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.

Musandam photo in Lonely Planet

I took this photo during one of my our camping trips to Musandam. Often referred to as the 'Norway of the East', this mountainous region in Oman is known for its rugged beauty, fjords and a sense of timelessness. Seen in the picture is Khor Najd, the only beach in the region accessible by road - a winding 5-km long mountain pass that results in chattering teeth and white knuckles. When Lonely Planet asked readers to contribute photos that that capture the essence of a place, I quickly mailed across this photo. And was lucky that it got selected and published in the September-October issue.

The Amalfi Coast Drive

'Michael, make me an offer I can’t refuse.' I couldn’t resist saying in what I thought was my best Italian accent to Michael Rizzo, owner of Campania Car Rentals. Michael obviously had heard that dialogue enough number of times and came swiftly to the point. 'You cannot afford that 1951 Alfa Romeo convertible, even for a day. However, I do have a 2010 Peugeot that suits your budget. It’s fast enough for the drive.' Seeing my hopeful look, he further added 'And no, it’s not a convertible.' 

It was a beautiful May afternoon in Praiano, a small town located between Amalfi and Positano, the Amalfi Coast’s poster towns. I was alternating between admiring the stunning seascape and ogling at a red Alfa Romeo convertible while occasionally paying attention to Michael.

We were sitting in Bar del Sole, Praiano's favourite cafe. Located on the Amalfi Highway and overlooking the stately Church of San Gennaro, Bar del Sole is the main point of reference in Praiano. One doesn't say, 'Let's meet at Bar del Sole'. One simply states the intention to meet and expresses a time conducive to the concerned parties. And the parties will meet up at Bar del Sole. Unless one states in no unequivocal terms that the meeting should happen at the cafe at Onda Verde Hotel. Or at the Il Pirata restaurant down at the beach. So, when Michael said that he would do the necessary car rental paperwork over a coffee at 5, we had no doubts about where to land up. When you are in a village with a population of 2000 or so, you quickly get to know the local favourites.

The paperwork is completed after many queries - CDW - means if I bang into another car, crash into the rocky mountain face or decide to dive into the sea while still in the car, irrespective of the damage, all I needed to pay is 100 euros.  Valentina, the leather-clad, chain-smoking assistant of Michael handed over the keys to me.  She smiled sweetly and pointed at the little cross dangling from the key chain. 'That cross is to make sure you don't fall into the Mediterranean while admiring the beauty of our coast.' I didn't know whether she was joking or just stating a fact. But actually she had nailed the subject.

Yes. The Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy is considered to be one of the world’s most spectacular coastlines. And yes, it is considered to be one of the most hair-raising drives too. Stretching some 40 odd km from Sorrento to Salerno, this famed road winds through red-roofed villages clinging precariously to steep mountainsides with the Mediterranean beckoning seductively below. An omnipresent lemon-scented breeze removes all last vestiges of doubt about whether it's easier to hop on a coach and join other gawking tourists or think of oneself as a modern-day adventurer and salivate at the prospect of tackling hairpin bends behind the wheel of a 1951 red Alfa Romeo convertible. Fine. A 2010 Peugeot hatchback.

But the point had been made. I think.

We walked to the tiny parking lot where a magician had parked 15 cars in a space meant for 10. Michael seeing me wring my hands in a very un-alpha male manner, quickly asked for the magician who doubled as a waiter at the Bar del Sole. Times are tough after all. After a few deft turns, my blue Peugeot miraculously found itself on the road. I got behind the wheel and suddenly my long-cherished dream suddenly became all too real. I drove straight up to our home stay near Piazza Moresa. Correction. I drove half way. I found parking near the Praiano Municipal Hall. Blue lines for tourists. Yellow for residents. Parking spaces in these towns are like the perfect partner whom one knows is out there somewhere. But it’s a bit unlikely that you will find one the moment you step outside your front door. I devoted a good part of the evening to studying the details of the drive ahead.   

I woke up to a bleak sky overcast with clouds. I pondered for a brief moment whether it was an omen. But as I walked down to the car, the ever-present lemon-scented breeze whispered encouragingly in my ears. I could barely restrain myself from breaking into a jig.

The easiest part of driving down the Amalfi Coast was the directions. There is one highway - the famous SS163, or the road of 1000 bends. You just keep travelling on it, either towards Salerno or Sorrento. The villages/towns that are located high above in the mountains are also well signposted. You basically go off the SS163, snake up into the mountains, down a quick espresso, gape at the views, explore the town/village, and then drive down till you get back to the SS163. The most difficult part was, of course, the driving.

As I hit the highway, the Italian RJ chirped merrily that everything's fine with the world. Or words to that effect. She sounded so positive that she couldn’t have been talking about broken hearts or crumbling economies. On my right, a steep drop down a rocky mountain face was the deep rolling Tyrrhenian Sea, whitecaps skittering across the waves. On my left were mountains with what could be only described as luxuriant Mediterranean foliage, lemon orchards, pretty houses stacked on top of one another and the occasional shepherd defying the laws of gravity with typical Italian impudence. I rolled the windows down and tried to sing along with whatever caught my fancy. There was hardly any traffic. The tourist season was just about stirring from its long winter slumber. Come summer, the narrow road ensures traffic jams are as common as a Fellini film at a film fest. 

I quickly got used to the driving quirks of the locals. The sight of a hairpin bend means a sharp toot of the horn and sudden acceleration was in order. The prospect that a slight misjudgment might make one or two cars fly off the road and down the precipitous drop apparently doesn’t occur to the driver/s. As yet another car blasted past within air kissing distance at a bend, I started noticing the strategically placed ‘corner’ mirrors at every bend. As I approached the next bend, I kept my eyes peeled for the corner mirror. An act that revealed a massive tourist bus thundering around the corner. Forget air kisses, I mentally prepared myself for a messy coupling. With nothing to lose, I slammed on the brakes and let out one piercing blast of the horn. The bus driver saw the whites of my eyes and decided to test his brakes too. And somehow we managed to find space in that tight corner. Imagine a 6ft6 bouncer and Woody Allen inside a trial room trying on new clothes without touching each other. The bus driver shouted encouragingly as I gingerly moved inch by inch past the bus angling the car in ways I thought was not possible. I almost heard my guardian angel weep with relief as I turned the corner without scratching the car or bruising my ego.    

As I drove on merrily with newfound confidence, narrowly missing sharp corners and young daredevils with their squealing amores wrapped around them on Vespas, I came to a theory about how the highway must have been visualized. When King Ferdinand II gave the order to build the SS163, the team of engineers (all brilliant, I am sure) must have been led by somebody who had an immense love for spaghetti. Maybe in his family of 20, during hard times, whenever spaghetti was made, only a few got to eat it. Others just devoured it with their eyes. Or, maybe he had a doting mom who made the tastiest spaghetti in Italy. Anyway, when he got the brief, the first thing he must have done was to discuss matters over a long lunch where the main course was, surprise, surprise, spaghetti. As they discussed at length the vexing problems created by the invention of motor vehicles and how people for centuries had traversed this region easily by foot, donkeys and boats, the Chief Engineer noticed a strand of spaghetti lying on top of a map of the Amalfi Coast. The strand stretched from Salerno to Sorrento connecting all the places in between. And voila! The Strada Statale 163 was conceived. Everybody shook hands joyously, thumped each other on their backs (though I suspect this was more to do with the fact that a couple of them might have been choking on the excellent mozzarella) and went back to their lunch.
All this is, of course, absolute conjecture. 

This is more or less; the template of attractions of almost every town on the route, from heavyweights like Amalfi, Positano and Ravello to little gems like Praiano and Scala. Ancient churches standing aloof on rocky outcrops. Abandoned moss-covered mills that hint broadly of more affluent times. Magnificent Roman villas. Unassuming museums documenting centuries-old traditions of the coast, ranging from papermaking to ceramics. Atmospheric hotels with vine-covered Michelin-star restaurants. Bustling seafront family-run eateries serving the freshest of seafood. Octopus salad, anyone? Quirky wine and cheese bars deep inside cobbled alleys. Colourful gelato and the region’s famed lemon-based liqueur, limoncello stands. Peaceful piazzas (town squares). Grand duomos (cathedrals). Hiking trails that showcase breathtaking views of the Amalfi coastline. And tying everything together neatly is the Nastro Azzurro (Blue Ribbon) or the SS163.

The best way to explore this gorgeous stretch of coastline is to win the lottery, buy one of the houses dotting the coast and settle here forever. Failing that, you could also come for a couple of weeks and drive around the area. And while you are driving around, you shouldn’t be in any hurry to get anywhere. Only then you will be able to appreciate the beauty of Costiera Amalfitana.

And ideally do the drive in a red 1951 Alfa Romeo convertible.

Escaping Big City Lights

I have always been fascinated by fireflies. I love the way they fly around unhurriedly like little airplanes with no ETAs. Fireflies represented everything good about summer during my childhood in a quiet university campus. Holidays. No homework. No surprise tests. And plenty of time to do whatever one liked to do. I would capture fireflies in a bottle and watch them flit around for hours imagining that they were sending signals to a spaceship. Of course, the moment I brought the bottle inside the house, the magic would be lost. The soft glow of fireflies is not a match for the artificial lighting inside a house. Ever since, I have had a love-hate equation with light sources that are not natural.

My city-centric profession has ensured lazy summer holidays and fireflies have disappeared from my life. Big city lights, however, are a constant presence. In an attempt to redress balance, I am always looking for a chance to escape this neon-lit environment. Being based in glitzy Dubai, this, understandably, becomes more of a pressing need than a want. Unfortunately, the lack of a driving license in the initial months of living in Dubai meant my options were quite limited. I had the option to head to the beach and stare longingly at the horizon, with the city behind me. The other option was to catch a cab to the airport and take a flight to a quiet place. No yearly subscriptions to the National Geographic or the Hound&Horse for guessing which option kept on getting vetoed all the time.
But then came the day, when I got the much-coveted driving license. And I turned into Forrest Gump, minus the historic baggage, Robin Wright and that damned CG feather. There was a huge difference though. Forrest kept on running. I kept on driving. I drove endlessly for hundreds of miles on straight-as-an-arrow roads through vast expanses of desert country. I drove up and down twisty mountainous roads that ended in verdant mangroves fringing an aquamarine sea. I drove to long-forgotten villages and crumbling forts abandoned to the elements.

Once, I even raced the setting sun along a beach road. I lost.

Having exhausted all possible options in the UAE, I trained my greedy sights on its attractive neighbour – Oman. Or the Musandam exclave, to be more precise.

Musandam is separated from Oman, by a strip of the UAE, and from Iran, by the Arabian Gulf. The border crossing is relatively easy, as long as you have the required documents, namely, passport and motor insurance. With the promise of a beautiful coastal drive with the shimmering waters of the Arabian Gulf, the craggy Hajar Mountains and small fishing villages the size of Nemo for company, drives to Musandam became a happy habit.

Often referred to as the 'Norway of the East', the mountainous Musandam region is known for its rugged beauty, mysterious fjords and a sense of timelessness. Mother Earth or to get a bit technical, the Earth’s crust had a big hand in creating this dramatic coastline. The region happens to be sandwiched between the Arabian plate and the Eurasian plate. Unfortunately, the situation is far from being harmonious. A gigantic battle for supremacy is taking place between these plates for quite some time now. And the geological fact in cold terms is that the Arabian plate is being pushed under the Eurasian plate. This not only has resulted in the earthquake-prone mountains of Iran but also brings us to a rather sobering conclusion. The Musandam Peninsula is, slowly but surely, sinking. 

The towering mountains have nothing to fear, apparently, for a million years or so. But the sea is claiming the valleys, one by one. The result of this intense subterranean drama is a region that offers one spectacular view after another. Often during my drives, I’d stop at some vantage point and soak in the peaceful atmosphere, punctuated at regular intervals by the throaty bleats of ornery mountain goats and chirpy squawks of attention-seeking seagulls.

It was during my second or third drive to Musandam, when I decided to head further north towards Khor Najd (khor- Arabic for water trapped by land), the only beach in the region accessible by road. Usually, I do some research before heading out to a destination. But then after a few weeks of dealing with people who look askance at anything that make sense and specially when every mail that lands in my inbox is marked as ‘urgent’, I tend to slip into my AdventureMan* avatar and cut loose the chains of caution with my SOA (sense of adventure) laser beam.

This was an AdventureMan trip. Which meant I had left my trusted road map back in Dubai. A              
situation that necessitated a stop at one of the two gas stations in Khasab, the sleepy capital of Musandam. I had to stock up on fuel and figure out the directions. I knew vaguely that I had to drive over a mountain to get to the beach. But that bit of information was as useful as knowing I need a lot of money to climb Mt. Everest. The cheerful attendant was quite clear in his directions. I have to drive up and down a 5-km long winding mountain pass to get to the beach. But as most locals are wont to, he made it sound like a trip to the neighbourhood grocery store.

From a distance it looked like a thin gash along the mountainside. As I got closer, I realized that’s the dirt road that will take me up the mountain. Barely wide enough to accommodate one car and probably half a cycle at a pinch, the road ensures drivers stick close to the rocky mountainside rather than tempt fate by straying too close to the sheer drop on the other side. Halfway there’s a broad leveled area that provides sweeping views of the sea encircling the mountains as well as the chance to calm one’s jangling nerves. 
The (thankfully) much broader but steep sinuous path down to the gleaming bay is a lesson in trying to look cool in front of co-explorers while attempting to disguise panicky yelps as yips of excitement. I drove steadily treating each bend in the road with the respect reserved for a Roman emperor. As I pondered about whether my white knuckles would go back to its former dusky glory, I felt the crunch of pebbles under my tyres. The gleaming blue bay was right in front. I switched off the ignition and climbed out of the car with the confidence of a man who could have done the drive blindfolded.

Later that evening, as I camped under a canopy of twinkling stars with the sea a feeble stone’s
throw away, I suddenly realized, I haven’t felt this alive in years. It might have been the drive, the location or the soothing breeze blowing across the bay. Or it might have been the fact that I was far, far, away from bright city lights.

There were no fireflies. But I wasn’t complaining.

*AdventureMan is a work-in-progress name.