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…