Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Smbataberd (Սմբատաբերդ) Hike & the Elusive Bezoars

In the summer of 2014, I went to Nelly's home to ask her a bunch of questions about her products for this article for the Armenian Weekly. It was then that I learned more about the bezoar goat due to her goat's milk soap, and she told me more about its current status in the Caucasus. I had seen the rock carvings of them (which she had on her soap) but never really paid any attention to them until after that meeting. 
Little by little, like most obsessions, their presence started popping up and it was the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets' (FPWC) trap cam photos that really drew me in. They not only had horns like nobody's business, but coupled with their incredible beards, they looked like satanic metal-heads with hearts of gold.
Photo by FPWC's trap cam
I learned more about them, and how they were included in the Red Book for being a part of the bullshit "trophy-hunting" craze (the pictures show these majestic beasts killed by 'hunters' so they can take a stupid picture with the corpse and somehow think this makes them interesting or rugged. I dare them to fight  without the use of fancy guns and equipment and then let's see who wins when it's an even battle), and also their current status in Armenia--in and out of the Protected Areas. Their numbers are growing, and the Caucasian leopard is now their biggest threat rather than humans, and shooting them in a non-protected area holds a fine of roughly $2000, and within the protected area it is about $6000, and in the latter case, a criminal case is filed.

After learning more about them and creepily stalking their videos and photos thanks to the trap cam, I had a writing job where I was assigned to write about a particular Protected Area in Armenia, and to my pleasant surprise, the bezoar goats were the animals in the highest number and I was able to focus on both them and the park. The obsession grew. I learned a lot more about them and upgraded from 'stalking' to writing. It was during this time I also realized I could change my famous bull tattoo and transform it into a bezoar--which would simply require elongating the horns and adding a beard!
Trap cam 2
A few days later I saw this event on Facebook. I pretended to read the entirety of the description but it had me at "Այծադիտում" aka goat watching of the bezoar variety. I signed up realizing I was now going to see the bezoar "in person" and even found a camera so I could have my own photos rather than being the annoying person asking other people to take photos for them. The event included two hikes in Vayots Dzor, the first being to 13th century Ցախաց քար/Tsakhats Kar Monastery, and the second would lead us to the Սմբատաբերդ/Smbataberd fortress/castle, both of which I had never been to, and it would be between 8:30am to 8:30pm. While there is something special in discovering your own routes and hiking independent of experts or guides creating your own schedule, there are also times when hiking with a guide is welcome (or necessary), and this felt like one of those times. I also forgot that you tend to meet lots of interesting people with similar interests in organized hikes like these, so that was an added bonus.

Three other friends had signed up as well which I realized closer to the date--Serda, Armine and Meroujan, and it was a great sub-group in the otherwise fantastic main group. We were set to meet at 8:30am in Sakharov Square in the centre, and I had a late morning and had to make a last-minute granola snack/lunch for the entire day and was about 10 minutes late, stressing out the entire time, only to arrive and realize we were still waiting for two other people later than I. Once we were all there, the guide, Apres Zohrabyan, realized we were one too many and therefore there were not enough seats in the mashootka for all of us, and decided to "borrow" a plastic chair from a shop nearby, and sat on that for the entire ride there and back, remembering to return it once we were back to the city.

Once we began, Apres initiated a "introduce yourself" go-around, where everyone cutely clapped once a person finished their introduction, and we realized 90% of the participants were programmers, which became a running joke. The group of about 15 included locals, diasporans, and Iranians. Apres then announced the person who was the latest had to be the one to sing a song for us, which she did and did very well with a great voice.

We had one pit stop to buy anything we needed from outdoor markets as well as use the only indoor toilet we would see for the entire trip, and of course there was a cute puppy and kitten who had a unique relationship with each other.
The puppy trying to eat my shoe
This was also when we realized Serda has an official obsession with eggs. This is her holding an egg sandwich made on the spot, and two hard-boiled eggs. More on that later.
We arrived shortly by Shatin village, where we would walk until we hit the base of the mountain that would lead us to the monastery.
The walk had the fresh air coupled with the "village smell" we all miss when we stay in Yerevan too long, and we saw cows, horses, donkeys, chickens, turkeys, and roosters on the way to the mountain.
Makeshift bridge
We soon reached the base in the warm April weather and began heading up, with wonderful views of mountains and greenery, on a relatively steep slope that made us all question our spring-weather-is-always-unstable "safe"clothing options while we began to sweat and pant.
Serda could already recognize many of the animal feces we stumbled across as it is part of her research, so now I even know what bezoar goat feces look like! Serda and I also talked about a habit of looking down to make sure you didn't trip on a rock, rather than looking up and appreciating the view (while constantly tripping) while hiking. I also hike fast and always wonder if doing it calmly and slowly is an entirely different experience. One day I will do yoga and everything will be clear. For now I will keep to my fast-talking/hiking/walking/running ways. When I would head further up, I would take a break to enjoy the scenery, and Vayots Dzor marz is exceptionally beautiful, with greenery, snow-covered mountains, lakes, rivers, small and quaint villages with houses you can count on one hand, and wildlife.
When the natural curve of the trail was leading us towards the right, the guide called out to us saying we were meant to head left, and once we did we noticed the monastery and the area surrounding it which was quite beautiful, and I would have never noticed it in the distance had I come alone.
There was a long picnic-style rock table and on the way I saw a few Armenian style coffee cups on the ground as well as an empty bottle of vodka.
Somebody has a messed up future!
We decided to check out the area and also have our lunch there. True to Armenian-style, everyone put what they had brought in front of them to share with the entire group, and the food included many different types of bread, cut up peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, bunches of greens (cilantro, parsley, basil), sweets, and different types of cheese.
Armine had won the picnic with her incredible "to-go" falafels she made which were dense and perfect for a hike like this. Soon after a light shared lunch, spring stayed true to its reputation and the weather went from warm to freezing with wild winds and hail. I finally regretted not bringing a jacket and had to keep reminding myself I was from Canada when I realized it was only 2pm and the second hike, from a distance, seemed like it was all in snow. Apres (whose name literally translates to "well done"--abris in Western Armenian), began singing a song, which translated to "sun sun come out, black clouds go away, give the sun a path", with a few more verses, and to everyone's surprise, the weather began dramatically changing, with the hail stopping, the winds calming, and the sun peeking out of the clouds. Serda took a video to document it and Apres looks like a pagan sun-worshipper (I cannot seem to upload the video).

We celebrated the weather by starting a shoorch bar, and deciding to start heading out to the second hike.
On the way we came across Zorats Church, where Apres let me know it was the only one built to accommodate soldiers coming in with horses for a quick/convenient blessing. We could see in the distance the mountain up to Smbataberd we were meant to hike and it truly looked like the way up would be as beautiful as the actual site itself.
Once we made it to the base, Serda noticed the abundance of bezoar feces all over and we all became excited that we were walking in their footsteps (or I guess poop).
The slope for this route was much more of a gradual incline, allowing us to really appreciate the beauty of it and it ended with a stair case leading us to the entrance of the castle.
When we made it to the top (which was not covered in snow like it had seemed), we all had a rare silent moment taking it all in. I had written before about the Erebuni fortress and how I couldn't put my finger on why I enjoyed being there so much--well, Smbataberd is an Erebuni x 1000. Walking over the long rocky ruins all over the incredible space with the magnificent views was the highlight of this trip.
Serda's panoramic shot
Some people found their spot quickly and just wanted to appreciate and soak in the experience, while others wanted to cover the entire area to make sure not to have missed a spot.
Our start-point for exploring
We were in the latter category and rested atop a ruin in the sun once we finished walking/hiking the area.
Cute couple alert
A Syrian-Armenian participant had brought dates and I was almost annoyed at how perfect that period of time was: great view, great people, fresh mountain air, direct sunlight with small amounts of refreshing hail, and on top of it all the most perfect and fresh date that dissolved in my mouth the second it entered. CALM DOWN WORLD.
"I need to finish them", he said.
Serda and I had noticed a bunch of nettle growing nearby, and we picked it (not from the roots of course) acknowledging its many benefits and decided we would dry it for tea as well as attempt the famous nettle soup we have both tried and loved.
After spending a good chunk of time here, and Apres finding a lost participant who took a wrong turn, he reminded us that the best time to see bezoar goats was between 5-7pm, and we still had a long way back.
Still happy since bezoar-watching was coming up! Also, hail or dandruff?
We began our descend downwards, and about halfway down, noticed the "roads" cars were using, which made us all the more happy we were on foot. Only two had passed our particular path, with the first one stopping and the driver very sadly announcing he only had space in his car for four people, and us telling him we wanted to be hiking and did not need a car, which put him at ease and he drove off wishing us luck. The second car was full of drunken-eyed men who asked Serda and I if we wanted water and then turned on their windshield fluid, which they thought was hilarious and then said "thank you" in English before driving off.

Apres announced that we needed to head back the entire way and drive for a bit to get to the official bezoar-watching area and that we needed to hurry the walk up a bit.
When we made it near the village, a swarm (herd?) of cows came out, causing the famous "village traffic", which was led by a few men with horses.
There were two calves and they soon all passed us while we admired them like nerds. At one point closer to our start-point, one of the calves appeared out of nowhere running towards us, stopping, letting out a yell I had never heard from a cow before, and running back into her designated area. In the context we were in and taking into consideration the tone of the scream, I really felt like it  translated to "get outta here you city kids".
The white one that is hiding was the one with an attitude
A sweet grandmother nearby made up for the rude cow by welcoming us and asking us to come back and stay in her home.
We eventually made it back to our official start-point and hopped into the mashootka to get to the official goat-watching area by Shatin village. We parked and those who brought binoculars grabbed them and we headed to the area. Apres already noted it was later than ideal, but he had seen them post 7pm so was not too worried. On the way an elderly woman called out to us from her balcony and warned us a pack of wild dogs had been causing some ruckus and it was most likely the goats headed out earlier than usual. I noted her balcony gave her a view of where we intended to go and was a little jealous.
We arrived to the designated area, and it was so much closer to the mountain than I had assumed. I don't even think I would have even needed to use "zoom" on my camera to get an accurate picture of them. The mountain was very large and Apres begun telling us about the bezoars, and how they tend to be in packs of up to seventy and that's how he has mostly seen them. They stayed in this particular area until the end of April, would come back by June, and stay until October. We stayed there quite a bit exchanging stories while keeping an eye out for any movement on the mountains but it was become clearer that we would not see the magnificent goats that night.
It was also much colder at this point, and it was officially the second time I had the "I wish I had a jacket" regret looming over me. We continued doing the second best thing, and talked about bezoar facts and one of the participants sighed after Apres told us about how they were hunted, and said, "What kind of person sees something so beautiful, and their first thought can be 'I want to kill this'?" There was a participant on the hike who had brought along his young daughter he carried on his shoulders most of the way, and she broke the long silence following that statement by exclaiming: "I'm glad the bezoars didn't show up, they would have eaten my sandwich", which reminded us to always see the positive in every situation.
The little optimist
Apres changed the lyrics of the "sun song" to become "bezoar bezoar come now, don't let me become the subject of ridicule", which rhymed in Armenian and was a perfect last attempt to make something happen before we decided it was time to head back in unison. As much as I was looking forward to seeing them with my own eyes, with the wonderful hikes and the entire day in nature, I couldn't actually feel any disappointment, and some of the participants who had seen bezoars up close before all sweetly offered to send me their photos until I could see them for myself. Serda, Armine and I also planned to go Khosrov the following weekend and see them, so it really wasn't much of a disappointment for me.

We headed back to our car, thanking the woman for preparing us from her balcony, and began the trip back to Yerevan. Serda told us more about her research project on establishing a peaceful coexistence between bears, wolves and villagers. She had already surveyed 22 villages and while there is a lot of optimism in the work she will do, there is the sad reality of the current situation (on both sides), and of course the more secret horror stories--particularly with the treatment of wolves that I wish I didn't know about but I know it's good that I do (I'm trying to be mature). You can learn more about her research project here.
Not photoshopped at all!
We also saw the extent of Serda's egg obsession, and since she only eats them when they are picked in the villages, she went wild when the two pit stops we made for the entire trip had woman selling eggs fresh from their farms. She bought eight and wondered aloud many times if it was enough and it really seemed to be worrying her. I assured her I would take her to the shugas in Yerevan before her supply ran out and all was well.

I arrived home around 10pm, hyper, happy, but too tired to shower which my room mate reminded me was gross. I eventually fell asleep and woke up realizing I dreamt of us all being in that exact area as it was, but that this time we saw the wild dogs causing the commotion, and were able to see the large herd of bezoars as they left the area with their long horns and beards very clear. Dreaming of bezoars: check.
I'm gonna catch you
(Photos by Allegra Garabedian, Serda Ozbenian, Armine Sargsyan, Amir Max, Anna Mnatsaganyan & FPWC)