The cramped minivan, the tour operator’s logo boldly emblazoned on its sides, bounced along the dusty main road leading to the outskirts of Yerevan. Sitting in companionable silence, occasionally jolted by an unexpected pothole, I sat among a mixed group of Armenian, American and German tourists.
The bustling streets of Yerevan receded into the rearview mirror, replaced by low concrete dwellings, parched grayish-brown fields, and sudden patches of lush green vineyards. Weathered men and women gathered stones and weeds beneath the scorching sun, before vanishing like specks of dust in the vast expanse of desert landscape.
Our twenty-something-year-old tour guide for our day trip to Tatev, in the southernmost region of Armenia, sat in the front seat, a mop of curly brown hair falling over her crisp white vest complete with the company logo. She pointed something out and rattled off a long explanation in Armenian. The Armenian speakers nodded.
“This, what you see on the right is the Mount Ararat” she said switching to English. The mountain, whose snowy peaks loomed so vividly in the morning air, appeared almost within reach.
“And here you can see this road,” she said pointing. “If you take it, you go to the Turkey,” she said, her voice fluctuating with the sing-song cadence of a well-rehearsed speech. “But you don’t want to go to the Turkey because of the border is closed. The main reason for this is the Turkey does not recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
One of the American passengers made her way toward the front, hanging on to the rows of seats as the minivan swerved across the road. “Excuse me,” she said to the guide. “We can’t hear anything you’re saying. Can you turn the mic up?”
“Here you can see this road to the left,” the guide said raising her voice above the rattle of the engine and the wheezing of the air conditioning spewing out a lukewarm breeze. An unpaved track led off into the distance. “It goes to the Azerbaijan. Better not to go there. Azerbaijan does not recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenian region and there is very dangerous,” she said.
Perceiving a vague sense of unease settle among her audience, she added “But not to worry, we will not go to the Azerbaijan.” The passengers tittered apprehensively. “And here you see if you go straight, you go to Iran,” she said. “But with Iran no problem,” she reassured us.
After a brief stop at the stunning 13th century monastery of Noravank, built in apricot-colored stone nestled among the rugged cliffs of the Vayk Mountains, the minivan pulled onto the road again. Two hours later, it squeezed into a packed parking lot below the monastery of Tatev. A cable car optimistically called “Wings of Tatev,” recently built by a Swiss company in an effort to boost tourism, would carry us to the 12th century edifice, built on the brink of a steep precipice.
We made our way toward a muddled mass of people waiting for the ride up.
“I need space,” moaned a German tourist as the crowd of sweaty, restless visitors elbowed and squeezed its way to the front. Small groups of locals, flocking to Tatev for a national holiday, mumbled something vaguely apologetic as they brushed past.
A stout elderly woman in front of us, sporting a shock of prune-colored hair, beckoned to her friends in the back. My group of foreigners let out a collective groan as we refused to let them pass. The woman squawked in outrage and shot withering glances our way as we shuffled along in line. An hour later, her friends slipped past us and crammed into the cable car.
Once inside, a sign in red letters read “Maximum 25 people.” I looked around at the clammy mass of humanity. “There must be more than 25 people,” I said to one of my tour companions. He agreed cheerfully. “I counted at least 30,” he said. Good old Swiss technology, I thought. They must have factored in a couple of extra pounds. Another German woman in our group turned to me. “I heard the contract with the Swiss company doing the safety checks expired two years ago,” she said matter-of-factly.
The monastery, surrounded by imposing walls of gray stone, was perched precariously over a breathtaking gorge dropping hundreds of feet below us. A dusty winding road snaked its way across the craggy mountain peaks, overgrown with low shrubs and coarse dark grass. Within the shadowy main church, the cool and musty air smelled faintly of candle wax. The thick, irregular stone walls were cold and damp as if, over the centuries, they had slowly absorbed the foggy breath of thousands of whispered prayers.
Later, part of my tour group was whiling away the time watching a man polish his black Nissan in the nearly deserted parking lot. He had been working on it for the past two hours. The other part of my group had opted to splurge on a three-course meal at the restaurant, got stuck in the cable car line, and witnessed a brawl as expert line jumpers, tourists and locals alike squabbled in a multicultural melting pot of enraged idioms and clashing values.
By the time our guide reappeared with the stranded tourists, her curls standing in uneven wisps and tiny beads of moisture glistening on her temples, the sun was slowly sliding behind one of the cliffs and everyone was in a foul mood. “This is ridiculous” an American muttered audibly. “We want a refund.”
In the minivan an American tourist, in her early twenties, let out a long, desolate wail. “The air conditioning isn’t working,” she gasped. “I can’t breathe, I need air.” The driver cranked down the window.
“Just one more stop to the Karahunj, the Armenian Stonehenge,” our tour guide chirped, blotting her face with a crumpled Kleenex and sinking back into her seat.
A short half-hour later heads swiveled to the left as we stared at a perfectly concentric circle of flat slabs of stone set vertically into the packed earth, surrounded by miles of wind-swept heath. In the center of the circle, a group of men and women sat cross-legged like modern-day druids performing an ancient religious ceremony. We fumbled to unsheathe our cameras.
“No, no, that is not the Karahunj,” our guide said, recovering from her stupor and reemerging from the depths of her seat, her hair now sticking in tufts to one side of her head. “Everybody is always confusing, but that Stonehenge was build last year,” she said. We lowered our cameras.
The minivan turned right into a steep dirt road rattling along the stony incline, its suspension sorely tested, and came to a jerking halt before a heap of lichen-covered stones lying in disarray on the grassy turf. Sheep grazed peacefully in the background and a sudden cold wind whipped across the rolling hills as the last rays of the sun retreated beyond the wilderness.
“This is the Karahunj, the Armenian Stonehenge,” our guide said as we stumbled among the capsized pillars bearing witness to the inevitable decline of a long-gone era. “It was build 3,500 years before Stonehenge in Scotland and also before pyramids in Egypt,” she assured us.
Back in the minivan, we rattled down the main road heading toward Yerevan at breakneck speed, a mere three hours behind schedule. Too tired to comment or complain, the passengers settled into a drowsy silence.
I leaned back into my seat and, despite the ominous smell of burnt rubber wafting into the minivan as the driver hit the brakes along the hairpin curves, decided I could consider my day fairly successful. I had not plummeted to my death in a “Wings of Tatev” cable car disaster and—as of yet—had not met an untimely end crushed to smithereens in a minivan accident.
Out the window the lonesome landscape stretched beyond the main road. Beneath the towering, shadowy outline of the mountains, brief flickers of light from tiny ramshackle villages raced by. In between was darkness.
“You can’t be afraid to be alone to live in one of these houses,” the traveler sitting next to me said as he launched into a bone-chilling tale involving an isolated house, a mountain lion, and a man and his un-dead wife.
Chicago-based journalist Sigrid Lupieri is spending her summer in Armenia and will periodically be sharing her impressions.