Struggle in Paradise: A visit to “the best village in the world”

Struggle in Paradise: A visit to “the best village in the world”
23 July 2004

By Gayane Lazarian
ArmeniaNow reporter

Pink shades of sunset mix with the cyanic waters of Lake Sevan,
wrapping this world in azure gauze. Tireless white waves slap against
moss covered stones, breaking silence with the noise.

For 40 years, 70-year-old Knar has been leaning against rocks in her
yard and looking at the lake for hours, listening to new stories from
the endless waves. Her eyes are little lakes, but they are not calm,
as if they are looking for something that has gone.

Rest houses await new owners

“This lake has gone and never ran high again. Many years ago it would
reach that slope. My husband would sit on those stones and fish,” she
wistfully recalls.

Knar lives with her son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in
Ayrivank village of Gegharkunik Region. The entire village is located
on the ridge.

Big stone pieces that can be seen in different parts of the village
prove that once waters of Sevan used to reach here.

Knar points at the ridge located in front of her in the left side,
where Ayrivank monastery dated 10 th-12 th centuries proudly
stands. Crossing her face she says their village was named after the
monastery – “Ayrivank”.

Ayrivank church doesn’t function, however, villagers visit it, pray
there and light candles. Wedding and baptism ceremonies are carried
out there. But there are no clergymen.

“The important is that the monastery exists so we don’t need priests,”
says Knar laughing.

About 820 residents of Ayrivank share God above and the lake,
monastery and forest below. Yerevan is 190 kilometers away.

With the water level, the view of the lake changes. So, too, the
population of Ayrivank has receeded. Many of its able-bodied men have
gone abroad to find work and help their families from afar.

“But I will never leave the village even if there are the worst
conditions here,” says villager Anton Virabyan. “I cannot live without
this village, this lake. This is a completely different world.”

Ayrivank village was founded in 1922 when 13 families from neighboring
Noraduz village moved there. One year later eight more families joined

Head of the village Garnik Badoyan says his grandfather was one of the
first. This year residents are planning to build a khachkar next to
the spring located in the center of the village where they will
immortalize the names of founders.

Head of the village talks about newborns of the village with joy but
at the same time he recalls with regret those who left.

“People leave everything and leave the village. Mainly people of this
region go to Volgograd,” he says. There’s even a joke that Volgograd
is the capital of the region.

Despite its conditions, Ayrivank is better off than many villages in
the region. Roads of the village have been reconstructed, there is no
drinking water problem and the village is served with natural gas.

“The main problem of Ayrivank is the lack of irrigation water. We use
drinking water for irrigation,” Badoyan says. “Now we are working on
deep pits and we have already dug one. After some investments, a 700
meter-long water pipe-line will be constructed and it will be
connected to an internal network constructed during Soviet times. We
need financing. We wait for assistance from the government.”

Julieta Avetisyan, 40, is Knar’s daughter-in-law. She says majority of
villagers work for barter. They bring fruits and vegetables from other
regions and change them for cheese, matsun, milk and potatoes at a

Before, Julieta used to work with her neighbors at the Ayrivank Sewing
Factory, which no longer is functioning. Today she spends most of her
time in the forest collecting nuts.

“I go to the forest with children and Knar and we collect acorns until
it becomes dark,” Julieta says. “We sell one sack of nuts for 250-300
drams (about 50-60 cents) in Noraduz to those who prepare smoked
fish. They say fish smoked on nuts has better taste. At least we get

Many people in Ayrivank found work on the water.

Knar and family

One of the village’s teachers, 42-year-old Melania Manukyan says: “In
my house, windows face the lake. Every morning I count small ships
that appear in the lake and I become happy as people here live thanks
to that.”

She says soon fishermen she knows will bring fresh whitefish for her
guests from Yerevan. They sell fish on-site for 20-30 drams (about 4-6
cents) each.

Mainly people come and buy fish right from the village. They sell
crawfish, too, at 100 drams (about 20 cents) per kilo.

“We have a businessman in the village, who consigns crawfish to
Holland and France. The taste of Sevan crawfish is different,” says

Virabyan says trout was the real fish of their ancestors and before
trout there were beghlu and bakhtak which today have become
extinct. Nobody knows how whitefish appeared here.

“Trout is tasty when you make it in the tonir (stone oven),” he

“Usually people catch trout and whitefish with different seine nets
but sometimes trout is entrapped in seine nets designed for

Many villagers have placed tin cottages on the shore and rent them out
at about 4,000-5,000 drams (about $7.50-9.50) a night.

David, a 20-year old villager, uses his fishing boat for giving tours
of the lake. As he talks to a guest, he is also trying to start the
engine. He keeps talking, but the engine doesn’t.

“Sometimes it happens,” he says. “You should see how people become
nervous when it happens far away from the shore. But it is not a
problem as I have paddles and I return them rowing up towards the
shore and don’t take money from them if something like this happens.”

Visitors can also rent pedal boats for 2,000 drams an hour (about

They have no risk of engine failure.

The village has potential as a tourist destination. However, three
hotels, privatized since independence, sit empty or unfinished in

“They are all old Soviet constructions designed for 400 people and all
of them require investments. It is not possible to use them in such
conditions,” Badoyan says. “I, myself, look for investors, who will
make this business together with me. There was a time when these
hotels had been functioning for 25 years and in case they are reopened
people again will have work, which is the biggest problem today.”

Children of Ayrivank are unusually beautiful. They are fair-haired and
have blue eyes that shine from under long eyelashes. The sun has
perfectly painted their cheeks into a red-scarlet color. They look
bravely but are shy to talk with strangers.

Melania says there is nothing interesting for children in the village,
there is nothing for them to spend their time there. There are no
clubs, no kindergartens in Ayrivank; there is no cultural center

But 200 children attend the school in Ayrivank, including those who
come from neighboring Berdkunk village.

Healthcare in Ayrivank is a simple out-patient clinic constructed in

After years of decline, villagers now talk about water levels
rising. Some coast roads and trees are under water now. So there is
hope at least for nature to thrive, even while Ayrivank struggles.

Our village is the best village in the world,” Knar says. “I cannot
imagine there is a world outside this village. If one day I don’t see
Sevan then it will mean it’s time to die.”