09 April 2011

Adventures (and Misadventures) in Southern Armenia

For spring break this year, we took a long-overdue road trip into Armenia's two southernmost regions, Vayots Dzor and Syunik. Here's how it went!

Day 1: Monday, April 4
We drove through the Ararat valley and over the hills into Vayots Dzor. Our first major stop was Noravank, a 12th-century monastery nestled in a red rock canyon. Nathan didn't hesitate to climb the extremely narrow, ancient staircase of the Astvatsatsin church, so of course, Mommy had to scramble up after him on all fours; the whole situation made Daddy terribly nervous, but it would seem the legends about this being a very holy and miraculous place contain at least a grain of truth--no harm came to us, and within moments, we were enjoying a lovely picnic in the yard.
These steps are the width of my shoulders--which is to say, not very wide at all!

We failed miserably in our attempt to visit the three other historic sites on the day's itinerary, due to rain, mud, a power steering fluid leak, and frighteningly precarious mountain roads--if one could even call them roads:
We gave up trying to reach Shativank by 4WD jeep, so we got out and started hiking, but when we realized the path continued over the mountains and beyond our range of vision, we gave up on that, too. I took this [very zoomed-in] picture from the summit before making our way back down.

Yet we still managed to have a good time exploring the tiny villages of the region; in fact, since we never made it to the sites ourselves, we were filled with even greater respect and awe for the monks who had built their churches in such remote places with no roads, no maps, no electricity or modern machinery--essentially, with nothing but their faith.

What's Jarred looking at?

He's admiring the view of Shatin, the village far below us on the Yeghegis River--and wondering how the heck we are going to turn the car around and drive back down there!

Plan A was to pitch a tent and camp out somewhere, and drive to the marz capital Yeghegnadzor the following day. But again, due to rain, wind, and car trouble, we drove ahead to the town, where we found a mechanic's garage and, thanks to our Lonely Planet guidebook, a comfortable bed & breakfast with vacancy for the night.
Gohar's Guesthouse was a godsend!

Day 2: Tuesday, April 5
Following a scrumptious homemade country breakfast prepared by proprietor Gohar and her daughter Armine...

...we were on the road again. We discovered 13th-century Tanahati Vank and the ruins of Gladzor University among the barren, windswept hills southeast of the village of Vernashen.
The isolation of these ancient sites is a big part of their appeal.

After deciding against visiting two more sites due to poor road conditions (we actually had to ford a stream in our ultimately fruitless quest to reach them), we continued our journey south, passing over 3000+ meter snow-covered mountains into Syunik marz. We made our way into the town of Sisian, where our friend Ben is stationed as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He guided us to the major local attractions: Zorats Karer (a.k.a. Karahunj) of international fame and the 11th-century fortified monastery of Vorotnavank.

Ben and Jarred wander among the standing stones of Zorats Karer, a prehistoic necropolis and presumably the earliest known astronomical observatory.


Our little explorer

An unforgettable evening at Vorotnavank

Overlooking the rushing Vorotan river, grasses grow on the monastery's ancient stone walls

We hadn't seen Ben since his New Year's visit to Yerevan, so we had a wonderful time catching up, birdwatching--ahem--birding, contemplating the history of the region, and discussing Armenian and English language and culture. We also earned the honored distinction of being both the first family and the final guests to surf Ben's "couch" before he had to move to a different apartment the next day!

Day 3: Wednesday, April 6
In the morning, we helped Ben move a few boxes, lit some candles in Sisavan, the town's main church, and hit the trail once more. We followed instructions in the Rediscovering Armenia guidebook that led us just a couple kilometers off the main highway to the remains of Kotrats Caravanserai, one of the "rest stops" along the old Silk Road. I really liked the architecture of the place, even if it happened to be filled with melting snow.

The next stop was Tatev, one of the most important historical sites in Armenia, and one that I've dreamed about seeing in person for years. As it turned out, the wait was worthwhile because just a few months ago, construction was completed on the world's longest aerial tramway, which whisked us over mountains and gorges to this 9th-century fortified monastery in just 11 minutes. For Nathan, the ride was definitely the highlight of spring break.

That's one happy boy

It was only during our time at Tatev that I truly began to comprehend the political power the church held in medieval Armenia. All visitors to this country learn the story of St. Gregory the Illuminator, particularly his 13-year imprisonment, which ended in 301 CE when he miraculously cured King Trdat III of his insanity; as a result, the king decreed that his entire nation should convert to Christianity immediately, and Armenia is still generally recognized as the first country to adopt Christianity as its official state religion. The part of the story no one ever discusses, however, is the fact that not all the Armenian people were so willing to give up their polytheistic traditions, and how they rose up against the church, which had been granted ownership of lands and was taxing the peasants for tribute money. Now I understood why what should have been a peaceful place of worship and enlightenment was enclosed by stone walls and battlements!

Tatev takes its place in the mists of time

I also realized that unless one is on a neighboring mountain or in a helicopter, there is just no way to take a photograph that does the site any real justice. Therefore, I am including here a beautiful image from Asbarez.com:

Day 4: Thursday, April 7
We spent a cold, rainy Wednesday night at the charming Hotel Mirhav in Goris, and awoke to more rain and heavy fog blanketing the entire town and surrounding countryside. This foiled our plans to enjoy a morning sightseeing in and around Goris, so we simply packed up the car and drove back to Yerevan. Not counting a stop for lunch, the trip took only about 4.5 hours.

In retrospect, perhaps spring is not the ideal time of year to visit southern Armenia, but all the grey clouds and rain we experienced certainly made those rare moments of sunshine and blue sky much more breathtaking and precious in our memories. We also had the special privilege of observing nature awakening from her winter slumber, as meltwater cascaded down the mountainsides, carpets of fresh green grass sprouted on the fields, and delicate white, pink, and yellow flowers blossomed on the trees. We were pleased with Nathan's readiness in assuming the role of explorer during this trip, arming himself with a flashlight whenever we got out of the car, collecting snail shells and rocks he found during our hikes, and always letting us know in advance when he had to go--though he has yet to master peeing standing up in the wilderness...

Here are the pictures from our trip, and some videos are available on our YouTube channel.

Comments and questions are welcome!

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