What to do when not hiking…
Well, we are somewhat sidelined. Tom and I celebrated his birthday (last weekend) by staying at one of the Tufenkian hotels 3 hours north of Yerevan. We wanted to complete two of the hikes in the Adventure Armenia book that we enjoy so much. Unfortunately Tom, for the first time, sprained his ankle. But, of course finished the last 2.5 miles of the hike anyway.
Our drive north took us past two Yezidi villages. The Yezidis are one of the most numerous national minorities in Armenia. They speak Kumanji, a northern Kurdish dialiect. Their religion, Sharfardin, was the religion of Kurds in very ancient times (information from a book entitled “We are Yezidis” by Aziz Tamoyan). Their villages are without trees for the most part and their streets are muddy with the hoofprints of herding animals. Yezidi herders spend the summers in tents where they graze their in the high mountains. Now they are returning to their villages.
About 90 minutes from Yerevan we came to the town of Spitak (pop. 14,000+). This town was nearly completely leveled in the 1988 earthquake. Only in the last two years have new apartment buildings,
funded by various European countries, been completed so that residents could move out of temporary housing constructed after the earthquake. We visited the unique sheet metal church that was built after the earthquake to provide church services and we wandered through the cemetery where whole families were buried together. One of the guidebooks that we read noted that few people from Spitak visit the memorial on the hill that the Soviets built after the earthquake, probably because it represents the shoddy Soviet construction that led to the collapse of nearly all the buildings during the earthquake.
From Spitak we drove through the city of Vanadzor (pop. 107,000) an industrial nightmare. In Soviet times a huge complex of chemical factories were situated in the city center and along the banks of the Pambak River for probably 3-4 miles. The factories closed after independence but now a few are working again, except without any wastewater treatment of chemical waste that flows into the river. The wastewater treatment facilities—large primary treatment tanks and cement retention ponds—line the river bank unused and look centuries old.
We also stopped to climb up to the amazing church of Kobair. The government is providing funds
to restore it and the work is in progress. The workers said the frescoes will be repainted by an artist from Italy. An incredible setting.
And finally we arrrived at the hotel in the Debed Canyon where Eurasian griffon vultures (wingspan 280 cm) nest. We saw more than a dozen nests but all are empty now. The Tufenkian hotel is billed as a “luxury” hotel and it is beautiful. The hotel is designed to look a bit like the old stone churches but with a low, broader aspect. The wide balconies of the rooms overlook the Debed River. For us it was hard to forget about the toxic waste that enters the river upstream in Vanadzor. The Tufenkians also own large rug factories in Armenia and Nepal so the tile floors of the spacious reception areas, dining rooms, and hotel rooms are covered with unusual rug designs. Unfortunately for us the hotel was full of wedding guests—lots of little kids running up and down hallways, in the swimming pool and so on. It wasn’t the quiet getaway I had in mind. But the food was delicious.
Chris, the Fulbright Scholar at our environmental center, and a civil engineer just
graduated from the U. of Virginia, came along with us. He found a cheap room in an apartment behind the hotel—5000 drams (about $15.00) but ate his meals with us. The first day the three of us hiked on a trail (probably about 30 people/year follow these trails) that led up a very steep draw to a big plateau surrounded by dry, rocky cliffs. The griffon vultures were circling high above so Tom decided to pretend he was dead to see if they would come down to take a closer look. Chris and I waited about 25 meters away, and, of course, not much happened. Three griffon vultures (they eat internal organs and soft tissue) and a lammergeier (specialize on carrion bones) flew over but they weren’t interested in Tom. Our bird ecologist said that vultures usually watch the carrion for two-three days before going down to eat it because they feed in big flocks—as many as thirty—and have to avoid losing their entire population if something goes wrong. The birds have little or no sense of smell but they do have excellent vision and can detect even small movements. We hiked across the plateau down into the river valley
and then to a village hydroelectric station. The guidebook says, “Don’t be discouraged if the villagers claim it is forbidden to cross the metal footbridge at the station…” And they did. One fellow followed us protesting all the way. We cross the metal footbridge, a rickey wooden ramp that has a huge hole in it, and then up a very steep slope to the road that took us through two highway tunnels back to the hotel.
The second day our driver, who stayed with friends in a nearby village, picked us up for another hike this time from the Haghpat monastery (founded in 976 AD) to the Sanahin monastery (founded in 966AD) by way of the Kayan fortress (even older). Tom sprained his ankled as we left the Kayan fortress—slipped on a steep, grassy slope. Fortunately he had his walking poles and finished the hike. Along the way villagers greeted us with “Barev Dzes” (good day) and a woman and her son insisted that we share their bread and cheese at their picnic where they watched their cattle.
To get to the second hike we passed through the town of Alaverdi, where a mining smelter that looks much
like the one in Butte, MT fills the valley with pollution. The sulfur dioxide levels there are extraordinarily high—any filters that might have worked during Soviet times are not working now. The mining company pays a fine of about $30,000/year as mitigation for the incredible level of pollution.
Tom’s ankle seemed to get worse as the week progressed so on Thursday the AUA nurse made him an appointment at Nairi hospital in Yerevan. This hospital is very modern - presumably a great deal of funding from Europe and/or the US is supporting it. The doctor spoke some English and after examining Tom explained the damage to ligaments and recommended that he rest it, take ibuprofen, and, when he found out Tom’s age gave him the name of a medicine to buy for increasing his blood circulation. We left with only the cost of the medicine to pay. So, this week and weekend we are taking it easy.
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