Goodbye, Yerevan! Hello, Mountains!
Iranian visas in our pockets and our bikes screaming to get back on the road, we left Yerevan late in the afternoon (some time after 4 p.m.) on 15th March. Obviously our time management could have been a little bit a lot better, but by the time we had organized all the little bits and bobs and said goodbyes it was somehow already late. Since we had set this as our absolute last leaving date (we wanted to make it in time for the Nowruz celebrations in Iran) we stuck to the plan and were hoping to cycle the flat distance till just before the first big uphill.
As usual, unexpected events occur along the way and we found ourselves some 20 or so km outside of Yerevan city border joining an Armenian picnic which mainly consisted of crispy lavash, freshly grilled fish and a lot of vodka. After a few toasts on Janapar (journey in Armenian), good health and happiness we managed to excuse ourselves, saying we still have some distance we planned to cover.
The next time we stopped by the road to get petrol, we were given it for free and Ivars even got a private ride in a 4×4 to the nearest grocery store so we could get some supplies for dinner. By the time he got back, we knew we will soon have to camp, the weather was getting a little grim too and we could see a thunderstorm slowly swimming our way, a few more km down the road we thought we’d found just the spot to set up camp – an apricot garden.
We had some surprise visitors not long before we were about to go to sleep. In the dark, the first thing I could see was the boots of 2 men and a shovel, some graphic horror film scenario ran through my head for a split second but in reality, the men had come to open the water irrigation system for the trees. After seeing the light beams from our little flashlights, they had come to inspect their owners and now wanted to offer a little workers’ shed for us to sleep in. Reluctant at first (since we’d already set up everything for sleeping in a tent and even brushed our teeth) we accepted, seeing as the rain had started to become stronger and stronger. Turned out – we should have probably spent the night in the tent, since the little one-room house had some pretty serious leaks in the roof and we woke up the next morning soaking wet, our sleeping bags and mattresses flooding a little, not to mention the fact – it was still raining outside.
The miserable start of the day soon changed its course and by the time we were halfway up the first mountain (not sure if it classified as a mountain pass at 1800 m) it was sunny and warm again.
Coincidentally (or so we thought at first but it turns out they had been checking our location on our spot tracking page where you can see our location whenever we are on the road) we also met Ivars’ friends and geocaching enthusiasts from Latvia – Elīna with her husband and son. By this time we had almost reached the top of the mountain and after a short conversation parted ways, since they were traveling by car – thus much faster. We did meet them a couple of hours or so later at the village Areni where they mentioned they would be going to try out some of the famous old wine.
We hid at the local café for a couple of hours as well, since it had started to rain pretty heavy again, but eventually, decided to leave the warm and dry behind and set out to look for a camping spot before it got dark. That did it, soaking wet mere 5 minutes later, we took a smaller road leading to Norvanank monastery since Ivars had been advised by a shopkeeper that we might find a place where to camp there.
Not exactly true, since the road turned out to be a very thin pass between two vertical cliffs which seemed to last forever. This is where a new thought was born however, we decided to test out a cave as a bedchamber for the night. Our tent was still a little damp from the night before, so were our sleeping bags and mats, so there was not much to lose and it seemed quite a good idea to not set up a tent in heavy rainfall at all.
A couple of metres higher than the road we hoped we were invisible to the occasional car driving by, trying to be quiet not to wake up our one neighbour – a very sleepy bat. Some car eventually stopped nearby, trying to shine its lights towards our rocky dwelling, and some men even got out shouting something similar to “Hello, kitty!” for reasons unknown, but we just ignored them and continued our slumber.
If we’d known what the next day would bring us, we would have called the rainy morning in the Apricot garden a sunny one. When we woke up, we were relatively dry, true, but after only being outside of the cave for a couple of minutes and still packing our panniers on our bikes, we were all white from the wet snow coming down. This was the start of quite a miserable, wet day, during which Dainis and I even tried the plastic bag technique to keep our last socks dry. (it really is quite simple – you put on your dry socks; then put on the plastic bags, tying them quite carefully not to get them tangled in your chain while cycling; eventually you’re ready to put on your dry or wet shoes; cycle like this or wait for the rain/snow to stop; and the road to get to a state that does not look like river flowing the opposite direction you are cycling; remove the plastic bags; let your feet breathe and cycle onwards)
We were lucky enough to get adopted that night by an Armenian couple – Robert and Anjuta in a town called Saravan. It was late afternoon by the time we reached the town and we were considering options of camping in the snow or, preferably looking for a dry place where to spend the night. We accepted Robert’s invitation without a doubt, happy we had been saved from spending yet another wet night outdoors. Robert is also the first person who taught me how to play Nardi (in English people might call it Backgammon)– one of the oldest board games for two players. I had seen the game around when I was a child, but never knew anybody who would teach it to me and had completely forgotten about it until we started traveling the Caucasus region and the game started to appear everywhere.
The next day we just had to finish what we had started to do the on previous one – climb the Vorotan pass at some 2350 m asl.
After which we would descend a bit and climb another 400 or so metres and this turned out to be the most difficult part, since it was freezing cold and the visibility was close to zero, thanks to a very dense fog at the top, this meant we would not see much of the road we are riding, not to mention cars or the scenery. Somehow we managed to cycle downhill without crashing anywhere and without anyone crashing into us and waited for Ivars at a roadside café next to the petrol station, since he’d decided to make a little detour earlier to chase after a geocache.
Soon reunited again, we cycled the last few kilometres to a town called Goris, where our couchsurfing host Marta and her boyfriend – a couple from Poland volunteering in Armenia were already waiting for us.
Unfortunately we only spent one night in the city and did not manage to see much of its beauty the next morning either since it was still pretty foggy when we were back on the road, thankfully it changed after a while.
The previous day we had already descended to Goris at about 1400m asl. , not low enough however and the first leg of the exceptionally beautiful but chilly morning we found ourselves rolling down some serpentines with the best view overlooking the valley. What goes up, must come down and vice versa.
As soon as we had gone down, we were thrown back in another group of serpentines going much higher this time. Later, already almost at the top (what we thought to be the top at the time) we spoke to a local man, who insisted we have a quick roadside bite on top of his car, he mentioned the locals just call the part of the road “37” (since the serpentine apparently has 37 loops).
We didn’t linger for too long, since having a picnic in snow is not the most desirable thing to do if one is still hoping to cycle some good distance the same day, we cycled a little more up and down and up again and were finally rewarded with a good 1 km descent in altitude. This had been by far the most dynamic day so far when it comes to road and off road quality, ups and downs, so it just makes sense that we took quite a few stops admiring the scenery (on a quieter part of the road I was greeted also by a Bamby – baby deer making its way across the road and jumping in a big pile of snow, something that really made my day, unfortunately I did not carry a camera at that point)
We found ourselves in Kapan well before evening and were excited to have time to still relax and catch up with Alana (an American-Armenian girl who we had met in Yerevan at Victoria’s palace on multiple occasions) and Oscar – an environmentalist, ironically working in a mining company, who had now become our new wonderful host. After a quick check up of the weather forecast we decided to spend the next day in Kapan too since there was about to be some heavy rainfall and snow and we still had 1 mountain pass to conquer before Iranian border. You can read a short recap here if you like. We had the best sendoff from Armenia we could have possibly imagined, at the one and only bar in Kapan where we went to celebrate Oscar’s Birthday (from a week before).
The last supper
We might have woken up a little hangover the next morning, nevertheless, the sun was shining and the air was fresh, so on we rolled. Today we were going to cross the last mountain in Armenia – Meghri pass which would also be the highest one so far @ 2535 m asl., from Oscar’s house it was a “mere” 1800 m ascent.
The road from Kapan to Kadjaran proved to be a steady uphill, but not too steep, so we had done almost half of the climb with only a couple of stops when suddenly, not a couple of km before Kadjaran a Zhiguli pulled over. The driver asked if we needed any help. The question seemed quite bizarre to Dainis and I since to our eyes it looked like the man was in a bit of a pickle himself – one of the tires of his vehicle was completely flat. So we offered our help to him instead, the driver – Tigran – being a real Armenian just shrugged it off, saying he is stopping in a few hundred metres anyway and we should join him for some tea. We were not too eager to stop for long, since we knew we still had a mountain to climb, but eventually gave in and followed as soon as Ivars arrived.
Turned out we had arrived at a salmon and trout farm which Tigran operates with his brother. After a cup of tea; a cup of coffee; a lot of sweets Tigran’s brother arrived and the real party started (since our host did not speak very well Russian and no English, his brother now operated as a translator and barman, while Tigran went out to pick the best trout for our lunch). It has proved on multiple occasions that situations tend to escalate very quickly in Armenia.
Soon we realized it is well after 5 p.m., we are all incredibly well fed and quite tipsy from cognac and wine and our hospitable new friends are trying to talk us out from cycling to Meghri the same day. Instead, we should stay overnight at the fish farm and continue the journey the next day. It took us a good half hour or more to talk our way out of it, since we were quite eager to conquer the mountains the same day as planned (our plans quite often do not work out, so it is important to try and stick to them if possible).
We said farewell to the friendly Armenian brothers promising if it does indeed seem impossible to cycle all the way up (since they were quite sure the rain and snow would finish us), we would give them a call and simply turn back.
So it came to be that we started the last steep snow climbs in the early evening of March 21st, but we were rewarded with some of the best possible sights before the darkness set in.
We were at the top shortly after 8 p.m. and after a few minutes of stargazing, started rolling downhill. This proved to be a little more difficult than I had expected, since my flashlight’s visibility was close to zero and one of Daini’s spokes had broken, we had to ride quite slow and the road proved to have multiple surprise obstacles on the way. We set camp when it was already raining and it continued till morning, when all we had to do was go downhill; get soaking wet again; warm up with the last celebratory beer for a long time before entering I.R. of Iran. We had conquered our first real mountains together!