The Incredible Lori

The Incredible Lori

Art curator Emma Harutyunyan tells about the beauties of Lori region one should visit as soon as possible. 

Text : Emma Harutyunyan    Photo : Emma Harutyunyan, Nona Isajanyan

 

Even though it is hard to write and think about anything other than the oppressive consequences of the war, it is impossible not to notice the beauties of the world around us. I’ve always been convinced that the best way to recognize and cherish one’s own country is by exploring it, and now more than ever our wounded country needs to be loved. Thus, we should explore it even more whole-heartedly, more diligently and with boundless interest.
I invite you to follow my journey step by step. It happened months ago, when the total lockdown seemed to be the worst reality for us. I haven’t edited the text on purpose so you could feel the lightness of my voyage and flee for a moment from the depressing reality.

Lori is the fragile and tender bride of Armenia. This region is very diverse, deeply spiritual, poetic, evidently and richly cultural, with freshest greens, saturated with oxygen, and inhabited with the quietest and unsophisticated people. 

Sanahin monastery

 

Spiritual culture

As an art historian, for me the ecclesiastic culture of Lori is stunning. Besides the most popular and known Sanahin, Haghpat, Akhtala monasteries, here you will find dozens of cozy trails, which will lead you to the medieval dilapidated churches in the heart of dense forests and mountains. During the long walks, my imagination was drawing medieval priests who were following these trails to communicate between churches and, maybe, contemplate about the future of this land. Sometimes, approaching these churches I felt like catching the last notes of some Sharakan (Armenian church psalm) and these notes created a vision like a liturgy was in process which was about to end.

A medieval trail between the monasteries

 

In Lori, there are many churches covered with frescos. The restoration of impressive mural paintings in Haghpat monastery has recently been completed. But it’s not everywhere that frescos are so carefully and professionally protected; in Kobayr monastery – one of the most powerful monasteries in the region, the figures of Saints and Biblical illustrations are still waiting for the representation they deserve. But even in this condition, hardly protected from rain and sun, the frescoes on the background of dramatic rocks and glorious nature are unbelievably impressive. 

Aghtala frescoes

 

Shelter in a mountain

Unlike other regions of Armenia, shepherding is very popular here. You might be fairly confused reading about shepherding in an article about a trip and say, “It doesn’t relate to sightseeing.” But wait; I’ll explain. You’ll discover soon that summer “binas” (temporary summer structures for shepherds in Lori dialect) are situated in places with the best views you can ever find; on top of mountains, in valleys and magical glades next to the forests.

Nothing can be compared with climbing the narrow mountain track, meeting a lonely shepherd there and talking with him about the stunning beauty of their homeland, and, maybe, having a cup of coffee prepared on fire. These are irreplaceable feelings, which can never be predicted.

 

Multicultural and cultural Lori

Lori is a definitely diverse region, which makes it more attractive. The close border with Georgia and the region’s being inhabited by Russians, Greeks and other nationalities in the northern villages have visibly influenced the cultural pattern of Lori. One of these villages is Privolnoe, which can easily win the prize of the most “instagrammable” village in Armenia. Recently, it’s been decided to change the name of this village with tiled roofs into Armenian, but the villagers, who are now mostly Armenians with “no ‘for’ but all ‘against’ votes”, stood for the historical name of their village. “It’s always been Privolnoe, and for us – it’s beautiful,” they said. The most curious tourists can hike or drive from here to Khuchapi monastery. For this, you need to receive permission from Armenian Border Guard, whose representative will accompany you to the monastery. This is because its status of territorial belonging is still unclear between Armenia and Georgia. However, I think this little obstacle makes this monastery even more mysterious.

The dome of Russian church at Privolnoe village

 

One of the most fabulous villages in Lori is Ahnidzor. Probably, this name is familiar to many fans of Hrant Matevosyan’s novels. This connoisseur of both the mountains and Armenian soul was born and raised in this village. Hrant Matevosyan’s brother – uncle Hamo, kindly welcomed us in the family house of Matevosyans. Squeezed between forests and mountains, this tiny village embraces you with its warmth and is unforgettable. The road that leads to the village is bad, but as uncle Hamo says, “It’s even to the better that the road is bad; this place is not for everyone. Who really needs, will come.”

Ahnidzor, Hrant Matevosyan’s house

 

In this chapter I would like to also include Dendropark, not only because here you can find the huge collection of ornamental trees from different areas, even continents, but also because it was founded by Polish engineer-forester Edmund Leonowicz, in 1931. Coming to Armenia, he initiated an experiment on planting different types of trees in natural forests and during years, he reshaped it into the Forest Park with more than 500 introduced species. We owe to him personally for the most popular park in Armenia – Stepanavan Dendropark. Today, Edmund Leonowicz’s mission continues his son Vitaliy Leonovic, who is 82 and lives in a small fairytale house in the territory of Dendropark.

Stepanavan Dendropark

 

On legends

“I’ve heard many times from locals about the general called de Gaulle, who passed his carefree childhood in the mountains of Lori while his parents were working in the mine,” says the security guard Rubo. Of course, I didn’t believe him, but, anyway, I checked. It turned out that in the archive materials there really is a family with the name of de Gaulle having lived in Lori, but this family had nothing to do with the famous de Gaulle. The sameness of surname has inspired the locals so much that they didn’t want to accept the possible existence of other de Gaulles. So, I decided not to disappoint them. There are so many legends here; one more won’t matter.

Three-dimensional military map, Pushkino village

 

The incident, however, happened in these same mountains and connected with the name of the famous Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, is more realistic. The villagers of Gargar proudly show the visitors the ruins of the house where the woman had offered milk and cheese to Alexandr Alexandrovich. The great writer with his brilliant descriptive language wrote about his trip from sunburned Georgia to breezy and flowerful Armenia, where he had come across the carriage taking Griboyedov’s body to Tbilisi. These two incidents have motivated the names of the Pushkin mountain pass and the Pushkino village. Nowadays almost all drivers prefer the tunnel to get to Vanadzor, but if you decide to drive along serpentines up to the meeting spot of the two poets, you’ll be inspired to contemplate about the harmonious beauty of the nature and, probably, you, too, will start writing memoirs. 

 

Military past

Right next to the Pushkino village the missile regiment was located during the Soviet time. Regular tourists will be surprised to find the entrances of real bunkers professionally hidden in the forest. I think there’s no need to illustrate that the bunkers were made to be used as shelters during the war. It was even more surprising to find the huge 3D stone map of the mountain ranges of the territorial neighbors of the Soviet Union – Turkey and Iran. Now, only small fragments are left, but looking at this model, you can easily imagine the group of high-ranking militaries gathering around it and developing scenarios for possible operations. 

Grandpa Ruslan

 

Grandpa Ruslan, who has been serving in the military forces for his entire conscious life, told me many amusing stories about the dinners he organized, the military life, and many other things. By the way, he gave us a useful suggestion; if you want the Armenian khorovats (barbeque) to get prepared faster, you should cover it with a newspaper, preferably, “Pravda”. 

 

Soviet boarding houses

During the Soviet time, among all regions of Armenia Lori was an undisputed champion with the number of its resting zones. I cannot insist, but locals are convinced that the elite of Soviet Armenia used to spend their regular leisure here.

One of the most impressive resting areas was “Artek” – Soviet Pioneer’s camp near Vanadzor. Nowadays, only the most solid buildings partially stand. The huge territory of the camp is literally ruined. But even in this condition, you can catch the silhouette of the former extensive architecture. I would love to be one of the children who used to spend their summer here.

Artek Children’s Camp, Vanadzor

 

“Anahit”, “Tsitsernak” (Swallow), “Lori”… It can take quite a while to list all the of former resort oases in Lori. I am convinced that for most people who grew up in the Soviet times these names are dear and evoke sweet memories. But now the vast majority of resting houses are either destroyed both by time and the vandals or have become the victims of their owners' understanding of beauty.

Nevertheless, there are some samples which still stand and serve their direct purpose thanks to their new proprietors. Here I would love to mention about “Lori” holiday home next to Vahagnadzor village – designed as a small town for 400 people, which looks enveloped by the rich forests and has fallen out of time. Maybe this very fact protected the building from the brutal “euro renovation” and left some “Soviet wind” in the walls of the pension. The security guard of the hotel remembers the flourishing time of the boarding house very well. He says people used to come and wait in their cars till morning to get a room there. Nowadays, the picture is incomparably worse, but the employees are convinced that after the restoration of the road which leads to the hotel, things will get better.

 

Imperial train stations

My small research about the train stations in the Lori region was very entertaining and full of discoveries. The construction of railways in Armenia started in 1886. They were to connect Tbilisi and Alexandrapol (modern day Gyumri) with Yerevan. This large-scale construction, which started during the reign of Tsar Nikolai II, was very innovative not only for Armenia but for the whole Russian Empire. I found some witnesses of that time among the former administrative buildings or the waiting rooms at the train stations. It seems that these solid buildings made of black basalt can never collapse. They’ve stayed for almost 120 years and can stay much longer. Even during the devastating earthquake of Spitak, when whole districts and the nearby villages were destroyed, these black beauties weren’t even slightly disturbed. Just in one building there was a stone that had shattered. Even now, in the modern world with so many technological possibilities, this excellent quality of construction and taste arouses admiration. These imperial buildings can be found in the stations of Ayrum, Akhtala, Pambak, and Tumanyan, and they are mostly inhabited by the former or present workers of the railways, because due to the social difficulties or simply unwillingness to respect the “old” style, the owners have significantly distorted the noble appearance of the buildings. Many of them have lowered the high ceilings, covered the windows and the doors, built additional walls, and so on. Interestingly, the most common excuse for lowering ceilings is that with high ceilings it’s more difficult to change the light bulbs. 

The imperial building of Tumanyan train station

 

The imperial building of Ayrum train station

 

Epilogue

During this trip I understood how underestimated our country is, how abandoned our culture is, how we’ve lost much time, and how many mistakes we have made. Not appreciating our culture has left us with hard processes of self-contemplation we can overcome only by obtaining education and knowledge. As to me, the way out is in traveling, recognizing and exploring, and finally, admiring our country.

Peace to all of us.

 

The cemetery of a church established by Hovhan of Odzun, Ardvi village

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