Defeated by Armenia's Southern Mountains

We had a few problems in Yerevan, the first being a Chinese visa problem and the second being a gastrointestinal problem. I will get to the problems later because they ended up altering the course of our trip significantly (at least it felt significant to us).

Our first few days in Yerevan were lovely. Our hostel was right in the city centre and we were within walking distance to parks, restaurants, markets. The streets and patios were absolutely packed with people every evening when the weather was perfect. We took a trip to nearby Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple, we visited the huge weekend market, the war museum and victory monument and made an obligatory stop at the Armenian Genocide Memorial. We met lots of interesting travellers at our hostel and we drank wine and shared stories. And drivers stopped at all the cross-walks! Yerevan, unlike Tbilisi is a city built for pedestrians.   Early morning glimpse of Mount Ararat from the steps of the Cascades

  Republic Square

  Geghard Monastery, an easy day trip from Yerevan

The first thing we did in Yerevan was attempt to obtain Chinese visas. Armed with everything we thought we needed we made our way to the embassy. After watching the total ass of a consular officer slowly scrutinize our papers, we were handed a receipt. We would be granted a 14-day visa but we would have to wait a week to get it. This was not very good. Of course, we had no case to argue, our "flight bookings" and "hotel reservations" had us leaving from Yerevan in a little over a week for a two week trip to Beijing, why would we need a rush-service 30 day visa? We hesitated over whether or not to walk back to the embassy and get our passports back, but we decided that this would at least get us into China. From there we could catch a cheap flight to another country (flights from China are way cheaper than from neighbouring Central Asian countries). The problem was that we only had a 21-day Armenian visa, and we would now have to waste 8 days of it in Yerevan. Instead, we decided that we would begin cycling towards the Iranian border, leave our bikes somewhere, then take a bus to-and-from Yerevan to pick up our visas. It wasn't perfect but we couldn't really afford to delay our departure.

Then we got sick. Really sick. Yann was sick first, sleeping for an entire day and pushing back our departure from Yerevan by a day. Then I got sick, ending up on the floor of our hostel bathroom at 2:30am unable to get up. This pushed back our departure from Yerevan another two days. Bringing us to visa pick up day. We picked up our visas and as we had feared, they were unusable: we had been given one month to enter the country and we needed at least two. We didn't leave Yerevan until the next day. And when we left, still recovering from our illness, having eaten very little in days, we were dejected at our Chinese visa failure. Plus we now had only 6 days to cycle with no rest if we were to make it to the border before our Armenian visas expired.

Our first day of riding from Yerevan was absolutely brutal. It was 40C, we climbed 1500m, we rode for more than 12 hours and we didn't even make it to our destination. We ran extremely low on water and our steri-pen water purifier died after purifying 2 litres (it's supposed to do 50). We passed no store. Actually there was virtually no sign of civilization for the entire climb and the only water source we found was a pipe running into a cow drinking trough. I broke down in tears several times. The only reason I made it was because Yann strapped half my bags to his bike and spent the rest of the climb patiently repeating to me that I would make it. When we made it to the top of the pass and spotted a store where we could buy water I felt overcome with emotion. I was so relieved.   The barren landscape of the climb from Ararat Valley to Vayots Dzor

  Emilie smiling on the outside, but not on the inside

In the tiny village of Chiva we were saved by our amazing host family at the bed and breakfast where we spent the night. The minute we arrived they offered to make us dinner and began preparations. We were served the best meal we'd eaten in weeks: salad, yogurt, cheese, bread, omelet, potatoes, barbecued pork, all fresh, mostly with ingredients from the family's garden. We ate outside under a trellis covered in grape vines, next to a pomegranate tree as the sun set and the weather cooled. We were very disappointed that we couldn't stay another day.   Downhill to the village of Chiva

Our second day, while not as brutal as the first, was tough and discouraging. Again we climbed all day, but this time Yann got bad stomach cramps and we faced a strong headwind for the better part of the day. I broke down once again in tears, even before the day's real climbing began, and again Yann kept me going (reloading my bags onto his bike). We both knew that if we didn't continue, the next day would just be longer and harder. We didn't come anywhere close to making it to our destination. We stopped about 500 metres from the top of the Vorotan Pass with winds actually knocking us off our bikes. We camped on the side of the highway and had a so-so night of sleep with traffic and loud winds keeping us up.  Following the Arpa River the climbing was more gradual, but the wind was strong

  Happy to be out of the wind and making dinner

Day three began with the 500 metres that we hadn't climbed on the previous day. Our elation at reaching the top of the pass quickly faded as we rode up and down for the rest of the day. It didn't help our spirits that the winds didn't die down: we were faced with an almost immobilizing headwind ALL day! I moved on to the next stage of mourning, I was no longer crying, I was yelling. The wind was so loud that I could barely hear myself, so it was a nice release. After 6 hours of riding we made it to our previous day's destination! We still had several more hours to go.   Making it to the top of Vorotan Pass

  Rolling hills before the descent to Goris

When we arrived in the lovely town of Goris and checked into our really lovely bed and breakfast, we barely had time to walk to a restaurant and have dinner before having to start our bedtime preparations. We had 3 more days to go before we could rest. Even more metres to climb than we had already done. When our alarm rang at 5am the next morning, I suggested that we couldn't really continue. After a lengthy discussion, we made the very difficult decision to arrange for a taxi to the border. Why was the decision so difficult? We aren't really sure, but it felt like a failure to not be able to cycle every kilometre of our journey. We were worried that we would regret our decision or that we would feel compelled to hitch a lift every time the riding got difficult. After a day of doing nothing in Goris we loaded our bicycles on to a taxi roof rack and were driven the roughly 100km to the top of the Meghri Pass. We didn't regret our decision to get a ride, it felt a little bit liberating. Actually after seeing the climbing involved, it was pretty clear that we never would have been able to make the journey in two days (not that we knew this when we made the decision to get a ride).   Loading our bikes onto the taxi roof rack for the ride up to Meghri Pass

  Descent from Meghri Pass (it isn't quite as rewarding when you haven't gotten to the top yourself)

We rolled down the 2,000 metres to Agarak, the last town on the Armenian border with Iran where we spent the night. Our bodies and minds were recovering and the next day we would be crossing the border into Iran!   Outside our B&B in Agarak, a few kilometres from the Iranian border

Stats for Yerevan to Agarak:

Days of cycling: 3.5
Days of rest: 1.5
Kilometres cycled: 288
Metres climbed: 3852
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 1

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Northern Armenia's Holiday Spots

We left our campsite on the outskirts of Vanadzhor taking a route that bypassed the city centre. Although “shorter” in distance, the condition of the roads didn't save us much time (maybe it lengthened our trip). But who cares? It's nice to avoid the highways. We made our way through the back roads, making a few wrong turns, passing friendly locals and even spotting a few gems from the past.   Leaving our Vanadzhor campsite on back roads

  When we took this photo a nearby man proclaimed "comrades good"

Our first destination on the way to Yerevan was the resort town of Dilijan a 700m easy, gradual climb from Vanadzhor. Dilijan is surrounded by densely forested hills and even with our first day of cycling in the rain the ride was (the comparison of Dilijan to Switzerland didn't seem like much of a stretch). It was fun to bring out the rain gear that we'd been carrying for two months without ever using (but Molly and Kyle seriously outdid us with the hazmat suits that they got courtesy of an oil worker in Georgia).   Our first day of cycling in the rain

  The 20km descent into Dilijan

Yann and I spent a rest day in Dilijan, relaxing and enjoying the cool alpine climate. We parted ways with Molly and Kyle who were on a much tighter schedule than us. From Dilijan we were a little bit worried about our almost 1000m to Lake Sevan, our biggest concern being the 3km Dilijan Tunnel that we would be slowly climbing through. We crossed a cyclist who said that he had inhaled enough fumes in the tunnel to counteract any of the positive health effects of his cycling trip (and he was riding in the opposite direction, downhill). We also heard reports that it was unavoidable and others that said we could take a bypass road (Google Maps had no answers either). We set out hoping that we could find a way to avoid it.

It took us most of the morning to climb to the tunnel, multiple switchbacks making for easy grades and a way better ride that we had hoped. The Armenian drivers continued to be fantastic, slowing down at every turn, never passing blindly and generally being cautious and smart on the mountain roads. Other than worrying about the tunnel the ride was great.   A long, gradual climb out of Dilijan towards Lake Sevan

Near the entrance to the tunnel we spotted a turn-off for a detour, we could see that by taking the detour we were adding a few hundred metres to our climb but we couldn't have cared less. The road we gradually switchbacked its way up the mountain to the Sevan Pass (2114m) through the small villages of Semyonovka and Tsovaghugh before rejoining the highway at Lake Sevan. Despite the fact that the road is in good condition and completely quiet, vehicles seem to overwhelmingly use the tunnel, we crossed two cars and one tractor in the hour or so it took us to bypass the tunnel. We had one of our favourite riding days to date, perfect weather, beautiful scenery, no traffic, what a success!   Avoiding the Dilijan Tunnel by climbing to the Sevan Pass (2114m)

  The road over the Sevan Pass was all ours

Camping at Lake Sevan was a little bit less of a success. This was our own fault. Once we saw what the touristy section of the lake was like, we should have rode on. But it's hard to ride on when you aren't sure where to go or what to expect. We paid to camp on one of the many beaches that line the Sevan Peninsula near its famous monastery. The peninsula is only 70km from Yerevan and is an understandably popular place for escaping the city's summer weather, we should have been prepared for the crowds. But each beach seems to be equipped with an exceedingly loud stereo system and a limited selection of Russian techno music (played on repeat). The actual "beach" at the place where we stayed only took up a tiny fraction of the property, most of its shoreline was occupied by a gigantic concrete patio for the bar. To be fair, we were at one of the lake's most inexpensive establishments and the staff were very nice and did their best to make sure we were comfortable. There was just no privacy and no peace.   Our private campsite at Lake Sevan

When we left the lake we made sure to visit the beautiful Sevanavank Monastery which we did early enough to be the only tourists on site. So we did in fact get a few moments of peace in the end.   Morning at Sevanavank, before the tour buses arrive

Stats for Vanadzhor to Yerevan:

Days of cycling: 3
Days of rest: 1
Kilometres cycled: 147
Metres climbed: 2116
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 4

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop  Expedition Support

Into Armenia Through the Debed Canyon

We managed to be on the road by 6am leaving Tbilisi. The city is not particularly an early riser so we didn't have to battle much traffic. Compared to the highway entering Tbilisi from the west, the road south towards Armenia was virtually deserted. We thought we might be able to change money and get lunch before crossing the border but there was not much as far as we could tell.

We settled for instant noodles and instant mashed potatoes on the Georgian side of the border and decided we'd try our luck purchasing our Armenian visa without any Armenian currency. 
  Instant mashed potatoes: lunch at the Armenian border

While we were enjoying our lunch, Kyle and Molly, two American cyclists pulled up to greet us. They were also about to cross into Armenia and we agreed to cycle together to our next stop. Kyle and Molly began travelling in March on foot but got bored and decided to buy bicycles. They have only their small backpacks strapped to the back of their bicycles, we were tanks next to them.

At the border, the customs officer on the Georgian side wouldn't let us into Armenia before posing for a photo with him (which he sent to us later). And aside from a surly visa issuing officer, things went smoothly. They even let us cross into Armenia, take out money at the ATM then come back to pay for our visas.   Crossing into Armenia (photo courtesy of Georgian border guard)

Like our previous border crossing we noticed a dramatic change in the riding conditions. The drivers were suddenly courteous, gave us lots of space and didn't drive very quickly. It was cool and the sky overcast, wonderful weather, if not a little gloomy. As we passed roadside vendors, our baskets were stuffed with fresh peaches. We were even treated to coffee and snacks by villagers who called us over when they saw us resting on the side of the road.   Armenian drivers are so cyclist-friendly that we can ride side-by-side

  Armenian peaches and Armenian hospitality!

Entering Armenia, the highway almost immediately begins following the Debed River, through an impressive canyon. The area is dotted with ancient monasteries and fortresses and we were hoping to visit a few of them while passing through. The monasteries are of course hidden away, several hundred metres above the river, on the plateaus atop the canyon. This limited the number of sights that we would actually visit. We had planned to sleep in Alaverdi, the first "large" town in Armenia, about 120km from Tbilisi, and use it as a base to explore the nearby attractions. Cycling into Alaverdi it felt like we were travelling back in time. A giant Soviet-era copper smelter dominates the entire west bank of the canyon. Russian Ladas and Pav-model buses (circa 1968) ply the streets.   Entering Alaverdi, it's hard to miss the copper smelter

  Pav-model buses (circa 1968) at the Alaverdi bus station

Somehow, we had decided that our guesthouse was at the top of the canyon, above the city centre, 300 metres up but less than 5km away. At the time, we were under the mistaken assumption (thanks Google Maps) that we were climbing to Alaverdi. Had we stopped to think and to look around it would have been clear that we were leaving the city centre, but we didn't stop, we just climbed (for almost an hour). We were in fact climbing to Sadahart, a suburb of Alaverdi. As we approached Sadahart our hopes of finding a place to sleep were fading and Yann and I felt pretty bad about having dragged two people up the mountain with the promise of a cozy guesthouse.

At the top of the climb, we stopped for water and asked a storekeeper where we could sleep. She called over a little girl who was instructed to lead us. We followed gratefully. Not only was there a place to sleep but there was a gigantic Soviet-style hotel in the middle of the village square! Why it was decided that this was a good place to build a hotel is a mystery, but what a relief. We were greeted by a friendly English and French speaking woman who showed us to large, somewhat renovated rooms that were less than $20. We were also lent a propane stove, pots and pans to cook with along with a complete set of dishes (there being no restaurant in town). We made dinner, drank wine and cocktails and enjoyed the cool mountain weather and the hot showers of the Debed Hotel.   The massive Hotel Debed in Sadahart (Sanahin)

  Cooking dinner on the hotel balcony

Kyle and Molly inspired us to slow down a little bit as we discussed onward plans (we usually try to leave before 7am, they try to leave before noon). After a good sleep-in, the four of us opted to stay another night at the hotel so that we could visit two of the area's most famous monasteries Sanahin and Haghpat. Not by careful planning, we happened to be a few minutes away from Sanahin Monastery, which Yann and I visited on our own in the morning. In the afternoon the four of us travelled by public bus to the neighbouring village to visit Haghpat Monastery. The monasteries were similiar but lovely.   Celebrating eleven adventure-filled years together at Sanahin Monastery

  Inside Sanahin Monastery

  Haghpat Monastery

The real excitement of Alaverdi was riding the cable car from the city centre up to Sadahart where we were staying. Purportedly making the steepest climb of any cable car in the former USSR, this ageing beauty took a little bit of courage to get into, but we joined the commuters who didn't seem to find it too scary. 
  Get me out of here!

From Alaverdi (Sadarhart) we climbed to the biggest city in the area, Vanadzhor. The road continued to be free of much traffic and the drivers who passed us did so carefully (except those with Georgian plates). We rode through two completely pitch-black tunnels which were a bit terrifying, but the cars did not even attempt to pass us and carefully waited while we made our way through. 
  Preparing to enter one of two unlit tunnels along the M6 highway

We spent the night camping on the outskirts of Vanadzhor. We chose a site away from the main highway, tucked behind the railway tracks. While it wasn't the most picturesque of settings, it was a convenient place to stop because we didn't feel like entering the city. The weather was cold enough that we needed our sleeping bags and jackets, a first on the trip. We had to lie through a lightning storm that kept us awake and a little bit on edge (we're grounded right?) and then a mysterious gas leak that filled the air with the smell of propane. Once we convinced ourselves that we weren't going to blow up (combination of lightning + gas leak) we fell asleep.   Our last night in the Debed Canyon, camping outside Vanadzhor

Stats for Tbilisi to Vanadzhor:

Days of cycling: 2
Days of rest: 1
Kilometres cycled: 163
Metres climbed: 1857
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 7

 Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop  Expedition Support