[Armenia 🇦🇲 D+185, 7 372km – August 28 to September 15]
⛰️A mountainous country with humble and smiling inhabitants!
⚠️ Azerbaijan is bombing Armenia.
🌏 Very big changes of itinerary, again!
Armenia, a small Caucasian country with a turbulent history, wedged between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. We have been dreaming about it since we were preparing our itinerary (and always have). But, of course, we quickly crossed it off the itinerary:
Armenia by bike ? A giant mountain : never!
And then finally (like every time we say “never in a million years”), here we are, and we like it! 💙
Border. The first “word” -in one breath-: “Hello-welcome-to-Armenia-bye.” Simple, welcoming, efficient, expeditious. Here we go!
Once again -at the risk of being repetitive-: we still don’t understand this beautiful alphabet! To add a bit of crackle, we note a tendency to “subtitle” in Russian where we would have hoped to have English. In any case, it’s nice and it distracts the calves on the climb 🧐.
Toumanian ⛰. Soon, we find ourselves nose-to-nose with the mountains. Everything is true, we were not lied to this time: high altitude is there! On the road, the fruit sellers regularly stop us to fill our bags with provisions! 🍊🍑 And above all, impossible to pay anything! No doubt about it: we have left Georgia, it’s the return of the great cuckoos of the hand and the symphonies of Klaxons of encouragement!
We cross landscapes that we didn’t really imagine in Armenia, large arid spaces and gargantuan abandoned Soviet factories.
We end our hilly day in Toumanian, in an hostel (incredible, we are really in the middle of nowhere). It’s actually former Soviet baths that have been transformed. This is where we meet the other side of the “fuck Russians” that used to be displayed on Georgian walls: the point of view of a Russian artist who had to flee her country and cut off all contact with her family and friends in order to denounce Russian oppression without ending up in prison. The village has given an old factory to allow a collective of international artists to create and express themselves in the heart of the mountains – we can’t wait to follow it all!
Sevan Lake 💧. After climbing beautiful dry passes, we see a glimmer of coolness in the distance, a large turquoise blue spot that refreshes the heart: the Sevan Lake: one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world. In these magnificent landscapes and this peaceful atmosphere, we bivouac happily. 🧜♂️
🥔 From Sevan lake to Yerevan, the road is nice! A small road with freshly finished asphalt leads us to the capital via Tsakhadzor and its monastery. We camp in the area before a big day of 74 km, but well, it goes down!
After only 10 short kilometres, a clac-gling-gling-glagla! from GG’s bike raises the alarm! The rim has broken, a spoke has gone! This is clearly beyond our repair capabilities. We may have some nice new spokes in the pannier, but that doesn’t help us. We end up tinkering with a Sunday rim bandage which (we hope) will do the trick for the remaining kilometers. Well, it’s a real drag, but it’s a drag! The arrival is (hopefully) via a bike shop where the repairer makes us understand that we have to change the rim and that it would be good, in the future, to remove the sticker of Turkey that is displayed on the bike.
Yerevan. We then take a few days to discover this capital on a human scale but full of life and events! In Albania, we had met the old buses of the city of Rouen, here, it’s the city of Lyon which has unloaded its old buses. A little more and we found ourselves at Bellecour square!
We went on a free walking tour with a guide who was passionate about the art and history of his country. We learnt that Armenians are geniuses: for example, the guy who invented the mixer tap – the tap that prevents you from scalding yourself – is Armenian and that chess is a compulsory subject in school! We also take advantage of this time (especially Anai) to fill our eyes with patterns, each one more splendid than the next one 😍.
It’s also the perfect time to see a dentist and sort out our little problems! When you arrive in town, that often means “sorting out the boring stuff”!
It’s also the opportunity to get our Iranian visas 🇮🇷, and it’s so easy. Well, if we disregard the logistics to anticipate: apply online beforehand, go to an Iranian bank in Yerevan to pay the visa fee (in euros), then finally, go 10 km further, to get the precious sesame at the embassy.
We also took time to plan the rest of the trip and set a date for our plane tickets to Delhi from Dubai! A great moment of curious celebration and sudden excitement 🥳.
Khor Virap ⛪️. We leave the capital, pedaling towards the majestic Mount Ararat. Luckily, the sky is clear and lets the little roof of eternal snow appear! This volcano is considered as the place where Noah’s Ark landed. It is a real symbol for Armenia, Christianity and Anai. Except that since 1923, Mount Ararat is in Turkey!
We spotted an apricot field/picnic area on the side of the road. We contacted the owner at the number on the sign to ask if we could pitch a tent for the night. Once the message is sent, a Lada with two men arrives. Neither of them speak English, so we have a brief exchange via Google Translate. They offer us a glass of vodka and a barbecue. Tired, we refuse. In fact, we don’t have a good feeling with them, so we stay cold and decline all the propositions. They turn on the electricity and leave. Mea Culpa, we turned parano, maybe our feeling was bad, we were unpleasant for nothing, too much mistrust? A few minutes after their departure, we receive a message already translated in French: frankly disgusting advances. Furious, we fold up our panniers and get on our bikes to sleep elsewhere. The guys are bound to come back and it’s going to be exhausting. These two cowards didn’t even have the courage to try a face to face approach. They would never have allowed themselves to do such a thing with an Armenian woman. Night falls and we end up pitching our tent in the bushes and rocks, for lack of anything better. We spend a bad night of bivouac, tired and angry to have to face again the male disrespect. The next day (once away) we exchange a few messages to explain our thoughts and the answers are even worse than the previous day’s message. We let go of the matter not without having (oops) ended with a slightly insulting message 😡.
Fortunately, the weather is good. We stop in a shop to give ourselves courage just before starting the ascent of the pass. This is where we meet Greta, who, she doesn’t know it, cheered us up in two seconds! She manages the shop next to her house, a few hundred meters from the border with Azerbaijan. We chat for a while, it’s fluid, we understand each other quite well despite the language barrier. The sparkle in her eyes is contagious, we finally break down the concrete barrier that has been freshly laid the day before.
And to add a little more beauty after Greta: as soon as we left her shop, we met Camille and Antoine, two French (with the same Extrawheel bags as us) who have been on the road for more than a year to reach Nepal. We already “know” them: when we talked about our project last November, they were the ones recommended to us. We would never have imagined that we would meet them! But, no doubt, they know how to take their time! We cycled together, at our own rythme, for two days. In Georgia, between our separation with Lasha and other events, we had a little slump. But since Armenia everything is better! This country gave us a boost in just a few days! We have a good pace and we start to struggle less in the mountains! The meetings with the Armenians are (for the most part) pleasant! 🤸♀️🤸♀️
🌌🏝 Then we decide to take it easy one afternoon by the river about fifteen kilometres from Jermuk to take time to write and draw. As crazy as it sounds, we hadn’t had much time the last few days. The bike and the daily chores keep us fully occupied – especially when it’s uphill! We find a quiet place with no one to interrupt our creative process. At nightfall, an old man comes to see us and tells us that we are on private land, oops. He finally sees the bikes and allows us to stay for the night!
On the riverside. This morning, we wake up hearing a gunshot. At this precise moment, we tell ourselves that it is probably a hunter, early in the morning. We put our things away peacefully to take the road around 7am: we decided to take advantage of the coolness of the morning to climb the pass that awaits us (“enough to drive in the heat!”). As we get back to the main road, we notice a crowd of policemen and a blockade of soldiers blocking the road going up to Jermuk. Something serious must have happened, a death perhaps? A settlement of accounts? No idea, nobody informs us of the situation and they let us pass. The first 10 km are gentle, the climb is progressive, it’s even pleasant. The slope becomes steeper and steeper, fortunately it is early. With only 6 km to go to the summit, we get a phone call. Nicole tells us that Azerbaijan bombed Armenia last night around midnight (especially Jermuk). At this moment we don’t realise the extent of the attack. But it all makes sense, that’s why almost no cars are going down south and why we had passed so many soldiers.
❎ We are exactly between Goris and Jermuk. We have 4 km to go up to join Antoine and Camille, flat tires and out of bike pumps. We have never climbed a pass so fast in our lives! Once at the top, we realise that it’s not just a simple exchange of fire at the border, it’s a war. The fun is over. So we have two solutions: hitchhiking without stopping towards Iran or turning back towards Yerevan.
We stop all the trucks that pass by: in vain. Then suddenly a dump truck stops and seems to be able to take the bikes in the back but can only take 2 people in the front; it will be our turn. Camille and Antoine decide to keep the bikes and take the next one.
🚛 We don’t really understand each other with this man, but he shows a legendary calm, just like the Armenians. He stops to offer us some peaches, and offers us a little shot of vodka: yes, you have to give yourself courage! Our pilot is now driving at full speed (at the moment, it’s so shaking-sliding-sliding-sliding that we wonder if it’s to stay alive that we got on – we even ignore the fact that our bikes and panniers are waving and flipping like pancakes at every hole in the road) to reach the city of Yerevan, carefully avoiding all the roads along the border with Azerbaijan. In the other direction, military trucks and cannons come up the pass in legions.
Yerevan. It’s hard to find sense of the journey in the face of all this absurdity and violence. We spend the night in the capital, a bit shocked to see that these tragic events are taking place silently. We feel a lot of sadness for the country, and we have the feeling that the tensions will persist for a long time. For us, things are very clear. There is no question of taking unnecessary risks in a conflict area for a trip: our lives do not depend on a bicycle route and we have the choice to be here. No question either of being an extra problem to manage for the country we are in.
⏮ So here we are, heading back to Iran via Georgia and then Turkey! We rewind the tape, fast forward, then slow down. A good diversions of at least 1,000 km compensated by heart-warming encounters and magnificent landscapes. But it’s so futile compared to the situation the locals are going through in the south of Armenia!
🚟 The next day we decide to take a train to Gyumri. The wait is long. We still feel under tension. Suddenly, the station is evacuated: a bomb would be on the tracks. The Armenians look calm, the tourists run out: it’s like a Parisian train station. The dogs come out, the ambulance and the bomb squad leave: false alarm. The train finally arrives; no luck: it is forbidden to eat sunflower seeds. Despite the restrictions, we bravely slide the bikes inside the carriage. Arrivals in Gyumri: climatic shock: a curious feeling: it is cold! 🥶
Later, we push the door of a mini-market. The old lady who manages it, sitting in front of the TV, asks us where we come from. When we tell her “France”, she has stars in her eyes! She calls her grandson Nshan: he studied in France and therefore speaks French!
The next day, before leaving the city, we come back to say hello to the old lady. Nshan then invites us to share a moment with her parents. A nice meeting to end (in a particularly anticipated way) our adventure in this incredible country!
On our way to Georgia, our hearts are a little heavy and confused. We leave with regret, but with the hope that peace and quiet will finally return. But Armenia does not let us go so easily: we cannot leave its borders without a last pass!
This was probably the slowest escape of the 21st century.