After nearly a week in Yerevan, it was time to experience the rest of Armenia.
Step one – learn how to pronounce Yeghegnadzor well enough so I don’t get pointed to the wrong bus.
Step two – where does the bus leave from? Not one of the main stations as I discovered. With a little help from the hostel staff, I manage to track the bus down at one of those non-descript marshrutka stops.
Step three – where does my bag fit? One of the drawbacks of an intercity marshrutka (minibus) is that it fits about 20 people and only a couple of bags. So if you’re last to arrive, you’re in trouble! As I was sitting there with my 70L pack perched on my lap, I was thinking I should have taken my friend Mirka’s advice and hitchhiked. That was until the old man next to me gestured that I should lie the bag down so it was resting across both our laps! Any thoughts of his potential discomfort evaporated when he fell asleep within minutes of us leaving and my entitled-western-traveller conscience was eased somewhat.
Two hours later we arrived. Yeghegnadzor is a fairly average Armenian town – nothing particularly great about it but pleasant enough for a few days. But I’d chosen it as it seemed like a good base for scouting the region. After extricating myself from the marshrutka, I wandered up the hill to find my guesthouse. I’ve encountered plenty of great hospitality on this trip but nothing prepared me for the elderly Armenian owners. Within minutes I was seated at their table and presented with Armenian coffee, tea, local Areni wine, juice (at this point I was seriously worried about the number of toilet stops I’d need that afternoon), homemade bread, honey and cheese. And that was just the start – over the next few days I was given freshly baked muffins, endless quantities of fruit, chicken soup, pasta - all with a beaming smile and barely a word of English. Heater in the room not working? No worries, within minutes the portable electric cooker was carried in, complete with hand gestures reminding me to turn it off before sleeping. (And the name of this wonderous place? Karine B & B, cannot recommend it highly enough should any of you make it to southern Armenia).
The following morning I headed out to see the local area. First stop was Norovank Monastery. As I was to find out over the next week, public transport outside Yerevan is infrequent at best, non-existent at worst. And in Yeghegnadzor it was the latter. I struck a deal with a taxi driver to take me to Norovank, wait an hour then drop me in Areni. The road leading up to Norovank is amazing, running through a scenic gorge, the road rising higher until you reach the monastery.
Dating from the 13th century, the monastery complex consists of the main church and a small series of chapels. Dotting the grounds were dozens of kachkars, also known as a cross-stone. Intricately carved with a cross at its centre, they’re similar to a headstone but don’t necessarily mark the place of a grave. It is said that much like the human fingerprint, no two kachkars are alike.
Next stop was the small town of Areni. It’s the home of Armenian wine so it would have been rude to leave without sampling the local drop. The first one I found was Hin Areni winery. As luck would have it they had a tour starting as I walked in – a tour of the premises and tasting of a red, white and a rose, all for the princely sum of 1500 dram (under 3 Euro).
Final stop for the day was the historic Areni-1 cave. After a short 2km walk out of town I arrived at Areni Cave only to find a guard locking the gate. “Sorry, only open for groups” was what I interpreted him as saying. But 1000 dram managed to grease the hinges of the gate and he let me catch up with a small group of Russians that had just entered.
Once in, I was awestruck. Areni is history central as far as Armenia is concerned – this Bronze Age settlement site has the oldest evidence of wine-making in the world (over 6000 years old), the oldest shoe (5500 years old! As luck would have it, I had seen it just days before in the History Museum in Yerevan). The cave has no water source so the dry atmosphere was perfect for preserving everything within. Luckily one of the Russians spoke good English and he happily translated the most important points for me.
The next morning, badly in need of some exercise, I decided to hike to Spitakavor monastery. True to form, the guesthouse owner’s son offered to drive me to the next town where the trail-head was. He waved goodbye and I headed towards the edge of town. The route was actually a 4WD track, although as it turned out I only saw two vehicles all day. The hike itself wasn’t too taxing - a 500m vertical rise over a 7km/2.5-hour hike, a couple of steep sections but nothing too challenging. The scenery was stunning, with arid valleys slowly recovering from a scorching summer. At the base of each valley, hundreds of trees with autumn leaves of every imaginable colour (so long as you can only imagine brown, yellow and the occasional red).
After 2.5 hours I rounded a bend and I finally laid eyes on Spitakavor. The monastery itself was attractive but nothing out of the ordinary, neither a Norovank nor Geghard, although its scenic hilltop location and the feeling of solitude at having the place to myself more than made up for it. As I explored, I became a little unnerved by a trail of dried blood running past the main monastery door. Had I stumbled onto the occult in rural Armenia? Minutes later I got my answer. A 4WD pulled up and a family emerged, clutching picnic supplies, including, you guessed it, a dripping tray of raw meat. This being Armenia, every monastery seems to have a grill so that the locals can enjoy their horovats (Armenian barbeque).
After a detour back to Yerevan in a fruitless attempt to get my Iranian visa and a few days in Nagorno Karabakh (which you can read about next week, subscribe if you don’t want to miss out - does that sound desperate?), it was time to see more of what southern Armenia had to offer.
After a late arrival into Goris (due to a Stepanakert hostel owner accidentally/deliberately giving the wrong timetable information, therefore missing the morning bus. I’m sure he’s in cahoots with the local taxi cartel), it was a little late to do anything other than shop for food and cook dinner. The next morning I headed off to Tatev Monastery. As mentioned above, the transport network outside Yerevan is non-existent so my only option was hitchhiking. I only waited a few minutes before a car stopped; he took me through to a small village where it was only a short walk to the Wings of Tatev – at 5.7km apparently the world’s longest cable car (a little internet research determines that the record it holds is the “Longest non-stop double track cable car”, whatever that means). After my recent hot air ballooning capers in Cappadocia, I decided maybe I was over my lifelong fear of heights - if I could do that, why not the world’s longest cable car? I wandered up to the ticket office, only to be waived away by a construction worker – closed for maintenance! Gutted! I wandered back to the main road and headed downhill, I soon found myself in Halidzor. I waited for another car. And waited. And waited. Finally a car stopped for me. It was then that I had a reminder of how kind and generous the Armenian people can be. Arman and Nadi were a couple from Yerevan taking a long weekend break to Karabakh and Goris. We immediately struck up a conversation; they wanted to know more about New Zealand and where I’d been travelling, I wanted to know more about Armenia. Over the next few hours we wandered around the monastery, they shared their picnic lunch, they even bought me a small souvenir (when I finally get back to NZ, it’s going straight to the poolroom). They drove me back to the main road; they headed west back to Yerevan, I picked up another ride heading east to Goris. The less said about that ride the better - two young guys determined to get to Goris ASAP (I didn’t realise you could get any drift in a 70s Lada!).
I almost forgot to mention the monastery. Sorry! Even older than Norovank, Tatev dates back to the 9th century. It occupies an impressive position on a hilltop, with sheer cliffs dropping away to the valley below. The views of the surrounding hills are remarkable. I reflected on what a feat of engineering it must have been to construct the road to Tatev - it consists of a series of switchbacks down the side of a valley, then even more switchbacks as the road rises up the opposite side of the valley towards the monastery.
With that, my time in the south was over. Time to head back to Yerevan the next day for a flight to Tehran – my attempts at getting the Iranian visa ahead of time were futile so I was going to fly and take my chances on the less-than-certain visa on arrival (spoiler – I’m writing this in Tabriz in northern Iran. Unless the person reading this is an Iranian immigration official who frowns on travel blogs, in which case I gave up on Iran and flew straight to Sri Lanka).