BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
As part of my exploration of different communities, I decided to travel to Gyumri and stay there for a week and write about the city 30 years after the earthquake.
A few of my friends who had traveled from Yerevan to Gyumri via train, recommended the ride. They said it is comfortable and cheap. So, I took their advice and had the experience of a train ride in Armenia.
Recently they’ve also added an express train, but it works only on weekends. Since I had already planned my stay in Gyumri, I took the regular train, which takes three hours instead of two hours and the price is only $2.50.
Within the last decade, traveling has drastically changed. Homestay lodging has become a norm. Since 2012, in my travels, I have used Airbnb, which has been at the forefront of the “going local” movement. I love staying with locals, because I learn about their lifestyle.
I remember when I was a child when we travelled to the Caspian Sea for vacation. At the entrance of each town we crossed, we would see teenage village boys standing by the curb and shouting, “Otaq Khali— Otaq Khali,” meaning “vacant rooms.” It’s a very sweet memory.
In Gyumri I had booked an “Otaq Khali” through the Airbnb site. My host was Varduhi. Over the phone and via email conversation she had told me that she would come to get me from the train station.
As the train arrived, she was indeed waiting there for me. She greeted me as if we were old friends. She suggested that we walk home. It was a pleasant day and it took us about 20 minutes from the station to walk the distance to her house.
In Armenia, on almost every weekend during the summer time, there’s a festival in different regions of the country. The honey festival is in the south, where the best honey is produced. Then we have the wine festival, the dolma festival, the bread festival, the pastry festival and the list goes on. Usually those festivals are created to boost the local tourism and economy.
The annual “Khorovatz Paradon” or Barbecue Festival is being held in the northern part of Armenia, in a town called Akhtala, about a two-hour drive from Gyumri. Akhtala is known for its rich copper mines.
An interesting historical side note: It is documented that the Statue of Liberty, located in New York’s Liberty island, is constructed with the copper of Akhtala’s mine deposits. At that time French had the right to operate the copper mines at Akhtala. So they used that copper to built the statue and gifted to the United States.
Remember that saying, “when something good happens, the taste remains in the mouth”? To me, that taste was the barbecue festival, which I had attended a few years back in Akhtala.
On Saturday, August 18, two days after I arrived in Gyumri, the Barbecue festival was going to be held. I asked my host, Varduhi, if she would like to attend the event. She said that she had never been to that fair nor the Akhtala monastery where the festival was held. She was eager to join me to go there.
I remembered how much I had enjoyed the festival and how I longed to return that event. At the festival there were many stalls, each had their own specialty khorovatz, (barbecue) with flavorful meat and vegetables slow-roasting over hot coals.
The cooks wore their special uniforms and their “Toque Blanche” or the traditional white hat. Various restaurants also participated. At around 2 p.m. the jurors announced the winning groups. And we witnessed a big jubilation.
On that year, there was a lot of group dancing (Armenian shourj-bar) Many dance groups wore their traditional folk attires. The event was organized at the grounds of the Akhtala church. That day, for the first time, I visited the Akhtala monastery, built in 10th century.
The monastery is famous for its artistic and colorful frescoes adorning the inside walls of the church. These frescoes are rarely found in other Armenian churches. The Akhtala church, due to its location on a high mountain, has escaped enemy invasions and literally being “above the fray” has preserved the inside frescoes.
This year, the taxi we had hired took us to monastery, but we found out that they had changed the place of the festival to the soccer stadium of Akhtala. Since we were already there, we explored the monastery and marveled again at the paintings. From there we drove to the soccer field.
By the time we arrived at the festival it was 2 p.m. We stayed there for a short while. We just grabbed a kebob sandwich and hit the road to back home. This year I didn’t find the festival as pleasant as the first time I had attended. Maybe because it was not as lively as the other time or maybe it was too hot.
On the way back, we stopped at Odzun village, because our driver wanted to meet his family. It was a good opportunity for us to visit the church at Odzun, which was built in the 5th century and it is one of the most beautiful Armenian churches.
On the way back, Varduhi wanted to visit the park at Stepanavan. She wanted to show me the flower beds, which are very beautiful. However, by the time we arrived it had begun to rain, so we couldn’t visit the garden.
We arrived home at around 7:30 p.m. We had been on the road for nine hours. Although the festival was not as I had expected, we still made many good memories.