Armenia – the good, the bad, and the ugly

Armenia – the good, the bad, and the ugly


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Warning : this not a sugarcoated sweet little tale of cycling through the beautiful Armenian landscapes. Language is perhaps a little abrasive at times, but I am from North London. Apologies for not sharing with closer friends and family sooner, but I only wanted to write this once.

Our planned route through Armenia was going to cover about 650km and nearly 11000m of climbing. That’s a lot of mountains. That’s like starting at sea level and cycling to the top of Everest 1 and 1/4 times. But we were psyched, and were looking forward to the high plateaus and the views that we would be rewarded with at the tops of the multiple 2000m+ mountain passes we would be hauling ourselves and our bikes up.
(…we were also hoping that the cars would honk a little less aggressively)

Things did not get off to such a good start however. Our first evening found us cycling through the Debed steep sided cliffs on one side and a brown watery torrent on the other, which does not make for a good choice of camping spots.

We came across the first of many stone cutting yards behind the equally common long-ago shut down Soviet era petrol stations. The owner emerged, and after a brief conversation in sign language we were selecting a spot in the long grass to pitch our tent for the night. Unfortunately during this process the owners rather large four legged friend also made an appearance.

Said canine made it clear that we weren’t welcome, counter to the suggestive hand gestures of his supposed best friend. We ignored him, assuming that he would eventually accept our presence. As I increasingly became anxious around the horrible dog, his owner increasingly tried to reassure us that he was a cute fluffy ball of fur (that just happened to weigh more than me and had super sharp teeth). The persistant barking turned to growls and when I stupidly turned my back on him, he bit me on the butt.

Already tense, I burst into tears and hid in the tent whilst the owner just shrugged his shoulders suggesting it was just a nip. Maybe it was, thankfully he didn’t draw blood, but I didn’t let the vicious thing out if my sight until we left the next morning.

Our route continued to weave through the gorge, slowly climbing uphill (at the kindest gradient we would experience in Armenia) towards the first mountain pass. We stopped early to rest well before the final push the next day. Catching the rays of the remaining light of the day we lolled about on the grass, stretching our limbs and contemplating our trip.

The spot wasn’t the most secluded, we were in sight of a village but it was the best that we thought we would be able to find that night.

Impending rain clouds made us end our relaxation and get the tent up quick. The storm approached, making us abort our attempts at cooking dinner and leaving us resort to a tent picnic instead. The eggs would have to be boiled in the morning.

With the contents of our kitchen bag strewn across the porches of the tent, we made for an early night. Just as we were about to climb into our snuggly sleeping bags, the boom boom bass of a car stereo came round the corner and headlights illuminated our tent.

Shit.

What proceeded was the only (and therefore most) unpleasant camping experience of our trip so far. Three kids got out of the car – one ringleader (little shit#1) , with the help of his girlfriend of the phone, tried to insist that this was his territory and we would have to pay some dollar or go. We knew it was bullshit, but being the second night in a new country, we remained polite… The phone with the girlfriend on the other end was purposefully handed to me and I explained that we were just going to stay one night and then move on the next day. Handing the phone back to little shit#1, second in command asked for a selfie with us at which point my politeness slipped. No way were we going to be demanded to pay money to camp in an empty field to then happily pose for selfies.

We made to leave and started to empty the tent. At this little shit#1 appeared to have a change of heart and the kind considerate soul (insert sarcasm here) said that infact, we could stay.

They and their car left and we climbed back into the tent. We debated our options. We’d never been “found” in one of our camping spots before and we didn’t feel particularly comfortable staying… But it was past 21h30 and dark, we decided to stay. They were just mindless dumbass kids after all

Just as we were about to climb into our sleeping bags for a second time the boom boom bass and headlights returned. Great.

I stayed in the tent as it was unlikely that my interactions with these dear friends would be polite. This time little shit#1 remained in the car and the two sidekicks did the talking. Initially they seemed apologetic, and with kinder intentions : saying how kind and welcoming the Armenias were (despite their body language suggesting quite the opposite) warning us of wolves (we don’t care) and that it was cold (but it wouldn’t be if we were asleep in our sleeping bags). They wanted us to pack up the tent and stay at their house to eat lavash (Armenian bread) and drink Armenian spring water (which was most likely already in our bottles). Pedro politely declined, explaining it would take a long time to pack our bags and take down the tent and really all we wanted to do was sleep.

The unwanted monologue continued, and instead of offering lavash, this time they wanted our bread or preferably money and the talk of this being their territory returned. A girlfriend could again be heard on the phone, providing the translation, and joining in with their laughing at us. Invading our personal space they forcefully showed pictures of places to visit on their phones and demanded yet more stupid selfies.

With Pedro now shivering at the door of the tent, they insisted on building a fire less than a metre away from the canvas of our house. Flames flickering, even  Pedro’s patience wore thin and he more bluntly told them to leave and started putting the fire out.

The sidekicks seemed to get the message. Bid us good night and appeared to retreat. The car remained though and their shadows could be seen behind a derelict farm building not to far away.

We sat and debated our options, now 22h30, we were even tireder and even less inclined to want to move. But we were also even less comfortable. All the while, Pedro kept an eye on our friends through the tent door.

Little shit#2 returned, concerned that we weren’t asleep and asking why. Pedro bluntly responded that it was too noisy here. Little shit bargained with us “your girlfriend gives me a kiss, just one kiss, and then we all leave you alone and you have a peaceful night, if not we make noise all night long”

What a kind and welcoming Armenian! All he was going to get from me was a kick in his tiny tiny balls.
When asked that we thought that all Armenians were kind and welcoming, little shit sheepishly responded that he was Georgian. Hah!

Telling him that we were calling the police, he and his cronies ran away like the brainless delicate flowers they were.

There was no way we were staying. We packed up the chaos of our tent in an even more chaotic fashion, stuffed ungainly shaped items and raw eggs in backpacks and left as quickly as we could.

Headlamps on, back down the hill we rolled, wondering where we were going to go. It was now 23h30. There was no way that I was going to camp. The 24h motel we had passed some hours before was most definitely closed. With dogs barking at us through the darkness and claps of thunder in the distance we tried our luck at a gas station.

Explaining that we just needed somewhere to stay for the night, without asking any questions as to why two foreign obviously stressed cyclists were looking for a place to stay at close to midnight, as the rain beat down outside, they gave us some tea and showed us to an unused room with two sofas we could push together to sleep on.

For the second night in a row in Armenia I cried. This time as a result at their unquestioning kindness in contrast to the unpleasant evening that had preceded.

Unfortunately our Armenian and their English (and our lack of Google translate) were insufficient to properly explain quite how grateful we were for the shelter they had given us the night before.

The mornings cycle was a quiet one as we pedaled pensively mulling over the events of the night before. A cry from another petrol station, broke our thoughts and soon we were sat down and given cups of coffee and being asked about our trip from one person as the other tried in vane to remember the English he had learnt at school. From the corner of the room he would occasionally recite the days of the week or the months of the year with a massive grin on his face.

The grins were contagious and we pedaled off with spirits buoyed. People that work at petrol stations are great.

Our pedalling upwards continued and we were rewarded with views of Mt. Aragats standing proud at 4090m. Eating some trailmix we mused over the fact that in a few months time we would be crossing mountain passes higher than that…

We finally had a calm night camping amongst some pine trees on the high plateau. I baked some bread that wasn’t eaten by a dog in the morning. Things were looking up.

Despite having been put in touch with friends of friends in Yerevan, we decided to bypass the city. We were still full of metropolitan buzz from our stay in Tbilisi and didn’t fancy facing city traffic getting into the centre. Our destination for the day would instead be some hot springs that we had spied along the Hrazdan gorge. We were undoubtedly in good need of a bath.

After wallowing in our pool of hot water, with cold water respite coming from a hosepipe hanging over the door, it was already time to camp. In a gorge again, we were again limited in choices of camping spots.

As we pondered our options, a man in one of two cars packed full of family seemed to understand our quandary and invited us to follow them. When travelling a little bit of trust can go along way : from leaving our bikes outside of shops and cafes, to accepting invitations to stay. We figured we didn’t have anything to lose and so followed.

It turned out that we had been invited to join the 9th birthday party of Susi and all the family was there… And us. A little bit out of place in our slightly scruffy cycling clothes, but atleast we had just had a hot bath!

As the men barbecued giant skewers of flesh outside, the women sat on sofas inside with me sitting rather awkwardly in the corner and Susi seeming quite perplexed as to why these two none Armenian speaking strangers on bikes had invaded her birthday party.

Once she realised that we were going to stay the night, smiles came out and the kids became more relaxed about us. The flesh sufficiently burnt, vodka was poured and the party began. Again the genders were separated, women and children at one end of the table and the men and the vodka at the other. I however, was out of place – seated between our host and Pedro amongst the vodka drinking end of the table.

Food was shared, I managed to avoid the carbonated carcasses without too many questions being asked and more and more and more vodka was poured. Occasionally a grandchild was summoned to our end of the table to be uncomfortably embraced by their grandfather (and our host). As they squirmed in his arms, they looked awkward but I assumed they just wanted to return to their dancing and biscuit eating at their end of the table, and I thought nothing more of it.

Then his hand brushed my leg.

I thought nothing of it, before the two extra seats were added to the table it was already cosy and now it could be described as cramped.

Then it happened again. I moved his hand away and moved myself away to the sofa. Creep.

The birthday cake came out and we were summoned back to the table. Everyone returned to their seats and so I reluctantly returned to mine next to the host who I was increasingly beginning to dislike.

His hand again returned to my leg and I pushed it away again, more forcefully this time. For some reason I didn’t share this with Pedro there and then, there were too many people and not the right moment.

My desire to participate in the party diminished, and I started to feel that the laughter around the table was directed at us rather than with us.

Eventually people started to leave and the grandmother acknowledged our weary faces and suggested that we should sleep. Susi and co eagerly showed us upstairs, unfortunately followed by their grandfather.

They showed us our room and as Pedro went inside and the kids went back downstairs, the grandfather pulled me back by arm and grabbed my butt. In disbelief I pushed him away and ran into our room.

Finally wth our own space I replayed the ugly events of the evening to Pedro. I regretted not reacting more quickly, slapping him or pushing him over, screaming at him or throwing vodka in his face earlier in the evening.

Pedro was furious. Even more so than me. He wanted to go downstairs and punch the poor excuse for a man or atleast leave. For better or worse I didn’t want to do either. I didn’t want to have to pack up and find another place to stay at midnight, again. I just wanted to sleep. We were still suffering from the sleep lost to the gang of little shits the night before last.

We weren’t in the house alone, but nevertheless piled our bags infront of the door and agreed to stay and sleep but to get up and leave at the crack of dawn.

The night passed and dawn came with very little sleep in between. The grandmother was already up and through Google translate we tried to explain why we were leaving so hastily, thanking everyone but her nasty husband for their hospitality, and telling her to look after Susi.

We’re not sure she understood, or perhaps she knew very well her husband’s nasty habits and chose to remain blind to them. His actions certainly seemed well trained and he had clearly invaded the personal space of many women before me. I now saw the forced hugs to his grandchildren in quite a different light.

The sun not even above the top of gorge we found ourselves again in silence pedalling pensively upwards. It wasn’t until an hour or so later when we sat down to eat breakfast that the night before caught up with me and I cried again. Thats three out of four days in Armenia.

At this point, if the border between Armenia and Turkey was open, I am sure that we would have turned around and gone back into Turkey to reach Iran, rather than spend another day in this country.

Was it just bad luck that the three worst nights of our trip had all been in Armenia? They were all independent events after all, and it can’t always be roses… right? It could have happened anywhere. There are sleazy, creepy men all over the world and we just happened to meet our share of them here within two days of each other in Armenia… right? The pictures of foam covered scantily dressed women plastered all over every car wash we had passed in Armenia did seem to suggest that as a country they have a problem with respecting women though.

I was not in the mood for cycling. I didn’t want to meet any more Armenians. I wanted to cycle through the country as quickly as we could. Unfortunately there were several high mountains in our way which would definitely slow us down.

Thoughts circling our heads we reached Hrazden. Parked outside of a shop we were befriended by a local bike enthusiast. The first we had met in Armenia. He showed us his analogue speedometer, electronic bell and indicator system and he eyed up our dynamos and pots of soap bubbles.

With some pigeon Russian we communicated that we were going to Lake Sevan and he appeared to suggest that he would cycle with us. He seemed harmless enough, and so despite our trust being broken so recently, we brought it back out again.

It was worth it. The three of us cycled the 20km or so kilometres to Lake Sevan – Gaydzag was in charge of navigation, calling out the names of villages we passed through and occasionally purposefully speeding ahead so he could stop for a cheeky cigarette break. He even let us ride his bike, but didn’t seem too interested in our reciprocal offer. The grin on his face suggested cycling with us had made his day. And he had made ours too.

Gaydzag restored my faith that there were kind men in Armenia. I bet he used to work in a petrol station!
We celebrated reaching our destination with a bottle of typically luminous Armenian lemonade and parted ways, with Gaydzag promising to give up smoking soon.

Plotting our onward route though, we found the blog of two other cyclists that had taken a similar path the winter before. Unfortunately it soon became clear that the woman of the couple had had a similar experience to myself. I still struggle to believe that Armenia does not have a problem with respecting women and giving them an equal place in society, even more so than the rest of the world. I don’t know how solo female long-distance cyclists cope. They are superheroines.

The remaining chapter of our Armenian adventure we again became a team of three. Our rather slow pace and circuitous route over the first few days in the country meant that our friend @stefbikestobeijing had caught up with us.

Despite having a campfire pretty much every night in Georgia, in Armenia we had none. Partly because of the increasing evening temperatures and entirely because we always seemed to be camped above the tree line… And that most evenings seemed to end in a rainy thunderstorm. Pedro tried to shower in one particularly heavy downpour, but soon regretted it when the rain turned to ice.

Daytime temperatures soared, not aiding my lack of motivation to cycle. Thoughts of our earlier evenings in Armenia would still sometimes eat into my brain : I wished we hadn’t left so early, that I’d screamed at him and given him a piece of my mind. Alas even though hitchhiking was an option, it was too far to go back now.

Thankfully we were treated with undeniably awesome scenery. Perhaps expected given that Armenia lies pretty much entirely with the Caucasus mountain range.

Against Stefan’s advice, we took the awesome detour (in both distance and 1500m of elevation) up Yeghegis Valley. Reluctantly he followed us, cursing our irratic decision making ( I may have been averse to the detour until we reached the junction). Eventually though, despite his best efforts, he started enjoying himself even when we were climbing steeply up on a dirt track. The camp that followed is in the runnings for the best of the trip so far. It was possibly our most remote camp to-date. There was no-one else around. Just what we needed.

Our path through Armenia continued to climb up and down, but our mountain climbing and Snicker eating game was beginning to feel strong. I was mobbed by a slightly overwhelming bunch of questioning school girls, we were invited to join family picnics, met plentiful cows, sheep and even pigs in the road, and spent the afternoons hunting patches of shade to hide from the increasingly unbearable heat. We met several pairs of cyclists come coming up from Iran and learnt of others heading the same way as us but a few days ahead or behind.

On our final mountain climb we were almost disappointed with the views. It had been a solid climb, demanding all our effort, and the surrounding hills were rolling and green and pleasant enough but not as spectacular as we had grown to expect in Armenia. But then we crossed the pass and saw the other side. Iran. The rolling green was replaced with endless dramatic dry sharp edged peaks. We rolled down the other side like kids, eager for our next country.



One thought on “Armenia – the good, the bad, and the ugly

  1. Alexandre Paris says:

    Travelling and life in general is full of good and bad moments. Our memories will stay forever in these two extrem feelings.

    What doesn’t kill us, make us stronger.

    Never give up, just detour, if necessary 😉

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