Does it sound strange if I admit that during my time in Armenia I asked our guesthouse host if she knew anyone with sheep and cows who I could go and hang out with for the day? No, I don’t think so either. It was a perfectly legitimate question.
The thing is, in Armenia you don’t just see the occasional field scattered with a smattering of farmyard animals, you literally find them in their hundreds, being herded down the road like a massive army of floating woolly jumpers by a charismatic looking man carrying a crooked stick. And I just kind of wanted to hang out with him and his animals. And squeal and take pictures.
So it was in this vein that I found myself asking Irina, our wonderful host at Iris guesthouse in Debed Canyon, if she could set me up with a shepherd for the day. She seemed a little confused by the request and as I tried to explain myself, Matty and the Mongoose just sat back in silence, smiling as I dug myself deeper into a crazy-sounding hole.
A glimmer of hope appeared when she started dialling a number, explaining she had some friends with sheep, but then the whole thing was suddenly forgotten about and people started talking about monasteries or something.
So, instead of spending our last day in Armenia with a shepherd or cow herder, we opted to do a 7km walk from Haghpat Monastery to Sanahin Monastery in the Debed Canyon instead. And it wasn’t that I was disappointed with this decision as such, it’s just that we had already seen our fair share of religious sites and I just fancied hanging out with the locals, and their animals.
But as we approached the monastery even the voice in my head, that had been threatening to just get out of the taxi if I saw a cow herder and insist on spending the day with him, fell silent. Because it was very pretty indeed.
And after a quick look around, we left the monastery behind us and clambered down the hill to begin the walk.
We had scant details of the route but with an air of boy scoutishness about us, we crossed a gurgling river, climbed up a huge hill, found an ancient, neglected fortress and clambered over huge rocks that made me feel like Tarzan.
And then finally, after crossing an entire gorge and climbing up the other side, we reached what can only be described as a riot of flowers. A wild meadow of flowers, right up to our knees…
The flowers seemed to go on for miles and miles, as if multiplying in front of our eyes as they swayed in the wind. At first we tried to be careful not to tread on them but as they got thicker across the fields it became impossible not to.
After having a hearty skip through the daisies (well, Matty and the Mongoose that is) we reached a small village that had that reassuring smell of cow pat. What is it about cow pat and horse manure that instead of screwing up your nose in disgust as you do on train toilets, you simply fill your lungs with the stuff and sigh contently?
But it wasn’t just the smell, there was something else… a sound. A sound not dissimilar to that of the Mongoose tucking into a medium rare steak, I might add. As the boys walked on ahead I peered over a fence on my tip toes, to find something that made me positively squeal with delight.
And then, just when I thought my discovery couldn’t get any better, I looked to my right and chanced upon two baby calves. Just sitting there all doe eyed with their gangly little legs tucked under them.
By now the squealing and frantic photography had reached a great crescendo and a bemused woman stepped out of her house, confused to see an excitable blonde girl cooing over her calves.
“Awwww, look at the little runt,” I cried in sympathy, pointing at the little brown piglet that attached himself to his mum too late for a decent position, still trying to get some milk from here teats after the others had long sucked her dry.
The woman smiled at me, she understood. She opened the pen gate and the little runt came flying out, oinking squeakily as he scattered across the road as if still a little uncertain on his legs. The woman ushered me into the driveway of her home and starting filling a little saucer of milk, which the little piglet scampered up to and started lapping up.
I wanted to stroke him, but I’m not sure if it’s socially acceptable to stroke pigs in rural Armenia so instead I just continued to coo in excitement. The woman, by now probably thinking she had stumbled across some mad city folk that did not get out much, asked us if we would like a coffee.
I jumped at the opportunity (it had got to the point where I probably couldn’t hang out with the animals for much longer without getting to know their owner) and the Mongoose had that caffeine haunted look in his eyes.
She led us through a door into a small room that seemed to be the living room, bedroom and kitchen in one. She pointed on the bed for us to sit on, while she poured ground coffee and water into a small pan, which she then placed on a single gas ring in the middle of the room.
Sweet, soft bread was torn into pieces and placed on a plate on the table pushed against the back wall, which we ate with strong, soft sheep’s cheese, which was probably produced by a neighbour down the road. (I made a mental note to find the sheep before we left.)
She spoke no English but we communicated in pidgin Russian, body language and smiles. We did not need a common language to understand that she was kind, had nothing but offered us everything, and for her to understand that we were very, very grateful. As we bid our farewells, she pulled me in, held me tightly and gave me a big kiss on the cheek.
It was splendid. One of those rare days that grabs all your wishes in one big bag, as crazy as they may seem, and just dumps it on you. But as we started walking home, just when I thought they’d all come true, we heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on a stony path and saw the crooked stick of a smiling cow herder…
Where to stay in Debed Canyon?
We stayed at Iris guesthouse, run by the lovely Irina Israyelyan and her husband. The accommodation is exceptional – the three of us were given two bedrooms and a huge adjoining lounge with two balconies overlooking the lush, green valley.
The couple were extremely attentive, cooked delicious meals for us each evening and on our last morning with them, Irina even baked us a beautiful cake that was deliciously syrupy. We were quite spoilt.
A room costs 8,000 Dram per night including breakfast, plus 3,000 (a total of about £17). You can call Irina on +374 (253)23839 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org