At the top of a twisting, eight-kilometer-long dirt road in northeastern Armenia lives a man with a vision for his mountain village. The concept is simple: See opportunities in obstacles.
“We do not have a [paved] road, and there isn’t even a shop in the village. There are many problems,” 36-year-old archeologist-biologist Robert Ghukasyan says of his village, Kalavan, about an hour’s drive north of Lake Sevan. “If we look at it from that angle, it is simply impossible to live here.”
Hundreds of people have decided the same over the past two decades and left Kalavan – a trend seen throughout underdeveloped rural Armenia.
In Kalavan’s case, the process started in the late 1980s amidst the conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Then a predominantly ethnic Azeri village called Amirkher, Kalavan began to lose its population as residents fled to Azerbaijan. Ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan took their place.
Yet, faced with limited prospects for earning a living, these villagers, too, started moving away. Today, Kalavan’s population stands at under 200.
But Ghukasyan, a refugee from the Azerbaijani city of Sumgayit, wanted to stay. His two children were born here, and tearing up roots again had no appeal. Four years ago, along with some friends, he came up with a way to revitalize Kalavan.
“We started thinking from the opposite direction, made our weak points into competitive advantages. We researched the potential of the village’s natural and human resources and made a good combination of things.”
In 2013, that brainstorming became Time Land, a non-governmental educational foundation that takes tourists on mountain hikes and birdwatching trips and lets them participate in local archeological excavations, while experiencing village life firsthand.
To promote Time Land, Ghukasyan played off his own background as a published, well traveled archeologist with connections to Armenian and international scientists. Kalavan is located not far from a cave used as a residence during the Stone Age. That inspires some tourists, with guidance from Time Land, to try their own hand at Stone-Age life – build a shelter in the forest, wear animal skins and kindle fire by hand.
As of 2016, visitors to Kalavan numbered in the low thousands, coming from countries ranging from Chile and Peru to Australia and Iran, Ghukasyan says.
Their presence means work for locals.
Fifteen new guesthouses are currently under construction, and villagers spent the past summer revamping an existing 17 to accommodate more tourists. Several plots of land and about ten houses also have been purchased, according to the village administration.
“There is a boom in the village, a lot of construction going on,” says 27-year-old Gayane Badalyan. “My husband is now in Russia as a guest-worker. But he won’t go there once he’s back. There is a job here.”
Badalyan, the mother of two boys, also earns money by selling tourists home-prepared sour cream, cheese, bread and preserves of apricots, berries and nuts.
Sixty-two-year-old Voskan Balyan, meanwhile, bets on his beloved, Soviet-era, off-road Vilis (an acronym for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Iosif Stalin) to ferry tourists for 5,000 (about $11) roundtrip to Kalavan from neighboring villages or the nearby resort town of Dilijan. “There are other people who [also] do this job in our village, so every family earns money somehow,” Balyan says.
Balyan, who earlier considered leaving Kalavan, now plans to stay put. The village, if anything, is growing.
Ghukasyan’s plans for a $60,000 center to host gatherings of archeologists and other science professionals prompted 50-year-old Alan Amirkhanyan, head of the American University of Armenia’s Acopian Center for the Environment, to up stakes and move to Kalavan as a “scientific” investment.
Similarly, Yerevan-based rural-development expert Vahe Darbinyan, 28, is turning a village house into a guesthouse for eight to ten people. “I believed in their dream and decided to become a part of it,” he says of Time Land.
So, too, have Americans Nina Roma Aghvanyan, 30, and Lori Albandyan, 28, who run an organization that opens libraries in rural Armenia and Karabakh. They plan to have a similar library for Kalavan.
All this activity has also attracted the Armenian government. Long beset by how to address chronic unemployment and depopulation in the countryside, it has hit on Kalavan as a model for what can be done.
Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan promised this August to grant government assistance to Time Land for its ten-year investment plan. Roughly a month later, he awarded Ghukasyan a Medal of Gratitude, a national honor, for his efforts with Kalavan.
Ghukasyan believes that his project has succeeded where government-run rural-development projects often fail.
“We don't change people . . . . We don't say 'Learn to use computers' or 'Learn languages.’ If we did that, nothing would work.”
Not all villagers have jumped on board with guesthouses and services for Time Land tourists, but Ghukasyan attributes any hesitation to “a passive life” and limited financial resources.
As for any Armenian oligarchs taking an interest, he cautions that the venture is not about personal enrichment. “The village does not accept any investments that are aimed at the personal wealth of some people,” he claims.
He next plans to take his concept to Chambarak, a town of several thousand about 33 kilometers to the southeast. Located not far from the border with Azerbaijan, it is a location that has long struggled economically, but Ghukasyan is undaunted.
“We will show that there are no ‘uninteresting’ areas [in Armenia]. There are just uninteresting approaches [to tackling problems],” he says.