Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity in the early 4th century and so it’s Apostolic Church is the oldest Christian community on earth. It claims that the two Apostles Bartholemew and Thaddeus were its founders. As Noah’s Ark is said to have landed on mount Ararat (now in Turkey but was once part of the ancient kingdom of Armenia) Armenians also claim they are direct descendants from Japheth, one of Noah’s grandsons. Consequently there are many ancient orthodox churches, monasteries and cathedrals across the country.
Noravank monastery was funded by the Orbelian dynasty who were an important noble family who ruled over Armenia’s southern most province Syunik.
There are two structures, the Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) and the smaller Surb Karapet. The larger structure was designed and built by the famous architect, sculptor and painter Momik in 1339. Some very narrow steps lead up to the upper done level which is supported by carved pillars.
We were lucky enough to see a mass in progress while we were there. The ceremony was characterised with two priest dressed in rich blue embroidered robes and pointed hat and two women lay readers who were also dressed in blue. Women cover their heads with a scarf during church services. There was lots of incense and harmonised chanting. We both enjoyed walking around, after the countless temples and mosques there was something strangely familiar about all the symbology and architecture!!
The weather cleared and we had another warm sunny day. We were heading towards another important religious site, Khor Virap. We turned off the main road as the bad weather started to roll in Again.
Khor Virap is the pilgrimage site where Gregory the Illuminator was said to have been imprisoned for 14 years in a snake infested pit. The site sits on the border with Turkey with the impressive Mount Ararat as a backdrop. Unfortunately we never got to see mount Ararat because the clouds never lifted high enough for us to see its impressive snowy peaks…
As the story goes, Gregory (a Christian missionary) was imprisoned by the Armenian King Tiridates III. Tiridates threw Gregory into the jail of the Ancient city of Artashat and for many years he was assumed to have perished in the pit. However, an old devout woman kept Gregory alive by lowering provisions down to him.
Meanwhile Tiridates continued his persecution of Christians across his realm; in the end these acts were said to have made him go mad. In a dream, God appears to Tiridates’ sister and tells her to release Gregory for he has the power to cure the King of his madness. Gregory is discovered and released, cures the King who then converts to Christianity and declares Armenia the first Christian state. The end!
We both enjoyed our rest in Goris. We found a cheapish hotel where we were the only guests and so we spent two cosy evenings cooking beef stew, playing backgammon and watching films in the living room.
The snow which had fallen the first night gave the town a distinctly Christmassy feel to it and we both felt pretty festive while walking around the local food shops and markets.
Surrounding Goris are some pretty cool pyramid shaped volcanic rocks which have been home to troglodyte dwellings and shelters for centuries. Fortunately the rain and snow abated enough the second afternoon for us to venture out and so we headed to the cemetery which sits amongst these strange cone shaped formations.
Goris old town has that feeling of a once affluent regional centre now gone slightly to seed. There are some beautiful old stone buildings adorned with wooden balconies but the majority of them are now pretty dilapidated and sorry looking. Still it was nice to get out and about and meet some of the townspeople.
The next day we got ready to cycle northwards again. We were aiming for Zorats Karer, a pre-historic Bronze Age stone circle site. It was VERY foggy and we had to strap the torch light to the back of my helmet so cars could see us better.
We climbed for a good few hours and then dropped down to the archaeological site where fortunately the weather was much clearer and warmer. It was nice exploring the site which is made up of 223 Menhirs (standing stones) with an excavated tomb in the middle.
The next day we had more climbing to do. The day was characterised by heavy mist and bleak landscapes. The view got slightly better when we reached the Spandarian reservoir where we managed to get half an hour of ‘sunshine’ during lunch. Luckily we were able to dry out the tent and take shelter behind a hill from the wind.
We reached the top at around 4:15pm and just as reached the summit two cycle tourers came up the hill from the other direction. Good timing. We didn’t stay long to chat because it was freezing but we were very cheered by the news that it was blue skies and late afternoon sunshine on the other side of the mountain. From here we had a big drop down towards warmer weather! Hurray!
We dropped down a good 15km enjoying the views and sunshine and then pulled tandem off the road down to a great riverside camping spot. A tree had been recently felled so there was loads of dry wood about. Perfect!
Armenia is known for its collection of impressive churches, monasteries and cathedrals. 13th century Nora-Vank church and monastery is one of the most famous and its 120km south from Yerevan so we made it our next stop.
We enjoyed our first proper warm day with blue skies, and the last 10km up to the church were through an amazing gorge and although it was a really hard 2hour climb we both enjoyed the scenery and the sunshine.
On the way up we were passed out by two wedding convoys who beeped and waved from their cars. Many of the vehicles had dead animal skins stuck to the bonnet and a guy waved a dead chicken from his car window as he passed. After reading up, we assumed that they were on their way to perform a Madagh blessing ceremony in front of the church; a chicken or other animal is slaughtered before eating it as part of a ceremonial feast. The practice is widespread in Armenia and is a tradition taken from their pagan past rather than Christianity.
At the bottom of the church, which is perched on a high cliff surrounded by red brick cliffs, is a great wooded picnic area so we set up camp there with a plan to visit the complex the next morning. Naturally we had another camp fire!
The next morning after an epic breakfast which Chaz Meades would have been proud of 😉 we cycled the bike up to the monastery.
Our first week in Armenia didn’t get off to the best of starts. Our inner tube situation was getting desperate and despite another afternoon spent in ‘operation puncture repair’ we were uneasy about cycling 20km let alone the 320km we had to complete before reaching Yerevan – the next place we were likely to find some decent replacements.
Armenia couldn’t feel more different to Iran, it’s amazing how much a few metres across a bridge makes! We were back in ex-soviet territory here and the people, architecture, fashion and food all feels very Slavic, a similar feeling to Bishkek and Dushanbe.
What’s more, this was our first Christian country of the trip and it was really strange to see churches and crosses after 10 months of temples, stupas, Buddhas and mosques!
Brexit and the drop in the pound is hitting us hard in terms of spending and we soon discover that even the cheapest hotel room in Armenia can quickly eat away a large part of our £20 daily budget. Food isn’t really cheap either and there isn’t the culture here of inviting travellers back to your home like there is in Iran. Warm showers host are non existent outside the capital Yerevan and even there they are thin on the ground. Europe is going to be similar if not worse so we need to try and get used to this and find ways of cutting costs where we can. Camping is the obvious way of doing this but we were well into Autumn now and had some high mountain ranges to climb so we’d have to see how we got on with the weather.
We spent a well needed rest day in the border town of Meghri. It was good to sleep in a bed and get on reliable wifi. In the afternoon our hotel owner and some friends had a mini party in the lobby and we are encouraged to join in. We sampled Armenian wine and champagne and a few beers. Just after dark Silvan from Paris arrives having also just crossed the border on his bike. He is here on a three week tour and started in Turkey. Paddy isn’t feeling the best and so goes to bed early but Silvan and I share dinner together and I soon discover he is a real opera buff so we have plenty to chat about.
The next day we spent stocking up on food and soon discover there was nowhere in the town which could sell us diesel. In the end we ended up hailing down a truck and asking if we could siphon some off from their tank.
There are two routes to Goris and our plan was to cycle the eastern road which we had heard was very beautiful and would take us through a nature reserve. We were just praying that the puncture patches would hold. The road would see us cycle back down along the Aras river. We had seen this patch of road from the Iranian side so it sort of felt we were going back on ourselves before the road started climbing up over the mountain range. 7km in we got a puncture… In hindsight we should have turned back at this point and come up with a plan b for the back wheel but we needed to camp that night to save on cash anyway so we changed the tire and kept going. At least the sun was shining! Another 10km in the second tube collapsed and we were forced to stop again.
Feeling frustrated and anxious about what we were going to do tomorrow we set up camp. To top it off, half way though erecting the tent we both noticed a weird smell on the air and soon discovered that we’d chosen a spot 5 metres away from a rotting cow carcass… Lovely! So we had to pack up and move ourselves 300m up the road.
The next day was dry but cloudy and there was a distinct chill in the air. We had decided that we had no choice but to head back down to Meghri and see if a garage could fix the punctures well enough to get us to Yerevan. If not we would have to try and hitch the whole way, something we really didn’t want to do!! We managed to get back only by stopping every 4km to pump up the tube!
On the way up to the town I spotted two people amongst some trees off the road side and they had bikes!! Chris had cycled from Germany, met Sara while couchsurfing in her flat in Greece and four months later they had left home together to continue the journey to India. A great tale of cycle touring romance!
They were a really lovely couple and we spent a long time chatting on the road side swapping stories. What was more, Chris was kind enough to give us his spare inner tube and more patches!! In return we handed over our map of Iran, the bike shop address in Tabriz where they could get a new tube and my long sleeve tunic which would come in handy for Sara in Iran. We ended our meeting by swapping our Iranian and Armenian SIM cards. 🙂 All in all, a good Silk Road trading session!
With Chris’ tube newly fitted we were in good shape to tackle the number of 2000m passes we had ahead but we couldn’t face backtracking down the river again so we decided to take the western route instead. So off we climbed… By 4:30 the rain had started to fall but fortunately just as it was getting torrential we spotted a covered picnic table which would offer some needed cooking shelter and we could just about squeeze the tent under it at one end too.
The next morning the sun came out and it was a nice climb through the mountains over the pass with some really great views and more oak forests.
The only horrible thing that happened that day was seeing a dog get flattened by a racing Lada car coming down the road. We felt slightly guilty because the dog had been racing across the road to chase us. The dog was BIG and so it was quite a crash. We’ve seen many, many dead dogs on the road but it was quite something seeing one get hit directly in front of us.
Anyway, apart from the road kill it was a lovely cycle and with no punctures it was very relaxing despite the stiff gradients. At the top 2530m we stop to layer up and take a quick picture.
The descent saw us drop into a deep valley and some very soviet looking towns came into view. Here is Kapan characterised by stone and concrete high rises and a huge factory.
We drop down as far as we can before a thick fog envelops us and push the bike down to a riverside grassy verge. It’s pretty chilly but thankfully there’s plenty of wood scattered about so we get a good fire going before setting up camp. One of the great things about Armenia has been the abundance of water fountains and springs along the roadside. They’re dotted every 10-20km so getting fresh water hasn’t been a problem at all here.
The next day we needed to complete another high pass and unfortunately the weather did not improve. Thick fog, drizzle which later turned to rain and cold temperatures… It was pretty miserable!
We were both getting very warm and sweaty on the long climbs but soon froze to death on the long downs and our feet and hands stayed frozen for the whole ride. There were snippets of spectacular scenery but the day was mainly characterised by white clouds and fog. We saw enough to know that on a clear day this would have been a pretty spectacular cycle. This didn’t improve our mood!
The only thing of interest we saw were lots of areas of woodland taped off with red signs reading ‘DANGER Land Mines DO NOT ENTER’. We were very close to the border with Azerbaijan so these areas probably would have seen fierce fighting during the Nagorno-Karabakh war which only ended in 1994. In fact skirmishes and violence have intermittently broken out and earlier this year the worse fighting between the two sides developed into full blown military out with Armenia losing some miles of its territory.
Frozen to our seat posts we free wheeled down to the Vorotan river and knowing that more rain was due that evening we decided to take refuge in a small hotel where we were able to hang everything out to dry overnight.
After checking the weather forecast which promised snow and sleet as well as rain and freezing temperatures we agreed it was best to take refuge in the town of Goris (16km away) to wait out the cold weather. A warmer snap was promised later in the week…
It is now nearly a year and a half ago that we got our visas for Iran. We have had over 100 travellers contact us to ask how we did it and we have sent additional information to all these requests. Despite asking everyone to revisit this site and provide updated info we have never had anything back… successes or failures. We can only conclude that things have change since we travelled in Iran in Sept 2016 and the information is no longer valid or useful. For this reason we have decided to stop giving out the agent details we used. Don’t give up – trawl the forums and traveller sites, embassy websites, contact warm showers hosts and solo/individual agents in Iran etc – glean as much info as you can. It’s definitely worth it if you can find a way of getting the authentication code. Below is our original blog on this subject:
Hello. I am a British passport holder and I’ve just completed a wonderful month of independent travel in Iran.
In the past it was tricky for British and American citizens to obtain a visa for Iran and 99% of tour agents (who organise your authentication code needed to obtain a visa) still claim that British and American citizens need to book onto a fully guided tour package to travel in the country.
So you might wonder how it is that I travelled independently without a guide with me 24/7?
From our own experience and what we have researched, there are seen to be no official rules stated anywhere on official sites which say Brits need a guide 24/7. For example nothing is mentioned about it on the UK foreign office website or from any official Iranian sites.
We believe (and it’s only our informed opinion) that Internet forums and the tour agencies are responsible for helping to keep this myth alive. Tour agents because they want to sell their services and Internet forums because they are, more often that not, written by travellers who are regurgitating other forum posts or their conversations with tour agents (or other travellers) without possibly having had any experience of travelling in the country themselves…
It IS possible to get a visa for Iran if you are British (I have no direct experience if you are American but we have heard it’s possible). But you need to contact the right tour company and the total cost of the LOI and the visa may be prohibiting for many British travellers.
If this cost really puts you off we have spoken to a number of Iranians while travelling here and they (speaking from personal experience) claim it is possible for an Iranian to apply for foreigners’ Authentication code, even if the foreigner is British. This way you wouldn’t need to go through a tour company at all, significantly reducing the cost.
If we had know that this was an option when sorting out the codes and visas we would have simply contacted a number of couch surfing and warm shower hosts to see if any of them were willing to apply for us at their local foreign ministry office. Now that we know how helpful, hospitable and generous the average Iranian is, we are almost certain we’d have found someone who would have been willing to try for us.
We found travelling in Iran very safe. I was treated no differently to Paddy (Irish) at the border, no mention of my being British from any of the guards and I’ve had my passport checked many times subsequently without any problem. Rumours amongst the travelling community (especially on the Lonely Planet forum) tell of hotels handing British travellers into the police and British travellers getting arrested. From our experience this is just scaremongering. I’m not saying that these things haven’t happened in the past or might happen to an unlucky individual in the future, but from my personal experience the only likely problem a British person will encounter in Iran is being smothered to death my Iranians caring, loving and hospitable attitude towards you!
If you’d like to know more comment below this post with an email and we can send you all the help and info we know.
Similarly, if after reading this you are also successfully (or more useful: unsuccessful) in travelling independently in Iran please visit this page again and share your experiences via the comments below for the benefit of other travellers.
All we can tell you is what we experienced and it’s up to you how you manage ‘the risks’ when visiting foreign countries.
The last two days would see us complete our final climb in Iran and drop down to the Aras River valley. We would them follow the Iran-Azerbaijan border for a while up stream before heading into Armenia.
The cycle would end up being an amazing ride – definitely in our top 5 of the trip!
Incredible mountain-scapes, steep valleys, rolling green hills, picturesque villages perched precariously on cliff tops, and best of all, the whole landscape draped in an incredible Autumnal tapestry of gold, pink and red trees. We definitely caught this ride at the best time of year!
Along with the amazing views came a few problems however. The back chain continued to jump and we had to start zigzagging our way up any gradient bigger than about 7% to prevent the chain jumping… Concentrating on achieving a steady and smooth pressure and speed also really helps. This is all much harder on a heavily loaded tandem so we really had to work hard on the hills. Hardly ideal but it’s working so far!
Here we are at the top!
Later in the day we got three punctures! Yes, THREE. Lucky we bought those new inner tubes in Tabriz. We spent a long time on the roadside that afternoon before finally diagnosed the problem… The protective tape inside the rim had bunched up… Thankfully we just had enough electrical tape to fix the problem but we were down to our last tube after a number of patches had failed.
The wheel seems to be holding up ok and we hope it’ll last until the next town where we can buy some more tubes.
We stayed in a basic motel that night as we didn’t roll into town until after dark having spent the best part of the afternoon fixing punctures on the road. The next morning we cycled along the river. Great views once again! The puncture repair seems to be holding and we enjoy picking pomegranates, walnuts and figs from all the road side trees.
We camp in a family’s garden but the next morning wake up to a flat tire… Slow puncture… Today we have to cross into Armenia but thankfully we’re only 22km away…
We spend the whole morning sticking patches on only to pump up the tube and have them burst. We finally get one to hold but it lasts for 2km before giving up. By this time it’s 1:30pm and we spend another frustrating hour on the road gluing, waiting, pumping and getting more and more hungry.
Irananian kindness saves the day when a guy (who had obviously already driven passed us once) takes time out of his day to bring us mutton stew and rice. We eat hungrily before loading the bike up for the third time that day.
We make it across though and suddenly we’re getting our exit stamps for Iran and crossing the Aras into Armenia!
After all those punctures we felt we definitely deserved our first beer in nearly 5 weeks!
Our journey north would see us leave Tabriz and cycle via Ahar and Kaleybar and then follow the Aras river border to Norduz where we would cross into Armenia. We planned for the journey to take up the last week of our time in Iran. We were really looking forward to doing a long stretch on the bike and seeing more rural parts of Iran. Some of it promised to be breathtaking.
North western Iran is dominated by large Azari (Azerbaijani-Iranian) communities who’s language is much closer to Turkish than Farsi. In fact, there are more Azerbaijanis living in Iran than there are in neighbouring Azerbaijan and the majority of them live in north western Iran.
The weather would be turning cooler as we headed north – a welcome change from the scorching summer temperatures we’ve had since Uzbekistan – and as September gives way to October we hope to see the harvesting in action as well as catch some of Iran’s nomadic population before they pack down their tents and drive their flocks southwards for winter.
Tabriz to Ahar
We had a leisurely morning in Tabriz enjoying a lie in and then an epic street breakfast of baked potatoes, boiled eggs and bread which we sat out in the sunny square to eat.
We had chosen a hotel very near the street that housed all the bike shops because we were in desperate need for more inner tubes. We bought three and then stocked up on food.
There are three routes to choose from connecting Tabriz and Ahar and we decided to choose the highest, most rural of the three. It ended up being a lovely cycle and we even hit an unpaved section; our first in Iran where the roads have been very good. It didn’t last long (thankfully) just 12km between two peaks.
The landscape was pretty brown, scorched by summers heat and all the fields had already been harvested but the views were still spectacular and there were some amazing changes in colour in the rock.
Further along we did hit some green valleys which were mainly populated with fruit trees. The green leaves are beginning to turn golden red.
We also cycled through a number of villages. Here is a cow being dismembered on the street.
On the second day we completed the major climb…
… and dropped into this flat bottomed valley which was host to a number of small villages. We hadn’t done huge amounts of miles but we’d completed the climb and it was so lovely here that we decided to pack up early and set up camp.
We watched the shepherds bringing in their sheep and got cooking dinner. At dusk a herder comes over with his flock and starts speaking to us for a long time in Farsi… Very little gestures accompanied his speech but we think in the end he was trying to tell us that it would be too cold to camp. We tried to explain that this was OK and we we had plenty of blankets and after a long time he moved on.
It was indeed cold that night and we woke to find A LOT of frost on the tent and our washing was stiff with frost but we’d slept well in our thermals and down sleeping bag. I can be a bit of a wuss when it comes to getting out the tent when it’s chilly so Paddy got up and made coffee. By the time I crawled out 30 minutes later the sun was up, thawing everything out nicely.
We had a leisurely breakfast while we waited for the tent to dry and spotted lots of birds of prey perched along the road side. We also found a cute little water vole hiding in one of our helinox chair bags. He’d obviously scuttled in their during the night and was very reluctant to leave his new hiding place. I really wanted to take him with us.
We got going and soon met paved road again. We stopped in Varzegan for lunch and more food stocks and managed to reach Ahar by 5pm completing a 85km day.
Ashura parades were in full flow but we were tired and so headed straight for the large park where we planned to pitch our tent. Iranians are very fond of all day picnics and overnight camping so lots of parks are set up with 24 hour toilets and dedicated washing areas.
We were just deciding where to pitch the tent when we’re approached by a local called Parviz who makes an offer for us to come and stay with him. We were both reluctant mainly because we were very tired and hungry but the draw of a shower after three days was too tempting.
Parviz and his lovely family looked after us well and they even insisted on us sleeping in their bedroom. We hope they didn’t mind us going to bed at 9:30 – positively early by Iranian standards! In the morning we had a lovely breakfast with them, showed them lots of photos of China (the country they seemed most interested in) and did a photoshoot before we left!
Ahar to Kalaybar and a visit to Babak Fortress
A steady climb towards Kalaybar ensured an average speed of 13km the next day. Kalaybar is a very cool town set at the bottom of a valley, towering mountains on all sides. Again, we headed to the town’s central park and set up camp.
It was a lovely little spot and everyone was at the top of town at the Ashura festivities so we were completely left to our own devices. As darkness fell the park lamps came on and each corner of our little green courtyard was suddenly bathed by soft light so we even enjoyed a quiet ‘candlelit dinner’ before watching a documentary about John Coltrane.
The next morning we spent time food shopping and then got ready to leave. The climb up from Kalaybar is very steep and the first section out of town would have been tough going on any bike but tandem’s rear chain had recently developed a tendency to slip and jump off the smallest cassette on stiff climbs… It made it impossible for us to cycle the first section which was about 11% gradient and we ended up pushing for a bit.
The problem is a bit worrying considering the amount of high mountain passes we have ahead of us both in northern Iran and Armenia but there is nothing we can do about it right now. After 12,000km the whole system has just worn out and it won’t go away until we replace the chain and all the cassette cogs. A costly replacement but inevitable at some point especially as the bike was second hand… It’ll have to be our Christmas present to one another!
We only had 10km to complete up to the entrance to Babak Castle but it took us a good 3 and a half hours a) because it was tough and b) because we kept stopping to admire the view which was spectacular.
We had left the brown rolling hills behind us. The whole area here is covered in a thick oak tree forest and catching this landscape in Autumn was a real feast for the eyes.
We arrived by lunchtime and by the time we’d eaten we decide it was too late to start the long hike up to the castle ruins so we set up camp among the oaks with a great view of the valley below and had a relaxing afternoon blogging) (me) and bike tinkering (Paddy) in the sun.
The hike up to Babak Castle
Babak castle is an extensive crag-top fortress (dating back to the 9th century) and was the home to the Azerbaijan hero Babak Khorramdin (yes we’re still in Iran).
We started early as it was a 70 minute hike up to the ruins.
Breathtaking views across the landscape, more golden oak forests tumbling into the valleys and lots of photogenic backdrops to set up a few timed shots.
The fort itself sits on an impressive cliff top and we were lucky enough to have the whole place to ourselves for a few hours. I was able to de-scarf and even roll up my trouser legs!
We sat and had lunch perched on one of the walls and by the time we had finished a couple from France and a Dutch guy had turned up, so we sat chatting for a while before all heading back down together.
We had a few more hours until sun down so we managed 25km down and over the next valley. The green hills and thick blanket of oaks continued. It was so nice to see some trees and cycle through some mountainous countryside. Tajikistan feels a long time ago now!