Georgia and Armenia
Georgia is where the range of the Caucasus Mountains start, and if you go there in the right season, it is a paradise for mountaineering. Sadly for us, the temperatures in the night were too cold for us to camp when we arrived there, so our only choice would have been cycling on the main road, which we had enough of. Even though we took a train from Batumi to Tbilisi and quickly went through the country, we got a feel to it with the two biggest cities and met some nice people.
Quick impressions about Georgia
One thing we noticed immediately after we arrived to Batumi is the huge US influence and that it seems like the country is on a fast developing track. There are all kinds of American fast food restaurants (way more than I saw in Europe, like Wendy’s and Dunkin Donuts), people speak ok English, especially the young generation, and you can take out dollars in literally any ATM and pay with credit cards even in the smallest green grocers shops. The city is modern, lots of skyscrapers make up the majority of the view, and there are plenty of cycle paths and green parks, but some traditional stuff still remains. For example you can get the khachapuri (basically flatbread with butter and egg in the middle) and lobiani, a pastry filled with bean paste in every corner. And of course a wider selection of food is available in bulk, making it easier to shop without waste.
Armenia, here we come
Our next leg seemed challenging, as Armenia is one of the most mountainous countries in the world, and this time around we couldn’t really cheat with a train (nor we wanted to really; we longed for the mountains). Not having any elevation lower than 600m (very rare areas, mostly where the capital is), combined with a constantly undulating landscape is a tough combo, which makes your heart pound faster – in two ways. Luckily it is more down South, so the night temperatures were forgiving enough, and those ragged, snow-cap peaks, green pastures and meadows and panorama views are every travellers dream to see. Well, if you like nature, but seriously, who doesn’t? Cycling here makes you work for it, but it is also a more rewarding feeling, and the climbs (at least for us, sorry 2fortrips) are not too hard to tackle, just long. Ok, except for some gravel parts where I (yep, Alan is in too good shape for me) had to pull for a few turns.
Ancient history and kind people
I don’t know about you, but I basically had almost no clue about Armenia, apart from what I heard in Turkey, namely the genocide during the late Ottoman Empire. It surprised us with ancient history, nice and friendly people, and the most stunning views we had so far on this trip. Old remnants of the Soviet era can be seen everywhere. For example most people will speak Russian and every second car or truck is a Lada or and old Kamaz (old socialist country people, you know what I’m talking about). And generally speaking, the buildings, road conditions, and the feel of the country (except maybe Yerevan’s, the capitals centre) is from the 80’s in the Eastern Block, making me a bit nostalgic.
It was also the first country to declare Christianity in 301 AD, but actually Yerevan just celebrated its foundation 2500 years ago a few years back, making it one of the oldest capitals in the world. However nowadays it is quite modern, if you walk around in the centre, you wouldn’t be able to tell that you’re not in any European country. But just go towards the outskirts a few kilometres, and you can already find yourself back in the past. Honestly, I liked the latter more, people are genuinely nice and hospitable, and more down to earth. The country is in a tough situation now, being closed off from Turkey and Azerbaijan, making the economy even worse than it is. If you’re a traveller from Europe, you can enjoy the affordable prices at least.
Getting to know the country
In our first afternoon we cycled next to a river valley and wanted to find a place right after our border crossing, since it was getting late. We found a nice looking football field down by the river which would have been perfect. As soon as we got down though, two fat guys with AKs came lumbering down the hill towards us. Heavily out of breath they made us understood (with some translation difficulties), that it is not allowed to camp so close to the border, even though we were inside a village. Shaking our head, we climbed on the saddle again, hoping we find something soon, as it was getting dark. The only feasible thing was a not in use cow stable. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. Nah, it was pretty clean actually, and at least we had some shelter from the wind. J And it seems like when something bad happens, something good comes out of it in the end. As we were preparing to leave the next morning, we saw another cyclist ride past us.
Carlos was from Spain and a really experienced long term traveller, cycling all over the world. After we caught him, the climbing went surprisingly good right from the beginning. As they say, good company helps pass the time faster. We even spent a rest day together in Dilijan, where they happened to have a festival just after the day we arrived. Maybe they were expecting us.. He stayed with us until Lake Sevan, 70km before Yerevan, which is one of highest lakes of this size in the world. It was beautiful, especially because we had to pass a long, dark, suffocating tunnel (I was really crying for air, suffering about all the pollution inside) and then the view of the huge lake surrounded by tall snowy mountains hit us in the face. It was a breath of fresh air, literally.
Alone with the mountains
I remember the excitement and amazement I had when we reached the mountain pass before it, because we saw the first table sign for the silk road. Finally, it was happening, we were actually on the ancient route of old civilizations, all the way to China. A long journey was ahead of us, and the Armenian mountains were a perfect practice ground for it. Remote, high elevation, lots of climbing, and normally, changing weather, which we had the best of luck thankfully. We were also planning for it, because we saw a week long window of nice sunny weather which fit our time of leave from Yerevan. It meant climbing an average of a 1000m every day, and we loved it, because this meant we could enjoy a breathtaking landscape in its best form, while being all alone in nature. Just the ragged peaks around us, shining with an orange reflection on their white caps in the distance. I remember long stretches of the road when I was just turning my head constantly with an open mouth (instead of looking at the road, which you should do here, it being full of holes). This is one of the biggest motivations for our travel.
Once we tackled our highest mountain pass ever (to that date, 2535m), it was time to say goodbye and finally enter into a long awaited country. We already got warm-hearted right after we crossed through the border, as this was the first time the guards were greeted us with such a nice attitude. Welcome to Iran. Man, it was a rollercoster there. You can find out about it in the next post 😉