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Ah, Armenia!

By Brad Zembic

Yerevan, Armenia © Brad Zembic

Years ago I was sipping chai with a young American woman in a Fez, Morocco souq. I was 20 years old and dressed in a peak-hooded galabiya given to me as a gift by the manager at my hotel. “I've heard of your type,” she said knowingly. “You live like the people.” The image of being “in” with the locals, one who understands their culture, eats their food and drinks their folk brew was romantic. I never attained that stature, though I did crave it. As an outsider anywhere but my own country all I can hope for is some insight into the lives of those that share our planet and some experiences that add some colour to my otherwise ordinary life. Taking small risks and venturing off the beaten trail offers me the opportunity.

A Tatev Freeway © Brad Zembic

Recently I enjoyed a long-wanted visit to a place I knew I wouldn't have to suffer mobs of tourists. Armenia has fascinated me since I was a child. My attraction is rooted in Armenia's Hollywood ambassador Mike Connors from the 1960s and 1970s TV series “Mannix.” Talk show interviews with Connors stuck in my brain. Perhaps it was what he'd said about the Armenians' flamboyant culture – much more fascinating than the suburban Winnipeg one I grew up in. It may have been all his talk of the Armenian genocide that stirred my interest. After all, my brothers and I were troublesome teenagers at the time, and it seemed obvious that my parents were contemplating a similar fate for us.

Whatever was the foundation for my interest, forty years later I aimed for Armenia. Travel literature on this far-off place described it as land whose crime rate was comparable to that of an uninhabited island somewhere in the South Pacific. That sounded like just the place to do something I have always wanted to do – simply, to walk through mountains Julie Andrews-like, sharing high fives with the yokels and feeling utterly alive.

Tatev Monastery © Brad Zembic

So, to Istanbul to enjoy my friend Molly's legendary hospitality; then a cheap air ticket to Batumi, Georgia, the least-expensive option for travelling from Turkey to Armenia. Finally a long bus ride through Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia's well-kept capital city. The Georgian terrain on our route was arid, rugged and mountainous, the people dour-looking and suspicious – not at all the image I had of Georgians from what I'd read. My goal was the 9th century Tatev Monastery, a series of churches perched on a lofty ledge of land overlooking the Orotan River in southeast Armenia. I'd spend some time touring the historic site, and then fill my rucksack with provisions and hoof it down the twisting road that runs through a forested valley connecting Tatev village with the city of Karpan.

Trouble is I have always been a tentative adventurer: I want to be off the beaten path seeing the real country, meeting the real people, but when I get to my point of departure, I modify my plan to one that feels less complicated and more safe – and consequently, promises less fun. I felt this trip was going to be different, a breakthrough from years of wimping out.

At Tatev village, I sought out the best bed-and-breakfast and settled into a long sleep after a long journey. In the early hours of the morning, my host fed me a hearty breakfast of homemade bread, local honey, yogurt and farm-fresh eggs (the flavour of which awakened taste buds long thought dead), and then wished me a fond farewell. I stepped into rural Armenia, certain that my intrepid nature would prevail.

Armenians on Holiday © Brad Zembic

“Be careful,” the woman called from her doorstep. “Some tourists were robbed last week along the road.” My idea of Armenia as a haven from crime had been all but gunned down.

I trundled down the hill, past the monastery and the little café that serves up an emir's bounty of local favourites, beneath the towers of humming electrical wires and past the bleating sheep whose ancestors likely were witnesses to invasions by Selcuks and Mongols. I was as giddy as Marco Polo might have been in anticipation of the discoveries that lay ahead.

The air was breathless and the sky, though clear of cloud cover, was hidden behind a low-lying mist; I could barely see the road beneath my feet. The only sound to disturb the blissful silence was the occasional bird song. As I neared the river, I became alerted to the rhythmic clopping of hooves on gravel. Ghostlike, a donkey cart laden with hay emerged from the mist. It's slow appearance and disappearance added to the morning magic.

I had been negligent about packing water or snacks, since my map of the region indicated a village only five kilometres from Tatev. I was fresh, my pack was light, and should I need civilization, I knew it was only a short hike away. As time flowed, though, my thirst increased and it became evident that I'd missed the village – either it had been too small for eyesight or it had been down a side road somehow concealed. I stopped a passing car, hoping for insight. The driver gestured that Aghvani, the next village, was still a distance off. He then turned outright nasty when I graciously refused his offer of a lift. Perhaps this was the man who had robbed the tourists the previous week. He huffed off, spinning gravel.

Chamomile Hunt © Brad Zembic

A while later, and far further down the road, I stopped another car. The driver's wife spoke excellent English and cautioned me that any place to buy food was at least a day's walk. Her offer of a lift to the next village I didn't refuse. My hosts were a family of Armenians living in Chechnya who were visiting relatives. And a fine family they were. The two English-speaking daughters in the back seat filled me in about their family history and gave me a verbal tour of the area. Grandma sitting next to them smiled warmly and nodded her head.

“You mustn't walk alone here,” one of the girls warned when I told her I planned to walk the desolate road as far as Kapan. “There are bears!” The light of adventure that had been burning inside me doused like a match in a puddle. Whoever heard of bears in Armenia?

The girls were animated and excited to have picked up someone with whom they could practice their English. On occasion their grandmother tapped her son-in-law's shoulder and ordered him to pull over so she could pick wild chamomile for tea. I was seeing the country from the inside, after all. In such good company my valour returned.

When we arrived at Aghvani, though, my heart sank. It was decrepit and muddy from rain; homes appeared ramshackle, and loose livestock seemed everywhere. In addition, residents were dressed poorly – perhaps because they were poor. The comfort seeker in me didn't protest when the patriarch of the family announced there'd be little food there and continued driving. A few hours later I found myself in Kapan, a week of trekking in rural bliss and brushing shoulders with the locals given up to billboards, angry commuters, exhaust-belching lorries and urban sprawl.

But though I played it safe and jumped a ride at nearly the first opportunity, my few hours with this Armenian family far off the beaten trail gave me all that I'd hoped for in a vacation.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times.Images copyright Brad Zembic, edited by Kamer Guzel.