This afternoon, everything was dark and humid all along this Armenian valley, and in the monastery of Haghpat, paved with tombstones, everything was even darker and more humid.
The taxi parked below in a small square. Nobody came to see us. True, there was a woman sitting in a folding chair at the entrance of the main church, but she also fled when she saw me.
Somewhat later, in Sanahin, in the dusk of the other side of the valley, another woman, coming from I don’t know where, stopped me: “Девушка!” She stopped to offer me a pansy, a bunch of small purple flowers, with all their roots. She remembere two words of her French learned decades earlier, when Armenia still belonged to a different world. “Bonjour camarade!”
Who has ever called me “comrade” where I come from?
As elsewhere in the Caucasus, these ancient villages were built on the hills overlooking the valleys, which remained desert until the late 18th century.
Odzun, Haghpat and Sanahin thus extended for at least a millennium on the jagged plateaus above the town of Alaverdi, both close to one another in a straight line and separated by hours of walking through a series of valleys cut deep by the rivers running in them.
Alaverdi, down there, was like a foreign land.
All the towns in these valleys belong to another world than the villages of the heights: they were industrial towns born in the late 18th century, or in the 19th, or even later, during the USSR; rich, active and populous towns – today all ruined cities.
The marshrutka of Yerevan, a filthy wreck, abandoned us in the morning in Vanadzor, the former Kirovakan, somewhere between the huge chemical complexes surrounding the city. The taxi, with which we went further, was driven by an Armenian from Rostov-on-Don, a school bus driver in retirement, living by traveling back and forth between Russia and Armenia. He drove us from Vanadzor through the valley to Alaverdi, another devastated industrial city, whose abandonment left behind a valley covered with the dust of copper.
A valley like an oppressive corridor: the valley follows the river, the road follows the valley, the railway follows the road, and nothing can come out of the valley without climbing the rocks.
In Alaverdi we had lunch near a petrol station just before the bridge, a simple wooden shack with one single table, a large painting representing Mount Ararat, and a somewhat withdrawn young mistress with bleached hair, who, thrilled by our arrival, brought us to taste everything she had.
At one point, she called me to the back of her booth, inviting me to step out on the balcony overlooking the river. With a broad movement of the arm, she offered me the scenery: what she loved above all in this place, she said, was the beauty of the landscape – everything is so beautiful here, the mountain, the river down there, the trees…
And I wanted so much that this beauty be accessible to me, too. That I could also see the beauty of this place, of this canyon, which at that time was the scariest place I had ever met: the jagged rocks here and there covered with reddened snow, the water below us, made brown by the mud of the copper as an unhealthy paste, the trees, still leafless, but loaded with hundreds of multicolored plastic bags, and the cavernous walls of the factories and buildings – all enveloped in one question: is this the way people live?
I told her: yes, spring is coming, and I went back.
The railway in the valley goes from Yerevan to Moscow. In the train Moscow-Yerevan, which in 1991 is crossing a disintegrating country, Artavazd Pelechian is filming the faces with a handheld camera. Faces of men and women, children’s faces, faces that are vivid, faces falling asleep, each taken in the scroll of a trip, where the horizon appears but in fragments. Pelechian, born in 1938 in Leninakan, in Soviet Armenia, is a director of film essays, a documentary filmmaker, and a film theorist. His films are mostly short or medium-length, almost silent, even if sound has a central place in them.
Artavazd Pelechian, The end (Конец), 35mm film, black and white, 8 minutes, 1992.
The railway is not abandoned, still there pass some trains on it every day – but now it lives another life. The valley is not yet abandoned either, but it is sleeping, it is being extinguished. Many have left it for far away places.
Then leaving the valley, heading up, leaving everything behind. Leaving the railway, the road, the towns, the factories, the rust, the crumbling cement, the debris, the dirty snow.
Up into the wood.
Toward the villages.
Toward all that opens its doors to the passer-by, the traveler, the wanderer.
Toward the memory.
Spring will certainly come.