Saturday, 13 May 2023

I could barely sleep last night as anticipation overwhelmed my senses. A first dinner in Yerevan with my parents and my brother had hit the spot, the pork schnitzel disappearing too rapidly off my plate. Even the liter of German beer accompanying dinner did not calm my nerves.

Months ago, I’d stumbled upon Armenian Geographic (ArmGeo), an organization that scheduled guided hikes in Armenia every weekend. Rather ambitiously, I decided to book hikes on both Saturday and Sunday, with hopes of continuing the pattern every weekend of my stay in Armenia. Just as ArmGeo’s staff had questioned my preparedness last week, I now did so myself. Was I truly prepared? Had all the hikes I’d embarked upon in Los Angeles, all the stumbles, all the scraped knees and elbows paid dividend, or would I be the bidza, the geezer or grandpa, at the back of the pack, slowing down everyone and earning deservedly nasty looks at every turn?

The hike to Trchkan Waterfall, more than 25 km (15.6 miles) with a net elevation gain of 800 m (2600 ft), was no easy feat. I’d been repeatedly warned that this was a trek for experienced hikers only, and that our guides would keep an eye on me, to evaluate my fitness to carry out my ambitious plan of six hikes in sixteen days with the group.

We left Yerevan in a sprinter van well before the city woke up on this cloudy morning. Martiros Saryan Park, dominated by the statue of the famous Armenian painter, was the meeting point of our eclectic group: three ArmGeo guides: Roman, Hrachuhi, and Dalar; a number of Armenian repats from Moscow; Russians recently arrived in Yerevan to escape the war; a couple of locals; and I; all in various states of levity and anticipation.

Our first stop was at the Gntuniq market and food court in Aparan. One “innovation” since my last visit to Armenia was the sprouting of food courts in Yerevan and beyond. The days when I had to make a choice between starving on a road trip or stopping at a restaurant for a lengthy meal were long gone. Gntuniq itself had grown beyond the bakery to offer pizza prepared in an imported wood-fired Italian oven (the cardboard to-go pizza box was more expensive than a large loaf of bread); shawarma, which has invaded Armenia like an invasive species but was always served with ketchup and mayonnaise; a variety of hot foods; and baked goods filled with meats, vegetables, and cheese. Even early on a Saturday morning, it was a beehive of activity, teeming with travelers eating on site or purchasing meals for their trips. Gntuniq had become famous first because of its fresh bread and pastries, and the single sliding door entrance to the complex stood framing the traditional tonir oven used to bake bread. Though the shop had grown three times larger in size, the door had not, and as crowds rushed in and out, they paid scant attention to the young baker, even as he acrobatically balance himself upside down on the upper edge of the tonir, lowered himself headfirst, and slapped each mound of dough onto the walls of the oven.

To my relief, the barren desert of espresso drinks that Armenia had been a scant five years ago was also a distant memory. Up till now, the only choices for coffee drinkers were instant coffee sachets, most of which were pre-sweetened, or Armenian coffee made to order. Now, every shop had an automated espresso machine, and there were vending machines serving espresso drinks throughout every town. One drawback of the vending machines was that the option to eliminate or reduce the amount of sugar added was often inoperative. I steered clear of the vending machine and opted for the short queue at the espresso bar where two baristas were busily making drinks. An Americano and a cheese boreg pastry in hand, I sat down to enjoy, in true hobbit fashion, my second breakfast, as I knew that my next meal would be at the waterfall, after miles of effort.

Photographs do little justice to how green Armenia is in May, and how snowcapped peaks juxtapose themselves on the verdant landscape. Our road from Yerevan to the Shirak region through Aparan skirted Mt. Aragats, the giant quad-peaked shield volcano, first on its eastern then on its northern flank. Clouds formed and dissipated on its peaks as we watched, and sunlight danced on a few crags that made dark patterns on the otherwise achromatic skirts of the mountain.

We arrived at a nondescript village on the M7 highway, filed out of the van, changed into our hiking shoes, and began the hike, our poles click-clacking where they found rock, but more often sinking into the soft dirt and mud of the village road. Many of the hiking trails in Armenia begin in similar fashion, winding through villages clinging to steep hillsides or sprawled upon a meadow. Leaving the village, our path paralleled and more often than not coincided with jeep tracks leading into the hills. A gentle rain had begun to fall, and the viridescent hills stretching in every direction glowed in the muted light of a cloudy morning as fingers of fog stretched toward us.

On trails near Los Angeles, green is the patch of moss clinging to rocks in the spring and shriveling before summer sets in, it’s the foliage clinging to the rare stream that crosses or accompanies a trail. It’s the exception to a dry, desert landscape. Here, the palette of spring contained only greens, yellows, and whites, applied in broad strokes in every direction. As we gained altitude, the sprinkling of wildflowers on the hillsides grew into a yellow deluge of cowslip primroses and fingers of spring dotted with the muted purple of germanders. Streaks of white were everywhere, as if the birds whose cheerful song did not cease during the rain were the proud curators of oxeye daisies and white phloxes growing in patches, bunched together in crisscrossing lines. The trees lining the road stood in varying states of wakefulness from the cold of winter. Many showed off their buds and young leaves, with the cherry plums the most flamboyant, in full bloom and ready to rain white petal storms on us when the rain or wind intensified. Every turn of our path brought another breathtaking vista into view, a different mixture of blossoming and dormant trees, a different pattern of wildflowers, and a different tone and texture of low clouds and fog crowning the scene.

A cuckoo’s call announced the end of rainfall, and after a short break and delayed introductions at a spring, we continued on to the waterfall, descending into the gorge of the Chichkhan river following our first fleeting view of the falls from afar. A daintily painted sign showed the direction and distance not just to Trchkan, only 500 m away at this point, but to Gegharot falls back near Aparan, Shaki near Sisian, and even Angel and Niagara falls thousands of kilometers away. So far, so good… Roman had set a fast pace, covering more than four kilometers per hour (not counting the breaks), and though there were stragglers, I was not one of them. Months of hiking in the mountains to the north of Los Angeles had been adequate preparation after all, and I’d always moved faster and with fewer breaks than this group was managing.

To reach the falls, we crossed a gentler tributary of the river, balancing ourselves on rocks, tree branches, and even a rusted metal plate that had sacrificed its life providing an improbable bridge over the swiftest portion of the current. Scrambling on rocks sated with spray, we reached the might of Trchkan, fully engorged by snowmelt, roaring its presence to the farthest reaches of the valley it had helped carve. Here we posed for photographs, individually and as a group, before hunger sounded the trumpet of retreat. As I walked back, a clearing under oak trees off to the side of the falls and sheltered by a large crag tempted me with the thought of staying overnight and not having to abandon this view so quickly.

Though there was a long, sheltered table on the riverbanks near the waterfall to accommodate picnickers, I chose to eat lunch while exploring the surroundings. My homemade sandwich-ham and Swiss cheese on ciabatta bread with pickles and tomatoes, was satisfying but missed the bite of the mustard I’d forgotten to purchase the night before. I was behaving myself today, and my dessert of pieces of chocolate went unaccompanied by the usual scotch or cognac I habitually brought on our LA hikes. I walked around as I ate, and the scenery at the falls was breathtaking. One cherry plum tree growing beside a layered cliff seemed as if it had exploded with blossoms from within. Not only were its branches covered in delicate white, but the grounds beside the tree and the cliff face bore the white of shed petals sprayed in every direction like an explosion of confetti. The small meadow leading to the tree was itself a joy to behold. Delicate mounds of sweet fennel had grown to cover the ground, bathing their fronds in the windblown spray from Trchkan. It was difficult not to experience sensory overload… The roar of the falls, the Sun bursting through clouds for the first time, the scent of trampled vegetation, and wildflowers of every color blooming everywhere… Would I have described paradise any differently had I believed in that eventuality of fates?

The hike to Trchkan and back was challenging not just for the length and gain in elevation, but for the fact that the many ups and downs of the trail gave the impression that we were always climbing, and rarely descending. The string of hikers elongated on the way back, and as the miles piled on, some in our group became more and more needful of breaks and rest stops. By this time, our rain coats had been donned and shed multiple times, and most of us were covered in mud up to the knees. This would be a recurrent circumstance during this trip to Armenia. Thunderstorms were a daily occurrence and the sodden ground too saturated to absorb any more moisture. Thunder rolled among the hills like the sound of distant drums and gusts of wind blew through the long grass we walked upon to skirt the larger puddles dotting the jeep tracks.

And then we were in the village again, walking on drier roads, spying the sprinter van from afar. Our view for the last several kilometers had been the northern peak of Aragats and the village of Mets Parni spreading below its snowy flanks. A lone chapel stood at the top of a singular crag, keeping an ancient eye on the village. It was too early in the season to climb the more challenging northern peak of Aragats, but standing on that summit is on my short list for my next visit.

Up until now, the convertible pants I wore on most hikes in LA had been a convenience. Whether hiking alone or with friends, we never started later than 7:00am, when the weather was cooler, but by the time we descended from the local mountains, the weather would have invariably warmed such that hiking in shorts was warranted. Now, though, being able to remove the pant legs was necessitated not by heat, but by the thick cover of accumulated and drying mud. In years past, I would have been less hasty to remove the pant legs and walk around in shorts, but I’d seen more men wearing shorts in Yerevan the day before than on any previous visit. Still, Apraran and Yerevan are worlds apart, and as we were scheduled to make a return stop at Gntuniq, I joked with Roman whether it was better to walk into the food court covered in mud or wearing shorts. Though we both agreed that muddy was probably the way to go, in the end, both of us ate our dinner in shorts, to no apparent detriment.

The thick cover of clouds over Aparan became more and more ominous as we ate. As night fell, and as we walked to the van in the first sprinkling of rain, the sky brightened with the first of many flashes of lightning. Before my mind could process the event, before I could automatically begin the count of one-one thousand, two-one thousand–which would help estimate the distance to the lightning–a monstrous peal of thunder shook us where we stood. That cloudburst had been much closer than a kilometer… As we drove off, the peals of thunder grew more distant, and I mistakenly thought that we’d outrun that particular storm.

We arrived back at Martiros Saryan Park at the peak of Saturday revelry but sadly not dressed for the occasion. The van couldn’t park in its usual place, and as we disembarked, the storm I thought we’d left behind caught up to us with uncanny timing, bringing torrential rain and lightning strikes that nearly hit the Yerevan TV tower and lighting the skies above. And so I had to suffer one last indignity. I’ve never eaten at the Artashi Mot restaurant, though I’ve heard the food is great. Drenched to the bone in the minute it took to disembark and get my backpack, I now stood in the scant shelter of the restaurant patio, meekly looking around to make sure no one I recognized was dining there. The taxi I’d ordered couldn’t arrive fast enough to whisk me home, and when it did I had to apologize to the driver for my muddy and wet appearance.

Later that evening, at home in Yerevan, showered and ready for bed, I ran through the day’s events. Previously, I’d traveled far and wide in Armenia and Artsakh, but my frequent off-road forays were always with four-wheel-drive Nivas or the Soviet version of the Jeep, the UAZ. To hike in Armenia was a dream come true on many levels, and the timing was perfect. I asked myself, would I rather avoid the inclement weather, see a drier landscape bereft of flowers and trees bursting with fruit as they wilt in the heat of the summer, or witness the conflagration of color juxtaposed on bright green in cloudy May, that I did today? I think you know the answer...

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