Monday, April 25, 2016

Ancient Cave Dwellings. Old Khndzoresk.

Old Khndzoresk.

It always amazes me where and how people build their homes. This afternoon, we made a stop to gaze out, over a narrow gorge to see some very ancient cave dwellings in a place called Khndzoresk.

Flash back a couple hours before arriving into Khndzoresk.  With our bellies full from a wonderful lunch, we continued our journey.  By days end, we would be in the small city of Shushi in the region known to Armenians as Artsakh but to the rest of the world as Nagorno-Karabakh.


The first stretch of our drive took us deeper and higher into the mountains. 




Somewhere we pulled over to a roadside vendor.  While Gurgen went about getting he wanted, I checked out what else was for sale.  I don't live in a mountain region and I don't forage for food.  I wish I did forage me.

Given how much I travel, I'm still so surprised at all the new things I see. I absolutely thrilled when I come across something that is totally unfamiliar to me.

More wild asparagus.  This I have seen a lot of on my trip.  I love this stuff.

I have no idea what this is.  A wild onion?

No clue.  It's obviously braided plant material but what it's used for, I don't know.

I think this is cheese or maybe yogurt?

Another wild green.  I can't even begin to guess what this is.  I'm sure it's tasty.

We saw a lot of grazing animals on our drive through the mountainous countryside.  I read that 72% of the country's land (about 2.1 million hectares) is agricultural land most of which is mountain pastures.  Cultivable land is 480,000 hectares (452,900 hectares arable land, 27,300 hectares in orchards and vineyards) or  about 16% of the country's area.

Dodging the herd.  A much needed driving skill in rural areas around the world. :-)



Somewhere between the photo above and the photo below, I fell asleep for about a half hour.  I blame it on that delicious lunch - I ate way too much.

I think what woke me up was the bumpy road.  We had hit a stretch that was being repaired.  A lot of potholes thanks to damage from winter ice.  Here, the repair work begins with jackhammering around the pothole to create a square shaped space.  That is then filled with the paving material.  There are a lot of square patches.



Next, we took a quick pit stop at this entrance monument.  I was still a bit groggy having just woken up so I really didn't pay much attention to it except remembering that Gurgen said that as you enter into a town or city, you will see such monuments marking the entry point.  This is the monument marking the entry into Goris.


As we got back into the car, I heard Pat mention something about going to see a moving bridge next.  Again, I was still not of full mind.  I had no idea what a moving bridge was so I asked.  Why would a bridge move?  Did the people move the bridge from one location to another, I asked?  No.  I was puzzled so I kept running all the possibilities through my head and I kept asking Gurgen if any of what I was coming up with was the explanation for the moving bridge.  Each time, the response was, "No".  My determination to resolve this mystery quickly caused Gurgen and I to break out in an uncontrollable fit of gut busting laughter as the situation was getting a bit ridiculous.  Through the tears, I had my *Aha!* moment.  I figured it out!  It must be a drawbridge or maybe a lift bridge.  That must be it!  It was just a language issue as Gurgen must not have known the English word for what the Armenian word is.  After I came to my conclusion, I finally was able to calm down and enjoy the rest of the ride.

It was an overcast day, with cool temperatures, pretty much all day today.

The landscape soon changed from green pastures to rocky hillsides.


I had no idea where we were going but I figured we were close when Gurgen would stop passers by to ask for directions.  He even stopped to talk with a group of soldiers part of a larger troop that had set up camp and looked to be getting ready to cook up dinner.

Down a windy, unpaved road we went.  At the end was a small parking lot and a brick building.  There was a small group of SUVs parked in the lot.  Wherever we were, it's place tourists come to though not a lot of tourists.

We followed Gurgen to the edge of the hill that we were on.  Gazing over a small gorge, I could see a long suspension bridge below.  That was the moving bridge!

The opposite hillside was pockmarked with holes.  I recognized the place from my pre-trip photos.  I dared not to say the name of the place because I can't pronounce it - Khndzoresk, an ancient village of both man made and natural cave dwellings.

The suspension bridge connects the cave village, known as Old Khndzoresk with today's modern village.  Incredibly, the 160 meter (525 feet) long bridge was built entirely by hand - not a single piece of machinery was used.  Even the materials were hauled in by horse drawn cart - not trucks!  Understandably, the villagers are extremely proud of their accomplishment which is now drawing more tourists to the area.  I just hope they can also manage the flow of the tourists to minimize the negative impacts that tourism often brings e.g., no defacing of the cave dwellings.


Khndzoresk is nestled in a gorge.  I walked over to a spot where I could get a good panoramic shot.


Even though we were quite a distance across from the other hillside, we could occasionally spot people hiking around on the other side and even a couple of cars.  I don't know how the vehicles got there but of course, that leads you to wonder why we didn't do the same.  In any case, we didn't have time or opportunity to explore the village but I would love to come back one day and do that.


We did, however, take the steps to a lower level observation platform.



The area in and around Old Khndzoresk.

One of the websites I had come across in my pre-trip readings did warn hikers that the ground around the area here is flooded with stinging nettle.  Of course, I love to eat the stuff so if I could, I would have picked a bag's worth.  I'm posting up the photo in case anyone needs to know what it looks like.


The historic village is comprised of both natural and manmade caves.  I've not been able to find out exactly when the village was founded but apparently, in its heyday, there were as many as 15,000 people living here, making it the largest village in Armenia at that time.

Since many of the dwellings were carved out over and around each other, a complex system of ropes and ladders were required for people to reach many corners of the community. The village even had two churches and three schools. The cave dwellings were inhabited until as late as the 1950s at which point it is said that Soviet officials deemed the caves unfit and uncivilized, forcing the remaining villagers to leave. 

As we stood on the platform, Gurgen pointed out a few landmarks.
"Where's the church?", she asked.   "Here, let me show you with your camera.", he replied.

A view, through the trees, of St.Hripsime church which dates back to the 17th century.

An old cemetery.

Another view of Old Old Khndzoresk and the suspension bridge.

Taking in the view of the lovely surroundings.

It's a pretty view.  No wonder the villagers wanted to live here.

A selfie.  You can tell we're having fun!

We didn't stay long.  It was already late in the day and we had to get moving to get to Shushi.


Somewhere along the way, we got pulled over by security.  I think it was Armenia security but perhaps not as were headed to Artsakh aka Nagorno Karabakh which is a self declared, independent country.  Maybe it was Artsakh security?  In any event, Gurgen asked for our passports and then headed to a nearby office.  When he returned, he handed each of us a small piece of paper that had the address of the Artsakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs printed on it.  The office is located in the capital city of Stepanakert.  We will have to go there tomorrow to register and get proper entry visas to cover our one stay in Artsakh.  Apparently, the officers asked him what we would be doing in Artsakh and he told them that Pat was a geologist and I was a freelance journalist.  Pat does love geology and well, I have done some freelance writing for a travel magazine so he was telling a bit of truth.  I wonder what they would have said had he simply told them the absolute truth, that we were simply tourists?

Stopped at the border.  Getting something from the trunk.  I had to take a photo of Gurgen's rock collection so far.  I am sure it will grow!

Cleared by security to proceed, we continued our road trip towards Shushi.


You would think that by now, the Armenian landscape is the same old, same old view but every now and again, a vista flashes before my eyes that still takes my breath away.  There was something about the spring green color of the grass against the gray silhouette of the mountains that so captivated me. 


Drive on we did.  Two hours to go, then one hour to go.   Then, Gurgen pointed out the entrance monument to Artsakh, high up on a ridge. 


We were now approaching the land that is at the heart of an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan, in which it lies, and its ethnic Armenian majority, backed by  Armenia.

The most recent clash between the two countries occurred literally just a few weeks ago.  Fighting began on April 1.  On 2 April, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense announced a unilateral end to the active clashes from its side but the fighting continued until April 5 when a mutual ceasefire agreement was finally reached.  When we first met with our Azeri guide, Yalchin, on April 3 in Baku, the conflict had just started.  At that point, there was no end in sight so it's no wonder he warned us to stay away.  Even as I write this post, there is a part of me wondering if we're crazy/stupid/foolhardy to be coming here as fighting could resume at any point. Another part of me says I can be run over by a car crossing the streets of DC so you can't live if you have a fear of death.

When the so-called Four Day War was over,  both sides tallied up the losses.

According to official statements of the involved sides:
  • 90 Armenian and 31 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed during the clashes and several pieces of military equipment from both sides were destroyed. 
  • Ten civilians (6 Azeri and 4 Armenian) were killed in the conflict.
The US State Department estimated much higher losses - a total of 350 people, military and civilian, died in the 4 day conflict.

Shortly after I posted this page, I got a text message from Gurgen telling me that I had gotten my facts wrong.  In fact, the losses were:  90 Armenians and 325 Azeries.  Reading his text got me thinking.

If you lob a bomb at your enemy's neighborhood, how really do you know how many people you've killed?  You don't.  If you are facing an enemy, would you tell him how many of your troops were killed? You wouldn't.  If you were leading the battle, would you tell your war weary troops and your fellow countrymen that you've lost more people than the other side?  I don't think so.  That would just depress morale.  You need people to think they are winning the battle so they will continue the fight.  My conclusion is that you can never believe the numbers.  Each side will always report they suffered fewer losses than the other side.  What you can believe is that there were losses suffered and you have to ask yourself, was that loss of life worth the fight?  Was it worth killing innocent men, women and children over? 

Back to our road trip. The sun had set by the time we arrived in to Shushi.  It looks to be a very small city and unfortunately, not an attractive one.  Perhaps I speak too soon and I will have a different opinion when I see the place in the light of day tomorrow.


Gurgen parked the van and we followed him inside the Avan Shushi Plaza Hotel where we would be spending the night.  We all packed very lightly so no luggage to have to carry in with us.


Pat and I were still full from lunch and we kindly turned down Gurgen's offer of dinner.  He was so concerned about our welfare, he even texted me later asking if we wanted tea.  I wrote back saying we didn't even have room in our stomachs for tea :-(  That comment was in reference to a joke that Gurgen had told us earlier in the day.  It went something like this.  A man was telling his friend he was too full to eat another bite of food.  His friend replied that he could simply solve the issue by sticking his finger down his throat so we would vomit.  The man then replied that if he had enough space in his mouth to put a finger, he would eat a pickle.  Get it?  Not funny?  You had to be there.  We were laughing hard when Gurgen told us the joke.

I was tired - had  just enough energy to pull out my pj's from my backpack.  I don't know why considering I had an afternoon nap.  In any case, I was happy to just spend the night in the room - reading and working on my blog.  Now, if only the woman speaking in the really loud voice can shut up....!

Tomorrow, we will need to get our entry visas and then spend a good chunk of the day seeing sights in Artsakh before returning to Armenia later in the day.

I still can't believe I'm in Nagorno-Karabakh.  I pray there will be peace while we are here.

Goodnight from Shushi.