I recently had the opportunity to take a wonderful horseback riding tour through Khosrov Forest State Reserve. In my capacity as National Coordinator for CNF, most of my visits to Armenia’s protected areas are work related and thus, this was a special opportunity to see the park through the eyes of a tourist.
Every time I go to the reserve, I find new and amazing pieces of heritage in this cultural gem. In a mere 24 000 ha, one can discover one third (1849 species) of the flora accounted for in the entire Caucasus eco-region. Of these high vascular plants, 24 are endemic and 11 IUCN Red List registered. Khosrov is also home to many endangered and rare animals, such as the Caucasian leopard, bezoar goat, brown bear, and black vulture. In addition to this richness, the architectural landscape abounds with ancient monasteries, khachkars (cross stones), castles and other historical monuments, not to mention picturesque vistas, waterfalls and rock formations.
On this day in mid-April, the weather is fine, even though rain fell for a brief moment. It isn’t hot; clouds cover the sky. The length of the trail is about 20 km. It is quite an easy route, not too steep and rather wide for riding parallel with two riders. The path varies between being grass covered and open dusty trail. It crosses forest, meadows, rocky landscapes, and rivers. As it is spring, all the surrounding mountains are covered with just “born” plants and flowers, trees covered by new leaves. Fresh air, running mountain rivers, birds flying everywhere – after the city buzz of Yerevan, it feels as if I am in paradise.
The tour starts from the town of Garni. The reserve’s natural border, the Goght River, has created a stunning gorge with its famous cliff walls of well-preserved basalt columns, known as the “Symphony of Stones.” These ancient formations originated from volcanic eruptions, which eventually solidified, shrunk and formed these natural ‘organ-pipe’ shapes over long periods of time. Absolutely incredible!
Our first stop is near the ruins of the 13th century Aghjots Monastery complex. This is the only section where the path is too narrow and it is better to walk than ride the 100-150m to the ruin. The walls of the monastery are covered with amazing cross-stones, decorative carvings, and numerous inscriptions about the history of the church .
Shortly after the church, we find two cascading waterfalls named after the ancient Armenian gods, Astghik and Vahagn. Vahagn was the god of fire and war. According to legend, he was fighting against the Vishaps (Dragon), earning him the title of Vishapakagh (Dragon Reaper) . His wife or lover was Astghik, the goddess of love, maidenly beauty, and water sources and springs .
There is a nice spring near the waterfall where we stop and eat a light lunch near the river. I am in the habit of bringing only fresh vegetables and fruits on an eco-tour, and would not think to bring plastics, alcohol, or even juice. With several springs along the route, it is not even necessary to bring water, just an empty canteen.
The last part of the tour is mainly on open roads in the canyon of the Azat River, which is one of the main rivers of the region. We pass through majestic landscapes, full of red and grey rocks, the habitat of the bezoar goats.
I had hoped to see these goats or another rare animal during the tour, but this time we find footprints and bear scat, as well as sight a few vultures and eagles searching for prey.
Our visit to Khosrov lasted only 4 hours. Yet even in such a short stay, I can say it was one of the most wonderful days of my life. I can’t wait until my next opportunity to explore yet another part of the reserve.
Arman Vermishyan is the National Coordinator for CNF in Armenia.