12 November 2012

Camping in Armenia's Lori Region

Not counting the backyard sleepovers of my childhood, I had never successfully gone camping in my life until this past September.  The Blackmer-Baima-Schwab Road Trip Team took advantage of the Independence Day holiday for a three-day camping getaway in Lori marz, one of Armenia's northern regions -- arguably the most beautiful region in the country.  We managed to visit six historic sites at a leisurely pace, three of which were "new" for the Blackmer family, and all of which were "new" for Diane.  And of course, the entire concept of camping was something new for Nathan.

We drove north from Yerevan towards Stepanavan, and made an unplanned first stop in the tiny village of Amrakits to visit their 19th century Russian church, a remnant of imperial Russia.  The roof and domes were rusty with neglect, chunks of the outer walls were missing, and large cracks crisscrossed what remained; it makes me wonder about the history of the place: why would what was surely once the centerpiece of village life fall into such disrepair?  Without knowing any specifics, I can only presume that, under Soviet rule, the people were forced to abandon their place of worship...and there have simply been no funds for (or interest in) restoration since independence 21 years ago.  Another photo-op for 21st century tourists arises from the tragedies of 20th century Armenia.




Despite everything, it seems daily routines in Amrakits go on much as they did generations ago.

A few minutes after leaving Amrakits, we found ourselves at Lori Berd, a site we first visited in 2009.  Aside from restoration work in progress on the entry arch, the place was much as we remembered it, yet even lovelier on such a warm, sunny day.  Nathan, big-boy adventurer that he is, enjoyed the place much more this time around.

On the front steps of the makeshift church.

Looking down onto a medieval bridge spanning the Urut River.

Nathan scans for signs of invasion atop his trusty steed (actually a now-headless horse-shaped tombstone, though its carved stirrups and other tack are still clearly visible).

Heading east from Stepanavan, we made our way through several villages, the road conditions progressively worsening, until we reached Hnevank, whose main church has undergone significant restoration in recent years.  Because of its relative isolation and the surrounding open, grassy areas, it was here that we decided to set up camp for the night.  We began to collect and chop firewood, and I was mesmerized by a small herd of cows that came down the hillside to graze around the monastery.  Following a splendid rose-gold sunset, we sat around the campfire, chatting over a pot of homemade vegetarian chili and sweet cornbread before turning in for the night.  While Jarred extinguished the fire, and once Nathan was snoring inside the tent, I stood by myself for a few moments outside in pitch darkness.  Without any settlements in view, and without air, noise, or light pollution, the silhouette of the ancient church against a starry night sky is a sight I will never forget as long as I live.  (If only I were a painter!)



Nathan excitedly collects branches as a self-motivated employee of the "wood factory."


Waking up to a crystal-clear morning on the Debed gorge.

After a successful first night of camping, we sat down to a breakfast consisting of tea and Diane's banana muffins -- unfortunately, the apples we had picked from a nearby tree were too tart for us, so we offered them to the cows, who happily devoured them.  Then we packed up and drove eastward along the rough road until we rejoined the main highway north of Vanadzor.  Along this well-traveled road are a number of popular tourist destinations, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites Sanahin and Haghpat, the latter at which we stopped for lunch.  As we had been to both locations before and there weren't any significant differences (aside from the pretty fall foliage), I decided against taking photos, instead choosing to stroll leisurely among the tombstones -- really, they're everywhere, impossible to avoid -- and absorb the timeless magnificence of the architecture and natural setting.

Continuing northward, we reached our final destination, the village of Akhtala and its spectacular fortress and monastery of the 10th century.  As we entered the main church, mass was just finishing.  After the service, we spent some time talking to the priest, who told us about the church's history and the colorful frescoes that have adorned its walls since the early 1200s. These were more numerous and well-preserved than any we had seen elsewhere in Armenia.  We asked him for permission to spend the night on the church grounds, which he granted us.  He even invited us to join him, along with some of his congregation, for dinner -- but as we had already brought our own food and did not wish to impose ourselves further, we politely declined.  Once the village folk had left for the evening, we set up our tents, ate a "foil dinner" of potatoes and vegetables cooked right in the campfire, and had such a relaxing time that Nathan fell asleep in his seat by the fire.

Walking the grounds of Akhtala Monastery


Breathtaking frescoes from wall to wall, floor to ceiling

Sleeping comfortably on an air mattress in the tent

Rise and shine!

Peering through an intricately carved doorway into the ruins


Nathan has fun playing among the strewn fragments of once-majestic archways and columns

A modern monument featuring two wedding rings welcomes visitors just inside the fortress gates

Before we knew it, it was time to go.  We stopped for a quick breakfast at a riverside cafe, where we met a couple of Turkish truck drivers on their way to deliver goods to Yerevan.  After a wonderful meal of fresh bread, locally produced cheese and honey, and savory summer salad, we bid farewell to Ben, who wanted to hitchhike to Georgia to continue his vacation.  The rest of us, in Jerry Jeep, followed the M6 as it wound its way south between the emerald hills of Lori, hugging their every curve.  Within a few hours, we were home, busily preparing for school the next day -- though I must admit my head was filled with such lovely, dream-like memories, I found it hard to concentrate on my work for a couple days.  Can you blame me?

From the road below, one last look at awesome Akhtala, illuminated by the morning sun

Thanks to Diane and Ben for many of these beautiful photos.  And Ben, as you return to your home state of Texas this week and readjust to life in the U.S., know that we will miss everything about you: your unique wit and wisdom, your compelling conversation skills, and our fun-filled friendship.  Best wishes from the Blackmer family!