Crossing into Iran was quite the event. Everything changed as we arrived at the border, which I will tell about shortly. Different landscapes, weather, alphabet, language, culture, religion, food, people, way of dressing… everything! But first, our last few days in Armenia.
Cycling the M17
After our night camping at the Qarunj hotel where we got our first taste of Iranian culture and almost got adopted by a cute puppy, we continued on the high plains towards Goris. Goris is a pleasant little town close to Tatev monastery. The road kept moving up and down in a straight and rather boring line and we were unpleasantly surprised by a day of strong headwinds and cold, hard rain. We saw very little of the surrouding landscape, some large and perfectly round old vulcano cones disappeared into the mist. There was no shelter where we could stop and change so we kept going in our shorts, trying to make it to Goris as fast as we could. Hoping the crazy car drivers would see us despite the bad visibility. We spent two nights in Goris in a lovely little hotel-restaurant where we defrosted after a warm welcome and a very long hot shower. We wandered around when the rain lifted and Cyril got his first barber experience, a very close shave and a haircut.
Apart from the omnipresent Soviet blocks Goris has pretty old stone houses, streets lined with mulberry trees and ancient inhabited caves in spectacular rock formations that stand over the city. It is a pretty and laid back town, relatively unspoilt by heavy industry. I must add that the Soviet blocks in Armenia are not as dreary as in any of the other former Eastern Block countries: instead of concrete they are made of a local purplish-pink lava stone so they blend in nicely with the surrounding mountains and don’t suffer the spots and stains and crumbling of old rotting concrete. We spent one day hitch-hiking up and down to the famous Tatev monastery, which can be reached by the Guinness record-breaking longest aerial tramway, a spectacular 6km ride over craggy mountain ridges, a village and a forested valley. A bit of a tourist circus compared to the much quieter monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin but worth the trip. The hitch-hiking was fun, traveling with a couple of Armenian house painters, a little sceptical old lady, a bus driver on his way to pick up a troupe of school kids for an excursion and an old taxi driver with a beautifully carpeted Lada and an impressive set of gold teeth.
Doing the M17
We left well rested for the last few days of cycling to the Iranian border. We had somehow expected very hot weather all the way down South since Sevan lake but we were lucky. The M17 is a little used road that crosses two more 2000m+ mountain passes and we took a few days to do them in very good weather conditions of around 25 degrees. The first pass was a steep set of many many hairpins, the second one a much longer climb which looked almost impossibly steep when we looked at the road ahead but was very doable in the end. We enjoyed a few more amazing wild camping spots: one at a pretty and well hidden gem of a monastery in the forests bordering on Nagorno Karabach, one in a field with fruit trees close to Shikahogh village, where sheep herds guided there sheeps up the mountains in the morning, and our last one just past the last mountain pass, in dry and warm desert surroundings just before the Iranian border. The cycling over these last mountain passes was hard work but the M17 is a beautiful route and I cannot recommend it enough to cyclists: just bring enough food as there is only one shop in Tsava village and nothing else. There is enough water on the way, almost no traffic and beautiful camping spots everywhere. We didn’t meet any other tourists apart from a cool Ecuadorian couple who were on a one year motorcycling honeymoon around the world. Up at the last pass it was very cold: about 10 degrees in mist and with a cold howling wind, but as soon as we started descending South it warmed up to Iranian temperatures, well over 30 degrees.
We found that Armenia has been the country that we have explored the most in depth of all the countries we have visited so far. This is easy to say and do, because it is so small and so densely packed with the an incredible array of landscapes, history and cultural sights. Every other country we have traveled so far we feel we haven’t given the time it deserved, but Armenia we have truly seen and felt. If Istanbul marked the end of our Europe trip, then cycling and camping on the M17 is the beautiful finale of the Caucasus leg of our journey. We now begin on a new part of our journey, as Iran deserves a journey all of its own.