By James ‘Andranik’ Michaelian
YEREVAN–On August 21–Vatche Soghomonian–in an effort to raise money to provide refrigerated milk containers for remote villages throughout Armenia–embarked on a marathon bicycle ride which would take him nearly 700 kilometers across the mountains and plains of the country.
The project is spearheaded by the Fresno–California-based Armenian Technology Group (ATG)–an organization dedicated to strengthening the agricultural economy in rural regions of Armenia.
Soghomonian–also from Fresno and a life-long member of Homenetmen–left from Yerevan’s Republic Square to the enthusiastic cheers of fellow Homenetmen’scouts–who sang the organization’s anthem as the cyclist began his journey.
Soghomonian is no stranger to marathon events. In 1999–he rode his bicycle from Stepanakert to Yerevan ("from capital to capital") even biking up the steep–winding road to the fortress city of Shushi–to give a jump-start to the ATG-proposed grape nursery in Khramort–a village in Karabagh ravaged by war.
Due to the success of the bike-a-thon and a donation of disease-resistant rootstock from Luther Khachigian of Cal Western Nursery in Visalia–California–farmers in the village of Khramort are now cultivating 30 hectares of lush vineyards. They also provide rootstock to farmers in the region–thus assisting in the reestablishment of the grape industry in Karabagh.
This year’s event–organized by ATG and the Armenian Ministry of Agriculture–will help ensure the success of a project that stands to benefit rural areas in Armenia for years to come. In many of Armenia’s remote agricultural regions–villagers lack the means to store large quantities of milk–resulting in waste and–more important–a shortage of wholesome–fresh milk for children in these villages. With the funds raised from the bike-a-thon–four refrigerated milk containers–each with a capacity of 800-1,000 gallons–will be purchased and placed in villages designated by Agriculture Minister Davit Lokyan–who personally requested the assistance of ATG in making the project a reality.
Bike-ride sparks nationwide interest
During the course of Soghomonian’s six-day journey–several meetings and conferences took place–including a press conference in the northern Armenian city of Vanadzor. There–agricultural officials and members of the press became acquainted with Soghomonian and the reason he had undertaken his long trek through much of the Armenian homeland. Explaining the importance of the milk containers–Soghomonian told of the benefits–both economic and health-related–of placing the refrigerated tanks in Armenia’s villages. Then he challenged Armenia’s everywhere to match his physical efforts by assisting financially to the best of their ability–thus helping the project become a reality. Before leaving Vanadzor–Soghomonian met with Homenetmen’scouts–who presented him with a ring and a picture of the Homenetmen campground in Vanadzor.
In several interviews arranged by Armenian National Television–Soghomonian and Varoujan Der Simonian–executive director of ATG–explained to audiences the importance of a strong agricultural economy in Armenia–especially in distant border regions vital to Armenia’s security. "Besides the immediate benefit of being able to store large quantities of milk–which villagers will be able to use locally or sell to firms producing cheese and other dairy products," Der Simonian stated–"the tanks will serve as field stations for the planned Central Diagnostic Laboratory (CDL)." According to Der Simonian–veterinarians will work at the location of each refrigerated tank–making sure the milk is of the highest quality–and report the occurrence of any disease that might be detrimental to public health and safety.
The laboratory–in coordination with the Armenian Agriculture Ministry and the Department of Veterinary Service of Armenia–will test for diseases that can pass from animals to humans through the food chain. "The CDL will be the first of its kind in the entire Caucasus," Der Simonian told listeners. "Not only will the laboratory help bolster Armenia’s economy–but–with improved trade relations–peace and stability will be promoted." By testing for a wide-range of diseases–Der Simonian also noted–the lab would prevent the occurrence of bird flu or other zoonotic diseases that could devastate the economy of a small country like Armenia.
Historic churches–monumen’s given central importance during journey
While biking through Armenia’s mountainous northern regions and the flat–fertile plains of the Ararat Valley–Soghomonian visited several ancient historic monumen’s–including Hayravank–a monastery located idyllically on the southern shores of Lake Sevan–and Haghbat Monastery–just north of Alaverdi–near the border with neighboring Georgia.
In the Ararat Valley–not far from the border with Turkey–Soghomonian paid tribute to those who fought for Armenia’s survival in 1918 at the monument in Sardarabad. He then traveled to Saghmosavank–Echmiadzin–and Oshakan–where–along with ATG staff and supporters–he visited the tomb of Mesrob Mashtots–inventor of the Armenian alphabet.
Returning triumphantly to Yerevan’s city center–where his journey had begun six days earlier–Soghomonian was greeted by ATG staff and his beloved Homenetmen’scouts–who sang the Homenetmen anthem and thanked him for the great ideals he held for Armenia. "Times are difficult in Armenia," Soghomonian stated. "But we are now headed in the right direction. With projects like this–we will see a difference in life here in the homeland."
As crowds of passers-by and others gathered in front of the Armenia Marriott Hotel–Soghomonian answered questions and concluded by saying he believed wholeheartedly in what ATG was doing in Armenia. "What ATG did in the past here–during the dark years and later in Karabagh–is amazing," he said. "When you donate to ATG–you know it will reach the Armenian people. That is what we are doing now–raising money to buy milk containers for villages across Armenia."
"I invite everybody to join us next year," Soghomonian said. "I wasn’t born in the homeland," he added. "But now the homeland is in me."