Friday, April 22, 2016

From Tbilisi to Haghpat to Yerevan.

At Haghpat Monastery.

We were barely out of Tbilisi when Gurgen pulled over to the side of the road. There was a small roadside nursery selling mainly trees. Gurgen wanted to see if they were selling a particular tree that he was interested in planting in his garden. We spent a few minutes walking about. They didn't have what he wanted so we left empty handed but it was nice to see what kind of plants they sell here.

Arshak, Gurgen, and Pat.

Gurgen asking for directions.  Yes, he stopped a man with a horse cart.

Somewhere along the way, we also stopped for gas. Why bring this up? Pat had mentioned that she needed to exchange Georgian lari for Armenian dram. We got a big oh-oh back. According to Lonely Planet (at the time it was published in 2012), that you could exchange lari for dram in Yerevan but apparently, that's not true. So, Gurgen offered to take Pat's lari, use it for purchase on our roadtrip and at the end, give her the remainder back in dram. Sounded like a good idea to both of us so Pat agreed. First place the lari was used was at the gas station.

Next stop was a pretty odd one - not something you would see on a US roadside. There were several vendors selling household type goods - laundry detergent, toilet paper, window cleaning fluids, shampoo, etc. Gurgen stopped the car near one vendor and started to pick out a few items. Apparently, they are cheaper to buy in Georgia than in Armenia. This was the second stop where we used up some lari.

Checking out the options for laundry detergent.

Gurgen hauling his purchase back to the van.  Should be enough detergent to last them for a while!

As we rode along, Gurgen's dad would chime in every now and again to tell us something about either the place we were passing through e.g., this is an Azeri village or ask us questions about our time in Azerbaijan and Georgia.  We were quickly getting to know each other.   Arshak's English is not bad but Gurgen's is very good. Pat and I had agreed to not make much mention of either Azerbaijan or Turkey but Gurgen's dad was not hesitant at all to talk about his feelings about both countries. He's definitely not keen on Azerbaijan!

A short while after we left Tbilisi, we arrived at the Georgian border. Gurgen's father, Pat and I got out and walked to passport control where we got our exit stamps. By the time we were done, so was Gurgen. Back into the car we went. It was a very short drive across the neutral zone. Again, Gurgen stayed with the car while the three of us went to passport control. Gurgen's father went first and of course, there were no issues for him. Pat went next and after looking through her passport, the officer called over to his colleague who came over and retrieved her passport and then took mine as well. We figured they had found the Azerbaijan stamps. The officer went into another area, out of our view. He was gone for several minutes. When he returned, he had photocopies of the photo page of each of our visas. There was some discussion between the two officers but a few minutes later, I heard the sound of a stamp go down on my passport. The officer then handed my passport back to me and less than a minute later, handed Pat her's. Pat and I walked away but Gurgen's father was asked to stay behind. Later we found out that the officer had a few questions for him related to us i.e., what were we doing in Azerbaijan? what were we in Armenia? how many days will we be in Armenia and where will be staying? Standard questions but I figured he asked them of Gurgen's father as his English was probably not good enough not only to ask the questions of us but to hear our answers. In any event, we were officially in Armenia!!

We got back in the car and continued on our merry way. The first thing I noticed about Armenia was the condition of the roads - definitely not as well paved here as in Georgia. Luckily, Gurgen is a skilled driver. Though he's a fast driver, he's very good at avoiding the potholes some of which are so large and deep, I worry we'll damage the undercarriage of the car.

Earlier, Gurgen had asked how we wanted to arrive into Yerevan from Tbilisi. Option A was to drive straight through - that would take about 4 hours. Option B was to do some sightseeing along the way. After a few seconds of thought, we opted for the latter.

So, as part of Option B, our first stop was at Haghpat Monastery.  It was almost 5p by the time by the time we pulled into the small parking lot in front of the monastery.   The only Armenian church I had been to so far was St. George's in Tbilisi and so that's what I expected to see as I approached Haghpat.  As it turned out, the churches at Haghpat were nothing like St. George's.  It was a welcome surprise!

Haghpat is a medieval monastery complex that was founded by Queen Khosrovanuysh, wife of the Bagratid king Ashot III, circa 976 AD.

The largest church in the complex, the Cathedral of Surb Nishan, probably begun in 976, was completed in 991 by king Smbat. It is a typical example of 10th century Armenian architecture and except for one or two minor restorations carried out in the 11th and 12th centuries, the church has retained its original character.

Cathedral of Surb Nishan.

There were no signs identifying the individual buildings in the complex or descriptive plaques inside to tell you what you were looking at so we just wandered through the various buildings and about the grounds.



The exterior facades were often decorated with was some bas-relief work, mainly of Armenian crosses, on the facades.



Tombstones in the cemetery.  I don't when these date back to.

Carved entryway.

The interiors of all the buildings were just plain stone with the occasional painting that provided a point of interest and some color.  Most churches I've been to have ornately decorated interiors...sometimes, over the top decorated.  This was the exact opposite.  It was dark and stark, like a cave  It felt old and cold.  Not inviting.  Perhaps a place spiders and mice would call home.  Most certainly, not a place you would come for comfort.  I absolutely loved it!!  In fact, as I told Pat later, I could have easily spent more time wandering about this place. 

Looking through the door to the apse, where Pat is standing before a painting.

The apse.



Tombs lined the floor.  I had to be careful to not trip over one.

Lighting a candle and saying a prayer.



One of my favorite shots of Haghpat. 



Church of Sourb Grigor (St. Gregory ) which dates back to  1005.





The dome of the Cathedral of Surb Nishan







Throughout the monastery complex, there are also a number of khachkars (cross stones) that date back to the 11th - 13th centuries.  The most well known among them is the *Amenaprkich* (All Savior) khachkar, circa 1273.

*Amenaprkich* khachkar.



More khachkars.

Haghpat Monastery was built atop a promontory overlooking the Debed River.  It was deliberately built, not on a peak, but halfway up a hillside on a site chosen to afford protection and to maintain monastic humility.


I loved how my lens captured the afternoon light against the stone walls.  Layers of color!

The Bell Tower.

Gurgen wanted me to pose for a photo.  Nice background :-)

Pat and I standing in front of the bell tower.

One last view of Cathedral of Surb Nishan before leaving.

Haghpat is a fortified complex. You can see the old walls behind Arshak.

Arshak was waiting for us by the van.  From Haghpat, we continued our journey on mountain roads. The ride was bumpy as the road was not well paved. But, the wonderful mountain scenery more than made up for the ride.

Our next stop was for water.  Gurgen told us the water here comes straight from mountain streams and is sweet and delicious to drink.  The water just flows continuously.  Presumably, whatever isn't taken from the tap just runs the rest of the way down the hillside to the river below.  Both Pat and Arshak topped off their water bottles.



As we wound our way along mountain roads, I just sat back and took in the scenery.  I may prefer to live in the city but I have to admit, I really enjoy being in the countryside.

The car is a Japanese make, right hand drive. 

Gurgen told us that here, roadside vendors were selling wild asparagus. Did he say wild asparagus?? Why yes, he did! I thought that our one meal in Azerbaijan was the only time I would get to enjoy this treat so when he mentioned that we could buy them here, I immediately chimed in that I wanted to get some. So, our next stop was at a roadside stand where a woman was selling bunches of the delicious wild plant. A bunch cost 1000 dram which is about $2. At home, I can barely buy a pound of the mass produced asparagus for $2!



Our drive took us through a canyon where the road ran alongside a river that was nearly overflowing its banks. The water was raging down stream. Here, there were a few factories - some still operating, some abandoned. In fact, the landscape we had drive through so far had been peppered with factories. It's quite industrial here compared to Georgia where we never noticed a single factory.

Quite a few hotels in this popular resort area.

Our drive took us through a small tunnel which was actually carved out from the rock.  Of course, anytime we pass through one, Pat and I are yet again reminded of our unforgettable ride through the Anzob Tunnel in the Fann Mountains of Tajikistan.  That experience is most certainly forever seared in our memories!


Gurgen pointed out that the landscape in Armenia can often change dramatically and he wasn't kidding. We had been driving through the forested canyon for what seemed like just a few minutes when the landscape changed to grassy, rolling hills that were completely treeless.



We drove past Mount Aragats, a four-peaked volcano massif in Armenia. Its northern summit which stands at 4,090 meters (13,418 feet) above sea level, is the highest point of the Lesser Caucasus and Armenia.  Gurgen's father pointed out the Kurdish villages that sit in the shadow of Aragats.



I had also mentioned to Gurgen about stopping at a bakery where you can watch the workers jump into the tandir oven. It was the place that Inga had told us we should stop in at if we had the opportunity. Gurgen immediately knew what I was talking about. Apparently, it's a very popular stop for tourists.

It was almost 7:30p when we arrived into the small town of Aparan.  Gurgen parked the car and we followed him inside the bakery - a place called Gntuniq Bakery and Supermarket Գնթունիկ). It was freezing cold as I stepped off the van. Hopefully, that's just because we were in the mountains and that Yerevan will be warmer.

In any event, back to the bakery. I was expecting a small bakery, in a modest shop, with a single tandir oven where someone would be making and selling bread. Instead, we walked into a space the size of a small grocery store. In the back were at least a dozen workers making and shaping dough. Right out front was a large tandir oven and a guy slapping bread against the inside walls. In order to reach down to the lower parts of the oven, he literally has to leap off one foot and spring head down into the tandir. It's quite something to see though I suspect that whenever he sees a camera, he adds an extra bit of leap for showmanship.







In front of where the bakers were hard at work were several counter selling the results of their hard work. We decided we would pick up something for our dinner here. With the help of Gurgen and his father, Pat and I picked out a pork pie for each of us, a mushroom pie to share and from the cookie counter, a couple of sweet items for breakfast tomorrow. We also couldn't resist getting a couple of pieces of baklava for dessert later on tonight - we'll have them with a cup of tea in the apartment.


That pork pie was calling me and I replied back!

Gurgen buying some lavash which in Armenia is about the size of a pillow case!!

Soon, the faint outline of Mount Ararat loomed ahead of us. Twilight was setting in so we could just barely make out the outline of the famed peak. I'm sure we'll have plenty of sightings of the mountain in the days to come.

We were suppose to make some other stop. Something about seeing alphabet in lights?? Okay, something got lost in translation. We did arrive at place near where a large cross that Gurgen said was made up of small crosses stood. The large cross was lit up. Gurgen stopped the car near the cross and I guess he was looking out for lights of some sort. All I saw was dark so I guess the lights were not on. Gurgen saw nothing as well so we continued our way to Yerevan.

It was lightly dark. A full moon was rising. Then, the lights of the big city shone in the far distance. We would soon be arriving into Yerevan.

As we made our way from the outskirts of the city to the heart, we could already get a glimpse of the city. We were especially excited when we drove down a street that was filled with very nice looking restaurants. We will definitely be checking out this street tomorrow to see what dining possibilities there are. I was thinking we would be cooking a few meals at the apartment but that could all change :-)

It's been a hell of a long day for Gurgen and his father.  I'm sure they were more than ready to get home!

I had put Gurgen in touch with our Airbnb host, Davit (or David) to coordinate our arrival with meeting up with Davit to get the key. Our apartment is located on a busy street. We had just enough time to unload the luggage and for Pat and Gurgen's father to get out before we were honked at by a car behind us. Gurgen and I drove around the block and he managed to get into the parking lot behind the building. Gurgen parked our van and when we walked out front, we saw Pat, his father and a tall young man and slightly shorter young woman. It was David - we introduced ourselves. I presume the young woman was his girlfriend. On the street, we said goodbye to Gurgen's father. I think we'll see him tomorrow, at least I hope we will and if not tomorrow, before we leave the country. He's a nice man and I want to have a proper farewell.

We followed David inside the building and up the elevator to our apartment on the 3rd floor. Much more spartan than Oleg's but we'll be fine staying in it. It will take some time to adjust to the new place.

David got us settled in and Gurgen stayed behind to make sure we were okay before he left. We will meet back up with him at 10a tomorrow.

After it was just Pat and I left in the apartment, we got comfy. We did make ourselves some tea and enjoyed the baklava we had bought at the bakery. It's nearly 11:30p now as I wrap up this blog. I'm ready for bed and I want to make sure I get a good night's rest as we have a full day ahead of us. Tomorrow, we will have to talk to Gurgen about our itinerary and how we are to handle the payments for each day's tour. We're basically doing day trips from the city and he's got each day trip priced accordingly. We have our budget and limited time so we have to carefully pick and choose what we want to do. In any event, that's for tomorrow. Tonight, I just to want to focus the rest of my time on getting into my pajamas and getting to sleep.

Goodnight from Yerevan!