An exploration of the Armenian Highlands: Sunrises, Sunsets, and Nightscapes - vahep

Prologue


The hydraulic pumps retracting the landing gear of the Airbus sent a wave of emotions through the passenger-packed cabin… For some, this culmination of the mad dash across the length of the runway served only to heighten the anxiety of air travel. For others, returning home from trysts, sprees, and adventures abroad, this was the full stop at the end of another chapter of their life story. Catching a glimpse of Moscow retreating behind, I sighed as the last leg of my Armenia-bound journey finally began. Few, I feel, were more excited than I was, even if this was my 16th trip back to my homeland, a trip that would last a grand total of one week... Not only was this not a vacation, I’d need a vacation to recover from the hectic pace I’d already set for myself during this trip. Case in point: during a moment of temporary insanity last week, or, at least, that’s the excuse I’m sticking to, I decided to depart Yerevan within hours of my arrival, to forego much sleep and greet the first sunrise in Armenia far from the concrete jungle of its capital. In choosing Haghartsin Monastery as my destination, I also hoped that the disgust I’d felt when I’d seen the renovated buildings of the monastic complex was just a kneejerk reaction that had now been tempered by time. That particular punch in the gut came seven years ago when I approached the monastery in a convoy of tour buses bringing students and parents from Chamlian Armenian school to the gem of the Tavush region. We’d left Yerevan earlier than usual that morning, and I was happy to share precious time with my daughter Tara in one of the most beautiful and serene locations in Armenia. The change in scenery was even more dramatic that morning as we left behind Lake Sevan, bathed in the warm rays of the morning sun, and exited the Sevan-Dilijan tunnel into a thick blanket of fog. Leaving the buses behind and walking the last kilometer, I slowly realized that something was horribly wrong. Gone were the unique metallic domes of Haghartsin, and, in their place sparkled, too eagerly, the freshly completed and polished domes of stone. Details fell into place… The Sheikh of Sharjah had donated $2 million toward the renovation of Haghartsin, a renovation few knew of and fewer still planned. Sure, the winding road to the complex was paved now and much improved… Sure, the original 10th to 13th Century structures most certainly were originally adorned with domes of stone, but… Haghartsin, our favorite Haghartsin, had gone from being the ancient countess for whom age and its wrinkles are a proudly worn virtue, to the vanity of one whose ill-gotten facelift has left her with too smooth a face and scars that will never heal…


12 July 2017


Despite all this, I found myself hurtling toward Haghartsin at 3:45am this morning, willing to give Haghartsin one more chance at my heart strings. Perhaps I’d be too tired to care, perhaps I’d forgive her… It wasn’t Haghartsin’s fault, after all, was it? Haghartsin had suffered the fate of an ornate, antique, jeweled necklace found at the bottom of a chest of clothes, hinting at the glorious past of its now forgotten owner, a necklace polished too enthusiastically by its discoverer, losing its ancient beauty and becoming too shiny and too gaudy instead…


We reached the complex scant minutes before dawn, a dawn held back by clouds ringing the horizon and piled thick to the east. Even at first glance I knew that my musings weren’t far off the mark… Haghartsin was already too shiny even before the first light of day fell upon its walls and domes. I realized that not only had the domes been replaced, but the walls of the churches had been whitewashed and cleaned. Haghartsin had been rid of the ageless moss that had clung to every seam and every depression in its textured façade, and so, the walls shone awkwardly with the first light of day and did not glow as they had for centuries past. Even catching a surprise glimpse of a setting quarter moon framed by pink clouds didn’t brighten my morning.

Sunrise, or rather the moment when the Sun finally scattered the clouds blocking its warming rays, was spectacular. I’ve always preferred to photograph our churches and monasteries from afar, a choice to include a sense of place, a sense of the grandeur of the Armenian landscape. As the first rays of the sun pierced the clouds, I had already exhausted myself hiking in the woods to the east of the complex looking for such a vantage point. Out of habit, I had first tried a view point from which I’d photographed the monastery several times before, but where the rest of the complex had a manicured feel, this portion had been neglected and was overgrown with trees and shrubbery. Retreating westward, I had made my way to a new circular path of paving stones, enhanced by a willow, that marked the western edge of the complex. This vantage point disguised the newness of the domes, and featured the one wall, facing west, that had not been whitewashed of its character. Framed by the conflagration of dawn, the view was perfect in more ways than one.


Though I drove away energized by the powerful sunrise and content with the photography this morning, I also left with the realization that centuries would now have to pass before Haghartsin would be whole again, before its domes and walls would glow in the golden light of sunrise again, before the churches and ancillary buildings once again deserved to be guarded by the millennial khatchkars on their moss-covered pedestals, before polish faded and beauty returned…


One highlight of this trip has been that I’ve reconnected with Gago, my driver and adventuremate from years ago. His endless stream of (usually lewd) jokes and sayings is quite refreshing, as is his willingness to travel anywhere at any hour. He’s remained just as punctual as before, showing up once again before I was ready. As we hurtle toward Goshavank, our next stop this morning, we’re busy catching up on the last several years, which now of course includes immediate reciprocal adds as Facebook friends, surrounded by the forests of Tavush.

Though the turnoffs to the monasteries of Haghartsin and Goshavank on the M4 highway are less than 10 km apart, our conversation has distracted us to the point that we are next met by the road sign welcoming us to the city of Ijevan, 17 kilometers further along the highway than our intended destination. Was there a sign that we’d missed? Well, yes, and no… there was a prominent sign, but it was inexplicably for the southbound lanes of the highway, not the northbound traffic originating in Yerevan. By this time, though it was only just past 8:00am, the sun was high in the sky, and the quality of light would have been terrible except for the filtering effect of the few remaining and quickly evaporating clouds.


Goshavank sits on a plateau within its namesake village, Nor Getik of yesteryear, and while the forests of Tavush ring the village, the monastery straddles a bare and barely green courtyard. During my last visit here, I’d given up on the vank itself, which was then and still is undergoing renovations, and photographed the matoors(1) and chapels on surrounding hills. This time, I sought higher ground, undeterred by the fatigue I already felt. I follow a dirt road up a steep hill to the highest part of the village, and find myself in a grassy clearing strewn with ancient gravestones. I have a perfect view of the monastery, its renovated walls of brown stone framed against a backdrop of verdant forest, its glass domes glowing in morning light. Did I say glass domes? Yes… The recent renovations have not only given the main S. Astvatsatsin church a new dome, but for some odd reason have replaced the red-tiled flat domes of the belltower and two other chapels with domes of brown plexiglass that reveal their transparency when backlit by the sun, as they are from my vantage point. Am I being a hypocrite? Am I actually drawn to the bold statement these domes make, never mind that they’ve been installed with the same mindset as the whitewashing of Haghartsin? Not really… Goshavank has never held the same place in my heart as its neighbor, and, gleaming as it is in the morning sun, is but another novelty in my ancient homeland.


The disappearance of the last wispy shred of cloud from the sky heralds our retreat home… I begrudgingly decide to spend the remainder of the day resting and recuperating, and perhaps enjoying Yerevan in the meantime.


13 July 2017


Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming emotions I felt when the road from Vardenis, winding into the mountains, reached the crest of Sotk Pass and we began our ponderous descent into the lusciously green valleys of the Shahumyan (Kelbajar) region of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that opened before us. Gago and I had both made phone calls that morning, coming to the conclusion that all but 5 km of the Vardenis – Martakert highway had been completed, offering relatively straightforward access to Dadivank Monastery and the northern districts of Artsakh. Intent on reaching Dadivank in afternoon light, we left Yerevan at a leisurely pace. Turning south from Sevan, we followed a road I’d traveled before, skirting the western shore of Lake Sevan, passing the monastery of Hayravank, the town of Noraduz with its millennial cemetery, and winding eastwards toward Martuni and Vardenis. We stopped only once, for surprisingly good shawarma served at a roadside “bistro.”


In Vardenis, a left turn would have continued our circumnavigation of the lake, but we drove eastward instead, into uncharted territory, each kilometer heightening my anticipation. Would there be a clear boundary between Armenia and Artsakh? Would there be a border checkpoint? It turned out that our border crossing was very subtle. First, our cell phones warned us that we were now roaming, indicating that our cell signals were now relayed through Karabakh Telecom. Then, as it does on the Goris-Stepanakert highway, the road surface became considerably better and newer. Finally, we reached a colorful “Pari Calovsd Arxaq” (“Welcome to Artsakh”) sign officially welcoming us to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The unmanned border checkpoint came later, and we soon found ourselves on switchbacks leading downvalley. The road was still under active construction, and the unfinished 5 km, during which we zigzagged through dump trucks carrying fresh asphalt to the numerous crews working the road, consisted mostly of easily navigable packed soil punctuated by a treacherous stretch rocks laid down for the asphalt that was to follow. We wondered aloud if our car would make it back up the slope, especially after seeing car after car stuck in this rocky maelstrom.


Vying for our attention on this captivating road were the constant reminders that this had been an active war zone in the recent past, that each square inch of this land had been liberated with the blood of our modern-day freedom fighters, that the true bedrock of the road we sped upon was the lives sacrificed for the liberation of Artsakh. Two khatchkars on the left, then, one on the right, each too new to be anything but memorials of these sacrifices, were followed by a roadside monument to the life of Petros Ghevondian (Peto), who had died giving aid to a wounded comrade in the waning days of the war of liberation.


This was also a land under construction… A makeshift asphalt mixing plant straddled the new road it had supplied, and large plastic pipes lined the banks of the Terter river, destined to supply water to a new hydroelectric power station farther down the road. With all the talk in Yerevan of a possible land exchange to end hostilities with Azerbaijan, it was refreshing to see the “never give up” spirit of the Karabakhtsi Armenians in full view.


We found Dadivank in the throes of repair and renovation. The kilometer-long side road to the monastery had already been prepared for asphalt and was lined with modern LED street lights. In the complex itself, the main cathedral, S. Astvatsatsin, and its adjoining chapel were renovated a decade ago, but now the remainder of the complex was receiving much-needed attention. The dining hall was fully encircled with builder’s scaffolding, and workmen were scurrying across the roof tiles of the building with vigor and intent rarely seen in Armenia. The awe I’d felt on the road through the mountainous Shahumyan region had delayed any thought of my actual destination, a monastery that I’d wanted to visit for the last two decades. Walking the grounds, the care with which the monastery had been renovated was obvious. Agelessness clung to the stones still, and a brush of fingers against the textured walls of each building evoked flights of imagination to the history witnessed by the millennial structure.


Perched atop the northern wall of the complex, I patiently watched the dark clouds that had chased us to Dadivank, hoping for a break, for the beam of sunlight that would perfect the already mesmerizing scene. Filtered light of the descending sun had already set the moss-covered walls and terra cotta domes of the twin churches aglow, and the earth tones of the complex stood in stark contrast to the shadowy forest climbing the slopes rising behind Dadivank. The clouds grew denser, and it was time to head home.


Walking to the car, I was tempted to ask Gago to make a quick left at the highway and drive the less than 10 kilometers it was to the Martakert region, just so I could say I’d been there, but as I opened my mouth, I realized my much bigger folly… We had already decided that we’d be heading to Sisian tomorrow, and it would have been much more straightforward, probably a shorter drive, and much more adventurous had we simply continued toward Stepanakert or Shushi and spend the night there instead of driving all the way back to Yerevan… I’ll blame jet lag for this one…


All along the drive back, I was enthralled by the crags lining the road. Though these were not the tremendous “rock symphonies”(2) of the Garni and Jermuk gorges, nor overly grand individually, they were integral parts of the scenery that sang to me of hope and of renewal. This was a road that I hoped to travel again, whether it was just back to Dadivank, or farther into Artsakh…


14 July 2017


My rather large camera bag had not for once been sufficient for all the gear I carried on this trip. Bent on spending considerable time on astrophotography, I was now saddled with an additional pack that held a star drive, extra power packs, LED lights, and even tools for disassembling my tripod, if necessary. Up to now, though, my efforts at photographing the night skies of my homeland had been soundly defeated by ill-timed clouds. Leaving the overcast Artsakh skies behind the prior evening, we had sped back toward Lake Sevan, hoping to find it with the clear skies we enjoyed on our drive out only hours earlier. But no, the clouds ringing the peaks arrayed along the horizon had closed like the iris of a cyclops and now provided not a single gap through which the stars above could be glimpsed. Even an excellent dinner of fish and accompaniments at the restaurant called Collette in English and Սամոյի Մոտ  (at Samo’s) in Armenian did not dispel the cloud cover, and we returned home frustrated.


It would hopefully be different today, as the morning sun found us speeding awa from Yerevan again, towards the rugged highlands of Syunik. I was awakened from my reverie just as Gago finished negotiating the Yerevan streets that finally spilled us onto the southbound highway toward Yeraskh. Before us rose the majestic Mt. Ararat, visible for the first time on this third morning of my visit, surprising me into the realization that I hadn’t even sought out this symbol of everything Armenian. As it turned out, a quick iPhone snap is all the attention I would give the elusive giant on this day.


As the sun rose higher, it made this oft-traveled road even less remarkable. It was far too bright and sunny to contemplate a visit to Noravank, or even stop at the side of the road at Areni for nourishment, drink, or a quick snap of the vank forever in the shadow of the giant crag rising between its diminuitive walls and the sun.

Even with stops along the way to buy water, tahn, and a final stop at Valod’s at the Sisian crossroads for a late lunch of cutlet sandwiches, we arrived at the Basen hotel with more time to spare before sunset than all my previous trips to Sisian combined. These previous visits to the region were so centered on Zorats Karer (also known as Karahunj), the iconic stonehenge-like rock formation just outside Sisian, that I hadn’t really had time to explore this region sufficiently at all. This was going to change, as I’d planned to spend two nights here, and longer if needed. Pieces of a puzzle that first began assembling theselves twelve years ago were finally falling into place, and when I finally left Sisian three days later, I’d just completed the most epic weekend of photography I’d ever experienced in Armenia. But... I get ahead of myself...

One of the local spots I’d managed to miss, more because I’d dismissed it out of hand than anything else, was the famous Shaki “waterfall” located near the road from the Yerevan-Goris highway into Sisian. This waterfall, you see, is controlled with a spigot and only operates when the local hydroelectric station, consuming the potential energy of the Shaki river, is running. With plenty of time to spare, the falls would fill my afternoon agenda, sandwiched between siesta and sunset.


The short drive to the falls skirted the Shaki river, wide and shallow at this point, whose waters, destined for the mighty Vorotan, were aglimmer as the sun fell slowly toward the western horizon. A narrow uphill trail led away from the parking lot just beyond the hydroelectric station, doing its best to conceal the falls till the last possible moment, and drawing one’s attention instead to the picturesque rapids in the gurgling stream to the left, another incarnation of the Shaki itself. The falls itself was a pleasant surprise. Rather than being a traditional waterfall with a single drop, Shaki is in fact a very steep, 18-meter-high cascade, offering numerous glimpses of the interaction of water with rock. I waded into the pool below the falls, patiently waited for a crowd of tourists to snap away for their family album, and found a gorgeously colored rock shifting between hues of bronze and green that would vie for attention in the first photographs I took of the falls.


The stillness of nature imposed by the onrushing waters above me were suddenly expunged by the bellows of an older gentleman arriving on the scene. He’d been shortchanged, he claimed, as the water seemed only a trickle to him. He’d been robbed of the magnificence of the falls, he screamed... They’d already shut off the water, and a half hour early at that, he said, to which I replied that the flow hadn’t ebbed in at least the last thirty minutes. As I discovered on my last day in Sisian when I revisited the falls, he was absolutely right, as a full deluge greeted me on my return. Only then did I truly appreciate what I’d been able to photograph today, a goddess with wispy windblown hair instead of the out of control perm Sunday’s deluge resembled.


Ashot Avagyan was already waiting at Zorats Karer, and we made quick arrangements for dinner before I lost myself in the field of stone monoliths. The fickle weather on this windblown plain had given me fog, rain, and dreadfully clear skies, none of which had satisfied my need to witness, and to photograph, the perfect sunset here. The evening certainly started out without hope, as most of the clouds that had managed to survive the onslaught of the summertime sun were dispersed by the wind that picked up in intensity as sunlight first grew golden and then turned vermillion. But, there it was... The mountain to the west that would host tonight’s sunset was holding valiantly onto its crown of clouds, producing an unforgettable sunset on the high plains of Syunik that are home to one of the oldest settlements in Armenia.


Night would fall slowly on this plain, giving us enough time to eat, drink, and recharge at the hotel. Our dinner didn’t disappoint, especially since the chef had honored by request not to overly salt all the dishes. It was more than two hours later that we found ourselves bouncing along the road to Karahunj again, and soon after I was once again alone at the epicenter of the mysterious stones. To the north, clear skies affored a grand view of Polaris, with Ursa Major and Cassiopeia eagerly and patiently circling the North Star. My eyes followed the stream of stars, Hera’s spilled milk in Greek mythology, and the trail of the straw thief in the Armenian highlands, southward in search of the heart of the Milky Way, obscured this evening by terrestrial clouds rising above Sisian. As minutes passed and the night grew old, the curtains were slowly raised on this magnificent panorama... At first, only the head and claws of Scorpius were visible, then, its curled tail appeared, and soon the Great Rift of dark interstellar clouds could be seen rending the bright heart of the Milky Way. Crowning the nebulous dust lanes was none other than Saturn, the Lord of the Rings, the companion of our galaxy’s core all summer long. I’d had two years of practice for this moment, intent not to repeat the disappointment of my last visit here, but the ancient formation of rocks wasn’t cooperating. Most of the largest and more iconic stones are arrayed in a north-to-south line, and it is only the lesser stones that one sees when facing southward.

Before long, though, I had several compositions I was happy with, and I turned my attention northward once again. For the next forty minutes, my camera chirped away as the stars danced their slow ,ovr]bar (circle dance) around Polaris. The short drive back to the hotel was one of imperforate contentment, even as thunder and lightning began to punctuate the slopes of Ishkhanasar to the north...


15 July 2017


As excited as I was about this afternoon’s planned excursion, I was equally apprehensive as first Ashot, then Sasun, whom I’d just met and who would be our driver and guide, tried to persuade me to depart earlier in the day. I was unmoved, and instead scheduled a morning trip to Tatev monastery. In past years, the drive to Tatev was quite a trek... Soon after turning off the Yerevan-Goris highway, the road lost the benefit of even the patchworked asphalt the highway had received a decade ago. Then, after Halidzor, descent into the deep gorge carved by the thunderous Vorotan was followed by a harrowing ascent up switchbacks that tested the engines and cooling systems of cars and buses daring the journey on a daily basis. Now, though, the journey to Tatev had been disneyfied with the addition of the Wings of Tatev, an aerial cableway that stretches across the Vorotan gorge from Halidzor to Tatev, a world record span at that. One cannot forget this latter fact, as reminders abound, from the road signs leading to the parking lot, to the signs at the box office, to the recorded announcement during the cable car ride itself, both toward the monastery and back.


The ride itself was quite pleasant, offering views of the gorge and of the abandonded Great Hermitage of Tatev (Տաթեւի Անապատ) before the monastery itself came into view. Our gondola climbed up the final span, giving us a view of the monastery usually reserved for drones and helicopters, though the view was of the less photogenic and much less impressive upslope side of the complex. One benefit of the Wings of Tatev is that all of the operation’s profits go toward renovating the monastery, another fact we were reminded of on at least half a score occasions, but one that we actually saw in action as the northern walls of the complex, as the S. Astvatsatsin church and surrounding ramparts are riddled with scaffolding, and signs of the restoration were everywhere.


We did not stay long at the monastery. In truth, I’d been more interested in riding the gondola than seeing the complex again, and the builder’s scaffolding intruding into every meaningful shot of the complex meant that my photographic effort ended soon after it began.


Gago and I were the lone occupants of the downvalley cablecar, and Gago used the occasion to hurl question after question at the young lady operating the car, and ogling her from head to toe at least once per question. The Wings of Tatev has had another palpable benefit for the region, as it employs dozens of locals as part of its year-round operation. One final pleasure to be had before we departed was to have coffee at the downvalley station café, with a patio that overlooked the Vorotan gorge.


Though the sun had just passed its zenith on this hot summer day, and though my thoughts were already flying toward the evening, we nevertheless found time to take a detour toward Vorotnavank. At my direction, remembered from a previous trip, we turned off the highway toward Noravan, and were soon navigating a road that was more ditch than asphalt, the last vestiges of which clung to short segments separated by wide gulfs of rocky and uneven terrain. At long last, and after flagging down a tractor moving at snail’s pace in the opposite direction to make sure that were in fact on the right path and the beating Gago’s car was receiving wasn’t for naught, we arrived at a junction with the promise of a much smoother ride. A left turn would find us hurtling toward Vorotnavank, and a right turn would lead to Sisian. In hindsight, it would have made much more sense to avoid the road through Noravan despite the huge detour this alternate route through Sisian would have been.

Vorotnavank was desterted, and signs warned us not to light candles within its ancient walls. The view of the valley spread below the vank was spectacular, and a brief hike to the top of a hill adjacent to its grounds gave me a bird’s eye view of the vank and the cemetery that surrounds it, framed against the pastoral scene of the valley below, a handiwork of none other than the Vorotan from which the vank and adjacent fortress, now in ruins, derived their names.


Our thoughts now turned to lunch, especially since I suspected that we’d return from our evening’s excursion far too late to have dinner. For the sake of variety and rather fortuitously, we chose a restaurant, Tatvi, at the crossroads to Sisian on the main highway. The delectable homemade cheese that was first to arrive at our table was our first indication that we’d chosen well, and the hare stew that followed was heavenly. As I washed down my meal with Gyumri beer, Gago, holding firm to his zero tolerance credo, discovered that the local mineral water, also named Tatni, was much less briny and much better tasting than Jermuk and Bjni, the two more commonly available varieties of mineral water. For days afterward, he would lament not having picked up a case or two of this elixir.


I remember vividly the first time I met the immensely talented and enigmatic Ashot Avagyan. I had flown across the highlands of Sisian, in an uncharacteristically silver Lada Niva, to photograph Karahunj at sunset and to spend a night in Sisian before returning to Yerevan. We retired to Ashot’s office after night lowered its veil on a rainy Karahunj, and it was there that I first heard of Ughtasar(3) and its stone age petroglyphs, which provided subject matter for Ashot’s richly hued and enchanting paintings. Could I see the petroglyphs, I asked immediately… I could have, if it hadn’t rained incessantly for the past week… And so began a twelve-year-long stretch of failures, because of season, because of weather, and because of my own circumstances, during which the petroglyphs of Ughtasar would remain as distant as the snows of Kilimanjaro and the windswept peaks of the Himalayas. Even this morning, as storm clouds rolled into Sisian and marched up the slopes of Ughtasar and its more dominant neighbor, Ishkhanasar, there had been a sliver of doubt in my mind… Would Ughtasar lower its veil and shut me out yet again?


At the stroke of 5:00pm, gear loaded into Sasun’s aged UAZ-469(4), we found ourselves, Sasun, Gago, and I, heading north from the highway toward the village of Ishkhanasar, beyond which the road became a set of tracks only a Jeep (or a UAZ) could navigate. It immediately became clear that Sasun could drive this road blindfolded, as he approach and took each fork in the road without hesitation, without even a perceptible decrease in speed. The twin peaks of Ughtasar stood cloaked in shades of gray, but the path we traveled had clear skies, giving us hope in a change of weather. Though the UAZ had shock absorbers only in name, the drive up the mountain was so mesmerizing that we paid little heed to the muscles each of us tensed to prevent being thrown about. Wildflowers sprang up on both sides of the track, stretching in yellows, whites, and the occasional red in every direction. In a few places, boulders had impinged on the already narrow track and we slowed to a crawl as we slid through gaps barely wider than our vehicle.


An hour later, as we neared what remained of the volcanic caldera of Ughtasar, the clouds broke and coalesced into puffs of white, as if a giantess had beaten them into tufts of cotton, and the sun illuminated the twin peaks ahead for the first time in our journey. Just before reaching our destination, the road swerved to the left to avoid a massive rockfall, and we soon found ourselves driving toward a seasonal lake spread under the southern peak of Ughtasar. There, to our surprise, we found a group of hikers that had spent most of the day hiking the 20 km that we’d just driven. Their first words were to invite us to eat a snack with them, though the power with which I was drawn to the lake, a perfect mirror for the peaks rising above, was nothing to be trifled with. As Gago chatted with the hikers, Sasun began to circumnavigate the lake, and I followed at a distance, soon finding the bear tracks the hikers had excitedly told us about. Beyond, on the southern side of the lake stretched a large sliver of snow and ice, its shrinking size hinting at the finite lifetime of the lake as well.


The air within the caldera was unexpectedly calm, and gazing into the undisturbed surface of the lake gave me full view of the peaks ringing this volcanic bowl. The muted light of the sun, partly hidden by clouds once again, perfectly illuminated the alpine scene, or so I thought. No sooner had I folded my tripod and begun to walk back to the UAZ, though, that the sun broke fully through, and like a jewel raised above one’s head and placed in full sunlight, the landscape burst into color, and the slopes of Ughtasar dripped pure gold for the next several minutes. A quick glance at the sun, the magical illuminator of this wondrous scene, reminded me that sunset wasn’t far off, and we drove toward the main (and year-round) lake at the summit.


As the string of hikers approached the lake in the distance, we were presented with a final fork in the now barely visible track. The right-hand fork clearly led to the lake, and the left-hand fork seemingly nowhere, but this is the fork we took… Sasun had one more surprise up his sleeve before we reached the petroglyphs.


We climbed a grass- and wildflower-covered volcanic mound that marked the northwestern boundary of the caldera. The smug smile on Sasun’s face was a perfect mirror for my awestruck countenance as we stepped out of the car to take in the entirety of the vista that opened before us. The Ishkhanasar range to which Ughtasar belongs demarcates, more or less, the boundary between the Syunik province of Armenia and the Kashatagh (Lachin) Region of Artsakh. The scene that stretched before us was of a valley dotted with alpine lakes and volcanic mounds that rose as grave markers to the violent geologic history of the region, ringed in to the north by the Jagged mountains of the Shahumyan region, the same mountains that held the jewel that was Dadivank in their bosom. The sun, now fully exposed, now reduced to a filtering of beams from the west, changed our perception of the scene from one moment to the next. Here was yet another example of a breathtaking Armenian landscape that the world knew nothing of…


What finally broke us away from this enchanting scene was the realization that we had little time to see the main attraction of the evening before the sun set, and so we descended finally toward the lake basking in the last rays of the sun. While most of the caldera was covered with fine grass, mounds of volcanic rock rose before us and grew in number as we approached the lake. We stopped at the first of these, and found boulders whose sides were covered by pastel-hued lichen. The aged and sun-bronzed faces of these boulders had served, tens of millennia ere, as a canvas for Paleolithic creativity, and a number of the boulders we approached were adorned with the itsagir(5) carvings we’d come to see and photograph. The first boulder showed a hunting scene that is typical of these petroglyphs, with a long-horned sheep or gazelle being lassoed by a hunter. Sasun knew every rock that was decorated with petroglyphs, and we moved from one to the next as he pointed out various animals, hunters with bows, spears, and lassoes, and on one boulder, the rare but unmistakable drawing of a long-haired woman. Sasun was intent on showing me each and every one of these drawings, but I was most interested in the boulders that I could either frame against the setting sun, or against Ughtasar lake and the clouds that crowned Ughtasar’s peaks.


For the better part of an hour, we walked from stone to stone, drove closer to the lake and waded into the large pile of petroglyph-adorned boulders on its western shore. Sasun and I then walked to the lake and found several petroglyphs on its northern banks. Our foray into these was cut short, though, by shouts from the campsite the hikers had set up. We rushed back and followed their pointed fingers to the lake’s eastern shore, where a rather large bear ambled about searching for dinner. For the next ten minutes, we were riveted by this sighting, both excited to have seen a bear but also apprehensive of actions it may take. The hikers who’d be spending the night here were especially nervous and began to question their decision to stay overnight.


The bear disappeared just as the sun’s last rays set fire to the clouds on the western flank, and I happily returned to photographing the last of the itsagir-adorned boulders as light faded and then fled altogether from the caldera.


Just as the sun set, the bear made another, more dramatic appearance as it sauntered along the lake’s southern shore and turned toward the first lake where we’d first encountered its tracks. Having lost sight of the bear, the discussion grew heated again, but in the end, the five brave hikers decided to stay, with at least one person awake and standing guard at all times through the night.


It seems that in my excitement to tell this tale, I’ve left out a couple of important details that need mentioning. When I first spoke to Ashot and Sasun about Ughtasar, both were surprised that I wanted to leave so late in the day. I explained that ideally I’d like to reach the summit, or rather the caldera, an hour before sunset, then stay to photograph the petroglyphs under the stars. When packing for this trip to Armenia, I’d decided to include my sleeping bag and a personal tent, in case my love of astrophotography necessitated an overnight stay in a remote location. I’d even gone as far as researching whether there were wolves and bears in Armenia! Imagine my quandary, as I stood there thankfully accepting fresh brewed coffee from the hikers… My tent and sleeping bag were in my hotel room in Sisian, and here were a group of hikers that I could have certainly joined. There was, of course, the bear… In the end, I’m glad that I didn't have to make a decision about staying.


Ah, but the stars… What constitutes wishful thinking for many photographers, myself included, I to witness a spectacular sunset, with clouds aglow in every shade of red, orange, and yellow, but to have these very same clouds, without which the sunset would be dismissed out of hand, disappear as night falls so that a clear blanket of stars and the wispy band of the Milky Way can do their best to illuminate the nocturnal landscape. This isn’t just having your cake and eating it too, this is having your cake, eating it, and having a second, more magnificent cake appear in its stead.


But, as we waited for darkness, the clouds closed in, robbing us of the second cake… As I finished my coffee, I realized that our time here was done, and we began the even more treacherous drive downslope after bidding farewell to the hikers. As we approached Ishkhanasar village, thunder roared to our right, and the pyrotechnics of the previous night began a repeat performance. Even Zorats Karer was enshrouded by clouds as we drove by… Today’s photographic session was officially at an end. Our late lunch turned out, as I’d predicted, to be our last meal of the day, but we were too tired and too spellbound by our experience to care.


16 July 2017


An early start to the morning was completely out of the question, and it didn’t help that the boisterous wedding party held at our hotel the night before had exhausted most of its supplies, most importantly the tomatoes I always count on for breakfast.


Sasun had promised to take us into the Vorotan river gorge this morning, where he claimed we’d see a “symphony of rocks” more extensive and much more magnificent than any we’d seen before. From Sisian, we drove toward Vorotnavank, but about a mile or so before the monastery, we veered down a steep and rocky path barely wide enough for the UAZ. At the bottom of the incline, straddling the Vorotan, stood a hydroelectric station that apparently operates 24 hours a day. For some odd reason, the owners of the station, who did not own the land their station stood on, had constructed a gate to bar access to the rest of the gorge beyond their operation. Instead of simply driving through, as the gate was unlocked, we sought permission from the lone operator who insisted on finding his manager on this fine Sunday morning. After predictably failing to do so for more than ten minutes, he finally let us through, mumbling something unintelligible under his breath as I slipped him 2000 AMD for his trouble.

The basalt structures, as promised, were incredible. Not only did they stretch on for miles, they were much more complex and convoluted than anything I’d seen. The road we followed mirrored the sinuous dance of the Vorotan through the gorge, and each formation that came into view was more awe inspiring than those we left behind. Rare was the group of crystal spires that simply rose vertically. Both in Garni and in the Gndevaz gorge, the basalt columns follow a single sweep, curving as they approach the bottom of the gorge. The columns here twisted and turned, and each formation had columns that twisted more than once, were exposed in places, or broken off through the ages. The missing ingredients here were the absence of clouds, and the lack of good sunlight… Too many clouds last night, too few this morning… A second visit to this location was definitely on my list now, in better light, I hoped. We bade farewell to Sasun not long after, checked out of the hotel, and turned toward Yerevan, with no intent of reaching the capital city any time soon.

Our first stop was a restaurant perched on the banks of the Azat river, a stone’s throw from the turnoff toward Jermuk. The food was excellent, but in hindsight we should have lingered even longer at this pastoral location. As it was, the noise level of the restaurant grew exponentially, accompanied by a precipitous decrease in the level of service, as a busload of tourists arrived for their pre-arranged meal.


Several hundred meters separate the turnoffs onto the new and old roads to Jermuk. The new road, the only one that still actually leads to Jermuk, was of no interest to us. The old road… The old road, an 18-kilometer stretch of broken asphalt, potholes, and rock slides, led to our next destination, none other than Gndevank monastery, Queen Sophia’s jewel in the Gndevaz gorge I’d previously visited more than a decade ago.


Gndevank had changed considerably. Several years ago, a group of eight modern-day monks had established themselves, with the local archbishop’s permission, at the then-abandoned monastery and begun the slow and laborious process of renovating the complex. Though much still remains to be done, the monks and the monastic complex are thriving. An orchard extends upward on the tiered slope adjoining the vank, the monks keep cows, goats, chickens and bees, and are completely self-sufficient except for the flour they buy to bake their daily bread. Unfortunately, though several visitors, including Gago and myself, asked, they were unwilling to sell any of the excellent cheese and honey they produced.


We were early, much too early… Sunset was three hours away when we reached Gndevank, and even a stop at the old spring to photograph the Gndevaz river and the basalt spires rising above didn’t do much to delay our arrival. Vayots Dzor, the Gorge of Sighs, lived up to its name as the monastery and its surroundings baked in the harsh July sun. On the first tier of the orchard, accessed by a short flight of stairs and a short walk through trampled weeds stood our salvation, a cold spring fed from the mountains, perhaps from the source of the Gndevaz itself. I lost count of the trips I made to the spring, undeterred by the monks’ warnings of the snake-infested landscape.


As the sun moved across its slow arc to the northwest, I scouted the monastic grounds for astrophotography, found the perfect place within minutes, and then, well, and then there was nothing to do… The only clouds in the sky were being chained by the cliffs to the west, with nary a wind to help them sail across the skies. I climbed atop the mostly renovated monastic cells, found a single serviceable chair and plenty of room on the flat roof to move about. For at least an hour, I sat absorbing the landscape to the south, the barely visible sliver of the Gndevaz river, now in shadow, the glowing walls of the gorge to the east, the orchard that spread across a spur of flat land to my left… It was peaceful beyond imagination... Birdsong filled the narrow valley, and the only other sounds breaking my reverie were the comings and goings of the monks themselves, preparations for prayer, herding flocks of goats, then cows, yelled admonishments to each other for running barefoot across the courtyard, and the occasional greeting of a visitor in this far flung place.


As the evening wore on, two banks of clouds began to spread across the sky from the west: those speeding southward were gorgeous, doing their best to internally reflect the reds and golds of sundown, while the mass slowly marching northward absorbed the sunlight and reflected only dark grays. Standing atop the roof of the monastic cells, I was treated for more than thirty minutes to a glorious sunset unfolding in slow motion, the clouds changing color every minute and framing the monastery with wings of fire. As the sun sank behind the high hill to the west, the sky caught fire again just as a young visitor to the monastery, one who would have gladly joined the eight already living there, took up song in the church of St. Stepanos, filling the valley with his stunningly beautiful, almost contralto, voice.


The short evening mass in which the visitor took part now concluded, the few remaining visitors left the complex while Gago and I took up conversation with the eldest of the denizens of Gndevank. We were soon joined by a young monk, one of several I’d seen running up and down the hill completely barefoot. Our two hosts told us of an extremely bright “star” that they’d dubbed “Neptune,” first to rise each night this summer after sunset and king of a night sky that was, according to them, so expansive and so star-studded that they felt you could reach up and pluck the stars from their heavenly berths one by one. Their “Neptune” was none other than the planet Jupiter, I explained. As the darkness deepened, the monks proudly turned on three bright floodlights that lit the courtyard of the complex. Though Jupiter was still visible, it was difficult to find many other stars in this glare.


As we talked and night descended fully into the gorge, the clouds in the western sky now began an elaborate game where it seemed that each star that winked its arrival was soon covered up, Jupiter being one of the first to fall thus, and at an alarming pace, the clear portions of the night sky began to disappear behind the playful clouds. My exclamation of “Not again!” must have been heard for miles, but I realized that the wind was also a player in this game, a game it should and would win, and began cheering on Boreas and Zephyrus in their quest to shoo the clouds out of sight as quickly as they’d come. The only interruption we had as spectators of this game came when shouts alerted us to the arrival of a venomous snake, no doubt drawn to the floodlights, which was immediately beheaded in front of one of the cells.


As the sky finally cleared at 10:30pm, marking my sixth hour at Gndevank, our hosts obligingly turned off all the lights in the complex save those within the church itself to bring the glory of the Milky Way into to their home. After hours of reverie, I worked fast as we’d clearly overstayed our welcome at this point, though the monks were too kind to ever say so. We bade them farewell, finally, and began the empty bellied drive back to Yerevan. After lunch, our only sustenance had been the spring water we drank in gallons. Lunch was a distant memory, and our only hope, as all the stalls lining the road at Aghavnadzor and Areni had long ago shuttered, turned out to be cheese boregs and lahmaju purchased from a 24-hour natural gas station, an ԱԳՃԼԿ(6), a fitting meal and a perfect end to our three day journey into Syunik and Vayots Dzor.


17 July 2017

Six days after landing in Yerevan, I finally had most of the day to spend in the capital. To say that I was exhausted would be to call the urban din and noise that woke me too early in the morning a mere whisper in my ear. It was to be a lethargic day, made more so by the summer’s stifling heat I’d deftly avoided till now. Making quick work of purchasing souvenirs, I now had most of the afternoon to kill before Gago and I once again left Yerevan, if only for the evening. We’d learned from our mistake at Gndevank and wouldn’t leave town till after 6:00pm. What I needed, what I craved after six days of road food, kebab, and classic Armenian cuisine was a good burger, washed down with decent beer. Yerevan has come a long way since Armenia gained its independence more than 25 years ago, but was I asking for too much? Apparently not! What a pleasant surprise it was to find Dargett, a gastropub that had 19 of its own brews on tap, from lagers to stouts. The lamb burger with tzatziki sauce immediately caught my eye, and, intent on tasting as many of their interesting beers as possible, I ordered a taster flight of five beers. Two hours later, having tasted ten of their beers and having liked most of them, I walked home to prepare for the evening’s excursion, with memories of the Armenia Invicta, an imperial IPA, and Seven Sins, a Belgian tripel, fresh on my mind.


At last, we were bound for the Aragatsotn region, but unsure of the exact road we should take to our destination, none other than Amberd Fortress on the expansive slopes of Mt. Aragats. Several phone calls later, we were on a road that would approach the Amberd from above, a road I had not taken before despite numerous trips to the fortress and to the nearby Nor Amberd cosmic ray station. We’d left a Yerevan baking in cloudless skies, and arrived at a parched and dry Amberd, equally bereft of clouds.


It had been nine years since I’d been at Amberd, and though the renovations of the S. Astvatsatsin or Vahramashen church and the addition of a viewing deck had been completed long ago, the restaurant that had sprung up next to the parking area was a new addition for me. Sunset was more than an hour away, and Amberd was enjoying its share of mostly local visitors. One group immediately caught my eye as the two gentlemen standing on the viewing platform were at least twice the age of the boisterous ladies accompanying them. The latter, dressed too colorfully for the location, now descended along the trail to the fortress, were momentarily lost from view, and emerged atop the ruined battlements of the fortress next to the flagpole upon which the Armenian tricolor rippled in the strong breeze. Next, the two began screaming at the men like harpies perched atop a crag, and I realized that one of them had been given an iPhone to capture the moment. He had no idea what he was doing, or how to even take a picture with a phone, and so I was asked to help. I happily obliged, half convinced that I’d be recording the fall of one or both of them off the ramparts, and knowing that one way or another this would remove the ladies from atop the fortress I was trying to photograph.


Amberd is a fortress of two faces. From the deck where I stood, looking downslope toward the Ararat plain, its façade is comprised of a series of robust towers, their tops in ruin, as one would expect from a medieval fortress. As one passes the citadel on the trail eventually leading to the church, the fortress presents what remains of a single ruined wall that could be part of any ancient structure and isn’t easily identifiable as a fortress at all. My photography tonight would begin at the deck, looking southward into the heart of the Milky Way, and end below, looking northward toward Polaris, the focal point of the nightly cartwheels of the stars.

An unremarkable sunset and the onset of dusk saw the departure of nearly everyone from Amberd. By this time, Gago and I had retreated to a table at the mostly deserted restaurant to enjoy drinks and possibly contemplate dinner. The restaurant specialized in local fish, which they called ishkhan, a trout and a close cousin of the famous ishkhan of Lake Sevan. This was definitely a no brainer, and soon a rather large live fish was selected for us. As we waited for the main course, we realized that the noteworthy group of four were also seated at the restaurant, on a terrace not visible from our side. For the next three hours, ending only minutes before we departed, the harsh laughter of these four was the only sound in this otherwise serene and peaceful slice of Armenia, an incessant raking of fingernails on a blackboard. Despite this, our dinner was exquisite. The fish arrived in a deep skillet, cut into pieces and stewed with tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, and potatoes, and was well worth the wait. We both agreed that it tasted much better than the fish we’d had at Lake Sevan just days earlier.


Amberd fortress isn’t lit at night, but I’d come prepared. I propped an LED light on the edge of the viewing deck, a hundred or so meters from the north-facing wall of the fortress, then hiked down to change my vantage point and hide the garish orange glow of Yerevan that was threatening to wash away the stars. The Milky Way revealed itself in its full glory now, rising above the fortress and the Armenian tricolor. I definitely worked off the fish, the cheese, the lavash, and the beer I’d consumed for dinner as I shuttled back and forth between my camera and the deck, adjusting the lighting till the illumination of the ramparts was to my liking.

During one of these trips, a young man in his late 20s or early 30s, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, started chatting with me and soon began accompanying me back and forth, all the while asking the usual questions of where I was from, how long I was in Armenia for, and finally began insisting on inviting me to dinner at his house in a not-so-nearby village tomorrow night. Anywhere else on planet Earth and I’d be freaked out by this, but in Armenia, I simply assumed that he meant well, especially when I realized that he was somewhat developmentally disabled. I politely declined his offer, bade my newfound friend goodbye, and he eventually walked away and drove off.


My next and final task was to move my gear down the trail and next to the church to photograph the circular trail of stars pirouetting in the sky. This proved to be more challenging than I thought, since the outcropping on which the fortress and its ground are perched narrows as one approaches the church, and doesn’t leave too much room to maneuver. Set on automatic, my camera would take sixty exposures in a row to obtain the star trail effect, and I had an hour to kill once again. Standing all alone in the dark, in the tall waist-high grass I’d waded into, I tried not to think of wolves or bears, both of which I’m sure are common on the slopes of Mt. Aragats. It didn’t take me long to decide to leave my gear where it was, and hike back up to the deck, where even the continuing loud banter and laughter I’d found so annoying earlier was now welcome. One more hike up and down the trail, and Gago and I were speeding away from Amberd. Though I had a full day planned for tomorrow, my last day in Armenia, I didn’t realize at the time that the methodical, planned, and patient landscape photography of the trip was at an end.


18 July 2017


The day began full of promise, but by the time I sat down to a very late dinner on the last night of my trip, I felt the frustration of a day spent chasing the agendas of others, and filled with a sense of hopelessness toward the preservation of antiquities in my homeland.


I’d be reconnecting with Stepan Nalbandian, and old friend, guide, and adventuremate on many of my past trips, and accompanying him on a trip to the Lori region. We left Yerevan in the early afternoon, and many of the stops we made offered little photographically, and were in villages where Stepan was supervising the reconstruction and renovation of the local church. It didn’t help that the summer heat had chased the clouds away, even in the farthest and most temperate reaches of Lori.


One very unique project we visited was a renovation of a portion of the Kayan fortress that sits directly below Haghpat monastery, on the slope opposite Kayan. Here, several large caves were used by Zareh ishkhan as concealed battlements, helping guard the road to Haghpat from both sides. Now, an entrepreneur has somehow laid claim to this complex, and is renovating the battlements, the caves, and the wide outcropping immediately below these as an entertainment space and a restaurant. The fortress walls protecting the caves have already been restored to their former glory, and a separate structure with stunning views of the valley below and of the Lori forests beyond is nearly complete. The larger of these caves is quite impressive, with a ceiling that slopes upward toward the cave opening. The two-tiered floor of the cave gently slopes upward and joins the ceiling in the back of the cave. In a wide area near the mouth of the cave, the ground is now covered with stone tiles, and a retaining wall emphasizes the separation of the two tiers. Ponds full of fish line the retaining wall, and are fed from water dropping slowly from what must be hidden springs in the back of the cave. My first thought is that this would be a camper’s paradise, a way station like the caravansaries of old as one hiked the forested hills of Lori, though I doubt that the new owner of this complex has anything of the sort in mind.

Before and after our restful visit to the cave battlements, where we broke bread with the workers and the owner, we made two very disheartening stops. The first, at the Horomayri matoor that sits outside the village of Odzun, was to confirm rumors that a local official had taken it upon himself to renovate this 13th Century structure originally constructed by generals Zakare and Ivane. The sketchy plans for the renovation had been submitted to Monuments Department of the Ministry of Culture and had been soundly rejected as amateurish at best, but as we now clearly saw driving up to the matoor, the renovations had begun nevertheless. In less than five minutes, Stepan’s interrogation of the two workers on the site revealed that they had zero experience renovating ancient churches, were not being supervised by an expert, and were using the very same plans rejected by the Ministry. It seemed to me that the only voices combating these atrocities committed against the monuments of our ancient homeland were not coming from the Ministry of Culture, but from the Association of Architects of Armenian Antiquities, with its small membership.


As irksome and frustrating as this ordeal seemed to be, it was soon eclipsed by what we witnessed at our last stop of the day, Sanahin monastery. The grounds of this UNESCO World Heritage site also includes the 10th Century tombs of the Zakarian princes. Less than a month prior, the priest in charge of Sanahin had “discovered” a new burial right in front of the Zakarian tomb. What he’d discovered wasn't just a fresh, inconspicuous grave, but a two foot high, ten foot by six foot structure with form-filled concrete and a basalt stone façade large enough for three graves! The story the priest stuck to, one that fell apart rather quickly, was that he’d been gone for a couple of hours, and when he returned, the deed was already done. When I remarked that you cannot construct forms and pour concrete in two hours, he replied, “oh yes, that took five days.” This is what we’re faced with in our homeland. For years, the roads to Sanahin and Odzun, two of the most visited sites in Armenia, were lined with trash dumped by the denizens of these villages, oblivious that their impromptu city dump was the first thing tourists saw when they entered their village. Now, those charged with guarding our antiquities were the ones destroying them. These “internal turks,” as they’re sometimes called, aren’t just ignorant villagers, they’re those in positions of power. What kind of mentality compels you to destroy centuries-old graves and deface the tombs of millennial princes to give a family member a proper burial(7)?


The mood on the drive back was colored by what we’d seen and by the uncertainty of whether anything could be done about this…


Epilogue


What I sensed the most during this trip was a sense of hopelessness in the populace, not just for the state of the nation, but in the daily lives of everyone. The oligarchs were certainly thriving, Gago remarked, but we’re not… In less than a decade, he’d gone from worshipping Mr. Tsarukian and warning against the use of his more common moniker, to being sick and tired of it all and seriously considering a move to Russia, where he knew he could do better. Our homeland is slowly being emptied by the economic forces acting from within, and those who are left behind will resort to any means to eke out a livelihood…


It’s taken me more than ten months since my trip ended to finally finish this travelogue. In the meantime, my countrymen have taken to the street, and perhaps taken the most important step towards true democracy in the Republic of Armenia. Seeing the masses filling the streets and squares of Yerevan, seeing a bloodless transition of power demanded and driven by the people has given me, but more importantly, the people of Armenia, hope in their future. I’ll be curious to see, when I travel to Armenia again, how the people perceive their future now. Till then…

Footnotes


(1)  A matoor is a small, single-roomed church.


(2) The Garni gorge and the gorge of the Gndevaz river south of Jermuk are lined with crystalline basalt towers resembling those at Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California. In Armenia, these formations are known as “rock symphonies.”


(3)  The name of the mountain has two disputed sources: Ught in Armenian signifies pilgrimage, whereas ukht means camel. Whether the name of the mountain means the mountain of pilgrimage or a mountain resembling the hump of a camel is disputed by locals.


(4)  UAZ is short for Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, a Soviet era automaker famous for off-road vehicles and trucks. The UAZ-469 is the staple of Eastern bloc militaries


(5) Itsagir, which literally means goat-writing, is the name given to the petroglyphs found throughout the Armenian highlands.


(6) ԱԳՃԼԿ stands for Աւտոգազլիցքաւորման Ճնշակայան, a national roadside high-pressure (natural) gas station.


(7) It turned out that it was none other than the “forester” or anda-abah of Sanahin, who had buried his father in the grotesque structure and defaced the graves the structure displaced.


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