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.

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).