Sunday, 14 May 2023

The political situation in Armenia was at a precipice. Rumors abounded, everything from the return of small enclaves to the enemy, to handing over the entirety of the Syunik Region. Another consequence of the 44-day war with Azerbaijan in 2020 was a constant redrawing of borders at the whim of the victor and the instant capitulation of the Armenian government. When I’d booked my flights in January, I’d joked that if Syunik was given away or lost, I’d never set foot in Armenia again, as I’m not one to travel to Armenia to spend my time in the cafés and restaurants of Yerevan oblivious to the goings on beyond the capital. In fact, the less time I spend in Yerevan, the better my general mood.

And so, for my second hiking trip with ArmGeo, I’d chosen Koraberd Fortress in the Tavush region near the village of Voskepar, where the eastern border actually coincided with the sinuous highway linking Ijevan and Noyemberyan. In 2015, having spent three days in the Lori Region with Stepan Nalbandian, we’d decided to return to Yerevan via Noyemberyan, skirting Voskepar and flying by its namesake church, a diminutive structure by the roadside. Though the border was not as close back then, Stepan had refused to stop, as visitors to the church had been fired upon by snipers in the weeks prior. Koraberd itself sat within an enclave that Google maps already identifies as Azerbaijan, and my choice of hiking expedition had the ulterior motive of seeing the

fortress and the lands it ruled over before it was inevitably given away. It would be more than a week later when I’d realize how this situation had darkened my mood today, how every little thing from hikers talking too much to those showing up unprepared and without the proper gear annoyed me, and how I must have presented as an old curmudgeon as I reminded my fellow hikers at every opportunity that all the land they spied below was to be given away, and soon.

To reach Voskepar village, one turns left from the main highway right at the point where the border encroaches, and descends on steep asphalt roads. Our van stopped about a kilometer below the highway, and Artur, our guide, led us downward through the village to the dirt road that would take us across the Voskepar river on a dilapidated concrete bridge, then climb toward Verin Voskepar, the upper village, before ascending to the fortress. Any illusion that we’d avoid mud today vanished when we came upon a downhill segment of the road, angled at about 30 degrees, that was an ankle-deep morass of mud. Even after crossing this obstacle, we reminded ourselves for the rest of the day that a climb back through this mud awaited us upon our return.

Our first destination, in Verin Voskepar, was the tower of Aghjka Berd, the girl’s fortress, one of many bearing this name in Armenia, and all somehow associated with a princess causing the downfall of the fortress where she lived. It would seem that the only reason fortresses had fallen to the enemy throughout our history was by having a beautiful princess attract too much attention or through the treachery or self-sacrifice of the said princess. Not surprising at all in the deeply patriarchal society of Armenia.

The tower stood high upon the banks of the river and had a commanding view of the valley below, a perfect location for what was probably the first set of fortifications for Koraberd rather than a standalone fortress. Though the green of the fields here was even deeper than that the day before, white flowers outnumbered the yellow until well after we climbed out of the upper village. Even the poppies had not fully bloomed here, and only lent nascent spots of red on the carpet we walked upon. In Tavush, every rock is a bastion of moss and lichen, and the patterns and colors of moss on each rock we passed momentarily drew my gaze.

For a while longer, increasingly narrow jeep tracks led us up the slope toward the crag upon which Koraberd had stood long ago. We passed herds of cows tended by shepherds on horseback, and even a herd of mares that had just given birth and were accompanied skitteringly by their colts. Then, the tracks became a narrow trail and entered an ancient forest that reached up to the base of the bluff. What first drew my attention was the moss-covered barks of the gnarled trees flanking the trail. But soon, my senses were overwhelmed by a scent that brought me back decades to my grandmother’s kitchen. The trail here was overrun with vegetation, and as we stepped on and trampled the weeds growing in our path, the scent of wild mint, thyme, parsley, and tarragon filled the air. It was like walking through an herb garden, or like walking into the kitchen as a child and watching my grandmother prepare herbs for cooking… I loved the scent, but for years avoided the actual herbs in anything I ate because of their odd tastes and textures. But to only concentrate on one sense does the forest no justice.

The barely perceptible trail, shaded by trees that whispered in the wind, descended toward and crossed a stream, then rose and abruptly ended at the rocky beginnings of the crag we were to climb. A gentle drizzle began and ended while we were in the forest, coating every leaf and every flower, amplifying the greens of the wide leaves and the white flowers of herbs growing long and wild. The gentle sea of white and green showed hints of fuchsia here and there, the tiny flowers of shining cranesbills peeking out of the foliage.

Another surprise awaited us on the crag. One of my favorite trails in the LA area is the Dawn Mine trail, threading its way through multiple stream crossings to a long-abandoned mining operation. There, just as one climbs above the mine, sits a patch of rock where succulents live improbably among moss, the two extremes of verdancy. Imagine my surprise to find succulents growing among the cracks in the rocks here in the wettest region of Armenia, thriving among the moss, waiting patiently for the Sun. In hindsight, I regret not bringing back a succulent or two to grow in our garden in Yerevan… My thoughts lean toward conservation, but during our descent I realized that my fellow hikers had trampled many more succulents than I would have ever removed.

The climb was not easy, taking long for us to reach a perch just below the ruins of the fortress. As we ate lunch, Artur forged ahead to find the best trail to ascend the final 100 m to Koraberd. Eating my sandwich in silence and watching my fellow hikers strike valiant poses against the backdrop of the lush hills in the distance, my melancholy, barely contained till now, boiled to the surface. The view north stretched beyond Berkaber reservoir and Mt. Goyazan, one straddling the border and one now on the other side. To reach the spot where we now sat, we had hiked through the Verin Voskepar enclave. Every flower we’d seen, every forest we’d entered, every square inch of land our booted feet had trampled were to be given away because of treachery that began decades ago and continues today. The story of the enclaves in Armenia is a simple one. Ethnic Tatars, who now call themselves Azeris, established small villages in Armenia after it became a Soviet republic. These villages were then declared autonomous regions and gifted to Soviet Azerbaijan, with the acquiescence of Soviet Armenia. Bit by bit, 1500 square kilometers of land was carved off and given away. Several of these enclaves and cutouts strategically cross main highways, begging the question of why would any Armenian government agree… Was it because successive Soviet Armenian governments bent over backwards to please Moscow? Or that they believed in the longevity of the Soviet Union and the irrelevance of internal borders far more gullibly and more fervently than anyone else did. Whatever the reason, the security of Armenia as an independent nation is at risk now because of these concessions.

Artur’s return brought a sigh of relief, detaching me momentarily from these thoughts, and although the route to the fortress turned out to be a mixture of class 3 scrambling-where we had to use our hands to ascend steep slopes-and one or two jaunts back into the scented forest, I was thankful to be moving again. At last, we stood where Koraberd had stood, its only imprint upon the land a short section of wall that has withstood the centuries. The commanding view the fortress afforded was priceless, and one could easily ignore the depressing vistas to the southeast and look westward onto the emerald hills of Tavush, to gladden the heart.

It was during the descent that I realized the error I’d made that morning. During the Trchkan hike, I’d drank a liter of water from my hydration pouch, and so I’d concluded that I didn’t need to encumber myself with more than 1.5 liters of water today. What I’d forgotten to account for was the fact that yesterday I had coffee and juice at Gntuniq, had purchased a liter of water to drink on the bus, and had drunk my fill at the spring on the Trchkan trail. In contrast, since the lines were too long, I’d foregone buying coffee and water from the Tsovagyugh food court this morning, drinking from my pouch on the bus instead. Four kilometers from the end of a 17-km hike on a day that was growing warmer by the second, I ran out of water. I knew from previous experience that four kilometers without water should not be a problem, but as we ascended through the mud back to the van, I looked without success for any water I could purify and drink. In the end, I had to walk the additional distance from the van back to the highway to find a spring several villagers had pointed me toward. I found a small roadside shop instead, where, in addition to a liter of water and bottle of local tahn, I also bought a small amount of chocolates to restore my strength. I must have really looked out of place, having zipped off and discarded the muddy legs of my hiking pants at the van again, looking 100% the foreigner in a region less than 100 ft from the border, I attracted the attention of a police car that had stopped at the shop. The gayushnik (policeman) asked several polite questions to figure out where I was from and what I was doing there. Just a couple of weeks before, several Azeris had been caught infiltrating Armenia to the south, and caution was the word of the day. In the end, he drove away satisfied with my answers, though I think he would have preferred to wait for my ride to show up.

The drive back was uneventful, and the bus was silent as everyone was exhausted. After exiting the Dilijan tunnel, we stopped again at the Tsovagyugh food court, a larger but less organized version of Gntuniq with an even larger selection of foods. I had a dinner of noodles and chicken gizzards in tomato sauce (I’ve always had a thing for chicken gizzards), trying to restore some of the 3,000 calories I’d burned during the grueling hike. It was a long drive from Voskepar to Yerevan, and I’d arrive too late to do anything but shower and crash. For the second day in a row, evening found me at Martiros Saryan Park, teeming with diners and revelers, in muddy shorts, holding a backpack and a bag full of muddy shoes and clothes.

Tomorrow would be a day of rest and catching up with my brother Oshin before he returned to LA, and though I was very tired, I was in no rush to sleep, overwhelmed by the day’s emotions. A wee dram of Armenian cognac before retiring for the night helped keep my emotions in check, and soon I was replaying the events of the last two days in my head. Two days, two very different adventures, two different moods, and two more weekends to look forward to.

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