A shared taxi from Tbilisi took us across the border into Armenia, through the stunning Debed Canyon and down the highway into the capitol, Yerevan. We spent a night there before hopping into yet another shared taxi to Armenia’s southeastern corner, Syunik Province. On the way, we passed the legendary Mount Ararat (hard to see in the haze), fertile valleys, traditional bakery, and stunning mountainous scenery. Disembarking at the turnoff for Tatev, it was like taking a giant step back in time. We caught a ride in a passing car, which of course resulted in us ending up in the house of one of the other passengers for coffee and candy, before heading through the twisting, treacherous road to Tatev.
Armenia has an amazing culture of hospitality…it is pretty common for people to rent out their spare bedrooms to weary travelers, and for a tiny bit more money they will cook meals for you, too! All you have to do is walk into the main square and mime “sleeping” to any villagers there, and someone will take you to one of these places. The lovely ladies that let us into their home may not have spoken any English, but they were expert cooks and cross-stitchers that made sure we were well fed and rested. We also took the opportunity to spend a lot of time wandering around the village, where farming is still done by hand and the people still sit out on the step and greet each of the passing villagers by name.
Of course, the main feature of the village is its breath-snatching monastery, built on a cliff jutting out into the gorge. The theory behind traditional Armenian architecture is to try to create a relationship between the building and its surroundings. They started work on this monastery in 848, and some elements of the original construction remain, although many parts have been rebuilt after sackings and earthquakes over the years. During our time in the village, we went into the monastery three different times, making sure we explored every square centimeter of its ancient stone chapels, scriptoriums, living quarters, and grounds. We also got to watch several prayer sessions with locals and pilgrims coming to this holy place. On one of our many walks past the monastery, we befriended two local kids who told us all about the activities that they go to at the monastery…games, choir lessons, garbage cleanup, etc. Really inspiring to see the way that the local community is keeping its treasures fresh, alive, and relevant to the young people here!
Following the road that leads out of town, we wove through the fragile strip of valley at the edge of the gorge, carpeted with wildflowers and tough alpine grasses. The thin gravel road is lined with blackberry brambles and a few brave trees. Coming to the top of a steep rise, we were rewarded with the postcard-worthy view of the monastery jutting out over the dropoff. As it was Monday morning and evening when we hiked up there, we had the whole outlook and mountainside to ourselves…along with a couple horses, a donkey, and its rider.
Tatev completely stole our hearts. Our sadness at leaving was tempered by getting to ride down from the village on the world’s longest reversible cable car. We were like kids on a fair ride, and it felt even more special because there were no other riders that early in the morning…a private ride for us! Twelve minutes later, we were in Halidzor village and heading out to the road. Of course, we still found a moment or two to pick some of the juicy blackberries on the roadside.
We put our thumbs out and smiles on our faces and promptly got picked up by a 1956 Soviet-issue truck. I rode in the cab of the dinosaur and Sangbyeong rode in the wood-planked bed as the truck picked its way along potholed backroads through the mountains down to the city of Goris. We spent a pleasant couple of hours exploring the side streets of this old stop along the Black Sea Silk Road, the last “large” Armenian city before the Iranian border towns.
The afternoon wore on and we headed to the other side of town to catch a ride to Sisian, this time in a squeaky SUV with a driver who spoke decent English. We backtracked to the west, past the highway turnoff for Tatev and to the bumpy, unforgiving road to Sisian. Again, we were touched by the way our driver took care of us, driving us all the way into the center of town and trying to help us find a hotel. Armenian tradition demands that guests be protected and served, whether they are hitchhikers in your car, renters in your home, or passersby in the street. Once he finally sent us off, we found ourselves in a hotel where an international mining and drilling team were in residence and shared a couple conversations with the Lebanese company owner and one of his Serbian employees. The town itself is a sleepy little place that is stretched along the river and filled with boxy, Soviet-era statues.
There are several historical sites around Sisian, but most of them require paying for a four wheel drive vehicle and its driver, so we focused our attention on the closest one. Zorats Karer (sometimes called Karahunj) is a mere 3.5km outside of town, but it still takes almost 20 minutes to get there, due to the rough quality of the road. We bumped along until we reached the desolate hilltop…when we arrived, we were the only visitors. There is a lot of mystery surrounding Zorats Karer. The stones themselves and their arrangement predate Stonehenge by almost 3500 years. Yet there are these strange holes bored into them that appear to be from a later date. What was the original purpose of the stones? Why would someone add holes? No one really knows the answers. Unlike Stonehenge, you can still climb on these stones and walk amongst them…they stare out at the windswept highlands, as this area’s base height is 3000 meters. As the wind whips through, it causes a whistling in the holes bored into the stones. Slightly hair-raising, I will admit!
We got back into town and spent a peaceful night relaxing before heading out the next morning. As we left the hotel and turned toward the main street, we were approached by two teenaged girls. One, who spoke a little English, asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Sisian. Their eyes sparkled as we complimented the natural beauty of the town and the nearby sites. They then led us through the main square and translated for us with several drivers to find us a shared taxi that was leaving for our next destination immediately, at the same price a local would pay. We thanked them as we hopped into our ride, marveling at yet another demonstration of the natural hospitality of the people here in this corner of the world where it seems we have traveled back in time.