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Ashtarak, the gate of heaven in Armenia

Ashtarak

Ashtarak is the administrative centre of the Aragatsotn region. It has a population of almost 22,000 inhabitants. It is not far from the capital,  just 13 miles north-west of Yerevan. The city is cut in two by the Kasagh River. It has some churches, a couple of museums, and an old bridge.

The town itself does not offer great attractions, but it is the best place to get transport and you can visit the surroundings where there are places with charm. When in the area, check out the churches of the Kasagh River Canyon, the Tegher Monastery, the Asurakan Astrophysical Observatory, the Amberd Fortress, or the tomb of Mesrop Mashtots.

The most economical way to make the trip is to travel to the city of Ashtarak in a marshrutka from Yerevan and once there, to negotiate with a taxi driver the journeys to the places that you find more interesting. You should remember that the minimum fare is 600 AMD with 100 AMD per 1km. Almost all the places that we are talking about are badly connected by public transport so do take that into account.

How to Get from Yerevan to Ashtarak

Ashtarak is very well connected with Yerevan through marshrutka. They leave the Kilikia bus station every hour from 9:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

What to Do in Ashtarak?

Visit Tegher Monastery

The small village of Tegher, at 1,700 meters high (5577 feet), hides a treasure from the Middle Ages on the southern slope of the impressive bulk of the Mount Aragats.

Its dark monastery was built in the 13th century with grey basalt. It is 11 miles north-west of Ashtarak, a few miles from the village of Aghdzk. They say that it has been preserved intact thanks to the fact that its architects used semi-circular arches to deceive the invaders from the East. This design made the monastery blend in with the other types of buildings during its type, effectively camouflaging it from the enemies.

The best way to get there is a round trip taxi from Ashtarak (AMD 5,000).

Visit Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory

Buyrakan is a window to the universe and when it comes to Armenia tourism, it is a must-visit. The altitude of this town, its clear atmosphere, and starry nights made it the chosen place to build one of the most important astrophysical observatories of the former USSR.

Throughout its almost 70 years of history, it has discovered dozens of supernovas, galaxies, stellar groups and other types of stars. It is open to the public and it offers some very interesting visits during the day. Get up close to the gigantic telescopes and the house-museum of the astrophysicist Viktor Ambartsumian who is considered an eminent figure in astrology.

But it is at night when the observatory looks its best and night observations are also organized there. These are an incredible experience and are overseen by the staff of the observatory. The staff show off the facilities to visitors with passion and they will unveil the secrets of the universe to you.

Note that it is necessary to phone and book in advance since the visit depends on the weather conditions. Phone reservation: ✆+374 93 967115 or +374 91 195903. Visit here for more information: www.bao.am

Where to Sleep in Byurakan?

Cheap Lodging in Byurakan

Byurakan Observatory Hotel

Within the enclosure, there is a small hotel that serves to accommodate both scientists and tourists who come to the night observations.

The truth is that the accommodation is a little old-fashioned and the bathrooms leave a lot to be desired. But it is an option to consider if you do not want to drive or take a taxi back to Yerevan when your stargazing is finished. The best thing is for you to make the reservation through the observatory since Hazmik, the person who looks after the guests, only speaks Russian or Armenian. A one-night stay costs AMD 6,000 per person.

How to Get from Yerevan to Byurakan?

From the Kilikia bus station, there are marshrutkas leaving to Byurakan at 10:30, 12:40, 3:50, 5:30 and 7:45 p.m. For the way back, they leave at 7.30, 9:00, 12:00, and 4:00 p.m.

Visit Amberd Fortress

Without a shadow of a doubt, the Amberd Fortress is the most famous defensive complex in Armenia. And it has served as the location for some films such as ‘Svolochi’, a Russian film from 2006 that earned good audience ratings in the Muscovite movie cinemas. The architects of the fortress chose an excellent place to build it and it was an impregnable bastion for centuries.

Amberd Fortress rises on a small 2,300-meter-high (7545 feet) watchtower at the confluence of the Arkashen and Amberd rivers. Its name means “the castle of the clouds”, and from here, you can enjoy the wonderful views. The place has been inhabited since the Stone Age and that ancient settlement gradually evolved into a fortress during the Kingdom of Urartu era.

The structure was vitally important for the protection of the Ararat Valley and apparently, it was also the summer residence of some monarchs. The current castle dates from the 7th century. Some sources claim that its walls have always remained insurmountable, while others claim that it succumbed to the attacks of the descendants of Genghis Khan.

It had its own water supply system through an underground tunnel which connected to the Artashen River. There must have been very hard living conditions here in ancient times. Maybe that is why they built their own bathrooms which have survived to this day in a relatively good state of preservation. The military detail also had its own church, Sub Asvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God), which is a few meters from the south wall and was built in 1026.

How to Get from Byurakan to Amberd Fortress?

Amberd is located about 9 miles from Byurakan. The marshrutkas only get to Byurakan, but there are no taxis in that town, so you may be left stranded. The best alternative is to take a taxi in Ashtarak. Another option is to walk from Byurakan to the castle or hitchhike.

Ascent to Mount Aragats

At 4,090 meters (13418 feet), Mount Aragats is considered the roof of Armenia. And climbing it will be an experience that you will never forget for the rest of your life. Every year, between 3,000 and 4,000 people try to make it the summit, which makes it a favorite destination for mountain lovers.

The Aragats is of volcanic origin and its crater formed its four peaks: the north, which is the highest and reaches 4090 metres (13418 feet); the south, which is the most accessible and it rises to 3,879 meters (12726 feet); the west, with its 4,080 metres (13385 feet) height; and the east, which measures to 3,916 metres (12847 feet).

Usually, people start the ascent on Lake Kari Lich, which means stone lake, at 3200 meters (10498 feet). There is an observatory there and a hotel that offers accommodation. If you are carrying your own tent, camping is allowed.

If you want to get to this spot, you have to continue on the road that goes up towards Amberd from Byurakan. But instead of taking the detour to the left which leads to the fortress, you have to continue straight on. There are no Marshrutkas and the only way to get there is by car, by taxi from Yerevan or Artashat, or by hitchhiking from Byurakan.

The time it takes to ascend to the southern peak, the most accessible, depends on the physical condition of each person. But generally, it can be done in about two and a half hours starting from the lake. Although a guide is not essential if you are an experienced mountaineer, you must familiarise yourself with the route quite well.

It is an ascent that requires minimum equipment but make sure to bring enough water and do your best to select the day of your climb well. The road to the northern peak is the longest and most demanding, but experts say that this route – called Karakatar – is also the most beautiful one.

You have to be careful with the fog in the Mount Aragats. They say that this mountain is very treacherous, especially in May, June, and the autumn months. That is why people start the ascent very early in the day, at 5:00 a.m., because it is usually in the morning when the fog comes. Just in case, wear warm clothes, even if it’s summer.

You should keep in mind that the climate at 4,000 meters (13123 feet) changes at the speed of light and gets cold quick. The best months to climb the Mount Aragats, if you are not an experienced mountaineer, are the summer months. During the rest of the year, there can be quite a lot of snow.

The surroundings of Mount Aragats are dotted with Yazidi camps. You might bump into them taking care of their cattle. They are semi-nomadic communities of Kurdish origin who still hold beliefs closely linked to Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia. They come from Turkey and from the current area of Mesopotamia.

They had to take refuge in Armenia after being persecuted and massacred. They worship the sun, the fire and the figure of a peacock, which represents Melek Taus, the Fallen Angel for them. He is the light, but also the fire. He grants, but he also takes away. Maybe that is why some people have accused them of worshiping the devil. However, it is a simplistic way of interpreting a 4000-year old religion which is much older than Christianity and Islam.

The Legends of the Mount Aragats

Mount Aragats is not only the highest peak in Armenia, but it is also a mountain full of mysteries. Its name literally means “The throne of Ara”. Where does this name come from? It is said that the throne of the ancient King of Armenia was hidden inside one of its four peaks and that it was covered with rubies and precious stones.

They hid it during one of the Assyrian invasions, so the enemies could not steal it. The conquerors killed the Ara, the Armenian King, but they never found the royal throne. In honor of that throne of King Ara, the top of Armenia was named as such: Aragats.

Another very popular legend says that Mount Ararat and the Aragats were two sisters who were always together, a long, long time ago. But they were always competing to see who was the tallest and the most beautiful of them all. It was then than a curse fell on them and both were separated forever.

The Mount Aragats did not stop crying, and from those tears arose Lake Kari and the numerous springs which sprout from the mountain. For its part, Mount Ararat became a lonely mountain. In fact, it was not until the 19th century that anybody dared to climb it.

Armenia Extreme Club

Address:18 Amyrian Poghots Street (Yerevan).

Phone: ✆ +374 93 265576.

Contact person: Gor Hayzak

This is the association of adventure sports guides of Armenia. It is the cheapest and professional option if you need to rent some equipment, hire a mountain guide, or find information or tips on routes or other types of activities. If you want a person to accompany you and to have everything prepared for you to spend a few days in Mount Aragats, the club will help you in any way they can. Most of them speak English.

Visit the Churches of the Kasagh Canyon

The Kasagh Canyon is like an open wound in the south of the Aragatsotn region. Its cliffs are food for thought. Perhaps, for this reason, some of the most visited monasteries in the area, such as Saghmosavank and Hovhannavank, were built here in the 7th century.

Their silhouettes look out over the cliff as if they wanted to monitor everything that happens in the white waters of the river running through the bottom of the gorge. There is a nice three-mile path that connects both temples and that you can walk in less than an hour and a half. But first, you should arrange the issue of return transport, as there are no minibuses available from the Kasagh Canyon to Ashtarak.

What to Do in Kasagh Canyon?

Visit Saghmosavank

The Saghmosavank Monastery is 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of Ashtarak, in the village of Saghmosavank. It was built in 1215 in the spot where there used to be a chapel during the early years of Christianity. Its austere facade contrasts with its interior, which is more colorful.

Visit Ohanavank

Three miles south of Saghmosavank, in the town of Ohanavan, stands the ancient Ohanavank Monastery, also at the edge of the gorge. The first construction of the monastic complex, the Basilica of Saint Gregory, dates from the 4th century.

The main temple, Surb Karapet, was built by Prince Vache Vachutyan between 1216 and 1221. Its southern wall and dome were destroyed by an earthquake in 1919 and they were renovated between 1970 and 1990. Below, in the Kasagh Gorge, there are ancient pagan caves which were used to perform rituals.

Transportation

The best way to visit these two places is to take a shared taxi to and from Ashtarak. Take into account that it is very likely that you will not find transportation in any of the two towns where the monasteries are located.

Visit Oshakan Church, the Tomb of Mesrop Mashtots.

Oshakan Church is five miles south of Ashtarak, amongst vineyards and gardens of Pomegranates. It is located in the tomb of the father of the Armenian alphabet: Mesrop Mashtots.

Mashtots is the most venerated figure in Armenia along with Saint Gregory the Illuminator. In 443, Prince Vahan Amatuni ordered the construction of a small chapel here, which was replaced by the present church between 1875 and 1879. There is only one nave in the basilica.

The interior paintings were made by O.Misnanyan. There is a small crypt to the right of the altar, where the remains of Mashtots rest in a marble tomb. In the garden, there are 36 Khachkars in the shape of letters show the alphabet that helped to write the pages of the future of the nation. There are not very good connections with public transport, so the best thing to do is to go by taxi.