How I spent 4th of July in Armenia
07/04/2012 - 07/04/2012 79 °F
Armenian bus - notice the natural gas tanks on top to power it
I had an extra day in Vanadzor and was trying to figure out what to do. I hadn't originally planned on hiring a car and driver, so I'd budgeted two days to see the monasteries I did yesterday. Lori Berd had intrigued me, so I picked that as my day's activity. No, that's not some Armenian lady. "Lori" is the region of Armenia that I was in, and "Berd" means castle in Armenian.
I decided to go cheap today (okay, no sarcastic "today?"...!). That meant public transport. For me, the jury is still out on the Armenian people. For every friendly, helpful person there seems to be a liar, scammer or just plain indifferent Armenian. I made it to the bus station about 10 minutes before the bus was to leave and looked around for one with my destination, Stepanavan. While I was looking, an older man came up to "help" me. I told him I was looking for the bus to Stepanavan. Of course, he replied there were no buses - only taxis. This is despite the town's own website listing the times, my guidebook and my B&B hosts. In fact, EVERY public transport I've taken in Armenia and Georgia except for one, somebody is there to lie to the foreign tourist and say they don't exist. And this from two supposedly incredibly welcoming nations.
To show the other side of the coin, I ignored the liar and went inside to the cashier. He said the next one was 10 am, but when I asked about the 8:30 one, he pointed me to the next window. A man who'd been watching me butcher his language helped me find the correct window. The cashier sold me the seat, looked at his watch, and got out of his booth and walked me to the bus. See what I mean? Well, that type of contradiction keeps on happening. When I got to Stepanavan, I decided to visit the self-proclaimed "friendly and helpful, English-speaking staff." I walked in the door and seeing what looked like just an ordinary business office, I asked in my pidgin Armenian if it was the right place. The man and woman did all but put their hands up in front of my face and told me to cool my heels in the hallway - apparently the friendly and helpful English speaker wasn't there, yet. I waited in the hallway, which had no chairs or anything to sit on, for about 20 minutes. I finally grabbed one of the Information Center's card which were in the hallway and opened the door, again, asking "open?". They furiously dialed somebody up on the phone, who told me the English speaker would be there in five minutes. I went outside to the little park nearby and gave them 20. When I returned, Mrs. Friendly & Helpful STILL wasn't there. I twisted their arms to give me one of the free maps they brag about on their website. Of course, it was all in Armenian. To be honest, I don't know if they have English language maps, but that is the implication on their website.
Disgusted, I left and went to snag a taxi to the castle. My feet were still a bit sore, so I decided to taxi the 2.7 miles out and walk back. I'm getting better at communicating with my dozen or so Armenian words, so had no problem getting the taxi driver to understand and also agree to what I'd read was the going rate (1,000 dram or roughly $2.50). I paid close attention on our route so that I could find my way back.
We arrived at the castle ruins with the sun shining under gorgeous blue skies. Lori Berd is even more ruined than Tmogvi, in Georgia. It is on a wide plateau with one side perched on the edge of a steep-sided river canyon. I began my explorations, just a bit disappointed. From the guidebook description, I was expecting it to be more imposing. Entering the arched gateway, I walked along the crumbled walls. Being a history buff, it is really hard to not get jazzed about poking among the ruins of a more than 1,000 year old castle! I reached the corner of the front walls and looked down at the river canyon. It was beautiful, with steep green sides and remnants of walls seeming to peek over the lip of the cliff at the rushing water.
There were a few ruined buildings that I explored, too. One was obviously the castle chapel, and the interior arches reminded me of the monasteries from yesterday. For anyone reading this and planning their own trip to Armenia, I would say in hindsight that there really isn't enough at Lori Berd to justify a special trip. There was one more part df the site to check out, though. In another river gorge on the opposite wall is a humpbacked medieval bridge still standing strong. A rough trail leads down the steep canyon to it, and I shouldered my bag and began to descend. At times I wondered if the trail would peter out like the one at Tmogvi. It didn't, though. After about 10 minutes of playing mountain goat, I was standing on the solid bridge. Of course, I had to cross my arms and channel Monty Python, "None shall pass!"
It was a pretty little spot down there. So, I broke out one of my cliff bars and had my own 4th of July picnic. The scramble up was mostly uneventful, except something either stung my shin or I was jabbed by stickers fairly thoroughly. There are no marks, but it still stings a bit. I began the nearly three mile walk back, stopping to chat with some Armenian farmers, and to take pictures of a village cemetery. I had to cool my heels in Stepanavan for an hour and a half until the next bus. So, I visited the museum to local Communist hero Stepan Shahumain. And yes, that IS how Stepanavan was renamed in his honor. The most interesting part of the museum is they have preserved his house completely and essentially built the museum around it. So, it is a house inside a museum, along with other relics of the city's past. Armenia does not demonize communists the way the West and other parts of the world do. There are monuments in every town to them, as well as post-soviet monuments done in a very Soviet style.
Eventually, it was time to head back to Maghay B&B in Vanadzor - which has been my favorite place I've stayed so far. If you visit Armenia, I highly recommend staying here and visiting the monasteries of Debed Canyon. As for Lori Berd...well, it is a cool,way to spend an hour or two if you're here. I just wouldn't make a special trip for it...