With only 12 days in Armenia, I moved quickly through Goris, Yeghegnadzor and Dilijan—the three places I chose to visit outside of Yerevan. I got my fill of monasteries and enjoyed the mountain scenery. But along with a side trip to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, once again it was the people who left the strongest impressions—from an affectionate host in Goris to kids playing on the streets and women I met as I traveled.
Cave Dwellings and Bread Baking
Goris is a small city in southern Armenia that I used as a base to visit Tatev, a 9th century monastery complex, and some nearby villages. A shared taxi dropped me at my guest house, and I waited in the entrance until a woman named Marieta came rushing in the door. “I am so sorry!” she said, with her arms outstretched. She wore glasses and had dark, wavy hair. We had the first of several hugs, moved through the check-in, and I asked her where I could get lunch. “You are my guest,” she said, offering to make me lunch for free.
She went to her upstairs apartment and returned a half hour later with a bowl of soup—rice, potatoes and carrots with dill and other herbs—and a plate of vegetables from her garden—large red and yellow tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and a whole cucumber. Other small plates held fresh bread and cheese.
Her husband drove me to visit Khndzoresk. We walked across a narrow and wobbly metal suspension bridge to see former cave settlements on a mountainside that overlooked a deep gorge.
And when we returned, I walked to Old Goris, climbing a mountain with pointy spires and more former cave dwellings. The sun cast a soft light through openings in the gray clouds hanging overhead. Periodically, I heard a loud whooping sound and eventually realized it was coming from two men herding cows down the mountain.
I reached the top, absorbed the expansive views of the city, and then gingerly worked my way down the steep and dusty path, passing a boy who asked me if I had a pen. “Spasibo,” he said with a smile as he walked away with the pen. Though I could fairly easily find someone in Yerevan who spoke English, in the smaller towns it was Armenian and Russian or sometimes a mixture of the two.
As I returned to the guest house, Marieta met me at the door. “I’m going to the bakery,” she said. “Come with me, and I’ll show you how they make lavash.” We stepped outside, and she looped her arm in mine, walking me slowly to the bakery as the last bit of light faded from the day.
At the bakery, a woman in a white apron and hat picked up a ball of dough and rolled it into a long and thin rectangular shape. She handed the rectangle to another woman seated on the floor near an in-ground oven called a tonir, its coals emitting an orange glow. The woman on the floor laid the flat dough on a thick pillow and slapped it against the inside wall of the oven. It took only seconds for the bread to bake. Another woman used a bent poker to peel the bread off the wall and hold it over the coals for a few seconds more.
Lavash is eaten with most meals in Armenia and is sometimes called Armenian bread. Marieta took one of the fresh pieces, folded it and handed it to me like an ice cream cone. “Eat,” she said with a smile.
As we left, the moon was full. The air was dry, though the forecast called for rain on the way. The streets were quiet and mostly empty. We walked back to the guest house, her arm around my waist as I bit off pieces of the bread.
A Brief Border Hop
The next morning heavier gray clouds covered the sky, but it had not yet started to rain. I made a morning trip to explore Tatev and returned to the guest house to join two Russian travelers on a visit to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (or Artsakh, as it also called).
Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of a longstanding dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with each side making claims to the territory. A bit of its most recent history: In the 1920s, after Armenia and Azerbaijan were made part of the Soviet Union, the Soviets designated Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region within Azerbaijan. The majority population was ethnic Armenian, and in 1988, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh called for it to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. Clashes between the two sides led to full-on war in the early 1990s—with ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh backed by the Armenian military. The war left an estimated 20,000-30,000 people dead, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. By the time the sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1994, Armenian forces had control of Nagorno-Karabakh and also occupied parts of Azerbaijan around Nagorno-Karabakh. Officially, Nagorno-Karabakh is still considered part of Azerbaijan, but it acts as an independent state—albeit one with strong ties to and support from Armenia. The sides have not yet agreed to a peace treaty, and occasional fighting continues. (For more on the history and current status, see the resources section below.)
Marieta’s husband drove me and the Russian travelers to Shushi, a mountain town near Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital city, Stepanakert. He spoke Armenian and Russian but no English. The Russian couple translated bits for me, and I wished I could understand more. The driver mentioned that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was the reason for the fall of the Soviet Union, though after the Russians translated, they added that depending on who you talk to, there are many reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union.
We stopped at Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, where a couple stood for wedding photos just inside black painted iron gates. The wedding party had scattered white, pink and red rose petals on the paved walkway, and kids on the mostly empty street smiled at us. The Soviets once used the cathedral for storage, and during the war, Azerbaijan stored missiles in the cathedral. After the war, the cathedral was restored and reconsecrated.
As we left the cathedral to drive into town, we passed the walls of the Shushi fortress, a spot from which Azeri forces launched missiles at Stepanakert. In May 1992, Armenian forces attacked the Azeri forces in Shushi and took control of the town, one of the turning points in the war.
The rain arrived and grew steady. It became a quiet day of observing from whatever shelter we could find. We visited a textile museum and made a quick run up the steps to a monument called “We Are Our Mountains,” a symbol of the republic. We were the only customers at a restaurant for a late lunch of fish, salad and bread.
As we left the restaurant, I wished I had at least a few nights in Nagorno-Karabakh to get more of a feel for the life and people there. Soon, though, we were in the car again, the windshield wipers slapping to and fro as we crossed back into Armenia in the rain.
A Squeezed Ride to Yeghegnadzor
The next morning, a shared taxi arrived to take me to Yeghegnadzor, where I would explore Noravank Monastery, my favorite of the monasteries I visited. I was the last to be picked up, which meant I got the middle seat in the back of the small car. A man I guessed to be in his 20s sat to my right. A woman with black and gray hair pulled back on her head sat to my left. On her lap, she held a black purse with a broken zipper. Though she did not speak English, she quickly struck up conversation, using her hands to say that she was 57 and—I think—that she had six kids. The driver sped along the highway, stopping to wait for a herd of sheep to cross the road.
At one point, the man next to me pulled out his phone to take a selfie. I took out my phone, and the three of us smiled for a crowded selfie of our own. The woman helped me with my Armenian. I finally grasped the pronunciation for the Armenian word for “thank you” (“shnorhakalutyun”) and learned how to say goodbye (“hajogh”).
The driver pulled off the road for coffee and snacks, and the woman motioned to me to come with her. We sat on white plastic chairs in the sun, and the driver and two other men in the car sat at a nearby table.
Despite sharing barely any language, my travel companion continued to try to connect. She told me she had family in Goris and indicated one of her kids worked on computers, maybe in the U.S. It was the type of exchange I’ve had countless times in my travels, but her particular sweetness touched me.
When the men finished their coffee, we piled back in the car, reaching Yeghegnadzor soon after. Everyone other than me would continue to Yerevan. The woman and I smiled at each other before I stepped out. “Shnorhakalutyun,” I said. We kissed each other on the cheek. “Hajogh!”
Where I Stayed: In Goris, I stayed at Aregak B&B. In Yeghegnadzor, I stayed at Guest House Nataly. In each place, I had a private room with a shared bathroom. I do not have the exact breakdown of my spending, but I paid 35,000 AMD for two nights at Aregak (breakfast included); taxis to Tatev, Khndzoresk, Hartashen and Nagorno-Karabakh; and one dinner. At Guest House Nataly, I paid 27,000 AMD for two nights (breakfast included), a taxi to Noravank and two dinners.
Where I Ate: I ate breakfast and dinner at the guest houses. All of it was fresh, home-made and delicious. In Yeghegnadzor, I ate lunch at a restaurant along the main highway that offered salads, cooked vegetables and some meat dishes, as well as kebabs to order. I do not know the name of the place, but if you are heading along the main highway toward Yerevan, it is shortly before you get to the turnoff that takes you into the central town area of Yeghegnadzor. I paid roughly 2,000 AMD for each lunch.
Getting Around: I used shared taxis to travel from Yerevan to Goris (four hours; 4,500 AMD) and from Goris to Yeghegnadzor (2-2.5 hours; 4,500 AMD). I believe there is also a marshrutka (minibus) from Yerevan to Goris. As I noted above, I arranged for people at the guest houses to take me to the places I visited near Goris and Yeghegnadzor.
Travel Notes for Nagorno-Karabakh: You will need a separate visa to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, which you can obtain in Nagorno-Karabakh. As an American, my visa cost 3,000 AMD (Nagorno-Karabakh uses Armenian currency). In case you plan to visit Azerbaijan, you should know that Azeri authorities will not grant you a visa for their country if they know you have visited Nagorno-Karabakh without their permission. If you ask, the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh will stamp your visa outside of your passport.
Additional reading on Nagorno-Karabakh:
“Nagorno-Karabakh Profile” (BBC, 6 April 2016)
“The Economist Explains the Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh” (15 April 2016)
The summary and introduction of this Human Rights Watch report offers more detail on the history.
This post from The School of Russian and Asian Studies also goes into more detail on the history, as well as the current status.
Last, if you want to visit Nagorno-Karabakh on a group tour from Armenia, Hyur Service in Yerevan offers trips that include time there. I did a day trip with them to visit Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery from Yerevan. The guide was very good, and Hyur Service seems to be well-respected in general.