by Gayane Mkrtchyan
Administrative Center: Vanadzor (population 132,500) is the administrative center of Lori. The province has 105 rural communities and eight urban: Stepanavan, Tashir, Spitak, Alaverdi, Tumanian, Akhtala and Shamlugh.
Education: 45,850 school children attend 165 schools.
Healthcare: 7 hospitals, 8 outpatient clinics, 4 dispensaries and 9 rural ambulance stations.
Industry: The output of industrial enterprises in Lori almost doubled between January and September 2004, to about 16 million drams (about $8 million), compared to the same period in 2003. The principal industries are centered on chemicals, metallurgy, machine building, light industry, food industry, and woodwork.
Agriculture: The main crops grown in Lori are grains (16,000 hectares), potatoes (9,500 hectares), and vegetables (1,500 hectares). "Lori" cheese, one of Armenia's most well-known exports, comes from the province.
Unnumbered and innumerable roads enveloped by woodlands lead through narrow passages between mountains to the remote villages and towns of the Lori province. At the feet of Koshakar (Big Stone) and Chatin Dagh (Difficult Mountain) stand the villages of Shhali, Debed and Vahagni. The road flows along the Pambak river valley to Mount Chanchakar, then turns to Desegh village. Another road, this one without asphalt, turns onto the open highlands.
Several elderly women from Desegh walk the stony road towards the school in Chkalov, 1,660 meters above sea level and three kilometers away from where the women work.
"It's been the same for 10 years," says 64-year-old Sokhak Muradian, a teacher of Russian. In Soviet times they were provided transportation. But now, and especially in winter, Sokhak says the women worry that their walk will leave them "in a wolf's belly".
Chkalov eventually heaves into sight in all its stark beauty. The village seems uninhabited and the silence is so insistent that the subtle rustle of trees can be heard from the surrounding forests.
"When you live on top of the mountain and no one cares about you, then there is nothing worse," says 47-year-old villager Arzhanik Mkhitarian. "This village is desolate. If someone remembers it only in five years and decides to make some investment, there'll be nobody left here."
His wife Kenkush Sargsian, 45, is secretary of the village administration. She says she feels pain whenever she looks through the register of households. Half have disappeared. The rest will, gradually, she says. Not a single birth was registered between 2000 and 2003. One child was born last year.
Their 17-year-old daughter, Hripsime, lays a modest rural table: cheese, sour cream, fermented milk, bread, all produced at home. Hripsime dreams of becoming a pharmacist but her parents have prohibited her from finishing her education.
"Ours is an eight-year school and she would have had to continue her 9th and 10th grades in Desegh. But how could we let her walk seven kilometers on foot each day?" complains Arzhanik.
The school has just 22 pupils and only one child in the first grade. Before it reopened in 1995, children had to make the journey to Desegh.
The school bell is the only sound breaking the silence of the village. The careless noise of the children stretches throughout the streets before gradually dying away.
A number of pensioners crowd in front of the village administration building. Unaware of events in the outside world, they gather with the hope of gaining some news from the village chief Suren Mkhitarian.
"It is very difficult to be head of this village," he says. "People are extremely poor and tax revenues fall short by more than 90 per cent. Privatized land plots have turned into meadows."
The soil in Chkalov is fertile, and at least 90 percent arable. But without tractors, agriculture is largely restricted to home gardening.
Henrik Kochinian, governor of Lori province, thinks that if the villagers focus on cultivating corn they could create a stable basis for cattle breeding. Irrigation, though, is a problem. Nor has nature cooperated. Each of the past six years, crops have been damaged by hail storms.
The village's 62 households total 214 people. Most are elderly and 70 per cent are poor, living off pensions.
Rima and Samvel Zalinians, ages 72 and 80, are among them. They receive a combined pension of 18,000 drams ($36). Their son left the village long ago and now lives in Vanadzor.
"For 50 years I have worked as a milkmaid. We worked and lived well. Now my son doesn't live well enough to help us," says Rima. Their 21-year-old grandson Sahak visits every week. He was unable to continue his education after high school because his parents could not support him financially.
Kochinian, the governor, is concerned about internal migration. He says: "It is state policy to direct the migration from the center to remote parts. When one lives 1,700 meters above sea level, winter starts in September and lasts until the end of May, with the roads closed. The nurse or the teacher working in such areas should be paid twice as much as in other places."
Natural disasters have become a misfortune for the people of Lori. Rain and hail storms can start from June and continue through August.
"Hail beats down whenever the wheat is ripe," says Kochinian.
The people of Chkalov can't afford to take their dairy products to Vanadzor and sell them at higher prices there. Barter is a way of commerce.
Alvard Hakobian, 63, says she exchanges eggs, cheese and butter for coffee, macaroni, sweets, and washing powder at the village shop. The shopkeeper takes the goods to Vanadzor and sells them for higher prices.
The province governor agrees that a village without a proper road finds it much more expensive to take agricultural produce to market. Lori has 400 km of roads of regional significance, many of which are in disrepair. Efforts are being made to repair them with funds from the local budget and within the framework of the US Government's Millennium Challenge (an incentive program for needy countries).
No one works in Alvard's family of five and the only money they have is her pension of 5,000 drams ($10). She dreams that someone would open a livestock farm in the village. But the village secretary is sure that people don't even know where Chkalov is, let alone want to come and start a business there.
The young leave the village, the old people die there, and there's no way forward. Income appears out of the question, while the debtors' lists in the two village shops include the names of all the inhabitants.
Anahit says that her fellow villagers lack entrepreneurship and can hardly maintain their families. Arzhanik retorts that it is possible to start a business provided suitable loans are available. But the terms of short-terms loans are unprofitable. People cannot raise cattle in time to make the payments.
Same province, different story
Less than 10 kilometers from Chkalov, the village of Vardablur is an example of better coping against the difficulties common to nearly every rural community in post-Soviet Armenia.
The inhabitants of Vardablur also complain about their economic present and have doubts about the future. But village chief Mikael Frangian says that they have found an alternative way to develop their households.
Vardablur is the only village in the province that has had a collective farm operating for more than 13 years. Its 150 families have united their land plots, creating the Sermnabuyts and Hoghagorts companies, producing potatoes and wheat.
In the growing and harvesting season, work goes in full swing. In the late summer in Vardablur village women can be found sitting in long rows sorting potatoes. They sing in unison and make jokes. "They are confident that the work is more efficient this way," says Anahit Nikoghosian, 32, director of Vardablur's school.
According to the province governor, Vardablur is an interesting example for other communities. Kochinian says: "It is not the former Soviet kolkhoz (collective farm), but rather a system broadly practiced all over the world. No farmer works on his own."
Karo Manukian, elected executive director of Sermnabuyts, says the villagers receive 1,000 drams ($2) per day and 12 kilograms of potatoes and 7 kilograms of wheat each month as well.
Unlike the wild beauty of Chkalov, everything in Vardablur is closer to civilization, even nature. The village is located in lowlands and people have fewer problems.
The village's 400 households have 1,400 people. The local school has 275 pupils and 100 adults work at Sermnabuyts producing potatoes and wheat seeds. Others work in bakeries, in a flour mill and in fish farming.
Here people worry about their children's education. Seda Janjughazian, 40, has four children, three of whom have not gone on to higher education. She has made up her mind to ensure that her youngest child does.
"Conditions were bad when the other three were growing up. Now, thank God, we have a job and I will send my son to Yerevan. I myself was last in Yerevan (160 kilometers to the south) in 1990," says Seda.
While in Chkalov difficulties dissuade some residents from cultivating their own plots of land, in Vardablur, villagers work even those of neighboring villages. Manukian says they have also established the Hunayka company in the nearby village of Yaghdan, a copy of the other two companies.
The people of Vardablur are devoted to their village. Nobody leaves for good. Young men in their twenties go to Russia at the beginning of the year to work, but return at the end of the year.
The village has a supply of gas and pays for the fuel used by the school. Every year seven or eight graduates go on to university in Yerevan and Vanadzor.
A flour mill and a bakery provide jobs. Villagers sell their wheat to the mill and buy bread every morning at the bakery.
The village chief shows Vardablur's recreation area, which was built in 1998. They have created a lake on five hectares of land, with water flowing in from the Gyargar River, and surrounded it with 25,000 trees.
Villagers worry about the condition of local roads and the worn out networks for drinking water and irrigation that were inherited from Soviet times. Manukian says that the province needs a potato-processing enterprise that could produce chips and potato powder for sale elsewhere.
Chkalov and Vardablur are both about 40 km from Vanadzor but people live at different poles. If progress is visible in Vardablur, the last sparks of life are fading in Chkalov.
Kochinian says: "We want to see the results of changes in our economy tomorrow. But it really takes years."