Mistletoe. Ara didn’t know the word until today. He’d never noticed the parasitical plant before. He’d never heard of its association both with Christmas and kissing.
I had wanted to visit a church with 17th century frescoes. It’s a long way South, right on the border with Iran, and so we set off early. We hadn’t been driving for more than five minutes before I spotted the mistletoe, the first I have noticed in Armenia. Divine or Druidic intervention? Who knows? Either way, it seemed like a good start to Christmas Day.
The Mistletoe trail soon turned to a vale of tears.
Ara pointed out villages that had once been peopled by Azeris– houses now empty for more than 20 years, since their owners fled
We drove through the village of Shurnukh, where Armenian flags still fly.
“This village was empty during the war” said Ara “it wasn’t safe to be here. The Azeris were firing missiles from just over there”
He told me the story of a friend’s father in another village close to Goris.
” He was hit by a missile and killed in the street” he told me, and then showed me the road to a lake where another disaster had struck the same family.
“Artak’s brother drowned here on a school trip” he said “Another boy died trying to save him. Artak’s mother was there. She saw it all, but there was nothing she could do”
I shivered thinking of all the terrible Christmases that family had endured, but worse was still to come.
“We drivers call this the “bus turn”. After the war in the nineties there were a lot of mines along this road. A bus took a wide turn one day and hit a mine hidden by the side of the road. The driver couldn’t have known. Many, many people died”
I began to feel glad I hadn’t asked Ara to jump over a barrier to pick me some mistletoe.
“And just here. A monument to two young men killed in the April war.”
That was only three years ago– a four-day spat with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Today the sun shone. The sky was the blue of the Virgin Mary’s stole. But the ground all around us was black with wasted blood.
On the way into Kapan there is what looks like a beautiful lake. Today the snow-capped mountains of Iran were reflected in the water. We stopped to take photos.
“The lake is poisoned” said Ara “it looks beautiful, but it is toxic, filled with run-off from the copper mine.”
We stopped at Vahanavank Monastery for a little solace. Here the dead have lain undisturbed for 10 centuries. There were people here for many, many years before that. There is evidence of Bronze age settlements from nine hundred and something BC.
Past the dispirited mining town of Kajaran, enlivened a little by a Soviet-era statue of a bear with a key in its mouth. Up, up into snow-covered mountains. We had been traveling for nearly four hours and were more than 2300 meters above sea level. Huge trucks carrying sheep were heading for Iran. These sheep will shipped all over the Middle East– Armenian lamb is said to taste sweeter than that raised in drier climes. The sheep are exported live and so the trucks are covered with a sort of twiggy thatch. They poor things can’t see out, but the air can get in. This way to the halal butcher.
The sheep will never know it, but the road passes through the most stunning scenery. The landscape changes every hour of the trip. By the time we dropped down from the mountains I felt that all my available breath had already been taken. And then I saw the jagged mountains of Iran stretching into the sky. And the last persimmons growing on roadside trees. And picked fruit drying in long strings hung on balconies and landings. Kiwi fruit were growing outside the church.
We were the only people in the church with the restored frescoes — which are beautiful and were worth a visit even if every inch of the rest of the trip hadn’t been so interesting. We touched the paintings. There was no sign that said not to. No noticeboard with information. No postcards.
We sat in the sun and had a picnic of lavash, green beans and white cheese. Ara had brought some wine so we could have a Christmas toast. The sun shone. In Kapan we stopped for a festive glass of Armenian champagne with another volunteer and her counterpart.God rest ye merry Gentlewomen. We got back to Goris to see the Christmas tree lit in the city square, and in time for the fireworks. A pretty good Christmas I’d say.