, try to visit, and be prepared for a last-minute change of plans if we weren’t allowed into the park.

The path

We took a marshrutka to Garni and walked from there. After some near wrong turns and helpful directions from locals, we found what looked like the trail and started hiking. Thank goodness for GPS because otherwise, who knows where we would have ended up? It seemed for a while like we weren’t going to encounter anyone… until we turned a corner and saw a huge gate with a Khosrov seal on it. Okay, showtime. Worst case, we’d get turned away and have to find something else to do. No big deal.

There was a park ranger sitting at the gate, and we said hello and told him that we wanted to see Havuts Tar. (We had practiced saying this on the walk so that we would sound like we knew what we were talking about.) He didn’t seem thrown off by our presence or our request and asked where we were from. We said Yerevan, and he told us that it’s 1000 dram to hike there if you’re from Yerevan and 2000 dram if you’re a foreigner, so lucky for us that we’re not foreigners because we get a better price. Pretty sure he winked at us when he said that.

We went into the little visitor’s center to pay, and they had a sign with pricing for all of the different sites within the park. To me, that seems to mean you don’t need a guide… Oh, who knows. Maybe it’s like some local secret that you can just walk in and they try to trick the internet users into getting a guide. I was surprised by how nice the visitor’s center was. They had posters about the different sites in the park, information about environmental preservation, a creepily impressive beetle collection, and best of all, a bathroom.

The path

Victoria and I paid our 1000 dram each and headed up the trail to the monastery. The hike wasn’t bad at all. There were some steep parts, but we were following a dirt car road, making it impossible to get lost. There were even a few shade trees along the way! That’s a rare sight on a hike here.

Getting closer…

Havuts Tar Monastic Complex was built between the 12th and 14th centuries, so in Armenia time, it’s new! There was an earthquake in 1679 that destroyed much of the complex, and after that, it was basically abandoned. There’s another church there as well, Amenaprkich Church, which was originally built in the 10th century.

View of the monastery complex from the hiking trail

The ruins were a pleasant surprise. Everything I read basically said that the monastery is unimpressive, but the view makes the trip worth it. I completely disagree with the first statement. It was beautiful!! The ruins were way more extensive than I expected. There were fortified walls, hidden underground rooms, and some of the best stone carvings I’ve seen in Armenia. As we wandered around, Victoria and I couldn’t help but express our disbelief at the fact that anyone would say that the monastery was anything less than awesome.

One of the church ruins with nice lettering carvings inside

Me on a relatively stable wall…

Looking out at the ruins from the wall

I love these khatchkars!

I’m sure this isn’t going to fall anytime soon… but that doesn’t mean that we didn’t sprint under it just in case

That view!

Entrance to one of the monastery complex churches

Some of the carvings were the most intricate I’ve seen

Everything is decorated!

This looks like an alien on a space horse capturing another alien, but that alien is smiling because he knows that there are twenty of his alien soldier friends on their way to save him.

This room is underground… they think it used to be the monastery’s library

The view certainly wasn’t anything to complain about either. It overlooks the Azat River Valley, the same one that runs behind Garni Temple, and the whole thing is pretty spectacular. From Amenaprkich, you can see Garni Temple too! We found a shady spot to eat our snacks (some bread, cheese, and cookies, courtesy of Victoria), chatted, and enjoyed the scenery.

Amenaprkich Church

View from Amenaprkich Church

Me and Victoria!

It’s always nice when a day turns out even better than you expect. I was worried that we wouldn’t even be able to enter the park and I would have dragged Victoria out there for no reason. Far from that, we had a great time! Havuts Tar is pretty close to the top of my list of favorite places to visit in Armenia, along with Dilijan, Levon’s Divine Underground, and Smbataberd. I think my list of favorite places is slightly more obscure than most people’s…

❤️❤️❤️