With our Iranian visas finally in hand we shoulder our packs and squeezed our way onto the local bus to the Ochatala station headed for new frontiers in Armenia. Spending out last 2GEL on a final kachapuri and securing two seats in the minivan headed to Yerevan we wait for the remaining seats to fill and hit the road. Fruit trees everywhere were covered in white blossom flowers signalling that we’d made it to the other side of the long cold winter travelling through Poland, Belarus, Russia and Georgia and we welcomed the sign of warmer days to come.
Several hours later we arrived at the border, were quickly stamped out of Georgia, paid for and were issued a 21 day Armenian visa (USD$8 each, GEL preferred) and were back in the minivan and into Armenia, the whole process taking around 30 minutes. The road became windier and the mountains rose around us as we headed down the valley following the Debed river gorge. Eventually signs of the huge copper mine appear with industrial buildings blending into the orange hillside and a huge striking tower letting us know we’d almost arrived. The mine has recently reopened among environmental backlash as the damage it does to the surrounding ecosystem is immense. It will be interesting to see if greed wins out over common sense, which it usually does.
Dropped in town we head in the direction of the hotel only to find it’s not where we’d marked it from the GPS coordinates. Dodging the insistent taxi drivers we continue walking until one guy pulls up and says he’ll take us for free. Showing off his dashboard mounted tablet complete with WiFi and google translate, Sasun proceeds to negotiate with us to take us to the surrounding monasteries tomorrow. Having seen how tough the terrain is to hike between even two of them, and hoping to get the 2pm marshutka to Yerevan tomorrow, we translate our way to a deal of AMD15,000 (about USD$30) for the day starting at 8:30am and ending back in Alaverdi for 2pm. He then proceeds to help us carry our bags and check in to the hotel before driving us to the supermarket and back to buy some dinner. We went to bed confident we’d made a good choice.
The following morning right on time Sasun is at the door, our bags are loaded into the trunk and we’re off to the first monastery, Sanahin just outside of town. To a soundtrack of Katie Perry and One Direction (complete with music video’s on Sasun’s dash mounted tablet) we climbing to the top of the valley where we’re given a totally different view. As you look across high grassy plateaus scattered with houses, farms and livestock you realise from the valley below you can’t see a hint of what’s above which probably explains why so many monasteries were built up here for protection. Finding the gate closed we circled around the back and found a way inside.
With the dark stone, huge raised stone slab floors, low arched ceilings, inscriptions everywhere in a strange foreign language and dark gloomy corners you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into something from Game of Thrones. You almost expect to find some hidden treasure or bad guys lurking in a corner. The eerie feeling isn’t made any better by the strange green lights which appear in two of our photos in different places even though the photos were taken from the same place. The exterior walls of almost every building is covered in large carved crosses of varying degrees of detail, something which we were to notice on almost every monastery in Armenia A cable car used to run from town to the top of the valley but is apparently now out of commission, though you can take marshutka #3 from Alaverdi.
The second monastery, the UNESCO listed Haghpat, was by far our favourite. A little unassuming from the outside, once you push open the heavy wooden door of the Saint Nshan Church and step inside you’ll find yourself in a space which feels like it’s straight out of medieval times. Gazing upwards you’ll be amazed at the huge stone pillars supporting the large stone dome where light streams through a hole in the centre illuminating the abandoned space. Once your eyes adjust you’ll find it hard to leave this beautiful space, especially if you’re lucky enough to have it to yourself as we did. A brief walk around the back we marvel at some khachkars with their intricate stone carvings, some which resemble Celtic knots, before making our way back to the taxi for monastery number three. If you’re only going to visit a couple of monasteries in the area, don’t miss this one!
Back in the car the soundtrack has thankfully been changed to a bit of laid back Chris Rea. If you haven’t heard of him he’s a little Leonard Cohen-ish and well worth a listen. We make a brief stop where Sasun points out a 4th century library built into the hillside, apparently to hide the manuscripts for which the monastery is famous from the invading Turks. Making the most of google translate on his tablet we engage in a conversation about our jobs back in London, which goes a little bit like this…
Sasun: What do you do for work?
Sarah: I’m a construction Project Manager
Sasun: And Matt what do you do for work?
Matt: I’m a Bubble Girl
Complete google translate failure. But this was only one amongst many with Sasun accidentally stating at one point that he’s the Man of Steel and Matt advising that he has the next monastery in his backpack. Passing a police car we’re told to put our seatbelts on and almost laugh when he tells us we’ll get a USD$10 fine. He’s shocked when we tell him in Australia it’s closer to USD$200. Arrving at Akhtala we find the monastery itself closed, unfortunate as it has the best paintings of the lot, so we walk around the outside and explore the ruined buildings. Some are buried so you end up walking on the roof and you can still spot some visible blue frescoes if you look hard enough.
There’s some toilets at this monastery but don’t expect luxury. They’re literally a wooden hut built over a hole in the ground and are probably the most basic toilets we’ve seen in a very long time! Passing back through town we stop for a photo of the 12th century Tamara Most stone bridge before Sasun shouts us coffee from the public coffee machine near the main square. We have an office water-cooler moment as locals approach to buy coffee and ask Sasun where we’re from, obvious from the words ‘Australia’ and ‘kangaroo’ which make their way into the Armenian conversations.
Heading back uphill we have a great view down the valley of mountains towards Yerevan and make a note that among the dumped trash there are things which never to waste as rusting old car doors, bed heads and car parts are strung together to form farm fences. Up on plateau Sauson points out horse and announces it as an
While you could easily think things would be bit repetitive by the fourth monastery, Odzun surprises with its pink stone exterior and scattered constrasting dark grey carved gravestones. Inside high in the ceiling a grey and white peregrine falcon is perched waiting to swoop down and eat the seed laid out by the caretakers.
Asking for the third time if we’d like to try some Armenian schnapps, and with the knowledge that we’d told Sasun how much we loved Armenian wine and chacha, we finally relent and he pulls over at a local shop and disappears. Returning a few minutes later with a big smile he drops a 500ml plastic bottle, a bag of fresh bread, some calabas xx(processed meat) and fresh local cheese on Sarah’s lap and hits the gas. Pulling over at the top of the valley he wastes no time in picking a spot and spreading out a little picnic for us, complete with plastic cups in which to enjoy the homemade apple schnapps, which we’re told is about 60% alcohol.
Saying our cheers we swig it down and find it’s not too bad and get stuck into the spread before us. Joined by another taxi driver and his lone Japanese passenger, we invite her to join us, though she passes on the schnapps. After half an hour we’d managed to finish the 500ml bottle while enjoying the view and Armenian hospitality, so we pile back in, the music volume goes up and we make our way to monastery number five, Kobyr.
Having seen images of the partially collapsed dome and exposed frescoes we were looking forward to getting some good pics ourselves, so you can imagine our disappointment to arrive along the steep rough path to a jumble of newly erected scaffolding propping it up. The site is obviously still frequented by locals who leave candles, pictures and prayers and it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area as the state of disrepair is in contrast the other monasteries visited. On the way down we pass an old man who randomly begins to speak to us in Spanish.
Back at the cars our drivers try to convince us and the Japanese girl to visit two more monasteries but by now we’re done and ask to be taken back to town. Loading our gear into the 2pm marshutka the driver attempts to charge us for two extra seats but Sasun soon sets him straight and we get away with paying for one (even though our bags are taking up two…). We leave with the seats half filled, stop for gas where everybody gets out to smoke beside huge no smoking signs and a riverside toilet drops straight into the river. Several long, snowy, mountainous hours later we arrive in Yerevan’s Kalikia terminal and grab a taxi to our hostel ready for an early night.
Tips for Alaverdi
- We were unable to find a minibus heading to Alaverdi, the only option was a taxi or a seat on the minibus heading to Yerevan for which you have to pay the full price of 30GEL. As the taxi drivers in Tbilisi were asking 80GEL for a private taxi and we had time to waste it was cheaper to wait for the minibus. Ask the driver to drop you in Alaverdi.
- Accommodation in Alaverdi, from what we could find, is very very limited. The best option if you’re carrying baggage is Hotel Lalvar which is located at Engelsa st., 5. A twin room with shared bathroom wasn’t cheap at 12GEL a night for two people but you can usually get a discount by booking in advance on Booking.com.
- The marshutka from Alaverdi to Yerevan cost AMD1,500 each and took around 3.5 hours. From Kalikia station you can get a metered taxi (around AMD700) or negotiate with one of the drivers waiting (around AMD1500). You can also take a bus to the centre of town for AMD100