Sometimes you don’t plan on visiting a destination. Sometimes you get struck by a flash of inspiration, and your feet wander of their own accord. That’s what happened this week when I trekked through the mountains outside of Yerevan, exploring the hidden monasteries of Garni. It started with a plan to explore Havuts Tar, a monastic complex perched on a hilltop across the gorge from Garni. You can see it — just barely — from the pagan temple in town, so it seemed to be a very manageable hike.
Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.Aristotle
Trekking to the Hidden Monasteries of Garni
I’d visited the Temple of Garni — which predates Christianity and is built in the Greco-Roman style — the previous day. There had been a brief thunderstorm, causing everyone to scurry for cover until the frigid rain abated.
Dropping down from the temple led me on a cobble-stoned path, which quickly changed to dirt as it wound down into the gorge. The foliage was lush and green — no doubt invigorated from the rain the day before — and the flowers were in bloom. Perfect for my allergies! Signs of the region’s ancient past were hidden in plain sight, like this khachkar just off the path.
The floor of the gorge contains one of the most unique rock formations I’ve seen during the course of my travels. Basalt columns honeycomb the cliff-face, leaving no doubt why the feature is called the Symphony of Stones.
I left the Symphony behind and crossed the river at the bottom of the gorge, making my way up the other side. A sign warned me that entrance to the Khosrov Forest Reserve was not possible without a pass, but a quick check on Maps.me revealed that the visitor’s center where I could purchase said pass was just a little further along the path. I pressed on, passing a small campground that had a surprisingly clean toilet, covered picnic area, and barbecue facilities.
The entrance fee to the park (specifically Havuts Tar) set me back 3,000 dram, a bit more than I was expecting, but still worth being able to do a pleasant hike. I paid the official and carried on up the side of the hill toward Havuts Tar.
*IMPORTANT* Click here to see the price list and attractions within Khosrov Forest Reserve. I didn’t realize before going, but certain sites within the park require a guide to visit. The entrance fee can vary as well, depending on the sites you want to visit.
The wildflowers became more and more prevalent, dotting the roadside in hues of red, purple, blue, and yellow. It was beautiful.
When I caught my first view of Havuts Tar, I could feel my excitement building. The only people I’d encountered since leaving the Temple of Garni had been the park official and security guard, so I had a pretty strong suspicion I’d be alone at the site. The location looked absolutely epic as well, perched on a hill over the gorge against a backdrop of snowy peaks.
As I drew near, I found a number of khachkars bordering the trail. Cross stones unique to Armenia, khachkars are a UNESCO-listed piece of Intangible Cultural Heritage and can be found all over the country. Some are part of exhibits, but others lay where they were placed centuries ago — overgrown with vegetation and worn down by the elements. Just after one such monument, the trail turned and I saw a ruined gate. I’d made it to Havuts Tar.
Inside was a treasure trove of ruined buildings, khachkars, and tombs. Some engravings were remarkably preserved, while others were worn and shattered. A small knoll behind the complex afforded a stunning view over the grounds, while a short walk along a ridge took me to the church itself and its vantage over the surrounding countryside. It was magnificent.
I explored the place for a while, then glanced at the time. I had about 4 hours until I had to meet my hosts for dinner and way too much energy to chill out at Havuts Tar for the entire time. After thinking for a moment, I remembered something I’d seen on Maps.me and checked the area again. Sure enough, further into the mountains was another church named St. Stepanos (or Aghjots Vank). I eyeballed the distance and did some quick calculations. It would be tight, but I could do it…
…and then I was walking — splitting off from the main trail to follow a barely visible footpath up the hillside. It was completely overgrown, only a slight discoloration of the grass indicating the way forward. The climb was a slog and tough in the heat, but I crested the ridge and the path leveled out, becoming more visible as the vegetation faded. Looking back, the striations in the stone were clearly visible on the backside of the hill I’d just come over.
The path became threaded, tangents branching off and crisscrossing with itself as it wound its way along the undulating hills. It became obvious this was a herding route, with the diverging and converging paths created by the endless tread of hooves. Sure enough, I spotted a herd of sheep down below with several shepherds and — lucky me — two massive Caucasian herding dogs tending it. After a few close encounters with these types of dogs in the past (looking at you, Uzbekistan and Mongolia), I had no desire to get any closer, so I broke off from the trail and scrambled across a rocky scree, coming down in front of the herd and safely out of reach of the dogs. Smell ya later, doggos!
I was making decent time, but couldn’t help breathing a sigh of relief when I saw the ruins of St. Stepanos Monastery below me. Initially constructed in the 13th century, the site was destroyed by Persians in 1603, an earthquake 76 years later, and finally Azeris at the beginning of the 20th century.
The sanctuary in the main church is mostly intact and appeared to still be in use, as candles and religious icons were scattered around the interior. Not to mention that nice, new wooden door. But the adjacent structure — a church dedicated to the saints Paul and Peter — was perhaps the most impressive, with bas-reliefs of the two saints standing on either side of the entrance.
I stopped for a few minutes to have a snack and rest, beginning to feel the kilometers I’d racked up in my knees. But the clock was still ticking, and I had dinner plans, so I hopped up and scurried down the spider-webbed paths towards the abandoned village of Geghmahovit.
I’d expected an inhabited place since it shows up on maps, but every building was a shell and every field overgrown. A short ways off the main path, an old medieval church is all but buried — overgrown with plants and obviously, a favored resting place for livestock. The smell of feces was appalling.
The walk along the road from Geghmahovit to the visitor’s center was brutal. Not in the sense that it was hard (it wasn’t), but in the sense that it was freaking endless. I was exhausted, and time was slipping away. I began to accept that I would be late for dinner but ramped up my pace to keep the damage to a minimum. It was a constant struggle to remind myself along the way to pause and take in the stunning scenery around me. In some ways, it reminded me of the red rock country in Utah and Arizona.
I’d nearly reached the office when a sudden movement and ‘dear God in heaven, no!’ hissing sound caused me to damn near jump out of my skin. A viper that had to have been a meter long came slithering across the trail at me, head reared back as it hissed in warning. I was so tired that my attempted leap to safety only materialized as a desperate tumble away from the reptile, but it was enough. The snake disappeared into the bushes after crossing, and I shakily regained my feet and hurried onward — nerves shattered.
A barrage of four more snake sightings did nothing for those shattered nerves. Though at least three of those were actually glass lizards and harmless (I’m pretty sure), by the time I reached Garni I was a twitchy mess. Even a sparrow rustling in a tree caused me to yelp in alarm, and I was more than ready for the beer my host’s friend handed me after I collapsed in a chair at The Gallery House.
I was exhausted, my knee was reminding me that we’re getting too old for this crap, and I was 20 minutes late for dinner, but I’d made it. The hike from Havuts Tar to St. Stepanos had been epic, and the solitude I’d enjoyed during the 6-hour adventure had been wonderful. Talk about an unexpected adventure turning into a win!
The snakes? Well, the snakes I could’ve done without.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Cost: 4,500 dram (1,500 for the Temple of Garni and 3,000 for the Khosrov Forest Reserve)
- *Disclaimer* After finding a rate sheet for the reserve online, I realize I only paid to visit Havuts Tar, not St. Stepanos and the village of Geghmahovit. Technically, visiting those two sites requires a guide as well, which costs extra. Check the sheet linked above and be prepared to pay the amount shown. You may get lucky and be able to do what I did, or you may be asked to pay more.
- Route: I recorded my GPS route on Ramblr, you can check out my trip HERE.
- Distance: The loop is just shy of 24 km, though you could make it longer if you were very ambitious and tried to work in some waterfalls. I did the hike in just under 6 hours, not including the time I spent at the Temple of Garni the previous day. To allow for breaks and enjoying the monasteries, I’d allow eight hours.
- Dangers: The trail is hard to follow at times and can seem to disappear. Keep your eyes ahead and look for it to reappear further up the hillside. And don’t forget to watch out for the SNAKES.
Head up to Geghard for another epic monastery nestled in a mountain gorge. Ask your guesthouse to arrange a taxi to take you up there, wait for an hour, then return you to Garni — it should cost about 3,000 dram. There is no admission fee.
For another, even more epic hike, check out my adventure on Mount Aragats!
Ever gone on a spur-of-the-moment adventure? Where were you, and how did it turn out? Let me know in the comments below.