We had an early start on day 2, as we headed up an ancient trail climbing above Rock-Hewn Martirosants towards the Martiros Waterfall. It was a wide trail, enough to possibly be a caravan route. Climbing up this side valley in Vayots Dzor, looking beyond the faraway mountain passes on the horizon, we couldn’t help imagine where this route could have once taken us, further south along …the Silk Road? One of the Silk Roads? I guess it was the terrain that was, somehow, speaking to us.

The trail itself was beautiful, and it’s now been renovated to be passable once again, but the most striking thing was that we could feel the history and the significance of the route; if for no other reason, because the sheer amount of work evidently required to carve its way up this rocky valley was itself a statement of its importance. And so I couldn’t help but imagining us among a caravan of mules climbing their way to exotic markets, colorful merchants venturing out looking for fortunes and the comfort of the next caravanserai, loaded with all sort of paraphernalia. It was a fun scene.

A possible ancient Silk Road route?
A possible ancient Silk Road route?

Upon reaching Martiros waterfall, after the obligatory refreshing plunge in a pond just above it, a little deeper upstream in the Gomeri gorge, we didn’t have a marked trail to follow, so we agreed to launch into unmarked territory. We discussed with Tsovinar, as she was nominated map navigator for the day, and as we finally spotted the trail continuing up on the other side of the river, we went off-piste. There was a hint of that trail on the map, passing along some ruins, but it abruptly ends in a place where the terrain seemed to flatten up. There is also a jeep track mapped around 40 meters above that point, so we thought we would be able to find it. If it existed.

As soon as we reached those ruins, we noticed there where actually more of them hiding in the overgrown grassland, that we weren’t able to see before on satellite imagery. The trail wasn’t easy to follow at this point so we headed to what looked on the map to be the only opening in the towering cliffs that were standing on our left. Heading almost straight towards it, we gained enough elevation to see now, while looking back at the ruins, the faint line of could have been the trail, with a few switch-backs climbing gently to where we were now standing. It seemed obvious to consider this the continuation of that route connecting to the waterfall, especially because of the ruined settlement, and also because of the presence of more giant retaining walls, now visible on trail through those cliffs that could now see above us. I guess that must have been a bridge too right where we crossed the stream, but where is it now?

Ruins from the top of the cliffs

One thing now was sure, that trail on the map would require more definition, and I wonder why nobody has decided to come this way before… it was certainly good for our sense of discovering, but better data would give us an easier path to follow. Just maybe less fun than what we instead had while guessing our way up until we found it.

At the top, that trail did end abruptly as told by the map, vanishing into an open field. I guess no more work felt required by those ancient route builders, as walking across open flat lands is easier than carving a trail? And again, we did find that jeep track above (the first time I came up here through a different route, we missed it somehow) and it was exactly where you would expect it to be, at the foot of the next hill, crossing a ravine at the point where it was shallower.

The trail vanishes

This had become the theme of the day: with no marked trails, but a topographic map in hand, you end up looking for your surroundings more attentively; you kind of start to think as a trail builder, or an animal for that matter, looking for the more natural routes, smooth passages through the landscape to get you to or through natural points of interest around you (water, opening in vertical cliffs, fords, etc.). This landscape reading started to become really fun. To an expert natural navigator, it must look all quite obvious: things are where they are for good reason, so if you look in the right place, you end up finding them. It wasn’t always obvious to me, but once you start getting it, even just a little, it feels so empowering!

The talking landscape

I guess that was my main takeaway for that day: there is a trade-off between the immediateness of a GPS reading and the connection with the landscape that a paper topographic map will encourage. It’s not a matter of which one is better, as I’ll explore a bit more in the next post, but rather, a choice we can consciously make.

Do I want to better understand my place in this scenery I am currently immerse, or am I press for time and just want to locate myself? Both methods can, and will, fail, but, if fun and satisfaction is what you are after, learning to read a paper map in relationship with the space around is certainly a good idea, and I’m thankful that this trip has reminded me of that.

PS: we actually found more ancient unmapped trails along this valley, high up above the pass we were heading towards. Unfortunately we had to stop following it, calling an end to our detective work in favour of a speedy descent towards a late lunch and fresh water to set up camp near it. It seems like I’ll need to make arrangements to go back there once again. What a shame.

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