If I could change one thing about the Birthright excursions, it would be to spend more time at each of the places we visit. Of course, barring manipulation of the spacetime continuum, that time would have to come from somewhere and would probably mean visiting fewer places. So perhaps that wouldn’t be the best thing to change, because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of these beautiful sites.
For our most recent outing, we started by visiting the Yereruk Basilica in Armenia’s Shirak province. It was a chilly morning, particularly after sitting still for the two hours or so it took for the vans to drive from Yerevan to the village of Anipemza on the western border. A distant, cloudy haze filled the sky, as it often does here, somehow making the rocky plains around us seem that much wider.
The Akhurian River and the closed border with Turkey are nearby, a reminder of the unfriendly political situation that the country faces. It adds a further bittersweet note to the visit, beyond the one that always seems to haunt old ruins.
The remains of the basilica are awe-inspiring on their own, though I can’t help wishing I could see it whole. The church is large enough that it’s clear it was central to a large community when it was constructed in the 4th and 5th centuries. It’s also one of the oldest surviving examples of Christian architecture in Armenia, which is why it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in August 1995.
From there, we climbed back into the vans to go to the village of Dashtadem where we were to have lunch, which we did in the home of one of the village families. I’ve talked before about Armenian hospitality, and this is another example of it. Birthright excursions started visiting this family after the staff went door to door, asking if anyone would be willing to host us. This family said yes, and now when we come this way, we eat with them.
The walls of the old Dashtadem Fortress stood just a few yards from the house, and after eating a wonderful meal of dolma and lavash we walked across the road to explore it. I think I was grinning the entire time. I’ve always loved castles, but living in the States means I don’t often* get a chance to actually see them. The original keep was constructed in the 9th century, and its enceinte was constructed in the early 1800s, with other additions being made in the years between.
Kristaporivank in the distance.
View from the keep.
View from the wall.
Ramparts near the main gate.
From there, it was a short drive to the Cathedral of Talin. Like at Yereruk, the size of the ruins give a hint of the size of the community it served when it was built in the 7th century. It was built with two studies on either side of the apse, both of which contain a series of handholds that can be used to access the second floor and were used as a way to hide the church’s manuscripts when hostile rulers came with the intention of burning them all.
Interior of Talin.
View of St. Astvatsatsin from Talin.
View from southeast.
View from the northwest.
The collapsed Talin Cathedral dome.
We finished the day with a short stop at Aruchavank. Like so many of the old churches here it suffered extensive damage from earthquakes, and though most of it has been rebuilt, its dome remains collapsed. The architecture of its eastern wall contains two examples of a type of engineering that provides the entire structure with greater stability, and our guide told us that another monastery using the same method was strong enough to survive even after its central pillars were cut by the Mongols under Tamerlane.
The eastern side of the cathedral.
The southern wall.
Entrance to Aruchavank.
I love the fact that there are stories like this everywhere we go, that history in this region has been recorded for so long that the connection to the past is so much clearer than I am used to. And I know I’m only seeing and hearing a fraction of them. There is so much to learn, so much to discover. Armenia is such a small country, but it’s so wonderfully full.
* The only other time (so far!) was about seven years ago, when I had the chance to study abroad in the UK and Ireland, and our group visited Kenilworth Castle. I took hundreds of pictures, and if I remember right, my friend and I were late in returning to the bus.
Oh, man. Where to start. Our Artsakh trip was four days long, and I could almost dedicate an entire post to each one. However, in the interest of documenting my adventure in a timely manner (read: sometime this month), I’m going to try to fit it all in here. As always, let me know if there’s anything you’d like to hear about in more detail; I’ll be more than happy to oblige!
Before I start into what we actually did, I want to mention that Artsakh is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been– and yes, that’s including Santa Barbara, Ireland, and northern Idaho. According to one etymology, the name Artsakh means “Aran’s woods”, with Aran being an ancient Armenian king. The other name commonly used to refer to the region is Nagorno-Karabakh, which translates as “mountainous black garden” from a mixture of Russian, Turkish, and Persian. Either one is accurate, though words alone hardly do justice to its fierce beauty. Hopefully pictures will help where descriptions fail.
We left Yerevan at eight o’clock on Friday morning, starting our adventure by driving southwest to the Ararat Plain where we ate a breakfast of bread, coleslaw, and lakhmajun in a field with an incredible view of Greater and Lesser Ararat. Despite the vague fog that hung between us, the mountains were awe-inspiring.
From there, we drove on eastward through southern Armenia. I stared out the window the entire time, watching as the landscape grew ever more mountainous and the director of our program shared a thousand different facts and bits of knowledge about the places we passed. We made a short stop at the Arpi Market to buy snacks and use the restrooms, and I took the opportunity to take pictures of the rocky hills and the beautiful Arpa River.
Autumn colors in the hills behind the Arpa.
Our faithful buses.
Down the road we had yet to travel.
The craggy hills above the market.
The Arpa river.
The hills behind the Arpa.
Back up the road we came from.
The Arpa river.
Our next stop was at the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest non-stop double track cable car, which we took up to the monastery and village of Tatev. We ate a simple lunch of salami, cheese, cucumber, and tomato wrapped in lavash (Armenian flatbread), which we got to enjoy in the refectory between exploring the grounds. Much of the monastery itself is currently being rebuilt after suffering severe damage during an earthquake in 1931. While much of it is still variously damaged, Saints Paul and Peter Church has been reconstructed and our group was able to go inside and receive a blessing from the bishop before we crossed over into Artsakh.
Khachkar in front of Tatev.
Village in the mountains around Tatev.
Dome of Sts. Paul and Peter Church.
Reconstruction at Tatev.
Ruins at Tatev.
View of mountain roads below the tramway.
Mountains surrounding Tatev.
It was well after dark by the time we finally reached Shushi. Group by group, the Birthright staff separated us by which Artsakhsi family we would be staying with, and our generous hosts received us and fed us and made sure we had everything we needed before sending us off to bed. Armenian hospitality is deeply warm and giving; I hadn’t thought it possible, but it was even more so in Artsakh.
Our second day started with breakfast at our homestays: tea, bread, cheese, preserves, potatoes. Perfect fuel for exploration. Both of the other volunteers who stayed at the same house spoke Armenian, so we were able to talk with our host mom and share a little back and forth. I think my only regret from the trip was that our schedule was so packed that we had little chance to get to know her and her family more.
View from the corner where we waited for our bus.
Another view from our corner.
After that, we gathered at the Shushi Music Academy where we learned more about the conflict between Artsakh and Azerbaijan– a huge topic that I will not be able to do any sort of justice in this post. Please, if you’d like to hear about it, let me know and I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned. We also got to hear about the work that the Music Academy is doing. The institution is a full academic school, though as the name implies it also focuses on music. In addition to teaching the students, they also provide instruments and two meals a day.
From there we made a short stop at the Tatik-Papik Monument just north of Stepanakert before continuing on to an army base outside the city. For obvious reasons, I have no pictures of the latter, but the experience was incredibly interesting. We had the opportunity to see two different types of tanks, shared lunch with the soldiers, and ran a part of the obstacle course they use for training.
Tatik and Papik (Grandma and Grandpa)
Tatik and Papik (Grandma and Grandpa)
Մենք ենք մեր լեռները. We are our mountains.
Afterwards, we returned to Stepanakert and took part in a “winemob”, which is what it’s called when the ninety of us get divided up into groups of five and each group is given a bottle of wine and told to get ourselves invited into one of the surrounding apartments in order to get to know some of the people who lived there. The staff made sure that each group had at least one person who spoke fluent Armenian, sent us all towards specific buildings, and gave us a time to be back at the buses, but beyond that, left us to our own devices.
It’s not the sort of thing I can imagine doing anywhere else. If I’m honest, I had a hard enough time imagining it in Stepanakert. But I’m afraid I might be giving the wrong impression. Despite my introverted misgivings, this was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had.
My group didn’t even get a chance to knock on a door before we were invited inside. As we reached the building we were assigned and tried to figure out where we were supposed to enter, a man carrying groceries came up and asked us what we were doing. As soon as we explained, he invited us to follow him to his home where he introduced us to his wife and his little son, and we spent the next hour and a half sharing stories and kindling our new friendship over wine, fresh fruit, and homemade vodka.
Our last stop of the day was the Gandzasar monastery, which we unfortunately did not reach until after dark, and therefore were not able to see the incredible view of the surrounding area, which we were told is particularly beautiful. The church itself is lovely, of course, and is surrounded by high walls, one of which still bears damage from Azeri artillery, and we could also see bullet holes in the main building, though I understand that it never fell during the Liberation War. We ate another simple, tasty meal of meat, cheese, and vegetables wrapped in lavash and finally returned to our homestays a little after midnight.
We had breakfast with our host families again, then headed back out to the buses for the ride out to the Azokh Cave. Or rather, to a trail head nearby which we used to reach the caves themselves. The hike wasn’t particularly long, but our surroundings were incredibly beautiful, and I spent the entire trek stopping every thirty seconds to take more pictures. I regret nothing.
The Azokh Cave is actually a group of six interconnected caves that have proven to be a site of rich archaeological discovery as well as a pristine ecosystem in its own right. We were able to go inside, and one of our staff members who had worked with the team doing the excavation told us about the process and some of the things they had found. We also spent a little while with our lights turned out, standing in the deep dark and listening to the fluttering of bats overhead.
Afterwards, we hiked back down to the trail head, where a couple of trucks picked us all up to take us to the nearby village of Azokh for lunch. There’s a hiking trail that runs through Artsakh and passes by Azokh, and one of the village families has opened their doors to those going through. They also welcomed ninety hungry Birthrighters and fed us with bread, cheese, meat, incredible salads, tasty gata, and more.
From there we returned to Stepanakert, where we had a little free time to explore the city. It’s not a large city, and though even the last ten years have seen much progress in the rebuilding process, there are still many, many buildings that are either abandoned or still bear damage from the war. It’s a striking dichotomy, a strange mixture of hope and pain.
Our final stop for the day was the kef or feast at the home of a longtime friend of Birthright Armenia. The whole evening was filled with food, drink, and countless toasts as we expressed our friendship and our thanks for each other, our staff, and our incredible host. The kef is something that every Birthright group that comes to Artsakh has taken part in for the last ten years, and though many of us there that night had never been there before, our host welcomed us as family.
Despite the late night after the kef, some of us dragged ourselves out of bed early the next morning for a hike to Jdrduz in the mountains above Shushi. The views from the hike to the caves the day before were wonderful. The views here were awe-inspiring. We found beautiful views of both Shushi and Stepanakert. We saw canyons and a village open up below us, the remains of an ancient hill fort built impossibly into the cliffs, the metal ropes strung across the gorges to keep enemy aircraft from sneaking in under the radar. I don’t remember quite how long we spent up there, soaking in the beauty and the history of the place. I just know that I could have spent much longer there.
Ancient hill fort ruins.
Anti aircraft emplacement.
Abandoned home on the way up to Jdrduz.
Our last hours in Shushi were spent packing, eating a final breakfast at our homestays, and taking a quick walking tour of Shushi. We visited the ruins of one of the city’s old mosques and saw some of the work being done to restore it. We passed through some of the ancient, narrow streets and saw the old buildings there. We spent time in the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral.
And finally, we had to leave.
I’m not sure what I expected to find in Artsakh. I had heard that it was an incredibly beautiful place, and that is certainly true. It’s so much more than that, though. It’s a place filled with people fighting to make a life for themselves, a place filled with history, a place that can simultaneously give you hope and leave you wondering how a thousand and one obstacles can ever be overcome. It’s a place I’ll never be able to do justice in a single blog post. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it justice with words at all.
By the time this post goes up (and assuming I’ve done my math right*), I will have been in Armenia for almost two full days. Which probably means that I will have cycled through at least five more complete sets of emotions in addition to all the ones I’ve already felt. I will also, I hope, be slightly less sleep deprived and more able to write coherently, but I’ll save that for next week’s blog. This week, I’ll just have to revel in all the giddy thoughts running through my head.
And “giddy” really is the best way to describe it. Giddy and a little fuzzy and not quite sure that this is all real and so very glad that it is. Between packing and good-byes and more packing** and then the actual travel, I haven’t had much time to stop in the last week. Now, though, it’s all taken care of. Or not, and the world didn’t end. I can stop and breathe and look around and grin like a maniac every time it hits me that I’m finally in Armenia. Quite literally on the other side of the world. Getting ready to learn and get involved and even just live.
It was around 1am when my plane landed in Yerevan, so I didn’t get to see much from the air beyond the pattern of the lights. I spent the trip to the home of my wonderful host family doing my best to sound out as many words in Armenian as possible as they flashed by outside the car window, which was simultaneously encouraging (I could recognize and even understand a few!) and faintly unnerving. For every word I could read, there were a hundred more I couldn’t. To say the least, I have a lot of work ahead.
And speaking of the language, it is, for me, a strange feeling to look around a busy street and know that a large percentage of the people all around won’t necessarily understand you. I’ve traveled only a little before this, and that was to the UK/Ireland. This is an entirely different ball of wax.
So far, it’s all been a lesson in humility as well. There’s so much of this I couldn’t have done (and won’t be able to do) on my own. Again, see note ** down below. But it’s more than that. It’s the cousin who encouraged me relentlessly to apply for the program and is helping me around the city now that I’m here. It’s my boss who reminded me until I listened that this is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. It’s having to accept that right now, I need the help, because I don’t speak the language, don’t know the metro/bus systems, don’t know where to find anything or what to avoid. It’s having to recognize that in some ways, I’m about as self sufficient as a little kid.
And, weirdly enough, I’m okay with that. Most of the time.
That’s all I’ve got for now, save that Yerevan is a beautiful city, and I can’t wait until I’m awake enough to explore it. There will definitely be pictures, starting with a couple down below. A quick note: as you’ve probably already guessed, there won’t be a short story going up to this week, as my time got eaten by international travel. I do have one started, and I hope to be able to finish it over the weekend, but you know what they say about the best laid plans. Either way, it’s time for me to drag myself off to bed in the hopes of wounding the vile beast jet lag. Until later!
* If I haven’t, I blame jet lag and entirely too many hours (about twenty) spent on planes. And if you point out that the two of those are basically the same thing… you’re right. I’ll blame that on the jet lag as well.
** I haven’t had to move for five years. To say I’m out of practice on packing would be a severe understatement. I would have been in a world of hurt were it not for everyone who helped me pack and move out and gave me a place to store everything that I didn’t take with me, and I’ll never be able to thank them all enough. Friends, if you are reading this, thank you so much. You saved me from myself.