Armenia is not a very popular destination amongst travelers. The country is locked in between giants like Iran, Georgia and Turkey, which makes it difficult just to get there. Even though it bursts with natural and historical gems – the ancient monasteries are countless – it seems very little people have actually had the pleasure to discover them. In a world where practically everything is within a traveler’s reach, Armenia seems to fall of the tourist wagon and honestly, it is hard to explain why.
If you decide to visit the country – which you should – then you will probably arrive by plane in Yerevan. The Armenian capital looks a lot like a maze, with both ancient remnants and modern buildings woven into one big not so coherent web. As about one third of the country’s population (which only counts three million residents) lives in the capital, it is no surprise that things can get a little crowded. Yet once you exit the city, you are rewarded with endless sights and the scent of fresh and tender peaches. Admittedly, that scent will be poisoned by that of an old Lada every now and then but it makes it no less charming.
1. Dilijan, a rare gem
At about an hour and a half from Yerevan, you will find Dilijan. Compared to other cities in the country, which can sometimes be a bit grim and not particularly cozy, Dilijan is definitely an exception. Compared to other places, you will find quite a lot of tourists in this region, although you will not have to deal with any crowds. Mass tourism is not a thing over here and let’s be honest, that is a good thing. In the town center you will find an old artificial pond, speckled with plastic swans who keep an eye on the few hipsters who are sipping on their coffee in one of the surrounding cafés. The whole scene seems to be frozen in time, as if the modern world never reached Dilijan. If you are looking for a dose of culture, you will be happy to encounter Jukhtavank a bit further down the road. The monastery road which passes by is the perfect itinerary for an afternoon full of adventures – although it is not advised if you are afraid of cows. They will not chase you, yet they absolutely will stare at you.
Time to get down to business. The whole reason why I was visiting the city in the first place, was to hike part of the Armenian Caucasus. Dilijan happens to be lie in Dilijan National Park (what’s in a name, right?), so it is the perfect base camp if you want to explore a beautiful piece of nature. Be aware of the fact that walking trails in Armenia are not well-indicated, so it definitely is necessary to take some kind of map with you. In the local tourist information center, you will be able to buy the Cartisan hiking map which is a life saver. Together with the MapOut app, this will guide you through the wilderness like a pro.
2. National Park
If you are willing to hike in Dilijan National Park, you will have to take everything you need with you. The area is completely abandoned except for some shepherds who keep their herds in the mountains during the summer months, so you will not be able to find any accommodation en route, let alone a shop to buy some food. There are a lot of natural springs in the mountains though, which are also indicated on the map, so you will not be thirsty if everything goes well.
With half a household on my back, I went for it. I encountered dazzling cliffs, pitch black caves and some of the above-mentioned shepherds on my way. As someone who is used to a certain standard of living, it is definitely tempting to pity those shepherds who spend their summers with their entire family in what can only be called Spartan huts, made out of corrugated sheets, held together only by a couple of rocks. Yet appearances are deceptive.
3. At the top of the world
After a day filled with experiences which made me feel absolutely tiny compared to the endlessness of the mountains, I set up my tent on top of the world. Or so it seemed anyway. My eyes could see for miles and miles ahead, the sky seemed closer than ever before and I did not look forward to the darkness of the night. The silence was all of a sudden broken by an old Lada passing by, filled to the brim with children clearly having a good time. One of the shepherds, making their way down the mountain to get some supplies. A couple of hours later, the same car passed by and this time, it stopped. Even though none of them spoke a word of English, they made clear that they wanted me to stay over for the night as there was a thunderstorm on its way. I just barely managed to decline their offer, yet they clearly felt sorry for me and wanted to do at least something. So there I was, standing on top of the world with my hands full of crispy apples, sweet apricots and old school sweets, my trust in mankind restored.
The next day, it was time to make my way downhill. I realize that our mainstream definition of wealth in the West definitely needs reviewing. Even though those shepherds from the night before definitely do not have an easy life, for them it seemed like I was the one to feel sorry for, with my tiny tent in those rough mountains. And for me, being there, surrounded by nothing but nature, it felt like I had never been as free nor as careless ever before. A lonesome eagle flying by above my head interrupts my thoughts. I follow it until it is out of sight, as enthusiast as a 3 year-old kid. I wonder if I ever have to go back to my daily life, if this would not be enough. Wealth definitely is open to interpretation. No need to say, the return to the habited world was not an easy one. After two days filled only with rippling streams, animal sightings, fields of flowers and endless views, the sight of something as simple as a house can be enough to break the illusion that you are alone in the world.