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Intersections: Discovering the heart of Armenia

September 21, 2011|By Liana Aghajanian

On a mild summer day, itching to get out of Yerevan, I took a Soviet minibus known locally as a marshutka to the northern Armenian city of Vanadzor. After weeks in the congested capital, Vanadzor's lush landscapes, wide spaces and crisp air put me at ease.

Picnic blanket in hand, I walked past neighborhood backgammon games in the middle of the street and trunks full of watermelons for sale to a forested area where I was hoping to relax.

Instead, I ended up having lunch and several rounds of homemade vodka with three local builders who had just finished installing a khachkar, which is a stele that bears the image of a cross — a yearlong stonecarving project that had found a home in a city known for its Soviet chemical plant history and summer retreats.

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Immensely proud of their city, they asked how I had ended up in Vanadzor, better remembered by its Soviet name of Kirovakan.

“I got tired of Yerevan,” I said.

“Well, there's no better place than Kirovakan,” said Karen, a migrant worker who regularly traveled to Russia in order to make ends meet and the youngest of the bunch while he poured more of the potent alcohol into my cup than I could handle.

Yerevan had started to make me dizzy after a month and a half. The claustrophobia set in and urgency to see the picturesque landscapes I had become so familiar with from afar nagged at me.

So I went to Vanadzor to have vodka with stone workers, and then to Gyumri to talk politics with a 70-year-old shoemaker. In Sisian, I attended a neo-pagan festival; in Goris, I met French and Italian tourists and offered my translating services to a bed-and-breakfast owner for two days, learning how to play backgammon and then having dinner with his extended family, where the vodka, (mulberry, in case you were wondering,) flowed as freely as the Vararak River that runs through the city.

In Alagyaz, I was invited into the homes of Yezdi Kurds for coffee and watermelon. In Ushi, I learned how to ride a horse. In Karakert, I witnessed a mass baptism, where residents as young as 5 months and as old as 55 became members of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

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