It’s early in the morning. The rays of the rising sun peek through the window of my Landrover’s roof-tent. Far in the distance I can make out the sounds of sheep, cows and their herders screaming at them. Did they go in a different direction to what I expected last evening? I parked my car on the outskirts of the village, hoping that the parade to the pastures would go right past it.
I decided to fly the Mavic anyway. Off towards the village. Two blue Soviet trucks on the road and a cloud of dust. Wait… there are sheep. Many of them. They are going my way. I was lucky enough to wake up in time to take advantage of the situation and to make some photos.
For whatever reason I’ve had this fascination with animal herders almost since I started travel photography. Many of them are nomadic or semi-nomadic, like me. We cross paths often. The herders of Armenia, are not nomadic, but I still do cross paths with them a lot too. The sight of large herds moving through spectacular landscapes is always pretty special.
The wonders of technology. With this drone shot, you can see my car amidst all the animals. Cows in the front and to the left of the Landrover come the sheep. I flew the drone for a while taking photos, shooting video from various directions. You can watch the video by clicking the first photo, at the top of the page.
So, a beautiful morning. What I thought was a failed plan, ultimately going exactly to plan. A bunch of drone shots of something I’ve been wanting to shoot for a while. Not a bad way to start the day. It would turn out to be the best day of my Armenia trip, from a travel photographer’s perspective.
Tanya and Mia woke up soon after the animals and the herders left. We headed towards the next destination – Noratus, an ancient cemetery full of Khachkars (grave stones). On the way I stopped to look at some of the houses in the village. They were different to anything I had seen. Very traditional.
A local man noticed that I was curious and stopped. I asked him how old the houses were. His land had three different structures on it. One house was built by his father in the 50s. This is where the whole family lived now. The oldest building was at least 100 years old. It was now housing a small shrine. People came there to pray on Sundays, because there is no church in the village.
The third building was under constructions. The man’s son would move there upon completion. The man’s name was Martik. He was the third person I met who was named after the month he was born in. Martik - because he was born in March.
Martik was shy, but very hospitable. As he answered my questions, he saw my curiosity grow. He invited me to see inside his property. First the shrine. Then he asked “Do you know what this is?” pointing down at the floor. Below was a traditional tandoor oven. It was made by his father and was still used to cook delicious food. Martik asked his son to help him lift a small furnace to show me what the oven looked like on the inside.
I wanted Tanya to see the house. When she came out of the car with my 3.5-year-old daughter Mia, we were immediately invited for tea. Armenians, like Georgians adore children and they can’t miss an opportunity to invite a family to the table. Tea in Armenia is generally not just tea. It’s often accompanied by cheese, jam and lavash bread. Soon Martik's wife and daughter-in-law were covering the table with food and we were talking to the family like old friends.
Martik and Ema were wonderful hosts. It’s an incredible privilege to have traveled to so many places and to have experienced the warmth and hospitality of strangers. Time and time again I see people with very little, offering whatever they have to their guests. In this case things were about to go even further. Our hosts noticed Mia’s fascination with a giant, stuffed teddy bear in their lounge room. Before we left, Ema brought out the giant beast as a present to Mia.
The only way to convince Ema and Martik that we could not accept the gift was to show them the inside of our car. We barely had space for our necessities. There was nowhere to fit the giant bear. We thanked the hosts profusely and promised to come back if we'd go past this way again.
Further along the road to Noratus we bought some vegetables by the roadside, a very usual thing in Armenia. The produce in these parts of the world is amazing. It will be hard to adapt to the over-priced and almost tasteless veggies in the supermarkets of Australia.
Closer to Noratus we met Ashot (above). He sells smoked fish by the roadside between Lake Sevan and Noratus. When I saw that sparkling silver shirt and that car. I had to stop. I got out and said "I love your setup here. Can I take some photos?"
"This car is a beast!" replied Ashot. "It's not registered, but I only use it to get from the village to this highway to sell the fish. The police don't bother me."
Ashot is 68. He doesn't see well, hence the sunglasses. He told me that a few years ago Armenia's currency collapsed and his pension became equivalent to the cost of three fish. He started to subsidise his “income”.
I asked if he had crayfish. He didn’t, but we spoke for a while. Ashot asked me about my car. I told him where I came from and some of my travel stories. He was genuinely fascinated. “What an interesting fellow you are.”
Ashot talked about his life. As seems to be the case with everyone over 50, he said it was much better during the days of USSR.
“What about the government wanting to ban net fishing?” I asked. “They’ve done it, time and time again. They can’t touch our village. You know what will happen if they do? This road will be shutdown. How else can we survive here, if not for fishing?”
Ashot packed me four smoked fish into a bag and said “Here, take this. From me.” I was very thankful for the gesture. “Let me pay you something.” I said. “No. No. I don’t need your money. This is from me. Enjoy!” replied Ashot.
We finally made it to the Khachkars at sunset. An elderly lady quickly highjacked us and started acting as the guide to the cemetery. I hate when people force their services upon me; but what was I to do with a talkative grandma?
Mia seemed to enjoy the stories about what was depicted on the Khachkars, so I left her and Tanya with the talkative grandma and explored a little on my own.
We hung around for a while, but before the sun would descend completely, I wanted to make it to one more place.
Ashot, the smoked fish seller gave me one great tip. I asked him if I could find fishermen going out or coming back with fish anywhere along the lake. He said that indeed there was such a place. It was nearby. In fact, there was a small resort there. The resort owner organised all the fishermen and bought whatever amount of fish they brought in from the lake to resell it.
Off we went to the resort, which was really just a few huts and shaded space for camping. The lake was calm, the water was warm. I took a dip.
The fishermen would come back from the lake at night. Close to 12 am, I was told. Their cars would wait for them on the shore. A fleet of Soviet cars of different colours.
The boats came out of the dark. No light, except for the head-torches and in some cases, a car's headlights.
There were different characters amongst these fishermen. The first group that came out was extremely friendly. They greeted a stranger with a camera appearing from darkness with "Go get a bag. Take some fish!"
They had a driver who took some of the fish to sell to another place. He was a crude man who asked me if I brought some women from Belarus. "What's wrong with your ones?" I asked. "We don't get any from them!" Was his reply. I joked that perhaps the matter was not the women, but that he was doing something wrong. The fishermen laughed. "You won't find a character like this one!"
The lake got rough and suddenly bringing a boat out on shore became a difficult task. When it was finally hooked to the UAZ, there were more troubles. The eager driver put too much power into it and the vehicle was now stuck in the sand.
Another UAZ came to pull out the first car from the sand, along with the boat attached to it. Eventually everything was sorted.
Roma (above right) was one of the last fishermen to come back to shore. “So, how do the photos turn out in this darkness?" Asked Roma. “Let me take one of you and I’ll show you.” I replied. His friend peaked into the camera, as if the answer to Roma's question would be revealed by looking into the lens.
“I lived in Russia for a few years. Then came back, to this old job. It’s not a nine-to-five. The lake is our office. A very dangerous office. If there’s a storm, you’re screwed. It's a pity that I didn't meet you before. I would have invited you onto the boat.”
I told Roma that I was amazed by the amount of still functioning Soviet cars in Armenia. "You take care of the car and it will take care of you." Said Roma before he drove off into darkness.
It was after 12 am. All the boats had returned. Tanya and Mia were long asleep in the car. As I lay in the roof tent I reflected on the day. A morning amongst sheep and cows in the mountains, a visit to a local family, fascinating characters along the road, the Khachkars... This was one action packed day. A perfect day for a travel photographer.