It was designed to be a trip different to others. Many trips to Armenia focus on monasteries, and more monasteries. Interesting and historically valuable as these may be, there is much more to this small but soulful Caucasus country which ordinary trips often don’t focus on. That’s where NomadMania, partnering with local team Next is Armenia, came in with its attempt at a diverse experience.
The route itself was highly unusual. Aiming largely at the country’s border zones as well as a focus on some of its Soviet past, we left Yerevan heading straight to the little-visited town of Kapan in the southern Syunik region. Our lovable guide Shush was the only woman among the small group of eight men, three from the U.S., one from Brazil, Kuwait, the U.K. and Denmark as well as our founder Harry Mitsidis. They all broke the ice on a bumpy 4X4 drive up a spectacular hill overlooking the Noravank Monastery below. An adrenalin high to ensure a good adventure. The route south took us down the winding road and the Devil’s Bridge before a stop at the village of Tatev; while known for its famous monastery, instead we followed the trail of Ladas to visit a local home-cum-alcohol distillery, including a taste of the strong spirits.
Kapan itself is the main town of the Syunik region and following the changes in the Karabakh region, now sits right on the border with historical foe Azerbaijan. While posters in the town may claim that ‘Shushi is Armenia’ (a town in Nagorno Karabakh called Shusha in Azeri and now under Azerbaijan control), the reality is obviously different on the ground. And this ground is indeed very mountainous, as on Day 2 we headed past the 2535 meters high Meghri Pass toward the small town of Meghri which forms the border with Iran.
Borders always fascinate NomadManians and this occasion was no exception. St. Hovhannes church features some impressive frescos; in the village itself we were chased by local grannies unhappy that we were taking photos as they thought we were spies. On the way back we took in a 10th century monastery at Vahanavank and another 4×4 wheel drive took us to the remains of an old castle. A camera with an excellent zoom caught an Azerbaijan flag in the distance, testimony to how close the border really is. In the evening, we had a home-made dinner in the atelier of a famous local painter, Ruben Kostandyan – who happens to be Shush’s father.
The next day, bucolic scenes ensued as we made our way to Jermuk, Armenia’s most famous spa town with thermal baths and treatments galore. Though it may have been grander in Soviet times, it still maintains some of its former glory and the whole group indulged in some sort of treatments ranging from massage to water therapies before changing focus and aiming for the now abandoned former Cultural Centre which is now a haven for the Dark Tourist. Out of season, Jermuk itself felt somewhat creepy and Hotel Moscow, where we stayed, was certainly a remnant from a time long gone. Oddly enough some of the staff were from India.
The off-the-beaten track routing that followed was certainly unique. After crossing the Vardenyats Pass and a stop at famous Orbelian Caravanserai, we headed to Lake Sevan but turned right, to the DARE region of Vardenis on the lake’s eastern side, once again very close to the border of Azerbaijan. The small town has possibly never seen a tourist group of this size before and what it lacks in concrete sights, it makes up for with an authentic Armenian feel.
One of the more bizarre and memorable sights was the post office which just happened to also stock a washing machine and a couple of refrigerators. Continuing north on the eastern side of Lake Sevan, we visited a centre for apiculture and learned about the bees and how honey is made in a fascinating two-hour visit which culminated in some honey tasting before an overnight in the popular eco-tourism village of Gosh, well worth the detour for its pristine mountain feel. The newly opened guesthouse there was truly a lap of luxury.
We followed a very obscure road, heading north past the town of Ijevan, the Mother Armenia statue and Voskepar, once again on the border of Azerbaijan, where we visited the local cemetery with views of the border zones below. The route then turns west, to the areas closer to Georgia. Haghpat was the one monastery we really did focus on, a World Heritage Site dating back to 976 AD. In the largely industrial town of Alaverdi there is an unlikely double world heritage site, the Sanahin bridge, built in 1195 by order of Queen Vaneni, as well as the monastery of Sanahin. The nearby village of Dzegh is another notable one and includes the birth house of famous poet Hovhannes Tumanyan.
Next day was more athletic, featuring rafting in the Debet river. Our guide for this was an Indian guy from Uttarakhand who had decided to spend his summer – and Indian’s rainy season when his rafting expertise was not needed – far from his home in the magical vistas of Armenia. Our guide Shush had serious misgivings about the rafting experience, but the eight guys with her certainly made sure she would be safe. This activity was truly fun and team-building.
We then aimed south to Vanadzor, Armenia’s third city, our first time in a major town since Kapan, where most of us enjoyed the creature comforts of a café. We visited the broken glass, faded mosaics and general remains of the Artek Pioneer Camp which was modelled after a prestigious facility of the same name in Crimea. And to top it all, we met Master Bogdan at his workshop in Vanadzor. He is one of the last who creates khachkars, the heavy, famed crosses that have a centuries old tradition.
With such a varied itinerary, one may wonder what was left but on the last day we had a hike to an abandoned old Pioneer camp near the town of Spitak. Here installations such as the defunct bowling alley or swimming pool, still gloriously tiled with Soviet motifs, are truiy breathtaking for those in the mood for this. And finally an underground nuclear bunker experience topped it off. After a week of such diversity, getting back to the capital Yerevan seemed unreal but we were in for a sombre visit to the Yerablur Military Memorial Cemetery, built after the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s. Given our trip was unfittingly taking place in the last week of September, just as thousands of ethnic Armenians were leaving their homes in Karabakh, possibly forever, this was a silent, chilling and poignant experience amidst flags at endless tombstones. This was the only occasion when our cameras stayed firmly in our pockets.
We had all been very surprised by an incredible trip including culinary delights at every step, learning so many unknown facets of this unique country. Given the satisfaction of the group and the very reasonable overall price of less than $1500 all-inclusive for a whole week (NomadMania doesn’t charge a mark-up), the biggest surprise was that this never-done-before itinerary almost didn’t happen, as so few people showed interest. The reason for this is one of the bigger mysteries… but the eight who did make it, apart from getting our thanks, are also bonded for life with their common memories of an amazing NomadMania adventure.