Border2Border

I remember reading about the program while freezing my ass off in my host family’s house. A walk across Armenia for children’s health? It sounded amazing. It also seemed crazy and really far away. I had a few hesitations about helping out, thinking about all the marshrutka rides it might require, but I decided to submit my name anyway. Yesterday we celebrated the completion of that crazy walk.

On Thursday I met up with the northern team in Martuni just as they were starting their day in the 2nd school. I witnessed a surprisingly organized event for about 40 students. There were 3 classrooms that the students rotated through. Then there were snacks and exercises too. Despite the chaos of dealing with that many students during summer break, I was impressed. The walkers were disappointed and frustrated, venting that it was the worst seminar so far and that the rest were not this crazy. Whatever guys, I think you are just tired and ready to finish. It was a very cool event!

Friday morning we packed up and hit the road. There were about 60 km left on the walk. They had already walked north of 200 km, while I was fresh. My only concern was that I would suffer some embarrassing injury and have to drop out of my own mini B2B. We wound our way out of Martuni to the waves, honks, and greetings of curious Armenians. We continued on through a peripheral village and headed up a switchback that shot us into the countryside. The day was sunny and had a pleasant warmth – the kind that feels like a nice blanket rather than a beam of radiation. The rolling Gegharkunik landscape hid much of our approaching path behind subtle hills and twists in the road. To our right was an ancient volcano that now is filled with water.

After another hour of walking we were well into the countryside on this desolate road. Traffic was sparse, but passersby tended to honk and wave. We soon came upon a tiny cluster of buildings that appeared to be a herding settlement. They were different from the typical Armenian abode in that they were rectangular with flat sod roofs. I had to laugh when I saw one that looked to be on the verge of collapse – broken windows, overgrown everything, and of course, satellite dish. Then a teenage girl scurried out towards the road with a big shepparding stick. After being surprised that I knew Armenian, she invited me in for coffee. With 4 people far ahead of me and 2 behind me, I had to decline. But the thought of her life and what the coffee conversation would have been fueled me for many more kilometers.

Three or four hours into the walk we took a break. I was beginning to feel the beating of the road. I couldn’t imagine what the others must feel like. We tried to gauge how much we had left, but that was hard to do. Random villagers would tell us one thing while the map painted a much different picture. It didn’t really matter though – the only thing to do was to walk whatever the distance was and get to our destination.

One massive hill later, we came upon a sign denoting the Silk Road. Surely we were on top of some sort of mountain, although it felt just like a big plain. A tiny sheppard’s outpost could be seen on an adjacent hill. Other than that, it was just us, a big empty road, and wildflowers creeping to the edge of the distant mountains. One other thing was obvious: there was a mountain in the distance that did not have the distinctive gentle slopes of Gegharkunik. This mountain was craggy, dry, and brown. After seeing that I knew we were close.

Silk Road. This is Mythril Gauntlets +2 stuff.

Sure enough, after we came to the edge of the plateau, we were met with one of the most incredible views I’ve had in Armenia. Below us was a massive gorge, a distant village, and a windy road that we would walk the next day. Beyond that we couldn’t be sure, as a light dust hung in the air and hinted at the climate that awaited us. Also enjoying the view was a friendly Russian couple with whom communication was a comical mixture of single English words and the very few Russian words we’ve picked up during our time.

We continued down the next bend in the road only to see our home for the night appear from behind the rocks. A little clearing that contained a long building and a picnic table turned out to be the caravanserai we were seeking. The building was perfectly situated to take advantage of the gorgeous (hah) view. We explored this 14th century building immediately, marveling in the skylights that let fingers of sunlight penetrate the deep darkness of the main building. The inside was so cool we could see our breath.

CouchSurfing for 15th century Persians

The rest of the afternoon was spent outside resting, eating, and interacting with a constant flow of visitors. We met Armenians, Americans, Russians, Poles, and even an A-15 PCV who was back in the country with his Armenian wife. John and I explored a potential shortcut only to find that it wasn’t feasible. That little journey cost me about 100 mosquito bites. It was the first time I have run into mosquitoes here actually.
I gathered some wood and we did a small fire as people went to sleep. The group was tired and most turned in at about 9:00 (it doesn’t get dark until at least 9:45 now). I was the last to bed, sitting on the picnic table and watching the stars come out over the twinkling lights of the village below. Now it was windy and quite cool, as we were at 2400 meters (about 7,900 feet). Despite an inadequate sleeping bag and clothing, I drifted off to sleep.

Suddenly I was awoken from a dream by Lada Niva headlights coming right at me. It felt like a dream itself. Frightened, I woke John up and we proceeded to watch the Niva circle the lot and finally park. 6 Armenians spilled out, the hatchback was opened, and a big pile of wood removed. Khorovats.

The Armenians discovered us some minutes later and were then persistent that we join them for a toast. I was cold, grumpy, and in my boxers. For once, I declined the hospitality and told them to leave us alone. After much badgering, John finally appeased their pleas and took a shot. In their quest for firepit stones, they scared the bejesus out of Kath. After that, John and I just stayed up to watch them and make sure nothing happened. The khorovats was surprisingly quiet and fast, lasting only an hour. Then they left and it was 12. Finally, time for some sleep.

A fitful night of sleep was interrupted for good when a group of Armenian tourists arrived for some reason at 6. Since we were sleeping outside, there was a sense of vulnerability. You are laying there in your little sleeping bag like a caterpillar just trying to rest, and here are these people walking all around and exploring the caravanserai.

We headed out at 7:30 down the mountain pass. The air was cold and windy. I was in shorts since packing space was extremely limited. Luckily things quickly warmed up as we walked down the mountain. It took us a couple hours to reach the village below, where I refueled with a couple cheap ice creams. One of them was named “Charlie”. It was a vanilla bar shaped into Charlie Chaplin’s head with chocolate shell for his hat and pink colored ice cream for his eyes and smiley mouth. Some of the things I eat here still amaze me.

As they day went on, the downhill really began to take a toll. And the lower we got, the hotter it became. The stretch beyond the mountain pass was especially hot and dry. We were entering Vayots Dzor Marz. The name means “Valley of Woes.” With the unbearable heat, I could understand why. It reminded me of the Arizona desert, except that we were surrounded by craggy ugly mountains.

For a while I thought we would never reach our destination. We walked 27 km the first day and had at least 30 more on the 2nd day. I began to be thankful that I wasn’t walking the whole thing. My feet were howling, my arms were screaming, and my skin was burning alive. The tail end of the walk took place on a long, flat, boring, dusty road that seemed to go on forever. The worst part was that next to the road was a river gushing with snow-melted waters. The sound of water in such a dry hot situation makes forging ahead that much harder.

When we knew we were getting close, we gathered as a group. We made the turn onto the road that would take us to Yeghegnadzor and began up a very steep hill. I wasn’t sure how much farther I could go, but after about 5 minutes we could see the sign for the city limits. We stopped, took a group photo at the sign, and then continued on into town to meet the other group.

The next 36 hours were spent relaxing and preparing for Monday’s seminar and celebration. We stayed with PCVs in Yegh, who did an amazing job hosting us. Luckily some of the best cooks in PC live in Yegh. So we were treated to lasagna, pb/banana pancakes, and pizzas. The food was much appreciated and extremely delicious. As I tried to rest and recover on Sunday, I couldn’t believe the heat of the town. It was almost debilitating. Combined with the very hilly streets, it made me glad that I can call flat, cool Vardenis home for the summer.

We had a great time together in Yegh. The final seminar went flawlessly. There was a great ceremony afterwards with guest speakers, certificates, and musical performance by one of our very own heartthrobs in Armenian. Then we headed to the café next door to celebrate with our partners and PC staff. The organization of the whole thing amazed me. There was lots of cooperation between groups and PCVs. Our leaders deserve a lot of credit for putting something together that was so successful despite so many challenges.

The company of the other PCVs was great. We had tons of laughs with each other and shared stories about the respective walks. I got to know a few people a bit better. I also got to see a completely new part of the country, on foot. I’m really glad to have been able to participate in something as cool as B2B. The teamwork was amazing, and the end result was too.

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5 Responses to “Border2Border”

  1. ejehle86 Says:

    Sounds AWESOME, Kevin!!! Congrats on 1 year, btw 🙂

  2. Peter Says:

    Look at you you little shagster!

    Great story. Sounds easily like one of the defining moments of your time there so far.

    Peter

  3. Wayne Burt Says:

    Kudoo’s to you and the team who put this event together. I wonder if any other group has put together a wide range project such as this. Those involved in B2B have left a lasting impression and a legacy for the A-17’and 18’s. Congratulations Kevin and to all those ivolved in B2B

  4. icenugget Says:

    Thanks everyone for the kind words. I have some pretty awesome readers!

  5. What Do You Do? « IceNugget's Blog Says:

    […] ambitious Peace Corps project spearheaded by our super volunteer. It’s the same guy who created Border2Border, which I worked on last year. I was happy when they asked me to help out because it’s kind of […]

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