I peered around the little net curtain in our Goldilocks wooden cabin and looked down on clouds and into the distance far across a valley. We had woken up in the sky! There were other fairytale log cabins dotted around us and squat round cabins shaped like enormous beer barrels. Little paths tottered down the hillside between them, leading to the ‘resort,’ I assumed. We were going to have a few days resting in the stillness and visit Tatev Monastery.
My faith in resorts wavered pretty quickly trying to have a shower. It either burnt me or froze me. Scott said I was to relax and leave it to him and he disappeared into the little bathroom from which all sorts of water and pipe noises could be heard. He emerged twenty minutes later in a cloud of steam and said it was ready for me. ‘Don’t touch anything!’ he cautioned and I gingerly stepped into the bathroom where the toilet was open, the sink taps were full on and splashing everything, the shower was directed somewhere above my head and there was a loud squeaking noise of complaint from the whole plumbing system. Still, using what he likes to knowingly call ‘Manc Skills’, a shower was had and enjoyed. Now I was all set for breakfast – and a resort breakfast means a buffet and some good quality coffee – the last I remembered had been in Tbilisi.
Outside the air was thin and misty and sharp- freshly made and full of renewal; we walked into clouds and moved silently through the stillness like wraiths. When a stone tumbled down the rocky steps, or a distant dog barked, it echoed with a crisp ring and dissolved into the air. We had arrived somewhere strange.
Near the entrance of the Harsnadzor Eco Resort, near the deserted mountain road, there was a large version of the cabins – a big shed – and this was the dining room. The kitchen was another shed and the hotel cooking facility was an outdoor wood-fired oven. A stout blonde woman was cooking and a stout dark woman was serving. That was the extent of staffing at the resort. The big shed was empty, so we sat down near the back. The stout dark woman brought us some bread, some tea, some under-cooked eggs and the strongest cheese I have ever been near; it made my eyes water. Guess this was breakfast.
After breakfast the stout dark woman asked us to pay in full for our stay in the resort, by thrusting a handwritten scribble in our faces and arching an eyebrow. We handed over our visa card. She shook her head indicating that only cash would do. We were pretty sure that we were twenty-five kilometres from the nearest town at the end of a long and winding road on a mountain with few people and fewer cars. Hmmm.
I suggested that we worry about it later. (‘Later’ we both knew, meant Scott hitchhiking for several hours to find an ATM, using Manc skills of course). So walking boots were donned, and hats and scarves packed, to climb up the hillside to the ‘Wings of Tatev,’ the sparkling new, tourist-generating longest-cable-car-in-the-world. This would fly us across the Vorotan river valley and up to Tatev monastery, a ninth-century grey stone complex known for its mystical beginnings and founded by one of the earliest Christian saints. It was Halloween, and I was excited. When I was young, I had been a practising pagan for several years. In fact, I had self-initiated myself using a book in my bedroom when I was fourteen. Later I had joined a rather dodgy coven in Canning Town in East London. I loved Halloween, and we were in a witchy misty magical place far from civilisation.
Apart from the Swiss-built cable car that is…As cable cars go, it was all one could wish for – as snazzy as St. Moritz. The clipped British voice describing what we could see far below us in the valley, like Satan’s Bridge and a ruined village, was comforting. The plinky plonky music stopped being annoying after a few minutes and then was rather wonderful, accompanying the breath-taking glide across empty space. 5.7 kilometres and fifteen minutes later, the incongruous ‘flight attendant’ smiled cheerily and opened the door on the top of the mountain, and we found ourselves even higher up than before, with cows wandering, and the monastery musing, clinging to the side of the mountain.
Tatev complex has a vibrant ancient history that is palpable. I would have loved to have been a nun in this monastery. It was more spiritual than religious, a living expression of the mountain. Lumps of stone hewn from the basalt and molded, carved, then jigsawed together into something otherworldly, that had stood forever and always would. A light clean grey, it was both floating in a new sky and solidly rooting itself down into the mountainside. As if to say I am here and not here – I exist but I don’t. Sometimes in very old sacred places I get the oddest feeling of tingling. Like the air is powdered crystal and my body and mind are being cleansed from the inside out. I was an empty vessel, restored, present.
We touched the stones, our fingers finding their way into small crevices, old scripted carvings of prayer. We stared up at the swinging column which through some engineering feat, moves to warn of earthquakes and invaders. We walked through the ancient stone rooms where the bishops had lived, and climbed onto the walls, leaning out through the arched windows into the chasm sweeping away below us. I imagined all the child monks running around, black robes flowing, Hogwarts style, when this had been a seat of learning – up to a thousand scholars living together in this remote stoney village of altars and graves. There was an ancient tree, still blooming a delicate green, old old old as only magic monastery trees can be. We sat with our backs to the trunk, and were renewed.
I felt connected to all my spiritual sisters, up in the little tea shop information centre, so I sent a Samhain wish to my old friend Hanna Casement. Watching the most beautiful cow I have ever seen and drinking muddy coffee we sat, allowing the sun to warm us.
We found an ATM and emptied it before starting the descent in cable car and by foot back to the resort. Things hadn’t improved facilities wise, and I have to now admit that the word ‘resort’ guarantees nothing. The extensive menu consisted of page after page of glossy pictures of food. They bore no resemblance to the actual limited choice of meals available. I felt a pattern had emerged since the fateful missed supermarket in Istanbul. So I sat with my small barbecued potato, which in no way even mimicked the impressive spiralled potato kebab in the picture. It had some animal skin and fat left over from the last animal to use the skewer. Scott’s barbecue was even more disappointing, so we drank large tankards of cheap Armenian wine to forget about being vegetarian. Our only fellow diners in the resort were a few loud Russians who shouted and bashed and sang raucously.
With the bottle of wine in hand, we climbed back to our cabin under the full moonlight, and burrowed under the duvet to watch Polanski’s ‘The Tenant’ on my ipad, in honour of Halloween. It was spookily perfect.