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

1 comment:

paradiso(angry) said...

Isn't it amazing how countries differ in their attitude to cyclists? Frank Bradley said the same when he did the Tour d'Afrique. And it IS attitude.Not bike lanes.Not laws.Like the difference between France and Canada