When I was a child, many of my classmates joined a mysterious organisation called the Scouts. They would return from weekends and evenings away with the most fabulous tales of camping out, cooking over fires, roaming the forests, building stuff out of wood, and generally having all sorts of excellent adventures in the great outdoors.
These alluring stories only heightened the sense that I was missing out on some kind of deeply awesome experience. Because my parents never sent me to join the Scouts. I asked them what it was. I mentioned that my friends went. I said it sounded fun. But I was never allowed to go. They always said it was ‘too much like the army’.
(I later discovered that it was actually because, as teachers, they’d heard one too many stories about dodgy Scoutmasters.)
There is a point to this tangential anecdote, and it came in the form of a surprising discovery we made while digging for information among Kapan’s local residents. We had uncovered tales of a hidden footpath in the mountains that apparently led from Vahanavank, a recently-restored 11th century monastery up a side valley in the gorge to the west of the city, to Baghaberd, a 5th century ruined fortress on a rocky promontory about 5km further down the gorge.
At present, however, people were using the main road along the bottom of the gorge to travel between the two historical sites. For the Transcaucasian Trail, our job was to uncover a wilderness route to make the same journey. And so began the latest stage of a project that is turning out to be as much about detective work as geographical exploration. I mean, seriously – imagine being told that there’s a man named Hamlet who lives in an 11th century monastery in the valley of 42 fortresses who can show you a secret footpath through the mountains. This is the stuff of storybooks!
Off we went to find Hamlet.
Upon arrival at Vahanavank monastery, however, he was nowhere to be found.
We asked around, but a nearby man who had just sacrificially beheaded a chicken and sprayed its blood up the wall told us that there were at least 40 Hamlets living nearby and that we would have to be more specific.
(I can’t believe I am writing this.)
Deciding to try our luck at finding the trail anyway, we plunged into the forest behind the monastery, following the faintest of singletrack trails on a traverse along the hillside. Overgrown with spring’s recent outburst of fresh foliage, and having only just stopped raining heavily, it was – as Karine put it – like ‘walking through a carwash’. Progress was slow, and we were soon drenched, but we pushed on regardless.
Then the undergrowth cleared, the beech canopy rose up above us – and the trail vanished.
While debating how to proceed, we were visited by seven piglets. By this point I wouldn’t have been surprised if one of them had got up on its hind legs and told us in a cut-glass English accent about a princess who needed rescuing from a nearby castle. That didn’t happen, sadly, but it did instil confidence that we hadn’t strayed too far from the path through the enchanted forest. And it wasn’t long before we found – via lots of slipping and sliding down the steep hillside – another trail going in more or less the right direction, which soon transformed into the very picture of forest-wandering idyll.
Our digital maps didn’t show the trail we were on – of course, part of our job here is to explore and map these uncharted trails – but they did indicate a tiny village of some kind up ahead. A jeep track crossed our path; we followed it; it eventually spat us out onto a tiny road. The village, it seemed, should be just round the bend to the right, so that’s the way we went – only to find a great pair of rusted metal gates blocking our path.
We peered at the ageing paint on these massive sheets of Soviet-forged steel, hanging on their massive hinges, clasped shut by a padlock clearly intended to remain closed permanently.
And we wriggled our way through the gap between the fence and the decrepit gatepost and descended down towards the village.
Then we realised that it wasn’t a village at all.
It was the abandoned remains of the Baghaberd chapter of The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation.
As Karine later mentioned, one could spend days – weeks – months here writing books or making films about the demise of the Baghaberd chapter of The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation.
For even more poignantly than any of the other Soviet-era ruins I’ve come across on my travels in Armenia and elsewhere, this former Pioneer camp – the Soviet equivalent of the Scouts (see, there’s my point!) – seemed to boil down the whole stew of sentiment that exists in the post-communist world… the audacity with which such edifices were built, as if time and progress had come to an end; the startling clarity of vision under whose influence such places arose; the sheer complexity of the government machinery that must have been needed to so comprehensively homogenise a full sixth of the Earth’s land surface across ten timezones…
And most poignantly of all, our ability to now see, to experience, to brush up against and run our hands over the concrete corpses of all this planning and structuring and idealism, wondering even as we wander among the remains just how it could have come to pass that nobody saw it coming or could do anything to stop it.
Our newest team member, Vahagn, is one of many children born in the Soviet era who has sharp memories of his time in the Pioneers – of the portraits of Father Lenin that were carefully chosen to match the ages of the troops for maximum empathy, of singing songs in celebration of his visionary leadership, of all the other ways in which the Pioneers were groomed to become loyal, state-serving followers of the Party.
But loyalties were abandoned along with camps like Baghaberd. Today, this is the kind of property that the Western mindset trains you to think of in terms of monetary value, of development potential, of what it could become with just a bit of work.
Nobody here thinks like that. If they did, this place would be back on its feet in some form or other. So would all the other abandoned edifices that decorate the roadsides and fields and valleys of post-Soviet Armenia.
Elsewhere, free-thinkers are actively seeking to do this – talk of an architects’ association converting an old factory in Armenia’s second-largest city, Vanadzor, into a creative community space for youth organisations, for example.
What this place really represented when we entered it yesterday was nothing more than a home and an occupation for one solitary old man. There are thousands like him, keeping edifices like this inhabited, doing the minimum necessary to make one little corner liveable for themselves while the foundations fail, the ceilings collapse, and all that value and potential slowly crumbles away.
For hikers of the Transcaucasian Trail, this would at the very least represent a place to pitch a tent, fill up with water, and wonder at – if the caretaker was amenable to it. For the caretaker, it might represent a tiny trickle of extra income to compensate for the years of unpaid salaries. For us, it’s a place to come back to and explore in more detail; to research and tell the story of in full – if we can find it.
There will doubtless be many more such stories to tell as we continue exploring the future route of the Transcaucasian Trail.