A Travellerspoint blog

Xinaliq

An ancient village in the Caucasus

all seasons in one day 15 °C

We finally managed to leave Baku and headed north on a bus to the town of Quba (pronounced Guba). This took us through the usual scrubby and rather dismal desert that surrounds Baku and into a higher, lusher area which is famous for its apples and carpets. Our destination was a small village that was high up in the Caucasus, called Xinaliq (pronounced Khinalic).

We spent the night in Quba, a pleasant small Azeri town, which has a small carpet factory, a market and a bus station and reputedly, the best shwarma in Azerbaijan. They were pretty good.

Although I liked the town, I spent a large amount of the time nursing a tooth abscess, which had chosen that day to become nearly too painful to think straight. I wondered at the wisdom of going to a remote village at 2350-metre height in that amount of pain - maybe the altitude would make it worse and there certainly wouldn't be any dentists there. However, I decided that I may as well suffer surrounded by beautiful mountains rather than in a hot, dusty town and we managed to find some cheap transport up there early the next morning. The road was quite a steep climb, through beautiful, remote, grassy mountains with little sign of habitation. Eventually we reached a small wind-swept village.

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All I knew about Xinaliq was that it was an ancient village built on a hilltop in the mountains, consisting of traditional mud and stone buildings. Now that the road had been improved and satellite dishes had arrived, it was, inevitably, becoming more and more modern and the traditional ways were threatened. This was probably a last chance to see it before it became radically changed. I worried that we might have been too late as there seemed to be rather a lot of blue plastic tarpaulins and corrugated iron roofs in sight.

We were dropped off at the bottom of the village, which seemed to be made up of steep muddy paths leading to houses. The wind was bitter and my clothes totally inadequate. I had imagined my arrival (always an unwise thing to do) totally differently. At last, I'd thought, a chance to properly stay in a family house in a village. All we needed to do would be to hang around a central area waiting for people to come up and offer us places to stay. Instead we climbed up the steep, rocky paths to look for anyone at all. There was a small village shop that sold a few things that the locals didn't produce themselves - sweets, tea, biscuits, beer vodka and the inevitable cheap Chinese products you see in many shops around the world.

There were a couple of people in the shop, hiding from the biting wind and they looked at us with mild interest as we walked in. There was no rush to offer us accommodation and it seemed that there was a Guest House down the road by the river so we headed back down again.

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Eventually we were settled in a large empty house with two big bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen and sitting room downstairs, which we were to have ourselves, with food brought to us. Not quite what we had expected, but we had lots of space! Soon the day cleared and we went back to the village to look around. We walked past the next house where a family were making mud bricks, which they left to dry in the sun. They told us that they had 3 houses, two near the river and one up in the village. This was easy, they told us, when the bricks came from the ground, the stones came from the river bed and there seemed endless space around to build in.

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Everything started to look a lot better in the warm sun and I was noticing the traditional mud houses, rather than the blue plastic sheeting and the shiny tin roofs. We'd been told that there was a wedding on in the village, which was an event attended by everyone there at some point - they run over 3 days and only happen in the summer. As we walked around the lanes, we realised that the people were much friendlier than they had first appeared and had a few very limited conversations. We met the school teacher, who spoke English and was able to tell us lots about the village.

When we heard some loud music, we followed it to a blue plastic lean-to construction in which people were dancing. A couple of men told me to go and take photos as that’s what tourists do, and so I willingly obliged. The first people I photographed were a couple of women who were very shy at first, but soon one of them dragged me off to her house nearby and fed me tea. She told me off for not having come to stay with her, showed me photos of other foreigners that had stayed with them and then tried to sell me a pair of knitted slippers. I was itching to get back and see the wedding party but the music abruptly stopped and everyone went home. When we passed by again, the blue plastic was being dismantled. I imagined I’d had the bad luck to arrive on the last day of the wedding.

We wandered around the paths some more then and walked a bit away from the village. It’s hard to describe it without using the words "nestled" and "perched", but it was a village perched on top of a hill, nestled in the mountains! As I said, the houses were made of local stone from the river bed with mud roofs, with newer bits built in a haphazard manner. Each house had a large stack of dried cow manure, ready for the winter.

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The next morning we decided to take a short walk up in the mountains for the morning and come back down to the village in the afternoon. The weather had become much warmer and sunnier and we walked up behind the village towards some small mountains. Those of you that have been following my blog know that I love walking up mountains and find it hard not to go just a little bit further than I intend. Unfortunately, this is coupled with a deep fear of going down anything slippery or very steep. I try and forget this fact when I’m going up and optimistically hope that it will have changed by the time I go back down.

Inevitably the one we decided to walk to the top of was a lot steeper and further away than it looked. The last bit was mainly composed of slidey, slippery shale which was even hard to climb up. However, the view was certainly more than worth the effort and not only did I, unusually, have no accidents, even minor ones, but the altitude seemed to have made my tooth better!

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Just as we got to the top and were sitting relaxing and taking in the scenery, I could hear the music start up again. As it had only lasted a short while the day before, I was pretty sure that it would finish just as we got back there. I so wanted to be able to take photos at the wedding, but it looked a long and slippery way back down the mountain and given my track record of injuries, I realised I should really not rush! You might think I'm going about this too much, but my time in the Caucasus was often dominated by this! I'm absolutely fine looking over the edge of the steepest drop but once things start to slide, it’s my idea of hell. Going down the steep shale I did wonder why I liked mountains so much and the why I was spending so much time in them - but what is life if we don't challenge our fears? I eventually got into just sliding down - it was certainly quicker that way! As we walked back the music wailed out across the mountains, sounding so very wild and exotic. I imagined a band of strange Azeri instruments. Every time it paused I was sure it had stopped completely and they were packing up the blue plastic.

Luckily I was wrong and the blue plastic had just been moved to a different place. This time it was full of young people dancing. The wild and exotic music was being made by one man on an electric organ and another on a drum. Weddings in Xinaliq are in two parts- one at the bride’s house and one at the grooms. We were at the bride's, who looked very young sitting there with her friends. She was 17, quite old by past standards. This marriage had been a "love match", but they are often still arranged by the families.
People were dancing to the music. Often the girls would dance gracefully with each other, while the boys pranced around in good natured competition with each other, resembling crowing cockerels. Occasionally a man threw money onto the dance-floor and the little boys ran around picking it up, making a pretence of trying to keep it before handing it over. Everyone was very welcoming and once I started taking photos, they wouldn't let me stop and various combinations of people were thrust in front of me. We had become celebrities in the village and were greeted warmly for the rest of our short stay there.

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The Xinali are a Caucasian race (as is to be expected in the Caucasus!) and look somewhat different from other Azeris, who are a dark Turkic race. They are lighter skinned and haired and have a definite mountain appearance to them. The man who’d driven us up to the village, and was from it himself, had reminded me of someone I know back home. When we got there I realised that several other people did too! They all had similar features and sometimes I got different people mixed up with each other. This is to be expected in such a remote place where everyone is related to each other, I suppose. In recent years life has changed a lot with constant electricity; running water; different building materials; TV with numerous channels from all over the world; a school and of course, mobile phones. However they are also very proud of and aware of their culture and traditional lifestyle: the school teaches in Xinali (a language unrelated to any other); marriages are celebrated by the whole community and a large proportion of the men take their sheep many days trek away to graze in the lowlands for the whole winter.

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I'm always surprised how different places can be from first impressions and that its best not to have any expectations, though hard not to. Xinaliq is definitely such a place. I'd like to go back again for a proper visit, not just for the beauty around it, but also to see how their traditional community is adapting to rapidly changing lifestyles and technology.

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I managed to enjoy Quba a bit more this time, visited the carpet factory, ate the best shwarma in Azerbaijan, looked at the market, reassured some police that I wasn't a spy - they tourists round there - and then it was time to travel on.

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Posted by sue deegan 5/4/12 03:16 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (0)

Goris

sunny 27 °C

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I had great hopes for Goris. Like Sisian, it seemed like a good place to stay for a few days to explore the area, but it sounded a lot less functional and more attractive. As the Mashrutka slowly wound its way down the valley, I was surprised to see the town was much bigger than I expected. We were set off in the town centre and yet I had the stupidly optimistic idea that it would be nice to find a cafe, have some much needed breakfast and get our bearings before we looked for somewhere to stay. As it was we eventually found a shop and sat on the disused fountain in the square to eat and drink and try and make sense of the, so far, useless map. As we were sitting there eating and looking around in mild disappointment, a fellow traveller passed by and stopped to talk to us. "Bit of a disappointment isn't it?" He said. I was loath to give immediate judgement, but my heart sank. However, he was staying in one of the hostels we were hoping to find and offered to take us there. We followed him and ended up in one of my favourite places to stay in Armenia. The hostess was a warm, friendly woman called Nadia, who lived in another part of the house with her family. It was connected to the two guest rooms by a spacious wooden veranda which was dominated by a large wooden table. After settling in we dashed off with our new friend, who wanted to see "Old Goris" before he was taking a taxi to a monastery another town later that day.

Its a funny thing when you are travelling, you make friends so quickly, spend a bit of time doing things with them and then realise you sometimes don't even know (or can't remember) their names but you know their nationality! This man was English, but had lived in Canada for a long time, and seemed to be trying to break some rapid travel record. None of us actually knew what Old Goris was going to be like and were expecting it just to be an older part of the town, which it was at first until we crossed the bridge and were faced with an impressive area of "Fairy Chimneys" and caves very similar to those in Cappadocia, Turkey, but here the surrounding hills were higher and a lot greener. I had just intended to have a quick look at the area and then come back later in the day when the light would be better for photos, but we were drawn upwards by the winding path into the hills. We came to a point where the path where you could either go off into the hill or climb up a steep hill that overlooked the town. The speedy man decided that he had time to run up the hill before going back to meet his taxi. I, however had something much more important to do as I'd seen my first Armenian goats!

When I was an 18 year old, flamboyantly dressed hippy, someone told me that I reminded him of an Armenian goatherd. I didn't have any idea, nor did he, of what one looked like, but it stuck at the back of my mind all those years. When the idea came up to travel there, I jumped at the chance to check it out. The only trouble was that I was several days in and I still hadn't seen a goat, even through a bus window. So when I spotted a herd, there was only one thing to do and that was to get some photographic evidence! It involved climbing over fences and down rocks to get to the goats and running then around like Heidi (in MY mind I was), while Rob tried to run round the other way and catch the moment in camera. Unfortunately, I never did find any goatherds to photograph compare them to, but I think it was pretty clear that I bore very little resemblance to one. I dealt with the disappointment - eventually.

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Having annoyed the goats enough, we went back to the path and met up with our puzzled-looking English friend coming down - I just felt that it might be better not trying to explain, and we carried on up to the top of the hill. The view over the town was very impressive, as were the hills behind who were luring me to continue walking into them.

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We went back up to that area a few more times while we were there. After leaving the road, the path wound through a cemetery before going into the hills. One day as we were coming back down we were spotted by some workmen sitting down amongst the graves, eating a late lunch. They waived us over and insisted that we should join them. There was hot chicken stew, salads, freshly made flat bread and local cheese. It was delicious, as was the home-made fruit vodka which they were drinking. In case you're new to my blogs, I should point out here that I'm not much of a drinker and don't like the taste of most alcohol. I do usually, however, have an impressive ability to knock back neat shots of vodka, which I learnt when travelling through Central Asia and improved on in the Caucasus. The first large shot, which toasted Armenia was nicely warming, the second toasted the England and was pretty poky. One of the workers was, surprisingly, from Azerbaijan, and given the conflict between the two countries, it would have been very rude not to toast his country as well. After that one I sat there in a state of near hallucination, while the workmen gathered up their industrial power tools, minus any protective clothing and proceeded to work on the tombstones. I waited a few minutes till the world stopped warping in and out and staggered back to the house.

A few miles out of Goris, was a village called Khazdzoresk, where there was another area of caves. Nadia, our hostess, had a friend who lived there and also arranged a cheap taxi to drop us off at her house. As we drove over the hills to the village in the beautiful early morning sunlight, the elderly driver had on a mixed selection of traditional and modern Armenian music. I happily sat there thinking how much more special it was when you heard local music as you travelled along .... "Yo, yo f..k you beeatch" suddenly blared out of the speakers as we neared the village, reminding me not to be too precious! In England, we quantify music quite a lot, label it and expect it to be listened to by certain groups of people, but I've noticed that this isn't necessarily the case in many other countries, especially those with Soviet connections. I've seen old ladies (not just me), tapping their feet to rap and teenagers doing traditional Kyrgyz dances to Russian techno, just because they like the beat.

We arrived at an amazingly small wooden house which Nadia's friend shared with quite a lot of family. Although we'd eaten breakfast, she sat us down and made us Armenian coffee, walnuts, sweets and popcorn. Her sister-in-law arrived and we all sat around trying to communicate in the usual hotch-potch way. They had so little but they were determined to show us as much hospitality as they could and I was reminded of the sisters-in-law who had been so kind in Azerbaijan. After an hour, we took our leave and she pointed out the road to the caves, which turned out to be quite a lot further and harder to get to than I thought they would be. They looked magnificent from the road and spanned quite a distance on either side of a valley, but there were a lot of sheer drops and rock cliffs and it took a while to find a path down. Eventually one became clear and we set off down into the valley.

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Caves at Khazdzoresk

Caves at Khazdzoresk

The caves nearer the bottom of the valley were used for animal food storage and in the distance, I could see a man riding down the steep path on his horse. After a while, he came back up the hill to talk to us. He told us he was 78 and that he lived quite far away and came every day to check on his cows. I was so impressed by his agility - obviously he knew the paths around there so well, but they certainly weren't easy walking for an old man. We "chatted" for a while and then he carried on looking after his animals, meeting us at the bottom to show us his horse, which he then leaped on and rode off into the hills.

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Once the old man had gone, we were left to ourselves in the valley which rose steeply on the other side. The lower parts of the valley were full of the cave houses, a lot of them were in obvious use for animals. They carried on up the hill, petering out towards the top. There was an obvious path on that side and a stream running down the middle. I'm not sure why we started walking on the other side of the stream to the path, I think we just got lured by the houses and just kept seeing more interesting ones just a bit further ahead. Eventually I found my dream house, with a two good sized rooms and a nice bit of lawn in the front and considered moving in. By this time the sun was beating down and we were halfway up the hill, albeit the easiest part. The path in the distance looked fairly easy but the stream had etched out a deep chasm and there was no way across. It was hard to see if there was a possible way up from where we were and there were some pretty imposing sheer rock faces that I certainly wasn't going near. We now had to decide whether to carry on and hopefully find a path or to go back down, cross the stream and find the obvious path on the other side. Stubbornness and my strong dislike of going down steep hills won and we carried on up in a route that was becoming more bizarre and hopeless looking and I started to remember some of those TV programmes where stupid, unprepared people get lost or fall off cliffs in remote areas. We had water but no food and my legs were becoming wobbly from low blood sugar, heat and the seemingly inevitability of going back down the way we came. Just as we were deciding on this, a small hunched figure with a stick and a large sack on his back seemed to appear out of nowhere, if I had been in Ireland I would have seriously suspected that he was a Leprechaun! We all sat down on the grass and he pointed out that he was going up to the top and would show us the way. He opened the sack and produced some freshly picked walnuts, we provided some water and cigarettes and soon all was well with the world. Our saviour was in his eighties and I've never seen such a sprightly old man. So much so, that when he stood up and indicated that it was time to carry on, we were both struggling to keep with him - even Rob, who often annoyed me so much by his ability to walk up the steepest slopes without appearing to get out of breath. After a couple of cunning twists and turns, the steep path up the hill became obvious and the old man turned and waived, adjusted his sack and disappeared in the twinkling of an eye. Maybe there is an Armenian type of Leprechaun......

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While we were at Nadia's house, a large group arrived from Yerevan to stay. They worked for an Armenian bank and came down every year for work. I was expecting a sedate bunch, having experienced the Armenian ability to be solemn and thinking bankers would be very serious people, but I was completely taken aback by their friendliness. They were hilarious, swept me into their group and showered me with hospitality. They all spoke fluent English and were able to explain to me so much about life in Armenia as they experienced it. They talked about politics; the problems with Azerbaijan, the economy and relationships with Turkey. They hoped that the border would open, which they felt could happen if Turkey admitted to its past faults. While we were talking, one of the men started crying and sat there with tears rolling down his face. "He always does this when we talk about the genocide" I was reassured "His grandparents were killed and it makes him sad, don't worry." Sure enough after a couple of minutes he stopped and carried on as before.

I was a bit taken aback when one man told me he was completely shocked as he'd heard that English people could insult each others parents. I wasn't sure what he meant but said that maybe close friends would joke about it, knowing it wasn't meant. "If anyone said anything bad about my mother, even as a joke, I would have to kill them!" I was told seriously. "Not just fight, but kill. We Armenians love blood too much!" Luckily I managed not to insult anyone's family and we left on the best of terms.

Far from disappointing me, Goris had become better and better as I'd got to know it. Sure there were the usual ugly soviet buildings, but I hardly noticed them any more, but did see the beautiful old buildings and autumn trees and had met some friendly, interesting people. We left Goris for a couple of days to go to a small town in the south called Tatev. There was a famous monastery there and a cable car to it had just opened, which was claimed to be the longest cable car in the world. After that we would return to Goris and carry on to the Nagorno Karabach, the country which officially doesn't exist.

Posted by sue deegan 06:33 Archived in Armenia Tagged landscapes mountains bridges buildings trees village caves backpacking ancient armenia caucusus cave_cities Comments (0)

More days in Sisian

sunny 27 °C

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Although it has a beautifully restored 6th Centuary church, set up on the hillside, the main part of the town of Sisian was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1930’s. This means that while there are a few pleasant spaces in the town and the river and the surrounding countryside are beautiful, the town itself has the same decayed sovietism of Jermuk, without the evidence of modern tourism springing up. There didn’t seem to be a lot of money for re-building here though.

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VIEW OF SISIAN OVER THE OLD FOUNTAIN

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WORKING PETROL PUMPS

The welcoming manageress at the hotel became less so when it became apparent that we were resisting her advice to change to the more expensive rooms. In fact, once the group of musicians that were staying there had left, the heating got turned off and the water remained icy cold. Her directions suffered as well: the day before she had come back from shopping to tell us how to get to Carahunge, now she merely cryptically grunted “Take the road here and turn left at the animals” instead of the more complicated information we needed to a place several kilometers away. But it was a good place to stop and explore the surrounding area so we stayed a bit longer.

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SUNDAY LUNCH IN THE MAIN SQUARE

When you’re travelling on limited resources in the Caucasus, if you want a change from shop bought bread, cheese, local sausage, tomatoes and cucumber, you need to find a cheap café. I’ve already mentioned the wonderful Georgian dumplings and other highly calorific cheap foods available. The problem there was finding the cafes to eat them in as they seemed hidden away at first, though after a while you get your eye in and they seem obvious. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is over-flowing with visible cafes, unfortunately they are full of men, both working and eating there and drinking endless cups of tea. There are no women to be seen anywhere in them outside of Baku, the capital, although foreign women are generally accepted as honorary men - and you get stared at for being foreign anyway. The trick there is to find the friendlier staring men’s café! Yerevan is full of all sorts of cafes, obviously cafes and full of both men and women. Out of Yerevan, Armenia really didn't seem to do a lot of cheap cafes; there are obviously a lot of other things people need to spend their money on there.

We found two cafes in Sisian. The first was cheap and just across the road from our hotel; the other was right next to the river and was more expensive. The cheap café was run from early in the morning to late at night by a Russian-looking woman of the shot-put stereo-type variety I mentioned in my last blog. She was not a happy bunny. There is, I’ve heard, a café in New York which is famous for its bad-tempered waitresses, people flock there to be insulted and this one could have come a close second. The menu in our café was written in Russian, Armenian and English and I tried to read the Russian, not really difficult when it comes to food and there was very little choice. The waitress would repeat the English version in a near comedy Russian accent, look very disapproving and say “You sure you vant zis?” At first I really did think she was joking and I think this may have been my downfall as either she got more unfriendly in a less comical way or the joke just began to wear thin, but I think we had quite a unique love/hate relationship going for a while. The other place to eat was more expensive but was run by an incredibly friendly but rather excessively house-proud woman and was extremely clean. This should have been a good thing had I not arrived there after a day’s walk in the hills in travel-stained clothes, greasy hair and grubby fingernails (no point going back to the cold hotel with freezing water to clean up first), which she would politely pretend not to have noticed. It also had the best Goulash in the world.

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THE ANIMALS

One day we walked out of town a few kilometres, straight on and left past the animals, as instructed, to a 18m high water-fall, which is used for a hydro-electric power station. Some days it’s on and others its off. Of course I went on an off day, though I was still impressed as I'd approached it from the top looking down. The ground and the rocks around the river looked surprisingly purple. We were approached by a man who offered to have the waterfall turned on for a fairly hefty amount of money, which we declined, but he didn't seem surprised. We walked back into town an easier and as we neared town a car full of local people stopped, stared in amazement at us and immediately took out their phones, some to call people about the foreigners, while the others took our photos. When I produced my camera to photograph them, they all thought that was hilarious and we all had a good natured laugh at each other before they drove off beeping.

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The more time I spent in Sisian , the friendlier the people became - except the fore mentioned hotel and cafe women of course - and I found myself lingering more on the outskirts interacting with people and taking a few photos. I don't think it was that they were getting used to me as the areas I was going to were different, more that I was beginning to get used to them.

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The one daily bus to Goris, the next place on our trip left first thing in the morning, as I was getting my stuff ready I realised that my "very private" notebook, where I wrote down all sorts of things and feelings of the moments, was missing. A lot of you will know I mislay things quite frequently and so travelling can be challenging in this way for me, but I had tried to keep track of it. My heart sank as I remembered taking it to the "grumpy cafe" the day before. I could just imagine the cross Russian woman reading it and laughing at my innermost thoughts! I still had time to get it before the bus went and it had been open for breakfast the last few days - but not today! If it had been any other place, I would have left it there and imagined that they would just throw it away, but this woman had seemed to have taken malicious delight in my discomfort (so it seemed early in the morning) and I was determined to get my book back! After a while knocking , she eventually came to the door and I hurriedly asked for my book, which she knew nothing about. Now she had good reason to be grumpy with me, but she just seemed puzzled. I then remembered going into some shops nearby after the cafe and mumbling a vague apology, rushed into the only open one, where the man immediately produced my book as I went in the door. I thanked him, made the bus and promised myself to keep it a lot safer in the future.

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Posted by sue deegan 11:26 Archived in Armenia Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes churches people children water armenia caucusus carahunge Comments (1)

Sissian and how to get there

Armenian Stonehenge

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We got up at a unpleasantly early time to take the only Mashrutka back to my favourite town of Vayk, then quickly catch another south to a town called Sissian. We'd become spoilt in the last few days by being brought breakfast in our warm sitting room. These breakfast were so large and diverse that we'd saved them for lunch too. We got to the only bus stop in town early and waited in the cold rain for the bus, which was late. A taxi driver came up and told us we were at the wrong place, the right one was miles away, but he could take us there for a large sum of money and if we hurried we would catch it. I was pretty unimpressed, cold, wet and bored with all the slyness we'd met so far. When the Mashrutka came it soon filled up with equally grumpy passengers.

What a difference arriving back in Vayk this time! Instead of being dusty, late and uninspiring, it was wet, early and uninspiring! I know I'm being unfair to the town as I only saw a tiny part of it, I'm sure if I'd spent time there I would have started to know and like the people.

But what I did see this time, was different cafe next to the Mashrutka stop, run by a cheerful, friendly woman who plied us with hot Sorch at the correct price and we chatted about our lives, not an easy task with my limited Russian and Armenian and her limited English, often using scraps of paper to illustrate. Meanwhile taxi drivers hovered around outside like wasps. She tried to explain the transport system there, which seems obvious now, but then it just seemed so confusing, though it gradually began to sink in. Basically, a lot arrived there from the capital, Yerevan, in the north, hovered outside tantalisingly for a few minutes, turned round and went back again. Some didn't turn round but were already totally and utterly full and were mainly going to Stepanakert, the capital of a country that officially doesn't exist, which I'll tell you about in a future blog. We wanted to go to a town a few miles off the main road, so there weren't many buses going there. The map I'd looked at didn't make it clear that it was so far off the main road, which added to the confusion. Don't worry, she said/mimed someone will tell us when one gets here, maybe one hour.

We spent several hours there. The rain eased and I went outside to find a French couple we'd met in Yerevan cycling along the road and chatted for a while. There were a couple of make-shift stall around with people selling phone credit, fruit and veg and the ubiquitous seeds. Seeds aren't something that we do in England, but they are common in so many other countries and I learned how to eat them in China. They are toasted, salted and are usually sunflower, pumpkin or melon. The knack that works for me is :- hold them sideways up, point inwards, between the teeth and push them slowly into your mouth as you give three or four gentle cracks along the sides with your teeth. The third or fourth time it should open enough for you to hook your tongue inside and scoop out the whole kernel, leaving the empty case in your hand. The best ones pop into your mouth by themselves and the worst just disintegrate into a mixture of shell and seed. Its a fantastic way to pass the time, waiting for a bus, sitting on one, or just contemplating life in general. Crack, crack, crack, scoops, eat, crack, crack, crack, scoop, spit, eat and so on. Squatting while you eat them makes them taste better even better. Squatting is something that's not done a lot of in England either and although I've got a lot better at it, especially when my feet are pointing downhill, after a few minutes my legs start to hurt and I have to stand up and pretend to be interested in something else.

The seeds are usually incredibly cheap and usually the street vendors are pretty poor. I bought some from an old lady, who cried as I bought them, and said something long and rambling in Armenian, probably about the plight of seed sellers, and we hugged each other. After that people became a lot friendlier and actively started to help out with Mashrutka situation. Armenian has its own writing, but as I already knew Arabic and most of the Russian letters and had recently learnt the Georgian alphabet, I'd decided not to strain my poor brain with learning yet another - especially as we were only spending three weeks there. However, I couldn't resist pulling out the dog-eared paper with the alphabet on and trying to decipher the destination boards on the Mashrutka windscreens. If I'd be hoping to impress any of the locals, I was sadly disappointed, but I had great fun working them out and cheered myself every time I got one. Eventually I read one that said Sissian, which belonged to an incredibly full Mashrutka and managed to persuade the driver to let us on, the whole town must have been fed up with me by this time and probably begged him to take us away!

I realised, after the last blog, that you, dear readers, mostly get to read the edited highlights. This of course is right, You don't often need to know the details of what I ate for breakfast, the boring times, the details of the haggling, hassling, delays, total incomprehension or any really personal stuff. But, just this once, to give a slightly closer idea of the reality of travel, I've forced you to stick around with me, in a bad mood in boring Vayk while I ramble on about seeds and Mashrutkas.

Anyway after two hours of uncomfortable travel with some friendly people, passing through some breathtakingly beautiful scenery, we arrived in Sissian. We spent some time looking for the cheap hotel only to find it was the big relatively impressive one we'd passed. We asked for one of the cheap rooms which had a balcony and looked out onto the fountain and rose-beds, the helpful English speaker manager came back from her shopping to explain how to walk to Carahunge, or Stone-Henge a few miles away, which was one of the reason we'd come there.

We walked quite a lot of the several kilometres towards Carahunge until a man in an expensive car stopped and insisted on giving us a lift. The majority of Armenians I met don't really see the point of walking for pleasure, so he was quite insistent. We'd had a long day so far, and so we got in. He told us he owned the big hotel, which he pointed to in the distance, spoke perfect English and didn't seem at all worried about driving his car over the bumpy track that led to the site. "Any problems at all, just contact me", he told us as he dropped us off at the entrance.

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What an impressive site! The sheer number of stones is what hit me first - they seemed to stretch on forever. They varied in size between small child and a large adult, some of them had holes in them at a variety of angles, some pointing at the sky and some at the horizon. Some of the stones were set straight and others were leaning in different directions, maybe having been placed that way or had settled there over the hundreds of years. They seemed to be arranged in a circular pattern, which I walked around taking in the atmosphere and inspecting the separate stones.

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Even without the stones, the scenery would have been beautiful. It's granite cragginess, which I hadn't seen before in the Caucasus, reminded me of Ireland. It was greener than most of the areas I'd seen around, which were mostly parched and yellowish after the long summer, fairly high up and surrounded by mountains, some of which had the start of the winter's snow on their peaks.

We had the place to ourselves, except for small shop and were free to wander wherever we wished. As the sun was getting ready to set, it rained a little, producing a rainbow that stretched over the hillsides. I'd been thinking about a close friend of mine and how much she would have loved it there. She'd had so many misfortunes over the last two years, but was getting married the next day in England. As I watched the rainbow I wished them both better times and a happy marriage.

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We went into the shop before we left, which sold a few postcards and had a small collection of books and was run by a young man. He made us welcome and told us his friend was coming to pick him up soon and we could have a lift back into the town. I looked at the diverse books, some of which were in English. Apparently Carahunge or Zorats Karer, is about 7 hectares in and consists of hundreds of standing stones and over 200 stone tombs around the area. I mentioned the stones with holes in and these are thought to have been made to take readings of the movement and positions of the sun, moon and stars. Its been estimated that its at least 7,500 years old, predating our own Stonehenge. There was even a claim that Ancient Britains originated from Armenia and built Stonehenge using their ancient knowledge. A lot was mentioned about it being the point of a special sort of triangle, to do with ratios, between Stonehenge and The Pyramids. The jumble of claims and theories became harder to understand and so I sat and looked at the pictures and chatted to the man in the shop. Soon his friend arrived and we headed back into the town.

Posted by sue deegan 01:54 Archived in Armenia Tagged mountains village sites backpacking ancient armenia carahunge Comments (1)

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