Our itinerary for the day included visits to two monasteries - Dadivank and Gandzasar but before first we stopped at the statues that have become the symbols of the region Papik Tatik - named ‘We are our mountains’. Reading the information it seems to be a celebration of elders and particularly centenarians of which there are a high proportion in Artsakh, apparently
Gandzasar was our first stop - it’s near a really eccentric village called Vank. Apparently, Levon, who was born in the village, but is now based in Russia (and obviously very rich) has been a patron of the town and has managed to create a very bizarre place. He is obsessed by lions - I think that’s what Levon means - from the statues as you enter the town, the yellow and green colours of the school and sports ground to the roaring giant lion’s head, built into the rock. There are also very kitsch hotels - one is shaped like a boat - personally, I love it and if I ever come back, I want to stay there to appreciate the full experience.
The monastery is interesting but as I’d seen it before, I just had a quick walk around before going to the Matenadaran - the repository of manuscripts and books from the region. I had a guide to show me around. Some of the earliest manuscripts were the most beautiful and especially colourful. It really highlighted how the introduction of printing made everything much duller aesthetically but more practical, for obvious reasons.
Next stop was Dadivank - this used to be a tricky place to get to as the road was unmetalled and best reached using a 4x4 but it’s been improved greatly like many of the other roads going to religious and historical sites. It’s yet another beautiful building in a beautiful setting but having been to all of them before, I was beginning to tire of monasteries! They were cooking Jengylov hats by the church so bought one for lunch. Apparently Karen has never eaten one, which amazes me. The french group were also at the site and were also having them for their lunch. Their guide couldn’t persuade Karen to try them either.
From there we were meant to go to the hot springs. We went over a dodgy bridge that looked like it might collapse any minute and then an even more terrifying tunnel with no lights and no room to pass an oncoming car. The road was unmetalled and as there was a distance of about ten miles to go, which we would have to do at a snail’s pace, I decided that this could be better left for another visit and with a 4 x 4. The gorge we travelled through on our way to the border was pretty amazing though. Towering mountains of rock. So imposing it made me feel very small in comparison.
We then started to head back to Armenia via the check point which is on the road to Vardenis on the other side of the border. Going through the border was quick. All they needed was a document that Karen had to carry while we were in
On the road we encountered what I can only describe as Armenia’s dirty secret - huge piles of mining spoil. I have to say it was quite horrific as it just sits there like something from an alien landscape.
Soon after going through Vardenis we started to skirt Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus and at 1900m above sea level, one of the largest high altitude, freshwater lakes in the world. When I’ve been before, we’ve approached it from Dilijan. This time, I was going to do it the other way round. I was starting to feel very tired. It’s amazing how travel - even when you are a passenger, is very tiring. Couldn’t wait to get to the guesthouse, Gites au moulin in Nerkin Getashen to have a snooze.
Eco guest house
When we arrived it took a while to get through the gate as no-one seemed to be around. The sons of the owners had been out but when they strolled back they let us in and showed us to our rooms. The guesthouse is simply but tastefully decorated with natural products as far as possible. I had a balcony overlooking their cottage garden with a flour mill and mill stream. I thought that instead of sleeping, I’d have wander and the younger son joined me. Although he can’t speak English, we communicated in the international language of gestures. He showed me the mill and around the garden, picking tomatoes for me to taste. From what I can see, they grow potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and cabbages.
A field of Khachkars
We then walked up to the church behind the house accessed by a steep and narrow path. Beyond the church there is a large field of Khachkars (stone crosses) - not as big as the cemetery in Noratus by Lake Sevan but impressive all the same. Some had holes like the standing stones at Karahunj.
We then made our way back through the village and back to the guesthouse. I don’t know many teenage boys in the UK who would take the initiative and act as a guide to a total stranger. However, it was clear that this was a family business and everyone had their part to play.
The meal in the evening was just how I remembered previous stays at guest houses with delicious home cooking using fresh ingredients, mostly from the garden. I had huge amounts of food put on the table which I couldn’t possibly eat. The french group seemed to have the same amount between five of them. I joined them for a mulberry vodka. They were going to go for an evening walk to the cemetery and do some Armenian dancing. I declined - by now exhaustion had hit and I was in bed by 9pm. It was very soothing to hear the mill stream outside - I like the sound of a river or sea when I’m going to sleep.