One of the last things I did before returning home was visit Kalavan in Gegharkunik Marz, close to the Azerbaijani border. Several of the old Hrazdan Gorge crew have split off this year to form a radical faction doing hard core excavations around the village. Towards the end of the season the others, including myself, paid them a visit, to count and counsel any possible survivors and, (of course) to get drunk in the process.
Kalavan may well be one of the most beautiful place I have visited in Armenia and it is most certainly the most secluded. In order to get there, you drive down a not-so bad-road for an hour-and-a-half along the shores of Lake Sevan, make a left into a rather bad road, follow that for an hour or so until it turns really bad and finally you turn left again, this time on to an absolutely terrible dirt track, which can only be navigated by four wheel drive. You follow that track for eight or nine kilometres (which takes about three quarters of an hour) and when it ends, you have reached Kalavan.
The village, with just over a hundred inhabitants, is hidden on the slopes of the beautiful valley of the Barepat River. The house in which the dig crew stays is partially made of fired bricks. A clear sign, according to one of the Armenian archaeologists, that it had originally been built by Azeri’s. “Armenians only build in stone” he said, his voice heaped with scorn about those silly brick users. And that is what makes this beautiful little village a tragic place too, but sadly tragedy is never far away on the Caucasus. Kalavan is a former Azeri village. The original inhabitants were Azeri’s from Armenia who, during the war in the nineties, either fled or were driven across the border into Azerbaijan, and the people living there now are Armenians from Azerbaijan who either fled or were driven across the border into Armenia. On the way to the village we also drove passed deserted and destroyed villages and abandoned Azeri cemeteries.
Despite its tragic history, Kalavan is a gorgeous place and the food, most of which is produced locally (no shops in Kalavan) is fantastic. The village is also home to Time Land (https://www.facebook.com/time.landfund/), an archaeological and ecological enterprise started by my Armenian colleague Robert Ghukasyan, who has turned the entire valley into a national park. It is also one of the cleanest places in Armenia. You will not find litter anywhere, much unlike much of the rest of Armenia, where, if you are in need of a plastic bag, all you need to do is lift your arm and make a grabbing motion. Odds are you will catch one of the millions of bags flying around on the breeze everywhere.
After the evening feast, which ended rather predictably, I dragged my cot outside on to the porch, and fell asleep looking at the shooting starts in the clear night sky, only to wake up twenty minutes later with my glasses jammed into the side of my face. Other than that I slept solidly until the next morning, when I woke up to the sound of pigs rooting through the garden below me. It took me a few seconds to get my bearing, but as soon as I remembered where I was, I sat up and stared at the view for a while. You don’t get to see that from a Dutch bedroom window!
Last Saturday, when the plane landed at Schiphol airport (I say landed, it was more thrown at the runway) I was greeted by now customary mixed bag of feelings after a month in Armenia: glad to be home and homesick for the place I just left. It always takes me a few days to adjust back to the Netherlands, to the straight, well-kept streets with their neatly trimmed shrubs, to the neat rows of houses and to the overall retirement home garden orderliness of the place.
On my first tour in Armenia, my overwhelming impression was one of chaos. Brilliant chaos, but chaos nevertheless. I soon learned that it may look rather chaotic, but underneath there is a sort of order, just not the kind of order which would be immediately apparent to the Germanic, Northwest European eye. I have become very familiar with (most of) that order in the intervening years, so I can move in the streets and social circles of Armenia with relative ease. I am also convinced that the Netherlands would benefit greatly from a healthy dose of that different order-masked-as-chaos.
Armenia is many things, but (luckily!) it is nothing like a retirement home garden.
*վէրջ means ‘finished’, ‘done’, ‘the end’. I think.