Road Trip

Having been almost constantly on the road for the last week or so, it’s good to now be staying in one place, at least for a (short) while. We had bidden a fond farewell to our driver and guide Karen who accompanied us for much of our time in Armenia and with who we had formed one of those quick friendships that transcend language barriers. Now with all that behind us I’ll try to jot down some brief descriptions and general impressions and highlights of the rest of our too short a time in this less visited part of the Caucasus region. This could be another long update with way too many photos!

With an early start from Yerevan we headed to the southeast of the country stopping off at many landmarks on the way. First up was Khor-Virap that sits in an impressive location close to the border with Turkey below the imposing bulk of Mt Ararat and is apparently one of the more important religious sites for Armenians. Although not particularly large or otherwise notable the setting is beautiful and the holy mountain appeared majestic in the morning light.

Another famous church complex, of which there are dozens in Armenia, is Noravank (vank means church in Armenian), and that is where we headed to next. Once again the setting was the biggest draw card for us and Noravank sits in an elevated position in a red, rocky canyon and has an interesting variety of buildings to explore. Of particular note was the two storey main church building with the upper part accessible only by two steep and very narrow sets of stairs angled up on each side of the outside wall with no hand rails or any other means of preventing you from falling, which I imagine was a defensive measure necessary at one time. The door to the lower level, which sat underneath these stairs, led down more steps so that the floor sat several meters below ground level which was also unusual.

Bright and early the next morning we made a slight detour up the Yeghegis Valley to the Selim Pass and the nearby Orbelian Caravanserai, which as the name suggests has historically been a waypoint for travellers I suspect since before even Marco Polo’s time on the Silk Road. I’ll just let the pictures tell the rest of the story for that morning …

An (over) abundant and delicious breakfast followed back at our B&B in Yeghegnadzor (and the apricots were fantastic too - almost liqueurish they were so rich in flavour) before we set off again. A short break enroute to see Karahunj, some ancient standing stones on a windswept plateau, and we arrived at our next stop, Goris, on a rather drizzly afternoon. Undeterred, we planned to go to the much visited monastery complex of Tatev the next morning, which is most easily reached by way of a relatively new (2010) cable car, quaintly called the Wings of Tatev, that is purported to be the longest in the world. It wasn’t raining the following day but it was misty and therefore quite atmospheric, which is not necessarily a bad thing for taking photographs, so we took the “aerial tramway” as they like to call it, and spent a few hours exploring said monastery and it’s surrounds. It certainly is in a spectacular position but as the weather wasn’t very cooperative we left with just a few photographic keepsakes to show.

We then spent the afternoon in Goris getting to know a few of the locals …

Our much anticipated destination the next day is (un)officially called the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh (Nogorno Karabakh - which I think means mountainous black forest in a combination of Russian and Armenian). The Armenians simply call it Artsakh and it is indeed mountainous, but in a not-so-jagged-mountains sort of way. Once again the pictures can probably explain it a little better but you will have to see the few I have in the recent gallery. Having gained the historically and ethnically Armenian territory from Azerbaijan in 1994 there is a fragile ceasefire still in place, and after crossing the border we still needed a visa (which is separate and not stamped in your passport on request) from the Ministry of Officiousness in Stepanakert, the capital. We nevertheless stopped in Shushi on the way, just in time for the morning rituals at the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, complete with some beautiful singing reminiscent of Gregorian chanting, while one priest smoked the place up …

After obtaining our visas we next visited Gandzasar Monastery and the nearby town of Vank, which has some creative uses for all the Azerbaijan vehicle license plates that became redundant when they changed to Armenian ones. Whilst there we also had the specialty of the region for lunch, namely zhingyalov hats, a simple affair of at least fifteen or twenty different wild green herbs stuffed inside a fresh flat bread. We couldn’t get enough of them they were so good! Even though they can be found elsewhere, they were much better than the ones of the same name but different type we tried in Armenia itself and I will definitely be learning the recipe to make them myself.

Our rather short visit to the disputed territory was then rounded out with a last stop at Dadivank, a small church (yes one more) in a forested  gorge in the northwest on the way back to the Lake Sevan region of Armenia.

Heading back toward Yerevan the next day we only had the holy trinity (excuse the pun) of Noratus, Hayravank and Sevanavank left to see. The first being an array of kachkars (carved stone crosses) that were supposedly once mistaken as soldiers by an invading army, and the other two being churches of some renown, with the visitors to match. If nothing else, the wildflowers at Sevanavank were a riotous display of colour and ignoring the somewhat tacky and tourist oriented surrounds, the setting on a hill (which was an island before the level of the lake has lowered due to exploitation since the Soviets left) next to Lake Sevan was, at least in one direction, fabulous.

A short break in Yerevan and we were on our way back to Georgia via the Debed Canyon and it’s UNESCO listed Sanahin and Haghpat Monasteries, the last in our “Grand Monastic Tour of Armenia”. Both were different enough to be worth the time spent visiting and a fitting conclusion to a slightly whirlwind-feeling but very interesting journey.

Being now ensconced in the town of Kazbegi in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, we will have a break from trying to see so much and do lots of walking and eating of cherries instead. Let’s see what else Georgia has to offer.

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