Plans change constantly, or at least mine do! I had mapped out a clockwise tour of Armenia, but changed my mind as I left because I wanted to get to Yerevan earlier and see if I could pick up some gas canisters which I had failed to find in Tbilisi. It turned out to be a good choice, although I wasn’t thinking so as I took the road(?) West to the Armenian border. It soon deteriorated into a rough track and was pretty tough going (through quite enjoyable scenery) until I reached the good bit of road into the last Georgian village before the border.
I was not sure what to expect at the border and was pleasantly surprised by the very warm welcome from the border police, who after looking through my passport said “welcome to Armenia, please enjoy your stay” in pretty good English. That was it, I was now in my 21st country, Armenia!
I was way too tired to contemplate riding any further, so only a few hundred yards from the border dipped into the first field I could find after making a sleeping/camping sign to a local farmer and getting the OK. I had just put up the tent when along came a younger farmer (his son?) to ask if I wanted to sleep in the barn. If he’d arrived before I’d unpacked I’d have gladly accepted his offer, which I’m sure he understood. Not yet an hour in Armenia and already I was treated to their famous hospitality.
The ride towards the capital Yerevan was on good roads and I spent lunchtime just outside Ashtarak admiring the first of many churches I would explore during my time here. An interesting fact I learned pretty soon during my wandering around was that in AD 301 Armenia became the first state officially to embrace Christianity.
Torn & bleeding
Yerevan however proved unlucky for me. I was hit by a car that just ignored I was on the road and after passing me turned right, taking me down hard to the tarmac. I was badly hurt and bleeding but the car didn’t stop, so it was left to a few kind locals to pick me up and patch me up. My Yerevan nightmare continued when a group of Russians at the hostel came back blind drunk and proceeded to urinate on the dorm carpet, then kept me awake most of the night. I left Yerevan the next morning.
I tried not to let what had happened discourage me and once outside the city limits soon began to enjoy the scenery, which given I was headed back into the mountains was stunning. My injuries were mainly loss of skin, so apart from soreness didn’t really affect my riding. Unlike the other countries I’ve traveled through where I set myself a daily average distance, in Armenia I simply ride until my legs have had enough and don’t care how far I’ve got. It is very hard, but very rewarding cycling.
If you’re a cyclist planning on visiting Armenia, then you need to like climbing hills, because you’ll be doing a lot of it, whether you choose on or off-road cycling. The pay-off will be that after riding here, anywhere else will seem easy! The condition of the roads is pretty good compared to Georgia and traffic is lighter, but the driving is still abysmal.
Wild camping is pretty easy as I’ve always felt safe, the people here are so friendly and there are no worries with security, of both myself or the bike. I camped alongside a river in a popular picnic spot and was just about to make my tea when a local family called me over and insisted I shared their meal; the hospitality is amazing and continues each time I make a stop.
My highest point
The Selim Pass at 2,410m is a major challenge and after reading in the guide book that no public transport goes over it and it gets closed for a long period over winter, I was surprised at how good the road surface was – tarmac all the way. I made an early start to avoid the midday heat, which was another good choice as I climbed upwards for the next few hours.
Just before you reach the top is the Selim Caravanserai which dates back to 1332. It was built on the Dvin-Partav international trade route, which included the Selim Pass. The purpose was to accommodate weary travelers and their animals as they crossed from, or into, the Selim Mountains and it was destroyed in the 15-16th centuries, before being reconstructed in 1956-1959.
Dropping down from the pass I decided to have lunch in Martuni, on the southern end of Lake Sevan. I joined a couple of locals finding shade under a picnic shelter and offered to share my cheese and bread, whereupon I was then invited to a vodka drinking session. Rueben was the ringleader and insisted I knocked back the vodka in one go then would quickly refill my glass. He sent one of his comrades off for more vodka and after toasting Armenia and lot’s of other places/people I finally managed to persuade them to allow me a little coke in the glass before I ended up drunk. It was fun and a memory I’ll treasure.
Feeling decidedly wobbly on the bike I opted for an early finish and camped on the lake shore, where I later watched another amazing sunset. It had been a pretty special day.
I was loving Armenia, more in my next blog…