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Road Trip to the Khachik Gata Festival

My first weekend excursion in Armenia was supposed to be a trip to Mount Armaghan, where there is a church and a lake, slightly south west of Lake Sevan. Rather than one coach, the excursion headed out in minibuses in order to climb the mountain. Driving along the M4 towards Sevan, which is one of Armenia's major highways, our day trip began.

Unfortunately, the weather started to turn somewhat sub-optimal for the difficult terrain we’d have to drive over. Something I noticed in Armenia was that the weather in the fall could be quite unpredictable, some days I was caught outside in a t shirt as it started to rain heavily! As this situation continued, this meant that the mini buses we were in probably wouldn't be able to get to Mount Armaghan, and a new plan had to be decided! A decision was made to go to Khachik instead, as there was a gata festival being held there!

Khachik is a village in the south of Armenia, where a gata festival was being held. Gata are an Armenian pasty filled with a sweet, buttery cream filling and are an archetypal Armenian dessert. Ruzan later told me when I told her where I had been there that Khachik was where her son was based during his national service. National service in the Armenian military is mandatory for young adults in Armenia, which is unsurprising due to the state of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

As Khachik is in the south and we were in the north, and the road network in this part of Armenia is circular, this turned the original excursion into a road trip around Armenia, which was an interesting and spontaneous way to see Armenia's beautiful scenery. The beautiful scenery began with driving alongside Lake Sevan to give a beautiful view of the lake (Figure 1). This is the largest lake in Armenia, and the Caucasus, and one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world. The lake is important to the Armenian economy, as it is the source of much of Armenia's freshwater fish, and is also a tourist region (especially in the north), which I subsequently visited with my colleagues from IMB.

Figure 1: The view across Lake Sevan, the largest lake in Armenia and also in the Caucasus, and is one of the largest alpine lakes in Eurasia. This photo was taken from the M10 Road which runs alongside it, which we were travelling along for our planned excursion that day. The weather had become quite bad at this point and a decision was made to change the plan for the day, which led to the visit to Kachik instead.

As a high altitude country, Armenia is very mountainous, so there were a lot of mountains to see (Figure 2). As we left the Lake Sevan area, the roads became more winding as they went up, down and alongside the mountains in the south of Armenia as we approached Khachik.

Figure 2: The Armenian countryside with lots of mountainous terrain which the mini buses had to traverse. Armenia is the country with the 10th highest average elevation in the world, so mountainous terrain is widespread here.

Arriving in Khachik, we had lunch before heading to the festival (Figure 3). Khachik itself is quite a small village, and compared to Yerevan had less cosmopolitan influence and was more typical of Armenia, so here I was quite outside of my comfort zone! In contrast to Yerevan where I could find people who could speak English, here everyone only spoke Armenian, and I'm not even sure the English I was speaking was even recognized as a language! I managed to have some interesting interactions with the stallholders despite the lack of a common language!

Figure 3: The Kachik Gata Festival is where we went for the day as our final destination. Gata are an Armenian pastry filled with a sweet butter cream, and the town had a festival of them, and other crafts and foods on sale. It was a very different and much more interesting town than Yerevan for a visitor.

At the festival there were numerous market stalls selling various items, including foods, drinks and craft items. It was here that I bought a bag of, I hope it was thyme (and not anything illegal!) However I couldn't understand the stall holder and she couldn't understand me, but as I was collecting interesting herbs and spices at the time for the purposes of making gin, I decided an interesting souvenir for making weird gin was definitely in order!

Another stall was selling alcohol and some other products. The stall holder gave me a glass of grape wine to try. It was definitely a rustic home brew wine, but not unpleasant. Next he moved onto a pomegranate wine. Pomegranates are quite widespread in Armenia and they are widely depicted in Armenian art and used in Armenian food. I have tried pomegranate wine before, as it is widespread in Armenia, and this wine, while pleasant, wasn't the best such wine I've had. Next he gave me a glass of cherry wine. I wasn't so keen on this, but I don't particularly like the flavour of cherries, but if I did maybe I would have liked it. Finally he gave me a glass of vodka. This vodka was home distilled, and although it had no smell, and a very clean taste, had a considerable after burn, and the stall keeper was most amused by my reaction to it! I decided to buy a jar of honey off him, I couldn't exactly let him ply me with lots of free alcohol without buying something!

On the route back from Khachik was when I became an illegal immigrant. Actually, that's how I describe that story to make it sound considerably more exciting. The main road from Khachik to Yerevan passes through Tirgranashen, a village close to the border between Armenia and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nahkchivan. Tirgranashen is legally the Azerbaijani village of Karki, and like many other such villages on both sides of the border was occupied during the 1st Nagorno-Karabakh War by Armenia (as some Armenian villages similarly on the Azerbaijan side of the border are now occupied). Consequently, as someone who’s illegally entered Azerbaijan, I'm now banned from entering Azerbaijan, or at least I would be if someone from the Azerbaijan government were to read this and add me to their list.

While this excursion didn’t go exactly as planned, this day turned out to be a very interesting way to see the Armenia outside Yerevan, which is difficult to travel to as a solo traveller.

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