Lake Sevan and Dilijan

The week is just flying by, isn’t it?? Day 5 was our Yerevan Day. We spent the morning at the Genocide Memorial and Museum, and it was just as exhausting as when I went with Sarah. Since I had already been, I perused a bunch of the photos and other materials that I skipped before. I think you would need to go back 10 times to see everything without your brain turning to mush.

At Vernissage. It kind of looks like we’re just at a football tailgate…

After that, we had a low-key rest of the day and went to Vernissage. Before coming, Mike told me that I needed to “speak Armenian like a local” so that he could get the best prices there. Thanks, Mike. No pressure or anything. I certainly didn’t pass as a local, but I think I at least projected the illusion of knowing what I was talking about. Hopefully.

Sevanavank, looking a bit eerie

Day 6 was another crazy, hectic, “what were you thinking when you planned this?” kind of day. I wanted to go to Lake Sevan and Dilijan, and the only way we were going to have time for both was if we did them in the same day. So what choice did I have? No choice, that’s right.

We made our way to Sevanavank first, the monastery on a peninsula that used to be an island until the water level of the lake dropped from overusing it for irrigation. The water in the lake is a beautiful, brilliant blue color when the sun strikes it, but we were there early in the morning and it was cloudy, so instead, it looked a bit spooky.

Hi, pretty lake.

Family selfie at Sevanavank

The door into Sevanavank.

From there, we headed to Dilijan. Back before I made the schedule for the trip, I asked everyone to send me anything that they definitely wanted to see or do. One of Mike’s requests was for us to go on a hike together. The best place for that is Dilijan, so I was left with the task of figuring out where Mike and I could hike that Mom and Dad could be entertained for the time it took us to complete our hike. Then, a stroke of brilliance!

Pre-hike by Parz Lich

There’s a hike in Dilijan that goes from Parz Lich (lake) to Goshavank, a church in the town of Gosh. I also knew that there’s another monastery in Dilijan that’s supposed to be very nice. I Google mapped it out, and my suspicions were confirmed. We could make it work out perfectly! Mike and I got dropped off at Parz Lich which is a beautiful place anyway and especially in the fall. Mom and Dad hung out there for a little and drank some coffee while Mike and I started the hike. After leaving the lake, they went to Haghartsin Monastery and then met us at Goshavank. Our hike was supposed to take 2.5 hours which we decided meant 2 hours for us, and the timing was spot on!

How cool is this???

Okay so I’m literally obsessed with fall right now. Just brace yourself for a whole lot of hiking through the pretty, fall-colored woods pictures.

I know, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Mike and I had an interesting hike. It had rained the night before, so the ground was super muddy in some spots. To make things worse, it’s that clayey soil, so by the time we were 10 steps in, our shoes were about 10 pounds heavier from all of the mud stuck to them. Luckily, the beginning was the worst part, and we were fine after Mike fashioned us some walking sticks.

The hike itself was fabulous. The trees were at that perfect point in the fall when they’re all yellow and there are still enough leaves on them that it looks beautiful instead of depressing. The sun was shining through the trees, making the leaves look golden and the forest look mystical. At the peak of the hike, you have an amazing view of the valley and the mountains in the distance. It seriously looked like something out of a stock photo. It was also nice to have some time with Mike. Hikes are great times for good conversations! (Brace yourself for  photo explosion but I seriously couldn’t pick just a few.)

Fork in the road

Quite the view, huh?

Headed down to Goshavank

We beat our parents to Goshavank by a few minutes and spent that time eating Cheetos (gotta love that good ‘ole American snack food) and cleaning the mud off of our shoes. When they caught up with us, we all went to check out Goshavank together.

It’s kind of castle-like, right?

Goshavank is a monastic complex whose main church was built in 1191. There are way more buildings than I anticipated, and while the whole thing is quite nice, the coolest part is the bell tower and book depository. The book depository is a big, boring room, but on top of it is a chapel/bell tower, and you can see it through a hole in the ceiling! I wanted so badly to go inside the chapel, but the only way in is by using these cantilevered stairs that are currently unusable. Maybe that’s why I think that was the coolest part, because I couldn’t actually go inside, and I SO wanted to.

Goshavank! See the book depository and bell tower to the left.

After Goshavank, despite the fact that Mike and I ate a bag of Cheetos, a granola bar, and a pack of M&Ms while waiting for our parents, we were starving. We went to a restaurant in Dilijan, Kchuch, that has the best pizza in Armenia (the competition, to be fair, is nearly nonexistent because I haven’t eaten many things here that could even realistically be called pizza, but it’s also good by real standards too). We had one of those stuff-your-face-and-then-wonder-why-you-ate-so-much-but-it-was-so-good meals before piling into the car to head back towards Lake Sevan.

Hayravank

We had two more stops on our list: Hayravank (another church, of course) and Noratus Cemetery. Both have some weird legends/stories associated with them, so brace yourself. Before I get into that though, let me just say that the drive from the town of Sevan to Hayravank is probably one of the best drives I’ve been on in Armenia. The road runs along the water, and the views are absolutely incredible. Even if there was nothing to see down there, I would still say that it’s worth the drive.

Lake Sevan from Hayravank

Hayravank itself wasn’t anything too spectacular, but the lake is awesome and so was the sky when we were there. The church is small and was built in the 9th century. Ready for the legend? Once upon a time, the Armenians were in a war (it seems like this is a common theme throughout history here). Some mean dude (that’s an understatement) named Timur was conquering his way across Armenia, killing everyone and destroying everything. When he went to Hayravank to kill the priest and destroy the church, the priest flung himself into the lake, and instead of dying, ran on the water.

Timur was amazed and told the priest he could have one wish (he was like a stingy genie – only ONE wish??). The priest asked him to spare the church and as many people as could fit inside. As more and more people piled in, Timur got suspicious and stepped inside just in time to see the priest turning the last person into a dove and releasing it out the window. The End.

Noratus. Don’t be weirded out by how awesome the gravestones and the sky look together. Okay, it’s a little strange to have a cemetery as a tourist destination, but somehow still so cool.

Baffling, right? And I’m left with so many unanswered questions. Did the people get changed back from being doves? Did they remember the time they spent as birds? Did they know that was going to happen to them when they stepped into that church? When they changed back into people (assuming they did), did they have their same clothes on? Why was Timur such a jerk? I’m afraid that I’m going to go through life never knowing the answers to these questions.

Finally, we went to Noratus. Noratus Cemetery is the largest collection of khatchkars. It used to be the second largest with the largest one in Nakhichevan, the territory to the southwest of Armenia that is currently controlled by Azerbaijan. That cemetery was destroyed by Azerbaijan between 1998 and 2005, and now Noratus takes the title.

The popular story about Noratus takes place during another time when Armenia was in a war. This time, an army approached from across the lake, and it vastly outnumbered the villagers. To make it look like they had more soldiers than they actually did, they dressed up the khatchkars in the cemetery with swords and helments. The army was fooled, and they retreated.

Okay, once again, SO MANY QUESTIONS. Who on earth had this idea in the first place? Where did they get so many extra helmets and swords? How dumb/blind was the army that they couldn’t tell that the “soldiers” they were seeing were a bit rectangular? I could keep going, but I’ll spare you.

It probably would have been interesting to go to Noratus with a guide who knew something about what we were seeing, but honestly, all I wanted was to go to sleep by the time we got there. It was another long day, and just stopping in and getting to check out the sunset was enough for me.

Advertisements

Sardarabad and Etchmiadzin

After the Day 3 marathon, I think everyone was happy with our shorter Day 4 plans. At the very least, everyone was happy about the later departure time – 10AM instead of 8. The schedule for the day was Sardarabad and Etchmidazin/the Vagharshapat churches. I was looking forward to Sardarabad because I hadn’t been there yet, and I was looking forward to the rest of the day because I actually know something about the churches we were visiting and could be a better tour guide than some of the other days.

The approach…

Sardarabad, an Armenian town west of Yerevan, is often considered to be the site of the most important battle in Armenian history. In January of 1918, the new Bolshevik Russian government ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasus. Ottoman Turkey saw this as an opportunity to not only complete their seizure of Western Armenia but to take over Eastern Armenia as well. This would have meant the complete the destruction of the Armenian nation.

Not a great pictures, but this is the only one we have of all of us from this day.

The Armenian army rushed to deploy forces to hold the positions formerly defended by the Russians. Only a fraction of the historical Armenian homeland remained unconquered by the Ottoman Empire, and hundreds of thousands of Western Armenian refugees had fled to safety there. In May, Ottoman forces marched into Armenia and attacked modern-day Gyumri. After Gyumri (then called Alexandropol) fell, the army turned towards Yerevan. They launched three simultaneous attacks in Sardarabad, Karaklisa (now Vanadzor), and Bash Abaran.

Fall. Is. The. Best.

The Armenian forces were vastly outnumbered, and a massive civilian recruiting effort was organized. There’s a story about the Catholicos at the time refusing to leave Etchmiadzin when people wanted to relocate him to safety. He said that he would fight if it came to that, and he ordered all of the church bells in the valley to ring for six days to recruit more people. People, regardless of age or occupation, volunteered to fight and were organized into civilian units. Women and children helped in various capacities as well, and I have no doubt that many even ended up in combat.

The belfry

Against all odds, the three battles resulted in Armenian victories, halting the advance of the Ottoman army and preserving the last bit of Armenia. They (once again, the mysterious “they” who have an opinion about everything) say that what the Armenian volunteers lacked in training, they made up for in determination and passion. For them, it was personal. They were fighting to protect their families and for the survival of Armenia.

The thing about war is that even when you win, you still lose. Thousands of lives were lost during the battles, and I’m sure that the families of those people didn’t much feel like celebrating. However, due to the courage and sacrifice of the army and those volunteers, Armenia exists today.

The memorial complex was built for the 50th anniversary of the battle, in 1968, and it’s kind of amazing. You drive straight at it on your way there and have an epic view of the bulls and the belfry. The bulls represent the united strength and persistence of the Armenian people. The bells are a shrine to those who were killed in battle and now represent victory bells. The eagles lining the path to the memorial wall are standing guard over the future of the Armenian people. The memorial wall depicts the battle (very symbolically I think because we totally didn’t get it) and the rebirth of the Armenian people. Finally, the museum is designed like an Armenian medieval fortress. All of the windows face interior courtyards except for two – one facing Aragats and the other facing Ararat. Everything is made from red tuff and is gigantic. On days when the sky is blue, the contrast between the red stone and the blue sky is pretty awesome.

One of the bulls

The eagle walk

The memorial wall

The fortress-like museum

The museum was built later and has two parts: the majority of the museum is filled with various historical and cultural objects (ethnography museum), similar to the Armenian History Museum in Yerevan, and the other part is dedicated to the battle. We went on a tour of the Ethnography Museum, and it was exhaustingly long but also very well done. It’s one of those places that’s almost not even worth visiting without doing the tour because you can walk around and completely miss the important things without realizing it.

I can never get enough of the painted ceilings at Etchmiadzin.

By the time we left the museum, I think everyone was ready for a nap, but we had more things to do! We drove to Etchmiadzin, and I walked everyone around my favorite parts of the complex. We also went to the museum inside Etchmiadzin which I was excited about because they have (supposedly) a piece of the cross, a piece of Noah’s Ark, and the spear that pierced Jesus’s side when he was on the cross. Each of these relics is one of many in the world with similar claims attached. The cross and Noah’s Ark could at least physically have multiple pieces in different places, but the spear is another matter. There can be only one. Obviously, all of the others are fakes and the Armenia one is real. It’s said to have been brought by the Apostle Thaddeus to Armenia and was housed in Geghard Monastery for a long time before ending up in Etchmiadzin.

The rest of the museum was less exciting. Lots of fancy Catholicos clothing and other reliquaries that didn’t have much information about what was inside them. Honestly, the museum could use a good labeling. I thought it was cool anyway and the rooms were beautiful, but I also wouldn’t have minded actually knowing what we were looking at.

Like seriously… is this not awesome??

Piece of Noah’s Ark. We were a little confused about this but think that maybe the brown stuff you can see behind the cross is the piece? Maybe?

The spear. The only real spear.

Here’s another confusing one. I guess the piece of the cross is inside, but you can’t see anything. For all we know, it could be empty. Or filled with cotton balls. Or Hello Kitty erasers. Or M&Ms. My point is, it could be anything. Or nothing.

Not a fantastic picture, but this is inside one of my favorite chapels at Etchmiadzin. When the sun is in the right positions, the light coming through the windows makes crosses on the ground or the walls. It’s cool!

From there, we walked to Saint Gayane Church and later drove to Saint Hripsime. There were weddings happening at both churches, so we pretended we were invisible and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. It was only semi-successful because at Saint Hripsime, if you want to see the tomb and the stones that supposedly stoned her, you need to get all the way to the front of the church. Not easy to do without being noticed. Anyway, I’ve written in great detail about the stories of Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime and the origins of Etchmiadzin, so if you want a refresher, you can check out those old posts HERE.

We were planning on stopping by the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral on the way back to Yerevan and decided to skip it because everyone was about ready to pass out. I think we made the right choice in the moment, but it’s still on my list. Maybe I’ll manage to get there one of these days!

Vanadzor and Vahagni

After our morning marathon of alphabet-related sightseeing, we made our way to Vanadzor and eventually Vahagni.

Random city views

Vanadzor is the third largest city in Armenia, after Yerevan and Gyumri, with a population of about 85,000 people. Like so many other cities in Armenia, it had its peak population around the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has been on the decline since then. At its height, it was an industrial city, home to Soviet factories and chemical plants. After the collapse, industry shut down, and thousands of people lost their jobs. The same type of thing happened in much of Armenia which is part of the reason (though there are plenty of other reasons as well) why the new republic struggled so much in the years following independence. Today, Vanadzor is back to being an industrial center but at nowhere near its former glory.

Despite all of this, I was pleasantly surprised by Vanadzor. Maybe my expectations for everything are very low because it seems like I’m pleasantly surprised by a lot of things, but hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our first stop in the city was the train station. Since I had never been to Vanadzor, I put together our sightseeing list from things I found online.

Inside the train station. I apparently didn’t take an exterior picture, but I think that you can kind of guess what the outside looked like based on this.

When we pulled up and saw the hideous block of a station, I thought, “What on earth was I thinking when I made that list?” Then, thankfully, I had an “aha” moment where I remember that it was described as being built in “classic Soviet architecture style”. So yes, that’s what we were there to see… its hideousness. The station used to connect Vanadzor and Armenia to Eastern Europe, but now you can only travel within Armenia and to Tbilisi on trains, leaving it eerily deserted most of the time aside from the bustling parking lot outside that serves as the central bus station.

The Russian Church

Right across the street, there’s a park with a church in it. According to Google, it’s called the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (quite the mouthful, huh?), but it’s also just called the Russian Church. There used to be a wooden church on the same site, and after that one burned down in 1826, the current stone structure was built to replace it in 1893. They were doing some construction inside, but I was just excited to see that there’s stained glass! Clearly not an Armenian church because that’s really not a thing here. It was cool to see a church in a completely different style from most of the churches we’ve visited.

Inside the Russian Church. Stained glass!

After the train station and church, one of Mike’s Vahagni friends, Hovsep, met us to say hi and show us around the city a bit. He speaks English and works in Vanadzor now, so it was nice for Mike to get to see him again and for us to have a little local knowledge leading the tour for once (rather than just me reading whatever info page I found on the internet).

The old church

Hovsep took us to the next thing on my list, the Church of the Holy Mother of God/Karakilisa Church/the old church. If you’re asking why these things can’t just have one name, I’m right there with you. On the walk there, he explained that not only are the churches in the town name confused, but actually the town itself has had a thousand names too (note: 1 thousand = 3). It started out as Gharakilisa, meaning “black church”, was renamed to Kirovakan during Soviet days, and was renamed again to Vanadzor, meaning “valley of Van”, after independence. Talk about an identity crisis.

Inside the old church. Check out those ceiling paintings!

The current “old church” was completed in 1831, replacing the previous structure that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1826. The orange and black tuff was brought from Gyumri, and it was one of the only churches that actually operated as a place of worship during the Soviet years. I loved the inside of the church. The paintings and patterns on the ceilings were absolutely beautiful. It’s the little touches of personality that you can find in each church that make it worth going to see more even when I’ve already been to what feels like a million churches in Armenia already.

There were a bunch of very old khatchkars outside the old church

The new church

Inside the new church

From there, we strolled the streets a bit, Hovsep took us to a spring with natural bubbly water, and we made our way to the next church, Saint Gregory of Narek Cathedral/the new church. It was completed in 2005, and like so many other new churches, it just didn’t have the same personality as the old church. I mean, it was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and it actually was much better than a lot of the new churches that feel stark, but I’d pick the old church any day. I did love the paintings though! Paintings and stained glass are almost guaranteed to make me like a church.

The park… I seriously can’t get enough of these fall leaves.

Before heading out, we stopped in the park across the street to enjoy the fall colors a bit before taking on the final stretch to Vahagni. Remember when I said that the road between Vanadzor and Vahagni was under construction? It. Was. Awful. The very few parts that were finished were fantastic, and the rest was horrible. I don’t even get carsick and I was feeling nauseous.

Fall fall fall!!!

When we finally made it into the village, some conversations with random, loitering strangers led us to Mike’s host family. Oh yeah, did I mention that no one spoke English? None of the people we were visiting. Zero. And how’s Mike’s Armenian, you ask? Ha. Haha. Hahaha. Dad and I were basically in the hot seats, responsible for translating and attempting to carry the conversation. I won’t lie; it was rough. We did our best, but Dad hasn’t spoken Armenian since he was last in Armenia 16 years ago and before that when he was like 4 years old. I’m 4 months in on basically learning from scratch. Not ideal, but somehow, we made it work. The conversation was never smooth, but conversation happened.

❤ ❤ ❤

Soon enough, we were all being force fed, and that’s basically same in every language. Things went more smoothly from there. I haven’t been force fed in a while, since I stopped living with a host family, so I had to dust off all of my “please stop feeding me or I’m going to explode” vocabulary. It ended up being a lot of fun, even if I had a headache from thinking so much/trying to understand what was going on.

Also, side note but there’s a big gap between understanding and translating. There were times when I understood the gist of what was being said but couldn’t have told it to you in words if you gave me a million dollars. Ugh. This Armenian thing is hard. Still, though, I felt good about the whole thing at the end because no matter how much I didn’t understand, there was a lot that I did, and that’s something to be proud of.

We popped in for a shorter visit with the other family in town, and that ended with me leaving with a new number in my phone and the invitation to come and visit anytime. Talk about the nicest people in the universe…

The family Mike stayed with while he was here

The family I was adopted into

The drive home was, as anticipated, pretty close to miserable. The Vahagni to Vanadzor portion of the drive was, once again, vomit-inducing, and about 5 minutes after reaching the end of it and driving on real road again, we got a flat tire. Oh, I wish I was kidding. Watching the tire-changing process was the most Armenian thing I’ve ever seen. All of the men got out of the car and looked at the tire. Okay, definitely flat. The tools came out. Everyone participated, either in action or in word. We didn’t have the right sized wrench. Cars driving by were flagged down. More men came to look at the tire. Still definitely flat. This guy doesn’t have the right wrench. Neither does that guy, but he says he’ll go get one and come back. Oooh! This guy has one! And against all odds, that tire got changed. Q: How many men does it take to change a tire? A: At least 8.

Oh yeah, and the guy who said he’d come back? He did, just as we were finishing up. Where does that happen? A stranger says he’ll go completely out of his way for you and then follows through. Despite the less-than-ideal situation, it did give us a chance to experience some good, old-fashioned kindness.

Tire change in process

Mesrop Mashtots and the Alphabet Adventure

Side note: I think that someone should write an Armenian children’s book called “Mesrop Mashtots and the Alphabet Adventure”. Though I guess it wouldn’t have the same ring to it in Armenian… eh, minor details.

Surp Mesrop Mashtots Cathedral

The longest day of the week was Day 3, and we’re going to put all of the blame for that on Mike. Just kidding… well, kind of kidding. Yes, it was definitely due to him that it was such a long day, but we don’t need to assign blame because it was also a good day.

Inside the church

When Mike was here four years ago, he spent most of his time in Vahagni, a town in the northern part of the country near Vanadzor (the third biggest city in Armenia). One of his requests for our schedule was to go and visit the two families who hosted their group. It would have been nice if Vahagni was closer to Yerevan… Oh, that would have been wonderful, but of course, no such luck. It’s about 3 hours away normally, but the road between Vanadzor and Vahagni is currently under construction which means that one of those hours is much longer and much bumpier than usual.

Instead of just going straight to Vahagni and straight back, I also wanted to fit in some sightseeing and stops to break up the drive a little. A few of the things on my overall list were in the right direction, so that’s how we ended up at Surb Mesrop Mashtots Cathedral at 8:50AM. For those of you unfamiliar with Mashtots, he’s the guy who created the Armenian alphabet. If you’ve been following my ongoing Armenian struggle, you know that I’m not exactly his biggest fan. There are 39 letters in the Armenian alphabet, and interestingly enough, about 39 reasons why I don’t like him. What a coincidence, yeah? I won’t make you read the whole list, but here’s are the first five reasons:

  1. ԶՁՋՉ
  2. ՇԾ
  3. ծժճձ
  4. զցգքջ
  5. My name in Latin letters: Lara – My name in Armenian letters: Լարա. No, you’re not seeing things wrong. The “L” and the “r” are basically the same. He made all of those funky looking letters, and two out of the three in my name are nearly identical in both alphabets. Thanks for nothing, Mashtots.

Etc, etc, etc.

 

Gravel alphabet

Like come on, if you’re going to create an alphabet, at least be creative enough to make all the letters look different. And if you can’t come up with 39 different looking letters, you probably don’t need them all. I guess to be fair, he only made 36 of them. Three were added later because while he was busy drawing about 12 letters that make the same sounds as each other, he forgot a few.

 

Alphabet window!

Okay, I’m finished ranting, and in case you’re wondering, my Armenian learning is actually going pretty well. Despite my complaints, I can read and write decently well, and I feel like I’ve been making some breakthroughs with speaking recently. One step at a time!

Back to the church… Surb Mesrop Mashtots Cathedral. Mashtots died in 444AD, and he was buried in Oshakan. A small chapel was built on his tomb, and that chapel has since been replaced with the current church, built in 1875. The church is pretty and looks different from most other Armenian churches because it has a bell tower instead of a dome. The best part of it, though, is how seriously they took the Mashtots theme. The alphabet is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. They have alphabet front doors, an alphabet window inside, an alphabet stone on your way down to Mashtots’ tomb, a work-in-progress gravel alphabet, a book monument with the alphabet carved inside, and an army of khatchkar-style stone letters. And that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head! I’m sure there are more alphabets hidden away somewhere.

Alphabet monument #1

I hadn’t been there before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m very glad that we went, though! I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more about it because it’s very close to Yerevan and is really cool! I only even learned about it because I was looking up the OTHER alphabet monument. That one is more popular, but honestly, I think the letters at this one are much prettier, plus you get a bonus church and celebrity grave to check out.

Alphabet doors

Me with my either Latin or Armenian L

Alphabet stone

Hovhannavank!

Since we were in the area already, we also made quick stops at Saghmosavank and Hovhannavank, the two churches that I visited with Shant and Carineh when we went on our made-up hike into the gorge. You can read more about that HERE. I think they’re worth the visits, especially if they’re not too far out of your way, because the views are fabulous, and the churches are pretty and have some personality.

Inside Hovhannavank

Alphabet monument

After that, we completed our alphabet pilgrimage at the famous alphabet monument that’s located randomly on the side of the highway. That monument was created in 2005 to celebrate the 1600th birthday of the alphabet. I’m not sure how they picked the location, but it is kind of nice because you can see Mount Aragats in the distance. Random, though. It’s definitely random.

Anyway, once we were finished taking cliché pictures with our name letters, off we went, back on the long road to Vahagni.

To be continued… (the suspense is killing you, I know)

Family K picture!

Areni and Noravank

After our long first day, I think everyone was happy that Day 2 was only a part day outing. Our schedule included a bunch of things that I actually hadn’t been to yet, so that was exciting but also slightly nerve-wracking because I didn’t have a good idea of how long we would need at each thing, where exactly they were, how to get in, etc. I did as much research as I could, but the internet only tells you so much, and it tells you even less in Armenia.

If you can spot Ararat, you win!

Our first stop was Khor Virap, one of the monasteries that I visited for the first time with Sarah. You can get an awesome view of Ararat from there, assuming that the air is clear, but we unfortunately had a pretty hazy day. Instead of having the mountain jump out at you like it usually does, it was more like a phantom lurking in the background, and you could see it only if you focused extra hard.

If you want to read all about the legends associated with Khor Virap and St. Gregory’s imprisonment there, you can check out the post I wrote about my visit with Sarah (plus you’ll get some good, random bonus material).

On the way down into the pit

That’s the hole where St. Gregory’s bread loaves got dropped in

Here’s the hole from the outside. It’s really not accessible, so I don’t know if God also granted wings to the women who fed St. Gregory or what. Or maybe just a ladder.

Surp Astvatsatsin Church at Khor Virap

On the way up to the cave

After Khor Virap, the rest of the day was new experiences for me! We kept going south and headed to Areni, home of the cave where the oldest leather shoe and the oldest winery were found. Do you remember when we talked about Armenian inventions and I said that Armenians invented shoes AND wine? This cave is the reason for that claim to fame. I think there are a few different names for the cave, but we’ll call it by the official archaeological name, Areni-1. Creative, right?

Right inside the entrance. This is where the shoe was found.

Like I said, I had never been before, so I had no idea how it worked. Luckily, our driver, Arthur, knew where to go. After paying the 1000 dram admission fee ($2 whole dollars to see the birthplace of shoes. What a bargain!), we headed in. I was expecting, well, a cave, but it was actually quite nice. There were stairs up to the entrance, light fixtures throughout, and informative signs talking about what was found in each area and what you can still see.

Dad made friends with this stone carver who works outside the cave, and he let us try our hands at carving… needless to say, we’re all so naturally talented that we’re quitting our jobs to start a family khatchkar business.

My mom’s main question about the whole thing was: why the heck was someone digging around in the cave in the first place? It’s not like it was easily accessible before they put the stairs in. Did someone wake up one day and have a crazy epiphany that maybe they should dig in that random cave above that one random cliff and beneath that other random cliff in that random town in Armenia? However it happened, the whole thing is pretty impressive. The dig is very orderly, and it’s even cool just to see how they roped off the different areas and kept things organized.

In front of Areni Winery

We also did the classic Areni activity and visited Areni Winery. I mean, how can you not go to a winery that’s next to the birthplace of wine?? You would think that means it’s the best wine in the universe, but based on Mike’s and my dad’s reports, that’s maybe not quite true. Either way, good wine or not, it seems like the kind of thing that you have to do. We got a tour of the winery by the son of the founders, Tigran. He showed us around the different rooms and explained the wine-making process. I’m no wine expert (or even wine amateur), but I always think it’s fun to see how things are made. Though it smelled strongly of wine through the whole tour which was kind of gross, but I guess that’s an unavoidable side effect of making wine…

These are the fermentation vats where the wine starts out… it stays in these for 10 days before moving on to the next phase, 1 month in metal barrels.

After the metal barrels, the wine comes into these oak barrels for 1-5 years more. Finally, it’s bottled.
Check out all of those wine bottles! Mike wanted to ask how many bottles they can stack without the glass shattering. You’d think it would be a lot, right? Who knows. Well, someone I’m sure, but not me.

They make a bunch of different fruit wines which is interesting. There were options like apricot (the most Armenian of all wines) and pomegranate. They also have these massive barrels to hold the wine during part of the fermentation process, and they get the oak for those from Artsakh. I kind of wanted one to live in… some of them were definitely big enough for a tiny house. The other claim to fame of Areni wine is that some of their wines use Areni grapes which are ONLY grown there. I’m sure there’s some reason like the soil or something science-y to explain that, but I amused myself by pretending that it’s just because grapes grown in Areni are Areni grapes, so duh, you obviously couldn’t grow them somewhere else because then they’d be Yerevan grapes or Gyumri grapes.

View from the parking lot with the fortress walls.

Our last stop before heading back to Yerevan was Noravank Monastery. Noravank is a medieval monastery with construction starting in 1205. There are two things that people usually go to Noravank expecting – an amazing view and a fun picture on the steep steps of the main, 2-story Surb Astvatsatsin Church (apparently a very popular church name… that’s the same name as the church at Khor Virap. It means “Church of the Holy Mother”). It’s located in the Amaghu River gorge and is surrounded by cliffs. Definitely not an ugly spot! Surb Astvatsatsin was completed in 1339 and was the final work of the designer and sculptor Momik. The church is intricately carved and has a first-floor burial chamber and second-floor chapel. To get to the second floor, you have to climb stairs that cantilever out from the side of the building. Besides Surb Astvatsatsin, there’s another intact church (Surb Karapet), a chapel, fortress walls surrounding the complex, and some ruins.

Totally not posed or anything… Mike, and I just love each other so much that this is how we normally stand.

It looks a bit surreal.

I’m not sure why I look so nervous… I’m sure there aren’t any snakes in that hole or anything…

From the beginning, Mike and I were enthusiastic about climbing and exploring every nook and cranny of the complex. Mom was slightly more hesitant and insisted that she wasn’t going to climb up the stairs, but there was no chance I was going to let her leave there without doing it. There was a tour group there when we arrived, so we decided to do some exploring of the other buildings before checking out the main event.

By the time we made our way to Surb Astvatsatsin, there was no one else left in the complex. Perfect timing! We did have to loiter a bit, waiting for someone to come to take a full family picture, but we also had plenty of time to check out the church without hordes surrounding us. Mom climbed the stairs about halfway for a picture, and at that point, why not just go all the way up? It’s definitely worth the climb to see the inside of the church. There are more windows that most other churches, plus an open dome at the top, making it feel light and airy inside rather than dark and heavy.

We left Mike in the hole.

The classic Noravank picture

The doors to the upper level

Inside the top level of Surp Astvatsatsin

No people in my picture. Success!

Carvings around the upper door of Surp Astvatsatsin

That was our last stop of the day, so after we had our fill, we made our way back to Yerevan and took a trip up Cascade to visit Mother Armenia. Mom and I were normal humans and opted to take the escalators. Mike and Dad were overachievers and not only took the stairs but also counted them. They’re clearly a couple of engineers.

Posing with the eternal Cascade construction

Mother Armenia!

Return to Gyumri

When I came to Armenia, I hoped that my family would come to visit, but I thought there was no chance of it actually happening. My mom didn’t want to have to plan the trip, so in an attempt to convince her, I said that I would do all of the planning. It worked!!! They bought their plane tickets a few months back, and it even worked out for my brother Mike to come with them! I was so excited, but then that also meant that I had to plan.

Family selfie with All Saviors’ Church! (don’t worry, our selfie skills improved as the week progressed)

If you know me well, you’ll know that I’m a planner. A lot of people say that about themselves, I know, but sometimes I think that maybe I take it to an extreme level. I love to plan. I love schedules. I love organization. This year has made me better at being flexible and spontaneous and adjusting to changes in the plan, but when I’m responsible for something like a family vacation, I hold nothing back. I spent a solid week putting together our schedule, researching and digging into every detail so that there would be no surprises. I found a driver and an apartment and started grilling my friends for restaurant recommendations. Then, everything was ready, and I could just be excited about getting to see them.

Here’s our schedule for Gyumri Day! Slightly insane, maybe, but also spot on. This is the schedule template that Sarah (my best friend) and I created and use for all of our trips, so usually all of the columns are filled out, but it wasn’t necessary for this one.

I don’t think I realized how much I missed everyone. To be honest, I almost cried when they walked out of the airport. (To be extra honest though, I cry for just about anything, so I don’t know how much we can trust that as an emotional gauge.) We spent their first afternoon wandering around Yerevan and getting everyone acclimated a bit before our first day’s adventure to one of my favorite places in Armenia… Gyumri!

Get ready for this to be a theme throughout the family visit week… The fall colors were AWESOME all week, and Gyumri was our first glimpse at the fall beauty that lay ahead.

It was a little weird going back to my old home. In so many ways, I loved it more than Yerevan. The city feels like a home, the people feel like your neighbors, and everything has a special kind of charm. Everyone says that people are nicer in Armenia in general, but people are seriously nicer in Gyumri. The best place to look for kindness is on a crowded marshrutka. I’m telling you, this is one of my favorite things. People give up their seats without a second thought for people with kids, the elderly, or just anyone who might need a seat more than they do. If you’re standing and holding a bag, there’s a good chance that someone sitting will offer to hold it on their lap for you, and you’ll let them because it will be completely safe with them. Or sometimes, if there’s not a real seat for you, someone will move over and let you sit on half of theirs. If someone is struggling with their things or struggling to climb on, people rush to help them without hesitation. As much as I hated having to stand half bent over on marshrutkas, I loved getting to be part of the complex social dance that took place every time a new person got on.

The outside of my church… so ordinary looking, right?

Anyway, I know that’s a bit of an aside, but that’s one of the things that always comes to mind when I think about Gyumri. Yes, some of that happens in Yerevan too, but it’s not the same.

I was excited to show my family my favorite city in Armenia, and during the planning process, I was stressed about how to possibly do it justice in such a short time period. I ended up making a list of every activity I could think of and then paring it down to the absolute must-sees and my personal favorites.

We started out at one of my favorite churches, the Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs. It’s a newer church, opened in 2015, and is one of the few Catholic churches here, but I just think the ceiling is amazing. I raved about this before, I know, but here it is again. It looks like every other Armenian church on the outside and then the inside is this elegant, modern adaptation of the classic design. The fact that I still remember it perfectly after seeing nearly infinity more churches since then speaks for itself.

And then, the inside! I love love love it!

A stroll through the market

From there, we walked through the market to the main square. Last time I walked through that market, it was my second weekend in Armenia, and I had a mime exchange with a shopkeeper while trying to buy shower supplies. I’ve come a long way since then! We checked out the churches in the main square, Yot Verk and All Saviors’, and stopped by Ponchik Monchik for coffee/hot chocolate and a ponchik and monchik. There’s nothing better than a sugary start to your day! In case you have somehow forgotten, ponchiks are kind of like condensed milk cream-filled donuts except a million times better, and monchiks are filled with Nutella instead. If you come to Armenia, you NEED to eat (at least) one of each, and you NEED to go to Gyumri to have them because Ponchik Monchik has the best ones. I’m not being paid for that endorsement, it’s just a fact.

Credit for this shot goes to Dad… what a classic. Birds in the cage, cigarette in the mouth.

All Saviors’ Church, looking slightly different from the last time I was in Gyumri. The tower crane that used to be a permanent fixture next to the church is gone! Maybe they needed it for something else, or maybe they’re actually finished with it! We actually could see that some work has been done on the church recently. There were some new carvings and other little things that looked fresh.

I can’t get enough!

I showed them around my old office (GTC), the park, Mother Armenia, and the Black Fortress (Sev Berd). I had my first big Armenian test at Sev Berd. There’s a gatekeeper, and I heard through the grapevine that if you ask to be let in, you might get to see the inside! We decided to give it a try, and sure enough, I asked the gatekeeper if we could see the fort (in my fabulously fluent Armenian), he called someone to check, and in we went!

Slightly improved selfie skills at Mother Armenia

The pathway leading up to Mother Armenia. My parents really enjoyed the stairs… not.

Mike, enjoying the many recreational activities that Gyumri has to offer.

The stage in the middle of the fortress.

At the top of the hill, we were met by another guy who showed us around. We got to go inside!!! It’s so cool! They’ve redone the inside to make it an event venue, and underneath the stage, there’s a mini-museum with some old pictures of Gyumri and the fortress, plus you can see the old well! From there, he took us up to see the box seating and finally, the roof! We had a great view of the city and Mother Armenia and could even see Turkey to the west. The whole time, the guy was talking and talking in Armenian, and Dad and I were doing the best we could to translate. Honestly, I think we did a decent job. We were at least better than nothing, so that’s something! (hehehe)

The well!

Mother Armenia from Sev Berd’s roof

Box seating… for a princess maybe. The whole thing felt very medieval (but in a good, charming way)

Enjoying the view!

Our lunch crew… Dad, Mom, me, Sona, Mike, and Karen

The best part of the day, though, was probably lunch. Karen and Sona, the Birthright Gyumri coordinators from the summer, met up with us. I became good friends with both of them and was excited to introduce them to my family. You never know how things are going to go when you bring different groups together, but I always just assume that if I like everyone, they’re going to also like each other. It hasn’t failed me yet! Maybe I’m putting words in everyone’s mouths, but I think we all had a lot of fun.

 

Inside Ani church. In the two months I lived down the road, I never went inside. How’s that for laziness? I guess that just goes to show that when you live somewhere, you always make excuses or put off doing things because you think you’re going to have a million more chances, and then you never end up doing anything.

Our last couple of stops were Ani district, the neighborhood where we lived, and Marmashen, a monastery west of town. By the time we got back to Yerevan, everyone was wiped out but happy with the day. Phew! There’s nothing better than planning something and having it go perfectly. We had a VERY ambitious week ahead, so it was encouraging to get off to a smooth start.

The view of the river from Marmashen. See if you can see Mike, the little speck standing on a rock.

 

Life Update

My family came to visit me!! Well, now they came and went actually. They were here for a week, and it was crazy busy and tiring, so I didn’t have a chance to write. I’ll retroactively post over the next week or so about some of the things that we did, but first, I have a life update for you!

Here are a few random, unrelated pictures… I laughed at this sign. At the bottom where it’s telling you not to litter, it says “person” under the person throwing trash into a bin and “pig” under the pig littering. In case the images weren’t enough hahahaha.

Surprise! My timeline for this trip has changed a little… I was originally thinking that I was going to be here for about four months, until sometime in October, but I’ve decided to stay until at least the end of February. I’m finishing my time with Birthright and will be volunteering directly with Aleppo-NGO.

My plan makes perfect sense to me, and my family is on board too, so I don’t think I’m crazy. I was a little worried that I was subconsciously trying to find an excuse to stay longer and put off figuring out what’s next for me, but maybe THIS is what’s supposed to be next. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced.

Here’s the backstory:

When I moved from Gyumri to Yerevan, I was placed with Aleppo-NGO, an organization that helps Syrian refugees in Armenia, as a content writer. I was excited about that. I love to write, I love to proofread, and I thought Aleppo-NGO was a super cool organization. Within about a month, they had a need for some architecture help, and it was all stuff that I could easily do for them. From there, things kind of just took off. The construction project became a priority, and they said that I could be involved for as long as I was around. Whattttt??

The sunset on my walk home from work one day!

It seems like the whole thing fell into place too perfectly for it to just be by chance. How many content writer volunteers also have a building design/construction background? I feel like I’m filling a need and am doing work that I’m uniquely suited for. Maybe it seems crazy to stay and work on this when I could go home and get a job and do similar things while also getting a paycheck, but I think it’s going to be a good experience for me. I’m getting to do all sorts of new things, and once the construction starts, I’ll be involved with that as well.

Coffee cup car. Why??

You’re probably wondering what exactly this project is… Two of the biggest challenges refugees face when coming to a new country are finding housing and employment. Aleppo-NGO has a few different programs to help with the housing challenge and works to help people find jobs. This project approaches the employment challenge from a different angle –creating jobs.

The project is a cuisine center that will mass produce Middle Eastern food for catering or grocery store distribution. It will provide jobs for Syrian refugees, especially those from underemployed groups like women and mentally and physically disabled people. Since it’s not for profit, the goal is to pay the employees higher-than-average wages and put any other profits back into the business. It’s a renovation project in an existing space, and there are a lot of things that need to be worked out to make the property function properly for this purpose.

This is the main part of the space that’s going to be renovated.

It’s a big job, and thankfully, all of the responsibility for the design isn’t falling on me. They also have a contractor and an engineer on board, and I’ve been very impressed with the two of them so far. They clearly know a lot, and I’ve gotten good vibes from them personality-wise as well. Sometimes it’s a struggle to be a woman in these contexts, but both of them have shown me nothing but respect. First of all, they both initiated handshakes with me when we met. That might seem like nothing, but here, it’s a big deal. Usually, if you’re meeting a man and you’re with men, all of the men will shake hands, and you’ll either get a head nod or completely ignored. I’ve started just sticking my hand out and leaving it there until it gets shaken, basically forcing people to acknowledge me. Second, they explain things to me, ask for my opinion, and listen when I have something to say. I think this is going to be a good learning experience for me.

Rachel (a friend who also works at Aleppo-NGO) helped me to measure all of the rooms and openings and such so that I could make an accurate drawing of the existing conditions. I couldn’t have done it without her!

Oh, and they both speak English fantastically well, so that helps too. I’m still getting good Armenian practice though. We had a meeting today, and it was at least 90% in Armenian with people cluing me in on the topic in English every once in a while. I did an okay job of following the conversation, but it’s hard when people talk quickly and are using words that I’m not familiar with (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that we didn’t get to the “building design and construction” vocabulary list in Armenian class yet).

Anyway, there you have it! I’ll be in Armenia for at least four more months which means I should be fluent by the time I leave (not). I’m coming home for Thanksgiving because it’s a big event in my family and  I didn’t want to miss seeing everyone. It’s not exactly ideal timing for the project, but I have to remind myself that I’m a volunteer. I’m already staying longer to help, and I’m not getting paid. I’m allowed to take a break without feeling bad!