Here we have it folks, the worst title to a piece you’ll see all year. I just couldn’t resist, sorry. The other month I sought out the resort town of Dilijan for a nature-filled break from the big city. I’d already passed through a couple of times on my way to Tbilisi and been stunned by the beauty of the wooded hills there, especially while deeply sleep-deprived and hungover in a minibus that squeaked every two seconds, cruelly negating any desperate attempt at some shut-eye. In that low moment, I resolved to return, and that I did.
On a cold Friday morning I ventured to Yerevan’s Northern Bus Station, a pretty bare bones place with the exception of its absolutely stunning brutalist main hall, whose geometric rafters and staircases lit up gorgeously in the nascent morning light. I was quickly hustled onto a classic marshrutka, a staple form of transportation in post-Soviet states, and then another, because that’s just how it goes in this neck of the woods. The road out of Yerevan to Sevan is a fun one, there’s a couple of huge roadside malls in that unique style of caricatured Classical architecture – think Caesar’s Palace in Vegas – which I’m positive no one ever shops at, endless billboards advertising beer and vodka, of course deeply ironic on a motorway, and a bit later, when the plain opens up, a few humble roadside shacks selling fish from Sevan (a lake), starkly backgrounded by the arid hills way off in the distance.
Shortly after the town of Sevan on Lake Sevan the road goes through a tunnel, at the other end of which is a completely different world. The scrubby landscape and the light blue waters of the lake are exchanged for thickly forested spurs and peaks, the autumnal leaves glowing a thousand shades of orange, it’s pretty sweet. When I got dropped off by my humble transport it was still early, and that special lustre, special nuance that the bright morning light imparts to its surroundings was still going strong. I wended my way around a small lake in the centre of town, admiring the reflection of the incredible colours on its glassy surface, to the tourist information office. There I was duly provided with the sort of leaflets about hiking trails I was after, and I copped a proper paper map too, which made me very happy.
After a quick stop at my hostel, a charming little spot with dorms akin to a supersized pidge room (think capsule hotel mixed with DIY bookcase), I set off in search of a couple of monasteries. Most of the walk there took me through a dejected suburb to the west of the town, although the day was so beautiful that even the derelict old housing blocks retained a certain charm, before swerving into the hills under a massive railway viaduct, part of the old Yerevan-Baku line, which has been closed since the brutal conflict in the 90s. As the road climbed higher, the development became sparser, just the occasional deserted hotel or activity centre watched over by the obligatory unfriendly wolfhound.
I made it to the trailhead and began the brief ascent up to Matosavank monastery. At the top, a large, intimidating group of schoolchildren took great amusement from the huffing-and-puffing of the odd foreigner with silly hair, which wasn’t kind, but thankfully the rascals were well on their way by the time I made it to the monastery. Therefore, I was able to revel in peace at the ancient structure, long reclaimed by the forest around. The walls were a dank green from a century’s coating of moss, a makeshift cross out of two varnished branches gleamed darkly from the light of a lone tallow candle.
A little down and up through the pumpkin hues of the forest led me to another charming monastery, Jukhtavank. It was in far better nick than the other, thus missing out on the unique intrigue and tranquillity of a place at the quiet mercy of nature, but still nice. The views down the valley in the dying sun encouraged me on the long trudge homewards, and before long I was chilling in the hostel, well rested, with a meal prepared and the rugby on.
I awoke hideously early the next day to hop in a taxi to a village called Gosh, in order to get in a pretty serious day’s stomping. My driver, Ararat, gave me two walnuts as a token of good luck, and, after inspecting the village’s monastery, of course looking dope in the morning light, I set off for Gosh Lake. Before long, on the track up from the village, a 4×4 pulled up alongside me and offered me a lift. Being a lazy sod and not really a student of the school of stranger-danger thought, I hopped in. We exchanged pleasantries, before the kind man went on to warn me about all the dangers of the Dilijan woods, bears, wolves, angry dogs and so on. I was dropped at the lake, naturally filled with confidence about the hike to come.
The lake itself was beyond special. The jeep went on its way and I was left entirely alone, shitting myself about an impending mauling from a grizzly every time a falling twig rustled the dead leaves on the floor, deafening in the quiet of the forest. Resolved that if I were to die, it wouldn’t be too bad for it to happen in a place of such absurd beauty, I set about a leisurely stroll around the pristine lake, the reflections in which of the surrounding orange hillsides only occasionally interrupted by the ripples of a leaping frog. It was divine.
I kept on through the autumnal wonderland in the direction of Parz Lake, which I eventually reached, traversing over hills and dales, through meadows and thickets, and around an insanely long column of rare woodland cows. Parz was mid in comparison with Gosh, it was noisy with people who hadn’t worked as hard to get there as I and far less pretty, so I quickly ploughed on towards Dilijan. On my way up out of the depression around Parz, I shoplifted a couple of stray dogs from a Russian couple and began to make very good ground, spurred on by my newfound furry friends.
The final leg to Dilijan was more of the incredible same, enchanting woodland interspersed with the odd clearing that cut open a window to far-away hillsides, slightly dimmed by the haze from the valley in between, resulting in an almost ethereal look. Before long we were well into the foothills above the town, where I had to bid farewell to my loyal companions as they left me for the greater entertainment of the other local strays. Thirty strong kms in the bag and the second night of RWC quarters starting later, I collapsed, beer in hand, in the hostel in a state of utmost content. Good times.