The Walk to Ayrk: Round 2

Nearly a year and a half ago we made a frigid trek to an isolated village. I always wondered if the village was really as sad in the summer as it was that cold winter day. In the meantime I’ve also heard a couple stories about a great church in the village, which we didn’t see. As the weather is now ideal for walking, we decided to make another visit to Ayrk.

Most of the villages of Vardenis are near the road to Yerevan, the road that goes around the lake, or the road that goes into Karabakh. This village is nestled on a little offshoot road from Vardenis that looks like it just disappears into the tall mountains. The road is in poor condition. There are two smaller skeleton villages even farther down the road but it seems that there are no permanent residents there. So, the only reason people are on this road is to go to one of these villages. There are no other destinations to reach. That’s why, as we walked, nearly every car stopped to ask if we wanted a ride into town. Not that there were many cars anyway…

The rough road to Ayrk

The weather was ominous when we headed out. I began to wonder if this was a big mistake. Dark clouds were skipping along the mountains right next to us. We heard the crack of thunder several times from the road up ahead. But somehow the clouds stayed velcroed to the mountain range. We managed to avoid the worst of the storms and only got a light sprinkling for 10 minutes or so. If anything it was refreshing.

We continued walking down the old road, taking in the beauty of the green hills, grazing cattle, and other little villages in the distance. We ate chocolate and talked about a lot of random things, mostly connected with PC, as we approached Ayrk. The smell of fresh grass, wildflowers, and ozone filled our nostrils with every step.

The first thing I noticed when we were within range is that the village sign had disappeared. Last year it was there but had only 2 letters. I guess someone decided that no sign is better than a sign with 2 letters. The village was noticeably happier than it was in the winter, but that’s no surprise. It was more alive too, as some people from Vardenis reside here during the summer with their livestock. There was a flock of sheep on a distant hill that moved together in a mesmerizing way, creating a flow of white dots on a green backdrop. Cows lazily grazed on the nearest blades where they were tied. They looked at us with indifference and continued chewing.

In Armenia the difference between winter and summer can be…

…drastic

The ground was wet, making me thankful we had missed the meat of the storm. We snaked our way through some muddy puddles and continued into the center of the village. The mayor’s office stood with its familiar tattered Armenian flag. This time the flag was completely wrapped around itself due to the fierce wind. Here we paused, unsure of how to reach the churches. Just then a villager started taking her goats towards the road to get a better look at us.

I greeted her and heard some unidentifiable Russian words. She then switched to Armenian, a bit startled that I spoke it. At first she couldn’t understand me. I kept repeating the question, “Where is the church?” The word church is difficult for us; I don’t think I’ve ever heard it pronounced by an American quite like the Armenians say it. Anyway, she somehow understood me finally. She showed us the road but was more interested in inviting in for coffee. I looked at the others to get their consensus. Secretly we were all hoping for it.

She led us to their kitchen, which was outside the house in a separate little shack. I couldn’t stand straight inside. The pitched roof was haphazard. There were some pots and pans on the soot-colored floor. A meager bed sat next to a small table with a few chairs that must have been taken from the school. I remember sitting on the same hard little chairs during our agonizing language lessons during training.

Our hostess was explaining that we couldn’t go inside the proper house because her husband had just fallen asleep and another relative was sick. But two of her daughters couldn’t fight their curiosity and sheepishly joined us in the kitchen. The woman had 4 daughters. Two are married and not living at home any more. The other two still live in the village. They were in their early 20s. It was obviously strange and interesting for them to see us and meet us. One of them had never been to Yerevan before. As we became more comfortable with each other over coffee, one of the girls asked if she could ask us a question. “Why are you so simple?” I understood her words but not her meaning. I asked for clarification. She explained that we were dressed in simple clothes and we were very open and free. This girl, whose father won’t allow her to have a Facebook account let alone leave the village at will, couldn’t understand why. Faced with such a deep question and such little time to answer (not to mention vocabulary), we told her the honest truth: we’re not exactly sure why, but it’s part of our culture.

This family was a refugee family. But instead of being from deep within Azerbaijan, they were from an Armenian area that I always found interesting when scouring the map.

The Armenian and Azeri borders are some of the most interesting you can find. Chunks are missing, little slices are misplaced, and the border can look completely different depending on which source you use. One of the features I never understood were the little islands of Armenia within Azeribaijan and little islands of Azerbaijan within Armenia. How is that possible? What does it mean? During my service I eventually learned that these areas were historically populated by one ethnicity even though they existed in the neighbor’s country. I’m still not clear as to why they’re depicted on the map as islands. Anyway, it turns out that the Armenian island within Azerbaijan is actually not populated by Armenians anymore. During the war in the early 90s it was evacuated because it was under attack. I think the same thing happened with the Azeri pockets of Armenia. This youngest daughter, who was grinning to be speaking with some strange foreigners, was born 3 days before the attack. The family was forced to pack up and move or face destruction.

From Artsvashen to Ayrk

We finished our coffee and said goodbye to the mom. Her daughters came with us to show us the churches. Their dog, Sharik, also came along. He was a happy dog that alternated between following us, leading us, and exploring everything along the way. The green of the hills’ grass appeared brighter than ever as we left the dark, brown kitchen. We descended down a gravel road with the Armenian girls, asking each other questions along the way.

Then a field of khachkars appeared amongst the backdrop of hills. It was a stunning sight. The church was simple but also interesting. The girls said that “Turks” built the church and some of the khachkars. Many Armenians simply call the Azeris Turks. But we couldn’t understand why a Muslim Azeri would build a church or a khachkar. We pointed out that there were Armenian inscriptions on the church and cross stones. They countered that the Armenian letters spelled out unintelligible words. Maybe it was just really old Armenian (think old English) or maybe the letters really were used by Turkish people to write something in their own language (still I doubt this). Regardless, the place was beautiful.

One of the most beautiful places around Vardenis

Sharik the Shun was our tour guide

The khachkar was there centuries before I was born. And it will be there centuries after I die.

Nearly 2 hours had passed in the village already. It was time for us to go. The girls walked us far out of the village, where they turned their heads to hide at every car that stopped to ask if we needed a ride. They thanked us for coming and for giving them an interesting way to spend their time. They even invited us back for a holiday. As we walked off back towards civilization, I couldn’t help but wonder how these girls spend their daily lives in this sleepy village. I was happy to have met them and seen their village. The feeling of satisfaction filled me up for the rest of the day.

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