A Thousand Miles Betwixt Akhtala and Meghri (Part 1) - vahep

Gazing downslope into the heart of the forest, I had to but close my eyes and imagine the Armenia of ancient times, embattled and overrun by neighbors and foes from afar, its defenses stretched, its protectors always vigilant. The view from the ruined watchtower of Sedvi was breathtaking, its narrow windows offering but glimpses of the Province of Lori spreading below, its walls surrounded by the thick brambles I’d cut through to afford myself this vista. Yes, I was in Armenia again, standing in another monument to our past glory, a monument forgotten by most and visited by few.


Prologue, Air France 1060, CDG-EVN, 14 May 2015

It seems like an eternity ago that I last landed in Yerevan… an eternity’s worth of events, including my wedding with Carolyn, the publication of my book, A Photographic Jourmey of my Homeland, Armenia, and an inertia-breaking move from UCLA across town to USC all filled the void between trips to my homeland, a void that would soon be obliterated by new adventures and new memories.

Six months ago, I had grand plans of being in Armenia for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, to repeat the pilgrimages to Tsitsernakaberd of five and ten years ago. But then, I accepted a professorship at USC in January, and as I signed the paperwork, I couldn’t help but realize that my dream of spending April 24th in Armenia evaporated as fast as the drying ink on the contract.

So here I was, Armenia-bound in May instead, and even more excited by the prospect of spending an entire week devoted to photography. I wouldn’t spend much time in Yerevan again. Stepan Nalbandian and I had already made plans for at least one, perhaps two adventures, the first of which would begin on the morrow. As the Air France Airbus A320 ponderously approached Zvartnots airport, I reminisced about my previous visit to Armenia in May, when my homeland was blanketed in emerald dotted with the yellows, reds, and whites of wildflowers. Thought also turned to our anticipated landing time, within minutes of sunset of this spring day, and perhaps in time to catch the last rays of the sun on Mt. Ararat. Oh, what a welcome back that would be!

On this third and final leg of my journey, yet another completely packed flight, I’d opted for an aisle seat, and having last flown this route more than seven years ago, had chosen the “wrong” side of the aircraft, the side opposite that which would give me a first view of Mt. Ararat. I caught stolen glances of the Holy Mount through the half-fogged windows of the aircraft, egging our pilot on silently as he navigated us in and out of the cumulus clouds that were less than kind to our plane. These glimpses reignited my love for this amazing mountain, its peak lit afire by the setting Sun and crowned by a perfectly symmetric lenticular cloud. It took far longer than it should have for us to land, and by the time we exited the aircraft, all light had fled even the highest point of the mountain.

As my brother Oshin drove us home, I kept my eyes glued on Ararat, unwilling to let it go, knowing that I perhaps may not see it in such grandeur during the rest of the trip. My disappointment was immediately tempered by the phone call I made to Stepan. Against all expectations, we’d be leaving Yerevan for Lori at 9am sharp. Putting my tried and true jetlag fighting technique into full swing, I busied myself by organizing my photography gear, and packing clothes for a journey whose length had yet to be determined. When I finally went to bed, completely exhausted, sleep enveloped me quickly and kept me in her arms till morning.


Friday 15 May 2015

We left Yerevan right on schedule, affording me just enough time to enjoy a quick cup of Peet’s coffee and my traditional breakfast of fresh bread, salty feta, and ripe tomatoes. Akin to pilots going through their preflight checklist by rote, we zeroed the odometer on the Chevy Niva, stopped briefly for gas, then rocketed out of Yerevan, our progress interrupted far too often by the speed cameras that had sprouted everywhere since my last visit, demanding adherence to a 60 kilometer per hour speed limit that few wanted to abide by. One highlight of the first section of this road out of Yerevan is the view of the four prominent mountains flanking the Ararat Plain: Mt. Ararat and Mt. Sis to the south, Mt. Aragats straight ahead, and Mt. Ara to the right of the road as it curved northward toward Aparan and beyond. On this day, though, we were bereft of even a glance of their peaks as low clouds blanketed the sky for as far as the eye could see.

Oshin had already insisted that we stop at Gntuniq in Aparan, a bakery on steroids that had amazing bread and pastries baked front and center and served piping hot. Never could I have imagined that a bakery in Aparan, no matter how large, would be housed in a modern glass curtain-walled building, but it was, and every aspect of the megabakery was as modern as it gets, from the touchless (and very clean) toilets to the gleaming tiled floor to the presentation of baked goods. In counterpoint and strong contrast to this modernity was the tonir placed at the very center of the retail space, manned expertly by a baker who slapped circular rows of dough, destined to become pouri bread, inside the tonir. His motion was like clockwork: the paddle in his able hands would move back, a perfect mound of dough would be placed on the paddle, he would then stretch, extending himself on his toes while lifting the paddle, and place the dough on the inside wall of the tonir with just enough force to ensure it stayed in that position as the dough transformed to bread. By the time he’d finished the third row, the first row was baked to a golden brown, and the precision of the baker’s movements would now include the removal and placement of each piping hot loaf of bread on a cooling rack where the bread spent scant seconds before being snatched by customers who had spent the previous minute watching this dance and salivating at the prospect devouring the hot bread.

We bought more bread, khachapuris, and chocolate-filled croissants than we could ever hope to consume, and sped towards the Lori region more sated than we should have allowed ourselves to be. As we descended into Lori, the ere nonexistent blue patches of sky grew in size and frequency till a coffee break reunion with Chakhal in Vanadzor found us marveling at the blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. I’ve never been a big fan of Armenian coffee, both because it doesn’t enough punch in its slightly larger than a single espresso serving, and because it’s often served far too sweet for my taste. Just as the waiter approached, I spied a refrigerator full of Gyumri beer, and opted for my first beer in Armenia* instead of coffee. (* I’d arrived at my parents’ flat to a thoughtfully-filled fridge, as they’d left Armenia the day before. There were fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, bread, and juices for my morning repast, but alas not a single bottle of beer to drink as I relaxed after the long journey.)

My heart filled with anticipation as we headed north out of Vanadzor. For the last decade, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to visit Kobayr Monastery, a 12th Century marvel that improbably hugs the western cliffs that cast their shadow on the road to Alaverdi. For a number of years, the only access to this monastic complex was via a dirt track that became impassable for days after each rainfall, and I’d had to cancel at least two trips here at the last minute. Now, at last, there was a second road, opened by the crew in charge of the reconstruction of the two churches of Kobayr. We drove the Niva onto this road, fully expecting to drive right up to the cliff upon which strode the churches. But no, less than 100 m up the dirt road, a narrow tunnel led under the train tracks that run parallel to the highway, and here we stopped. In Armenia, a narrow tunnel on a utility road needs to be wide enough for one car and one car only, the Lada Niva, and unfortunately our westernized cousin of the Soviet workhorse was a bit too wide in the hips to make it through. We backtracked to the highway, parked the Niva, and trudged along the twin tire tracks that marked the road to the monastery.

I’m actually glad that we ended up walking. As one drives into Lori in May, one is surrounded by the lush green of a landscape in full bloom, one that’s been drinking the rains of April and is now proudly showing off its colors. The intense green overpowers the senses, and at highway speeds, drowns out the more muted colors of springtime blooms. As we walked the path to the monastery, each step revealed more and more wildflowers… Tiny yellow daisies and ephemeral dandelions in droves, and the occasional red poppy swaying in the wind. It would have been a shame to trample these with our car. The sun was burning bright, having briefly won its battle with the clouds now dispersed by the winds. Anticipation grew with every step, till a curve in the road finally revealed the complex in all its grandeur, its half-ruined walls tightly gripping a crag jutting out from the vertical cliff wall rising above. The road ended at a series of new square-cut basalt steps skirting the crag, upon which also hung a construction elevator. A scant fifty steps up, and the basalt was replaced by single pieces of rock that made for steps, each becoming smaller and less trustworthy as we climbed on. Our effort was rewarded immediately upon reaching the top, as cave after cave that gave name to the complex** spread before us, and a moss-covered rock through which a spring trickled out applauded our ascent. (** Kobayr is comprised of the Georgian (kob) and Armenian (ayr) words for cave.)

Skirting the church, whose southern wall is mostly intact, one enters the ruins of this complex, with rare frescoes decorating the eastern wall. Though reconstruction has been ongoing for ten years, these frescoes still remain exposed to the elements. Ahead, one spies the fully rebuilt belfry, with a metal scaffolding ladder giving access to its dome and insisting on being featured in every photograph of the structure. Stepan explained that a quarrel was ongoing about the shape and size of the cross to be placed atop the rebuilt belfry (which I now realized was not “complete” after all), and the ladder remained in place till the argument was settled one way or another. From within the smooth and unweathered basalt deck of the belfry, the village of Kobayr spread below us, and the onrushing Debed insisted on being noticed.


The battle of cloud and Sun had taken a turn, and light was becoming more and more scarce. As we began to head back, a thunderstorm whose peals of warning had first resonated just minutes ago broke upon us, drenching us in the minute or two that the deluge lasted. The rain abated just as we neared the turn in the road that would rob us of our monastic view, and, turning to Stepan, I said “shan eres unem…” (the translation of which is “I have a dog’s face,” but is meant to say that one is impudent or brazen) and dug my camera out of my pack before the last raindrop had fallen. The just-washed greenery now glowed in the muted sunlight, providing the perfect frame for the dark buildings and distinctive brick orange roof of the belfry visible in the distance.

From Kobayr, we headed north, entering the town of Alaverdi, which occupies a valley carved by the Debed River flanked by flat highlands stretching away from each side. The landscape of this mining town is dominated by a giant smokestack pointing skyward from the middle of the valley and another, smaller smokestack perched atop the northern slope and connected to the valley floor by pipes gleaming in sunlight. It’s long been known that Alaverdi is the most polluted town in Armenia, and as we approached, the northern smokestack spewed more poison into the air. A very brief stop in town for snacks also afforded an opportunity to photograph the Sanahin Bridge, a 12th Century marvel that goes unnoticed by most travelers and tourists rushing to the better known attractions of the region. Back in the car, we would like to have sped through town, but the endless chain of speed cameras ensured that Stepan’s speedometer was glued to 60 km/h. The siren songs of Odzun and Sanahin, twin monasteries on opposite highlands, briefly held us captive, and the road to Haghpat Monastery did its best to lure us in, but today, Stepan was singular in his intent to show me a gem of Armenia’s north that had eluded my previous explorations. The monastic complex of Akhtala and the Pghindzaberd fortress, whose proud heritage as protector of the North reaches back to the Bronze and Iron Ages, lay near the Georgian border, farther north than I’d ever traveled in Armenia.


North of Alaverdi, the climate quickly changed, and though the changes were subtle, the landscape was visibly different. Cypress trees (Kiparis in Armenian) begin to dominate the treescape, lending a darker hue to the cliff-hugging forests of the region. As we approached Akhtala, the juxtaposition of the church, the remains of the fortress walls, and the verdurous forest ringing the complex and its namesake village took our breath away. The best preserved portion of the ancient fortress is its impressive gatehouse which also serves as the entry to the grounds of the complex, with a dilapidated iron gate now emulating the portcullis that had held enemies at bay. The short walk from the gate to the Surp Astvatsatsin church was very therapeutic. The scent of impending rain was in the air, and the green grass of the yard provided perfect counterpoint to the dark stone of the compound’s structures. Looking back towards the gatehouse, I was struck by the incredible symmetry between the ruins of the structure and the hills behind, as if giant hands had cut the stone of the hills to emulate the ruins of the fortress. Two seasonal waterfalls, doing their best to blend into the rocks, completed the picture that I could not tear myself away from for a long time.

The church itself is famous for its bright-colored Byzantine-style murals that cover the walls from floor to ceiling, the most impressive and well-preserved of which are behind the altar. Once outside again, we were drawn to the ruins of what looked like a large three-story residence hall that had been dug into the ground. Though little remained of the structures interior, one could see hints of its staircases and floorplan.

As we departed Akhtala, the sun’s rays had already turned golden, and as rain began to fall, hewn stone and foliage alike began to glow. It was nearly 5:00pm, and we’d postponed lunch till now, so we stopped at the Atorik tavern for much needed sustenance. The photographer in me was the lone dissenting voice to this decision, but it was drowned out by the need to rest after a long drive from Yerevan on just the first day after arriving in my homeland. The grilled pork was outstanding, far surpassing the excellent pork chalaghaj I’ve had in Dilijan, and the explanation we were given was that the villagers of the region were too poor to buy feed for their livestock, which grazed on the local grasses, shrubs, and herbs. No wonder! This is what truly organic pork tastes like!


One of the reasons I try to avoid stopping for lunch in Armenia, as fantastic as the food may be, is that it takes far too long to prepare everything from scratch, and as Stepan aptly put, it’s time you subtract from the sum of the scant time of golden light one has in a day. And so, by the time we reached the village of Ardvi, we were once again ruing the little sunlight we had left, less so as dark clouds extended the western horizon skyward. Before my trip began, I’d researched the waterfalls in Armenia and had come away disappointed. I could find less than five, each in a remote corner of the country. It turns out, though, that there are far more seasonal waterfalls, many of which are reduced to an unrecognizable trickle or run dry altogether soon after the late spring and early summer heat has melted the snow on the hills. I’d already been pleasantly surprised by the waterfalls in Akhtala, and as we approached Ardvi, Stepan told of twin seasonal waterfalls flanking the tiny monastery.

The gauntlet thrown down by Stepan was to include both waterfalls an the monastery in the same photograph, as one of his friends had done. Of course, this meant climbing down a muddy and less than stable slope, a task that proved more difficult than it should have as fatigue began to dig its claws into me. As appealing as the idea of having two waterfalls in the same frame may be, the bare hill between the two falls was far too unphotogenic and dominated every composition until I decided to exclude one of the falls. Light finally fled Ardvi, but not before I explored the monastery grounds, something I hadn’t had a chance to do the last time we were here. Ardvi is truly magical. The diminutive buildings of the monastery, atop a small hillock, are flanked by a bardi (poplar) twice as tall as the church dome, and a less tall but picturesque kaghni (white oak). The monastery walls glowed golden even after the sun disappeared behind clouds, but at last we left the village knowing that we were far from being done for the day.


To reach Ardvi, we had driven on the switchbacks leading to Odzun village, then along the road that roughly parallels the eastern edge of this plateau. The road to Ardvi is marked by twin rows of bardis, and the village itself is just beyond the first set of hills visible from Odzun. Retracing our steps, we sped toward Horomayri monastery, or rather its small matur atop the Odzun plateau where one can peer down the cliff for an eagle’s view of the main complex below. Though the sun had long left the Debed River valley in the shadow of approaching night, the cover of clouds glowing with the last light of day provided an amazing lightbox effect, setting the green cover of the slope below aflame and highlighting the ruins of the monastery walls and barely standing belfry as both tried their best to blend into the rock whence they’d been hewn. Though the sunset itself wasn’t very spectacular, but as began our descent into Alaverdi, the clouds began to glow in pink, orange, and purple, holding our attention captive and necessitating another stop. We drove in darkness to Vanadzor and the quaint Green House hotel. As we pulled in, we’d already clocked 280 km, and we were more than ready to eat, drink, and recharge for the morrow.

To reach Ardvi, we had driven on the switchbacks leading to Odzun village, then along the road that roughly parallels the eastern edge of this plateau. The road to Ardvi is marked by twin rows of bardis, and the village itself is just beyond the first set of hills visible from Odzun. Retracing our steps, we sped toward Horomayri monastery, or rather its small matur atop the Odzun plateau where one can peer down the cliff for an eagle’s view of the main complex below. Though the sun had long left the Debed River valley in the shadow of approaching night, the cover of clouds glowing with the last light of day provided an amazing lightbox effect, setting the green cover of the slope below aflame and highlighting the ruins of the monastery walls and barely standing belfry as both tried their best to blend into the rock whence they’d been hewn.

 Though the sunset itself wasn’t very spectacular, but as began our descent into Alaverdi, the clouds began to glow in pink, orange, and purple, holding our attention captive and necessitating another stop. We drove in darkness to Vanadzor and the quaint Green House hotel. As we pulled in, we’d already clocked 280 km, and we were more than ready to eat, drink, and recharge for the morrow.


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Even though I don’t suffer jetlag, spending an entire day driving and photographing immediately after traveling halfway across the globe took its toll on me. I wouldn’t be photographing at first light, which would be at 5:42am, but rather catching up on much needed sleep. Our departure from Vanadzor was further delayed by Stepan’s accident the previous night. As we walked to dinner, the street lights were unceremoniously turned off at 9pm, plunging our path into near total darkness. Stepan stumbled in a ditch and despite his heroic effort to regain his balance, scraped and banged his knee, and broke his fall with his left hand, which would hurt for days afterward. Stepan’s friend Karen, a colorful character who had served as a medic on the front lines of the Karabagh war and an avid mountain climber, had joined us the night before for dinner, and immediately offered to take care of Stepan’s scrapes in the morning while I caught up on sleep and work. Our hotel was far too small to offer breakfast, so I ventured out to find freshly delivered cheese boregs in a shop next door. Had I known that our eating schedule would mirror yesterday’s, I’d perhaps bought more for the road as well. At last, we were on the road, headed to Dsegh village and one of my favorite vista points in Armenia. As we approached Dsegh, I was thankful once again for the cloud cover that muted the sunlight and made meaningful photography possible this close to noon.


The overlook didn’t disappoint, as the lush green of the Debed River valley served as foreground to the snowcapped and cloud-crowned chain of mountains stretching across the horizon, with the singular Mt. Maymekh vying for attention. Here, Stepan shared his hopes and vision for the overlook, which included a restaurant, cottages, and an overhanging viewing platform. It would be amazing to spend a day or two here, to take in the breathtaking landscape and the magnificent starscape that would spread above night after night. I’d much prefer to spend my nights here than in an urban hotel.

We next approached the ancient cemetery of Dsegh, notable for its unique khatchkars and obelisk. The bright noontime sun relegated any photography here as purely documentary in nature, as the obelisk itself was harshly backlit and the other khatchkars were hiding their best colors for much later in the day.


We next approached the ancient cemetery of Dsegh, notable for its unique khatchkars and obelisk. The bright noontime sun relegated any photography here as purely documentary in nature, as the obelisk itself was harshly backlit and the other khatchkars were hiding their best colors for much later in the day. And so we drove toward another wonder I’d missed despite a number of trips to Dsegh. To the east of the village, within a forest, lies one of the largest natural lakes in Armenia. The Dseghtsi tendency for exaggeration, immortalized in Hovannes Tumanyan’s tales, also extends to naming landmarks, and this lake, which I circumwalked*** in less than 15 minutes, is named Tsover (“seas”) even though it’s a singular and small body of water. Name aside, it’s a very picturesque lake, especially on its southern side where ancient trees spread their boughs toward the water. I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the lake and its surroundings, and slowly walked back to the car, both shoes drenched and covered in mud for the effort. (*** Circumwalked is a word I invented in July 2014 when, mesmerized by Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park, I struggled for words to describe walking along the narrow track that led around Cathedral Lake.)

Instead of heading back to Dsegh, we turned from Tsover towards the Marts River valley, taking a road that meandered down from the Dsegh plateau to the Marts River, then following the river as it rushed toward the Debed. The Marts River turned out to be much more photogenic than the waters it was destined for, as numerous rocks in the river created cascade after cascade. We made three stops along the way, the first of which was at a flowering tree that framed a landscape made famous by Martiros Saryan in his painting Collective Farm of Village Karindzh in the Mountains Tumanyan, a painting that now adorns the Armenian 5000 dram banknote. We stopped again to give a ride downvalley to a teenage boy who was traveling on foot from Marts village to Vanadzor, forty kilometers away, for two days of math lessons, now a baffled bystander at our next stop when all my camera gear came out to photograph the Marts River rapids. We bid adieu to the boy at the Vanadzor-Alaverdi highway, as we turned north and away from his destination.


As we descended into Alaverdi for a second day of exploration, we once again disregarded the colorful signs marking the roads to Odzun and Sanahin, and turned left instead onto an improbably steep road into the heart of Alaverdi’s residential area to the west of the highway. The neglect of the regions beyond Yerevan intensifies with distance from the capital, and all one has to do is to drive through a town like Alaverdi to realize just how bad things are. The road we traveled on, though a main artery into the Soviet era residential blocks, was barely passable. On one side, half the road had been excavated as if to lay pipe, with only a few sections of said pipe, already rusted, in sight. The people lumbering up the slope laden with their shopping bags far outnumbered the few cars we saw. The buildings themselves were dilapidated, and I could only imagine the difficult existence the denizens of this neighborhood eked out. As we approached the last building on our way out of town, we were now level with the smokestack on the northern side of the hills surrounding the town, and the harsh odor of smoke was unmistakable. After briefly stopping for directions, we headed toward Kachachkut village and the St. Nshan monastic complex at Sedvi on its outskirts. Down a dirt track that served as a road, we reached the small, recently rebuilt monastery, hidden behind trees far taller than its roof.


The air was very fresh here, and we took our time walking the grounds, but our main destination today wasn’t the vank itself, but the ruins of a watchtower barely visible on a forested bluff below. The watchtower was perfectly placed, occupying the highest point at the terminus of a rocky finger extending westward from the slope and surrounded by a thorny thicket. Stepan waited in a clearing on this bluff where a flat rectangular stone, toppled centuries ago, distinguished itself. The cramped interior of the watchtower would have been just large enough for a handful of sentries, but each would have had an eagle’s view of the surrounding countryside from the long and narrow windows looking in every direction.

As I carefully climbed up to the window looking southward, my imagination took wing, transporting me to the tumultuous past of this region, to the Gugark Province of Greater Armenia, to the descendants of the Bagratuni princes beating back the Seljuk hordes. Was the watchtower part of a chain linking Pghindzaberd in Akhtala to other fortresses, or did it stand alone? Had its sentries merely kept a watchful eye on the valley below, or was this a stronghold from which the enemy could be waylaid? Each scenario briefly flashed before my eyes till I finally drew my gaze from the window. Imagine my surprise, though, when I found faint frescoes decorating a section of the eastern wall of the tower, under a ledge offering protection from the elements. Was this, after all, a tower that had seen other uses? I’d never know…


The Chevy Niva, now as close to the watchtower as possible and parked within fifty paces of the rectangular stone, was more than up to the task of climbing the steep hill back to the road that would take us to our next stop. But, as we willed our jeiran**** on, a faint odor of boiling coolant, never a good omen, filled the Niva.  (**** Jeiran, the Persian/Turkish for a female deer, is our nickname for the capable Chevy Niva) Moments later, our fears were confirmed when steam began pouring angrily out of the engine compartment. We sacrificed the last of the drinking water we carried, and nixing plans of further exploration, descended into Alaverdi to fix the ruptured coolant hose that was the source of the steam and of our ennui. On the southern outskirts of town, conveniently situated next to a kebab shop, we found a mechanic who repaired the hose while we had a quick (in Armenian terms) lunch of tender beef kabob with the usual accompaniments. Araik’s restaurant was tiny, and it was obvious that it barely survived on the chance meal served to passers by, but its food, from the cheese to the kebab, was excellent.


Even before the mishap with the hose, we’d decided to head back to Yerevan that evening and to begin a new adventure on Monday. As we ate, we formulated the plan for the rest of the evening. Stepan’s astonishment that I’d never beheld Makaravank, the Tatev of the North, was immediately followed by a remedy. We would drive north to Noyemberyan, then down toward Ijevan in the Tavush Region to visit the magnificent monastery that Stepan couldn’t stop talking about. Stepan’s need for tidiness meant that the Niva was being hand-washed as we ate, a process that somehow took more time than grilling meat and consuming it. We hurried the lone Alaverdtsi washing the Niva, and, as with every day Stepan and I have been on the road in Armenia, began a race with the sinking sun toward the distant vank.

The road we traveled, at first bordering Georgia, soon turned south-eastward. The string of villages we passed through, each a new experience for me, each with their own character, and each with their tiny church, were unfortunately too close to the border with Azerbaijan to stop safely and photograph, as Azeri snipers had been active in the area. Of these, I most regret not photographing roadside church of Voskepar, perfectly framed against the Miapor mountains to the east.


Light was failing fast as we turned off the highway to begin the 11-km trek to Makaravank, one that took far less time than we anticipated as the road had been recently paved. The sun had already set in unspectacular fashion, and the blue hour was upon us, so we made one stop just before reaching the monastery. The view of the monastery and the sinuous hill upon which the compound was perched was far too alluring a sight to miss.

Standing guard and in greeting at the gate of the complex was an ancient tkhki tree (a variety of maple), three thick trunks stretching skyward from a gnarled base that reminded us of a dinosaur from one side and beasts of legend from the other.

One common feature of monasteries in Armenia is that it’s very difficult to properly photograph the grandeur of the collection of buildings from within its walls. That same was true here, and I was glad that we’d stopped by the roadside before arriving at its gates. The monastery was truly beautiful, and the open door of a grand hall to the left of the main church, flanked by khatchkars whole and cloven, beckoned. Huge pillars rose to the roof on either side, each streaked green from water that had seeped through and left a mineral trail. I walked outside to find a high perch just outside the gate to the compound, and as the last light of day evaporated from its walls, I stood in awe of yet another architectural marvel I’d witnessed for the very first time with Stepan as my guide.

I arrived home an hour before midnight, and a quick glance at the odometer as I gathered my gear showed that we’d traveled 621 km in just two days. I went to bed exhausted from the long journey but with a smile on my face as two days of memories relived themselves in my tired mind. I was glad to be spending tomorrow recuperating and spending time with my brother and his family.


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