Statue near Bolisi, Georgia.

Statue near Bolisi, Georgia.

Note: If you have found this post whilst searching for info. on bike repairs in Yerevan, Armenia, scroll down to the red text at the bottom.

I’ve not moved far in the last week or so due to a combination of paperwork, a bit of laziness as well as some bike problems. With that aside Armenia has taken the crown as not just the most beautiful country on this trip but the most beautiful I have ever seen.

I cycled out of Tbilisi after saying goodbye to Nanang, my cycling partner for the width of Georgia. I was sad to say goodbye, as riding together had been a great experience, but decided I’d stay positive and think of the pros of cycling alone such as riding at my own pace.

Instead of taking the main route to Armenia from Tbilisi I decided to take a less used road via the towns of Bolnisi and Kazreti to avoid the worst of the traffic. There was gentle climb out of Tbilisi with a strong crosswind but nothing to cry about.

The road was perfect for the first 80km or so, until the mining town of Kazreti, where I asked some soldiers if there was a cheap hotel in town and was turned away. I carried on and the road suddenly got much steeper and the quality became far worse, evidently the road was only being maintained far enough to service the mines.

Bad roads upto the Guguti border post, Georgia.

Bad roads upto the Guguti border post, Georgia.

The further I climbed the steeper it got. The air temperature dropped significantly which meant I’d climbed higher than I had thought, I should’ve researched this road more.

I was having the usual problem of riding on  a valley road in that it is tough to find a spot to camp. I decided I’d try and reach the town on the border as these almost always have a cheap hotel, for people having issues crossing, or failing that the border guards would probably let me camp near their compound.

Bad roads upto the Guguti border post, Georgia.

Bad roads upto the Guguti border post, Georgia.

I was shattered but every 1km there was a marker saying how far it was to the border and these kept me motivated. After the 13km marker it felt like I was riding forever, I thought I was going crazy until the 8km went passed, the others must be missing.

I rolled into Guguti, the border town, and pulled up along side the local shop as I was now very low on water. The shop was closed so I asked some guys outside if there was a hotel in town. One of them responded in perfect English! I was gobsmacked as I was really out in the Styx at this point and it turned out the guy has just returned from living in the UK for 8 years working as a forklift driver for Asda.

I was quickly given a shot of the Chacha (Homemade brandy) that they were all drinking to give me some strength. I asked if there was a good place to camp in town, which was then translated to the group who burst out laughing as I was told “Why camp when we all have perfectly good homes?”. A jovial argument broke out as to who would get to host me as it was explained to me that in Georgian culture a guest is considered a gift from God.

My host was determined, and after a few more shots, we headed off to his house along with the man who spoke English (I should really start writing down peoples names as I know I will never remember them all). During our chat I learnt I’d ridden about 110km that day and climbed up to 1500m, no wonder it was cold.

The house was quite large but fairly basic and we all went into the living room and sat around the wood burning stove whilst a feast was prepared around us. As we sat down to eat the host pulled out a bottle of vodka. I was about to get a long hard lesson in the tradition in many parts of the world that a bottle of vodka, once opened, must be finished.

Between courses of fried potatoes, pork and dumplings we made toast after toast to Life, the Dead, new friends and to those we love. Once the three of us had finished off the vodka, my relief was quickly shattered when the hosts brother arrived with a bottle of homemade brandy… which was promptly cracked open. The rest of the night is hazy but I remember an arm wrestling tournament between us all as well as the hosts young children. At 1am I managed to excuse myself and stumbled off to a very comfortable bed.

I awoke at about 10am with a surprisingly mild hangover, but a hangover nonetheless. A huge breakfast was brought out, which I could barely face, but ate as much as I could for relatively short 70km I needed to ride that day.

The house was 50 metres from the border post so I waved goodbye and was quickly stamped out of Georgia with a “Goodbye” from the border guard and then stamped into Armenia with a “Good luck”.

The road was still bad, and continued to climb but the scenery became much more vast…

View once across the border into Armenia.

View once across the border into Armenia.

After a few km I joined a man road and cycled into Tashir where I got some Armenian money from an ATM and bought 2 bottles of coke and tonne of chocolate to get me through the day. I was looking forward to staying in some accommodation I’d been recommend in the city of Spitak. The local YMCA.

After riding through Stepanavan I attempted to follow the H-23 which Google marks as a shortcut to the town of Gargar. This road, which is marked to be a main road on GoogleMaps, quickly disappeared into a forest path. Below is from before it got really bad…

Shortcut through Stepanavan

Shortcut through Stepanavan

I turned back and rejoined the long route on the M-3 which turned out to be a very quiet road. All I had left was a mountain pass and I’d then be home free on the way to Spitak to sleep off my hangover.

The climb would’ve been easy if I was in a better state, and the fact it started to snow didn’t help, but I was relieved to find halfway up that there was now a tunnel cutting off the top few hundred metres of the climb. Once clear of the tunnel I flew down the mountain to Darpas where I headed west to Spitak.

Now YMCA’s in the UK are not somewhere people on holiday would tend to stay, but the ones in Armenia border on luxurious. The dorm beds were £6 but I’d heard the private rooms where incredible, despite being over budget at £17, but took one rationalising that I’d spent almost no money for two days and I needed to do laundry. On top of this the Spitak YMCA also had top notch internet allowing me to make some Skype calls for the first time in weeks and also backup some photos online.

The next day was going to be a long one, roughly 105km to Yerevan including the highest pass of the trip so far at 2,157m. The climb began gradually and was made much easier by the epic mountains that straddle the road…

The glorious climb out of Spitak towards Yerevan.

The glorious climb out of Spitak towards Yerevan.

After much huffing and puffing, up a road that reached 22% incline in places, I was rewarded with a lovely view back down the valley before riding over the Pamb pass which is the entrance to a plateau.

View back down the climb form near the pass at 2,157m.

View back down the climb form near the pass at 2,157m.

As you can see from the following elevation profile the climb from Spitak to the Pamb pass is a grinding continuous climb…

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Profile of the climb from Spitak to the top of the Pamb Pass in Armenia.

The lovely views continued along the plateau although the air was much cooler up here…

View along the plateau surrounding Mt. Aragats.

View along the plateau surrounding Mt. Aragats.

The staff at the YMCA had thoughtfully taken a look at my route and recommended me a sight that would only be a very small detour to see. In the town of Artashavan there is a small pull off towards the Saghmosavan monastery. I’d been told the Monastery was very atmospheric and that it provided a nice view down the gorge.

Inside Saghmosavan monastery.

Inside Saghmosavan monastery.

The monastery was indeed nice but they really under sold the gobsmacking view down the gorge…

View down the gorge next to Saghmosavan monastery

View down the gorge next to Saghmosavan monastery

After getting my fill of the view I flew the remaining 35km or so to Yerevan as it was downhill almost the whole way. I managed to ride it just over an hour which made up for the two hour long slog up to the pass that morning.  I spotted something interesting on the way into the city. Most vehicles here use Liquified Petroleum Gas stored in high pressure tanks in the boots of their cars. People must not have confidence in these as each filling bay at the Gas stations is separated by a reinforced wall and drivers stand well clear of the cars as they are filled…

Petrol station blast walls in Yerevan

Petrol station blast walls in Yerevan

I spent a lazy few days wandering around the market, eating, sleeping as well as visiting a very depressing Irish pub on St. Patricks day.

As my route through the rest of the country would not take in Lake Sevan, which at 1900m is one of the highest lakes on earth, I decided to take a bus there with someone from the hostel. The one hour bus all the way to Sevan, the town on the lake, cost all of £0.80. The views across the lake joined the many great views I’ve seen in this country, much overlooked by many tourists.

View across Lake Sevan.

View across Lake Sevan.

We raced back to Yerevan as we were hoping to catch a performance of the Armenia Choir at the Opera house. Not something I normally have an interest in but at £1.20 for seats right at the front I couldn’t refuse. Through a combination of hitchhiking in a Coca-Cola delivery truck and hopping on another bus we made it back in record time and took our seats…

The Armenian Choir in Yerevans Opera house.

The Armenian Choir in Yerevans Opera house.

The performance was incredible. The power in those peoples voices, with zero amplification, is something that is universally appreciable. I recognised a few of the pieces and vowed to attend more events like this.

I had planned to leave the next morning but, after awaking feeling hungover despite drinking only one beer the night before, decide to spend the £6 to stay another day. Once I felt alive later in the day I took a walk up to a view point at the top of a large ornamental staircase in the centre of the city called “The cascades”.

What is great about this viewpoint is that on a clear day you get a great view of Mt. Ararat which towers over the city. This mountain is believed by Armenians to be where Noah’s Ark landed as the biblical flood ended and is hence a Holy mountain. The mountain is central to the identity of Armenia featuring on many bank notes and coats of arms throughout their history.

This is also a sore point as during the 1915 Armenian genocide, where the Ottoman government killed an estimated 1 million Armenians, they also took the mountain from Armenia and to this day it remains a part of the republic of Turkey.

View of Mt. Ararat from the top of the cascades in Yerevan.

View of Mt. Ararat from the top of the cascades in Yerevan.

The cascades, Yerevan, Armenia.

The cascades, Yerevan, Armenia.

I finally left Yerevan the next morning and headed south to the town of Ararat, named after the mountain as it gives the iconic view of the main peak as well as its companion, Little Ararat.

Perfect view of Mt. Ararat and Little Ararat from near the town of Ararat just before my spoke broke.

Perfect view of Mt. Ararat and Little Ararat from near the town of Ararat.

After 60km of smooth riding I suddenly heard a twang from my rear wheel, a sound I had not heard before, but immediately guessed it was the iconic sound of a spoke breaking that many cyclists describe as unmistakeable.

I pulled up outside a petrol station and found the offender. I carry spare spokes so no problem, I flipped the bike, popped off the wheel, tyre and tube and then noticed the spoke was on the side of the wheel where the cassette is (the collection of gears on the back of a bike) and that I’d need to remove them to install the spoke.

I do own the tool needed to make this fairly simple repair, and I know exactly where this tool is too. It is neatly packed away in a plastic box in the wardrobe of the spare room at my parents house 3,500 miles away. Bugger.

The mechanics at the petrol station came over and offered to help, I looked at the hub and it appeared that I may be able to get somewhere with two spanners of the right size. I explain this to the mechanics and they take me inside giving me the freedom of their tools.

This is where the knowledgeable bike mechanics among you will tell you that I was not about to remove the cassette from my rear wheel but instead naively about to release the bearings from inside the hub of the wheel. I spotted this before I dropped the innards all over the dusty floor, reassembled the hub, and resumed staring at my wheel figuring out what to do.

The sensible part of my brain said turn back to Yerevan and get it fixed but many long distance cyclists will tell you that, psychologically, the worst thing in the world is turning back. The next bike shop where I know they’ll have the tools is not til Tabriz in 500km and riding on a weaker, wobblier wheel over five days of mountain passes is not a good idea. On top of this a day lost in Tabriz to repairs will eat into my precious 14 day Iranian visa.

I put the wheel back on the bike, turned around and headed back towards Yerevan with a much appreciated tailwind. The beautiful view of Mt. Ararat accompanied me along the way and I thought of the silver lining that at least repeating this road three times will be pleasant viewing.

Back at the hostel in Yerevan, to the surprise of the staff and regulars I’ve gotten to know, I set about the task of finding a bike mechanic or a shop that sold the tool I needed. Google quickly told me that there are no Bike repair shops in the country and that there is only one Bike Shop with an internet presence, Bike.am.

I called the bike shop and they didn’t have the tool but emailed me the contact details for a guy they know who does. After a quick call to Vahagn we arranged to meet outside his house in 15 minutes. He showed me into his living room, that looks more like a bicycle repair shop than some bike shops I’ve seen, and got started.

Vahagn had the cassette off and the new spoke in super fast and did a rough job of truing the wheel for me (I will probably still need to find a bike shop with a proper truing setup to ensure the wheels are perfectly round) but this was more than enough to get me on the road again. He even dug around in his spares box and found another cassette tool I could buy!

One of Vahagn’s friends mentioned that their goal is to open the countries first bike repair shop but for now it is not a viable business as there is only around 1,000 cyclists in Yerevan. This number is growing fast and they open to open a shop within a year. After a cup of coffee and I headed back to the hostel happy as Larry and demolished a huge dinner.

Hopefully I have better luck riding tomorrow!

Bicycle repairs in Yerevan.

There is currently no Bike repair shop in Yerevan but your best bet is to get a hold of a man called Vahagn. He has pile of tools, spares and a workstand and comes recommend as the best bicycle mechanic in the city. In case the details I provide below are out of date I originally got in contact with him through the guys at http://www.bike.am.

His Armenian phone number is;
095118101

And his home/workshop is near the corner of Buzand Street and Teryan Street, call him first though as you won’t find the house.

For the labour described in this post, plus selling me a new cassette tool, I paid 5,000 Armenian Dram which is around £7 (March 2014).

If you’ve enjoyed reading this then checkout my site 121degrees for more info and subscribe to this blog for more entries along the way!

I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.

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