After a bit of a muddle on the the bus, which was solved through watermelon, we ended up on the side of the Sevan highway and got picked up by two lovely gentlemen. The younger of the two brothers lives in Germany and he kept the conversation going between the Yerevan outskirts right up to the base of Sevanavank. They waved goodbye as we sat down to our late lunch of corn, sausages (for one of us, anyways), and a gigantic loaf of bread. We needed the sustenance to face the climb up the hill to the Sevanavank Church. Long ago, it was on an island in Lake Sevan, but when the Soviet leadership decided to drain the lake for irrigation purposes, the water levels dropped about 20 meters, making a peninsula out of the former island. Since it was a weekend, it was packed with tourists…but most of them only visited the front viewpoint and poked their heads inside…we ventured past the two churches down to the point.
Out at the point, the wind howled and chilled us despite the hot day in the sheltered bays below where revelers swam. Back inside the church, we felt the same chill in the cooling sanctuary of ancient stones that were smooth under our hands from hundreds of years of devotees leaning in and touching them. Sevanavank was a place you could sense the sacred through touch.
Our next stop, the nearby village of Tsaghkunk, was supposed to be having a celebration marking the old pagan New Year…except the internet and our sources in Yerevan had all told us it was on the 11th…but when we arrived in the late afternoon on the 10th, it was just finishing! Oops. We still got to look around the pretty village church that is perched high up on a hill, overlooking the entire valley.
Down in the village itself, the streets were nearly silent, but for the sounds of animals hanging out in the narrow lanes. Oddly enough, there were also piles of obsidian everywhere…since it can just be found lying around in these parts. We found the Tsaghkunk Hotel…which is very fancy and in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The rooms were all booked, and we could not have afforded it anyways, but they owner very kindly let us camp in his backyard for free! We took the chance to meet several student groups that had gathered for the day’s festival and we also partook of the excellent traditional Armenian cooking that the hotel restaurant serves up for dinner. Sangbyeong swears that the fish soup he had there was the best he has ever had, and my freshly picked and roasted organic veggies weren’t bad either. And so, Tsaghkunk became our the place where we tasted the ancient flavors of Armenian cooking…whether they be from the pagan past or the Christian present.
The next morning, we struck camp, ate breakfast, and were sent off by the hotel staff with well wishes and bottles full of their fresh well water. We hitchhiked back to Sevan town, where we stopped at the local market and got free peaches from a very nice lady, before we went out to the highway to find yet another free ride onto Dilijan. The scenery along the way was lovely, as was Dilijan itself, but we didn’t have much time to investigate this heavily forested mountain community before catching the 3pm marshrutka (minibus) to Vanadzor.
In Vanadzor, we arrived 20 minutes after the last marshrutka to our goal for the day, Alaverdi…so we hiked back out to the highway and caught ourselves our third hitch of the day. Upon learning we did not have a guesthouse booked for the night, our driver drove us out to his friend’s place…a restaurant out of the main town, perched along the rushing river, with rooms for wayward guests like us in the back, facing the steep canyon walls and the burbling waters. The hostess studiously noted down our dinner order and left us to explore. We heard the sound of lusty, joyous singing bouncing off the red rock walls and went to investigate. In the restaurant’s waterfront dining area, a large family (turned out to be sons and daughters and in-laws of the owner) was feasting, singing, dancing, chatting…and drinking copious amounts of vodka. They were more than happy to include us in the festivities. We spent a long evening…and into the night…talking, laughing, learning, and enjoying each other’s company.
The next morning, we got lucky and caught another marshrutka right from the front of the restaurant…they dropped us off at the turnoff for Haghpat Monastery without charging us! We still waited for another minibus heading for the monastery, rather than hike up the steep 9km road to the village. Hagphat is one of the few Armenian monasteries that has actually been recognized by UNESCO (though many more are just as deserving), as it was a center of faith and learning for hundreds of years. Invaluable manuscripts were discovered hidden in the floors and brought to the national museums in Yerevan about 20 years ago. Inside the main hall, a group of pilgrims sat together at the front of the room and their murmured voices mixed with the prayers of the monks to create a constant hum of sacred sounds.
About 10km away, through several neat villages full of wandering animals and ladies selling handicrafts, on a second high hilltop overlooking the canyon bed below, is another UNESCO recognized monastery, Sanahin. Like Haghpat, it was a repository of scholarship and a center of learning and pilgrimage over hundreds of years. The two churches both competed with and supported each other. The forest seems to have grown up around Sanahin. Lindens and poplars grow densely in the courtyard, while tall grasses, junipers, pines, and wildflowers a creeping up to its back door. As the soft summer breezes blew through the ancient scriptoriums and chapels, it carried the distinct smell of pine and flower, mixing it with the scent of sacred incense and candle wax in the sancutaries.
And so, we thought, our Armenian adventure is closing…so we flagged a border taxi in Alaverdi to take us to Georgia…but Armenia had one more treat in store for us. Our kindly driver first showed us some local points of interest in Alaverdi, then insisted on driving us another 10km out of the way to see Akthala Monastery. Practically hidden and far off the tourist trail, Akthala is an old fortress and church that just happens to house some of the most fabulously intact frescoes from 800 years ago. We feasted our eyes on these sacred sights, the last of our senses engaged by these monasteries.
Brimming with gratitude, we walked out to thank our taxi driver for this unplanned side trip…and in true Armenian fashion, we found him in the bushes, plucking handfuls of blackberries to share with us on our journey across the border and back into Georgia.