Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Day Trip to the Byurakan/Բյուրական Astrophysical Observatory!

Last Saturday everyone and their mothers (literally in Laurie's case) were heading to what looked like a great event in Gyumri. However, Shant, Björn and I opted for a trip to Byurakan village instead with a possible side trip to Amberd fortress. (All photos that were taken with Björn's camera are currently MIA, so I had to use the few Shant took and some from the Internet.)

We left around 11:30 to make it to Kilikia Bus Station, which actually does have a number to call and check schedules, but since we had no set plan, we decided to roll with it. As soon as we arrived, we began asking drivers about any buses that would go near the village or to Aragats and one driver pointed out a large bus in the back that clearly read (in Armenian and English): Byurakan/Բյուրական. He then proudly exclaimed he was in fact the driver and told us the bus would be leaving at one, so we had 15 to 20 minutes. Björn looked at his watch and noted to me the time was 12:20. I repeated that to the bus driver and he then said, "Oh okay, more than 20 minutes". You can't fool a German when it comes to punctuality.
Kilikia Bus Station (www.panoramio.com)
We played with a confidently hungry dog until boarding and the bus driver let us know the base of Aragats was actually quite far from Byurakan, as well as Amberd. We took his advice and opted to stay and explore Byurakan village and see the observatory instead. All three of us had heard of the observatory but I knew friends who tried to go and were not able too for reasons I didn't remember.

We boarded the bus and Björn mentioned that among his travels to many different countries, it was only in Armenia he noticed that those with a seat automatically (sometimes forcefully) would take any bags or belongings from passengers who were left standing. Solidarity. Soon the bus filled up and Shant and Björn did the obligatory back-and-forth of asking the women to sit while I enjoyed the perks of being a woman in Armenia. I did offer an older woman my seat, but she said she would soon get off, which was a lie as she got off at the same spot as I did, about an hour later.
Our bus kind of looked like this (www.panoramio.com/)
We arrived and asked the driver about where the observatory was, and he said we had passed it but we could just walk back. The weather kept switching from sunny to cloudy but it was a great day with fresh air and the first one without rain in a week. We were all sort of hungry by that point and stopped by most shops on the way looking for something special. We ended up with bread and sunflower seeds. 

After about a 20 minute walk following in the footsteps of cows, we saw the sign pointing to the observatory and became super excited, not knowing what to expect. There was a small office-type stand with one person inside we asked all of our questions to. He said we could visit the observatory but it had to be with a guide who he would call. About 15 minutes later, which included a brief episode of hail, an older man in a sweater vest showed up, who was very quiet and seemed a bit distracted. A few moments later he deeply (from his heart) apologized for being late, and seemed really stressed by this. Being apologized to in Armenia for someone being late was definitely a welcome first, although in this case, it was completely unnecessary. He lightened up a lot after relieving his tortured conscience. 

Our guide walked us on the path, and we all noticed how extremely beautiful it was. Yerevan's botanical garden had nothing on this place. Full of trees and greenery, with an incredible view of Mount Ararat and quaint paths, it was only made better when we could spot all the cute observatories hidden within the trees. 
Photo by Shant Kerbabian
Our guide began to tell us about the founder, Viktor Hambardzumyan, and stories along the way and you could immediately see how passionate he was about this place. There used to be many workers (40-50) but now there were only five. He said interest in the place was declining, even with schools no longer including the observatory in their educational day trip programs. He also mentioned that when it came to the observatory, the government never seemed to have enough money, but would give it to many other "useless" programs. For this reason, many of the workers he mentioned left the observatory or went abroad to find sustainable work.
Viktor Hambardzumyan (www.armenian-history.com)
He showed us the area technically owned by Russia (St. Petersburg) and told us we could go into the large observatory and he would present a slideshow to us. We soon realized this man was not actually an official guide--as they were all in Yerevan on the weekends, but a scientist. It made sense with how passionate and knowledgeable he was, coupled with his extremely nerdy science jokes that really made him laugh with all three of us nervously chuckling--worrying we didn't get it.

We took the stairs to the top with him pointing out the areas that needed renovations, and the view was even more beautiful from there. We went inside the slanted door that made you feel like you did not know how to walk straight, and he showed us the actual telescope through the glass. After explaining how it worked, he began the slideshow, where we could see the images of stars or galaxies discovered from that specific location, with our guide/scientist getting very excited and making more jokes. 
Photo by Shant Kerbabian
When he finished, we walked out with him telling us more stories and I noticed he had a cute habit of stopping in his steps to emphasize on a point or tell a little anecdote. He did this once telling us about the time a plane had to bring the glass for the telescope and the car that had to drive it all the way up the road to the observatory, giggled about it, and then just stopped talking and resumed walking.

At the end of the tour, we asked to take a photo and he became very shy and nervous, saying he had his umbrella in his hand, and then making sure Ararat was in the background. While we got our photo, it is unfortunately missing along with all of Björn's lost photos. 

He made sure we knew how to get back to Yerevan, and then explained it a few more times to really make sure and we thanked him, gave him the 3000 dram the person in the office told us it would cost, and he apologized saying that they used to never charge for tours, but that it unfortunately became necessary. 

We opted to hitchhike back to Yerevan, but first noticed small stands on the side of the road with all sorts of foods and fruits. I was specifically looking for sea buckthorn juice to complete my three-week long dream of having a shot every morning, but did not find it. Shant bought some delicious treats, like soujoukh (dried grape preserves around walnuts) and alani (dried peach stuffed with walnuts and honey), and we played with some cute dogs before making the effort to get a ride.
Delicious alani (www.pinterest.com/pin/463589355364787908/)
We were soon picked up by a nice man named Larig, who asked us where we went, and then gave us his phone number and told us to call him next time so he could drive us, for free, to Amberd fortress and Aragats (which were apparently very close) and to the beautiful local church. He drove us until he had to make a left and we thanked him and tried for ride #2. It was a good day and we were soon picked up by a father-son duo, with the father having a very raspy voice Björn enjoyed, and told us we all looked familiar and that he thought he had picked us up before. He then told me he had seen me on TV, which I decided to take as a compliment for reasons unknown. The son, Zorro (short for Zohrab) was meeting his girlfriend in Yerevan but told his grandmother who lived there he was coming for work. Tsk tsk. He then had to stop by a shop to get something from someone and apologized to us. When he returned empty handed, he looked at Björn and said "this is why I like Germans. They are true to their word unlike Armenians". They took another route to meet the mystery man and soon we were on our way.

They took us most of the way and then told us they would drop us off before going in a different direction. Zorro kept saying "I invite you to a taxi", which I knew meant he was saying he would pay and we told him we were happy finding another ride or taking a mashootka. He seemed legitimately offended and repeated that he was "inviting us" to a taxi and seemed to have his mind set on this. Shant didn't think he meant he would pay, but I did, and when the taxi arrived, he handed the driver money and told him to take us to the centre. We of course objected repeatedly but he said it was done and then gave us his number to call in the future whenever we would return. 

The taxi driver noticed Björn right away (blonde) and showed off some limited German, and then asked me about winter in Canada. We then confirmed that the Khinkali place on Tumanyan did have the mushroom option and decided to celebrate a good and educational day there. Mmm...khinkali.


  1. Thanks for the post. People who are really concerned about their next trip may take help from the detailed road map, as if you are planning to visit Spain then you must have Spain Road Map so that you can find your way with ease. It can help you in making your trip more amazing. you may also find some tasty dishes out there in Spain too.

  2. Awesome post.
    Want to plan your travel. Found a great website with the lowest imaginable rates at http://freetripdeals.com/