Last Saturday I traveled to Jermuk with my friend Karen and his father, also my proxy dad, Sergey Minasian. Karen's cousin on his mother's side, who's named Sako (a substantial young man), also came along to lead the way to his brother's camp high in the mountains above the resort town of Jermuk, located in the Vayots Dzor region in southern Armenia.
The winding dirt road starts from downtown, near the "Mayr Kordzaran" mineral water bottling factory. It leads to the largely symbolic metal statue of a deer (since they've all but disappeared from the area, most likely at the hands of poachers) that overlooks the town, then continues onward. The farther you go up, the more precarious the road becomes. This is strictly a 4 x4 road, as you need a substantially large, powerful vehicle to trek up the mountain. No ordinary Lada can manage. My Niva was adequate, but a Vilis is the most suited vehicle for these types of roads where asphalt was never laid. At certain points it was necessary to take detours since the surface was less perilous, but only slightly. Many spots of the road were mired with thick, deep mud pools in which some rather large rocks were completely hidden. I managed to land the bottom of my Niva on one hard despite driving at a turtle's pace. During the journey we crossed three mountain spring brooks and struggled through several fields of rocks. It was an amazing, thrilling experience. I don't remember ever breaking into a sweat while driving anywhere before that day.
We finally made it to the camp about 40 minutes later from the foot of the mountain--a gruelling 8 kilometer ride. The moment we arrived we all realized that the struggle was worth it, as you can imagine from the photos.
Sako's brother, Valodya, has been tending sheep for about 10 years, mostly in the Jermuk mountains. He tends to 600 sheep with some hired hands to assist him. Six dogs, all Kampers, are always on watch for intruders, and at night they keep the wolves at bay. He has four donkeys, one of them only a few months old, to haul equipment and supplies and at least two horses for nimble transportation. He's only 31 years old, very enthusiastic and optimistic. He loves what he does and can't imagine doing anything else. Home is a gigantic canvas tent, in which they all eat, rest and sleep. A woman looks after them and makes sure they're well fed. There's a gas stove for cooking and a wood-burning stove for keeping warm and heating water in a tank that holds about 40 liters. In another month they will start making their way to the Ararat valley on foot with the sheep to keep them in a shed. The sheep will start mating soon, and lambs will be born at the beginning of the year.
Just before we arrived with kilos of eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and watermelon along with six bottles of vodka, some beer and Fanta, they had already slaughtered a young sheep for us, half of which was barbecued in our presence while the other half was stewed for several hours. Nearby is a spring where all the washing is done and drinking water is fetched. The water was pristine and very cold, enough to cool down the watermelon and beverages just fine. Naturally we ate very well. Sergey and I were very moved not only by their hospitality but with the fervor and persistence they worked in tough conditions. They are real, hard-working men dedicated to the land.
When it was already time to head down the mountain Sergey pleaded with me that Sako take the wheel, since he supposedly had a better command of the roads and is an "expert Niva driver," whatever that means. We were on our way to a outdoor hot springs bath, hidden in a gorge between two high, craggy forested hills. The road is indeed rough going, but Sako decided to drive as slow as a snail. Painfully slow. There wasn't a need since the Niva easily cruised over many the rocks at 5-10 km an hour when I was driving up, but for him, the slower, the better.
Before we left Sergey asked about 10 times exactly how far the hot springs were, and he was always told that it was "right there" as they pointed far into the distance. We found out nearly an hour later that "right there" meant about 10 km over rocks, rivers and mud. Valod and three of his sheepherder neighbors led the way on horseback while we crawled along behind them. As we made our descent into the forested gorge we found it was nearly impossible to go. At one point the rocky road was intercepted by tiny streams of water. Then we came upon two rivers, one of which we managed to make it through, while the second one was way too deep, with a depth of several feet so we parked the Niva and continued on foot. (I tested the depth by simply wading in the water and immediately ruled that it was impassable.) To cross that river it was necessary to step over a series of stones at a narrow part that I found several feet to the left behind some trees. At the one that followed I simply walked across, although my jeans were soaking just below the knee. The others naturally made it across on horseback without difficulty, taking Sergey and Sako along with them. I've never ridden on a horse in my life and was not about to learn that day.
The treacherous trek turned out to be worth it. Just last night while reminiscing with Sergey he concluded that the water must have been at body temperature, because we didn't feel hot nor cold while in the water. It made sense, because the temperature was indeed perfect. There is a natural shallow tub formed over the course of possibly hundreds of years from mineral deposits that can comfortably accommodate four people. Into the tub flows a steady stream of mineral water bubbling from a hole beneath the rock formation there. Every six minutes or so water under high pressure gushes upward, with a jacuzzi-like effect. The water was a bit salty and metallic tasting, very similar if not identical to the water you can drink at the public fountains in the center of town. There were tiny chunks of mineral deposits floating in the water, and when I emerged I realized that I was lightly covered with them. We realized just how cold it was out there while we were struggling to put on our clothes as quickly as possible.
On our way back I managed to slip on a stone in the middle of a shallow river and fell on my left side. Luckily I wasn't injured except for a minor scrape on my ankle, but half of me was completely soaked. Then I noticed that my trusty Austrian walking shoes that I had purchased 10 years ago from the Tannery in Harvard Square were disintegrating (a master shoe repairman in Yerevan subsequently managed to bring them back to life). I shrugged it off and kept walking because I didn't care. We all wanted to be there, but we also had to make it back to the city.
I began to panic that we had already burned most of the gasoline in the tank and the sun had already gone down. But later when we reached level ground I realized when looking at the gauge that we had at least 15 liters left in the tank, more than enough for a 100 km long ride. Sako got us out of there and then down to the Jermuk reservoir. We said our goodbyes and gave thanks to our hosts before we descended. It was a remarkable, emotional and adventurous day that will always remain with me.
Photos by Christian Garbis