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…

❤️❤️❤️
Breakfast views of Ararat… it’s there, I promise. You just have to look closely.

I’m exhausted. The weekend was a whirlwind, and I spent most of it wanting to take a nap. Each day was so ambitiously scheduled that it was literally impossible to get enough sleep, but I survived it and didn’t even get sick! That’s pretty good. I do want to go to sleep ASAP tonight though, and I know I’m going to spend the rest of the week trying to catch up on the hours I should have gotten over the weekend.

Views from the drive

The sleep deprivation started on Friday morning when we had to meet at 5:30AM to go to Yerevan. I somehow managed to drag myself out of bed on time and scored a prime seat in the taxi (we had one packed van and one taxi) where I logged another hour of semi-restful sleep.

In Yerevan, we joined up with the other volunteers who are living in Yerevan and Vanadzor. Again, I lucked out with the seating and got a spot in one of the two vans rather than in the big bus with most of the volunteers. Perks of the van: no microphone for people to yell into, functional air conditioning, (slightly) less vomit-inducing movements, faster, and fewer people. It was basically paradise.

I love driving through the mountains because of the great views. I hate driving through the mountains because mountain roads are always windy and always make everyone want to throw up.
In Halidzor before getting on the cable car to Tatev

After multiple snack/bathroom stops and about four more hours of driving, we made it to Tatev Monastery. Well, to be accurate, we made it to the town of Halidzor where the end of the cableway that takes you to Tatev is located. The big claim to fame of the cableway is that it’s the longest non-stop double track aerial tramway in the world. It’s 3.5 miles (5.7 km) long, and the ride takes about 10 minutes. It’s in the mountains, so the views along the way to the monastery are incredible. It’s probably the most expensive thing to do in Armenia, with round trip tickets costing 5000 dram for tourists (about USD$11).

Me + mountains
Ruth, Talene, and me
PUSH! I thought these signs were hilarious… they’re on the doors into the bathrooms to tell you to push vs. pull, but they’re very exaggerated examples of what that looks like.
PULL!
Cable car cables

The cableway would have been awesome even if it didn’t lead anywhere, but it’s even better because it gets you to the town of Tatev and the monastery. The complex is pretty extensive. There are multiple churches, residential areas, a library, a dining hall, school buildings, an olive mill, and more. The olive mill is from the Middle Ages, and we visited that first. I can’t tell you any real information about it because I zoned out when the guide was talking. Then, instead of getting facts, I asked people to tell me made up explanations about what the different things there were used for. I definitely had more fun on my made-up tour, but I also definitely left with zero accurate information.

I was too busy crawling around in random holes in the olive mill to pay attention
Probably some sort of olive press, but I’ll forever know it as the world’s first liposuction machine because the Armenians invented everything, didn’t you know?

The monastery was built originally in the 9th century on the former site of a pagan temple. There was also an important university there in the 14th and 15th centuries that was a leading cultural and scientific center and trained teachers who then taught across Armenia. After that, the complex was attacked, damaged, and looted multiple times throughout history by different groups as they invaded Armenia. In 1931, there was an earthquake that damaged it even more, and there’s still restoration work going on now.

The main church in the monastery
One of the other rooms around the monastery complex
Tatev!

 

On the road to Artsakh… “Free Artsakh Welcomes You”

After leaving Tatev and taking another scenic ride through the mountains, we continued our trek to Artsakh. We had a few more hours of driving, and by the time we got to Shushi, the city where we were staying, I was ready to pass out. We were in homestays, and the process of getting everyone where they needed to go was just as much of a mess as you would expect. I fell asleep in the van as we were driving around and then completely ate it on my way out because I was still 95% asleep and my leg collapsed instead of holding me up when I stepped down. Oops. I was fine and too tired to even be embarrassed about it. I think the total drive time for the day was something like 10 hours, though I didn’t keep track so who knows. Whether that’s right or not, it wasn’t a short amount of time. I don’t blame my leg for collapsing because that’s really what my entire body wanted to do!

 

View of the mountains from the Artsakh sign. If you like mountains, Artsakh might be the place for you!
Waiting at the border for the bus to catch up. Check out the tiny church at the bottom of the picture!

Our last day of sightseeing unintendedly ended up being somewhat rock themed. Since we obviously hadn’t seen enough monasteries yet, we had another one, Geghard, on the docket for the morning, plus the only remaining pagan temple in the country, Garni Temple.

Temple of Garni

By now you’re used to the process of getting around… we took a city bus to a marshrutka station and a marshrutka to Garni, the town where Garni Temple is. It took under an hour to get there, and the walk from the bus stop was less than 10 minutes. Easy peasy.

Back in the day (like waaay back), the Armenians were sun worshippers. It’s interesting because you can look at the Christian art and architecture that came after the country’s conversion to Christianity and see how it’s connected to the art and architecture that came before. Pagan symbols were re-explained in Christian terms, rather than getting rid of them. For example, the pomegranate is used A LOT as a symbol here. In the pagan days, it was a symbol of fertility. In the Christian days, it was changed into a symbol of unity (people are the seeds, all individuals but part of the same body of Christ).

Temple from the back

Anyway, I kind of went off on a tangent. The point is that Garni Temple was a temple built in the first century AD and dedicated to the sun god, Mihr. The reason it survived even after Armenia’s conversion was because it was turned into a royal summer house. An earthquake in 1679 caused it to collapse, and it was finally excavated and reconstructed in the 1970s. They used almost all original stones to reconstruct it, but the ones that are not original were made obvious. It’s built in the classical Greek style with a little bit of an Armenian twist. The temple is cool, and the location makes it even better. You can get a great view of the Azat River gorge which is part of a big national park, Khosrov Forest State Reserve, one of the oldest protected areas in the world. It was founded in the 330s AD! I’m getting sidetracked again, but I’m definitely putting it on my list of places to visit while I’m here.

Such cool detailing!

The gorge
Looking out into Khosrov Reserve

After Garni Temple, we headed to Geghard. That required getting a taxi which we weren’t too excited about, but it ended up being extremely easy! Walking back towards the main street, we met an older gentleman who asked if we were going to Geghard. He asked if we needed a taxi and offered to take us in his, there and back for 2000 dram (a little more than $4). It’s about 10km away, and he said he would wait for an hour which is plenty of time to see everything. We agreed because that price was definitely lower than it should have been (and we gave him some extra at the end because we kind of felt like we were cheating him), and we were off!

First glimpse of Geghard

Geghard Monastery has a connection to everyone’s favorite historical figure… that’s right, St. Gregory! In its current form, it has multiple churches and tombs, but it started out just as a cave church. There’s a spring inside where you can wash your hands and face or drink some fresh, freezing cold water. There’s some great water in this country. The name “Geghard” comes from the word for “spear” because the monastery used to house the spear that was supposedly used to wound Jesus during the crucifixion and brought to Armenia by the apostle Thaddeus. That spear is now kept in the museum at Etchmiadzin.

Geghard scenery

The monastery has a few different chapels now, with most carved into and one built out from the cliff. There’s one chapel in particular that is completely carved into the cliff and has some amazing acoustics. There are khachkars (stone crosses) EVERYWHERE, with some stuck into the cliff. They’re there to commemorate donations or in memory of the deceased. The “khachkar style”, if you will, was developed because stone crosses with the stone following the shape of the cross broke too easily. With a khachkar, the stone is a rectangle, and the cross is carved into it with elaborate decorations surrounding it.

This is all carved into the cliff!
Hallway into the big chapel with khachkars lining the walls. Ignore my finger in the picture (oops)
The biggest chapel completely inside the cliff
Khachkar party!
You’ll see tons of people trying to toss pebbles into little shelves in the rocks. If you get your rock to stay, your wish comes true!
Into the depths…

Our day ended with a trip to a slightly more offbeat attraction. Sarah and I are very into going to see things that are a little bit weird, so when we found the information about Master Levon’s Divine Underground, we knew we had to see it. The story goes (and this I know for a fact is a completely true story) that a man named Levon, a builder by trade, was asked by his wife to dig a potato cellar. He started digging, hit rock, moved over and kept digging more. And then he kept digging. And digging. And digging. And digging. He said that he had divine visions that told him to keep going, so he did. He dug for 23 years, until his death, with just a hammer, a chisel, and a bucket to carry out the rubble. The underground complex he created still isn’t complete according to his plans, but my gosh it’s amazing. My favorite quote by his wife, Tosya, is, “all I wanted was a good house and a potato cellar, and I got neither.” On the bright side though, she now has an ongoing revenue stream from visitors, so maybe Levon knew exactly what he was doing (it’s free to enter, but they accept donations).

At its deepest, the complex goes down 70 feet below the house! How crazy is that?!?! There are seven rooms connected by corridors and staircases, and decorations are carved into the walls at every turn. The pictures don’t do it justice, but they can at least give you the beginnings of an idea of what it was like.

Column carvings like these were all over the place

Awkward self-timer pictures
This room is huge. It was at least a two-story space with an overlook where I propped my mini-tripod and sprinted downstairs for this picture
This is crazy, right?

We were welcomed in by Tosya, and she left us to explore the caves on our own. At 50 degrees F (10 C), it’s fabulously cool down there, and thankfully, there are arrows marking out the route or we would have been hopelessly lost. When we came out, Tosya showed us to a little museum inside the house where you can see the hammers and chisels that Levon used, plus his clothes and a bunch of news articles that have been written about his creation. She spoke no English, but once again, we managed to communicate enough. After that, she led us outside into the garden where the walls were covered with stone mosaics and two paintings: one of Levon, and one of Tosya. This was one talented guy. We signed a guestbook with notes by visitors from all over the world and headed back into the city, our minds still blown by what we had just experienced. Who knew that this would turn into a cave exploration day?

Sarah looking awkward in the metro

Sarah and I are basically public transportation pros now. We’re all about economical travel which means things are never easy or straightforward and always weird and memorable. The goal of the day was to make it to Khor Virap, a monastery about 30km south of Yerevan. The trek started with a walk from our apartment to Republic Square (the central square in the city) to catch the metro.

The metro here was built when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. Cities with at least 1 million residents were granted a subway, so even though a population of that size wasn’t in the original plan for Yerevan, the quota was reached, and a subway was built. There’s only one metro line and the route is kind of random, but if you’re starting and ending somewhere close to the line, it’s actually very nice. The stations are way cleaner than any other subway I’ve ever been in. A ride costs 100 drams (about 20 cents), and to pay your fare, you buy these little plastic tokens that look like someone cut them out of a sheet of plastic using safety scissors.

The ride back to Yerevan. Spot the Sarah.

Our metro ride was uneventful, and we made it to the bus station quickly and without any trouble. The next part of the trip was taking a marshrutka (that’s the Russian word for it… I’m sure there’s an Armenian word too, but this is the one that I’ve heard used) which is basically the exact same thing as tro tros in Ghana and combis in Peru. They’re minibuses that (generally) look like they’ve seen MANY better days, and everyone packs in like sardines. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with a strong need for personal space.

It was easy enough finding the right one to take. I let Sarah think that my Armenian reading skills were really good, but actually the sign also said “Khor Virap” in Latin letters too. Shh, don’t give away my secrets. Actually though, I can read at least well enough to make sure we’re going the right way. I didn’t realize how big of a help that was going to be.

The bus left exactly on schedule which impressed me. Is “Armenian time” just an excuse that people use in the States to justify being late, but it’s actually not a thing in Armenia? Or maybe the public transportation is just on point here. I’ll have to get back to you on this.

Khor Virap from afar

We made it to Khor Virap in maybe 40 minutes, and the driver took us all the way to the parking lot even though the route is supposed to leave you off about 1.5 km away. That was fine with me! He saved us 20 minutes of walking each way, and we used that time for extra adventures. The first stop though, obviously, was the monastery. There are two reasons why this monastery is extra cool. Reason #1: you get an awesome view of Mount Ararat. Reason #2: legend has it that St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned by the king for 13 years in a “dungeon” (aka a creepy underground room or a “khor virap” – a “deep well”) in the monastery. He was left there to die and was even forgotten by the king, but he was fed and kept alive by a woman from a neighboring village (I’ve heard this a couple ways though… one is that it was one woman under the influence of a strange dream that compelled her to bring him food. The other is that it was a few Christian women who secretly fed him. The length of the imprisonment also seems to be up for a bit of debate with some sources saying it was only 13 months, not years, but we’ll go with years because that’s a better story).

Sarah looking excited about coming down the ladder into some random hole. Why does one monastery need so many holes?
The random hole, purpose unknown (by me, that is. I’m sure someone knows).
The ladder out of the imprisonment hole. It smelled nice and musty down there, as I’m sure you can imagine.
Surp Astvatsatsin Church in Khor Virap

Eventually St. Gregory was freed when the king went mad, and his sister had a dream that St. Gregory could cure him. And that is how this story goes from being just about St. Gregory to being the story of how Armenia became the first country to declare Christianity the state religion in 301 A.D. If you know any Armenians, then you know how proud everyone is of that fact, which by association makes Khor Virap kind of a big deal. Wow. Sorry, that story ended up being much longer than planned (and I cut out a LOT of details, trust me). Anyway, the takeaway from this is that Armenian legends are great, and who knows what’s true and what’s not quite. I’m going to count them all as completely factual because that’s way more fun.

Check out that view! Hi, Mount Ararat!
Us with Gervorg

After exploring all of the nooks and crannies of Khor Virap, we still had some time before our return bus. We headed out on a pilgrimage to a statue of Gevorg Chaush, a guy who I think would be best described as a freedom fighter (correct me if I’m wrong). We thought it was funny that there’s a statue of him basically in the middle of nowhere, so we made the trek out to give him a little company.

Thankfully, we made it back just in time to catch the bus which was, once again, EXACTLY on time. Incredible. We got back to Yerevan and spent some time at the Armenian History Museum. Here’s the quick summary: The Armenians have been around for practically forever (they say that there’s been a geographical region called Armenia for 2600 years). There’s a LOT of history to go through. You can see the oldest shoe in the world that’s dated back to about 3500 BC (that’s even older than the pyramids, Stonehenge, and the ice man). If you go, you should do the tour because there’s so much to look at, and if you try to understand it all on your own, your head will explode. Even with the tour, your head might explode. Sarah and I are filled with a whole lot of Armenian history knowledge now.

The Armenian History Museum. Apparently it was used as an orphanage at one point.

We also visited Vernissage, a big souvenir market, and went back to Republic Square at night to see the fountain music/light show. I won’t say too much about that except that it’s awesome. And then we came home and passed out.

Vernissage from across the street
Roaming Vernissage
Fountain music/light show!
So cool!