Making the most of Armenia’s mountains

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.

Goris

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.

Three months on the road

I am writing this as we are speeding through Northern Iran, on our way from Tabriz to Tehran, in a nicely airconditioned VIP bus. The in-bus entertainment (a zany film about two blundering guys with no ‘toman’, money) has finished so all is quiet. Outside the dry desert mountains are gliding by, with the occaisional village in a pocket of green where a river still has water flowing through its bedding.

We have only been in Iran for 5 days but there is a lot to write about this weird and wonderful country. However, since we passed the three month mark and we have now well and truly left the Western world a reflection on the first part of our big trip is in order. The previous blogposts were mostly about the countries and the sights. This one is a bit more personal, about our life together on the road. More on Iran in a few weeks, when we have a faster (read: unmonitored) internet connection.

First of all, we are loving cycling the world together. We had high expectations, based on our previous cycling trips together and from what we have been reading on other world cyclists blogs. All of these dreams are now our reality, and what little fears we had are not materializing. It is a great world out there and we love having the freedom to explore it. Still, it takes some time to find your rhythms and your comfort zones with regards to sleeping, eating, physical limits, interactions with eachother and the rest of the world.

Cycling

Cyril has evolved from a road racer to a bike traveler, meaning he is no longer frustrated at average speeds that are way below 20kph and days where we do no more than 50km because it is boiling hot or we are hauling 40kgs (or more? We don’t know and don’t want to know) of bike and luggage over a mountain pass. I’m no longer balking at anything that is over 6% climbing and I’ve tackled 14% bits without getting off the bike. I stil cry every now and again when it is really tough going but I will never give up or turn back. When we are not cycling we feel a bit strange and we love getting back on the road after a little break. Both our bikes are excellent work horses.

Wild camping or slumming it

Our first night of wild camping was super exciting. We found a spot next to a little river, behind a bush, close to a neat little Bavarian village. We waited for half an hour before we put up our tent, to make sure no one had spotted us. I felt sticky and missed having a hot shower. After a good nights sleep we woke up, packed up, and as we were leaving we were approached by a dog walker. We felt like we had been caught in the act but the man only wanted to know if we were happy with our camping spot. Fast forward three months, to our last camping spot in Armenia. We come sailing down our last Armenian mountain pass, find a little side road that runs around a little hill, hiding us from views and sounds from the road. Without hesitation we plonk our bags down, put up our tent, strip naked for an improvised ‘shower’ with a wash cloth and a water bottle. We then sit down to enjoy a glass of wine with our pasta dinner, the silence and the sunset. Just before midnight we are disturbed by a herdsman who guides his cows around our tent. We say hello when he shines his torch into our tent and he is on his way. Cyril spots a desert fox staring at him with glowing eyes when he steps outside for a pee. This is one of the busier nights, as usually we are completely alone and undisturbed. We’ve come to love camping in wide empty spaces, away from traffic and people. Why did we ever pay for a campsite, when you have the option to spend the night in the most beautiful places? Why plan accommodation ahead when you can have complete freedom in deciding when you are done with cycling for the day? I’m very happy we tapped into this freedom and we are enjoying it to the max. Still, sometimes it’s nice to have a room, to do laundry and tidy up a little bit. Our ideal ratio is camping for 5 or 6 days and then a room for 1 or 2 nights, but this depends on whether we are planning on visiting a city where we want to stay and look around for a bit.

Treating ourselves to a bit of civilization by booking a room every now and again also helps in keeping us fit and healthy, both physically and mentally. The cycling is getting more physically demanding as we are getting into hotter and higher regions. Sometimes we experience cultural misunderstandings and language barriers or stressful days with lots of traffic or bad weather. Then the luxury of arriving in a warm and dry place with a door that we can close behind us and a shower is something to be immensely grateful for. We feel that we are pacing ourselves well by not approaching this trip as an extreme endurance race. We still feel fresh and happy and confident we can keep this up for another year.

Another treat is staying with a warmshowers or couchsurfing host for one or more nights. One of the greatest pleasures from this trip is our many encounters with the nicest people who provide us with warm welcomes, good conversation and interesting cultural insights. The incredible generosity and help of random strangers has inspired us to be more active hosts when we come back to Amsterdam. We have hosted warmshowers guests before but what we have offered pales in comparison to the lovely welcomes we have received. We are often embarrassed by how much people offer us, of their time, their house, their good spirits, their food. We think of how we have often refused a request to stay because we were ‘too busy’. We love the notion of hospitality as expressed by the Armenians (but found everywhere in the sphere of influence of the former Ottoman empire): a guest is a gift from god.

Ambitions

We both wanted to write while traveling. I wanted to read and write architectural essays, and I also had ambitions of doing yoga every day, learn how to play the harmonica and study Russian. Cyril wanted to keep a travel diary, cook every now and again and learn Russian. We both failed miserably in most things. Traveling by bicycle is keeping us fully occupied and we are mostly too tired or too busy to do anything else. It is an effort to stop cycling for a day or so to write the blog, to do laundry and to plan ahead with visums etc. Essays are forming in my head and outlines are being made but I cannot find the space to write and do the necessary research properly. Another ambition we didn’t realize was doing the full distance by bicycle. It proved too much to cram all of the countries into the time we have set ourselves so we had to take a bus or a train every now and again. We decided not to feel bad or guilty about this as our trip is not about breaking records or being ‘pure’ cyclists but about exploring the world and the people in it. This is one ambition that is working out. We are also learning a lot by seeing how history has caused movements of people and culture, conflicts and cuisine. Names we previously only knew from news reports (for instance Nagorno Karabach) now have a much more nuanced meaning for us. We read up on (recent) history of all the places we go to try and understand the lives of the people a bit better.

Health

We have not had any serious stomach bugs or any other discomforts yet, although we definitely feel like we are no longer 18 when we crawl out of our tent at 7am… However, overall we do feel better than ever, spending every day outside, using our bodies and resting our minds. We have both lost fat and gained muscle. We have hard tan lines on our arms and legs and brown faces with white smiling wrinkles. We eat a lot: a pasta dinner cooked by the tent, lunch of barbecued meat with ‘lavash’ bread and salad (bye bye vegetarian principles), lots of fruit. We have a big bowl of porridge with dried fruit and nuts and honey in the morning which makes for a great first breakfast. Then second breakfast with bread or whatever we can find after our first 20km or so on the bicycle. We use a steripen UV water purifier to clean the water we collect from taps, springs, waterfalls. I try to eat as much yoghurty stuff as possible to keep my gut healthy.

Mentally and emotionally we are in good shape too, although we had a small crisis recently when I realized I really didn’t like Cyrils habit of checking his phone starting early in the morning until late at night. I think a trip like this is a beautiful opportunity to disengage from our usual screen habits but instead of being less online it seemed as if it was only becoming more. We had a good talk about it and are working on building some better habits with less screentime. I guess being so close together 24/7 brings out these confrontations, but so far this is the only annoyance that came up. Apart from me wanting to stop to check the map every 10 meters when we are doing a hard climb.

Social media addiction crisis aside we love traveling together. The ‘team’ bit in Team Oufti has gotten very strong. We share the tasks fairly equally, from camping to organizing ahead. Cyril is the maintenance man and ride leader, I’m more the itinerary and accomodation organizing girl doing the producing and planning ahead, a.k.a. the Reiseführerin. We enjoy eachothers company a lot and were seriously wondering about the state of the marriage of the guy who asked us how on earth we managed to spend 3 months on the road together without going absolutely bonkers. Sometimes we cycle with other people which is nice but overall we prefer cycling with just the two of us together since we are now so in tune.

So, after three months: we have definitely lost our training wheels and we are well balanced on our way, on our bicycles. Right now we are enjoying a small break since Iran is way too hot to cycle right now. We are traveling around by bus and train and will meet two friends from Amsterdam in Esfahan next week. After Iran: the Pamir Highway. We are ready for the challenges ahead!