On the "wings" of a tour...
Armenian girls intraditional dress prepare for a religious cermony at Tatev Monastery
So far, Armenia's mystery holiday had caused me nothing but grief - closing the museums I was looking forward to visiting and turning The Cascade into a waterless oven. Today, though, it was working out for me. Sigrid was able to do a day trip from Yerevan with me. She had been wanting to visit the monasteries of Noravank and Tatev since she'd been there. With only three weeks left in her journalist assignment, she was running out of chances. She found a tour company that would take us to those places plus Zorats Karer, a Stonehenge like stone circle that was on my list.
There were 15 of us in our tour bus, along with a guide and driver. Most of the tourists were Armenian or visiting Armenian-Americans. There was also a German lady (who was also working in Yerevan) and her mother. The guide promptly launched into lengthy commentary as we got underway. She would say her spiel first in Armenian, then in English. As a teacher, I thought it was funny that she didn't put up with people in the bus talking while she was. She shushed Sigrid and I, along with a family of Armenians.
Our first monastery was set high on a hill of red stone. The two churches were both constructed with local stone, which gave them a warm red-gold glow as the morning sun struck them. The sky was a bright blue, combined with our lofty location, made for an amazing panorama. The churches were intricately carved, and the guide pointed out significant points. For example, Christians do not usually depict God's face in art, but above one of the doors was a bearded, patriarchal looking God bestowing a blessing on all who entered. Rich, detailed carvings covered both inside and out. As I'd seen in the monasteries of the Debed Canyon, many people were buried inside and outside the church. You often had to step on their tombstones to enter the doorways. She pointed out lions on some of the tombstones, which in Armenian tradition meant the man was a warrior who'd died bravely in battle.
One church had a second story chapel you had to climb steep, narrow stairs to reach. The stairs and area around them were intricately carved, so tourist were lining up to get photos of the posed atop the staircase. When there was a break in the action, I asked Sigrid if she wanted her picture atop the stairs. That was when I found out she was afraid of heights - which would come into play l later in the day. Unlike most of the monasteries I've visited in Armenia, the second story chapel was bright and airy, it's dome pierced by opening to let in light. Out tour gave us an hour at Noravank, which we appreciated. I am not a fan of guided tours, normally, but I never really felt rushed on this one...which would ALSO come into play, later!
Next up was a lengthy drive to Tatev. Up until recently, Tatev was simply too far south for day trippers to visit. It is reached only winding mountain roads with switchback after switchback. Well, in stepped a Western European consortium headed by the Swiss to rescue this situation. They built a cable car line nearly seven miles long that floated over the final two steep mountain valleys. That seems all in good on the surface. More people will be able to visit this historic monastery perched on its cliff edge. There was only one problem with the master watch makers' idea: there are only two car on the line, each holding 25 people. The journey takes 11 minutes. So, if there are 50 people in line in front of you, you're waiting about a half hour. What if it is a special, mystery holiday and hordes of Armenians decided that makes it a perfect opportunity to finally visit Tatev? And what if your tour company decides the now overloaded and swamped restaurant at the cable car origin is where the group will have lunch? Hmmm...of all the things for the Swiss to NOT factor in - time!
Sigrid, the Germans and I had decided to skip the overpriced restaurant and head straight to the cable car (called the "Wings of Tatev"). So, while the rest of the bus was waiting to be served their lengthy, four course lunch, we waited nearly an hour and then rode the cable car over. Of course, we had to fight off the voracious Armenian line jumpers (old ladies are the worst, by the way). Eventually, Germans, Italian and American flared our elbows and formed our own line version of NATO to hold off the ravening hordes of line jumpers.
Once finally in the cable car, Sigrid's fear of heights kicked in. She was brave, though, and didn't let out a peep when we crossed the two mid-point towers that buoy up the cable line. Once you pass the tower, the cable car momentarily becomes a roller coaster picking up speed as it zooms downward. The view that I could see was spectacular, but we were jammed in like sardines. Today was when I learned not only do Armenians have a different alphabet, they count to 25 differently, too. We had more than 30 squeezed aboard.
Tateve was interesting, but both Sigrid and I felt other Armenian monasteries are nicer. The location is spectacular, true. But the ruins themselves were less impressive than others we'd each visited. Have I become jaded and "monasteried" out? I don't think so. I loved Noravank. Anyway, Sigrid and I took our time, knowing the rest of the group was far behind us, as the line had gotten worse by the time we boarded our cable car. Nevertheless, we both began to get nervous when the t of our group didn't show up. Finally, fearing the worst, we decided to head back. As we waited to board, we examined each group debarking, but didn't see the others. When we ourselves got offon the other side, we did not see them waiting in line. Had they given up and left without us?
No, of course not. We found the Germans already on the other side and they explained that the rest of our bus had been going over to Tatev while we were riding back. So, the four of us sat down and waited. It was a beautiful, cool summer day, so we didn't mind waiting. At first. Cable car after cable car returned without the rest of our group. We continued to wait. It was a full two hours before everyone from our tour bus was back from Tatev. I gave the guide a little feedback, saying they should find a restaurant that didn't have the potential to be overcrowded like this for their lunch stop.
Look like Scotland? Sure did to me!
Of course the long wait made everyone less enthusiastic about our final stop, the Armenian "Stonehenge." It was built around 1500 BC according to archeologists. There's a humorous (for visitors) thing that goes on when you visit Armenia. Everything happened first in Armenia. So, even though Zorats Karer is an estimated 1,500 years younger than Stonehenge, our Armenian guide claimed it predated Stonehenge. What's more, she suggested Stonehenge was built by Armenians who'd immigrated to Britain! Whatever it's age, I'm sure it was just a pile of rocks to many in our bus. To me, a history buff and teacher, it was great. Many of the stones have holes drilled in them by the builders to line up with stars. It is for this reason, it is considered an astronomical observatory by many. Just as Stonehenge was built to foretell each season, many think Zorats Karer did the same.
Once we finished our visit, all that was.eft was the long, three and a half hour drive backup to Yerevan. Although others slept, Sigrid and I filled the time talking about our lives, plans and goals. She is a very driven young woman who should go far in the world. After she finished her journalism job inYerevan, she has a fellowship in Germany next. She's weighing her options to either pursue a journalism career, or one in a more international role like with the United Nations, USAID, etc. My only disappointment was she didn't buy my Loch Ness monster story - everyone normally gets goosebumps on that one!
Though it was a long day, Sigrid and I saw many cool sights and had a great "mystery holiday" weekend together.