Another country that wasn’t planned. After being on the road for almost 2 months we learned that every day ends differently than originally expected. The plan was to go from Tbilisi (Georgia) towards the border of Azerbaijan (Kirach-Mughanlo), but we decided to add Armenia on the list for several reasons:
- It all started with Manu, a cycle friend from France, who was telling us about Armenia.
- Maarten’s barber from Leuven is from Armenia and showed us some video’s before we left, so we knew it was very beautiful.
- We love mountains! Azerbaijan would mean flat road & heat, whereas Armenia would challenge our legs and give us some stunning viewsJ.
- Iran was on our must visit list, so after Azerbaijan the plan was to go to Iran and Turkmenistan in order to reach Uzbekistan. However we no longer wanted to apply for the difficult Turkmenistan transit visa and rush through Turkmenistan in 5 days, cycling more than 550 km with potential continuously headwind. Another option to reach Uzbekistan was flying from Tehran (Iran). That wasn’t a real option as we both didn’t want to fly on this trip! The 3rd option was going from Iran back to Azerbaijan (yes we know it’s a little bit of a detour), taking the unpredictable cargo ferry in Baku to reach Aktau (Kazakhstan). As it’s silly to cycle 2 times the same road, we choose to make a loop via Armenia (see map below).
The idea was to cycle in 1 straight line down to the South to enter Iran (+/- 550 km in mountainous terrain), we didn’t plan to make a detour to the capital Yerevan, as we wanted to be in the nature as much as possible, far away from cars! Therefore we choose to cycle towards Sevan lake. You have 2 main roads from the border to reach the lake:
- A new road, east, via Ijevan, next to the border of Azerbaijan. Which isn’t the safest since the political and military tension between the 2 countries & the heavier traffic (majority of cars/trucks are using this road as the road conditions are better).
- The west road via Vanadzor, which was a bit longer, but with less traffic. At the end the road conditions were reasonable, most of the time you had asphalt, however some of the passes were bad gravel road.
It made perfectly sense to go for option 2. Cycling in Armenia is fun, but hard, though the roads are most of the time good and the traffic is low. 100 km after the border crossing we arrived in Vanadzor, an urban municipal community, the 3rd largest city in Armenia. Time to stock up on some food and find cigarettes for Maarten. From there we cycled towards Dilijan national park. It is known for its forest landscapes, rich biodiversity, medicinal mineral water springs, natural and cultural monuments. When we arrived in the lovely village Dilijan, we decided to take a rest day and go visit Haghartsin Monastery. In the end we didn’t visit it, which is a pity as we haven’t seen any of the beautiful Monasteries in Georgia, neither Armenia. Definitely a place to come back to, as you have many good hiking opportunities in a country that isn’t really discovered by tourists yet.
We were determined to challenge ourselves, to get stronger and to beat those mountains. Soon it became clear that Armenia was very challenging, with steep climbs, from time to time heavy gravel roads and rainy/cold weather (mid-April). We had a hard time moving fast. It was a long way to Iran! The first 2 months we felt like we had all the time in the world to get to Japan, however after 2 months we started to feel the unpleasant time pressure of the long distance to reach our goal. At that moment our 1 year holiday, turned into a project, rather than a vacation. On top of that Sara had some stomach problems which were slowly getting worse and stopped us to continue cycling a few times. We realized we couldn’t cycle the whole way through Armenia so we tried to hitchhike. That seemed to be mission impossible. The roads were almost empty and the few cars we saw weren’t suited to take 2 heavy loaded bikes. Since we weren’t physically strong enough yet and Sara’s condition was getting worse, the smartest option was to turn West to the capital Yerevan were we could take a long distance bus and unfortunately skip a beautiful part.
Do you remember what we said in the beginning about our plans? Both of us started to struggle with the fact that we couldn’t continue each km cycling. It seems that on a trip like this many other factors will interrupt the 1 continuous line to your end goal. More to come in the next blogposts!
Yerevan, Armenia’s capital marked by grand Soviet-era architecture, is a nice city. Easy to find your way, good spots to visit or relax in one of the modern bars. We liked it! After a funny night in the wrong hostel, we moved to hostel ‘Bivouac’ (recommended!) which was a good place to recharge.
Of course, there is a story behind the funny night in the wrong hostel. I guess it was one of those days. We cycled 100 km and arrived only at 9 PM in a new city, which is never a good idea to arrive so late and tired. We cycled to the ‘One Way hostel’ on Tumanyan street. This place turned out to be on the 5th floor, without elevator, flashing lights and crackling electricity cables. So we went to find another one and found another ‘One Way hostel’ on Belyakov street a few km’s further. This one was on the ground floor and at first seemed good value and comfort. But how would you sleep in a room with 5 unknown snoring people ,as extra guest 3 gnawing mice’s, your bed above a metro line so the whole building dawned and finally demonstrations against the ex-prime minister were getting out of control, so the noise level was increasing. We didn’t get enough sleep, that’s for sure!
The unpleasant time pressure was really getting to us, so we felt we had to move faster! That’s why we unfortunately only spent 1 day in the capital. It was the first time we did something else than cycling or resting, which felt great! We visited the Yerevan Cascades which houses a museum partially in open air. It’s a giant stairway made of limestone and on the top you get a magnificent view over the city. We had a relaxing time! Holiday within a holiday!
The day after we took a bus to bring us closer to Iran. We asked the bus driver to stop 50 km before the border crossing on the top of a mountain pass – 2535m (Kajaran). The locals were so surprised when we got out of the bus at 7 PM in the middle of nowhere. But we saw a nice green camping spot and we thought lets camp here and have an easy downhill to the border the next day. This idea turned out to be a bad one J. The next morning we woke up fully covered in snow and had to pack everything in an ice cold wind. The snow turned into icy rain during a 30 km terrifying descent of ice cold wind with snow and heavy loaded bikes without rain jacket (for Sara at least, as it got stolen in Georgia). It was dangerous and we were extremely happy to make it safely to Meghri, the last village before the border crossing to Iran.
General TIP: don’t follow the advice from locals when it comes to finding good cycling roads. In general locals don’t understand why you even consider to cycle such a long distance, they believe the safest, fasted and only road is the highway. You can see from our explanation above that it takes some time to decide which road is best to take. The best to do is: talk to cyclers you meet on the road, listen to your body (are you up for rough roads or not), use maps.me and read blogs from others.