I didn’t know much about Armenia when I cycled across her border one month ago and if I’m being honest I still don’t. I can recite a few facts gleaned from the internet: the first country to adopt Christianity; she is at war with her Eastern neighbour Azerbaijan and has a deep wound inflicted by Turkey to her west; her national symbol is Mt Ararat where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the great flood, a mountain that now lies in Turkey. She is a country whose children have travelled far and can claim Steve Jobs (his adoptive grandparents were Armenian and apparently he could speak the language fluently), Andrea Agassi, Cher, and erm…the Kardashian’s (I honestly don’t really know who they are) as her distant offspring.
I know first hand that she is a quiet country with impressive landscapes where the cool forests of Dilijan National Park give way to the stark hot lands around Lake Sevan. The tranquility of the countryside makes arriving into Yerevan, her large cosmopolitan (whatever that means) capital, a bit of a shock.
Our final night in Georgia before crossing the Armenian border was a frustrating affair that involved entering a field of thorns in the dark when trying to find a place to camp. We managed to escape to the hazard free seclusion (apart from the odd nut) of a Hazelnut grove and slept soundly. At first light the pickers came but seemed unphased by our presence. They were curious and asked us questions as we packed up and made our way to a clearing to mend our punctures (Liz wins 3-2), and inspect the thorn damage. Every inch of tyre seemed to have at least one thorn and we spent 2 hours patiently removing them, a surprisingly relaxing activity. I think sometimes our brains are thirsty for any stimulation other than cycling.
In usual style we crossed the border into Armenia in the midday heat and pedaled on along river valleys, happily noting how much quieter the road had become since leaving Georgia. A water stop at a roadside bbq shack led to an evening spent drinking vodka and eating with new friends of dubious character. I was rechristened ‘Matilda’ by a tattooed, gold-toothed guy who had a heart to match; a little bruised black-back but essentially made of gold. His friend (I’m afraid names were lost on the spirit soaked air) possibly the ‘boss’ just referred to him repeatedly as Stalin’s Gulag. As the laughter-shouting balance tipped towards the latter, we took our leave and tipsily pitched our tent near to the river behind the bar. Throughout the night we were awoken by regular cries of ‘Matilda‘ and Amigo, (which on reflection are mighty fine new names) and heard footsteps close to the tent. Despite the persistent lingering we never felt truly threatened, I didn’t sleep well it’s true, but our instincts about these guys was right. In the morning we were sent on our way with one last shot of vodka and a ‘you’ve not seen me right‘ tap of the nose from the boss.
Two days later we passed Stalin Gulag on the outskirts of the nearest city waiting for a lift back home. His Barcelona top was unzipped enough to see the Gulag Christ his body carried, cross-like, and his teeth flashed in the sunlight as he smiled. ‘Matilda‘ went the cry followed by hearty handshakes. Before leaving he asked us for some money for the bus, not in a threatening manner but in a forceful enough way that we crossed his hand with silver. It felt acceptable as he had been very generous during our nights entertainment, but it was a transaction that left us feeling a little uneasy. Welcome to Armenia!
In Dilijan we enjoyed the cool forest air and stayed in a friendly guesthouse with delicious food and where Ioan’s bike mending skills were called upon. Grandad christened him the ‘Master’ and his grandson seemed happy enough with the job done (although probably slightly miffed that we left him to mend his own puncture, but you got to learn sometime kid!)
At Lake Sevan we finally got to swim in crystal clear water, this has been a constant thirst of mine during this journey. The rivers we have encountered have either been filthy or raging torrents. Our refreshing dip was followed by a warming shot of world-renowned Armenian Cognac offered to us by a couple of barrel bellied bathers. That night we camped beneath the iconic Armenian Writer’s Union guesthouse, which has now rather unsanctamoniously been reclaimed as a nightclub (we didn’t know this when we set up camp, so another sleepless night!) Now I don’t think for a second that the Union didn’t see it’s fare share of hedonism during the heydays, I just think the revellers probably had a more refined taste in both music and stimulant.
Leaving the busy main road between Sevan and Yerevan we found a recently harvested field, where we could finally have a restful night under the stars. One of the pleasures of this journey has been watching, feeling and tasting the season change from spring to late summer. We cooked our dinner tired but happy, watching the distant plumes of smoke from the burning fields of stubble hang in the air as the sun sank behind Mt. Aragats. We’ve finally found our rhythm.
We dropped into Yerevan past deserted Soviet factories and hillsides where the city’s rubbish tips smoldered. Tbilisi and Yerevan are the only cities I’ve been in for a while where I’ve seen no recycling facilities. In Yerevan in particular, the stark contrast between the show of wealth (real, borrowed or make believe, it matters not) and the fixation on personal appearance, sitting alongside an apparent blind-spot when it came to the environment, left me underwhelmed. Strong perfumes, high heels and thick make up were the overwhelming impression, but there were pockets of resistance and I think if we’d been prepared to give it more of a chance we may have been surprised by what we found. Instead our minds were focused on our next goal = India. It was a time for life administration – securing visas, booking flights, finding bike boxes, packing up and jettisoning excess weight! We also had the pleasure of popping into the Romanian embassy to pick up a package of bike bits that we’d failed to find on the road. It was a treat for Ioan to speak his mother-tongue and a reminder of just how warm, welcoming and accommodating Romanians are. Multumim baieti pentru ajutorul acordat!
So sorry Armenia that we didn’t explore you further, that we didn’t get a chance to visit your pagan sites, to climb your mountains and loose ourselves in your secret valleys, or touch your dragon stones. But one day maybe, just maybe we will return.
Stone masons at work. Yerevan is a pink city, with buildings made from pink volcanic rock.