BY ADROUSHAN ANDY ARMENIAN
Who has heard of Kalavan? An insignificant and inaccessible village in the mountains of the Gegharkunik Province of Armenia, near Lake Sevan, with only 108 inhabitants, mostly survivors Sumgait pogroms who resettled to Kalavan in the early 1990’s.
Reversing the Trend and Revitalizing the Village
I was planning a trip earlier this month to Armenia and allocated three days to visit Kalavan and to understand the excitement about this village. The declining village population is a major challenge in Kalavan and other villages in Armenia. Some countries have been successful to reverse the trend by providing various types of incentives such as subsidized housing to attract young families to relocate to the villages. I don’t believe there are such programs in Armenia, however Kalavan could serve as an excellent case study of how a village, with their own resources, were able to reverse the trend and set an example. With few viable projects such as ecotourism, excavations, hiking and extreme sports Kalavan has proven that you could reverse the trend of village depopulation.
However, one man, Robert Ghukasyan, successfully placed Kalavan on the worldwide Archeological and Eco-touristic destination lists. Rubo, as the villagers call him, grew up and earned his primary education in Kalavan, and later obtained an Archeological degree and worked overseas in various countries. In 2013 he moved back to Kalavan to pursue his dream of revitalizing a dying and disappearing village.
Three elements helped Robert in his mission; First, the forests around Kalavan have several archeological sites with both human and animal bones that date back some 5,000 years. Second, the mountains and forests provide magnificent hiking and trekking options. Third, Kalavan is an unspoiled village without even a single retail store, reminiscent of the forgone era.
Bed & Breakfast and Home-stays
With Robert’s guidance, archeologists from Germany and Israel started visiting Kalavan for extended stays and local digs. This triggered the idea of providing visitors with basic Bed & Breakfast facilities and encouraged the building of extended restrooms attached to homes. The community also installed solar water heaters to provide hot water for overnight guests. Robert and the villagers are adamant to maintain the existing authentic village character while also offering basic comforts; the community is not interested in building modern and extended-stay hotels in Kalavan.
The traffic generated by visitors for scientific and archeological projects has generated such enthusiasm that there are currently no houses for sale in Kalavan. Dilapidated houses that you could have previously purchased for a mere $1,000, are currently worth over $20,000. Of the 31 homes in the village, eight offer B&B options with a total capacity of 40 guests. This has provided an economic stimulus to the villagers and has prompted modification of two additional houses to ultimately house 60 guests by the summer of 2019.
You should be warned that there are no local grocery stores, bakeries or any type of retail stores in Kalavan. All supplies must be sourced from nearby towns which is how the villagers would like to keep it.
The village school and the remains of the old Soviet-era House of Culture:
I visited the village school which was clean, however the classroom desks date back to the Soviet times, and walls show signs of humidity and decay. Two of the seven classrooms were recently renovated, and waterproofed but the remaining five rooms need new windows and weatherproofing. There are currently 19 students at the school; the principal was excited to share that there were eight births in the village last year, which means eight additional students in a few more years.
Adjacent to the school is the ruins of the House of Culture and the blue Volga, a reminder of a forgone era.
“Time Land Foundation” and the New Scientific Center
The most significant and notable achievement for Robert and Kalavan is the establishment of the non-profit “Time Land Foundation” and its two-story, 250 square meters (2,700 Sq. Ft.) new building which will serve as a scientific and research center for visiting scientists as well as serve as a library, cultural and community center for the local youth. The $150,000 project is being funded by USAID, UNDP, and private donors.
“Our kids don’t have to travel to Yerevan or other major hubs to be able to experience modern technologies,” Robert explains. He believes in providing local youth with a state-of-the-art learning facility which will help them stay attached to the village and not rush to relocate to Yerevan at their earliest opportunity.
Continuing Needs for the Village
Kalavan still needs help and support to continue with their initiatives to stabilize the village. The school needs repairs to make it a safe environment for both students and teachers and the town has adamantly requested for aid from the provincial government to repair the 7-kilometer dirt road connecting the village to the main road.
Currently you need a four by four vehicle and will take you around 40 minutes to cover the 7-kilometer dirt road. The villagers simply ask to complete to road repairs by compacting gravel which should reduce the travel time by half. With a $60,000 excavator/backhoe the villagers would be able to repair and maintain the dirt road, additionally provide basic irrigation channels for the local farms and build hiking and biking trails around the village
Kalavan, a truly unique town with ambition and opportunity. I encourage all to visit the village in the mountains of Lake Sevan to experience the excitement and growing projects. The new Scientific Center backdropped with breathtaking views provides an unforgettable experience.