The province whose name means 'foot of Aragats' comprises the land around Mount Aragats, at 4,090m the highest mountain in the present-day republic. The province's geography is extremely varied and it is probably best thought of as being three separate zones: the mountain itself, arid steppe to the west, and the land bordering the gorge of the Kasagh River to the east. Each of these zones has its different attractions. Ashtarak ('Tower'), the provincial capital, is in the Kasagh Gorge in the southeast of the province and only 22km from Yerevan.
Mount Aragats has four separate peaks, the highest being the northernmost one at 4,090m. The four summits are situated around the rim of a volcanic crater, broken between the southern and eastern peaks by an outflowing stream. Any reasonably fit person can walk to the southern peak once the snow has melted, although it is always necessary to remember that even those accustomed to walking at home will take longer here unless they are acclimatised to the altitude. It is obviously essential to take the same precautions here as are necessary when ascending any mountain. Do not consider going without walking boots, compass, waterproofs, warm clothing and water.
Snow covers the top of the highest mountain in modern Armenia almost year-round, so climbing is best in July, August or September. Beware – even in August, clouds can gather in the crater by about 10am, so it’s good to start walking as early as possible. It’s not unusual for hikers to start on mountain ascents at 5am. The southernmost of its four peaks (3893m) is easy enough for inexperienced climbers, but the northern peak demands greater abilities.
The easiest approach is to take the road, often closed well into June, which ascends the southern slope of Aragats as far as the cosmic ray station situated by (artificial) Lake Kari at 3,190m. The cosmic ray station was inaugurated in 1943 to study astroparticle physics. According to the stations brochure, work currently concentrates on monitoring solar activity as well as on studying the physics of extensive air showers and measuring the incident flux of galactic cosmic rays. If you have your own sleeping bag, the scientists may be able to find a place for you to sleep. Hot water and clean bathrooms are available. Alternatively, there are camping places for those suitably equipped with a tent.
Visits to the observatory and cosmic ray station can be arranged. The original equipment included a 45cm Cassegrainian telescope (a reflecting telescope in which incident light is reflected from a large concave mirror onto a smaller convex mirror and then back through a hole in the concave mirror to form an image) and a 52cm Schmidt telescope (a reflecting telescope incorporating a camera and consisting of a thin convex glass plate at the centre of curvature of a spherical mirror which thus corrects for spherical aberration, coma and astigmatism). Radio telescopes were added in 1950. In 1960, a larger Schmidt telescope with a 102cm glass plate and 132cm mirror was installed and, in 1965, an important programme began looking for UV-excess galaxies. It continued for 15 years and achieved considerable international renown with 1,500 such galaxies being identified. (In 1968, the observatory was awarded the Order of Lenin.) A larger 2.6m telescope was installed in 1976 and a second survey was started which was also to achieve major international recognition. The object this time was to obtain baseline data for an ongoing survey of 600 quasars, emission-line and UV-excess galaxies although the detailed work ended up providing information about 3,000 varied objects. Since independence the 2.6m telescope has been refurbished and in 1998 the observatory was named in honour of Viktor Hambartsumian (1908-96), its founder in 1946, whose face used to be familiar to visitors because his picture appeared on the AMD 100 banknote until the note was replaced by a coin.
The road ends at the lake, and uphill the route is rocky and strewn with debris. There’s no path, but the peaks are visible so you basically slog it uphill. The northern summit can be reached in four to six hours.
From the end of the road it takes about two hours to walk up to the southern peak (3,879m) by heading for the northwest corner of the summit until a rough track is encountered which leads to the top. For those wishing to reach the highest point in Armenia it takes about four hours from the end of the road and should be attempted only by those accustomed to mountain walking. Because clouds often gather round the crater from mid morning, an early start is recommended to maximise the potential for spectacular views and to minimise the risk of becoming disorientated in cloud. Apart from the break between the southern and eastern summits the peaks are linked by high saddles and a ridge descends south from the southern peak.
The road to Lake Kari holds much of botanical interest. In early June, look out for Draba, Crocus adami, Scilla siberica, Pushkinia scilloides and the delightfully downy Ajuga orientalis. July and August see the alpine meadows in full flower.
Most visitors will rely on Yerevan for any facilities needed. Astarak is the only other sizeable place in the region although Aparan and Talin can supply most things. Larger villages will have a shop where basic supplies can be purchased and some petrol stations also have small shops attached.
Main roads have fuel stations, particularly plentiful between Yerevan and Agarak.
Getting There & Away - There is no public transport to Kari Lich. Hitchhikers usually take a bus to Byurakan and then try to thumb a lift, which is more likely on weekends. A better idea is to get a group together to climb the mountain and share the costs of a cab from Yerevan, Ashtarak or Byurakan.
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