A copy of the Rough Stuff Fellowship journal from 2009, with a cover photo of a chap cycling along a hilly landscape, with an old and Eastern-style religious building caught my eye in mid-2018. Reading the photo credit and the article inside made me ask the question that I subsequently asked almost every time I mentioned the thought of riding there; “where is Armenia?”. The chasing of information began. Armenia is between Iran, Turkey and Azerbeijan. The capital city is Yerevan. It is the oldest Christian state in existence. The alphabet has 41 characters. You cannot buy the curreny in the UK.
First real gem was finding Tom Allen, and his website www.cyclingarmenia.com . At the time the website wasn’t launched and I was involved at a very small level in the beta version, asking questions that I had about my slowly gestating idea. What are the seasons like? Where is there to leave a bike bag? How easy is it to get food away from the capital? Tom was hugely helpful. The idea grew and the plans solidified.
April 2019 and plane tickets were booked with Aeroflot. They were really helpful and accommodating with my questions too. I changed plans for which bike would be taken, opting for my Trek Boone cyclocross race bike with the handbuilt dynamo wheelset from my winter bike. Luggage systems were refined and a new bar bag was made for my by Tim Tas Rek. Kit was whittled down; everything I was taking would have to be carried as hand luggage. This meant that the weight of the bike bag was a consideration to get under/close to the Aeroflot weight limit for free carriage of luggage; 23kg. Again I asked many questions and ended up with an Evoc bike bag. It all came together, 23.7kg at the airport scales. Hand luggage was an Alpkit Drydock 50. I just snuck in with that thankfully as it didn’t get weighed and I knew it was close to the 10kg limit.
My plan was to fly in, book a hotel for the 7 nights, then after 2 days of acclimatising to the heat and altitude head out for 4 days of riding. Bike bag and all extraneous luggage could be left at the Hotel Colibri…..All good!
Flights were fine; transfer at Moscow and into Yerevan in the darkness. Waiting for the passport checks and I see on the tourism marketing videos bears and leopards in the National Parks…..Hmm. I hadn’t planned for those. Bike bag with bike safely inside collected. Hotel owner meets me and we head to the arranged shuttle. Driving through the city I see a dead wolf as roadkill…….hmm again.
I bought a knife in case of bear, leopard or wolf attack whilst camping. Not to try and face the animals off with, but to cut my way very quickly out of my tent and get out sharpish. Then news that the train line from Yerevan (Almast station) to Lake Sevan had stopped it’s weekday running a month early and was only operating Friday-Sunday. This meant the camping plans were looking rocky, but a call from the hotel owner, Aleksander sorted a replacement taxi bus to get me there early Tuesday. As Monday turned to Tuesday my stomach decided that it didn’t like the last meal at all. Thus began a 24 hour bout of food poisoning. With a change of plans enforced by circumstance I ended up in bed for the whole of Tuesday. Wednesday came and I tried doing a short 15 mile ride around the capital on the still amazed by the 30’C heat of the area. I visited the Armenian Genocide monument, I did a little rough stuff trying to find my way from the monument back down to town. I found the Almast station and got talking to a local lad at a bakery who informed me of the route to Geghard monastery, and Garni temple. Only 25km he said.
Thursday I set off to Garni and Geghard. It was hilly, very hilly! The route climbed and climbed. It got hotter and hotter. I stopped several times to buy water from the small roadside shops, and ice creams. It got hillier. I was aware that there wasn’t much in reserve after being ill and at times I
contemplated turning back, but the pedals kept turning. Still the hills came. I passed the turning for Garni deciding to push on to Geghard and then stopping at Garni on the return leg. Lunch came within a stones throw of the monastery. Watching the ladies at work baking lavash whilst I ate
delicious dolmades was very recuparative.
There is a lot of history in Armenia. A lot of religious sites worth exploring and a lot more to be seen whilst passing through. I’m not religious but I find the continuous embracing of a religion over such a long period of time and the effects that has on culture fascinating. Geghard monastery was one of these places. Cycling back and I look forward to the descents except there don’t seem to be many. There’s still a lot of climbing. I miss the turn off for Garni and stop to ask a young lady directions. My basic Armenian crib sheet works as a conversation opener and she points me in the right path and we have a short 5 minute conversation as she wants to know more about home and I reciprocate. The temple is impressive but not as impressive as the geography it sits in. Garni gorge is very impressive.
The ride back continues to be a small road with patchy parts where the choice of 40c Terreno Zero tyres was a good one. I stop at another small shop and eat ice cream whilst talking to the shopkeeper’s two small children. We don’t get past more than names but we still share smiles. The day finishes with an 8 mile descent back into the capital. I am very grateful for it. Hardest fifty and a bit miles I’ve ever ridden. A lot of climbing and the highest altitude I’ve cycled at as I climbed up to just under 6,000ft.
The next day I’m up early and ride 900ft uphill for 4 miles to Almast station. I board the single train that day to Lake Sevan, departing at 08:30. There’s not many people on the train. I pay a lad 600dram for the train ride, a snip over a pound. The soviet-era train climbs slowly but surely up from Yerevan to Sevan and onwards. The conductor sleeps on a chair. I get ready to disembark at Sevan station but as I ready the bike the door shuts and the train begins moving. My loud exclamations alert the conductor and he ties his shoe laces then heads up the train to speak to the driver. He returns and informs me that I can get off at the next halt. I do this and find myself on a weed-ridden platform. The train driver honks the horn and the train clatters off. I push the bike under the barrier and hit the road. The freshly tarmacadamed three-lane road, so new there are no white lines along it. I leave the minty fresh road and head down to the shore of Lake Sevan, then after collecting more water and a bun I’m away. The route quickly changes to rough, ungraded surface and again I’m pleased with my bike and tyre choice.
Stopping for a brew I chat to a lad walking by to get to work. There’s little traffic and what it is is made up of older cars packed full of people. I can’t recall seeing a single occupant vehicle outside of the capital. My stomach begins gurgling again and not in a good way. With the cramping getting to the point of preventing me standing up to pedal I spot a large hole at the side of the road. I jump off the bike, jersey off, bibs off and explode. After doing the necessary and burying, tidying and cleaning I’m away. Still 60 miles to ride before home.
The town of Hrazdan appears and I begin scouring for the universal green cross sign of a pharmacy. I spot one, park up and walk in. I speak two words; “Lootzs (Armenian for diahorrea), Imodium?” The pharmacist deals with me quickly and I add the Russian-packaged medication to my bar bag after carefully popping one in my mouth without touching the capsule. Popping next door to the shop I buy more water and a little pack of tissues just in case. The tissues are florally scented and this makes me smile.
The small road drops and rises through villages and hamlets and the open countryside. I spot architectural features I had spied from the train. The road follows the river and occasionally disappears only to reappear maybe on the other side. More water and ice cream and a little bit of chatter with locals. I pass through the village of Argel and my map has the note scrawled on cribbed from Cycling Armenia; Anna’s bakery. I search and see no bakery. The village is not large. I stop and ask a local young lady. She kindly walks me down the road to what looks like a small domestic garage. As we get closer I see three ladies working hard baking lavash. There is a small
table outside with some cheese and vegetables. I ask to buy some lavash as I also try and ignore the flies buzzing all over the dough in the other room. I also buy some panir; local cheese similar to Feta. Lunch is this fresh lavash and panir in a bus shelter just along the road.
Feeling slightly better and the road carries on. Closer to Yerevan and the surface improves slightly and the volume of traffic increases. The Hrazdan river is still there but has been canalised for this section. The route drops around the suburbs of Yerevan and then finally follows the river and the gorge to an end. 72 miles in the end.
So my trip finished as it had started, mooching around the market at Vernissage and being very much the tourist. The planned wild camping route hadn’t transpired. I hadn’t seen all the areas I wanted to, nor had I done the mileage I planned. Three-quarters of my luggage had been
I had; however, met a good range of people. I’d eaten and drunk a real mixture of items from apricot oghi (vodka) with breakfast through to locally brewed 8% Trippel-style ales and mountain fresh spring water. From fried doughnut style snacks bought for 60dram (10p) in railway underpasses through to burger and fries for 2500dram (£5). I’d seen the largest chronological range of artifacts in a museum I had ever come across. I’d learned so much every day about the culture and place yet still had only really experienced a drop of what was there. I plan to return and to hopefully avoid the glum bum and manage to make it really more of an experience.