Monday, 18 May 2015

After spending the morning in Yerevan, Stepan and I finally departed for Sisian at 1:15pm. With more than six hours to sunset, we had the illusion of having more than enough time to reach that city 200 km away in time, but once again a detour would mean yet another race against time. The first part of the journey, enduring the detours in Yerevan, then the slow drive out of town, gave me time to reminisce about spending a lazy Sunday at my parents’ house in Proshyan, just outside Yerevan, with imagined views of Mt. Ararat, Mt. Aragats, and Mt. Ara from the wind-protected patio, all three of which refused to show themselves yesterday. In the evening, I’d ticked off one more pre-planned item from my list.

A month ago, during the height of the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I’d realized that while I had many photos of commemorations at Tsitsernakaberd during the 90th and 95th anniversary remembrances, I didn’t have a single photo of the monument itself. As the storm that had battered us most of the afternoon began to clear, I saw an opportunity to photograph Tsitsernakaberd in the light of the setting sun with dramatic skies as backdrop.

With my taxi waiting near the Genocide Museum, I took unhurried steps toward the monument, the scene even better than I’d imagined, as I transposed the images in my mind to my camera. The eternal flame burning within the circle of stone was modestly ringed with rain-drenched flowers, and a trickle of supplicants, bearing flowers of their own, briefly broke the silence within. I left only after the Sun said its farewell to the day, lazily brushing the landscape golden as it neared the horizon.

As Stepan and I turned eastward from Yeraskh and began climbing the hill toward Zangakatun, I broke out of my reverie as a reflection of the new reality in Armenia caught our eye. For as long as the road crossed the open plain, it was flanked on the right by a tall triangular mound that shielded the road from would-be Azeri snipers. With the border just kilometers away, caution was definitely the prudent course of action. The trenches from which the dirt for the mound had been excavated had also seen care, and would serve as a first line of defense in case of aggression.

The rain-engorged lake at Zangakatun, which Stepan had discovered is called Sevak, greeted us next, though the cloudless skies and the absence of Mt. Ararat, shrouded in its own fog yet again, caused us to drive on. Much has changed in Armenia since I was here last, and to this list we must add Stepan’s favorite roadside stop on the southern road to Sisian and beyond. Years ago, we would stop at the Aghavnadzor market for a quick bite. Then, the proprietors of Stepan’s favorite stall opened their own restaurant several of miles down the road on the outskirts of Yeghegnadzor, where Carolyn and I had enjoyed a less than hurried lunch on our trip to Artsakh in 2011. But a restaurant took time, and so Stepan’s allegiance had shifted to Tikin Kima’s stall located between the turnoff to Areni village and the turnoff to Noravank. Tikin Kima’s homemade tahn was exquisite, and we wolfed down too many sandwiches of sausages far too quickly considering the road that remained ahead of us. It didn’t help that her homemade feta, with field-grown tomatoes bursting with flavor had been our “appetizer.”

Stepan’s surprise of the day began to unfold with a right turn toward Zaritap village where my family owns land that we hope will become a vineyard one day. Our destination was far beyond Zaritap, though, and Stepan, pointing to the distant cliffs to the south, asked me to look out for signs to a village called Kapuyt. The road we followed led through the village of Gomk, where an iconic khatchkar, one of few in Armenia carved from granite, stood in a clearing outside the village, surrounded by other khatchkars and gravestones covered in bright orange lichen.

The weather was perfect, and I now realized that the beauty of Vayots Dzor lay far beyond the main highway that carves through its dry cliffs. This wasn’t the Vayots Dzor I’d experienced while descending from Selim Pass into the dry landscape below, while visiting Smbataberd or the adjoining Tsakhats Kar monastery, or during numerous drives through the region to Noravank or its southern border at the gates of Zangezur. No, this high-altitude portion of Vayots Dzor was an ocean of luxurious green, with waves of rolling hills dotted with wildflowers crashing against vermillion cliffs. These cliffs, sacred cliffs as Stepan called them, were in fact our destination. Beyond Kapuyt, a “part-time” village occupied only in the summer months, the road became a twin set of tire tracks on a ledge barely wide enough for the Niva, with a rising slope to our left and a gully with a bubbling brook to our right. We drove as far as we could, and when we stopped, Stepan pointed to the portion of the cliffs where my surprise awaited. Having risen above an altitude of 6,000 ft at Kapuyt, the 15-minute hike turned out to be much more strenuous than it should have been, but I soon found myself staring at yet another marvel that one could only find in Armenia. On the face of the cliff before me were carved tens of khatchkars, side by side, filling the lower half of the rust-orange crag. Below, in a small clearing, there were two other large khatchkars, one standing, and the other prone. This had been, and still was, a sacred place, though few now knew about it and fewer still visited here to experience the grandeur of the scene before us. Though the sun was sinking fast toward the horizon now, I chose to hike further still along the brook to find a stone arch Stepan had photographed on a previous visit. Finding the arch wasn’t very difficult, but to photograph it properly so that the opening of the arch showed blue sky required another 15-20 minutes of hiking up the opposite slope, precious time that I did not have. When I returned to the car, Stepan had managed an improbable U-turn in tight quarters, but for a short while, I had to walk in front of the Niva so that Stepan could discern the location of the tracks that would take us back to the village.

When we finally returned to the main highway, we’d left ourselves just an hour to sunset, with sixty kilometers to go to Karahunj on the outskirts of Sisian where Ashot Avagyan awaited us. We zoomed by the Gates of Zangezur, 32 km from the turn-off to Sisian, and began the rapid descent into Syunik Province. The peaks to our left and right were still partly covered in snow, and the landscape was more vibrant than I’d ever seen it before. Villagers selling herbs, potatoes, and mushrooms sprouted along the roadside like wildflowers, and my eyes were instantly drawn to each pail stacked with mushrooms, all of which turned out to be the normal variety that is called “champignon” (the French word for mushroom) in Armenia. Garan Dmak, or sheep’s tail fat, that amazing variety of mushroom I’d heard about for the last twelve years remained elusive.     

A quick phone call to Ashot confirmed that he was already on site. Several years ago, he’d erected a monument of his own, a ring of basalt stones complete with well-placed holes, located on a hill near the turn-off to the millennial monument. His mockery of Karahunj was, he said, his “gravesite and mausoleum,” but also where he often spent time drinking and making fun of the tourist vans battling the unpaved road to the real circle of stones. For the first time ever, we managed to outrun the sun and arrived with ten minutes of sunlight left. The enigmatic stones of this ancient site glowed in the golden light of the setting sun, but hardly a cloud could be seen toward the west. My quest to photograph an amazing sunset here would continue, as even the fog rolling in from the east failed to impress. I stayed long after it had grown dark, held captive by the primal magic of the windswept plateau home to one of the oldest monuments in Armenia.

Debate still rages on the purpose Karahunj, or Zorats Karer as it’s locally known, served eons ago. Was it an ancient observatory, a necropolis, or simply an ancient settlement? The late Prof. Herouni had gone to great lengths to bolster the observatory hypothesis, including the assertion that a periscope-shaped hole in one of the stones must have pointed to a star directly above long ago, and this star, Vega in the constellation Lyra, as it turns out, then helped determine the age of the observatory. There were others, though, Ashot Avagyan among them, who had unearthed a large number of burial chambers within the circle of stones and argued that this was a necropolis, a city of the dead. I was asked my opinion about Karahunj several times during my weeklong visit to Armenia, especially after my new acquaintances discovered that I was a physicist and astronomer. Based on numerous visits, I have to argue against Prof. Herouni’s assertions. First, his hypothesis requires that these stones have remained in their current position for more than five thousand years in a seismically active region. Also, our planet is covered with ancient structures with openings, windows, and doors aligned with the equinoxes and solstices, but only a few of these can really be called observatories, and in each case this description is in question. To call Karahunj an observatory would be akin to calling our churches compasses simply because they’re aligned with the cardinal directions, with the altar always facing east.

As night fell, we settled at the Basen Hotel where I’d stayed twice before. Ashot bid us good night, promising he’d be available should I wish to carry out what Stepan and his co-father-in-law immediately labeled madness. Though our dinner was a bit too salty for my taste, the amazing rabbit stew and lamb chops simply needed more accompaniment by the beer that flowed freely into my cup.

I slept at midnight, intent on carrying out the “madness” that I’d planned back in L.A.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Standing within the circle of stones of Karahunj at sundown just hours ago, I’d confirmed a calculation I’d made in L.A. as soon as I’d booked my airline ticket: the best time to photograph the Milky Way at Karahunj in May would be between 3 and 4 am in the morning. Ashot had immediately volunteered to drive me the short distance from our hotel to the mysterious stones, as long as I woke him up.

When my alarm rang at 3:00am, I had two immediate tasks. The first was to walk outside quickly, before sleep completely evaporated from my eyes, to see if the night sky was clear or not. The thick blanket of stars that greeted me as soon as I stepped out brought a smile to my face, and my second task, waking Ashot, was completed seconds later. Within minutes, I was geared up and ready to go, waiting in the hotel’s parking lot for Ashot’s arrival. As the minutes stretched on, I kept glancing at my watch, as blue hour was set to commence at 4:00am, and I hadn’t left myself much time to photograph the Milky Way before the onrushing dawn washed out its last traces.

At last, Ashot arrived, and after struggling briefly with the parking gate, we were on our way. The Milky Way, rising to the south above the majestic silhouettes of the Zangezur mountain range, was truly captivating, but the challenge was to include as many of the larger stones as possible in the frame as these run in a roughly north-south line. Ashot chose to stay in his car, and became an inadvertent part of my photos as the red glow of the car’s brakes, stepped on by Ashot, illuminated the lone building in the background.

As the sky began to glow at its edges, I turned my camera northward to capture the Big Dipper and the North Star. Clouds were already visible on the western flank of Ishkhanasar, and it was far too bright now for a series of photos that I could assemble into star trails. Photographing Karahunj has been on my photography bucket list for a long time, and I think I’ll leave it there still. I’ll give myself much more time for the Milky Way the next time I’m here, which I hope will be soon.

Sunrise was less than two hours away when the sky grew too bright to photograph stars, and I retreated to Ashot’s car to chat and wait for the auric rays of the sun to illuminate the Sisian plain. Since the sun was rising behind Ishkhanasar, dawn took its sweet time, and the first rays of the sun finally broke through the slopes of the mountain at 6:15am. To photograph Zorats Karer at sunset, at night, and now at dawn was truly one of the highlights of my whirlwind trip to Armenia.

After a quick breakfast, Stepan and I were once again on our way, though I was definitely feeling the burden of having slept only three hours. Normally, I’d need 6 – 7 cups of coffee to chase away the cobwebs haunting my eyes, and two small cups of Nescafé could never be up to the task. As we sped toward Goris, no hint of the fog that had been creeping toward us the night before remained, and my gaze was firmly fixed on the peaks of the Zangezur range that would accompany us all the way to Kapan.

Our first stop, in Goris, was in direct and immediate response to a voiced thought that an ice cream bar would certainly hit the spot. Stepan agreed, and minutes later, we were speeding toward the switchbacks of Tas (Tasi Pavarotner) while munching on our selections: Stepan his usual Tzuk, and I a slimmer but equally refreshing version of the Oscar ice cream bar.

There are said to have been three Noravanks in ancient Armenia. The first and most famous is the oft-visited Noravank Monastery just beyond Areni. The second, rediscovered by Axel Bakunts, the famous Armenian writer, was within our reach just beyond the village of Bardzravan, and Stepan’s surprise of the day. The third Noravank has been lost without a trace… The wooded road to Bardzravan left us as we veered right into the heart of the forest, and we found ourselves in a small clearing where the diminutive structure of Bgheno Noravank stood. The long drive, and the always draining thrill ride that the Tasi Pavarots provide caused us to linger here, and there was much to appreciate. The lone picnic table was our base from which we explored the rebuilt church and the khatchkars strewn about. One khatchkar, prone beside the tall grass in front of the church, caught my eye as few khatchkars in Armenia feature human figures. This khatchkar, broken into four pieces where it lay, was adorned with an angelic figure, perhaps St. Mary herself, on its basalt face that lichen had further decorated with yellows and oranges throughout the centuries. A tall but misshapen tree stood guard over the khatchkars, providing the most photogenic scene of the area. Inside the church itself, the old and rebuilt sections stood in stark contrast, with intricately carved arches leading to roughly stacked and mortared stones. Twin arches led to a small vestibule on the left and right, both with circular windows casting light within. Not a sound penetrated the walls of the church, and whether within or without its walls, we felt dissociated from the world around us.

The highlight of the rest of the drive to Kapan, with our minds still dwelling on the beauty of Bgheno Noravank, was the appearance of Mt. Kaputjugh, on the border with Nakhichevan and the second tallest peak in Armenia* , its sun-drenched granite peaks piercing the sky (* Mt. Kaputjugh stands at 3905 m, just 100 m lower than Mt. Aragats).

After securing rooms at the Lernagorts Hotel in Kapan and refreshing ourselves at the adjoining café, we were on our way again, this time on a short drive to Vahanavank. I looked forward to the visit, as Vahanavank had been completely rebuilt since I was there last in 2004.

While Stepan conducted business at the monastery, I walked to a vantage point I’d spied on the drive in to test a new filter in my arsenal, one that would allow for minute-long exposures of the vank. Eleven years ago, the fog had been so thick here that the mountains in which the monastery is nestled were completely obliterated from view. Today, the sun shone brightly through the clouds that raced across the heavens, leaving white streaks in the sky above the vank in my photos.

Next, I hiked about a kilometer down the sinuous road that had brought us here, drawn magnetically to a hollow walnut tree that stood at the edge of a clearing used for picnics by the locals. The forests of Kapan are home to many ancient walnut trees, each with their character and their poise, some spreading their boughs majestically while others showing the scars of their age. The roadside tree I’d found had not only been gutted by fire, but had numerous holes in the lower portion of its bark. It was a beautiful tree, more so for its scars, one that I spent a long time photographing.

We weren’t quite done for the day, though… We sped through Kapan on our way back, going from west to east and veering southward into the Shikahogh State Preserve. There, on the edge of this magnificent forest stands the village of Chakaten. As has been in vogue for a number of years now, many former denizens of the countless villages in Armenia, having found fame and fortune beyond its borders, return to immortalize their success. This act of self-deification often takes the form of renovating and renaming a church or matoor in the village of their birth. And thus have sprung up more than one St. Anna church, a heretofore unknown saint in the Armenian Highlands, but coincidentally the name of the wife, daughter, or mistress of said benefactor.

And so, our destination was a field just outside Chakaten, where the ruins of a small matoor, overgrown and straddled by several walnut trees, was to be found. We would have missed the matoor on nine of ten drives past the field, and it took two phone calls to confirm that the pile of stones we found was in fact what we were looking for. I was immediately bored by the structure, and instead sought out two large walnut trees further into the clearing. I was warned to watch my footing in the tall grass because of the numerous hidden holes that could twist an ankle, but reached both trees without incident. When I returned to the car, I realized that a giant obstacle blocked the renovation of this matoor. Apparently, three members of a villager’s family had died after the tree guarding another matoor in a nearby village had been cut during renovations, and there seemed to be no stomach in this village to cut any of the trees growing atop this matoor.

It was time for a break now, and we drove a short distance to the other renovated church in the village, where we enjoyed small-batch beer from Goris, one of the very few microbrews in Armenia today. The beer, brewed in the spirit of the lagers that inundate the country, was quite good and a welcome break from the same two or three brands of beer offered at every café and restaurant in Armenia.

A hearty dinner was the last act of the day, and I went to bed completely exhausted after being awake for twenty hours straight.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

One of the subjects discussed over dinner last night had been today’s itinerary. When we’d left Yerevan on Monday, we’d intended to return to the capital today, and I’d been planning a short excursion or two for my last day in Armenia. Instead, we decided to head down to Meghri, on the border with Iran, which meant spending a second night in Kapan and returning to Yerevan on Thursday. I was, of course, elated, and I’d never seen Meghri, and I’d be spending another day in the highlands of Syunik, in some of the most beautiful landscapes in Armenia.

An early start was out of the question as yesterday’s fatigue took longer than I thought to dissipate. Before leaving for Meghri, one more matoor was to be visited, this one atop a picturesque hill at Paylasar, just past the village of Syunik, to which sinuous tracks led, lines of white dirt in a field otherwise overgrown with grasses, shooshans with tiny white flowers, and poppies punctuating the green and white field with their blood red petals. Leaving Stepan and his associates behind again, I walked downhill and into the field, wishing I hadn’t seen the sign by the roadside warning of uncleared land mines. I didn’t venture into the field itself, carefully stepping only where cars had driven through before.

Once again, Stepan picked me up quite a distance down the road, as I stood staring mesmerized by yet another of Syunik’s magnificent vistas. Finally, we were on our way to Meghri, and chose to do a full circuit, driving through Shikahogh State Preserve and returning through Kajaran.

Chakaten village and the diminutive matoor were barely afforded a glance as we drove by, and we made our first brief stop at the pigher (elephants), a formation of three granite crags, two of which have a strong resemblance to pachyderms. As predicted, we stopped quite often to photograph the various trees vying for my attention on the serpentine road, and also at the village of Srashen whose matoor pined for a foreign-based benefactor.

The highlight of our drive was our descent into the forested gorge carved by the Tsav river. Eleven years ago, I’d fallen in love with this river as it wound through the ancient oaks and walnuts of Toros Ishkhan’s forest in Distmairi.

Every boulder in the river, every set of rapids, every tree that grew on its bank was magical to my eyes. Now, again, I was enthralled by the glimmers of sunlight reflected from the river, golden highlights to an otherwise green landscape. As we neared Tsav village, the river grew more and more alluring, and finally brought us to a stop beside a bridge leading into the village. Moss-covered boulders cheerfully interrupted the river’s flow, intensifying its burble and drowning out all other sounds.

Unsatisfied with the roadside vantage point, I soon found myself on a flat boulder within the river itself, with the tens of thorns protruding from my pants a testament to the slope full of brambles I waded through to get here. I wish I could have stayed here much longer, perched atop the boulder and surrounded by the captivating Tsav, but the one sound that did break through the river’s enchantment was the horn on Stepan’s Niva… I realized just how long I’d lingered here, and was happy to find a cleared path out of the river banks on the opposite side. Stepan had been calling me for a while, but the Tsav had drowned out his voice to keep me captive.

Eight kilometers on, the Tsav drew us in once again, at a clearing where a 17th Century bridge that had had much more import in the past now stood to offer access to picnic tables on the opposite banks. Soon afterward, the forest thinned out, and as we climbed out of the gorge, we were greeted by signs welcoming our entry into Arevik National Park. The park, established in 2009, embraces the southern flank of Shikahogh State Preserve stretching east to west across southern Syunik and extending northward along the Arevik mountain range to just south of Kajaran. The national park is sparsely forested but nevertheless stunning in its beauty.

As we descended from Gomarants Pass into the heart of the vast park, a magnificent crag called Berdi Kar (castle rock) caught my eye. I’d barely exited the car to photograph this three-fingered granite fist jutting out from the green hills that Stepan pointed out a small structure on its left flank, the ruins of the Shvanidzor St. Astvatsatsin church. The picture was complete. One may find granite crags the world over, but nowhere else does one find ancient monuments in their midst, hugging improbable cliffs, in the shade of a giant boulder, or anywhere one looks. This is truly what makes Armenia unique.

Less than ten kilometers later, I realized what I should have already known long before, as the first glimpse of an engorged and muddy river filled our sight: traveling to Meghri would mean that I’d see the sacred Arax river again after three decades… When I saw her last, my mother and I had flagrantly descended to its shore near the monastery of St. Stepanos in Iran to collect a vial full of its water that would be sprinkled on my grandfather’s grave (though warned to immediately return to our car and leave, we did manage to accomplish our mission).

As the road made a sharp right turn, angling away from a dirt track leading toward Nmadzor, we had the pleasure of accompanying the meandering Arax for more than ten kilometers, till we entered the heart of Meghri and climbed toward its central square. In more than one place, the road became too narrow for more than one car, and this, Stepan explained, was part of the downfall of the grand plans made by some in the Ministry of Communication and Transport a decade ago. Villagers in Shikahogh and Tsav awoke one day in April 2005 to find heavy road construction equipment at their doorsteps, and it became apparent that the ministry had planned the downfall of the old growth forests in Shikahogh by building a road straight through its heart. The excuse for the road, one that evaporates as soon as one drives from Kapan to Meghri by either route, was to provide a safer and more passable wintertime route from Iran and Meghri to Yerevan. Thankfully, through the resistance of SOS Shikahogh, a coalition of over 40 non-governmental organizations, the road was diverted and Shikahogh State Preserve was saved.

The “compromise” road we’d driven on today skirted the old growth forests, and was thankfully bereft of all traffic, including cars. If the giant trucks that plague the Meghri-Yerevan highway and often cause accidents on the treacherous portion before Kajaran were truly meant to bypass through this road, then care would have been taken to widen the entire route. As it stood, the barely passable portions of the road in Meghri prevented these behemoths from cluttering and polluting the scenic drive we’d just taken, or giving further reason for the degradation of Arevik National Park and Shikahogh State Preserve. While in Meghri, one’s gaze is constantly drawn south, to the mountains just across the border, not just because these mountains were once of Greater Armenia, but also because at 650 m altitude, one of the lowest points in the Armenian Highlands, Meghri is much hotter than its surrounding hills and mountains, making one pine for the crispness of the higher altitude highlands. Our first attempt to grab a quick lunch failed miserably, as a giant store-side banner for pizza turned out to be advertisement for pizza delivery and not an actual restaurant. Asking around, we only received blank looks in answer to questions about shawerma stands or any food stalls.

As is often the case in Armenia, eating lunch in a non-elaborate fashion is simply impossible. Delaying lunch once again, we instead opted to visit the two rebuilt churches of Meghri, the St. Sarkis and St. Astvatsatsin, both hailing from the founding of the city in the 17th Century and located on opposite sides of town. As we drove towards St. Astvatsatsin, we saw the first of the four towers of Meghri Fortress, each a shadow of its former glory, hugging the crags to the north. Of the four remaining towers, one is rectangular and the others the traditional round towers of Armenian fortresses. The two Meghri churches aren’t very remarkable, and their reconstruction seemed hastily done and very shoddy. Thwarted at our attempts to find nourishment, we drove next to the ruins of St. Hovannes Monastery, and imposing structure on the northern outskirts of town. The sun had well begun its descent and was turning soft and golden when we drove by one cemetery and entered a second, parking next to the newer graves to gain access to the monastery and an adjacent building that was the real subject of Stepan’s visit to Meghri.

The southern façade of the monastery is deceiving, as one quickly finds, since the entire western and most of the northern walls of the monastery have long collapsed. Finding the grounds of the monastery once again too confining, I sought to find a vantage point that framed the monastery’s southern wall and dome, now in the full throes of magic hour, against the white-capped mountains to the north. Fortuitously, one of the villagers dealing with Stepan owned a two-story house, separated by an orchard from the monastery, and the north-facing balcony of the house turned out to be the perfect location for the shot I’d imagined. The villager’s beehives lining the slope below the monastery were an added bonus and completed the picture. When we finally stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant just beyond city limits, it was nearly 5:00pm, and despite numerous assurances that lunch would be served in ten minutes or less, we were once again captive for just under an hour. At least the beef kyabab (or lulekabob) was memorably excellent.

Was I once again squandering golden light to fill my belly? No… You see, I’d already realized that the entire Zangezur mountain range, including Mt. Kaputjugh and Mt. Sisakasar beside it were due west of the road to Kajaran, and the setting sun was very unkind to any attempt to photograph them.

As we drove out of Meghri, we were embraced again by the western portion of Arevik National Park. At the apex of our journey back to Kapan, having climbed the switchbacks out of Meghri, we stopped at a vista point that would have been absolutely ideal twelve hours earlier. One day soon, the sun’s first rays will find me at this very spot with a beaming smile on my face…

The absence of good light for photography didn’t take anything away from the breathtaking vista to our west. The two tall peaks dominating the landscape were capped and crisscrossed with clouds, and trees stood silhouetted on the lower hills between us and the tall peaks.

After Kajaran, we found the ruins of Baghaberd fortress hugging the cliffs to the left side of the road, its walls reflecting the last rays of the setting sun. Baghaberd’s history stretched back to the Fourth Century, and the fortress featured prominently in the history of Syunik till the 12th Century, when it was finally captured by the Seljuks. When traveling through Armenia, I love to photograph all our ancient monuments, be they churches, pagan temples, or the remnants of more ancient times. The sight of a fortress, even in ruins, inspires pride and fills me with awe unmatched by anything else in my ancestral homeland. Not for the first time during this trip, the mere sight of this fortress gave flight to my fantasies of valiant defensive battles fought for the preservation of the kingdom of Syunik, of wave after wave of invaders crashing against its impregnable walls. It’s an unfortunate consequence of being a trampled nation that our fortresses are in ruins, as each and every one would have been a wonder of the world had it survived intact.

We arrived in Kapan just before sundown, and though we’d eaten just hours before, the long day caught up to us, and a light dinner, with ample beer and vodka, definitely hit the spot.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

As we headed out of Kapan, I had but one hope for the rest of this trip which would expire less than 24 hours from now when I boarded my flight home. As soon as we left the city limits of Goris behind us, and of course after stopping once again to buy ice cream, I began scanning the roadside for mushrooms. I love mushrooms, and already the oyster mushrooms I’d had in Lori had been quite satisfying, but I longed to try the legendary garan dmak. I’d come closest to eating this enchanting mushroom twelve years ago, when every roadside stall in the Sisian highlands seemed to be overflowing with the large, oblong, and milk white fungus. A perfect storm of circumstances conspired to prevent me this pleasure then, and none of my trips since had coincided with the month of June, the only time the mushroom grows in Armenia.

As disappointment mounted, Stepan urged me to give up hope, as late May wasn’t June, and the odds of finding the mushroom today were nil. At last, we reached the Gates of Zangezur, our exit from Syunik and the last hope of finding what I desired. On this overcast day in May, before the rush of tourists whose tour buses make “unscheduled” stops here, there were only two vendors selling fruit, herbs, and yes, mushrooms. And there, in two pails, neatly stacked atop one-another, were the first garan dmaks of the season, perfectly symmetrical as they hadn’t been allowed to grow for too long. If left undisturbed, the mushroom can grow quite large and will usually be very oddly shaped and asymmetric. A single mushroom can weigh 1 – 2 kilograms or more, though these are usually found on the cliffs surrounding Geghart Monastery.

Approaching the pail with an ever widening smile, I picked up one of the mushrooms and marveled at its perfect white edges which dulled slightly towards the center of the cap. Turning the mushroom over, its perfectly spaced gills stared back, inviting the spices and juices in which I was already sautéing the mushrooms in my mind. We purchased a bag full, and began making plans for their consumption. As I had dinner plans with Oshin and his wife Iren, I realized that the best time to eat these would be on our way home.

The sixty or so kilometers from the Gates of Zangezur to Tikin Kima’s stall would have seemed far longer had we not been driving through the amazing landscape of Vayots Dzor now in full spring bloom, the hillsides bursting in green with yellow wildflower polka dots and the occasional head-turning sprinkling of red poppies.

At last, we were at Tikin Kima’s once again, and she was somewhat surprised at our request to sauté the mushrooms as we noshed on the amazing cheese she gets from a nearby village, fresh tomatoes, and herbs wrapped in paper thin lavash bread. Tikin Kima filled a skillet with thick slivers of mushrooms, lard, and onions, and, at my request, a cup of her excellent homemade Areni red wine. Though I rued not having Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce, my usual elixirs for cooking mushrooms, I knew that the skillet already held enough magic to blow our minds and our palates. Only four of the largest mushrooms went into the skillet as Garan dmak is a very meaty fungus, and I quickly realized that we couldn’t possibly eat more. But wait! The perception that we wolfed down the mushrooms without pausing even for breath isn’t true, not entirely. Though we did consume the mushrooms rather quickly, both Stepan and I took measured bites of each morsel, savoring the mind-blowing taste. This was truly a unique mushroom, and one I’d long to eat again and again. The fact that it grew at arguably the best time to photograph the Armenian Highlands is an added bonus.

The rest of our 120-km drive home was a complete anticlimax, more so since Mt. Ararat’s veil refused to yield to the end. I’d arrived back in Yerevan just in time for a relaxing conversation with Erik Yesayan, who had temporarily moved to Armenia from Los Angeles several weeks age, at the newly established Mirzoyan Photography Library, a gathering place for those interested in the photographic arts. Though the Georgian white wine we ordered was a bit too sweet, it was nice to catch up and to wind down from the long drive from Kapan that had taken most of the day.

My last dinner in Armenia, and only my second in Yerevan this trip was a pleasant surprise. The food scene in Yerevan has evolved considerably in the last several years, and Wine Republic, the newest addition to this expanding landscape, did more than just satisfy with its menu of charcuterie, cheeses, delicious soups, and main dishes that didn’t disappoint (the duck was exquisite). I don’t get many chances to have dinner out with my brother and his wife, whether in L.A. or Yerevan, and having Iren’s cousin, Eric Grigorian, a world-renowned photojournalist, and Sara Anjargolian join us made for great company. Though the local tendency is to prefer continental wines, I steered away from these in favor of expanding my horizons and sampling the new bottlings of Armenian wine that have recently graced Yerevan’s markets.

After dinner, all that remained was the sad ritual of packing for the flight home… Though I was exhausted from my travels, I wished I’d had more time to explore and to photograph. A litany of places I’d missed echoed in my head as each piece of clothing was folded away, and did not stop even as I shut the lights on my last night in Armenia.

Epilogue, Friday 22 May 2015

Upon arriving at Zvartnots airport, I immediately changed my computer-assigned seat to a window, cheerfully accepting more than four hours of claustrophobic confinement for that seconds-long glimpse of Mt. Ararat as the aircraft turns westward into the heart of Europe. Though the twin towers of the Holy Mount were finally visible this morning, the haze that had settled on the Ararat plain did its best to ruin the moment. Not giving up, I stayed glued to the aircraft window as we took off, and just before its quick disappearance, Mt. Ararat briefly revealed its grandeur, a wink goodbye to my watering eyes.

I’d just begun to accept my fate of being seated next to an Armenian lady flying to visit her grandchildren in Montreal, who happily and unhappily, but incessantly, shared every single detail of her life for the next four hours, I spied a very distinct conical peak just south of our flight path. The overhead monitors showed our path to be one intersecting the line connecting Kars and Agri and aiming straight for Trabizon on the Black Sea coast, directly over the western extension of the Armenian Highlands. The mountain known as Djrabashkh**  (or Sukavet) struck a defiant pose above its surroundings, one that I found appealing, especially in my present state of having my heart strings stretched more and more as my homeland receded in the distance (** After a two-day online search, and only after enlisting my mom’s help did I find the Armenian name of this mountain that is called Köse Dag in Turkish, in Kamsar Avetisyan’s Hayrenagitakan Etudner).

Yesterday afternoon, when Stepan had pulled into the now unrecognizably congested Tpagrichner street and I bid him farewell, his odometer read just over 1000 km, which, combined with our trip to Lori, meant that we’d logged just over 1600 kilometers, or a thousand miles, over the course of two road trips. What mattered, though, wasn’t this number, remarkable in itself as Armenia is but 230 miles across from its northwestern to southeastern tip, but the number of times my breath had been taken away by sights previously unseen, by rediscovered vistas, and by the unrivaled beauty of my ancestral homeland, Armenia. I’d seen Akhtala, Berdavan, and Noyemberyan (Barana of old, renamed to commemorate the Bolshevik revolution of 1917) in the far north, and traveled through the fabled Shikahogh State Preserve to the Iranian border and Meghri to the south. This trip had truly exceeded all my expectations and yet left even more to explore, even more to look forward to on my next voyage home.

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