Kapan is Armenia’s version of Pittsburgh or Kalgoorlie, a town built for the mining industry that surrounds it. The Russians first started mining here in earnest in the 1850s and the city boomed during the Soviet period, when most of the town’s infrastructure was developed. Locals say there’s so much unrefined metal beneath the ground that magnetic compasses won’t work in some parts of town.
Below the looming peak of Mt Khustup (3210m), Kapan’s industrial outskirts and concrete apartment blocks have a harsh appearance, but the town centre, where two rushing rivers meet, has leafy parks and squares. The reopening of the copper-molybdenum mine has kick-started the local economy after a decade of jobless isolation. Australians make up the bulk of the foreign experts, many of whom can be found clutching bottles of beer in the evening at the Hotel Darist. While the local economy moves forward, tourist facilities remain basic, with only a couple of hotels and restaurants and an absence of B&Bs.
Kapan’s main church is near the Hotel Lernagordz, and is noted locally for its good acoustics and the priest’s fine singing. A city historical museum (22 Shahumian; admission free) is worth wandering into if you are killing time in Kapan and need to catch up on your Syunik regional history. Among the thousands of artefacts are 19th-century swords, carpets and kilims.
Karajan lies 33km up the highway from Kapan. The road climbs even further across the Tashtun Pass before descending to the Iranian border on the Araks River. Another road heads south from Kapan into the mountainous wilds of the Shikahogh Nature Reserve. This road is being improved and by 2008 should become the primary highway to Meghri.