Perhaps I got a bit carried away in my last entry in describing the post-Soviet industrial blight that can sometimes be seen along Armenian roads. Let me say that these places are few and far between, and that the diverse beauty of the Armenian countryside (mountains, rivers, plains) is by far the more dominant feature you encounter when traveling Armenia. Let me also say that for the most part, the roads we traveled on this road trip were for the most part nicely maintained, and I felt that traveling in car in Armenia is an ideal way to go.
So now back to the trip itself. We passed through Vanadzor and headed up into the mountainous region of Lori, where rocky cliffs rise above the road and a small green river slowly gnaws away the edges of the canyon. This is splendid country, easily as satisfying as driving the deep canyons of Colorado. The road rises and falls, and you pass through many cool little villages along the way. You see the people who smile and sometimes wave, but more often just go about their business. You wonder what life is like for these people. What they do for a living, how they get by day to day, what they know about world affairs (had they heard about New Orleans?), how many of the children have actually seen a Playstation (perhaps a few, eh?). And then we came upon a very nice new hotel in the area built by a young Armenian rug magnate to boost tourism to the region. It was largely empty, though. We stopped and had coffee there, and then hit the road again, stopping only when we reached a non-descript bend in the road where, high above, there loomed a lonely monastery.
We got out and climbed up a narrow trail, overgrown with weeds, that passed through a very small village. A small boy with a homemade bow and arrow trailed us until we reached the Kobayr Monastery (pictured) about 1/2 a mile up. The view from the small monastery was magnificent. You could see down the canyon to the river, and behind you, because the monastery is basically erected into the cliff, there was rock. In the open dome of the monastery is a lovely fresco, fading, but detailed, of Christ (remember that Armenia is a Christian nation…the FIRST Christian nation, as Armenians are more than ready to tell you). So there we were, taking all this in, all by ourselves.
This is one of the wonderfully satisfying things about Armenia. Because tourism is still so limited, you can find yourself in a place of immense beauty, and as you turn around you realize you are the only one there. No camera-toting American fatsos trundling up the hill from their Winnebagoes, no irritable ticket lady in a booth charging you outrageous fees to visit a monument (hey, the folks at the Taj Mahal…pay attention). It’s just you and the place (OK, and a kid with a bow and arrow). It was really excellent.