Sunday, 21 May 2023

“Ohhhh, Teghenis is beautiful” exclaimed everyone who learned of my destination today, whether on yesterday’s hike or at Saryan Park this morning as three different ArmGeo groups mingled before departing for their hikes.

The trailhead for the hike was less than an hour’s drive from Yerevan, and as we didn’t stop for food along the way, I had to be content with the first and only breakfast I’d had at home that morning, peach yogurt washed down all too quickly with half a mug of coffee. For the next several hours, I’d visualize the half-filled mug sitting there on the kitchen counter, another mug’s worth cooling in the Mr. Coffee carafe, and I’d berate myself for not purchasing a thermos earlier in the week.

Today’s plan was to begin our 20-km hike at the village of Buzhakan, straddling the border between the Kotayk and Aragatsotn regions while leaning heavily into the latter, climbing toward Teghenyats Monastery, summitting Teghenis, then descending toward Tsakhkunyats lake and finishing the journey in Aghveran. Until now, inclement weather had never threatened any of the hikes I’d joined, but the story would be different today.

The ascent to Teghenyats Monastery was via a steep village road, though our path more often than not took us into the sparse forest to avoid the more and more frequent muddy patches. The forest was caught in the act of awakening from its deep winter slumber, but unlike an aging diva who shuns all attention, was beautiful to behold and held our gaze for long moments. Once again the cherry plums were in full blossom, and the smaller trees had an aura of green surrounding their branches. But the taller trees–dark trunks stretching above us–were mostly still barren, including the gorgeously textured wild pear trees. The sky was sullen once again, with the threat and reality of rain was never far.

We took a short break at the ruins of the monastery, drinking water from a fountain just outside its crumbling walls. The monastic complex stood at the upper edge of the forest we’d hiked through, and from this point onward our path would meander through the grassy slopes leading to the summit of Teghenis, leaving the village of Buzhakan and the barns on its outskirts and at much higher altitude behind. Our view downslope to the south was framed by Mt. Ara, a stratovolcano in the shape of a man lying prone in the east-west direction, complete with a prominent Armenian nose. I had only seen Mt. Ara from its opposite slope, and at first didn’t recognize it from this vantage point. Soon after, clouds covered its summit, further obscuring its identity.

We paused at a clearing below the summit, hoping the clouds that were piling onto the peak would be blown away with the same haste as their arrival. We had already gained 1000 m of elevation from the trailhead in just over 9 km, and it took a while for all the hikers in our group to catch up. Though the plateau didn’t provide any shelter, and the wind picked up as soon as we stopped, we decided to have lunch and not chance a long stay at the summit. I have to say that I was getting really tired of my ham and Swiss on ciabatta sandwiches…

The highlight of this stop: discovering a rare species of thistle with an elaborate bulb of white and purple fronds and pink-stemmed leaves spread upon the ground. According to one of my fellow hikers, this species is listed in the Red Book of Plants of the Republic of Armenia, a book that lists all of the endangered, extinct, and rare species found within the Republic. Close by, between nearby rocks scattered upon the plain, nestled succulents of a more common variety, and for once I was prepared to harvest one for our garden.

We began the final ascent as a steady rain began to fall, and were soon gathering around the metal tripod marking the exact point of the summit. This was not wilderness in any stretch of the imagination. Two single-story structures surrounded by a tall fence and several antenna towers dominated the broad peak. Within seconds, we were hailed from within the closest building and admonished for standing too close to a metal structure when the chance of lightning was quite high. We immediately accepted the invitation indoors, filing through a gap in the fence, and had to apologize profusely as we tracked a ton of mud into the clean interior of what turned out to be an air traffic control station. The 2851 m elevation summit of Mt. Teghenis, though not the highest mountain in Armenia by any stretch, is perfectly located so that the air traffic control radar on the mountaintop can see aircraft entering Armenian air space from any direction. The building we sheltered in was the beating heart of Armenian air traffic control, complete with supercomputers and radio receivers monitoring the local air traffic frequencies.

As is customary even when uninvited guests arrive at your door, the men working at the station offered us food and drink. At first, we demurred, thankful for the warm interior and intent to leave as quickly as possible. In the meantime, some in our group huddled near the radiators to dry their shoes and socks, and others had brought out their thermoses to pour coffee for themselves. They were Russian, so I didn’t expect them to share, and I could have really used a hot drink at this point. Thankfully, several of our group gave in to the continued insistence of our hosts, and an electric kettle was immediately put to use. Plastic bags containing dried herbs and flowers were brought out, and each of us chose a different mix that would infuse our cups with a most unusual tea. Along with urdz, which is a variety of wild thyme, a bunch of tiny yellow flowers went into my cup, imbuing the rising steam with a welcome fragrance that I remember to this day.

Mostly dry now, and warmed by the tea, we headed out into a steady drizzle and bad news. The fog had so obscured the path to Tsakhkunyats lake that Lilit, our trip lead, decided it was too dangerous to venture in that direction, especially with the still palpable threat of lightning. Instead, we’d return via the same path, once again stopping at Teghenyats monastery to catch the van at Buzhakan.

It was an anticlimactic and silent retreat, disappointment evident in everyone’s faces and demeanor. We’d not only been robbed of the expansive views from atop the summit, but were now missing out on arguably the most beautiful portion of the hike. Not much of a reward for the strenuous climb, and not much to see on the way down. I was still very thankful… I’d hiked in the gorgeous scenery of the Aragatsotn region, summitted another mountain, and spent my Sunday in the heart of nature. As we approached the van, the sky began to clear, and the fields we walked through began to glow in reemergent light.

Sometimes I don’t realize just how tired I get after a hike. I had traversed from Parz Lake to Gosh on Friday, summited Sevazhayr yesterday, and logged another 20 km today. Prior to today’s trek, I’d decided to spend tonight at my parents’ house in Proshyan, a twenty-minute drive outside Yerevan, and arranged for them to pick me up from Saryan Park when our van returned. As we approached Yerevan, a phone call to coordinate my pick up revealed that my parents had experienced much worse weather in Proshyan, and assuming I’d be soaked and frozen when I returned, my mom had decided to make barley soup for me. My parents and the soup arrived, and I sat in the back straddling the pot of still hot soup between my feet. I was hungrier than ever as I’d just had that sandwich on the hike, but as it turned out my tired legs and my lack of coordination after a long hike would be my downfall. When it was time to disembark, and having completely forgotten about the soup at this point, I knocked the pot over with my feet, spilling half the soup in the car and half outside. I’d have to wait much longer for warm food, and the spoonful of soup left in the pot made me feel worse for missing out on and spilling my mom’s soup.

After dinner, I carefully planted the succulent in one of many colorful pots I found in my parents’ garage and placed it outside where it would get plenty of sun. By the time this trip to Armenia ended, a second colorful pot, with its own succulent, would join the first, the beginnings of a collection of reminiscences from Armenian summits. As I write this, the succulent has been replanted in a larger pot after growing much larger in the care of my parents and the summertime sun of the Ararat plain.

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