By Talin Muriel Clark
Having always lived in big cities, I make a point of spending my holidays walking in nature away from noise and air pollution as well as from crowded urban environments. In 2018, I chose the Armenian highlands in the South Caucasus as my multi-day trekking destination. This wasn’t entirely coincidental as I am a diaspora Armenian with ancestors who lived in the mountainous villages of Eastern Turkey. Therefore, mountains and their communities feel in many ways like home to me. Last June, my eldest son and I set off with a group of hikers for a guided fundraising trek in Dilijan National Park organized by the Transcaucasian Trail NGO of Armenia.
Although I have previously been to Armenia, I never before explored it in such a rewarding way. As I began to discover the wonders of Dilijan National Park’s ecosystem, I was breath taken by lush forested areas opening on carpets of meadow flowers inhabited by countless buzzing bees. Following the gentle mountain slopes, we made our way to soothing highland lakes and stared in awe at the proudly standing rock formations cut by magnificent waterfalls. Beyond the beautifully pristine environment, we met many welcoming farmers and villagers, eager to share a drink or a shelter or enjoy a chat about life, food and landscapes.
It was during one of these encounters, in the remote village of Khachardzan, surrounded by lush and forested highlands, that the mayor showed us the newly built school, educating about 60 children from 6 to 16 years old, entirely funded by an Argentinian-Armenian. In a context where villagers live mostly on subsistence farming with little access to basic commodities, minimal governmental help, and no job prospects, this school represents a step towards sustainable development, hope for a better future, and a strong sense of community. However, this village is far from representing a common social model in Armenia. After 27 years of successive corrupted governments, a mass economic migration combined with an extremely low birth rate, the country is struggling to provide decent welfare to a population which values family religiously.
Khachardzan was literally a breath of fresh air with their constructive use of private donations for the benefit of all their community. Over a delicious home-grown meal, I found out that the village school had no library books! I came to realize that just as the wildflower meadows of the Tavush mountains provide food and shelter to large bee populations, story books could provide food for thought to the young minds of this village.
I returned home, my head full of mesmerizing landscapes, wildlife experiences and a strong sense of harmony with nature transmitted through discussions with villagers of all ages. While local communities live through many hardships, they are eager to share their food and homes. Almost like a genetic attribute, Armenians consider guests like a gift of God and care for them to a great extent. Inspired by their lifestyle, I decided to fulfill the mayor’s wish for books for his village school. With the invaluable help of my hiking guide, Ashot, I started planning the book donation as a tribute to these newly forged connections.
Back in Yerevan in September, I wandered around the busy and well-stocked bookshops of the capital on a mission to select Eastern Armenian extra-curricular books that would fulfill an interest or simply tickle the imagination. Thanks to the bookshop assistants’ careful help, I gathered about 60 books from translated modern novels to Armenian historical stories and from informative and illustrated books to classical tales. In addition, the amazing team at Hike Armenia’s one-stop hiking information centre in Yerevan, introduced me to Laurie, an American-Armenian librarian specialist who has dedicated herself to implementing the Little Free Library concept of raising literacy levels by sharing books freely through wooden boxes dotted around cities and towns. With her inspiring experience, Laurie was extremely helpful in getting the details of the book donation right.
Finally, the day came to deliver the books to the village school of Khachardzan. In September, the forested area of Tavush enjoys the warm autumnal sun coloring the landscape in shades of yellow and orange. It’s in this hospitable environment that I returned to the village, to be welcomed by the whole school including teachers, the headmaster, the mayor, parents, and children. I felt very privileged to help this community, because schools in remote villages don’t have access to community libraries. And unfortunately, the Armenian internet hasn’t yet developed children’s e-books in Eastern Armenian. I strongly believe that fulfilling the wish the mayor had presented me with a few months before was worth my time and efforts. And this was confirmed when I saw the illuminated faces of the children when presented with the books. Only then did I understand that reading would enable these children to discover the world, experience, understand, and debate ideas as well as create imaginative worlds.
Just like I connected with these pristine highlands and its guardians, the children reading those school library books will make their own connections through their beautiful language.
Finally, whether you are a hiker with a cause or one looking for an authentic experience, I can wholeheartedly recommend Armenia. Whatever your ability and whether you are a family, a group or a solo traveller, you are in for a treat in the welcoming nature of Dilijan National Park and beyond!