After the Pushkin tunnel the road descends in a long series of zigzags to reach the town of Stepanavan (population - 14,000 people). There is a dramatic change of scenery as one emerges from the tunnel: gone are the bare stony hillsides and in their place are lush wooded ones. In early summer the fields as one descends are an amazing sight of yellows and reds with masses of buttercups and poppies. Stepanavan sits on a plateau above the steepsided gorge of the Dzoragets River, fabled for its fine summer weather and, less proudly today, as one of the centres of Armenian communism. The area has been a site of settlement for millennia, on fertile fields above the river.
Stepanavan is named in honour of Stepan Shahumian (1878-1918), an Armenian who was instrumental in imposing Bolshevik rule in Baku, Azerbaijan. Faced with an uprising he fled but was captured and executed by local anti-Bolsheviks, with some British involvement. The town is centred on the statue of Shahumian, near which can be found small shops, cafes, the museum, information centre and the bus station.
The town is quiet, but it’s a nice place for a wander (away from the usual monumental Soviet centre) and the locals are friendly. An early cell of the Bolsheviks led by local lad Stepan Shahumian operated from hideouts and caves before the revolution. Shahumian died in a lonely corner of the Turkmenistan desert with the other 26 ‘Baku Commissars’ in 1918, later sanctified in countless memorials across the region. (The Baku Commissars were Bolshevik leaders in the Caucasus in the early days of the revolution.) A rather dashing Shahumian poses on a pedestal in the main square, Stepan Shahumian Hraparak.
Stepanavan was badly hit in the 1988 earthquake, so about half of the town has been rebuilt. It is the first major town when entering Armenia from the north, although it is not very big and has very little industry today. Spitak was the epicenter of the 1988 earthquake. It also has had some buildings replaced, such as its hospital and its church. There is little left to the original town, where 4,000 people (about half the inhabitants at the time) were killed in the earthquake. Many of the people living there refused to leave, though, and lived the next few years in shipping containers. They have since built new housing.
Information - The best information centre outside Yerevan is located here in quiet Stepanavan. Several of the staff at the Stepanavan Information Centre speak English and are happy to answer questions or perhaps arrange a tour for you. They have maps and can organise accommodation at the info centre or elsewhere in town. Check the website for a free downloadable walking tour of the town. There are banks and shops exchanging money around the main square and the shuka. Taxis, buses and marshrutkas leave from the main square.
Sights - Stepanavan itself has a few places of minor interest. The Stepan Shahumian Museum (Stepan Shahumian Hraparak; working hours 11am-7pm) has an art gallery, plus displays on Stepanavan’s history, and – excitement, comrades – the life story of the martyred commissar. It’s completely built around the Shahumians’ home, preserved like a doll house in a giant box.The museum is labelled only in Armenian and no English is spoken. The house itself is of some interest, as is the model of the secret passage to the underground printing press where Shahumian printed communist leaflets. The Communist Caves (signposted on the left on the road south), where Shahumian and fellow revolutionaries met, can be visited. There is not much to see but the views of the Dzoraget Gorge are good.
On the north bank of the Dzoragets about 3km east of Stepanavan is the dramatically sited fortress Lori Berd (berd means fortress). The road from Stepanavan passes hillocks in the fields, which are actually Bronze Age tumulus tombs. The fort sits on a promontory between the gorges of the Dzoragets and Urut Rivers, with huge round towers and massive stone blocks along its exposed side. This was the capital of David Anhogin (949–1049) and later a local power base for the Orbelians and Zakarians, powerful families of Armenian nobles. There is a story that the Mongols captured the fortress after the defenders became distracted by alcohol. There is an ancient cemetery nearby and a 14th-century bridge in the gorge below. A taxi from Stepanavan takes about 15 minutes. From the fort it’s a good idea to walk back to Stepanavan along a 4.5km trail in the steepsided gorge. You can reach the trail from the north side of the fort.
The cool and tranquil 35-hectare Dendropark (admission free; daily May-Oct, Mon-Fri, rest of the year) is a botanical garden near Gyulagarak village, 11km from Stepanavan. Established in the 1930s, it has a vast array of conifers and deciduous trees. The park has been well maintained and the directors welcome visitors. It’s especially popular in May when locals with respiratory problems come to inhale the pollen (not recommended for allergy sufferers!). Cross the bridge in Gyulagarak and the park is about 2km away past the 6th-century Tormak Church. From the Dendropark, the road continues east for 8km to the village of Kurtan. At the gas station in Kurtan veer right, cross the bridge and travel another 7km to Hnevank monastery. The monastery stands inside the gorge on the southern side of the canyon, near the confluence of the Gargar and Dzoragets Rivers. It was founded in the 7th century but dates mostly from the 12th century. The monastery was being restored at the time of research and there were plans to build a restaurant on site. From here the road continues to the Vanadzor–Alaverdi highway. The Lori Plains stretch north of Stepanavan to the Georgian border, with a few mixed Armenian-Russian villages such as Saratovka and Privolnoye. The main road passes through the town of Tashir to the minor border post at Gogavan. On the Georgian side a decayed 77km road leads to Tbilisi. Another road (best tackled in summer) climbs to the west over the lonely mountains and meadows of the Khonav range to Shirak marz and Gyumri.
Getting There & Away - Marshrutkas for Yerevan (three hours) leave from the main square at 8am, 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm. There are four buses a day to Vanadzor at 8.30am, 10.30am, noon and 4pm. A daily bus goes to Tbilisi (12.30pm).
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