Friday, 19 May 2023

A large khatchkar, its ancient and intricate patterns gorgeously outlined in vibrant moss, lay prone beside me deep within the forest. The ground was covered in a deep blanket of leaves in various states of decay, and other khatchkars, some broken, some whole, stood in a loose cluster hemmed in by the dense growth of larger trees away from the trail. To find such a place in Armenia is not surprising, as there are probably hundreds of similar sites, ancient burial grounds or millennial monuments, covered by the forested hills and lush valleys of my diminutive homeland. What made this scene more surreal as I reached for my camera, was a large Siberian husky, one of two dogs that had started following me at Parz Lake, jumped atop the khatchkar and posed for the photo. The dogs would follow me all the way to Goshavank, 8 km away, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

This is what I was here for, this was my escape… I’d arrived back in Yerevan less than forty-eight hours ago from Sisian, but every moment I spent in town was a moment spent yearning for the sea of green that awaited beyond the concrete jungle of the city. Sure, I was in Armenia again for the first time in five years, but, as pleasant as dinners with my parents were, and as pleasant as it was to have an afternoon stroll in the streets washed clean by the thunderstorm that spent a mere ten minutes overhead before rushing off, I spent most nights wishing to be away from city life and in the heart of nature.

The thick cover of clouds kept the Sun at bay all morning, and for once the weather did not change significantly once we exited the Sevan-Dilijan tunnel. We hastened down the familiar switchbacks, through the town of Dilijan and into the bosom of Dilijan National Park spreading as far as the eye could see on both sides of the highway.

Gago dropped me off at the parking lot adjacent to Parz lake and moments later I was on the Transcaucasian trail, plodding through the ubiquitous mud. Two dogs, a German shepherd and a Siberian husky, had greeted me as soon as I disembarked. As I began on the trail, I wondered how far they’d accompany me. I was sure they’d stop as soon as we passed the last chalet of the lake’s namesake resort, but they didn’t. I was startled to see the dogs at the khatchkars, but thereafter they became a source of continued amusement. I’d never before been accompanied by local dogs while hiking… The dogs ran ahead, dashed into the woods, trotted across the meadows and fields we crossed, and even eagerly showed me the way several times when it wasn’t entirely clear which trail I should follow.

Since I had already booked hikes with ArmGeo on both Saturday and Sunday, I chose the easier path of descending from Parz Lake to Gosh, with an initial elevation gain of just over 300 m followed by a steady descent. The scenery remained as surreal as it had near the khatchkars. Leaves glowed in the soft light filtered through the forest canopy, but the view was far from monochrome as dark tree trunks stochastically presented themselves, and where the mud faded, the crunch of leaves underfoot added its notes to the fugue of the forest.

It was beautiful beyond belief, even after the hikes to Trchkan and Koraberd, and after witnessing the golden paintbrush of sundown while walking in the fields of Syunik. The trail, having begun as a narrow road evolved into jeep tracks that stopped at a stream crossing, then narrowed further and entered the forest. Immersion was complete. Now, mushrooms grew from the exposed roots of trees, and moss covered every fallen log and boulder that dared expose itself.

At the apex of the trail, I emerged onto a meadow sprinkled with yellow wildflowers, dandelions, and giant-leaved cow parsnips. The trail was barely visible now but the dogs ran ahead with a gentle gait, and I was able to easily follow, noting the Transcaucasian trail markers on the odd tree. Then began the descent into Gosh village, muddy jeep tracks that could thankfully be avoided by walking along the crest of vegetation that divided the tracks. An ancient and gnarled beech, its long limbs aimed skyward at odd angles, its roots holding several mossy boulders in a vise-like grip, became more interesting when a hole in its trunk resolved itself into a heart, framing the bright green forest beyond within its wizened folds.

The forest opened up again, giving a first glimpse of Gosh, its clay tile rooftops barely visible within the overgrown foliage that seemed to have engulfed it. Soon the dome of Goshavank was also visible, and my descent skirted Mkhitar Gosh’s funeral chapel overlooking the village. Back in civilization, my first thought was to drink one or two bottles of the legendary Dilijan tahn, and to buy a piroshki to reward myself and the dogs who had dutifully followed me here. Feeding the dogs in the midst of tourists and visitors to Goshavank was a mistake. The husky, docile until now, chose to attack the other dog for a larger morsel, and in the melee that ensued, an old woman was knocked down. I immediately disowned the dogs, and beat a hasty retreat to Gago’s waiting car. The German shepherd, following me still, finally had an entire piroshki in peace before Gago and I sped away toward Yerevan. Lesson learned… As tame as the dogs had seemed, I should have attempted to feed them in a much more secluded location. Tonight would be spent swimming in the memories of the ancient forest, and dreaming about new memories to be made on the trail to Sevazhayr tomorrow.

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