Hanging out with cowboys under a volcanic crater

Exploring the unknown is exhilarating. Anybody with even a slight sense of adventure relishes the chance to get off the beaten track. Away from the masses, from the censored, postcard reality. 

I wish that more of the special places were off the radar for the tourist buses and the souvenir sellers. 

I’m obsessed with getting off the beaten track. That’s the main reason why I travel by car whenever possible. I don’t have anything against mass tourism as such. It’s great to be in comfortable hotels. To eat in amazing restaurants. But, I wish that more of the special places were off the radar for the tourist buses and the souvenir sellers. 

Armenia’s tourism industry is still in its’ infancy, relatively speaking. Despite some big tourist attractions, it’s fairly easy to get off the beaten track here. That was a big reason behind why I wanted to visit. 

I didn’t have any concrete plans for where we would go in this country. I got a guidebook (the Bradt version is great for the more independent-minded traveler) and looked at places on Google Maps. 

One day, while studying a route I wanted to take, I noticed a mountain - Vayots Sar. It wasn’t very far from a famous monastery, but still far enough to bet that hardly anyone goes there. After clicking on the mountain I saw a few photos. It was actually an extinct volcano. A crater. Looked fascinating. No drone shots of it. Let’s go! I thought. 

I drove up the twisting mountain road. The setting sun and a landscape of jagged mountains made for spectacular views. Then, out of nowhere – a movie-like scene. A man in a cowboy hat atop a horse. He was backlit against the mountains. Amazing. I stopped, got out of the car and began shooting. Before I got anything decent, the man got off the horse. 

I waved to him and asked if I can take some photos. “Don’t mind me, get back on that horse.” As he came closer I saw that he was young. Twenty years old, he told me. I guess what seemed awesome to me was very uncool to a rural youngster. I explained that I was a photographer. That this isn’t as weird as he thinks. He just wouldn't get back on top of that horse. The man was fine with a portrait, making sure to note that there are much more interesting people up ahead. 

Then, I was gifted another chance. A Volga (Soviet car) stopped right next to us. A couple inside the car asked if the young man saw their family, who were staying further up with their cattle. There it was: A young man with his transport – a horse. A couple with their transport – a Volga from Soviet times, with a big cage on a home-made roof rack. They were chatting casually. A scene of rural Armenia. Totally normal here, but somewhat absurd to a westernised foreigner like me. 

Further up the road I met Stepan with his wife and daughter. His huge shepherd dog came running at me, eager for some action. Thankfully Stepan stopped him in time. What followed was a preview of the incredible hospitality of the people of this region. Coffee, biscuits, candy for Mia. “I really love your car. I’ll give you USD 10,000 for it today if you want!” said Stepan. I politely declined, explaining that I still had a long way to go on my journey. “Please come back and sell it to me.” Replied Stepan with a wide smile. 

The green van you see, belonged to the military during Soviet times. Stepan bought it and made it into a small, movable house. He occasionally stays in it while his cattle graze in the mountain pastures. It turned out that the entire village below sends their animals to the mountains to feed on juicy grass. The season lasts for 8 months. The area used to have many families living with their herds during that period of time. That number has fallen dramatically. Fewer youth are interested in the business of milk and cheese making.

The sun had just set when we arrived at the foot of the volcano. It was too late to get decent drone shots. What I didn’t expect to see right there was a shepherd settlement.

As I stopped the car, a couple of surprised women came to greet us. They were happy for us to camp overnight. Soon we heard the sound of cows coming back. They had been grazing some distance away and the men were now herding them into their enclosures. 

I woke up early the next morning. The sky was clear. The light golden. I was able to enjoy the stunning views of the area. Click the video above to see the landscape come alive.

Crevices and formations as seen from about 500 metres (1640 feet) above ground. The shepherds were absolutely fascinated by the drone. “How far can it go? That far? Can you fly it over there? That’s my uncle’s camp. Let’s see what they’re doing.” 

I can see the importance of strict regulations if guys like them get their hands on a drone. The shepherds asked me to fly as close as possible to their family members. Hysterical laughter followed the stunned and confused expressions of their relatives, which could be barely made out on the iPad screen.  Thankfully they’re not big on guns here or there wouldn’t be anything left of my drone.

As the sun started to rise, the shepherds began moving the animals. “Just be careful with this bull. He’s how do you say it – Fucked in the head.” Said one of the guys, proud that he remembered the phrase in Russian. 

I walked with the shepherds for while, trying to avoid the mad bull. Every now and then he’d start to look like he wanted to charge me and one of the shepherds would shout and run to stop him.

This is Anahi, or Anya as she introduced herself to us in Russian. Her family owned most of the cows under the crater. She couldn't manage all of them, so they hired a couple from another village to help. The man herded the cows. The woman helped milking them, made cheese and collected cow dung.

Anahi is one of the warmest, kindest women we've met on our journeys. Despite her pretty hard life and so much time away from her children, Anahi was always upbeat. She instantly bonded with Tanya and Mia. Mia reminded her of her grandchildren and Anahi always wanted to play with her. 

Her hospitality was overwhelming. Over our days at the shepherd settlement, Anahi fed us her delicious soup and treated us to something whenever we'd come to her hut to say hello. When Tanya asked if we could buy some milk and home-made cheese, Anahi refused to take any money. 

Being around the same place for a few days exposes you to little scenes you would not have noticed otherwise. This is one of those scenes. The chickens would walk around everywhere and one of the dogs always waited by Anahi's hut for leftovers. Sure, it's just a small nuance, but it's also a snippet of life that will serve as a reminder of my time at the shepherds' camp.

Midday is tea/coffee and rest time at the camp. The cattle are brought back and given water. In a couple of hours they’re taken out again. Here’s Arshaq, he's the shepherd who Anahi hired to help. Out of all the men at the camp, I communicated with him the most. He spoke the best Russian and was always in need of a drinking buddy (not coffee). 

Anahi's table was never empty. As I mentioned in my last post, Armenian hospitality is special. Even a cup of tea or coffee is never just that. The host will always put something else on the table. The syringe in the bottle is medicine for some of the cattle that got sick. 

A portrait of Behitar after he came back in the evening. Out of all the shepherds he was the one I interacted with the least. He didn't speak Russian and our interaction was limited to smiles. 

Rubén and Behitar catching one of the bulls to give it an injection. This was a standard procedure every morning and evening. I'm not exactly sure what the injection was for, but Arshaq told me the animals were getting sick because their water source had gotten dirty. 

Early in the morning and when the cows came back for the day Anahi would milk them. Much of the milk is processed to make cheese. Very delicious cheese. 

During the day Anahi herds the calfs. In-between the milking and the herding she does smaller chores and cooks. It was fascinating to hear about what the shepherds eat. They don’t buy anything apart from flower and things like salt and sugar. 

A completely self-sufficient diet. This is what it looks like. With some variations, it’s likely how my ancestors lived.

Everything is homegrown. Below the mountain, the families have gardens. There are pears, apricots and all the vegetables and spices for a complete and enjoyable diet. They don’t eat as much meat as the city folk. In a country with so many meat dishes, this was a little surprising. But then it made sense. The shepherds can’t afford to kill their own animals regularly. The meat that they do eat is rarely fresh. Once an animal is butchered, much of the meat is dried and used over a period of months. It can be fried or stewed. Anahi told us of a few dishes she makes. 

A completely self-sufficient diet. This is what it looks like. With some variations, it's likely how my ancestors lived. 

If you want to establish rapport, drinking alcohol is compulsory in these parts of the world. Archaq drank a lot. "Choose. Which one do you want?" Said Arshaq, showing me three different bottles of alcohol.

Over our short drinking session he ended up pouring me a shot from each of the three bottles. It was hard to get away. One has to have a bag of excuses to avoid getting absolutely trashed. Thankfully, I still needed to re-park my car. I said that more than four shots will make me incapable of carrying out the task, even in the open field with nothing to crash into. 

Tamara is Anahi's neighbour at the camp. She has far fewer cows. There used to be more, when her husband was around to help. Now he's having health issues and stays in the village.

Tamara's son, Manvel lives in Russia. He came to help his parents sell their produce. They needed to decide about the cows too. "I think we'll sell them all. My parents are too old now. It's sad. There used to be many families here. I have fond memories of this place as a child. They will all be gone soon." Said Manvel.

We’ve spent much of our time in Armenia in nature. In open spaces. It’s great for my daughter Mia. I think it’s great for any child to be able to run free. To breathe fresh air, to see things other than televisions and video games. 

Mia has been spoilt a lot by the ridiculously kind Armenians. Every family camping with their herd by the volcano came to offer her something. Fruits, candy, nuts. This region’s love for children is unlike most in the world. 

My Landrover and a few of the shepherd huts amidst the beautiful surroundings of Vayots Sar. Fond memories. I hope I will still see most of these families if I visit next year. Whether it's for better or worse that this way of life is disappearing depends on who you ask. I for one, feel lucky to have experienced it.