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Trip 14 -- Caucasus

Message 3: Armenia and how to walk a meter of trail in Nagorno Karabagh

From: <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Sent: Tue, 13 Nov 2012 15:16:31 -0500
Subject: Caucasus update #3: Armenia and how to walk a meter of trail in Nagorno Karabagh

Nagorno Karabagh is a self-declared independent territory claimed by Azerbaijan but occupied primarily by Armenians. It's an area whose ownership has long been in dispute, with intermittent Armenian-Azeri battles throughout the 20th century up until the 1994 ceasefire. The territory can be entered only from Armenia, and it is the only place I know where they let you into the region and then you obtain a visa in the capital several hours later.

I shared a car with several people immediately after arriving in Yerevan on the train from Tbilisi. The Karabagh border guard asked whom I'd vote for in our presidential election.

"Probably Obama," I said. It would certainly be Obama, but I try to remain as noncommittal as possible with officials -- you never know whose side they're on.

"What has he done that's been good?" the official asked.

What could I say that would be nonpolitical? "His health-care plan."

The guard grinned. "Yes," he said. "Because Americans are fat." He made a symmetrical motion with his hands indicating the curves of a person of size.

Well, if Obama's plan helps rid the world of those stereotypes -- perhaps by reducing their validity -- then it will be at least a partial success.

"What's your profession?" he asked.

"I'm a pianist."

"But you have long fingernails."

I cut them when we got to the capital, hoping to show them to him on my way out a few days later, but it would be a different guard.

The Karabagh capital of Stepanakert is a lively, small city, with lots of steep hills and consequently great views of the countryside -- "nagorno" means "mountainous." I checked into the friendly Hotel Heghnar and tried a few local specialties: jingalov hats (flatbread stuffed with greens), spas (yogurt soup), and khangyal (a casserole of dumpling dough topped with meat, yogurt, and butter -- wonderful until the butter started to congeal). My main gripes with Stepanakert were its lack of hotels and restaurants (I guess it's not a bit tourist draw...yet) and that at night away from the main streets it's pretty dark.

One reason I came to Karabagh was to hike part of the Janapar Trail, a 284-kilometer path (half of which is blazed) through the mountains. Each day's walk takes you from one town to another, and there are places to stay when you arrive -- no need to camp or cook. This is my kind of hike.

I hiked two sections of the trail, from Stepanakert to the former capital of Shushi and then from Shushi to the village of Karintak. The on-line trail guide (janapar.org) lists both days as "medium-difficult." I found the first day to be extremely easy and the second day extremely hard.

The only trouble with the first day was finding the first few steps. Minibus 19 took me to an intersection of several dirt roads and I found the trailhead, but after a block I came to another intersection and was stumped. The few people around didn't seem to know where "the blue path" was, and one sent me in the wrong direction for a while. Two women said it was dangerous -- why? "It's the mountains."

Eventually someone showed me the correct path, and I discovered that the reason I hadn't found it was that the blue blaze was hidden behind a phone booth. After that it was easy going for two and a half hours along a dirt road. Shushi looks to be at a much higher elevation than Stepanakert, but this road wasn't steep, just a gentle incline. Midway through the trip I passed a little village of just a dozen or so houses, plus several colorful tiny buildings with stones on their flat roofs, to which a man was attending. They turned out to be for beekeeping. Eventually I'd see them all over Armenia.

The tourist office in Shushi set me up with a homestay near Shushi's museum. I only met Elmira, the mother, and Mariam, the daughter, but apparently everyone in town knew this house as belonging to "Hovik the painter." His works were all over the house, and as Elmira pointed out, they were mostly paintings of natural beauty around Shushi that I'd see the following day, such as Jdrdyuz, a cliffside park high up above the Karkar River.

Shushi is half in a shambles owing to repeated conflicts with Azerbaijan, the most recent 20 years ago. The museum's caretaker explained how during the battle of May 8-9, 1992, when 3500 Azeris occupied the city, a mere 1500 Armenians defeated them by attacking from four directions, including a steep cliff below Shushi. They then escorted the Azeris out via the only remaining route leaving the city.

Many of Shushi's buildings are now mere hollow brick shells or crumbling heaps. More strikingly, some apartment blocks are partly ruined and vacant and partly inhabited. It's quite a sight to see a row of abandoned apartments with only fragments of windows alongside apartments with neat curtains and satellite-TV dishes, all in the same building. Or dark, open stairways leading up to apartments whose windows are so new the tape is still on from the installation. Some of the ruins are solemnly pretty, such as the half-minarets on the city's former mosques.

The trail from Shushi to Karintak started innocently enough, with a slight descent from the main bazaar (long ago thriving, then closed because of the war, and only now just barely starting to get up and running again) down a main street. The street ended and I followed the blazes down a few narrow blocks in a residential area. One block was guarded by a dog that looked just big enough for me not to want to mess with her -- she started barking as soon as she saw me and made it clear that I was not to pass her on the path. Fortunately a few people came out, and with their presence the dog let me pass. Then I saw why she was being so protective: She had a new litter of puppies.

After that, I was on my own. I followed the trail through a rocky meadow with grazing cows, and then along the cliff edge, past a small cave where shepherds take rests. Then the trail went down to the river and past the stone ruins of Hunot village, which the Soviets abandoned because building a road there would be impossible. The trail continued along the river through the canyon and eventually reached Zontik waterfall. It's not high in water volume, but the rock is mushroom-shaped and covered in moss, so the water comes down in patterns of beads.

The trail led across the river to the falls on two horizontal logs -- I crawled to make sure I wouldn't lose balance. A trio of hikers and their dog passed me in the other direction at this point. They took the upper path right across the falls, but with all that moss and running water, it seemed too slippery to me. I instead followed the river for a bit and then climbed up to the face of the falls, where I just had to wade for a bit in an inch or so of water on bare rocks. Then I crawled back over the next bridge.

The trail then meandered through a forest for a while, sometimes right along the river, sometimes high above it. One uphill section was quite steep, and the path kept getting narrower and the ground more unstable, more like loose gravel than dirt. With each pace, I'd take a giant step forward and slip back a bit. I kept the momentum for a while as the trail got even narrower, until I arrived at a rock where I could stop for a moment, brace my feet against the rock, and take stock of where I was.

Stopping was a terrible mistake. The path was so narrow and lopsided that, as I faced forward, my right foot was considerably below my left, and the ground was so loose here that I couldn't stand up straight without fear of losing my balance, even stabilizing myself against the rock. I would have been better keeping the momentum until I reached a proper plateau. Instead, I was sitting high above the river on a steep mountain slope surrounded by forest, unable to stand, trying to find my footing on loose gravel.

Then I looked at the next step. For the next tiny stretch of trail -- barely more than a meter, literally just one step -- there was no forest below, no trees to break my fall or dirt that would provide some friction, just the same loose gravel all the way down to the river, the height equivalent of 15 stories or so. And the trail itself was the same unstable gravel.

I sat there for at least 20 minutes, maybe longer. I had no idea whether the next step was solid enough for me to continue. An experienced hiker might have been able to tell me that there was no problem at all, that if I just took a normal step I'd be fine. The group with their dog had clearly passed this point just an hour or so before, probably with no qualms. But given the way I'd been slipping with each step up to this point, I didn't feel confident taking a normal step. It didn't seem possible to turn back, either. I wondered whether someone else would come by, but I couldn't count on it.

I found a fist-sized rock and scraped a bit of the gravel ahead of me. It tumbled down to the river instantly.

I grabbed at a branch above me, hoping it would be strong enough to use as a kind of stabilizer, but it was so flimsy that it disintegrated as soon as I put any kind of weight on it, and it, too, plummeted down to the river.

I held onto the fist-sized rock. It was quite durable. I started carving out a little ledge that I could step on; there was a rock embedded into the soil that became the beginning of a tiny platform.

I also noticed a tree root kind of stapled horizontally into the slope. It seemed firm, and I chipped away at the dirt around it, turning the root into a kind of handhold.

I put my foot on the ledge I'd created and grabbed onto the handhold with my left hand. There was another root, and I similarly removed the dirt around it. I grabbed that one with my right hand and pulled myself past the gravel slope. Then the path was normal again; I was out of danger.

A short ways later I found a fresh cow patty. Cows navigate this trail?

A short ways after that I managed to lose the trail, and then I realized I was above it by a few steep meters. I sat down on the leaves and let myself glide back down to it.

It was easy going after that. The trail became a proper width again and eventually led me out toward a farm. The last "nice, solid bridge" that the directions promised was in reality a few slats, one of which pivoted up at my face when I stepped on it, but at least it had a cable to hold onto. I saw people working their fields below. I've never been so happy to see people.

I was on the edge of Karintak, a steep climb below the main part of town. I found a young woman tending two children and asked whether there was a minibus from there back to Shushi or Stepanakert.

She nodded and held up six fingers.

"Minibus number six, or six o'clock?"

Her Russian wasn't as good as I'd hoped. "Yes," she answered.

I went up to town square, where, as luck would have it, a man was about to drive his relatives to Stepanakert. He offered me a ride.

He had a scar on his forehead from the war, and he was bitter about Armenia's tumultuous history.

"One point five million Armenians died!" he said, referring to the 1915 genocide committed by the Turks. "Do you know what would happen if one point five million Americans were killed?"

"I can't imagine," I said.

"It would be bad!" he said. "Kars, Van, Ani -- these are all Armenian cities! We will regain them!" They're in present-day eastern Turkey, but they were home to numerous Armenians before the genocide.

He drove very fast along the winding road back to Stepanakert, and he dropped me off at a roundabout a short walk away from the Hotel Heghnar. To celebrate the fact that I was still alive -- both after the trek and after this drive -- I treated myself to dinner at the Rossiya restaurant, with its homemade mulberry and dogwood vodkas. The next table helped me celebrate by bestowing on me some of their shashlik and vodka.

The next day I took a minibus to Goris, in an effort to see the clifftop Tatev monastery nearby. A 72-year-old driver named Sergei, in an ambling 1959 Lada Zhiguli, found me walking down the main street of Goris, and I hired him to take me to the Tatev cable car and then to Khndzoresk, a village of rock-hewn cave houses in use until the 19th century. When I got into the Zhiguli, I instinctively started to put my seat belt on.

"No, no, not necessary!" Sergei said. "Sergei, Sergei, the best driver."

The world's longest cable-car ropeway takes 12 minutes to transport 25 people the 5752 meters from Halidzor village to the Tatev monastery. It's certainly a more pleasant trip than tackling the serpentine series of hairpin turns in a car. At the cable car's highest point above the valley, it's a 320-meter distance to the ground. There's naturally a lot of oohing and aahing as the cable car passes the ropeway towers and seems to make a free-fall descent over the valley, then ascends toward the steep cliff face.

The monastery dates from the 9th century, though there was once a 4th-century church. There's a lot of climbing around to be done, through the old refectory, around the ruins of the 10th-century school, and up on the walls, with views of the valley. There's also a strange kind of obelisk that, some say, was used to detect the presence of earthquakes.

When I returned by cable car, Sergei was waiting for me, and we set off for Khndzoresk. It's pretty amazing to imagine the thousand-plus people who used to live in the caves, sort of like a giant beehive. There are also a couple of churches and a cemetery. Nowadays it's a popular picnic spot.

It was twilight when we left Khndzoresk, and the access road is almost as bad as the Ushguli road in Georgia. The old Zhiguli wiggled its way over the rocks, with Sergei chanting to himself, "Ooh, Sergei, Sergei, the wise driver."

He took me to an unsigned motel on the outskirts of Goris, near the highway where, in the morning, I could pick up a minibus heading toward Lake Sevan. I paid him and he tried to tip himself an extra thousand drams (about $2.50), saying that it was very late. That didn't go over well with me.

I think I was the motel's only guest, but it seemed like a safe, clean place. From here, Goris seemed more like a suburb, and when I went out at night I had the impression it would be a long walk to the city center. So I went into the first restaurant I could find. It was part of a guesthouse, and it was full of old maps, radios, clocks, and Soviet memorabilia such as proletariat banners. The friendly owner, who was also a pianist, served me a good shashlik.

In the morning I walked down the long hill into the town center, which seemed closer in the light. I discovered that Goris is a very pretty place, with lots of parks and trees, and it's surrounded by mountains. There's a main square and a church that's supposed to have sheep-shaped tombstones outside, but the grounds were strewn with rubble and I couldn't find them.

I returned to the motel and there was Sergei, waiting outside.

"Hurry! I found you a ride to Yeghegnadzor," he said. From there a little-traveled branch road went north to Lake Sevan; there was no minibus, but I could probably find a taxi.

I gathered my things as quickly as I could. He drove me to the highway intersection and said, "I told him the exact place to leave you, right at the bridge."

And thus Sergei earned his extra thousand drams.

"See you again," I said to him. "Sergei, Sergei, the best driver."

There was indeed a taxi waiting at the bridge near Yeghegnadzor, and the driver offered to take me to Martuni near the southeastern edge of Lake Sevan, with a short stop at Selim caravanserai, for -- believe it or not -- less than I thought it might cost. Up and up we went, on my umpteenth zigzagging mountain road of the trip, until we got to the 14th-century caravanserai, where horses used to feed in the main hall and merchants set up shop in the adjacent stalls. This must certainly have been a highlight of the Silk Road, being near the top of a mountain pass with broad views down and a lake not far away.

The driver dropped me in Martuni next to a church, so I popped in for a moment. There seemed to be no one else there, but then a man appeared with a glass of wine and insisted I share a drink with him. He also invited me to lunch with his family, but I was eager to get to Noratus, midway up the western shore of Lake Sevan, to see the famous field of almost a thousand ancient memorial stones at Noratus.

The stones, called khachkars, are found all over Armenia and are a traditional type of upright tombstone, though they may have started out simply to mark churches. The ones at Noratus were carved from the 9th to the 17th centuries. They all face west, by tradition, and all contain at least one carved cross. As time went on, they began to be more and more embellished; some have two main crosses and many smaller ones, and some -- generally those of wealthier people -- contain decorative patterns or symbols of the professions of those whose graves they mark. They're all a little bit different, and I found it somehow mesmerizing to walk among them, their not-quite-perfectly-symmetrical giant crosses shouting at me, as if the ghosts of the dead were commanding my attention. There are also a couple of small chapels amidst the rows and rows of stones.

I was sad to learn that there was once an even bigger field of about 2500 khachkars at Jugha in Nakhchivan (an Azeri enclave in Armenia), but it was destroyed by the Azeris between 1998 and 2005. However, it's nice to know that the khachkar tradition is alive and well -- you can see them being carved on a street in Yerevan -- and it's interesting that there's a much newer cemetery right next to the historic khachkar field in Noratus, with grand, modern gravestones, many borrowing traditional khachkar motifs.

I took an extremely crowded minibus -- my feet wedged in the doorway, my body hunched over a couple of seated passengers -- up to the northwestern corner of Lake Sevan. Sevan doesn't really have a town center, just a long string of hotels and motels, plus a few restaurants, along the highway at varying distances from the lake's northern shore. I found a building that looked like a hotel with good views of the lake. It was almost dusk, and the owners and a few friends were sitting around a long table with lots of food and vodka on it. Someone said the hotel was called Krunk, and she showed me to a room -- actually the entire upper floor of a cottage, with a balcony overlooking the lake. The bathroom components -- toilet, sink, shower -- were all still in their packaging, so I'd have to use the toilet in the main building, but how could I refuse such a view? Especially when they insisted I join them for dinner?

It was a simple but plentiful meal, with salad, sausage, potatoes, and Lake Sevan fish. People kept coming, and every time someone arrived, there was an obligatory toast with a shot of vodka. As the evening drew on, the toasts verged on the ridiculous.

"To the USA!" my neighbor toasted. "To the United States of Armenia!"

He also liked to tell jokes at the expense of some of the other formerly Soviet populations, such as the story of the kid who asked his father about evolution.

"Where did the Americans come from?" the kid asked.

"Gorillas evolved into Americans," the father replied.

"And what about the French?"

"The French came from the chimpanzees."

"And what about the Uzbeks?"

"The Uzbeks will evolve into the apes!"

There were some Armenian self-deprecating jokes, as well: An American dies and appears before God, who tells him he must repent for 100 years in hell for the wrongs he's committed. The American starts sobbing. A Frenchman appears before God and is sentenced to 150 years in hell. He sobs even harder. An Armenian appears and asks for his sentence. God himself starts sobbing, saying, "I don't know how long it will take for you to repent for all you've done."

In the morning I walked down to the shore to get a closer look at the lake. There were wispy clouds, and the lake was a clear pale blue. The whole scene was somber and melancholy, but very pretty. There were a couple of boatmen out. In the water were reeds and zillions of little fish all congregated together. It was silent except for the gulls and ducks and the leaves being swept around by the wind. The water had gentle ripples forming perfect arcs until the wind kicked up and the sun shone through, giving the ripples jagged edges and zigzag patterns. They reminded me of the khachkar ornamentations I'd seen at Noratus, and they were equally transfixing.

I went back up to my hotel room and there, lo and behold, was the plumber, there to install the toilet! If I'd stayed one more night I'd have had a proper bathroom and a shower.

I checked out and walked farther along the shore until I came to Sevanavank, a monastery that used to be on an island but, due to Sevan's falling water levels, is now on a peninsula and accessible via a paved road. I visited the two churches and had a lunch of Sevan whitefish (known as sig) overlooking the lake.

The minibus to Yerevan dropped me off at a busy intersection, but the driver was unable to tell me where we were or how to get to the subway. The passengers at a nearby bus stop weren't much more help. Eventually I figured out that I was near the top of the Cascade, a series of stairways and -- on lucky days -- working escalators that lead from the north of Yerevan down the hill to the city center. It's a striking sight, as there's lots of greenery and art installations, but it would be more striking if they put in the waterfalls that were originally intended.

Yerevan is everything a pleasant city ought to be, with lots of green spaces, a broad pedestrian shopping street, concert halls, stately buildings, and a fair variety of restaurants. There's a spanking-new cathedral, a tiny historic church, a crowded clothing bazaar, a dirt-cheap subway system, a chain of wonderful sweets shops called Grand Candy, and a beautiful main square with a musical fountain. The traffic isn't too loud or intrusive to interfere with pedestrians' ability to enjoy getting places. In short, there's plenty to keep someone occupied for a few days. The main problem I noticed is that all those credit-card stickers up on stores and restaurants are mainly for decoration -- very few places actually take credit cards -- but once I learned to keep enough cash on hand, I had the city under control.

The Matenadaran, or manuscript museum, contains old maps, hymnals, and religious and secular books, many illuminated with brilliant illustrations. The 14th-century map had Jerusalem in the center, with east at the top of the map and nearby countries such as Bulgaria drawn as rough slabs. A 15th-century anatomy book called "The Use of Medicine, Useless for Ignorant" (that is, intended only for smart people) contained an annotation of a human body with the head attached to the chest at the ear. There were a Koran the size of a postage stamp, a 16th-century manual on smelting gold, and a palimpsest from 986 -- the fifth-century parchment had been reused, and the text and drawings had been covered up by newer text. I found it interesting that books on science and geography had been recopied centuries after their original publication. I suppose Euclid's "Elements of Geometry," from the third century BC, still served a purpose (as it still does) when it was translated into Armenian in the seventh century and recopied in the 12th. But a 12th-century history of Georgia certainly wasn't very up-to-date when it was recopied in 1683 with no additions, and a seventh-century geography book must have been more of a history lesson than a practical guide when it was recopied in the 15th century.

Yerevan began in 782 BC as the city of Erebuni in the Urartu kingdom. The ruins of the Erebuni citadel, from where inhabitants watched for approaching enemies, still exist on a hill on the outskirts of Yerevan. A complicated irrigation system brought water up to the citadel through a pipeline, and the system's canals are still in use. Wine, milk, and other staples were buried in giant jars, and the hill's slopes were fertile ground for herbs and fruits. Some of the blue friezes in the main halls are still visible, as are parts of the walls of the churches, servants' quarters, and burial ground. Erebuni now pretty much represents the southeastern edge of Yerevan; beyond, the landscape abruptly changes from built-up to virtually uninhabited.

The most sobering site in Yerevan is the memorial to the victims of the 1915 genocide. Millions of Armenians once lived in the Ottoman empire, but the Turks' fear of Armenians' alliance with Russia around the time of World War I led to a cruel policy of hostility. Around 1.5 million Armenians were rounded up and sent away either to be killed or to starve to death. The memorial comprises a museum and a monument, the latter of which contains a series of khachkar-like giant stone slabs bowing toward an eternal flame plus a large cleft spike pointing toward the sky. It's appropriately solemn, but I can't help feeling that the arrangement of the spike and the stones looks unintentionally like the minaret and dome of a mosque.

Inside the museum are some harrowing stories of the genocide. Perhaps the most vivid were those told by Maria Jacobsen, a Danish missionary. She told of children forcibly converted to Islam and Turkish practices: a boy circumcised with a pocketknife and left bleeding, girls taken as harem slaves, children taken away in oxcarts and drowned in a river. A few Armenians were spared, such as the composer Komitas Vardapet -- the only one saved out of 150 intellectuals rounded up in Istanbul and due to be exterminated -- and the 4000 people saved by French ships during the resistance at Mount Mousa.

Komitas has a concert hall named for him, where I attended a concert of pianist Svetlana Navassardian. The best-known Armenian composer, though is probably Aram Khachaturian, whose piano concerto I've had the pleasure of performing. When I visited his house-museum, there was some strange music being played. I asked the docent what was coming through the speakers and she said it was Khachaturian's violin concerto. I thought that for a violin concerto it contained an awful lot of piano, and for a 20th-century Armenian composer it sounded an awful lot like Mozart. When the piece ended I realized that Armine Grigoryan, the director of the museum, was in the museum's concert hall practicing Mozart's 17th piano concerto -- perhaps my favorite -- for the following night. She invited me to the concert, which was excellent, and gave me a copy of her CD of short Khachaturian piano pieces.

My flight out of Yerevan was scheduled for 4:25 a.m., so around midnight I went to a bar called Cheers. The bartender had lived in the United States, as well as many other countries, and spoke good English. I sampled some of Armenia's famous cognac, which was fresh, minty, and smooth, until around 1:30, and then it was time to head out.

"Don't pay more than two thousand drams" (about five dollars), the bartender said. There was no bus to the airport at that hour, and cab drivers get away with asking whatever they can.

So I went outside, found a cab, and said, "To the airport -- two thousand drams." The driver tried to ask for 2500, but then he relented, and we proceeded on our journey past a seemingly out-of-place strip of glitzy casinos to the airport, the driver all the while muttering how cheap the trip was. I didn't respond -- I pick and choose when to understand Russian. I did give him 2400 drams, though.

I found out that my flight was delayed, which meant I'd miss all my connections. Thankfully the airlines take an "all bets are off" approach when this happens, and I was rerouted so as to arrive three hours earlier than originally scheduled.

And so I arrived home the afternoon of October 27, just in time to have almost all my work for the following week canceled due to hurricane Sandy. But I can't be upset -- other people certainly had it far worse than I. If anything, I had this new Khachaturian music to listen to, and plenty of Grand Candy to eat, and who could complain about that?