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Why hike Armenia?


Why hike Armenia? This question was frequently raised by our friends before and after our trip. We decided after receiving an invitation from our friend Tim, who has been living in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, for four years now.

We asked him to help us discover outdoor life in mountainous Armenia. A search on the Internet came up with several homepages offering guided tours and route descriptions. We were also warned about the troublesome practice of obtaining relevant maps for hiking in the mountains—they are still regarded as state secrets!

A surprisingly comfortable and inexpensive air flight with Aeroflot brought us to Yerevan’s newly renovated airport (the result of a generous donation from a diasporan Armenian, we were told). We became acquainted with a central hangout for ex-pats and tourists while spending our first few days in Yerevan: the Artbridge Café and International bookstore. Aside from being served a heavenly blackberry juice, we got useful tips about climbing Mt. Aragats, Armenia’s highest mountain, from the other guests.

Aragats: The 4000 m Dream

It was quite frustrating to see Mt. Ararat (5165 m) from our balcony in Yerevan and being denied the chance to climb it due to the closed Turkish-Armenian border. The frustration gave a hint of the ongoing trauma of Armenians being separated from their sacred mountain. Going for second best we choose Mt. Aragats as our prime target. The old volcano northwest of Yerevan was tempting with peaks reaching just over 4000 m. To get there, as far as we know, you must depend on private transport since no buses regularly go to the base of the mountain (at 3200 m).

Team vehicle at Aragats hamlet

We were lucky to be Norwegian that day, as Hamlet, whose wife is also Norwegian, spotted us on the crowded shore of Lake Sevan and was eager to assist us. Hamlet, a former soldier during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the early nineties, is now making a living by operating his own transport business with his homemade car, made from various spare parts, such as BMW and Lada autos. In custom with famous Armenian hospitality, our drive up the mountain included a stop at his home for a cup of strong Armenian coffee.

The slow ascent from the Urartian plain, made while driving through small villages, provided a wonderful view of the territory below. A brief stop at Amberd Fortress gave hints of an ancient community struggling to survive attacks from various enemies passing through the Caucasus over the centuries. We wondered whether the fortress once served as a safe heaven for travelers along the busy Silk Road.

The road up Aragats’ slopes is in rather good condition due to the operational ANI cosmic ray observatory in Byurakan, situated by a small lake at 3200 m. While passing herds, tents, and shepherds riding horseback our journey came to an abrupt stop. Surprise!  It turned out Hamlet’s car, which was running on propane gas, gave up on us at 2900 m! Luckily, our subsequent walk was eased by a carload of Armenians spotting foreigners. They decided to give us a party, and out of the trunk of their car soon emerged unlimited amounts of Armenian cognac, sliced watermelon, and loud music. As soon as we had established our base camp by the lake we realized that we had left the fuel for cooking in Hamlet’s car. Once again, Armenian hospitality saved us, as we were invited by a meteorologist stationed nearby to share the evening with him and his colleagues. Despite a heavy language barrier, the visit was a nice experience, as we were served traditional Armenian food and watching various TV channels from the region.

A pre-climb cognac

We regretted the cognac when awaking in the morning, when our 4000 m goal required getting up at 4:00 am. The mountain slopes were covered with interesting flowers we had not previously seen in various colors, which gave off a heavenly smell—probably better than any French perfume!  A three-hour walk brought us to the South Peak at 3879 m. There we met a Austrian team of mountaineers led by Vladimir Saroyan, from the famous Spitak Rescue Center located in the Lori region. From him we learned that in order to reach the summit (North Peak, 4090 m) we had to cross the crater. But due to the mountain’s thermal conditions the crater starts filling up with fog every day around noon.

Still regretting our cognac party the day before, we decided to go for the western peak. It was a great one-hour climb, with some scrambling near the top.  To our disappointment, Vladimir corrected the height of the peak in our Armenian guidebook from 4030 m to 3989 m.  Next time we will be sure to bring some extra stones and stand on each other’s shoulders to reach 4000 m! Once again, Armenian courtesy is great, as Vladimir gave us a free ride all the way back to our front door in Yerevan. 

(Re-) Mapping in Tatev

In order to get around in Armenia you need plenty of information. Maps and trail locations have always been hard to obtain, unless you know a local guide. Some post Soviet-era improvements has been made, but it is still a hassle trying to find reliable, accurate information.

A trekker’s map of Aragats

But we were lucky to get in touch with representatives from the Kanach Foundation, which had recently researched and tracked hiking routes for the publication of a new guidebook, and they invited us to try out a couple of itineraries in the country’s southern regions. The guidebook is called “Adventure Armenia: Hiking and Rock Climbing” and is now available for purchase—it can be found at http://www.kanach.org/.

Our adventure started out from Yerevan early one Saturday morning, accompanied by Carine from Kanach and their guide, Armenak. We climbed into our minibus driven by Vladimir, who is the energetic owner of DA Tours. He drove us safely along the 300 km route from Yerevan to Tatev Village located in the Sunik region, our destination.

On the way, he provided us with interesting information about the recent history of Armenia and on the places we passed by. He even knew where to stop and purchase tasty wine, as we crossed Areni, famous for its grape varieties.

We reached Satan’s Bridge, situated at the bottom of Vorotan Valley, in the early afternoon, and had time for a refreshing swim in the hot water spring there. While in the pool we also became acquainted with fellow visitors, who insisted on sharing their bottles of vodka with us. But this time we managed to refuse, having spent a few days getting over a nasty stomach bug, thereby escaping from the famous Armenian hospitality.

Our first hike in Tatev went down the canyon of Vorotan Valley, which was a relatively easy route following a dirt road down to the river. We crossed it and proceeded along the path, looking at the impressive rock formations on both sides of the gorge and eating tasty blackberries from trees growing alongside the trail. Although it was possible to continue further down the valley, we returned to Satan’s Bridge after a two-hour walk to avoid getting short of daylight.

The path up to Tatev monastery led us to the abandoned Anapad monastery and Shinuhayr church on the opposite side of Satan’s Bridge. This monastery dates back to the 17th century and has not been in use for many years. Thus the surrounding walls and buildings were nearly overgrown by vegetation, which made the place somewhat mysterious. Some of the walls had fallen down, and entering the site was an “Indiana Jones” like experience for us, having to climb rocks and cut down overgrown greenery. Once inside the complex it was fascinating to discover that the church was almost intact, and we imagined what the secluded life of the monks must have been like. Later we learned that the monastery was built as an annex to the more prominent and active Tatev monastery on the hilltop, so that the monks could more easily perform their contemplation. On our way up the lush hillside, we spotted old fruit trees and other plants we recognized from gardens back home.

After a steep walk that offered at each step a better view of the Vorotan Valley—along which we made frequent stops to take in the beautiful scenery—we reached Tatev village just before darkness. Arrangements were made for bed and breakfast accommodations at two homes in the village. In one of them the family even vacated to give room for the guests. The standards were simple, but the beds were comfortable and indoor showers were available. Once again Armenian hospitality was displayed by the richness of dishes presented on the table. We had a wonderful dinner prepared by the lady of the house, who provided us with a long row of local specialties. This time we did not refuse to drink as our host insisted on making a vodka toast or two. It’s not nice (and not fun!) to turn down Armenian hospitality too often.

The next morning we had a wonderful breakfast of lavash bread, sun-ripened vegetables, wonderful cheese, stuffed grape leaves, and tea made from dried herbs growing in and around the village. This meal gave us strength to try other hiking routes. First we experienced the difficulties in trying to find our way without an updated map and a good description. We followed a path leading to a dead end in the woods, and there was nothing else to do but to turn back and try another route.

Aragats Crater

As we came back to the hills above the village, we decided to split into two groups. Our group was given the challenge of finding a new route to add to the “Adventure Armenia” guidebook. We headed along, eager to please, and started ascending the mountaintop to which we had been assigned, keeping pen, paper, and camera ready for documenting.

The treeless south side of the ridge was easy to walk along, but to pass to the northern side we had to fight our way through oak trees, growing all the way up to an elevation of 2000 m. The summit gave a magnificent view of the surroundings—villages, fields, and mountains in the distance. This experience was something completely different from the one we had the day before, and we discovered a very nice hike following the ridge westward from the mountain we first climbed. We could have followed the ridge for quite some distance, but since time was limited we returned down the sunny hillside, taking in the scent of herbs and flowers growing on the meadows we crossed.

While approaching the village we met a number of local residents, some riding their horses and mules. Others, despite the language barrier, invited us into their homes for tea. We had to refuse the invitation, as we wanted to see the famous monastery in Tatev before the end of the day, then meet up with the others.

The hikes we made are just small glimpses of the countless hiking possibilities Armenia offers. We really enjoyed our mountainous adventures and would highly recommend to anyone coming to Armenia to include at least a few hikes in your trip.

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