Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Spring Break Armenia, Days 5-6

Day five in Armenia started off with a teeny tiny kitty.  Sam made fun of me for a while based on the way I acted, but look how cute this thing is. (He specifically referenced this comic in doing so.) Teeny tiny animals just aren’t fair and no one should be held responsible for the stupid things they say when confronted with a teeny tiny animal.  Also, yes, this kitty was eating its breakfast from a plastic bag.  No further comment.

While our guidebook had tempted us into taking some extra journeys by bus or taxi around the area of Dilijan to see Molokan villages or more churches or monasteries, the beautiful weather convinced us that a nice, relaxed, long walk was a better way to spend the day.  We stocked up on some picnic supplies and walked 6 kilometers up to the ruins of an old church called Jukhtakvank.  That one was a mouthful to get out as we asked locals if we were headed in the right direction, to be sure.  As we got up to the ruins, we saw a sign informing us that we were at the beginning of a 4-5 kilometer nature trail through Dilijan National Park that would be well marked and take us past another really old ruined church. 

We did find the ruins, despite the hard-to-say name

A map!

We could tell it would be way prettier in a few more weeks, when all the trees turned green, but the weather was just perfect

This was a very cool thing.  There was a sign next to this that said it was a nature bed, and inviting us to just stretch out and really let nature sink in, to listen to the birds, to look up at the sky, and to smell the smells.  All parks need this!

Pretty sky

We picnicked at this nice shaded table, looking out at the valley below

There was just this one questionable crossing point

The final ruined church at the end of the hiking trail

Boy was the walk the right call.  We hiked our way along, constantly remarking at our luck on the weather.  It was gorgeous out.  Our long hike left us happily tired and we made it into Dilijan just before dinnertime.  We ambled along through the remnants of a kids park/fair/amusement park and up to the rather impressive and cool World War Two monument.  After thoroughly wearing ourselves out, we headed to a nice Armenian restaurant in the newly restored old town and sat out on the balcony watching the sun set. 

World War Two monument in Dilijan

Broken down kiddie coaster 

Another view of Dilijan

The restored old town

Another look, restored old town in Dilijan

The next morning we got up early to start our massive commute back to Akhalkalaki.  We took a rickety old bus that somehow managed to get started and move to a neighboring town (40 kilometers in 60 minutes), where we managed to smell out the lies of the taxi drivers (there aren’t any buses going to Gyumri!  You’ll have to take a taxi! My taxi!) and find a bus going to Gyumri, where we just had enough time to eat some lunch before hopping on our minibus back across the border. 

Inside bus number one... it was a close one, but we made it!

In all, it was a fantastic trip (as my obsession with posting way too many blog posts about it probably shows), but it was again especially rewarding to get a chance to really speak a lot of Armenian and feel like we’ve accomplished some language learning here.  We don’t really get too much of a chance to speak Armenian in Akhalkalaki (or rather, I don’t; I guess Sam does at school).  People know we know Russian way better than we know Armenian, and it’s asking a lot to have the patience to listen to us figure out what we want to say, when we can say it without thinking in Russian.  Also, in a completely un-Peace-Corps twist on things, we really still have a hard time speaking the local dialect of Armenian and are way more comfortable with the standard literary language.  It means that even though we spent a lot of time and frustration in studying a language, I often feel like I don’t know anything in it and get really down about things.  Traveling to Armenia (where most people tend to speak a language way closer to what we studied) helped me feel a lot better about things.  So in addition to just having a great time, it was a feel-good experience that made things overall better.  Oh yeah, and Sam ate a soft pretzel.  

Spring Break Armenia, Day 4

On our fourth day in Armenia, we headed a bit further afield.  We left Yerevan for Dilijan, a pretty little town nestled in the hills and mountains and boasting more forest coverage than most of the rest of the country.  After arriving in Dilijan and chatting with our very nice guesthouse owner, Nina, we took a taxi ride to see two old Armenian monasteries.  First stop was at Goshavank, a very pretty old rambling complex of churches and a library.  There were some extremely delicately carved, intricate khachkars there, probably the prettiest we’ve seen.  In a funny bit of it’s-a-small-world-ism, we ran into two other Georgia PCVs who were also vacationing in Armenia for spring break. (It was our second unexpected run-in, actually; in Yerevan we randomly crossed paths with our host mom’s sister, who came into town for two days to do some shopping.)  We had a good time talking until their tour bus driver started honking for them and they had to run off.


Really impressive khachkar

Thanks to our fellow PCVs for this pic!

Spring was already on its way...

So we did some good ol' fashioned sittin' and enjoyin'

The second monastery on the list of must-sees in Dilijan was Haghartsin, a beautifully sited place.  It was an interesting church-monastery complex to see.  It was obviously very old, and rich with history, but it was also very much a currently in use church, which meant that it had been renovated to keep it usable.  Of the two, I was more impressed by the look of Goshavank and the surroundings of Haghartsin.  


Inside the monk's refectory

Not quite as impressive a khachkar as at Goshavank, but still pretty cool

There were lots of ruins all around

Lots of archaeology!

Back in Dilijan

We came back into the main part of Dilijan and wandered around the town a little before heading back to our guesthouse for dinner.  We sat and talked for a while with the other guests, Erfan from Iran, traveling with his girlfriend Nora and her mother.  Erfan, it seems, is a big traveler, working as a travel agent and tour leader.  But his real thing is mountain climbing, so he showed us pictures of some of his crazier travels and we really had a great time talking and sharing stories.  It turned out that his love for adventure tourism is something he wanted to share, and had convinced his girlfriend and her mother to do their big trip across the Caucasus by hitchhiking.  Nora’s mother seemed remarkably good humored about the whole experience, although her first question to Sam and me was “Are you traveling by hitchhiking too, or do you travel like human beings?” 

Nina (the guesthouse owner) had hosted Erfan on a previous trip to Armenia and his extremely effusive personality made him a big hit with her, so for our group dinner she had planned lots of special foods.  Nora’s mother cooked an Iranian stew dish, Nina’s husband Misha made chicken horovats on their special indoor fireplace-grill, there were lots of salads and trimmings and homemade oghi for toasting guests and hosts alike.  Sam and I were tasked with lots of translating, but really enjoyed it.  We joked that we had a mini-UN going on at our dinner feast.  Nina and Misha and their family members would say toasts or make comments or ask questions in Armenian (and sometimes Russian), we’d translate it to English and Erfan would translate into Persian for his girlfriend’s mother. 

Getting ready for some feasting

Chicken horovats... mmmmm

Our mini-UN

Turns out that the day we chose for our trip and meeting all these great new people was also Efren’s 33rd birthday.  Nora surprised him with a big cake, complete with giant roman candles burning on top.  It was such a nice, unexpected part of our trip.  Our bellies overfull with delicious food and our cheeks sore from smiling and laughing, we headed to bed.

Happy birthday, Erfan!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Spring Break Armenia, Day 3

Khor Virap

Our third day in Yerevan broke clear and bright, and we decided to go on another excursion out of town.  This time we took a bus and headed south to a monastery situated smack dab on the Turkish-Armenian border.  Khor Virap is the name of the monastery, which literally means "deep pit."  Sounds lovely, doesn't it?  Well, it's so named for it's biggest feature, two deep pits under one of the chapels, in which Grigor the Illuminator was imprisoned by the Armenian king for 13 years.  It's a long story, and involves the king of Armenia either going crazy or having his head turned into the head of a boar, but eventually the king let Grigor out of the pit, and got himself all baptized and Armenia became the first officially Christian nation, in 301.  

The Yerevan train station, from whence our bus to Khor Virap departed

Self portrait in front of all the loveliness that's visible in the top picture.  Unfortunately, it turned out looking like we just take self portraits in front of fields of dead wheat.

But once we stepped away, this was the view again.  Pretty!

Now they have ladders to climb down into the pit, which is great because you don't get stuck down there for 13 years.  

Sam made it back out in way less than 13 years

Khor Virap up closer

The main church building at Khor Virap

So Khor Virap is an extremely venerated and important church/monastery for the Armenian church.  It's a big draw for pilgrims or visitors looking to climb down into Grigor's pit and light some candles in the church.  But it isn't just the religious that draws folks to this place.  Khor Virap is situated on a hill just a stone's throw from the Araxes River, which winds along the bottom of the mythical Mount Ararat (the big snow covered mountain you see in the picture).  Ararat is a dormant volcano peak, a very tall 5137 meters or 16,854 feet. It's also the mountain on which Noah's ark is said to have come to rest.  Ararat is much taller than any of the other mountains in the area, and on clear days is visible in all kinds of parts of Armenia.  It dominates the Yerevan skyline.  Mount Ararat is the symbol of Armenia, and many, many Armenian households have the same painting of Ararat's greater and lesser peaks (Masis and Sis). There's a catch, though: Ararat may be revered and celebrated by Armenians as their symbol, but it now lies within the territory of Turkey.  The Araxes River basically forms the border between the two countries, closed acrimoniously since 1993 (as a Turkish response to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war in Nagorno-Karabagh).  So Armenians come to Khor Virap for just about their closest look at the mountain that has come to hold so much meaning in their culture.  It seems to me that having the mountain just across the uncrossable border has probably done a lot to make it a more important symbol, and has endowed this place with stronger emotions and hatreds than would otherwise be the case.  This is a big, big mountain, visible everywhere.  Having it just out of reach makes it a something that's easy to grasp in a different sense, as a symbol of all the perceived injustices and the heights they reach. 

Very Soviet-esque statue near Khor Virap.  Looked a little like Stalin as a mountaineer.

Once we'd had our fill of traipsing around the countryside, we hitched a ride back up to the main highway.  It was about 5 kilometers from the highway to the monastery, and while we were prepared to walk the distance, we didn't turn down the offer of two young men who pulled up alongside us and offered us a lift. They were extremely nice and excited that we spoke Armenian.  As we approached the highway, they began to apologize profusely that they couldn't take us all the way into Yerevan.  They wanted to, and would gladly, except that they didn't have driver's licenses and didn't want to risk driving on the main highway and getting stopped.

We said our goodbyes and waited alongside the highway for the next passing bus or minibus to take us back into town.  It wasn't long before one pulled up and we were back to Yerevan.  As we pulled in, Sam's eyes lit up at a sight we passed: a pretzel shop.  Pretzels!  Sam, as you may know, loves soft pretzels.  It's been one of the things he's missed most here.  So what did we do for lunch?  You guessed it: soft pretzels.
Is that joy, or what?

Best day ever.

The rest of the day pales in comparison to soft pretzels, for sure, but we did get some cool pictures out of it.  We wandered through the displays in the puppet theater, looking at the puppets, walked through town some more, ate really delicious khorovats and checked out a cool new-ish monument to an old Soviet movie.

Some of the puppets on display

The puppets really remind me of a lot of the Soviet cartoons and stop-motion animation movies

Hanging out with "The Men"

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spring Break Armenia, Day Two

Garni Temple

On our second day in Armenia, Sam and I took a day trip out of town to see some other sights.  We headed to the pagan temple at Garni and the Armenian Christian monastery at Geghard, both about 30-40 minutes' drive from Yerevan.  We were joined on our tour by our host grandmother's cousin, Alexander.  He's an engineer in Yerevan, and speaks English (and Esperanto!) fluently.  He was excited to meet us after talking with Emilia (and us) a lot on Skype.  It was nice to have a local travel with us.

We had worried that the weather might not be too good for a jaunt into the countryside, as the grey clouds covered Yerevan all morning and little outbursts of rain kept us on our toes.  We lucked out, though, and the rain not only held off, but the skies cleared and we ended up with a fantastic day for wandering around old ruins.

Our first stop was to Garni, an ancient pagan temple turned summer palace for the later Christian kings of Armenia.  There are other ruins (of an old Armenian church, and other structures, like baths) around, but the main focus is the temple structure you see above.  The landscape around Garni is really something, too, and once all those trees and flowers get into full bloom, I'm sure it was really striking.

The scenery around the Garni temple was just coming alive, but still breathtaking.  We imagined that in another few weeks, after more buds had burst and green taken hold, it would truly be beautiful.

Not the most successful of self portraits, but you get the idea.  We were there.

This is where the archaeologists stayed while excavating.  Sam's setting himself up for the good life!

Our next stop was to the Armenian monastery of Geghard.  The original site was founded by the founder of the Armenian church (and converter of the Armenian kings to Christianity), Grigor the Illuminator.  The complex had the whole 9 yards: monastic caves, khachkars, a big ol' church, holy spring, courtyard, place for animal sacrifices.  You name it, they had it.  It was also just a really pretty, pleasant place to be.  The church itself was incredibly cool inside, and it turns out that's not odd.  It's main structure is apparently carved out of a single piece of solid rock from the side of the mountain it nestles against.

Monks gotta have their caves!

Lots of very cool old khachkars everywhere

 Sam really liked the beehives, especially after he made friends with one of the bees

Inside the main church building

Lots of cool stone carving going on

It was pretty dark inside, though, with the only light making it in through the ceilings and a few darkly colored windows

Geghard Monastery

Sam with some khachkars

I moved just as Sam was surreptitiously taking this and made his picture come out blurry

Some of the very old khachkars had been painted red, and still had traces of the red paint

Outside the monastery, lots of women from the neighboring village were selling their goods: gata, pastegh, and churchkhela

As we approached, they all tried to entice us with their goods

We made it back to Yerevan in the late afternoon, happy with our side trip and ready to eat more food, of course!  We tried out the Indian restaurant in Yerevan, which was delicious, and then got some ice cream to snack on as we strolled around the park near our hostel.  There were lots of kids out biking, roller blading, and generally running around, enjoying the weather and the freedom to no longer be bundled up in winter clothes.  The park was starting to get all set up for warmer days, with games and attractions popping up like crocuses.

This was the game I wanted to play, if only to try to win the stuffed John McCain doll in the right-hand corner.  Unfortunately I didn't have any 100 dram coins on me.  Next time, John.  Next time.