We walked across the border from Iran into Armenia and got the visa for Armenia in just a few minutes. After the border guard had spent quite some time admiring our passports (first NZ passport he’d seen) we then had to wait for the exchange guy to finish his coffee break before we could get some local currency and a taxi to nearby Meghri. No-one was in a hurry. The taxi driver drove incredibly slowly and tried to convince us to let him drive us much further than we needed. We were not convinced. He spoke Russian and while I understood what he said I couldn’t seem to access the Russian in my brain, with Persian and even Maori words mixed in with my rusty Russian replies.
We stayed one night in a pleasant B & B in Meghri before taking the bus through the mountains the next day to Kapan, the southern city of Amernia, for the second workaway experience of our overseas trip.
Kapan is not really on the tourist trail but we stayed for 9 days with a lovely local couple Armen & Siranush. They have an NGO called ARK Armenia whose goals are to promote Southern Armenia as a destination for eco-tourism and build a sustainable future for the region.
It was a bit cold to stay in the eco-camp Ark has created on the hill above Kapan so we stayed in Armen & Siranush’s apartment. It was not big, but they graciously accommodated us on the fold out sofa bed in the living room. This room is where they ate, worked and where Siranush taught her English classes. This room was the ‘Narnia Language Centre’ and had colourful phrases and pictures painted all over the walls.
Siranush was a great cook and had no problem catering for a vegetarian. She was an amazingly capable and positive person, juggling teaching of young students, managing the house and ARK responsibilities and being Armen’s eyes as he was blind. Her meals were delicious, her laughter infectious and we had great wifi access here so we were happy!
The town of Kapan didn’t have any remarkable sights but was pleasant enough surrounded by some towering mountains. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a lot of factories have shut down and the economy has been somewhat repressed. A lot of the apartment buildings and factories around the city were empty. We noticed quite a change from Iran… when we walked around and even sat in a park no one said hello or asked us where we were from. We were completely left alone. Quite a novel experience after the incredible friendliness of Iranians the last two months!
One of the main projects ARK is underway with is mapping hiking routes and constructing eco camps that serve as accommodation along the planned hiking trails, for example from key places like Tatev Monastery to Kapan. The camp above the town of Kapan has been made out of 80% recycled materials. It was very basic with the toilet not working properly when we visited, no drinking water and only cold water showers/ cleaning facilites. The cabins were cute, but really only beds, no space to sit, stand, move or put your backpack (except on the bed). If the weather was good you could enjoy gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.
In amongst the cabins were garden plots. Armen was keen on using permaculture principles in the camp, however my understanding of permaculture (it’s all about the design!) and his idea (throw it all together and see what happens) were quite different! Planting lots of roses amongst the veges and lots and lots of grape vines in a small space didn’t seem so wise to me, but time will tell.
So what did we do on this workaway? Our jobs were varied and suited our skills. Antony helped write a business plan for a further development Armen & Siranush were pursuing. They needed the business plan for a funding application. I put together a programme for a youth camp & pricing, so it could be advertised to target groups. I did some research to find Armenian groups abroad who might be interested in a camp in Kapan and then wrote to them with the sample programme.
We did practical tasks at the eco camp such as build new garden beds and mulch them. We also hiked several trails and used the wikiloc application to map the trails. It was varied and interesting work and not as demanding as the workaway in Iran.
Just above the Kapan eco-camp was a military cemetery. A few days before we’d arrived in Armenia a war had been re-ignited between Armenians and Azerbajanis in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Some of the men from Kapan had gone to fight but at least two were killed and brought back, having their funerals while we were there. Their graves were adorned with so many flowers and flowers arranged into wreaths and what looked a bit like a shield were displayed around the grave on stands.
During one of our walks with Armen an older couple peered over the fence at us walking by and started chatting in Armenian with Armen. They wanted to invite us in for coffee. I said that neither of us drank coffee but to thank them anyway. They then offered ‘compot’ so we agreed to try it. It was a homemade drink the woman had made with apricots from her tree. It was the most delicious thing ever! Armenians really do apricots well- we had the most amazing apricots, apricot jam and apricot with chocolate here in Kapan. After drinking the compot we were also offered the apricots that were in the bottom of the jar. We ate those and walnuts from their tree too. It was nice to sit in their yard, eating and drinking and enjoying the kindness of complete strangers!
Another walk we did was to the second site ARK hopes to develop and offer for accommodation. When we visited, the house had one large bedroom, one smaller room with a bed and a table and a balcony with a table and a sink with running cold water. The long drop toilet was just inside the entrance gate to the property and there were no bathroom facilities. The site needed a lot of work but had good potential and subsequent volunteers have I believe made the place more user-friendly. The views from the balcony were lovely!
After a night in the summer cottage and some rather interesting discussions with Armen (he has very strong, conservative views), we were on our way mapping a new route the following day. It was misty but a beautiful walk with signs of spring emerging in the form of small yellow flowers on the forest floor.
As we got closer to Kapan we came across various abandoned buildings (residential and factories). It highlighted for us the need for new business, new industry, new growth in Kapan – exactly what ARK seeks to promote by developing hiking trails and eco-tourism. We hope they will be very successful in their endeavours!
One day we walked to Vohanavank monastery not far from Kapan. It was a beautiful walk at this time of year (Spring) and the monastic complex from the 10th or 11th century sat nestled in the trees surrounded by hills.
This was the first of many monasteries we visited in Armenia. Like the others the interior was sparsely decorated with a few icons recently hung or placed around the walls and a few candles lit by those who had visited earlier to pray.
After a great workaway placement in Kapan it was goodbye to Armen and Siranush and off to Tatev Monastery in a very old bus!