Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Trip to Shamshadin- wait, where's that??

    When I was offered the chance to head up to the region known as Shamshadin in Armenia's far northeast, I got out my guidebook to see it close up. Turns out, the book didn't even have an insert map of the region like it did for most other areas. This got my curiosity going, if nothing else, and I set out for this enigmatic region to the north. To be honest, while I have long had a fairly complete knowledge of Armenian geography, the name Shamshadin wasn't one I was even familiar with, a name which captures a sense of romantic mystery.

The endless hills of Shamshadin

    On the far side of a remote mountain we carefully surmounted via switch-back roads, Shamshadin is far removed from the radar of most of Armenia, and that goes for tourists and development projects too. This was something that my companions on the trip, the tireless Norwegian honorary consul Tim Straight and Armen Hakobyan, country director of the Jinishian Memorial Foundation, were journeying to address. The ride through Shamshadin's beautiful rolling hills alone was a sight making the trip well worth it, despite what my guidebook might think.

Shamshadin's hills have a magical way of reflecting light
    Our first stop was to see a piece of wild land which the owner hopes to turn into a fishing retreat. There was much work to be done, some of it underway, and a lot of potential at the site. Next we visited the mayor of the nearby village of Navur, who to our surprise now has his office in a much nicer building than the humble place Tim first met him not long ago. The conversation was to check the status of potential international development projects such as a milk co-op and potentially opening a meat curing plant. I got the idea he had heard promises in the past from visitors which never came to fruition, a natural skepticism which was healthy but will also hopefully be proven wrong soon. Next we went to Berd, which I had long known and wanted to visit as the home of the lovable Berd Bears. It was great to see that the organization has been running smoothly without Tim's constant influence, this despite the fact they had been pushed out of their offices in favor of a campaign headquarters for a doctor running for mayor. The election was only a few days off and the candidate was running a free clinic for residents to get check-ups. While this was obviously a less than subtle way of winning over votes, it was certainly a preferable one to the typical 'pay-for-vote' bribery schemes. As for the Berd Bears, they have been receiving orders from all over the world and have the potential to really put Berd on the map while serving as a symbol of the city. Also while in Berd we visited a potential bed and breakfast which was in such good shape that it is ready to start accepting visitors. I found it very homey and hopefully Anahit's B&B at Garegin Nzhdeh Street #14 can be the start of a wider network for visitors to the region.

View from the future Tavush B&B
    We saw a couple other potential B&Bs which still needed work, notably Silvard's in the village of Tavush. We got there just in time to hopefully save a beautiful second floor balcony with amazing views of the surrounding hills from being bricked up. We got a kick out of the animals around the property, especially the "Guard Duck" who stood as sentinel over his domain. Some of the work we saw at Silvard's was promising, and while the accommodations might remain at a standard only suitable for more adventurous travelers, that's quite fitting for the hiking/sporting/curious type of traveler which Shamshadin attracts. Afterwards we headed to the village of Chinchin and met with its biggest advocate, 20 year old Mariam Yesayan, who has overcome disability to become a spokesperson and activist for her village. She's appeared multiple times on Armenia's CivilNet.TV, and as it turns out we arrived just in time to give her a ride back to Yerevan for another appearance! I had the honor of delivering to Mariam a gift all the way from Pennsylvania, sent by one of her fans who saw her work and was inspired by it via Facebook. You can see videos of this and much more from the journey at Tim's YouTube page (videos numbered 1-14):

Grazing in the mist
    Our last visit was to a b&b in Varagavan, the same town where I got locked inside a graveyard I was exploring but that's neither here nor there. Varagavan with its Nor Varagavank church based on one in historic Western Armenia, is located just a few kilometers from the militarized border with Azerbaijan. Being so close to this volatile place highlights exactly why Shamshadin is so important and can't be ignored- it is the front line. A weak border depopulated of its people creates a vulnerable situation for Armenia as a whole. Of course Karabakh is vital, but by being the only focus of the conflict it gets far more attention than the forgotten front lines in places like Shamshadin and the eastern shore of Lake Sevan. Here are also brave people living within earshot of artillery fire on a regular basis, trying to make a life for themselves in such an uncertain and remote area. It should be mentioned that there were many other worthy villages we could not visit due to constant cease fire violations, especially lately the situation with Azerbaijan makes it too dangerous to even visit. A kindergarten was shot up earlier this year in one of them. Seeing the area and hearing these stories made me realize the stakes and kindled a passion to do more for this area. A blog entry isn't much, but its a start, and the magic of social networking is that it can spread. That's exactly how the word about Shamshadin and its products like Berd Bears have already gotten started and will continue to bring in help for this region. So enjoy these amazing views of Shamshadin and don't forget it, there are some wonderful people there waiting to welcome you.

1 comment:

BaronneSamedi said...

I went for the same trip with Tim and I'm a proud owner of Berd Bears :-)

Here is for the French: