People often write about their experiences with Goris Tours. Check out some of their reports here:
A day out with Ara is bettered only by an evening at home with him and his family. This was a unique opportunity for Valerie and Richard, visiting from the UK, to see how Armenians live, and to eat home-grown, home-cooked Armenian food.
Ara and Nelli don’t keep pigs themselves, but they know a man in Khndzoresk who does. A pig was duly purchased, skinned, butchered, marinaded and kebabed. Everything else on the table came from Ara’s garden–beets and green tomatoes pickled by Nelli, the last green beans of the season, and plates of peppers and cucumbers with herbs, plus potatoes straight from the fire. We started with soup–greens and carrots, lentils, rice, potato and herbs in chicken broth that came via a coop, not a cube. The women drank red wine, made with grapes from the garden, and the men drank mulberry vodka, which Ara makes by the gallon.
Toasts are a big part of any Armenian meal, and can cause problems for the unwary but somehow we all survived the full set. Then each person round the table gave a toast (there were 5 of us, not including the kids) and we finished by celebrating all the parents of the world–the people who made us who we are today. Ashot and Hasmik. Melsik and Sona. Brian and Joan. Chris and Mary. Wilson and Greta. Little wonder that Richard was then soundly beaten at chess by Ara’s eight-year old son. Despite foregoing the firewater, I was also routed by the ten-year old son. Ara’s taxi stayed parked outside the house. He called someone else to take us home.
The next post is about a very popular tour of the Sisian region of Syunik Marz. This was a half-day trip but it is possible to extend it to take in Shaki Waterfall and Armenia’s Stone Henge, Karahunj
The road from Sisian to Melik-Tangi bridge–surely one of the most beautiful in the world– runs beside the Vorotan river and to Vorotnavank monastery and Vorotnaberd fortress. Vorot is the Armenian word for thunder. On the day I was there, the weather was sunny and serene, and no rolling thunder–indeed no engine of any kind–was heard. That’s one of the best things about Armenia’s emptiness: you often have the road to yourself. Historic sites, though usually lacking a tea-shop, a museum shop and a toilet, feel like yours alone. Better yet, you can clamber all over them–there are no signs, no notices and no guards.
Our first stop on the road from Sisian was at a 7th century memorial to two battling brothers who fought off the Persian army. The land around the monument in Aghitu is dotted with khatchkars—cross stones—depicting a playful range of people, children and animals along with Christian symbols. Climb the monument to see the cross engraved on every side of the center stone, or stay on firmer ground and marvel that bits and pieces of ancient rock carving that would be behind museum glass in darkened rooms in most other parts of the world just lie around by the roadside here, like rubble.
You’ll see the river on your right, deep in the gorge, flanked by tangles of green. In the foreground at this time of year, yellowed grasses. Behind the river, blue and grey mountains stretch for miles. Round a corner and there is Vorotnavank monastery. I defy you not to gasp. The monastery is a monument to Armenian girl power. The complex was built in AD 1000 by Queen Shahandukht and added to by her son Sevada in 1007. The monastery also served as a fortress (those pesky Persians again) and within its walls were a once shops, a seminary, workshops and housing for the poor. Today you can see a snake pit in one of the churches, the remains of a 11th century painting, and the new dome, rebuilt in 1931 after the original was destroyed by an earthquake. The ancient cemetery, surrounded by a centuries-old dry stone wall, contains two incongruously modern graves— those of a famous translator who died in 1965 and his son, killed in the 1992-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh war. At 10am on a summer Saturday morning, the place was deserted. We ate small, sweet apricots from a tree overlooking the gorge and listened to the silence.
On to Vorotnaberd, the remains of a fortress first mentioned in reports of liberation from –yes–the Persians in 451 AD. Today, just one wall of the fortress remains, strung between two giant basalt rocks, high on a steep hill 1,365 meters above sea level. You can scramble up the grassy side of the rock, but I recommend walking beside the river to the Melik Tangi bridge and admiring the fortress wall from the bottom of the towering, natural pillars. I got dizzy looking up. As a citizen of Northern Ireland, home to the Giant’s Causeway, it pains me to say this, but really the rock formations here are more impressive than those on the Antrim coast. Here, there is no heritage center, no opportunity to buy a teatowel, or earrings made from igneous rock. The guide books hardly mention the volcanic activity, or the beauty it left behind. The bridge at the bottom of the valley was built in 1855, using two enormous natural rocks as its base. Today it is used mostly by sheep and cows, but it’s sturdy enough for cars, if there was anywhere to go.
Ara taught himself English from an old phrase book. He was 11 years old and Armenia was at war with Nagorno-Karabakh. His world was an uncertain and dangerous place and Armenia’s economy was in tatters. In 1992 there was nowhere to go and nothing to do so Ara stayed at home and learned English. Later he came by an English grammar book and continued to study. Now he is 37 years old and he still works at his English online at night. He has never had any formal tuition but he’s fluent.
Ara is a taxi driver. Yesterday I asked him to take me to Jermuk for the day. Jermuk is a spa town famous for its scenery and spring water. Jermuk is a three hour drive from Goris so I benefited from a guide who both knows his stuff and speaks my language.
Leaving Goris, Ara showed me the new electrical power station being built to supply power to Iran. Big news for the economy in Syunik Marz. He pointed out the remains of the Goris Airport. Flights flew from there to Yerevan in Soviet times– he remembers his father and uncle taking the trip when he was a small boy. Now there is only the road. He shows me the plastic fencing newly erected in preparation for the winter snows.”it’s always windy up here in the mountains” he says ” the snow blows off the slope and closes the road which stops all work from here to Yerevan.” This year they hope the fencing will hold back the drift and allow the road to stay open.
We drive past Sisian the next sizeable town on the road north. “Great mushrooms here” says Ara “and pure honey”. The slopes are covered in wild flowers and boxy beehives form blue and yellow encampments by the roadside. Mist shrouds the top of King Mountain, more than 3500 meters high. Behind it is the Black Lake says Ara, the coldest, clearest, cleanest water you will ever see. Further on there is Camel Mountain. In the mountains beyond it, 7000-year-old petroglyphs can be found. The mountain is accessible only in summer. Ara offers to hire a four wheel drive to take me and some other friends. “Most people here have never seen the rock engravings” he says. I will definitely go.
Past Sisian, the landscape becomes more bleak and windswept. There are no trees now. We drive through a small village and Ara shows me cairns of cow dung drying in the sun. “They have no wood here” says Ara “so they dry cow dung to burn”.
“Does it smell bad on the fire?” I ask. Ara shrugs. “Yes, but they are used to it”.
Along this part of the road, only cabbages and potatoes grow. We pass a couple of abandoned villages. It just got too hard to live here Ara says.
We cross into Vayots Dzor Marz. It is even more craggy here. Ara tells me there is a rare kind of mountain goat found only in this part of Armenia. It is called the Kar Ayts or Stone goat and is an endangered species. We don’t see it. Ara tells me to look out for eagles. He often sees them here–both bald eagles and golden eagles–, but there are no eagles today.
We are now on the road to Jermuk. There are apricot trees and Ara says the area is also famous for its strawberries. We stop by the side of the road to look at the view and eat apricots. Forget American apricots with their mouldy stones and mealy texture. Those are not apricots worthy of the name. Armenian apricots are the size of kiwi fruit, cleft like a baby’s bottom and sweet, sweet, sweet. Neither unripe or too ripe as they always are at home, here they manage to be just right. We eat about 6 each. They are heaven. On the way into Jermuk we stop at a small apostolic church and light candles. I give thanks for a great day.