The Silky Way Adventure
Slices of Armenia
Chapter 5 – Abandoned
Previous chapter : The Priest
“Sure, yeah, I’ll be alright…” Artyom didn’t look nor sound too convinced that everything was, indeed, going to be fine. The old Soviet skyline that was getting us to the heights of Alaverdi did not appear to be the most modern machine ever. In fact, I wasn’t completely trusting the dangling cabin either – but I was willing to pretend so. I had been making fun of a chicken a few minutes before, and insisted that we get on board. As we were getting higher and higher, we discovered behind the city an enormous abandoned metallurgic complex, obviously from the U.S.S.R time. The cabin silently arrived at the upper platform. We had to hurry, as the daylight wouldn’t last much longer.
Alaverdi. The name sounds Italian. A lot of empty houses with broken windows, behind the big soviet housing blocks covered in the typical Armenian little pink bricks. And, behind all that, at the far end of the town, another monastery, the third one that day. It was being renovated. “We could have skipped this one, the next one was more important…” Artyom said. A quick look, and we started going down again, walking through this strange town that seemed to have lost its purpose the day the industrial machines stopped. I hadn’t heard of too many successful re-conversions in Armenia. We took the road to go down, hitchhiking again. Our driver took us down the few kilometres of turns and we soon found ourselves on the main road again, not far from the skyline station.
Soon another car took us. After a few kilometres, it stopped at a fork in the road and dropped us off. The driver was taking the path that weaved up the mountain, and we needed to go straight. At the crossroad, three policemen started waving at us, and pointing to their right. Someone was running toward us! I watched, quite startled, Artyom readily jump in joy and dart across the road to give the mystery person a big hug. It was Sylvain, one of Artyom’s friends. He was on his way to the Georgian border. He was doing a visa run (his was expiring the same day). If you get out of the country in time, you can come in again straight away, or alternatively after waiting usually for three months, depending on the local regulations. Sylvain had spotted Artyom on the side of the road, asked his driver to stop, and came running for this friendly hug, then jumped back in the car and left. One of those brief, unreal moments when the whole universe conspires to provide you with one more friendly smile. Sure enough, it put a large grin on Artyom’s beardy face for the next hour or two.
The truck that left us in Kobayr was transporting potatoes. We wanted to see one last monastery in the village, but it was already dark. “Village” was maybe a bit too strong a word to use for describing the two or three short rows of houses overlooking the road. Only a few lights scattered in the night. We walked up a narrow stony path that was stumbling onto one of the lit abodes. A dog was barking on our right, with a tone that did not like too much. Artyom sent me to knock at the door. He didn’t want the tiny grandma he had caught a glimpse of through the curtain to be scared by his dark bearded self. “Barev dzez!” I asserted with assurance after the door had slowly opened. Artyom took charge of the rest, explaining what we were doing there. We were soon invited to come in. A cup of coffee, maybe? Certainly! The grandma’s son joined us, then her daughter-in-law. I opened my notebook, while Artyom was already scribbling down. “You are going to tell the same story” the old woman noted, “just in two different languages.”
We took pictures, we admired the big carpet on the wall behind us – hand-woven by the grandma herself! So we took another picture, with the whole carpet in the frame this time. Arytom, as usual, wasn’t translating everything on the spot. We suddenly had to get up and leave. Something about keys, and a place where we could stay. We followed Zaven, the son, through the narrow unlit alleys until… an abandoned house. My dream! There was of course no water nor electricity, but Zaven had been carrying a jug of water and one plastic glass and a handful of church candles for us.
The house belonged to friends of theirs, who had emigrated to Russia in search of a better life. There was some matches on the table. In the main room, two single beds next to each other and in another room, some beds with cold damp sheets on them. A bedroom with a crib, too. In the kitchen, bottles of vodka, all empty. We chose to light a few candles in the main room. Two beds, our sleeping bags, that was all we needed. Artyom unsuccessfully tried to close the two windows properly – we were to sleep refreshed by the icy air from outside.
The abandoned house tableau was just perfect. As I had often seen in Armenia, on a chest in the living-room was the black-and-white portrait of a relative who had passed away. The picture of the dead woman on top of the dresser looked oddly scary in the flickering light and the cold silence of the lonely walls. And, while we were doodling in our notebooks by the thin candles’ light, the door of a little cabinet behind us suddenly opened with a squeaky sound. Artyom nearly jumped from his chair in fear! His reaction was quite surprising, since he seemed to fit the tableau so well, his monk-like bearded face disappearing almost completely into the shadow of his hood…
It wasn’t so warm inside, but certainly warmer than outside and we slept well in the end. When morning arrived, we found out that the living-room was quite dark during the day as well, because of huge trees neighbouring the small windows. Under our sleeping bags we found mouse droppings. On the wall, a childish drawing of Maria. We rummaged through the cupboard, and found nothing but a few old photographs. Black-and-white photographs mostly, including one of corpse on its deathbed – it added the finishing touch to the scene. We quickly closed the cupboard and left the house that had found tenants again for one brief night. We nodded at the woman’s portrait, thanking her for her hospitality.
We made our way back to the grandma’s house. She was busy wrapping a pot into a coat to put next to the stove. “To make cheese” she explained. The process is quite simple, and quite similar to the one my father uses. Milk and rennet, and once the cheese has turned solid, you pour everything down a plastic strainer that will also become the mould. The cheese you will get will be kept in a salty brine. That’s it. “We have to work, if we want to eat” the grandma said, “we have pensions, for sure, but so small that they only barely cover the cost of electricity. So I make cheese to sell it on the market and buy some food.” I am quite sure that she also works in her garden in the summer, to produce some vegetables.
A coffee for the morning, a few nuts, and we started out for the church, following Zaven who was carrying a chainsaw on his shoulder. He explained a few things about the church of the monastery. He was in fact in charge of renovating the church along with two workers. And he was, incidentally, also the one in charge of the renovation of the monastery we had seen in Alaverdi the previous day. He showed us the chapel and a cave which contained a church as big as the stone one we were in, but we were not allowed to climb to the cave. And then he said good-bye, and kept zigzagging up the slope to cut some wood somewhere above us. We explored the precinct, admired the beautiful gorge below us, the river, the trees adorned with their autumn dresses, and took delight in the peacefulness of the place for a moment.
When we went back to the house to pick up our bags, I gave the grandma the jar of jam Manushak had given me. She looked very pleased. And when we were on the threshold, about to depart, she told us with glistening eyes that she had been very touched indeed by our visit, and that she would never forget us. Well, we won’t forget you either I thought. We surely won’t.
Next chapter : Russian Pickles
Artyom’s version on his blog.