Each year Birthright Armenia plans several four-day excursion to Artsakh with its participants. This season’s group embarked on their journey at the beginning of May 2011. It was a fun-filled, informative, learning experience. The trip started out on a high note on our way there, with a bit of fresh, delicious herb filled bread for breakfast, with a beautiful view of mountains on the side of the road.
The ropeway to Tatev was next; it really got our blood pumping. A fifteen-minute pseudo-ski-lift took us to the Tatev Monastery. It is unfair to call this beautiful piece of land with varies architectural gems a mere monastery. Not only is the architecture beautiful, but so is the view. The rolling green mountains around the Tatevi Vank provided everyone with a perfect backdrop.
Churches are a common theme among Birthright Armenia Excursions. On Sunday morning, after breakfast with our host families we went on a tour of Shushi starting at the old Mosque. The fog was dense at 9:30am, between that and the overgrown grass, the Mosque looked a bit creepy, but in an enchanting way. After our tour guide enlightened us with the interesting facts about the Mosque we were on our way to meet with a local NGO, run by a young repat couple including a Birthright alumna. Next was our meeting with the Prime Minister of Artsakh! Ara Harutunyan was a wealth of information. He was eager to meet us, learn how each of us were helping Armenia and happy to answer all of our questions.
After a packed Sunday, it was nice to have a more relaxed Monday. We were lucky enough to experience the May 9 celebrations in Stepanakert. This is a very important day for Armenians. It is the day Shushi was liberated from Azerbaijan. After the celebrations we made our way to a close village for lunch with some locals. The local family we ate with was generous and welcoming. They invited us into their home, fed us until we were about to explode, then gave us dessert. We toasted to good health, the soldiers, and to our families.
After lots of eating and laughing we made our way to the Azokh Cave, filled with hundreds of bats. The hike up to the cave was long and steep, but definitely worth it. Entering the cave required everyone to crawl on their hands and knees eventually leading to an open area where bats swarmed around our heads. Exploring the cave further involved getting through a few more of the small tunnels. By the end we were all tired and muddy but excited to have had such an exhilarating experience.
Throughout the four days in Artsakh we had many opportunities to interact with the locals. Whoever said that food brings people together was a genius. For instance, we ate dinner with a few local men who were also vets from the Artsakh conflict. At all ends of the table, people were giving toasts, thanking the soldiers for their sacrifices, wishing health on our families, thanking Birthright Armenia for the wonderful opportunities they provide, and so much more. Between all of the meals we had with the locals, the toasts made us laugh, appreciate the soldiers and shed a few tears.