The Trek To Lori Berd

A long, meandering trek is my idea of an ideal pick-me-up. While studying in Pune, trekking in the Sahaydri Mountains during the monsoon season was a time-honoured tradition that was observed almost every weekend. Sometimes even during the week. After all, which classroom could match up to lush mist-soaked mountains, winding mountain paths dotted with pretty wildflowers and magnificent views from the ramparts of ancient forts? Unfortunately, after the transition from classrooms to cubicles, such treks became the exception rather than the norm. After a long, hard week of grappling with crazy deadlines, it becomes a bit difficult to muster up the enthusiasm to head out again in the weekend. But come vacation time, I am as eager as a beaver to sniff out potential trekking prospects. So, when the opportunity to go on a trek in a picturesque region traipsed by, I quickly latched on to it.

Some co-travellers and I were spending a few days in Stepanavan, a quiet Armenian town that
makes you feel you have moonwalked into the 80’s. Stepanavan is located in the Lori district, a region known for its pine-forested mountains and a climate that injects vital doses of life into sick and tired souls. A recommended activity here is the hike to see Lori Berd (fortress) - a former capital of a king from ancient times and more recently a power centre of local Armenian royal families.

It was a perfect day for a trek. Not too sunny. Not too cloudy. We crossed the city limits of Stepanavan within a few minutes and found ourselves on a road that probably thought ‘rush hour’ is an urban legend. We set a pace that allowed us to comfortably stop at every interesting looking junction. One of the first things we noticed were dilapidated shipping containers – slightly eerie reminders of a powerful earthquake that almost razed the town in 1988. Despite the widespread devastation, people refused to leave and were housed in these containers till their houses were built again. As we soaked in views of the green mountains and breathed in the crisp air, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the fragility of life.

A couple of km later, we reached a village that looked empty, except for a little girl who walked down the only lane nonchalantly. There was certain sameness to the village. More wood than brick and mortar dwellings. Long lines of clothes drying patiently in the sun. Apricot trees. Untended lawns that had so much more character than manicured city gardens. A chicken kept on crossing the road from one side to the other.  

As we strode on feeling a bit like WWII soldiers entering a deserted village, we spotted movement
on our right. We saw a group waving their arms. And just like that we found ourselves in the midst of an Armenian family reunion. Two sisters have come with their families from Yerevan to spend their summer holidays with their parents. They were very curious about us. When they learnt that we are from India, they actually sighed in delight. Chairs were quickly arranged. Cake and apricots were whipped out. The sisters were well conversant with English and so the conversation flowed thick and fast. The discussion ranged around topics such as Royal Bengal Tigers, nine-yard saris, the great Indian head shake and Shah Rukh Khan. The elderly father smiled fondly as he remembered the yesteryears superstar, Raj Kapoor.

After bidding goodbye to warm Armenian hospitality, we set out for Lori Berd again, located only a km or so, from the village. There is only one word to describe the fort’s location - grand. Built on a promontory between the gorges of the Dzoraget and Urut rivers, the fort is guarded by a massive stonewall in the front while the rear is a deep canyon. We crossed under a stony arch to an assortment of rocks in an area the size of a football field. There was a small chapel of sorts in the middle of the area. Legend has it the Mongols who were on their ‘Let’s-see-and-plunder-the-world’ tour set their sights on this fort. The defenders had implicit faith in the impregnability of the fort. They drank and made merry instead of strengthening the defence. And the inevitable happened. I made a mental note to self. If I am ever in charge of guarding a fort, I will definitely remember to keep casks of coffee handy. Rather than Armenian raki.

Stunning views of the gorge with a 14th century bridge far below ensure no trek to Lori Berd is
complete without hiking down to the bridge. So, we clambered down to the bridge. It was an easy hike with a few tricky bits to keep one alert. The setting of the bridge was spectacular. A small waterfall and inviting pools of water necessitated the need to change into our thoughtfully packed swimming gear without much coaxing.

We decided to test the waterfall first. It was freezing cold. We yelled and shrieked like kids in a waterpark as the water pounded down on us. Feeling brave, we jumped into the pool. Into even colder water. This time, we started howling. Visions of frozen limbs being demonstrated by a crotchety doctor to a bunch of medical students swam before my eyes. ‘This my students is an acute case of Armeniatis, caused by paying scant respect to common sense.’ And then some overeager medical student thoughtfully leans forward and taps his stethoscope on the aforementioned limb emitting a metallic clink. Not liking such scenarios, I quickly scrambled up the nearest rock. Never did the warm sun feel more welcoming. And never did I feel so alive.  

After resting a bit, we decided to head to another local attraction, the Communist Caves. The
directions were vague. We decided to follow our sense of direction. And after scrabbling like goats braving thorny nettles and steep inclined paths, we realized that our sense of direction had led us up the wrong path. As evening was fast approaching, we decided being brave once a day was enough. The lost comrades shook hands, saluted each other and took the momentous decision to head back to their base.

Having survived on a strict ration of apricots and biscuits throughout the day, we were understandably quite ravenous, not to mention, exhausted, by the time we inched our way back to the top of the canyon. As we tried to mentally prepare ourselves for the 5 km hike into town, we noticed a group of rough and tough Armenians shooting the breeze over a khoravats (Armenian for BBQ). The aroma of meat being grilled over a charcoal fire wafted across and teased our olfactory glands in what we thought was karma catching up with us for some past, forgotten misdemeanor.

Maybe they sensed our hunger. A couple of them glanced in our direction and waved. We also waved back. The group then gestured to us to join them. Armenians are like that. Friendly and generous to a fault. The warm encounter with the Armenian family in the morning was still fresh. Yet, we hesitated. Conditioning, you see. This is unthinkable in cities. When was the last time a group of strangers invited you to share their meal?

Seeing our hesitation, a couple of them walked up us and shook our hands warmly and escorted us
to the shed where a table was heaped with all things, good and grilled. My companions tried to make polite conversation in English, a language that hasn’t made much inroads in rural Armenia. But if anybody was observing us from a little distance away, they could have never guessed that.

This particular group knew three words in English. Actually, make that two words and a phrase – Yes. Thank you and Ba, ba, black sheep (somebody’s daughter was studying in an English medium school, so he knew the first line of the rhyme). There was lots of laughter and bonhomie. Food would be heaped on our plates with encouraging ‘Yes, yes and thank yous’. The gentleman who knew that one complete English phrase would smile benignly, gesture to the food and say’ ‘Ba, ba, black sheep’. Maybe we might have been literally chewing away on the black sheep of his farm.

In this manner, before you could say Armenia twice, utter strangers turned into long lost brothers over some succulent grilled meat, vodka that could knock a stallion down and dancing to the evergreen Hindi song ‘Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja’. Loosely translated as ‘Come Jimmy Come’ (no, it wasn’t that kind of film), this song was from the cult film of the 80’s – the Mithun Chakraborty starrer ‘Disco Dancer’. When we said we are from Indian or ‘Hind’ as the Armenians refer to India, one man exclaimed with a shout – ‘Mithun! Jimmy, Jimmy, Aaja, Aaja’ – and all inhibitions were cast aside. He quickly ran to a car parked nearby and switched on the radio. An Armenian pop song came on. But everybody was sort of trying to recreate the moves from ‘Disco Dancer’. It might have been the vodka at work too. But, yes. The Armenians really dig Hindi film stars such as Mithun, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh and, of course, Raj Kapoor. Those were the magic words that opened doors everywhere. After a lot of eating, drinking, singing, dancing, gesturing and posing for photos, we were given a ride back into town. 

As I rested my weary but happy bones back at our B&B in Stepanavan, I couldn’t help but think that the memories of this trek will serve as pick-me-ups for a long, long, time.