17/6/11 27 °C
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.
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.
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.
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.
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......
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.