This village, home to Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, is a model for development for other communities in the country
alavan is a small village in the Gegharkunik region of Armenia. Formerly known as Amirkher, it was once densely populated by Azeris. At the start of the Karabakh conflict, its residents exchanged homes with Armenians from Azerbaijan. Kalavan has become known in recent years thanks to resident Robert Ghukasyan. He put together a 10-year plan to develop the village which is made up of different components – from organic farming to archaeological tourism. But the main thing Robert is offering both tourists and locals, is how to learn the art of enjoying life.
The first thing you’ll notice about Kalavan when you come here are the bad roads. The only way to get to the village is in an SUV. And this seems the best starting point for an interview with Robert Ghukasyan, founder of the educational foundation ‘Time Land’. He himself doesn’t see this as a problem – just the opposite in fact.
“The thing is, I think that we are too often focused on what we don’t have. We don’t have good roads, we don’t have many shops, etc. So, we decided that we need to either turn our weaknesses into advantages or not bring any attention to them at all,” he said.
Bad roads have become part of the allure of adventure tourism, and the lack of everyday comforts helps to really let you appreciate nature in all its beauty. But at 1 600 metres above sea level, nature isn’t all this village has to offer. Monuments from the stone age, caves and other archaeologically interesting sites make the village interesting for people with either a professional or just a passing interest in ancient history.
Robert has had a passion for archaeology for a long time. He mastered the subject, as he did with zoology, by teaching himself and then also by taking part in a series of international archaeological expeditions. But the feeling that he would be able to do something useful for the development of the village never left him. In 2013 along with some friends, Robert established the Time Land Foundation and just three years on you can see the first results. In 2016, 2 500 tourists visited the village, many of whom came ready with their own tents from countries as far and different as Chile and Israel. And, as Ghukasyan points out, they haven’t even put much effort into attracting tourists yet.
In September 2016 Robert gave a keynote speech on the project at the annual Adventure Travel World Summit in Alaska in front of over 800 delegates from 80 countries. The journey was so expensive it forced the family to sell their herd. But taking part meant Robert was able to make new contacts and gain important experience.
According to Robert’s vision, Kalavan could produce environmentally friendly agricultural products in addition to developing all sorts of tourism: adventure tourism, ecotourism as well as archaeological tours. Kalavan offers the opportunity to learn about all the animals and plants of Armenia. You can also try living like a local from the village: kindle a fire in a cave and build a hut in the same way our ancestors would have in the same place.
However, for there to be progress, it was essential to help locals set up guest houses. With this in mind the foundation took a break and expects tourists in 2018.
“People need to keep up with how the community is developing but we’re not quite there yet. Today we’re in a position to host a total of 17 people in 9 guest houses, when there is a demand for at least 60,” Robert admitted.
The foundation has also started looking for other competitive advantages among the locals. In Robert’s view, human resources mean not only work experience and education but also any hidden talents.
“Some locals believe that if they don’t have any higher education they can’t be useful. We started by demonstrating that they all had knowledge that was useful. Then we started looking for unique talents among them. For example, someone who knew all the plants in the local woods, someone who could recognise all the birds by their song, and so on,” explains Robert.
Samvel Yesayants is an example of someone with a very specific talent. On an old, colourful UAZ truck he takes tourists offroading. He says that despite Russian being his only foreign language, he still always manages to find a common language with them.
“I studied English at school, but if I’m honest I don’t speak it, yet somehow the tourists and I seem to understand each other. There’s a lot of them at the moment and every villager wants to make his home a guest house,” says Samvel.
Robert’s wife Asthik arranges cooking excursions in the woods. The idea came about after it became clear that local women are all very familiar with the plants, berries and fruits of the forest. Using what the forest has to offer, about 120 different meals can be prepared, each with their own story.
“We studied old recipes and spoke to old ladies about forgotten plants that used to be used in meals. It’s actually very healthy eating but importantly it also helps to make sure old recipes are passed on,” says Asthik Ghukasyan. Cooking in the forest has resulted in extra jobs for cooks, waiters and herbalists.
It wasn’t too long ago that the village of Kalavan was Azeri and known by the name Amirher. Muslims first moved into these areas at the beginning of the 19th century and in Soviet times the population reached 700. At the end of the 1980s when the conflict in Karabakh started the Azeris swapped their homes with refugees from Shamkhor (Shamkir), Kirovabad (Ganja), Sumgait, Barsum village and others. Today the population of Kalavan totals 113 people (26 families), most of whom were refugees. About 8 families moved here in recent years.
Robert’s own family are refugees from Sumgait. His parents moved there from the town of Chartar in the Martuninskiy region of Nagorny Karabakh to look for work. In time, they were able to establish themselves and that’s where Robert was born. After a few years of waiting the Ghukasyan family got their own flat in which the family managed to live for just two months.
At the time of the Sumgait pogrom (violence aimed at a religious minority) Robert was 8 years old. Among his first childhood memories is his first school and the destruction of the Armenian cemetery, but also an Azeri neighbour who risked her life hiding an Armenian family.
“I don’t feel any hate towards Azeris. We’re all just people and it’s really a political issue. We were saved by our Azeri neighbours and were things different I think we would have been good neighbours,” says Robert.
The house in Kalavan was basically chosen blindly; there wasn’t much of an opportunity to choose in any case. After the family had temporarily moved from Sumgait to Baku, Robert’s father exchanged a flat in Sumgait for a house in the village he’d never seen before. The most important thing was to find a home in Armenia where they’d feel safe.
The Ghukasyan family moved to Kalavan a year later in 1989 and again they had to get used to a new home. For two years village children had to walk to the closest school in the neighbouring village, 7-8 km away from Kalavan.
A lack of teachers in Kalavan meant parents had to organise their own school. Robert’s mother, Yulia Ghukasyan has been teaching geography for 30 years now. Like many other teachers, she got her higher education in Armenia. Today the school has 17 pupils. Robert is proud of his school and thinks that most of his education he got here.
“I was the only pupil in the 8th, 9th and 10th class so I had the exclusive attention of the teachers.”
The first successes of Kalavan are already attracting attention from further afield: The governor of Gegharkunik and a number of local organisations have expressed an interest in helping. Robert welcomes all this except for commercial investors who only look to make a profit.
“The village rejects any investor who wants to build their own business here without taking into account the interests of locals. Because this is our community, we have a dream and a 10-year plan that depends on the equal development of the whole village,” says Robert.
Artur Grigoryan is one of those taken by Robert’s contagious ideas and attitude to life. A qualified lawyer and former environmental activist, Artur bought himself a house and moved to the village. He’s now an organic farmer and also interested in eco-tourism.
“Thanks to this model of development the locals don’t just make money from someone else’s business, but become businessmen themselves, developing themselves,” says Artur.
The story of Kalavan now stands as an example to other organisations of how they could develop communities in Armenia. According to Robert, the secret of success is simple: “We simply live and enjoy life, and that seems to be contageous.”