Armenia normal

Armenia continues to amaze us and the last week has been one of continues highlights. ‘Normal’ means OK, and we find Armenia super normal! We are happy at the prospect of a few more days of cycling over Armenian mountain passes before we enter Iran. Today however is unexpectedly wet and cold so I’m writing this while waiting for the rain to stop before we head out and start cycling again.

Yerevan

Yerevan was an unexpected pleasure. We left our bikes at Kabooz restaurant on lake Sevan, in the able paws of the resident gigantic guard dog which we nicknamed Cujo. Since Yerevan boasts little historical highlights despite its long history I wasn’t expecting much, but it is a city with a lot of character. It is entirely different from the rest of the country in the sense that everything is well-kept, polished, fashionable, new, expensive and meant to be enjoyed. The avenues are tree-lined, there are huge parks full of outdoor cafes which makes it a nice place for flaneurs. It was also extremely hot, so we implemented a siesta rhythm and headed out in the early evening, to stroll around town with the rest of the Yerevanians. Cyril took me to a great restaurant for my birthday and we made a new friend when we approached a barista with a bicycle, who showed us the (well-stocked!) bicycle shops of Yerevan. We loved our days in what was to our eyes an incredibly modern city. We then met up with some freshly arrived Dutchies and realized how we have adjusted our standards to increasingly different surroundings, as they were a little bit shocked at how run down everything was. We don’t see the cracks in the pavement anymore, or the dirt poor farmer selling his veggies on the street, or the broken down Lada taxi with 4 guys scratching their heads around the smoking motor block in the middle of the street. On our last morning we visited the Genocide memorial and museum. It is a sobering place which tells in great detail of the Armenian genocide that happened in what is now Turkey about a 100 years ago. We left with a huge respect for the Armenian people, hoping there will be a day when Turkey will be able to own up to the atrocities committed so they can at least start to have a conversation again. At the moment there is none, and it is not possible to cross from Armenia into Turkey and vice versa.

Selim Caravanserai

We took a taxi back from swelteringly hot Yerevan to pleasantly warm Sevan, picked up our bikes and bagage from Kabooz and started pedalling South. We camped nearby Hayravank monastery on the edge of the lake and saw the clouds come rolling over the mountains on the other side of the lake. The lake is quite cold because it is at 1900m altitude, lovely to wash off the sweat of a day on the bicycle. The next day the real work started: the first of 5 mountain passes of more than 2000m altitude we will have to cross before we get to the Iranian border. The road South along lake Sevan is beautiful, with the glitterling lake on our left and rocky mountainscapes and cliffs on our right. There is little development and little traffic so we enjoyed this relaxed part of the day immensely. At the South end of the lake however the real work started. We climbed a nice gradual climb in perfect sunny weather to the 2410m Selim pass. The vieuws South are incredible: dry and stoney mountainridges as far as the eye can see. Just over the pass is a beautifully restored mediaeval caravanserai from 1332 and we decided to spend the night right there, at the very place where people who traveled the Silk Road would spend the night some 700 years ago. Looking around inside the building we imagined all the people and animals holed up in there, safe and warm. We also met Armin, a jolly man who runs a mini market from the boot of his car, selling home-made ‘bomba’ vodka and fruit and honey preserves. More Armenians stopped by for a short picnick and a drink, so we ended up going to bed with lots of alchohol in our bloodstream and the prospect of only having to roll downhill the next morning. In the night we were all alone, just a howling wind and a couple of drunk guys who stopped for a pee who had me bolt upright, wide-eyed and clutching the pepperspray, but of course they left us alone. In the morning more (local) tourists came along and we had great fun with a group of middle-aged Armenian ladies who were dancing, eating and drinking coffee like there was no tomorrow at 8am.

Crossing the Vorotan pass

The following night we camped at a trout restaurant with a super friendly owner, before we did the next mountain pass (Vorotan pass, 2344m). We started following the ever narrowing Vorotan gorge, until the valley widened and we started hairpinning up to the actual pass. This pass, contrary to all the previous ones which have no sign whatsoever, has a proper finish line. The road is flanked by two gorgeously over the top bombastic Soviet monuments, which makes the crossing feel like a real victory, and I couldn’t help myself but punch my fist into the air. South of the pass the wind was ferocious, and we didn’t get to enjoy the reward of the downhill all that much. We traveled along the highland, with a straight road that had long and gradual climbs over the foothills from the nearby mountains. These long straight climbs became mindblowingly boring, even if the landscape all around is stunning in its wide emptiness. Looking for a camping spot was a bit problematic since there was little shelter from the road and the wind, but we ended up at a fantastic place. Quranj is a hotel-restaurant for Iranian bus travelers, with a mixed staff of Iranians and Armenians. We got our first taste of Iranian culture and they got to enjoy (and film!) the view of two lycra-clad foreigners trying to put up a tent while fighting with the strong wind and two playful puppies. The same evening they slaughtered a sheep and invited us to come and watch. I have been a vegetarian for a long time but the killing was strangely uneventful. I have thought about it for a bit and I guess I appreciate the honesty of it. Buying an animal, killing and cleaning it with your own hands and eating all of it is a lot more honest than the sanitized meats we buy in the supermarket which are so far removed from the unpleasant business of raising, killing and processing animals. I would have been more shocked if our hosts had kicked one of the puppies, which would have been a completely unnecessary act of violence.  Still, I think we could all do with eating a lot less meat, considering the cost to the environment and to our own health. All in all, an interesting evening. Our foreheads were daubed with warm sheeps blood, which will protect us against the evil eye apparently! We did sleep a very peaceful sleep, and woke up with a very cute white puppy dog in the vestibule who had been sleeping there all night, right on top of our bags.

Barev Hayastan (Armenia)!

It is only a few days since we left Tbilisi. We left late in the morning after picking up our passports from the Chinese embassy. After a long and hot day of seemingly neverending and almost imperceptible climbs alongside heavy traffic heading out of the city we put up our tent just across the border in Armenia. The border crossing was easy and the traffic dropped to almost nothing. Armenia, like Georgia, has it’s very own alphabet and the language is again completely different from anything we’ve heard before. The first things we learn are that Armenians call their own country Hayastan, and barev means hello.

Starting off well rested we started following the Debed river. Armenia made it’s first impression on us and boy, are we impressed! There is no time to feel sad about leaving wonderful Georgia when a country such as Armenia presents itself. The road into the country is a canyon with a river and lush greens down below and stark mountain cliff faces in dusty colours above. We see bald eagles circling high above on the thermal currents. In the morning of our second night camping in Armenia I find a mouse jumping around my clothes, frantically looking for the way out of a trouser leg. It found a smart place to hide from the eagles. The road is great, a gradual and gently undulating climb with very little traffic. Some of the most beautiful monasteries of Armenia are alongside this canyon and we visit two of them: Haghpat and Sanahin. Both times we leave the bikes below and hitch-hike up the steep cliff side to the plateau above. We meet some lovely people this way: an elderly couple shows us a spring with a little swimming pool before they drop us off at Haghpat and another man treats us to coffee in a cafe right on top of the cliff, with views of the copper smelting factory and town below. People wave and shout hello and are proud to share their countries treasures with us. Good times. The monasteries are quiet, dark and cool and we enjoy wandering around these ancient structures during the hottest hours of the day. We do only 45km today before we find a great camping spot halfway up the cliff, with views off the Debed canyon all around us. As the night falls we hear animals around us, a sound between dogs howling and crazy laughing. Foxes maybe?

The serious climbing starts on the next day. Just before we reach the first bigger town (Vanadzor) we do a long and gradual climb. Just after Vanadzor we put up our camp, stopping when we have done 1000m of climbing.

Climbing to the Sevan pass

Looking at the map the climb towards the 2114m Sevan pass looks fearsome, but in practice we end up having one of our most enjoyable days of cycling. It is hot and there is no wind but it is bearable. We climb towards Sevan, and on the way we take a little detour by taking a side road that runs through some villages, away from the main road. In the villages we run into a waterfight with local boys which leaves us soaking wet and high and happy on adrenalin. Shortly after I am greeted by Levon who invites us for coffee. Coffee, prepared by his wife Laura, is fried eggs, a dish of green beans, fresh tomatoes and peppers, bread, homemade cake, bonbons, homemade lemonade, and coffee.

Levon used to be a flautist in an Armenian folklore ensemble. He performed in France when he was younger but he stopped playing: the corrupt Armenian government left him feeling unappreciated performing Armenian culture. A terrible shame since he is an outstanding artist. The flute is virtuoso and shrill, the bird sounds evoke the herdsmens life in the mountain lands around. We enjoy the moment together spent in his family home and get back on the bike feeling grateful for the spontaneous hospitality of Levon and Laura.

Levon plays

We dip into Dilijan, descending to 1200m, before we start climbing again, towards the Sevan pass. We have to cover 900m altitude but the whole climb is a steady 8% average, making it altogether doable. The main road dives underneath the mountain but we switchback up and over the pass via the old road with no traffic, to the village of Semyonovka. There we meet a girl from Tallinn, one of the many people of Armenian descent who has ended up somewhere else in the world. The Armenian diaspora is huge and we meet a lot of people who tell us about their family abroad. This girl had never been to Armenia and she seems to be experiencing some sort of culture shock: a Northern European big city girl finds herself in a muddy farmer village where time has stood still and the family slaughters a sheep for the visitors. We camp just past the village, at the very top of the Sevan pass, a windy field full of flowers and views of Sevan lake below.

Today we descended to lake Sevan, a short 15km ride. The lake is the largest water body of Armenia and lies at a respectable altitude at 1900m. It is a popular holiday resort for Yerevanians escaping the summer heat of the city. There is no camp site but we find a place next to a restaurant on the Sevanank peninsula. The outdoor dj set is being built up as we blog so we are preparing ourselves for a sleepless night and some disco dancing on the beach of lake Sevan. Not really our kind of place but apart from the little market selling the usual tourist junk it is quite laid back, with mostly families enjoying the beaches and the food.
Tomorrow we will head into Yerevan by bus, for a little city side trip. We want to visit Garni temple, the Geghard monastery, and to celebrate my birthday! After we will continue South alongside the Western shore of lake Sevan, heading into the serious Southern mountains of Armenia. There we will encounter our biggest passes yet, 5 huge passes in total, of which the highest one will be more than 2500m altitude. As Cyril says: it’s all training (for the Pamirs).