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Armenia and Georgia Trip Report, Jun 9 - Jul 1, 2021

Armenia and Georgia Trip Report, Jun 9 - Jul 1, 2021

Old Jul 9th, 2021, 09:29 AM
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A hilltop monument overlooking Goris mimics the cliff dwellings of Old Goris:




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Old Jul 10th, 2021, 02:52 AM
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Haha I love the gazillion! This is a huge relief- thanks! Some of the sites you posted seem way out of the countryside so also good to know it's not too expensive to troll around. I took Ubers around Romania for some rural sites as well as a solo tour in Azerbaijan and it was pricey.
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Old Jul 10th, 2021, 02:54 AM
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Great tip on that website- bookmarking now!
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Old Jul 10th, 2021, 07:35 PM
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Transportation around Armenia seems really cheap to me, so you don't have to self-drive to see these places.
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Old Jul 11th, 2021, 04:01 AM
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Before leaving Goris, I made arrangements to take a cooking class at Loby Goris, a kind of restaurant, though more like going to someone's home. Loby means beans, and Goris is famous for its beans. We learned how to make tolma, meat stuffed grape leaves. These were very different than what I am used to from Lebanese restaurants where I live. The ones I am used to are small, oily, with only a bit of stuffing. These are big, fat, juicy tolma, packed with a lot of meat that had plenty of milk, melted butter and egg massaged into it. We were surprised just how much milk was used, added in stages until the meat is plump with milk. The end result was fantastic, and it was part of a feast that included a hummus made from Goris beans. We also had here a walnut gata that was like a rugelach on steroids. Great stuff.







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Old Jul 11th, 2021, 06:29 AM
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We visited Old Khonderesk,an abandoned cave village that was inhabited until the early 70s. When we got there, a man showed us the cave where he lived until he was 5 years old. He had turned it into a museum. We then asked him to show us around the village, and he guided us on a kind of photo safari. He spoke only a few words of English, and when he wanted to explain something a bit more complicated to us, he phoned someone who could translate. After the initial descent down a very long and steep staircase, we were surprised to find a cafe, the museum, and even a taxi driver who could whisk us back to the top which we were very, very pleased about. The taxi driver even walked us down an obscured trail to see an old cemetery and church ruins.





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Old Jul 11th, 2021, 10:34 AM
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In Yegheghnadzor, a museum guide gave us an extensive tour of the regional museum in impeccable English. We spent a lot of time gawking at this collection, much of which we would have cluelessly ignored without a tour. After that, we asked him about finding a tablecloth and coffee like we had seen at the nearby guesthouse, and he accompanied us to the shops, first a fabric store and then onto the coffee grinder who has a very powerful grinder to produce a fine powder like we enjoyed throughout our trip.

We drove north to Gavar and Lake Sevan. On the way we stopped at the Jewish Cemetery at Yeghegis, Zorats Church, and Selim Caravanserai. We wanted to get to Smbataberd Fortress, but poor planning on my part: the road is for 4x4 high clearance, and the hike would have been way too long and strenuous.

The Jewish Cemetery is a very small site with only a couple of stones that have detectable writing. Zorats Church is small, but packs a mighty wallop as the site is exceptional, one of the most beautiful of the trip. The Caravanserai was a trading post on the Silk Road, certainly the best preserved of the region. The interior is haunting, the site is extraordinary, and outside there was a couple in front of an old car under a tent, selling souvenirs, who offered us coffee and fruits as is the custom.







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Old Jul 11th, 2021, 05:05 PM
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We got very lucky throughout the trip; I wish I could claim it was great planning on my part....

Our best stroke of luck was in Gavar, a town near Lake Sevan that is hardly on the tourist radar, but does have a central location. We stayed at a guesthouse that hadn't seen visitors in 18 months and should have remained dark. But Armenia had a snap election that weekend, and our host needed to return to Gavar to vote. So we had finally heard back from him, and we were on! Before coming, I asked him if he could help us visit the Aveluk Festival in Vardenik. Aveluk is wild horse sorrel picked in the mountains, braided, and then dried for use in soups and stews. Apparently Vardenik is known for it.

Turns out that our host is very connected, He has a PhD in Economics and is involved in numerous aid programs like UNDP. So he knows everyone, and he took us around to places we'd never find out about otherwise. He is friends with the organizer of the Aveluk Festival, and he took us to a farm where the farmer and his bio-chemist wife built a modern facility for cheese production. Here we were, on what looked like a dilapidated farm, descending some steep stairs deep into the ground. We open a door to find a modern tasting room and a glass enclosed, temperature controlled cheese cellar. They make cows milk cheese with red wine, grape leaves, mold, about a dozen kinds all told. We did a tasting of six cheeses plus some variations with aging. He then took us to a horse breeder who showed off his 'Armenian' horse, a caramel colored mixed breed. We also took a ride in a monster jeep up Mount Armaghan where there is a church, pavillion, and khachkar around a crater lake.

For two nights our host made us khorovats - Armenian BBQ- this was our first of the trip. One night was very thick pork chops and the next night was fish. It was killer. I was glad we had waited to have our khorovats.

First, couple of photos are from the Aveluk Festival:






Last edited by shelemm; Jul 11th, 2021 at 05:19 PM.
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Old Jul 11th, 2021, 05:16 PM
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We went on to visit Hayravank Monastery on Lake Sevan, saw the ruins of an ancient port, Noratus Cemetery with its collection of ancient khachkars, and a tonir making lavash. Plus a photo of khorovats:







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Old Jul 11th, 2021, 07:08 PM
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Wow, looks like persistence really paid off!
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Old Jul 12th, 2021, 09:40 AM
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I held out hope that the guesthouses could accommodate us, and we were lucky they could.....

After Gavar, we visited Sevanavank and then headed west. In Sevanavank it was Sunday, and as the choir was arriving we got to talk with a young woman studying German and Finance in Yerevan but makes the weekly trek to sing at the monastery here. As we missed the fortress of Smbataberd (drats!) we decided to take a look at the Bjni Fortress as well as St. Sargis Church in Bjni. The fortress is on a dramatic and steep hillside, and St. Sargis is perched on a small but steep outcrop. Not much remains of the fortress, but there are battlements on the lower level as well as the ruins of a church and a couple of other buildings on the upper level, linked by a tricky path Great views. Although Bjni might not be on the international tourist radar, I can tell you it is a popular site for Armenians as there were quite a few groups there.

St Sargis was right nearby, we could easily see it from the fort, practically touch it, but the road was difficult to find. Luckily a local man was willing to hop in our car and guide us or we would never have found the way. Some 'roads' in Armenia don't look like roads when you actually get there. They look like rocky footpaths unsuitable for vehicles of any kind. Sometimes our GPS was simply wrong, and other times we didn't trust it. "they couldn't possibly mean THAT!" Reminds me of the scene from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in which Phil Sellers goes off road to help a guy deliver medicine to his sick wife....
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Old Jul 14th, 2021, 04:00 AM
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Tsakhevank is a small site in a dramatic location. There is a long drive involved and a climb up stairs to view the cave chapel in the side of a mountain. The kind of place you can spend a long time simply gawking at the scenery. After that, we drove on to Etchmiadzin for three nights.

We stayed at Machanents Tourism and Art. It is a cultural destination unto itself. And though it contains many works of art, the creation of Machanents the artist, the site itself is his greatest creation. Several pathways and buildings to wander about, we spent a lot if time exploring here. His art is whimsical with a few serious undertones. Typically Armenian I'd say. There are also crafts aplenty strewn about, like plantings in a garden of art.

While walking around Etchmiadzin, we heard a woman at the Agape Refectory mentioning Nebraska several times... I had to stop and ask why. We have a son at University of Nebraska, and where we live, in Washington, DC, you can go your whole life without ever hearing someone talk about Nebraska. As it turns out, she was an American just using it in conversation to represent what people think about in the middle of the country. 'Nebraska' was a totem.







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Old Jul 14th, 2021, 08:54 AM
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Just to let you know, I am very much enjoying your report and photographs. Really interesting - thank you!
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Old Jul 14th, 2021, 06:56 PM
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Thank you!

The reason why we ended our time in Armenia by staying three nights in Etchmiadzin is because of a couple of very important battle memorials west of Yerevan and the opportunity to visit a Yazidi Temple. In addition to Etchmiadzin itself and the famous ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral.

The two memorials are ingrained into the Armenian character in a way that it would be hard to think of an equivalence elsewhere in the world.

First, Sadarapat. Our museum guide was very clear about this: without Sardarapat there is no Armenia. In 1918 the Armenians had to make a stand against the Ottomans. Success here, and they would earn the respect and support of Russia. Sardarapat leads directly to an independent Armenia. The gigantic memorial consists of church bells which summoned the villagers to battle and two bulls charging at each other. There is also a memorial wall, a stately series of eagle statues, and Armenia's most important ethnographic collection all set a good distance from each other, so it encompasses a vast terrain. Inside the museum, surrounded by two stories of the collection, is an interior court dedicated to the battle. We spent two hours on the museum alone.

The second battle was that of Musa Dagh (Moses Rock). A collection of six villages, in defiance of deportation orders, fortified themselves against an attack in the face of an onslaught. They garnered international attention and were ultimately rescued by British and French troops. The battle was memorialized in a novel by Franz Werfel, 40 Days of Musa Dagh, and the story of the battle was also made into a movie.

Not far from Sardarapat, I felt compelled to visit the Yazidi Temple in Akalnich. I did not know at all what to expect, and it surprised the heck out of me. First, it is not just a temple but a campus for the largest Yazidi community outside of Iraq. There is a modern, gleaming white temple with a series of statuary leading from the gated entrance. One of the statues commemorates two genocides: that of Armenia in 1915, and the Yazidi genocide of 2015 in Iraq.. 100 years apart. The bond you feel standing in front of this statue is so strong. It doesn't end, does it?

The temple is gorgeous with striking geometry, but once you enter, the stark white of the outside gives way to the hugely surprising and vibrant glow of the amber interior and..... peacocks! A large (stuffed?) peacock faces you as soon as you enter the chapel, and peacock imagery is repeated, carved into the heavy wooden door, a gilt peacock sitting by a window, and a peacock statue sitting in the corner. I was flabbergasted.











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Old Jul 14th, 2021, 07:35 PM
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Very interesting!
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Old Jul 15th, 2021, 03:11 AM
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Etchmiadzin is a very easy day trip from Yerevan, and right nearby are the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, which might be the most impressive ruins in Armenia. Etchmiadzin is an extensive religious campus and is considered to be the birthplace of Christianity as a State Religion from 300AD. It is a peaceful, pretty place with some really, really, really old churches. My single favorite thing about the place, though, is a modern monumental arch at the entrance which was erected to commemorate the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2001.

Although the ruins of Zvartnots are not extensive, back in the day it would take a couple of rolls of film to capture all the components and angles of this stunning site. I believe there is still a lot of mystery about the original shape, size. and purpose of Zavartnots which dates from 634BC. That's worth an exclamation mark or two.




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Old Jul 15th, 2021, 08:15 AM
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Thus ends our time in Armenia. We were faced surprisingly with the reality of a snap election (that triggered a State Department warning), meeting war refugees, the history of genocide and its present day implications, scenery we couldn't believe was right in front of us, insanely delicious food among the best we've ever experienced, and a sense of hospitality that was deep and generous. When the folks at Lusik Aguletsi first told us that they stay late as long as they have guests, I didn't know it was just the first of many gestures of welcome we would receive.

The next week of our trip was going to be very different by design. Instead of an independent trip trying to explore many facets of a country, the next week was going to be primarily about visiting a single region high up in the mountains of Georgia. I arranged for a guide/driver and a high clearance 4x4 for 5 nights. I wasn't sure it was needed so I had my doubts....
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Old Jul 15th, 2021, 10:39 AM
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Oh boy, I've just skimmed through the great photos. Looking forward to reading all about Georgia as well!
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Old Jul 15th, 2021, 11:30 AM
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Spoiler alert: Snowy mountains with green carpeting ahead. Even astroturf isn't THAT green.
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Old Jul 15th, 2021, 04:09 PM
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We flew from Yerevan to Tbilisi on Armenia Air Company. Nice flight. By the time you get up in the air, you already start your descent.

There are flights from the Tbilisi area to Mestia in the Svaneti. But since COVID, the airline (Vanilla Sky) does not get their flight schedule approved until the last day of the month for the following month. In a normal June, maybe there would be four flights a week, but that would probably get reduced to two for June 2021. So I could have flown both ways giving us three nights up there, but I didn't want less than four. I was also very worried about getting around once we were up there.

So I bit the bullet and arranged a private tour through Georgian Holidays. I've only done this once before in my life, in China. I told them what I wanted (with specific guesthouses), and they made the arrangements, providing a car and driver/guide. On a scale of ten stars, our guide gets an eleven.

We were picked up at the Tbilisi airport and off we went, aiming to stop in Kutaisi for the night. We saw the major sites: Jvari Monastery and the Cathedral in Mtskheta, Uplistsikhe cave village, and we saw from below Gori Fortress and the striking Memorial of Georgian Warrior Heroes, sculpted in the mid-80s and somehow tolerated by the Soviets despite that it shows maimed and bizarrely disfigured war heroes. The next morning we started our drive up to Ushguli by way of Lentekhi because I heard that this was the more scenic route. Our plan was to spend two nights in Ushguli and then two nights in Mestia before taking a plane back to Tbilisi.








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