As my Armenian odyssey came to an end, I reflected on the lasting impressions that will remain fixed in my memory. For me, this was not just another country I’d visited, it had changed me and my westernised view of the world – most certainly for the better. Here is the final part of my report on my travels through a most amazing country.
Warning: this blog entry is very image heavy, for which I make no apologies!
Sanahin monastery is a tough 7 km climb up the steep sided Debed canyon, such that even the public transport struggles to reach it’s lofty perch. There is a cable car which runs from Alaverdi to the small village of Sarahart, (just over 1 km from Sanahin) which I’d hoped to take, but it was not running when I went to the station. Oh well I thought, it’s a good job I like climbing!
It was still a little overcast and the heat was oppressive, yet the climb was wonderful as the views back down the valley opened up. The monastery comes into view long before you get there and I was trying to work out from which direction I’d get the best sight of it. Strange, but that’s the photographer in me – I’m always looking and thinking of the best location to take my photos.
I had a quick wander around to see if it was possible to step back far enough to get the pictures I wanted, but was very frustrated as there didn’t seem to be a way to get a clear view of the monastery. I liked the picture (above) I got, but it was not quite right, I just couldn’t seem to find a way of getting far enough away and still have a clear line of sight. Then I noticed the steep hillside of the graveyard, covered in brambles. It took a bit of scrambling, but eventually I looked back down the hillside and viola!!
For me there is something magical about the pictures you have to work hard to get, as these days anyone can point a camera. The problem (nice one though) with Sanahin is there is just so much to photograph and those I’ve included here are just a fraction of what I took.
Although it’s not known exactly when the monastery was founded, legends say it was built in the 4th century. The present-day building was believed to have been built around 934 by King Abas Bagratuni. According to Armenian historians the complex’s first building was constructed by Armenian priests who had refused Chalcedonian faith and emigrated to Armenia from Byzantine. Humanitarian sciences, music and medicine were taught, while various scribes and miniaturists used to work in the monastery as well. It was given UNESCO World Heritage Status (along with Haghpat) in 1999.
By the time I’d finished my tour it was late afternoon and I still wanted to visit Haghpat monastery, which was apparently a 7 km walk away. I couldn’t find any details or see on my map a way to get there on the bike, so headed back down to the valley floor. After riding some kilometers in the valley I finally came across the sign for Haghpat, another 6 km climb back up the hillside. I was not amused! An hour later and I’d beaten the gradients, which according to my computer said the steepest part was an incredible 35%.
It was too late to start wandering round the monastery as they were closing up. I did take a quick look as the light was fantastic, but had no time to start taking proper pictures.
Having made the decision to climb the mountain so late in the day I’d already spied out a camping spot in the last flat field before the top. Once I started to erect my tent in the failing light I drew a large crowd of local children, some of who spoke a little English. It was fun chatting with them as I worked away and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when two of them presented me with some fruit they had just picked off the trees. A perfect end to the day.
Next morning I was reminded how quickly weather here can change, as I awoke to thick cloud and a mist that was just starting to clear. Those of you who have regularly followed my blog will know how much emphasis I place on good light, I was going to have to try and be a little more creative with my photography.
Some parts of the monastery were cordoned off, with danger signs. Being the reckless person I am and there being no-one around I saw no reason not to snatch the odd ‘forbidden’ picture, after making sure I was in no danger from falling masonry of course!
The internal architecture of both monasteries is truly stunning and I think I spent more time photographing the interiors than the equally impressive exteriors. This was my initial reason for wanting to visit Armenia and I wasn’t disappointed, although I had no idea that I would get so much more.
My tour of the monastery over, I headed back down the mountain into the Debed canyon. Armenia was coming to an end as I was only a couple of hours away from the border and my return into Georgia, but I was not finished yet with the kindness of the Armenians. I stopped at a fruit stall to spend the last few coins I had, maybe one or two peaches worth, and was given a bag full. Such nice people.
My plan was to return to Tbilisi and the Why Not? hostel before continuing on to Azerbaijan, but it was too far to contemplate reaching Tbilisi. Or so I thought. The valley road remained relatively flat and despite a slight headwind I was making excellent progress, to the point where I realised I should make an effort to ride the full 112 km and spend a comfortable night with a meal and a shower.
As I said in the opening paragraph of this blog, Armenia had been rather special and I was genuinely sad to leave. It’s people make you realise it’s not about what or how much you have and if you’re brave enough to step off the beaten track, make the effort to interact with them, the rewards will hopefully leave you with memories of a nation where the word ‘hospitality’ really means something.
I’m now back in Tbilisi, Georgia, waiting for a replacement debit card to arrive and running out of both food and money. It looks like I’m going to have to rely on local good will for a while longer…