It’s been one hell of a week! Injury, more bike problems, the biggest mountain pass so far, borderline sexual assault, a new country, brutal weather, TV interviews and the prophecy of Iranian hospitality showing itself in full force!
I headed south out of Goris with a fairly easy day ahead of me, 40km or so to the Bgheno-Noravank monastery, that I’d received a tip of being a good place to camp from another cyclist. This started with a long descent down towards the town of Voratan which culminates with a steep set of switchbacks down the edge of the valley. My front brake started squeaking and I guessed it was time to change the brake pads.
I flipped the bike, took off the wheel, removed the pads and sure enough they were done. Pretty much on schedule, at this rate I have exactly the amount of spares I need (I use disc brakes, one downside of this is a lack of replacement pads outside the western world so it is necessary to bring them with you).
With my bike partially dismantled I went to open the spare using my knife and slipped… sinking my knife about 5mm into my left index finger leaving a 2cm long gash through the centre of my fingerprint. Fortunately this didn’t hurt too much as my brain was too busy processing what an absolute idiot I had just been.
After a split second blood started pouring out like a river and I fumbled for something to stem the blood, pretty much ruining on of my buffs (a type of scarf) in the process. Getting into my first aid kit with one good hand was a challenge but I managed to clean the cut out, stop the bleeding and wrap it up in a way to hold the gash together.
During this whole ordeal several cars stopped to see if I needed help. In a typically English manner I hopped in a circle around my bike, covered in bloody bandages like some sort of bizarre ritual, insisting that I was completely fine and waved them on not wanting to inconvenience anyone.
I had a slight worry at one point that if I hadn’t stopped the bleeding, and did need help, that this road actually illegally enters Azerbaijan exactly where I was located. In reality this wouldn’t change a thing but technically voids my travel insurance as the British Foreign Office says to not be where I am.
It took the best pat of an hour to rebuiled the brakes with one hand. I pressed on, after eating a tonne of food to help replace the blood I’d left in Azerbaijan, and begun to climb the other side of the valley south of Vorotan. A fairly easy climb made unpleasant by the pulse in my fingertip causing a lot of pain.
At the top of the climb I reached the turn off for monastery and crawled along 4km of gravel road through the woods to reach it. It was really good fun having a look around a building like this with no one around for miles…
As I begun to weigh up the decision to sleep here or not several key points came to mind, it was freezing inside the building even during the sun in the day, I should really get to some accommodation where I can keep my finger clean and redress it and also, I say without shame, the fact that eerie singing in the woods from about a mile from the monastery really creeped me out.
It was something like 40km to the next city, Kapan, and I had about 1.5 hours sunlight. Heading on would mean a bit of riding in the dark but the roads in Armenia are pretty quiet and I have plenty of lights. I rode back to the main road and went over the top of the climb only to face a descent and another climb, lovely.
As I was riding up this climb a car of Iranian tourists pulled up along side me going at the same speed. The passenger window rolled down, a ladies arm appeared holding a chocolate bar which she then passed to me, waved and then drove off. I wish I could have a support car all the time!
Over the next top I then flew downhill all the way to Kapan and walked into the first hotel I saw on the main square, with my bloodied fingers crossed, hoping that a room would be affordable. £10 later I was in the tiny elevator riding my way up to the fourth floor and walked into the most entertainingly decorated room I have ever stayed in. There is a DDR themed hotel in Berlin, called Ostel Mostel, where guests pay a premium to have a room like this…
With my finger freshly dressed, and looking like it would not need medical attention, I begun the climb from Kapans 800m to the pass at 2,537m. First was a gentle climb through a valley towards the town of Kajaran…
It’s worth noting that I spotted a hotel in Kajaran, for cyclists reading this who want to attack the worst of the mountain fresh. I also stocked up on supplies for the climb. My excitement to find little cans of coffee seemed to disturb the shop keeper, but not as much as my decision to buy four of them did…
It’s a fact, mountain climbs on a 35kg touring bike are a grind, especially when long sections of the climb are at a 12% gradient just like this one, but, when they give views like this it is all worth it…
Halfway up the climb an Iranian trucker stopped to offer me a lift, I declined and he didn’t take offence seemingly understanding my desire to make the pass myself. Lovely gesture though…
After clearing the pass, and stopping to take in the view above, I begun the 35km descent all the way to Meghri. After about 20km I took a little break only to see a man waving me into his house. Can’t turn that down so I head over and, using basic Russian, introduce ourselves and he offers to make tea or coffee.
I go into his humble home and end up having a conversation about the drug problems in Armenia, it was around this time that I noticed the guy was absolutely hammered as he almost fell over the small electric stove he was boiling the coffee on. He offered me some vodka but I declined. He noticed I was still wearing my tight thermal gloves, which I was wearing to hold my fingertip together and he grabbed at my injured finger causing me to yank my hand back in pain.
So as not to cause confusion I removed my glove to show the bandage and he then asked me to give him my hand. What? I said no about a million times but he was insistent so I did. At this point he slowly raised my fingertip to his mouth and gave it a lingering kiss…
This was one of those moments where your mind almost leaves your body wondering how on earth you have gotten yourself into this situation, something that has happened to me twice before in my life (Nearly freezing to death on a North Korean train and having Latvian gangsters threaten to kill me who turned out to be joking).
After what felt like an awkward eternity I downed my coffee, said thanks (for the coffee, not the kiss), and walked out. At this point he decides it would be a shrewd move to say his house is actually a cafe and that I owed him $2. The cheek of it. I gave him about 20p for the coffee and went off down the hill towards Megrhi.
As I reached the town I asked some taxi drivers where to find the Haer B&B. One of them got the attention of a solider who explained it was his mothers place, suspiciously I took his directions and did reach the correct B&B, where the solider turned up the next day to do some choirs for his mother! I sat down to a huge meal at the B&B and then spent the next day sitting in the sun on the balcony reading and taking in the view…
The day was finally here, I would be crossing into Iran! I awoke to heavy rain but out the window I could see that it was clear just down the valley. Contrary to my expectations it took a painful hour to exit Armenia after having to feed my bicycle through an x-ray machine ,with the wheels taken off so it would fit, and a mere 10 minutes to enter Iran.
There were four steps to immigration, a very quick stamping, describing my planned route in Iran which was documented, giving my fingerprints to a police officer who asked me to type my details into the police computer myself as it was easier and then an interesting customs procedure that involved a man coming up to me, tapping my bike and whispering “Alcohol?” to which I said no and was let in without further inspection (Alcohol is illegal in Iran if you didn’t know).
With an inch thick wad of Iranian Rials (the largest note being worth £2) I cycled out down the valley into a massive headwind…
This valley seemed to funnel the wind into full force, at times I was having to cycle in my lowest gear to make progress downhill! The monotony was broken when a family in a car pulled me over to take pictures with me and to welcome me to Iran.
I reached Jolfa exhausted and checked into a fairly pricey hotel as the slightly grubby budget place I went to first wouldn’t let me keep my passport. Turns out this is standard practice due to police checks and the nice place took my passport anyway.
The next day would be fairly easy, so I thought, 70km south to Marand where I hoped to meet a man legendary among cycle tourists, Akbar. Akbar is known for magically “finding” cyclists on their way into Marand, his trick is that he knows all the truck drivers in the area and they call him to let him know you are on your way!
The first half of the day was a big climb up through a valley which seemed to have trapped a storm. After a few spits of rain I pulled into a cafe to try some local food…
Delicious and an absolute bargain. The man serving me, upon realising we shared no language, went into a well rehearsed system of charades, with a big smile on his face, and I managed to place my order.
As I ate I saw the storm getting worse and worse but eventually headed out into it when I realised the massive winds would be at my back. The storm continued to get worse turning into hail that was at the borderline of preventing me from seeing the road.
I tried to change gear but my chain begin to slip off the gears and I looked down in horror to see that my cassette (gears on the back of a bike) where now incased in a huge lump of ice! The only gear clear of ice was the one I had been in so I slipped back into it resigning to fighting my way up the inclines.
A pickup truck overtook me, pulled over and offered me a lift but I declined knowing I was so close to the city and wanting to break my “cycle every inch possible” rule as little as possible. Unbelievably the weather got even worse, and at this point soaked to the skin I went past the same pickup offering me a lift again. I turned him down again, seriously doubting my own judgement at this point, and finally made it into Marand.
As I reached the edge of the centre I stopped my bike, collapsed onto my handlebars exhausted, and looked up to see a man up the road standing by his motorbike waving. It was Akbar! I don’t think I’ve been so happy to see a stranger in my life! I followed his bike to the grocery store he runs with his brother was quickly warmed up with plenty of Chai.
In two years Akbar has hosted 219 long distance cyclists, one every 3 days on average (many through the cycling community WarmShowers.org), and he has a book with a photo with every single one of them! A notably photo being one with the Chinese guy who rode to London on a Tuk-tuk.
On a sadder note Akbar, very sweetly, has a framed picture serving as a memorial to two British cyclists whom he met, Mary Thompson and Peter Root, who were later involved in a fatal road accident in Thailand.
At one point Akbars phone rang and, with a smile, he informed me another cyclist was 30km away! After an hour of chatting his phone went again saying the cyclist was now 13km away and we headed off in the car to find them.
We spotted him, pulled a U-turn and hopped out the car to a slightly surprised French cyclist, Jonas, who we then escorted to Akbars shop.
On the drive back it was great to see Akbars system in action. We’d hear his mobile ring, look to the side of the road and see a shopkeeper looking at Jonas trying to phone Akbar. He’d toot the horn of the car, the shopkeep would see Akbar had already found the cyclist and would give a wave.
We made it back to the shop and, after a few photos together, Akbar showed us where we would be sleeping, the team dormitory at Marand Stadium. I hung my cycling gear up to dry in front of the heater and we headed on out for dinner, Akbar very kindly helping me get setup with an Iranian sim card and a cheap phone.
That night it began to snow lightly and by morning nearly a foot of it was on the ground. We would not be cycling today…
We asked Akbar if it was okay to stay another a night and he responded “Of course!” but that the stadium would be closed and he would find us somewhere else. We packed up and headed into town.
We stopped outside the local government office and were ushered in by a forming crowed where we served tea and breakfast.
After eating we were shown into another room with some men who were introduced to us as the Mayor and the man who would be Mayor next. It was also at this point that I noticed the two photographers snapping away. After some more tea our bikes were loaded into a pickup and we were told we would be the guests of the mayor.
The man next in line to be mayor drove us to a government building and we were given a room with full board and told to stay as long as we needed and that it was all free. Gobsmacked by our good fortune we relaxed in our room.
After an hour or two there was a knock on the door and a man, Masood, introduced himself and said would we mind doing a television interview? I’m not turning this down! We had a chat for an hour whilst waiting for the cameraman to arrive and were informed that our meeting with the Mayor was already published on the regional news site. It turns out the snow had trapped a lot of people in the area and we’d featured under the headline “Snow traps many in Marand, including French and English tourists”.
The TV crew wanted to thank us for doing the interview and offered to buy us lunch which we happily devoured. We had some fun filming the two of us riding up and down the street on our bikes and doing a short interview about our trips, why we came to Iran and what we think of the place. It should be published on this site at some point.
After the shoot the guys asked if we’d like a tour of the city and they showed us up to a viewpoint from the cities 6,000 year old castle. From here we go a great view of what the storm had done to the area…
Hopefully the weather will improve tomorrow and me and Jonas will be ride on together east towards Tabriz! p.s. my finger is healing up well!
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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.