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 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.
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.