Notes From Hairenik
April 5, 2010

I’m tired of playing it safe. For well over two weeks I’ve been mostly confined to home when not at the work place, laying back and hoping that I didn’t “catch cold” as some point during the day like so many paranoid Armenians, thereby flaring up the pneumonia.

Since I can’t withstand cigarette smoke and shouldn’t really be drinking alcohol I’m not socializing with friends in public places. I've barely been updating this blog recently. But I’m supposed to be getting fresh air, yet the exhaust from cars is also detrimental when walking anywhere. Good thing Armenia had Monday off from work for “Merelots,” or Memorial Day. I can’t remember when I last left Yerevan it’s been so long. Today was the day. There’s no better place to breathe in clean, invigorating mountain air than Aragatsotn. Destination: Amberd.

As soon as we hit the Yerevan-Ashtarak highway one look at snow-encrusted Mount Aragats was enough to convince me that Amberd would not be reachable. Although the base of the mountain was green, the top half was still completely blinding white, a clear indicator that north of Byurakan would not be smooth sailing. There were three of us plus Chi Chi, and we weren’t about to turn around and go home. We decided to visit the stone alphabet located at the turnoff to the mountain instead.

I can’t remember exactly when the alphabet was installed. I think it was 2004 or perhaps sooner. All thirty-eight letters of the Armenian alphabet are depicted there, carved from tuff stone about four feet in height. Each letter rests on a concrete base that is hidden by a pile of stones, and in the evenings the entire camp is illuminated with spot lights positioned at the base of each letter or group of letters, as not all of them are freestanding. There are also a few statues on the site including one depicting Mesrob Mashdots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet. Other than being a wonderful spot to enjoy the fantastic scenery, the main purpose—at least in my opinion—for going there is to take a photo of yourself in front of your name’s first initial.

Anushik, her sister Gohar and I grabbed Chi Chi and ran to the “Ch” so we could secure a place for a photo before other visitors managed to reach it first. Turns out there was a large black dog waiting for Chi Chi hiding close behind it, but fortunately, there was no eye contact and subsequent canine drama.

The next stop was naturally Saghmosavank, which is a stone’s throw away. Today the church was open so I went inside to light some candles. Outside Chi Chi was running around with Anushik, who tried to persuade the puppy—still inexperienced in navigating across treacherous Armenian territory, like flat, green landscapes—to jump across a very narrow irrigation water ditch about three inches wide that sliced across the monastery’s grounds. Instinctively, Chi Chi attempted to simply trot across an unanticipated stream of water to trip her up, and she soaked the bottom of her new sweater that my mother had knitted and sent in the mail. Fortunately, little doggie did not soak herself in the process. I stood on the edge of the cliff there, overlooking the river several hundred feet below, and breathed slowly in and out at least twenty times in an effort to regenerate my lungs. I cannot think of any other spot so close to the city where the air is pristine. You feel invigorated spiritually, physically and mentally in only a few minutes of strolling about the Saghmosavank grounds, your body purges itself of impurities lingering in the heart and mind. It is what makes this humble, unobtrusive sanctuary so glorious.

My yearning for adventure had taken hold, so I decided to once again search for the monastery that has been eluding me for years—Tegherivank. I first learned about the place when glancing through “The Stone Garden Guide - Armenia & Karabagh” several years ago. When photographer Julie Dermansky was in Armenia in 2008 she happened to have the second edition and gave it to me before she left. Today marked the third attempt at reaching Tegherivank based on the seemingly simple directions contained in the guide. It reads as follows:
To get there, from Yerevan drive beyond Ashtarak, over the double-span four-lane bridge, and toward Gyumri. The divided four-lane highway narrows to an undivided two-lane road immediately after Ashtarak. At this point, after you have passed through Ashtarak and the road has narrowed to two lanes, turn right (north) at the village of Agarak and continue northward up to the top of this windy mountain road.
The problem is, when you “continue northward” through Agarak without veering to the left or right you end up in Byurakan and nowhere near the monastery. The authors are correct in that you must go north, but they fail to define the roads you need to follow to reach your destination. A journey from the main road that, according to the authors, should take only fifteen minutes ended up being forty-five with the backtracking due to faulty roadside directions and bad inherent navigational skills. In the main square of Agarak it is necessary to bear left and then after driving a kilometer or two you need to turn right to enter the village of Aghtsk. In town at an intersection marked by a small group of men absorbed in a game of Belot on a corner, you must turn right and follow the serpentine stretch of asphalt that travels northward—sort of. In the distance when you look up the monastery is in full view. At the next fork in the road you have to stay left to make it up the mountain. At every crossing we came upon I went the wrong way, following the advise of middle-aged men walking aimlessly or loitering to “follow the road all the way up.”

Whenever I come upon a landmark that is new to me, especially a place that is extremely difficult to reach like for instance the majestic Tadev, I feel like a champion. Tegherivank is from the 13th century, erected with charcoal gray and black stone, and is extremely well preserved. There is a central dome and two smaller ones near the front entrance.

Since this monastery is not on the schedule of excursions organized by the tour agencies, the area is tranquil with no cafés nearby filled with noisy tourists or nouveau riche Yerevanites. There are even some picnic tables on the grounds where you can eat a lunch with an appetite expanded by an absolutely extraordinary view of Mount Ararat.

As is nearly always the case with Armenian monasteries, Tegherivank was constructed on the lip of a deep gorge. Across the canyon is the village of Byurakan, where the observatories can be seen. Just behind the church, however, about 500 meters away is an immense radar dish built into the hillside, which looks like something straight out of Doctor Who. I am assuming it serves some purpose related to astrophysics, I didn’t have a chance to ask around.

The tribulations that we faced along the way to reach that serendipitous plateau were well worth it. For anyone looking to behold an iconic monument to greater Armenian times that hasn’t been readily seen, find a way to get there—you won’t be disappointed.

Just a few words about visiting places that are “off the beaten path” or less frequented. If you are unfamiliar with Armenian roads and navigating through villages, I do not recommend that you rent a car and throw caution to the wind trying to find a destination. It’s better to hire a professional driver in Yerevan who has a SUV to take you where you want to go. They are not hard to find—a neighbor of mine who has a Toyota RAV4 was once working as Kirk Kerkorian’s chauffeur whenever he visited Armenia. But if you are compelled to do it on your own, make sure you know exactly where you are going to save yourself a lot of grief and car repairs, too, since some roads are very difficult to drive on. I made the mistake of relying on the horrendous directions contained within that otherwise excellent reference guide to points unknown one too many times. I used the "Armenia & Karabagh" guide in 2009 to try to find the fabled Gndevank Monastery near Jermuk only to realize ten kilometers down the road that it was extremely perilous and in any case, virtually impassable. The conditions of roads can change overnight—in parts of Kotayk for instance it is not unusual for short sections of road to suddenly drop away in a compact landslide. Invest in a detailed map sold at the Armenia Information center on Nalbandyan Street, and be confident that you can communicate with people speaking strange vernacular in rural Armenia from whom directions are vital when the sun is going down and you’re fifty or more kilometers away from base central. And don’t forget to breathe deeply.

Photos taken with my Nokia N86 8MP
All photos copyright © Christian Garbis

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Blogger Vagabonde said...
The sights on your journey looking for monasteries must have been breathtaking. I mean this really, breathtaking for beauty and for me, for fear. I would have had to close my eyes driving on those roads. Actually sometime when my father drove in Paris I had to close my eyes, but that was because of the terrible traffic. If he would get mad at someone he would try to overtake them by speed….then he would say all kinds of words in Armenian that I would not understand – but I guess they were not very nice!

Blogger Christian Garbis said...
Photos to come, by the way...

Blogger nazarian said...
Can you draw the route on Google Maps to the monastery? It looks like it would be a worthwile information for the tourists.

Blogger Christian Garbis said...
I will try to do that one of these days, Nazarian. It's just a question of finding the time...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Chi as in chisik is good enough for me. Chisik. Got it?