I’ve reached Goris in Southern Armenia and taken a day off after 4 days of very tough riding including two big mountain passes. The continuous climbs, accompanied by descents on roads so bad that my forearms burn as I lean so hard on the breaks, have all been made bearable by the incredibly varied scenery Armenia has to offer. In a single afternoon I cycled from a desert canyon to a snow capped plateau.
I left Yerevan for the second time and flew the 52km to where my spoke had broken the day before in well under two hours thanks to a glorious tail wind. I stopped for lunch with a lovely view of Mt. Ararat before turning east just before the Azerbaijan border and beginning the first climb up into the mountains. There isn’t much of a view up this climb but I stopped regularly to see the lovely view back down to the plains behind me…
About 10km up this climb, as you reach the town of Tigranashen, you will unknowingly enter a small enclave of Azerbaijan. The town of Tigranashen was called Karki until 1992, when it was still administered by Azerbaijan, but was taken by Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabkh war. During this conflict Armenia sought to take back many ethnically Armenian parts of Azerbaijan that had been taken from them when the borders were redrawn by the Soviet Union.
As I rode through town I was greeted by a sign no cycle tourist wants to see, “6km of 8% gradient ahead”. Eurgh. This was not a fun climb but I did spot a car who fell afoul of the steep drops off the side of the roads…
After another hour or so I finally reached the top of the climb at 1800m, and out of water, stumbled over to a fountain by the side of the road and had my fill. The drivers taking a break at the fountain all looked surprised to see a cyclist up here! After a quick chat with them they explained that this is a false pass and that I’d descend 150 metres which I’d then have to climb back up before the real descent. Lovely.
Exhausted I made it over the second pass and begun the descent towards the town of Chiva where I knew there was a B&B. Cyclists normally love a good descent but the roads here are so cracked and potholed that you are forced to ride down them fairly slow leaning hard on the brakes all the way. I rolled into Chiva and, after asking some locals where to go, knocked on the door of the Ashot & Gohar B&B.
I was shown to a room and had an absolutely wonderful boiling hot shower. After an hour of relaxing, and just as I was about to fire up my stove to make pasta in my room, the son of the B&B owners, Hrayr, turned up from Yerevan and explained that they were having a birthday celebration that night and would I like to join them for dinner? Wonderful!
We headed downstairs and went out to a small building in the garden where a manhole sized cover was lifted off the ground to reveal a 4 foot deep BBQ bit where several skewers of pork and potatoes had been roasting away, the smell kicked my appetite into high gear.
As we sat down to eat I was given the option of whether we would be drinking store bought vodka or homemade grape vodka. The homemade stuff definitely sounded more interesting so some shots were poured out and we toasted to the birthdays of Ashot & Gohar the couple who run the B&B whose birthdays are just a few days apart.
The food was incredible, the crackling on the pork is some of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was also given a vegetable that I’ve never seen before but that tasted almost like lemon cake, I could eat a lot more vegetables if we had this in England!
During one of the many toasts the hosts wished me “Malodyets Janapar” which means “Good Journey”. This reminded me of what is becoming quite a well known film about bicycle touring, Janapar: Love on a bike, in which a British cyclist, Tom Allen, cycled from England to Armenia during a round the world trip and ended up getting married. I related this story to the hosts and was told I still had time in Armenia and maybe I would find myself a wife too!
Shattered, I excused myself at about 10pm and made my way up to bed, but not before attempting to write my journal and falling asleep on top of my laptop for two hours.
Up the next morning and after a big breakfast I hit the road on my way to the Vorotan pass, the biggest pass so far at around 2,350m. To kick this off I descended out of Chiva down to 1,000m at the bottom of the canyon that runs along the Arpa river. The climate along the canyon felt almost desert like, quite hot with fairly sparse greenery.
I rode along this road for most of the morning, stopping to do some laundry in the river, before the climb really started to kick in. As I crawled up the hills I couldn’t help but laugh at how all the cows stopped to have a good old stare…
The climb was gruelling and was not aided by being chased by flower vendors on a set of switchbacks just after the small town of Saralanj. On the first switchback it was a group of kids who could easily keep pace with me as I crawled up the climb but they seemed quite jovial. When I hit the second switchback an extremely irate woman in her 40’s pursued me trying to force flowers on me, whilst this motivated me to climb faster it was not pleasant! As soon as I was out of view of the woman I stopped for a much needed break.
I took a lot of breaks on this climb both because it was tough but also because of the amazing views you get of the view back down…
Exhausted I finally reached the top. In Summer there are fruit vendors who have stalls at the pass, as it also marks the divide between two regions of Armenia, and they are famous for giving free fruit to cyclists who make it to the top. I was not so lucky and was greeted by icy winds and an aggressive stray dog. I took a quick snap of the pass marker and rolled over the other side.
I’d expected the road to drop back down to a lower altitude fairly quickly but an undulating plateau spread out in front of me. I pulled into a petrol station tea room realised my blood sugar was dangerously low as my hands shook as I tried to drink my tea. I dumped about 4 sugar into it, got a slice of chocolate cake and had another sugary tea and felt a million times better.
The staff said there was no accommodation for 40km, and there was no way I was riding that far on roads this up and down, so I decided I would just try and drop as much altitude as I could and setup camp.
I carried on and managed to get beneath the snow line just as I rounded a bend and saw a massive climb into the town of Tsghuk that I knew I couldn’t make it up. As I pulled over I noticed there was big artificial bank next to the road, and after waiting for there to be no cars in sight, wheeled my bike through a gap in the bank and setup camp behind it.
Frustratingly I’d run out of any protein rich food except for some peanuts so ended up having macaroni with peanut and chilli sauce for dinner. I was full but new the lack of protein meant my legs wouldn’t recover that well overnight. Anticipating sub zero temperatures I also brought one of my water bottles into my sleeping bag, and the other into my tent, to stop them from freezing.
I got a very poor nights sleep, having to put on an extra layer of clothes in the middle of the night, and awoke around 6am and crawled out of the tent into freezing cold air. I looked down to see my tent and bike covered in layer of frost…
I grabbed the thermometer out of my luggage and saw that it was -11c! I grabbed the food out of my tent only to find that my bread was frozen solid. Bugger. The snickers bar I had was in a similar state. Thirsty I downed the bottle of water that had been in my sleeping bag but was annoyed to find the one inside my tent was now a lump of ice.
I setup my alcohol stove to try and thaw out some food only to find that the alcohol wouldn’t ignite due to the low temperature. I decided to pack up and stop at the first cafe I found to eat and warm up. This was easier said than down as the segments of the poles of my tent had all seized together. Pulling them apart, as well as packing everything away, whilst wearing big ski gloves was not a fun experience.
Tired, and on an empty stomach, I immediately faced the climb I had balked at the night before. I was glad I hadn’t attempted it as, after wrapping around a hill, it climbed for much further than I had thought.
I stopped in the next town, Sarnakunk, in a petrol station cafe and sat down to breakfast and tea. I noticed my feet were numb so took off my shoes and outer socks and warmed my feet on the radiator. As the feeling returned to my toes, and the accompanying pain set in, my grimaces began to attract the stares of most of the cafes patrons. The awkwardness of this situation was exacerbated by the theme of the film The Godfather being played on the sound system.
I lurked in the cafe for nearly two hours reading and drinking tea, waiting for the air temperature to rise, finally departing when my thermometer reported it being a balmy -3 degrees Celsius. I got some stunning views of the mornings mist trapped in the troughs of the plateau…
As I rode on I realised my legs had nothing in them, every little climb felt like I’d been climbing all day and realised I couldn’t carry on far. I stopped in the sun at one point for a break and felt hungry so decide to cook up one of my two emergency comfort food packs of instant noodles. As soon as the first forkful went into my mouth it was a blur and suddenly it was all gone, I was much hungrier than I had thought and fumbled to start cooking the second pack.
This is a weird problem I’ve noticed with myself on this trip. I don’t seem to get hungry whilst riding, just increasingly weak, moody and depressed. When I do eat my mood improves dramatically and my energy returns. The weirder thing is that, despite knowing I have this problem, I still never realise I should eat when my mood begins to drop.
It was now only 10am but I decided to take the day off and rode into the town of Sisian. As I needed to dry out my sleeping bag, due the frost settling on it the previous night, I headed into the Hotel Lalaner on the central square in town. The friendly owner showed me a room and I immediately new it was too nice a place, expecting the worse when I asked the price I was shocked to find it only cost 10,000 Dram (£14) including breakfast. Overbudget but I’d have the room for over 24 hours so checked in.
Frustratingly, at about 2pm, a wedding kicked off in the restaurant beneath my room and lasted until 11pm during which time the music was loud enough to vibrate everything in my room. As an extra bonus the power drain of the sound system caused the lights to flicker in time with the bass. In my exhausted state I gradually become more and more agitated and shamefully snapped at the nice woman working the reception. The second the music stopped I fell asleep almost instantly.
Feeling better in the morning I only had 40km or so to ride to the town of Goris. The road out of Sisian is a tough climb on gravel road, once again I was glad to be doing a short day.
There was another climb up to a small pass before the descent down into Goris and just as I rolled over the top I saw someone cycling in the distance. I thought it was odd at first as no one cycles in Armenia but as the bike got closer I noticed the silhouette of the bike showed it was carrying luggage and as it got just a bit closer I noticed the distinctive reflectors that adorn Ortlieb brand pannier bags that nearly every cycle tourist uses.
After a quick wave I crossed the road and me and Hossain introduced ourselves to each other. Hossain is from Tehran and is on a two week trip through Armenia during the Iran’s 2 week Islamic new years celebrations, Nowruz.
He’s previously done a big trip from Germany to Eastern Iran as well as tonnes of smaller tours. He had a really nice setup (Surly LHT Deluxe with a separable frame and a handlebar setup with about a dozen differant hand placements) the highlight being a mop that he uses to fend off dogs, the handle of which can be seen poking into my armpit below. I explained my technique of barking at the dogs to scare them off, enthusiasm is the key to getting this to work, which got a laugh!
I rode into Goris and went to a hotel Hossain recommended as he’d stayed the night before and had haggled them down to a rock bottom price. I got the same price and checked in. I got online to research my planned route for the next day on the H45 to Kapan via Tatev and its famous monastery but realised that this was not a viable route as it requires more of a mountain bike setup.
I’d have to take the main road south instead but this would mean I’d miss the highlight of the monastery. I decided I couldn’t miss it, and really needing a proper day off as my legs had still not recovered properly from the poor night on the plateau, so planned to stay another night in Goris,
In the morning I transferred to the Khachik B&B in town as they can sort out a trip to the monastery and come reviewed as the best budget accommodation in Goris. I should’ve gone straight there in the first place, as I’d planned, but was keen to check out the hotel Hossain had recommended.
A taxi was promptly sorted and I headed off to the start of the cable car ride towards the monastery. I was gutted to find that the road was perfect tarmac, better quality that the main route through the country as this road was only used by tourists heading to the monastery and, it’s neighbouring tourist sight, the Devils bridge. Maybe this could be a viable route to cycle, but for the meantime I enjoyed the stunning view down the Vorotan gorge from the Halidzor station of the cable car…
This cable car (a.k.a. “The Wings of Tatev”) is, at 5,7km long, the “longest reversible aerial tramway built in one section only” whatever that means. Despite this claim to fame what the ride really offers is a stunning view over the gorge. We were told by the voiceover that we were passing over the Devils bridge, a natural bridge over the Vorotan river forged by water erosion, and I was happy to see that the beautiful tarmac road lasted just far enough to reach the scenic bridge before turning into a dirt road up a brutal set of switchbacks. I was now glad to not be riding this way…
On the cable car ride I got chatting with a group of Australian guys who were ethnic Armenians who’d come over on a combination business/cultural trip. We walked round the Tatev monastery together and they were kind enough to give me an education on the place, I would’ve been walking around blind otherwise.
The bottom segments of the tower in the picture below are simply stacked and not mortared together. The reason for this was as a primitive way of measuring seismic activity in the area. As the stones move over each other this can be measured, very clever.
They also explained to me the reason for the remote locations of many of these monasteries, it was a matter of defence due to Armenia’s long history of suffering at the hands of invading forces.
My favourite thing about this place was the many crosses carved into the walls. Some intricate, some simple, they were dotted around in a rather random manner…
Back into the cable car we got another dose of the spectacular gorge with the road carved into the side it. The first 10km of this route would be great riding if they weren’t followed by 50km on dirt!
I’ll be leaving Goris tomorrow to head to the border town of Meghri via a 2,550m snow covered pass and an abandoned monastery (Bgheno-Noravank monastery) that I’ve been told is a great camp spot. My Uzbekistan invitation has arrived (a document needed before you can apply for a visa) so there is nothing holing me back from entering into Iran! As icing on the cake Hossain, the Iranian cyclist I met, has been putting me in contact with a bunch of cyclists in Iran who are already helping me with accommodation along my route. I’ve heard about Iran’s legendary hospitality but didn’t expect it to begin before I even crossed into the country!
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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.