Mt. Aragats is now Armenia's highest mountain, at least if we refer to what is nowadays political Armenia. Because every Armenian's heart is clear that their country's highest and dearest mountain is Ararat, long lost to Turkey, but still watching over Yerevan from just off the border. With over 5,000 m of elevation it couldn't be otherwise: impossible to miss, its perennial snows glitter incredibly white from the perfect cone that can be admired from the muggy plain or the hot city.
Aragats, if not such a spectacularly beautiful mountain, is still a respectable one. As far as height is concerned, it exceeds 4,000 m but it is easily reached by way of a path that starts from a refuge on the shore of a mountain lake about 1,000 m below the summit. While in Armenia, I had to climb it.
I took a bus to the village of Byurakan, where I'd stay at the Soviet observatory and make an early start the next morning. I imagined the guesthouse should be located inside the big park scattered with various buildings, but their function was not directly clear from their appearance. However, I was finally directed by a rare living soul to the right place, and there I was met by the landlady who said she had been waiting too long since I'd been announced by the warden at the entrance gate. Had I got lost over those 200 metres?
I was led through the huge dining room of the former hotel: a decrepit space with wooden floor boards lifting in large areas revealing a coarse concrete layer underneath. The stucco decoration was tumbling in big pieces; surrealistically, an unattended gas cooker was topped by a pan with potato chips sizzling in deep oil, diffusing a vaguely acrid smell. We turned into a corridor, where a family of four were also frying their dinner on another cooker, and at the other end was my room. Or two-room suite, I should say, with five beds and a bathroom, all for myself.
I bought some food and went upstairs where a kitchen was available to guests. Thunder rumbled in the not too far distance and I feared my climb might be affected. At 10 three people reported back after attempting the climb and getting lost in the fog. I mused over their experience, while the lady, regardless of the meteorology, suggested calling in the astronomer to show us the firmament (as if it couldn't be otherwise, the activity was finally cancelled). It started to blow strong gusts of wind that carried rain drops from afar. I went to bed, crossing my fingers.
The next morning, I got up in pitch darkness, had an apology for breakfast and turned up at the gate where a car was supposed to be waiting for me. But there was no taxi whatsoever, and given the time nor were there any cars around. No one to turn to for help, either. I paced restlessly up and down the streets until I was able to stop someone and ask to be driven up to the lake. At that altitude it was chilly. I rummaged in the backpack for my thermal top, but there it was not. How could I have been so stupid to leave it at the hotel?
Apart from this snag, the Aragats top was invisible in a dark hood of clouds. There is no official path to the top, and the only way up is taking the direction of the summit. If you can see it, that is. My missing gear, the bad weather, and being alone at this staggering altitude, all contributed to create some uneasiness. Two people walked past me in hiking gear, but they were not aiming to the summit. Failing someone else's support, I grudgingly changed my plan to walking down to the ruins of Amberd fortress that, according to my map, could be reached following a long gulley. The trail was shown as a discontinued line, though, and before embarking on anything unviable, I liked to ask the shepherds in a tent. As I walked towards them, I asked myself how they would receive a stranger who could only mumble a few words of Russian and asked about hiking trails while they had work to attend to.
Contrary to all expectation, I was received with great hospitality and invited to sit down, poured hot coffee, given exceptionally sweet grapes and a very salted sort of cheese, the one they made with the milk from the ewes and goats. The women had their berths behind a screen, whereas a wood fired stove stood in the middle of the tent, with a big cauldron brim-full with milk. A young man took care of me, the old father visibly delighted for the family to be able to shower their hospitality on me. The path I asked about indeed led to the abandoned castle, they said, I just had to follow the valley. But what was all the haste? I must wait until they'd slay a mutton, grill the shashliks on the coals and banquet with them! Still morally committed to physical activity, this meant a serious breach to my original pledge, but it would be a great experience, anyway.
Meanwhile, Arkam kept talking about France, Amiens, some girl... in order to understand his discourse the only thing I could do was rely on were these pieces of information, put them together and add some imagination to make up a sensible story. But the Arkam took up his phone and over the internet he put me through to a girl who spoke fair French. I could confirm she was indeed Arkam's beloved who had left Armenia years back. Now the two little doves spent their time daydreaming about how to reunite. The three-sided conversation went on for ages, but it was to take place unbeknownst to the father, who didn't approve of his son wasting his time on this flirt, so we occasionally had to duck our heads and hide behind the tent when the father was passing.
Occasionally the voice was not clear – and I bet it wasn't, at 3,000 m we could only thank having coverage at all. Finally, when the connection broke down, I was relieved and I walked down to the tent. It was just in time to see a passing mutton being grabbed by the hind leg and butchered on the spot. In the twinkling of an eye the furry animal was turned into shashliks and put over the embers to grill. The plates were being laid, and I was given the place of honour to the father's side on an all-men table. Vodka flowed abundantly and at each toast someone pronounced a well-wishing formula while others responded. The exchanges seemed to be made up of just clichés, but had the solemnity of religion or magic. I was partaking in a rite that was just as great an experience as the missed conquest of Mt. Aragats, on its very slopes.