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Mountain Safaris

Kari Lich, Gridzor Lake, Paitasar and Vank Lake.

Very few take the opportunity while they are here to explore the volcanic Lake region of Armenia and the upper reaches of Aragats, and yet they are two of the most historically and naturally spectacular areas in the country. From the top of Mt. Aragats or the Geghama Mountain range you can see both the fertile Ararat Valley and the aquamarine Lake Sevan in one vista, and include four areas which should be on everyone’s “don’t miss” list: Kari Lich, Gridzor Lake, Paitasar and Vank Lake.

These are two Mountain Safari’s, involving camping, moderate hiking/climbing (category 3), and horseback riding, but the less then intrepid nature lover can follow part of the same path by car to Kari Lich on Mt. Aragats; Gridzor Lake by Sevaberd; and Paitasar/Vank Lake via the Sulema Pass on the road between Yeghegnadzor and Martuni.

Volcanic Lakes and Dragons

The Volcanic Lake district in the Geghama Range is best described as a lunar landscape gone fertile: the mountains are actually a chain of dormant volcanoes that spewed millions of tons of lava on the valley floor as they sealed off Sevan on its Western side. From the air, the craters of some of the larger mountains can be seen, while from below they are hidden from view. The entire range is covered with mountain steppe grass and wildflowers, and experiences 5 of the seven spring times Armenia enjoys during the warm months of the year.

From Abovian the road begins an ascent on the Geghama Mountain Range and passes a series of the villages of Nor Giugh, Akunk, Katnaghpiur (Milk Springs) and Zar before arriving at Sevaberd. Native poppies, goldenrod, blue yellow and red straw flowers--even the deep green clover cover the mountain meadows from Sevaberd on up, making prime grazing for Yesdi villagers and their flocks of sheep. Yesdi’s are a Zoroastrian pastoral community, most of which live along the lower sides of the mountains. In April and May they form an annual exodus to the upper reaches of the mountains. Along with stunning views of Ararat and Lake Sevan, one can run across a friendly shepherd living in a caravan style tent tending his flock.

From Sevaberd begin a 10 kilometer hike for the first overnight camp near an upper spring by Gridzor Lake. Gridzor Lake is set into the side of Mt. Azhdahak, and up until mid-June, the mountain edge of the lake may still have snow on the ground while the lower side is covered with wild flowers and mountain grass. The lake itself is divided by seasons: while the mountain side is coated with a thin sheet of ice, the Sevaberd side is warm enough for a bracing dip. A lonely shepherd may be heard singing an ancient song while idly watching his flock. Masses of butterflies and lake birds populate the area, and your first real vista of Ararat and Aragats can be seen from the lakeside.

Hikers can continue on to the lower side of Mt. Azhdahak (altitude 3597 meters) on the second day, camping just below the crater. At night the stars seem close enough to touch, and a pair of binoculars provides a spectacular display of falling stars. Campers have reported seeing Aragats own version of the Northern Lights from Azhdahak.

Inside Azhdahak crater is one of Nature’s jewels: a crystal clear lake formed from melting snow. Beginning at Azhdahak, you are walking on top of the spine of the Geghama Mountain Range, and can follow it South to the crest of Mt. Spitakasar (altitude 3556 meters), Poker or Little Spitakasar (altitude 3473 meters) to Vank Lake and Paitasar.

Vank Lake and Paitasar were inhabited by ancestral Armenians as far back as the Stone Age, but beginning in the 6th millennium BCE a series of Vishaps (or Dragon Stones) were erected in the area. The stones average 10 to 15 meters in height, and are carved in the shape of a fish, while some are detailed with oxen and human figures. No one is exactly sure about the significance of the Vishaps, but educated guesses think they are part of a water cult, since they are placed near the source of springs and lakes. At Paitasar (about 4 hour’s hike from the Sulema Pass Road), the first evidence of writing in Armenia can be found, pictograms going back to the Paleolithic Era (15,000 BCE).

The earliest pictograms mostly show animals (wild deer, rabbits and the first signs of domesticated dogs and goats), water and simple outlines of dwellings, pointing to either an enclosed area (symbolizing land or territory), or perhaps a cave, since there is only one entrance drawn. They concern the most important parts of people’s lives: staying together, protecting ourselves from the elements, and finding things to eat. Things haven’t changed that much, have they?

By the Mesolithic period, the population of the world had grown to about 3 million, and the drawings give a little hint on how they became successful at propagating their own kind: drawings show herds of animals, including mammoths and antelope. The drawings of mammoths might by souvenirs of victory at a hunt, and are a far step away from the little rabbits shown scurrying away in the earlier period. Some think they show a concerted hunt effort, since only groups could bring down a mammoth, while any one could snare a rabbit.

By the Neolithic period, much of the land between the Persian gulf, the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt became a desert. We aren’t sure exactly why (theories keep the weather folks busy), but it forced people into a smaller areas centered around rivers and oasis’. It is a time when the “fertile crescent” developed as the center of civilization, and an increased reliance on hunting tools as well as irrigation grew. The Armenian Plateau began an intensive development in this period, leading to the Copper/Bronze Age, in which the Vishap stones first began to appear. Simple stick figures in the pictograms introduce the person himself into the story of the drawing. There is a more sophisticated iconography in the latter period, and a greater variety in the representations of animals. People are shown not only in standing positions, but holding weapons, bending and in movement. There is one with three figures that could be illustrating a dance, and another that looks as though the person is holding a body. Others show the first recordings of celestial events, swastika shapes that some think are meteors or comets; and the first signs of camels, a domesticated animal used in caravans.

10,000 years of history are inscribed on the rocks at Paitasar and Vank Lake, evidence of a civilization that communicated, domesticated animals, farmed and irrigated the land, one that was aware of the heavens, and began to navigate and trade with neighboring cultures. Add the 7,000 years since then, uncovered at Metsamor, Karahundj and Lechashen, and you have the evidences of a 17,000 year history of inhabitation in Armenia.

From Vank Lake the Safari continues from the source of the Azat River at Mt. Geghazar through the Khosrov Nature Preserve to Kakavabert, a 9th-13th cc CE fortress). The fortress was built on the canyon trail between Martuni and Dvin (see The Other Side of Garni). The hike descends to the Goghi River canyon, and ends at the Garni temple.

Driving Tour: Driving tours that do not involve strenuous hiking can be made to Gridzor Lake and near Paitasar. At Abovian, take the village road to Sevaberd and continue on the mountain road to Gridzor (keep asking if you get lost). Depending on the weather, you can drive up to edge of the lake, or it is a short walk ahead. To reach Paitasar, take the Yeghegnadzor-Martuni road to the Sulema Pass. At the top of the pass, there is a clearing in the road, good for picnicking. From there Paitasar and Vank Lake are about 4 hours hike from the Martuni road (recommended with knowledgeable guide only).

Aragats on Horseback

Aragats is Armenia’s tallest Mountain (altitude 4090 meters), and experiences all seven of Armenia’s Spring seasons. Beginning in April and continuing into August, its verdant meadows are covered with emerald green and a carpet of red, yellow and blue wild flowers appear in layers about every 2 weeks at the next elevation. In May the butterfly season begins, and continues on into August as the upper altitudes grow warmer.

By road, the visitor gets a glimpse of this spectacle, but the beauty of Aragats is best seen by foot or on horseback. There is nothing like climbing mountain passes and meandering down river canyons on horse to feel a part of a time that once was: a time when heavily laden caravans regularly traveled the 7,000 kilometer Silk and Spice ‘interstate highways’ between Central Asia and the Mediterranean Sea; when mountain churches and chapels were built in volcanic craters and on mountain passes guarded by impenetrable fortresses, when one of the most advanced cultures on earth was literally carved from stone and lived in a wilderness, yet was a flower of illumination 200 years before the Renaissance began in Europe.

The eco-tourist can almost wallow in Nature’s splendor, spending days wandering through fields of sweet grass and flowers, and nights camping in clean mountain air under a bowl of stars. The variety of birds on Aragats is mind-boggling--there are more than 1000 species that annually flock to the area from as far away as South Africa. By mountain lakes one can spot the Skylark, Water Pepid, Black Red Star, Rock Thrush and the beautiful Blue-Throat. In the Black, Green and Middle Spotted woodpeckers can be found, as can Red Stars, Orioles, Hawks, Kites, Eagles and owls. The area even includes the Stork (a rare treat as these intrepid visitors are not high altitude natives), Nightingales, Rose starlings, White Throated Robins, Wheatears and Wobblers. Bring your binoculars, sturdy shoes, a sense of adventure and discovery--this is Armenia you never imagined.

At the 5th millennium BCE Metsamor Excavation there is a stone map of the Ararat Valley and Mt. Aragats carved about 5000 years ago. It is remarkably accurate, as the modern asphalt roads simply follow the same trails once trekked by ancestral Armenians.

The Horseback Safari begins from the Horse Riding Club at Ashtarak, where expert guides provide training in riding English saddle, and carefully match riders with horses before setting out on mountain explorations. The staff at the Horse Club include members of the Armenian Mountain Sports Union, an NGO that dedicates a portion of its income to Eco projects in Armenia (cleaning and maintaining wilderness areas and education programs to promote ecological awareness), and they tailor make safari’s for groups of beginners, intermediate or advanced riders. In the unlikely event of an emergency, a back up vehicle and staff follows the group at a lower elevation, and can reach it in no less than three hours from the most distant location. A modern addition to this ancient mode of travel is radio communication between the safari guide and home base. Safari’s either return to the Horse Club after a day’s riding, or include overnight camping in wilderness areas.

Depending on the season and the group’s experience, horseback safari’s include an overnight camping trip to Tsaghkavank which has a volcanic cave with a 9th c. church and Mt. Arayi (altitude 2566 meters), or “Ara the Beautiful”, which one legend has it is the face of Ara after he spurned the affections of the wrathful Semiramis and was imbedded into the top of the mountain; and a five day horseback trip that follows the Amberd River canyon by Byurakan, the 4th c. Arshakid Mausoleum at Dzorap and the 13th c. Tegher Monastery before climbing to the 9th-14th cc fortress of Amberd. From Amberd the trail continues up to Kari Lich (altitude 3200 meters), one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in Armenia, which mountaineers consider more splendid and pristine then Lake Sevan. It is easy to spot the outline of Ararat in the deep violet rim of dusk, and stargazing always provides a fireworks display of shooting stars. Constellations are easy to spot, many of which--though known by their Greek names-- were in fact inscribed in rock in Armenia 3000 years before, among the first celestial deities in the ancient world. On foot the group continues to the top of Aragats (altitude 4090 meters), then makes its way back by horse to Amberd and the Horse Club base.

The Horseback safari is complete with guide, translator, backup vehicle and staff, all lodging and meals, tents (or if you want nothing between you and the globe of the universe above, sleep under the stars). On the trail, and sitting around a campfire at night, guides tell stories, myths and legends about the ancients--the spice and silk caravans, the wandering monks and priests, and the earliest gods in Armenia’s pantheon. Otherwise it’s just you, your horse and the spirit of discovery.

Practicalities: Mountain trekking or climbing should only be taken with an expert guide. Paths are not marked, and it is easy to get lost if you aren’t experienced. Very few detailed maps showing topography with sufficient scale are available in Armenia. Obtain a map in the USA or Europe before coming over (surveillance photos provide excellent maps). Of course, take a compass, as well as all personal camping necessities (a good lightweight sleeping bag is a must for the cold mountain nights), drinking water, and high energy snacks. Armenia is chockfull of naturally sweet energy foods, including sujukh (walnuts dipped in thick grape syrup), dried fruits, and nuts. The high mountain sun is deceptively strong--wear protective clothing and bring sunscreen. A hat with a visor is recommended, as are sturdy hiking shoes with ankle support. First aid kit is always recommended for hiking. Remember that mountain climbing involves some strenuous exercise, and involves high altitudes. The Mountain Safaris described in this article include acclimatization days to the upper altitudes, but you should be aware of the symptoms for altitude sickness. Consult the Health Section TourArmenia: A Practical Guide for the Adventurous Soul (on the Internet at http://www.arminco.com/tourarmenia) for this and other health recommendations.

Lodging: Lodging is available at one of the numerous Pensionats on Aragats Mountain (follow the Byurakan road to the top of Aragats and ask along the way--except for August and Autumn weekends, most have rooms to let without reservation); in Yeghegnadzor there is guest house (ask for Aquarius). The Horse Club at Ashtarak provides lodging in comfortable rooms with shared bath and all meals for about $20 a day. Horse training and expeditions are optional. Contact the Mountain Sports Union in Yerevan at (374-10) 52-94-18.

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