Neighboring the Islamic Republic of Iran on Armenia's southern border, some 373 km from Yerevan, is the town of Meghri. It is one of the farthest towns of Armenia and has a population of 4600.
Following the enlargement in 2016, Meghri has grown into community embracing two towns and 13 rural communities.
As compared to other towns in Armenia, unemployment rates in Meghri are one of the lowest in the country.
Most of the population in Meghri is employed at Agarak Copper and Molybdenum Plant (1010), the Russian border troops deployed in Armenia, as well as the Armenian Armed Forces. Another major part of the population is engaged in horticulture.
However, the residents of the town point to the social problems of their community, saying the prices for goods in Meghri are much higher than in the capital.
"People market the goods they bring from 400 km afar; they surely cannot sell those goods for the same price they buy for in Yerevan. The distance makes them add the costs of fuel, and the time people spend," says taxi driver and a father of two sons Yura Sargsyan, 64.
Yura recalls in Soviet times the short route that would run through Nakhijevan would help reach Yerevan in just three hours.
The borders closed following the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict have shut down the railroad. The alternative route to Yerevan today takes seven hours.
The 35 km Armenian-Iranian state border has a section crossing the Arax River. This is the shortest state border for both Armenia and Iran.
On the other side of Agarak, only 1400 meters away, is the Iran village of Duzan.
The borders closed following the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict have shut down the railroad.
The abandoned railroad station of Meghri
The last train left this station in 1989.
Yura's taxi drives along the Armenian-Iranian border. On the right of the road is the Arax River; on the left is the railroad.
"I was a bus driver in those days; the last time I travelled to Yerevan via Nakhijevan in 1989. The train would leave Agarak station at 12:30 am, and would arrive in Yerevan at 09:00 am. I am glad we can travel to Iran without visa; people travel there for cheap household goods, and that's an advantage we have," Yura says.
The visa regime between Armenia and Iran was liberalized in June 2016 to give the citizens of both countries opportunity travel freely.
Arusyak Azatyan, a tailor from Meghri, says her mother frequently makes daily shopping trips to Araz free trade zone in the Iranian town of Julfa..
Arusyak, 39, is a doll-maker, too; she also works at "Arevik" guest house in Meghri, as a receptionist and a cook of traditional cuisine.
"Meghri is special; far and isolated, people have a life style of their own here," she says.
"Prices are quite affordable; a kilo of tomatoes, for instance, is AMD 200, against AMD 1500 we paid here earlier this spring. Imagine the difference! You can refill a 3-liter gas tank in Meghri for AMD 2300, against AMD 500 there. Construction materials are cheaper there, so people travel there to get materials for home renovations. It's an affordable option for community people," says the mother of two
Mkhitar Zakaryan, the head of enlarged Meghri community, who served as mayor of Agarak for eight consecutive years, was elected to his current post in 2016.
Zakaryan says development of gas infrastructure in the community is a priority. Despite new gas pipelines in Meghri and Agarak are already there, the residents continue buying gas in tanks. The head of the community says a gas distribution network has been built with participation of the Iranian government.
In December 2011 the governments of the two countries signed a memorandum in which the Iranian side agreed to provide a USD 2 million grant to build a gas distribution network in the border communities of Armenia (Meghri and Agarak).
Armenia on her part undertook the expenses related to taxes, customs fees and other mandatory payments pertaining to the goods delivery deals and services at the expense of the provided funding.
Agarak, founded in 1949, had a population of 4300, mostly employed at the Agarak Copper and Molybdenum Plant.
In the frame of the program Meghri will have around 26.5 km gas pipelines of various tubing pressure, the Agarak section of the piping will be equal to 4.8 km.
Around 1 km long high pressure gas piping and gas distribution station built as part of infrastructure in Meghri will also provide the neighboring communities. As a result Meghri and around 50 percent of Agarak will be provided with natural gas. The construction works for distribution station are done by Iranian "Sanerji" company.
On December 21, 2016, five years following the funding, the Ministry of Energy Infrastructures and Natural Resources announced that the gas distribution station construction works in the borderland Meghri and Agarak communities were completed. The gas distribution was officially launched after the symbolic torch lighting; but the residents of the towns are deprived of the gas up to this day.
There is much interest around the mining industry in the enlarged community of Meghri. There are three operating metal ore mines; and another three sites are under geological examination.
The population of the community is concerned with the mining programs implemented in the region. The Litchq copper mine, some 30 km away from Meghri, was in the spotlight earlier in May of this year. The mining site is exploited by “Tatstone” Company.
The mine is about 500 meters far from the village of Litchq and is situated on the territories of “Arevik” National Park and “Boghaqar” State Reserve.
The sanitary area of water distribution facilities providing potable water to Meghri and other settlements is located on this territory, too, and the exploitation of the mine threatens both the river, and the potable water supply system.
Litchq has a school with just two students and no kindergarten at all.
The village has been abandoned through years. Majority of the villagers have sold their land lots to the mining company.
In Litchq, once known for its dynamic life, there is now a fretful silence.
A few villagers have stood up against the exploitation of the mine, continuing to live and to work in their native village.
Ishkhan Poghosyan is one of those villagers who fight against the mining. He stays in the village and has retained his property.
Vard Martirosyan, citizen journalist from Meghri, shares her concerns over the wariness with which the residents of the town use the potable water; people believe the water is contaminated with heavy metals, which leak into it from the mining site. "You can judge of its quality just looking at the water in a glass," says Martirosyan.
Citizen journalist from Meghri
The residents of the town recently sent an open note to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to express their grievances about the mining in their region; the Litchq mine exploitation was suspended temporarily.
The issue of the mine exploitation is at the administrative court of the Republic of Armenia. "Ecological Right" NGO, the plaintiff, demands that the permission documents issued for the mine exploitation, are recognized null and void, since the mine occupies part of the territory of "Arevik" National Park. The Item 5, Article 19 of the RA Land Code says any activity contradicting the functional purpose and the legal status of the special protection territories is prohibited.
However, many of the residents in Litchq have sold their land lots to the mining company. Ishkhan Poghosyan is one of those villagers, who stand against the exploitation of the copper mine. He stays in the village and has retained his property.
"Meghri municipality has bought the land from the villagers, and has leased it to the company exploiting the mine for AMD 18 million a year. Is this the price of the village?! We learnt of the decision right at the council meeting," says Ishkhan Poghosyan.
Mkhitar Zakaryan objects saying those land lots were uncultivated for quite a while, and that agriculture mostly develops along the littoral area of river Arax. "People who used to live in those areas have moved mostly to Meghri and Agarak, leaving the lands unattended. Development of mining industry is the shortest and fully workable way to make young people stay in the village, and to increase the population," head of the community insists.
Zakaryan is hopeful Litchq will grow into an industrial settlement; he appeals to Agarak, which was founded as a residence for workers of the copper and molybdenum mining industry and has population reaching 5000 people today.
"Even the smallest mining company has a multiplicative effect on the surrounding; it will impact Tashtun, a village next to Litchq, too. To be honest, I don't see any other way for people to live there. We are planning to build a new kindergarten to accommodate 20 kids in the community. Yes, currently there are just two children living in Litchq, but I am confident their number will reach 20 next year," Zakaryan believes.
"What's the purpose of building a kindergarten?! Where are they going to get kids, if there are no people there?! They employ just a few people from the village to silence the popular voices. This is not opening jobs; this is how destroying a village looks like! Our fathers have left us a legacy to live here, not to let in those who have money to evict us from here. Nakhijevan is only 5 km far from us; we have fought and have defended our land during the war; did we do this to be evicted now?! This is a matter of national security; the state had to prevent this!" says Ishkhan Poghosyan.
There are two school-aged children in Litchq; teachers of the school say years ago there used to be around 40. "The school had 26 students in 2008. The number has decreased since then: people flee the area," say the teachers with regret heard in their voices.
The territory of Meghri is rich in orchards of fruit trees; for generations Meghri has been known for its gardening traditions.
In the recent years the orchards of fig, pomegranate, and quince trees, the vineyards and peach farms have been neighboring with subtropical persimmon, kiwi, and olive trees.
The orchards are irrigated with water from the Meghri River, which dries up in July, causing the shortage of water from August and September. The head of Meghri administration says the best solution would be the construction of a water reservoir up the river.
Zakaryan says there are plans of having an agricultural market next to the highway and on the territory of Meghri so that the local farmers have a chance to sell their produce.
The open border with Iran has spurred locals' interest towards Iranian culture as well as the Armenian heritage on the territory of the neighbor country. It takes only two hours for the Armenian tourists crossing the state border to reach the St Stepanos Monastery, the Hovvi and St Mariam churches.
There is a major inflow of Iranian tourists to Armenia, too. The State Tourism Committee of Armenia says around 220 thousand Iranians visited Armenia in 2017 against 185 thousands in 2016 (which is a 16% increase in just one year).
Many of the Iranian tourists stop in Meghri and Agarak, go to restaurants, cafes, and stores. The signs in Persian are frequent here, and many of the locals engaged in services have a fairly good command of colloquial Persian.
Closeness of the border with Iran, liberalization of the visa regime between the two countries, and the frequent visits have increased locals' interest to the language.
Historian Levon Mirzoyan, 30, says there is growing demand for Persian in the community. Levon started learning Persian while still at the university, and later improved his skills in specialized training courses.
It's been a year Levon Mirzoyan has been organizing practical courses of Persian in Agarak.
This initiative was made possible a year ago with the support of Meghri administration.
The courses are intended for both adults, and school-aged students from Meghri and adjacent villages.
"I didn't have an opportunity like this when I was learning the language, and I thought I could create one and share my knowledge and my skills to the residents of our community, especially as there was a demand for it," says Mirzoyan.
Levon says liberalization of the visa regime boosted the Armenian-Iranian relationships; the exchange of tourists has grown in both directions, he observes.
"Learning the language came out of necessity. Of course, there are people who are in good command of it, or who have learnt it in the past twenty years of interactions, but people need to learn the language properly to be literate language user," says Levon.
Persian language teacher in Agarak
The farthest town in Armenia tries to keep the pace with the time, and use the transformations in the benefit of the community.