There’s too much snow. It’ll be too cold. The weather won’t be good this week. You’ll shoot your eye out… The reasons why I shouldn’t have gone to Kari Lake and Mount Aragats were many. All of the above (save one, can you guess which?) were offered up, and I was so close to scrapping the trip. The forecast showed thunderstorms for 10 days straight, and temperatures at the lake would dip below freezing each night. I’d also heard from another tourist that the lake was still frozen and the mountain covered in snow. Maybe climbing Mount Aragats and camping at the lake weren’t such good ideas after all…
You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.Paulo Coelho
…but instead of scrapping the entire trip, I made myself a compromise. I’d go and feel things out. It wasn’t so horrible if I wasn’t able to climb the mountain. I could check out the lake and maybe even camp, though I knew there was a single hotel on the shore if the conditions were terrible. Backup plans and safety contingencies in place, I left Yerevan on the bus to Byurakan, destination: Kari Lake.
Hitchhiking to Kari Lake
Pro Tip: The 519 bus to Byurakan leaves from the Kilikia bus station in Yerevan and costs 400 dram. For a timetable, refer to this link. The left-hand column lists departure times from Byurakan and the right-hand side lists departures from Yerevan. I got lucky and the bus driver took me a little farther to the next village of Antarut — that may be the actual endpoint for the route, though I can’t say for certain.
Getting to Kari Lake (Kari Lich) was a little more difficult than getting to Byurakan, as there is no public transport. When the lone cabbie at the Antarut bus stop quoted me a ridiculous 8,000 dram to take me the 23 kilometers up to the lake, I decided to start walking. It was a long, relentless climb, but stretching my legs and not having to haggle for each step was pleasant. By the time I reached the turnoff for Amberd Fortress, however, I was ready to call it quits. I was tired, beginning to feel the exertion of hiking at altitude, and the temperature was plummeting as a thunderstorm gathered on the slopes of the mountain ahead of me. Time to hitch.
I waited by the junction with thumb extended. When cars finally came, the first three passed me by, but the fourth slowed to a stop and the passenger rolled down his window.
“Kari Lich?” I asked, pointing uphill.
“Yes,” he replied, with a distinctly non-Armenian accent, and I threw my bag in the back and hopped in.
It turns out the occupants of the car were all physicists on their way to a research station on the shores of Kari Lake. The man driving the car was Armenian and the director of the Yerevan Physics Institute, while the other two men were German astroparticle physicists in the country to give some lectures to local physics students.
“Are you a physicist?” one of them, Johannes, asked. “If you are, then perhaps you can stay at the research center.”
“I’m afraid not,” I answered, “but I did take a physics class in middle school…”
The Cosmic Ray Research Station
Built in the mid-20th century by Soviets as part of their foray into fringe sciences, the Cosmic Ray Research Station is used to study cosmic ray physics and the effect those rays have after penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere. Little did I know, but the man who’d been driving the car — Ashot Chilingarian — is almost single-handedly responsible for ensuring the station’s continued function since the collapse of the USSR. To give you an idea of Ashot’s perseverance, check out this first-person account from a reporter in 1999. The man is a legend.
Together with some physics students from Yerevan, I got to explore the depths of the facility, where row upon row of particle detectors still function, while antiquated computer systems beep and hum as data is collected, analyzed, and sent back to Yerevan.
Underground passageways connect many of the buildings, with low ceilings dripping with condensation and meltwater. Defying expectations, the electricity still works in those tunnels, and we descended deep into the mountain to look at a special facility used to monitor one specific type of particle ray. The Soviets — in their ambition and hubris — had no qualms with removing the mountain’s top to build the cavernous hangar in its depths. The scope of the project was astounding!
Johannes told me that the first time he’d come to the facility in the mid-1990s, it was just barely operational, with electricity available a mere hour per day and frigidly cold temperatures. Since then, Professor Chilingarian (seen here second from the left) and his team have methodically restored operations while inspiring a new generation of physicists to take the reigns.
For more information on life at the Cosmic Ray Research Station, check out these two documentary clips:
Interlude: Sunset at Kari Lake
The physicists left and the students with them, leaving me alone at the research facility with the two caretakers and cook — Gurgen, Saylosh, and the cook whose name I never learned. I took to calling him ‘Master Chef’, much to everyone’s entertainment. Gurgen showed me to my room, then told me to come down to the kitchen at 19:00 for dinner. I began to have a sneaking suspicion, one confirmed the next morning, that they were not only going to let me stay there but feed me as well.
After dinner, I set out for a walk around Kari Lake, a warm-up for the coming day if the weather was cooperative.
The place was stunning. Once I left the research station and adjacent hotel behind, I trekked across fields of crusted snow and soggy vegetation, circumambulating the lake in a short amount of time. The ruins of an old observatory lie on the far end of the lake, and other buildings are crumbling to ruin nearby. The sun sank lower and lower as I walked, making the sky glow and — as if in one last-ditch attempt to imbue the day with beauty — painting a brilliant rainbow on the horizon.
Sunset, when it came, was stunning, and I went to bed with a great feeling about the coming day. Maybe I’d get to climb Aragats after all…
Climbing Mount Aragats
I woke early the next morning, at the unholy time of 6:30. Seriously, I don’t know how my grandma woke up at 4 o’clock every day. The thought of doing the same just fills me with despair!
The first thing I did was look out the window. The sky was a stunning shade of blue and almost devoid of clouds. Perfect weather for a hike. I scarfed a quick breakfast and set off up the slopes, still not entirely sure of my destination.
I started slow and steady, taking measured steps and frequent breaks to make sure I was never short of breath and that my pulse stayed under control. The last thing I wanted was a repeat the debacle of my Kyrgyz-Tajik border crossing back in 2014.
As I worked my way uphill, I began to feel optimistic about making the peak. There were two other people some distance ahead of me, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone on the mountain if things went badly. The snow was old and crusty, doing a laudable job of supporting my weight. When I did sink through, it was only up to my upper calf. The surface wasn’t very slippery either, and as the incline slowly increased, I would periodically take a few steps downhill to make sure the footing was secure. I didn’t want to make it up the mountain, only to be unable to safely descend.
But my optimism faded as I began to feel the physical toll of the ascent. It became more and more difficult to regulate my body’s response to the elevation and exertion, and by the time I took my lunch break at the viewpoint below, I was just about ready to call it a day and turn back.
But then I heard it, a shriek of victory from the two climbers I’d noticed ahead of me. Squinting upwards, I saw them on top of the ridge above me. They’d done it.
And just like that, my competitiveness kicked in. I hadn’t reached my limit, not yet. I could still make the summit. I WOULD make the summit.
I checked my GPS and realized how close I was. Only 250 more meters to go. And to think, I’d been so close to giving up. I plodded on, 50 meters or so at a time. Took a break. Rinsed and repeated. I could do it. I knew I could.
And then I was there, on top of it all, staring down from the southern peak into the crater of Aragats and the three other peaks surrounding it. Feeling the heady rush of success as I whooped my own cry of victory.
The couple who’d summited just before me was from Iran, and we talked for a bit before they moved to a spot further along the ridge, leaving me the summit to myself.
A huge swell of menacing clouds was creeping up the slope towards me, the upper edge of them roiling overhead. I was tempted to leave the peak quickly but noticed they were dissipating as quickly as they were advancing, and there were no tell-tale flashes of lightning in their depths.
So I stayed for a while, savoring the feeling of being on top of the highest peak I’ve climbed since my bout with altitude sickness. It felt pretty freakin’ good to have faced that demon and won, and I know I’ll be trying some bigger peaks in the future. And my bum knee… it held up!
I thought about my limitations then, how so many times the barriers to achieving something only exist in my mind. The body can be pushed and cajoled onwards, limits can be broken. Will is all.
When I did descend, I did so quickly. The going was easy, and it wasn’t long before I passed an older Norwegian on his way to the summit. His group was taking a more technical route to the top, while he had opted for the easier approach that the Iranians and I had chosen.
By the time I made it down the mountain almost four hours after starting the hike, I was exhausted. It wasn’t even mid-day, but I resolved to do nothing requiring physical exertion until the next day. It was a good plan.
That evening, three men stopped by the research center, and we enjoyed a huge meal together. One of them, Samvel, spoke a modicum of English and used it to push food and arak (Armenian vodka) down my throat until I was full to the point of bursting. By the time he and his friends staggered off to their car (yeah, that happened), I was more than ready to turn in.
But a group of Armenian Olympic cross-country skiers who had also arrived that day waved me over, and I talked with them a while before crawling — at last — into bed.
Click here for my GPS tracks from climbing Mount Aragats!
Hiking to Amberd Fortress
I woke up a little later on Sunday, with much easier hiking plans for the day allowing a little extra shut-eye. After a filling breakfast of oatmeal and malina jam, eggs, and matsun with the Olympians, I bid farewell to Gurgen, Saylosh, and Master Chef, thanking them for their hospitality. I still couldn’t believe I’d gotten so lucky. Instead of camping in freezing weather and subsisting on sausage and granola for three days, I’d been fed and housed with nothing asked for in return. Traveling can lead to the coolest experiences!
My plan for that day was to hike to Amberd Fortress, some 13 kilometers down the mountainside. Setting off from the research facility, I immediately realized how easy this day would be compared to the previous. The decline was moderate, and even my bum knee didn’t winge too much at the impact of each step.
The crusted layers of snow melted away, and I found myself walking on spongy grass and dirt. Rocks peppered the terrain, evidence of its volcanic origins, and wildflowers were just beginning to bloom. The trail followed tire tracks in various states of visibility, and paths often branched away or back in as I made my way downhill. I checked my GPS frequently, making sure I was headed along the right ridges to make sure I’d end up at the fortress.
For the first couple hours, I didn’t see a soul but eventually passed through someone’s farm. I called out a greeting but didn’t stop, as I was hoping to make the fortress before 1 o’clock. Plus, I was nervous about herding dogs. Sure enough, as I left the farm, a chorus of barks and howls sounded out behind me as the dogs realized an intruder had slipped through their clutches. Close one…
Later, I came across two shepherds, who asked me for a snack as I gingerly picked my way through their flock. I didn’t want to give away all of my food, so I handed them half a pack of granola bars and spread my hands apologetically when they asked for more.
A while later, I finally caught my first glimpse of Amberd Fortress. A 7th-century fortification built by the House of Kamsarakan and later restored by the House of Pahlavuni in the 10th century, the castle’s name translates to ‘fortress in the clouds’. Like many fortresses in the Caucasus, Amberd was destroyed by Mongols in the 13th century and has only recently been excavated and restored. Those pesky Mongols… they really got around.
Click here for my GPS tracks from Kari Lake to Amberd Fortress!
I picked my way around the ruins, taking in the stunning views of the surrounding canyons as I tried to imagine the building of the actual structure. At about 2,300 meters above sea level and far removed from other settlements, it couldn’t have been an easy task.
After the relative solitude of the previous couple days, I found the crowds of tourists and hollering children a little too much to handle, so I descended from the fortress into the canyon, making my way back to the village of Byurakan. The trail was badly overgrown, so I occasionally had to use my hiking pole to hack away the encroaching vegetation at points.
By the time I climbed out of the canyon on the other side, I was beginning to feel exhaustion creep in. It had been a long three days of hiking, and I still had a ways to go before getting to Byurakan and the bus stop. Other than a quick photo stop or three, I didn’t take many breaks and pushed on for the town.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that things almost never go according to plan. And that’s especially true here in the Caucasus, where hospitality is engrained into the culture and welcoming a guest is second nature. So when I passed a solitary cowherd lounging in the shade beneath a tree and he waved me over, I knew I’d be there for a while.
I was apprehensive at first, conscious of the fact that I was alone in a very remote area and the man seemed to just be waiting by the trail. But when he reached into his backpack and pulled out a bag of food, I knew I was being overly cynical. “Pomidor, panir, lavash…” he said, pointing at the different foods the bag held. Tomato, cheese, flatbread…
“…arak,” he grinned and waggled a bottle with a clear liquid at me. That one needed no translation.
We ate and tried to have a conversation, but I only know a few words in Armenian and he knew about the same amount of English, so sign language became our default mode of communication.
Later, as I left, he thrust a handful of crushed wildflowers towards me, indicating I should sniff them. The fragrance was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. “Chai,” he said, and I placed the scent. My host in Yerevan had used the same wildflower to make me a tea several weeks ago. The man made sure I left with a handful for later, and I enjoyed a cup of it after going home.
By the time I made it back to Yerevan, I was exhausted, sunburnt, and ready to be done. I still had many things to do in Yerevan and the surrounding areas, but those could wait. It had been an epic adventure, hitchhiking to Kari Lake, exploring the Cosmic Ray Research Station, climbing Mount Aragats, and finally hiking to Amberd Fortress, and I’d been shown nothing but kindness and generosity from those I encountered along the way.
Ashot, Johannes, and Tomas picking me up and showing me around the research station. Gurgen, Saylosh, and Master Chef hosting me and making sure I ate well every day I spent there. Artur, Mika, and the other cross-country skiers for a delicious breakfast and an offer to visit their house next week when I leave Armenia. And the cowherd, whose name I’ve given up trying to remember, but who shared what food he had with me despite not being able to understand a word I said.
I love this world and the people in it. I want to remember, in adventures to come, to seize any opportunities I get. To let discouragement and doubt pass by and take the risks necessary to reach these hidden places. To let happen what may and enjoy being swept along in the current. It’s when we let go that we have the grandest adventures.
How about you? What’s an interesting travel experience you’ve had lately, and how did it differ from your preconceptions? Share your stories in the comments below!