Closing the loop
30.07.2009 - 01.08.2009
The sights of southern Armenia are nice, amidst the mountains carpeted in the whites, blues, yellows and purples of small mountain flowers in bloom. Our first day in Sisian we wandered around the sights scattered in the hills above the town, the first of which was Zorats Karer, or Karahundj (stone hundj, or henge), a mysterious collection of large rocks punctured with small holes that is thought to be some kind of ancient observatory.
It is dated to 7000 BC, making it the oldest rock observatory (if you can call a bunch of rocks an observatory), but according to the man in the small shack selling souvenirs, who invited us in for coffee (we were the only people there when we arrived), the dating was done using "procession", so measuring how far off it is from actually seeing stars through the holes. Since the stars move their position centimeters in millions of years, I would assume this method has a margin of error of somewhere in the thousands of years, so it's safe to say we have no idea when, who or why these rocks are placed here. Also it's making the assumption that they haven't been moved within that time, which is rather ludicrous since messing stuff up has been a human pastime since day 1, and this area has been inhabited by us humans almost since then. It all sounded like the Armenian claim of "this is the oldest, best and most incredible thing EVER!", and the naming it to karahundj (a recent thing) seems like a attempt to gain legitimacy by linking it to Stonehenge. Anyway, despite the rant, it was actually a very interesting place, with large rocks arranged in a east-west line with a circle in the middle, with most of the rocks having small holes through them. It definitely throws up questions of why these strange rocks are here, and what it must have meant to early peoples.
Then we had some cross country mountain walking to a large waterfall nearby, which was actually "shut off" because the nearby hydroelectric station was using up the water, so there was only a small trickle down the falls themselves. There was still an opportunity to have a swim in the cold mountain waters in the pool above with some local boys, and some rock climbing to the top of a mountain nearby.
The next day we decided to be adventurous and have a day trip to Tatev, a famous monastery in the region that was recommended to us by a trucker we had hitched with earlier: "If you haven't seen Tatev, you haven't seen Armenia". This was rather daring as there was one bus going there from the town of Goris (further down the motorway from us) and none going back until the next day, and since it wasn't on the main road or anything of the sort, hitching would be hard.
We had this "hitching would be hard" revelation after a few hours of standing along the dirt track that leads to Tatev, being told a few times that we'd have no chance of getting there by passing drivers (some of whom said they'd drive us there for big money, ie. filthy taxi drivers, so we ignored them). Eventually a passing kid confirmed our suspicions and invited us into his house, where we were somehow ushered into a farewell feast for a newly married couple, who were leaving that same day on their honeymoon. Some chess games and shots of homemade mulberry vodka later, they put us on the only (packed) bus going there along the dirt path into the mountains. The jackhammer ride didn't help the daytime hangover, but we made it eventually. After we arrived, some kids laughed at our wishes to get back on the same day, pointing to some local homestays nearby. Deciding to ignore that issue for the time being, we went to check out the monastery that Tatev is famous for.
The monastery was surrounded by a large wall, perched on a cliff overlooking a deep canyon, definitely an epic sight. The building itself was fairly usual (I'm getting quite sick of these monasteries), beige stone, drum and conical dome, carvings of crosses everywhere, orange wax all over the walls from years of candles. After this was done, we had the pressing issue of somehow getting back, which also meant that we couldn't see the other sight of the area, Satan's bridge, as hiking 5km through mountains and back then trying to hitch a ride wasn't really an option since it was getting late.
But one again, luck was on our side, and we managed to befriend some Armenian playboys (the big dog was LSE and MGU educated, with his trophy girl and 2 lackeys) out on holiday and got a ride back in their big black jeep. Amazingly enough, they also wanted to see Satan's bridge and took us there too, which was a natural bridge over a steep gorge (ie a rockfall). You can even go under the bridge, to the place where you'd expect the trolls to lurk, which is an dark tunnel dripping with stalactites and pools of warm spring water, as well as lots of cool rocks to climb around.
Eventually, after losing the way a few times (iphone GPS doesn't work here) the sleek black SUV dropped us off on the motorway to Sisian, where we quickly found a classic foul mouthed Armenian trucker on his was to Yerevan from Iran who dropped us off at the turn. There we miraculously found another truck home. The hitching itself is very fun, as you get good banter with the truckers in a particular Russian vernacular where every second word is somehow offensive.
A dinner of fresh fruit and bread and quick night at our hotel, and we hopped onto a minivan heading north to Yerevan, the capital, almost completing our loop of the country. But before we stopped at Khor Virap, yet another monastery on a hill overlooking Ararat plain and the mountain itself, another epic location. Obviously it's very picturesque, but it feels quite standard. They need to step it up and build a monastery on an island inside an active volcano or something. Despite taxi touts bluntly saying there's no public transport, we got onto a waiting bus right in from of us to the capital.
Yerevan is a slight shock, a developed city where we don't have to avoid cow pats on the streets, nicely dressed attractive people, neon lights and tall buildings. Definitely a mild "farmer boy in the big city for the first time" kind of sensation, although it soon passed. We shall delve deeper into what there is around...