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Halifax resident travels the Silk Road

Recently while visiting the Caucasus Region I had the opportunity to travel to Armenia for the day. Armenia, a land locked country about the size of the state of Maryland, shares borders with Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran.

The primary language of its nearly three million residents is Armenian. Nearly one third of the population resides in Yerevan, the capital. Overall the country is highlands and mountains, with its highest elevation over 12,000 feet.

The majority of the country was deforested in the 1990s during the countries major energy crisis when the population scavenged for firewood.  In the year 301 AD Armenia became the first country in the world to establish Christianity as its state religion.

From Tbilisi the Armenian border was only about a two-hour drive by automobile.  After a light breakfast, my friends, George and Gela, picked me up at my hotel, and we headed south toward Armenia.

Before we knew it we had arrived at the border crossing, and I provided the Armenian Border Police with my American passport. The border policeman stated to enter Armenia I must pay 30,000 Armenian Drams. As I started handing over American dollars he told me the fee must be paid in Armenian Drams. Keep in mind I am at a small border crossing in the foothills of Armenia with no banks or businesses to be seen.

Just when I thought my visit to Armenia would be short lived the policeman pointed toward the side of the building and said “go there.”

Much to my surprise I found an ATM and money exchange machine. I took my $10 US, converted it to 30,000 Armenian Drams and paid the fee so I could legally enter Armenia.

As we crossed the border I was told that in order to say I had seen Armenia I must visit Lake Sevan, eat Ischan and drink genuine Armenian cognac.

As we continued our drive south into Armenia we were actually traveling on what is known as, “the most enduring trade route in human history,” the Silk Road. For more than 1,500 years, prized Chinese silk products made their way from Asia to the Middle East and Europe along the same route we were driving. Silk and other products were transported in large caravans which due to harsh conditions and numerous hazards slowly made their way from one town or oasis to the next.  We however had no hazards and were able to travel along the well-paved highway at over 50 miles per hour.

In 1991, Armenia, like other countries in the region split from Russia. This split resulted in the elimination of the large collective farms common in the Soviet Union to the present day small-scale agricultural operations now abundant in Armenia.

Surprisingly with over 46 percent of the Armenian labor force employed in agriculture only about 17 percent of its gross domestic product results from agriculture. The primary crops are fruits, especially grapes, along with vegetables and livestock.

We stopped and spoke with a farmer working on his tractor in front of his home. His Soviet manufactured tractor was over 30 years old, but he still used it every day for working his farm.

He told me his primary cash crop was “tobacco” and showed me his fields. His tobacco crop, though relatively small, would have rivaled anything seen growing here in Halifax County.

When he learned I was a farmer from Virginia he immediately invited us into his home to experience Armenian hospitality first hand. Though I was unable to accept his offer, we talked about his other crops which were vegetables and grapes, and it was apparent that Armenian farmers share many of the same farming challenges as those of us here in Virginia.

As we continued our journey, George and Gela decided we “must” continue on to Lake Sevan. I soon learned that Lake Sevan is the second largest high-altitude lake in the world. It is located solely within the borders of Armenia and takes up a whopping 5 percent of the entire country. In some places, it is almost 300 feet deep, and the lake surface is nearly one mile above sea level.

Still heading south we saw numerous roadside stands selling vegetables, grapes and boiled corn on the cob. The roadway continued to climb into the mountains and finally reached the summit where we could see a huge lake off in the distance.

About an hour later we reached the north shore of Lake Sevan.  The water was clear and in deeper sections of the lake it was a deep blue. The water was very cold, and several fishing boats could be seen about. Lake Sevan has several famous monasteries on its shores, and we visited one before heading out to find a local restaurant for a late lunch.

Several local people suggested a popular restaurant which was right along the shoreline. We were told we would be able to find the freshest Ischan in all of Armenia. Ischan,  also known as Sevan trout, is a species of lake trout found nowhere else in the world. They average about 3 pounds in size but some grow to near 30 pounds.

We ordered fresh pan fried Ischan, and it was absolutely delicious. After seeing Lake Sevan and eating Ischan, all I needed was some Armenian cognac so I could say I had truly visited Armenia.

With a simple request to our waiter, a bottle soon appeared, and after a drink or two with my friends, I can now say I have “seen” Armenia.