A week in Armenia: touring around the third Caucasian country

In Armenia, Biking, Cycling tour 2018, Georgia, Travel, Update by Cassie & Cédric7 Comments

Early in the morning in Tbilisi, Cédric packed our things and prepared to leave before the city traffic became too busy; we had big hopes that Sunday morning would at least be a little easier. We loaded up our bike, bid our host farewell, and set out. Central Tbilisi is set on slopes of a few large hills, so we tried to find the flattest route possible towards the Armenian border, while also avoiding cars (and especially drivers). A few options would have us cycle over 1000 m in elevation in just a 10-kilometer stretch… something Cédric and I weren’t tackling after a few days off the bike. This would also have meant about a zero percent chance to reach Armenia on that day, which we very much intended to do. Instead, we chose to cycle on the main roads and hoped most people would spend the weekend sleeping in. Just as we were cycling through the city, we found three other cycle tourists – the firsts in a very long time heading in the same direction as we did – who had the same idea as us: heading towards Armenia and trying to find the optimal road – so we decided to cycle together.

Our selection of accommodation is often constrained by our rig, here in the pleasant Tea-house/Guest-house where we spent 3 nights in Tbilisi.

Instead of following the main highway the entire time, we decided to find a not-so-shortcut unpaved road through a few fields and villages. This had us go on a few rough tracks and through the eerie town on the shores of Lake Kumisi – we weren’t quite sure what purpose the mostly abandoned buildings served, possibly vacation homes we figured, but definitely not the greatest image of Georgia. Just as we were reaching the main road, Cédric and I had a few bike malfunctions which caused us to stop and tinker with the chain for a good half hour. In the afternoon, Cédric and I managed to catch up with the cycle tourists once again (three Russians on a two-week trip from Baku to Yerevan) and proceeded towards the Armenian border. Along the way, we found produce and laundry detergent stalls lining the road and selling their wares to travelers looking for a better deal. We were starting to wonder how Armenia was going to be, especially if they had to get to Georgia to find detergent and other basic products – yet another desperate country like in the Pamirs? The traffic was dense over the last tens of kilometers before the border, but there are not so many roads between the two countries to choose from, and taking the shortest road to the border from Tbilisi would bring us to much quieter roads on the Armenian side – either you get the traffic from Tbilisi, or the traffic to Yerevan… We crossed the border together towards late afternoon and sorted our needs for the new country (SIM card, cash, and food). First impression after a few kilometers only, Armenia felt a lot more chilled than Georgia! Towards nightfall, we found a camping spot overlooking the Debed River and the mountains on the Georgian side.

Back roads heading towards Armenia, with three fellow Russian cyclists

The Russian cyclists have the advantage to speak Russian to locals to get information about the way… although in that case our method of using maps would have been more reliable

Some tower, not sure if it’s an actual old fortress remains, or some weird Soviet idea…

A lake right outside of Tbilisi. It looked like it was a getaway park a few decades ago, but feels quite desolate today.

Yep, desolate! Those houses were spread around the lake, probably some weekend houses… some are unbelievably still inhabited. The area felt very much like a ghost town, although being just in the outskirts of (shiny) Tbilisi.

On the side of the road. Yes, Georgians are very religious. That cross base however served us as a picnic spot.

The next morning, Cédric and I set out early, positive that our lightweight companions would catch up to us at some point during the day. For the morning ride, we had nothing but a steady uphill climb to manage. We passed through villages where locals were butchering livestock and tending to their crops in the fields. What we could notice almost immediately after crossing the border is that Armenia also felt more industrial than the other post-Soviet countries we cycled through (save Kazakhstan). Some of the smaller villages had functioning factories (albeit very small in scale) in addition to the local market, car mechanic, and café. As we were continuing our ride up the mountain side, we stopped near a roadside fountain (which are plentiful in Armenia, a dream for cyclists) to enjoy our lunch in the sun.

Taking down our camp in the morning. You can see different camping methods in place – we prefer to first eat breakfast in the tent, others eat after their tents are packed

We realized quickly after entering Armenia that secondary roads…are not quite yet real roads!

High-tech fully automated slaughter-house 🙂

Old fortifications on the ridge that is now the Armenian-Azeri border.

Picnic spot. Armenia has a lot of public fountains everywhere, perfect for getting water for cyclists

Selfie!

In the afternoon, we continued along the road that bordered perhaps a bit too close to Azerbaijan. The Armenians and Azeris are still in active conflict over some border territories – if anyone looks closely at a map, they’ll notice that there are still some enclaves of Azerbaijan in Armenia and visa versa. The most notable is the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which technically belongs to Azeri territory, but is controlled by the Republic of Artsakh (an unrecognized state, the Caucasus has a few of these…) and the Armenian military. In short, the borders are not super clear, and basically depending on who and when you ask. Needless to say, tensions are high along some borders and the Armenian and Azeri forces are very present, facing each other at bullet-distance (+1 meter). Some villages found themselves in the crosshairs after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when borders were being defined, and are now decaying shells of buildings. Despite the fighting, one remarkable structure that’s still standing is the 7th century Holy Mother of God Church just inches away from the border. As we approached, two Armenian military guys came down from their lookout to show us the inside of the church – things appeared to be relaxed that day because they were both wearing flip-flops instead of combat boots. (Also, for anyone reading this and worried about our safety – the current contested territories are far away from this area, but it is still better to remain on the asphalt in this area – both countries have had the genius idea to plant landmines instead of potatoes there). The conflict between the two countries is pretty much unheard and unknown outside of the region, and we have to admit that we got surprised on site by the current situation – the good news is that this road is very pleasant and quiet (probably because apparently recommended to avoid, but given its length it would be easy to quickly get away from the area!).

Enjoying the sun

A look at the once border town between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This road was supposed to not be the safest as being way too close to the border (a few meters away). At the same time, because there wasn’t a single car taking it, it felt to us to actually be the safest ride in all of the Caucasus.

One church at the border, despite the destruction of every other building nearby

There’s the border (at least according to some sources, there are multiple lines of border between Azerbaijan and Armenia). No walls, infrared cameras, etc to keep people out, just tales of snipers nearby (and a deep-seated hatred for one another), some landmines spread-out around, and two armies ready for a firework.

After we visited the church, we wanted to make sure we camped a good distance away from the border (again, some unverified rumors of snipers), so we had to cycle up over a large hill that sat squarely between the two countries. We found a good camping spot in a field in the evening and were joined by our Russian friends around sunset.

Views into Azerbaijan from Armenia, although the hills in the back are also Armenia… Basically, the bottom of the valleys are Azerbaijan and the hills are Armenia – the other way around elsewhere – with multiple enclaves on both sides. Or how to make borders even stupider than stupid.

The next day, we continued our journey south and down the valley towards Ijevan. The trees in the mountains were an explosion of autumnal colors and paired beautifully with the brisk October day. In Ijevan, Cédric and I stopped for mid-morning pastries (we mistakenly went to the factory instead of the shop, so got a much larger bag of pastries for a much better deal!) and slowly cycled through the city, looking at some abandoned buildings in contrast to newer ones. We continued following the road towards Dilijan, where we ended our day with a nice Armenian dinner at our guesthouse (we also tried some homemade wine, as requested, but it tasted more like vodka-infused grape juice).

A ram statue looking over the valley

Snack break in the sun!

An old ferris wheel in Ijevan

Dilijan in fall colors

Enjoying the sunny day and beautiful backdrops

The remnants of our guesthouse meal: fish baked in lavash and chicken harissa. Lavash is a type of bread in the Caucasus, also used to bake some food in it. We had a few deliriums of Trouts and La-Vache (especially Margherite) on our way around Armenia. Not sure all readers would understand/smile though… but we have to entertain ourselves!

We woke up the next day to cold, cloudy skies and were preparing for a chance of showers as we left. With the temperatures and weather changing so rapidly in the mountains, we didn’t know what to expect in the upcoming hours. When we left Dilijan, we needed to cycle up one more long pass before our descent into Yerevan. About an hour into the climb, the clouds broke, and the sun started to shine and warm us up. As we were taking a picture-and-snack break, the Russian cyclists caught up to us and we continued cycling up over the hill together. At the top, we all stopped to take in the now clear, warm day overlooking Lake Sevan. Cédric and I then cycled down to the lake and had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the water.  For the rest of the afternoon, Cédric and I slowly made our way down the road and through a few villages, stopping constantly for either pictures or snacks. We found an excellent place to camp on the hillside across the road from a chapel that also served as a place to knock back a few drinks with your friends. As we were cooking dinner, some guys who spotted our tent (and possibly more friendly due to some clear liquids) came over to see what we were doing. One guy told Cédric watch out for the wolves and that we could sleep at his place instead, although we weren’t interested in the prospect of packing up our things in the dark of the night and probably drinking a dozen shots at his house. The chance of getting eaten by a wolf in your tent are about as likely as getting a space-shuttle landing next to you, but here also the darkness of the night, being outside of your comfort-zone and some myths of larger animals are worrying people.

Cédric found a new co-pilot at our guesthouse in Dilijan. I’ll still keep Cassie, that one is too short for the pedals!

Reunited with the Russian cyclists once again. We thought that they would be far ahead as we were going up taking breaks every 5min…but they had a cold night in the tents and decided to snooze the alarm clock.

Views on the way up

Our attempt at using the self-timer

I commend the tank for making it up the hill before it broke down. An usual sight of garden-decor in the backcountry of Armenia.

Running full speed to greet us at the top of the pass

Lake Sevan from above

Lake Sevan

Armenian village

Finishing the day (devouring snacks) and watching the sunset

Sunset

We thought that being invisible from the road, in a field next to a chapel would make that camping spot perfect, but we got to discover on that night that Armenian have a special religious tradition: whenever they pass a religious building, they honk at it twice! We have no idea what the reason can possibly be (God might be fed-up with all those churches), but for us that was slightly annoying for a deep sleep… Luckily there was almost no traffic at all for a good part of the night.

Our views for the evening – and the chapel that drivers decided to honk at all night long!

The next morning, we woke up to a frosty tent and ground. For the first time on our trip, the nighttime temperatures fell well below zero, which made it more difficult to get out of our warm sleeping bags. However, by the time we left, the sun was shining and warming up the area – and even giving us a great view of Mount Ararat in the distance. Our original plan was to follow a small river road down to Yerevan, but we took a wrong turn and ended up heading towards the highway. Since the highway shoulder was large and the traffic wasn’t too dense, we decided to take the faster route instead of backtracking. This didn’t come without its drawbacks – shortly before Yerevan, we managed to get a puncture in not one, but two tires in the same kilometer (if anyone’s wondering, our tires can withstand almost everything, even the smashed glass on the side of the road, but small wire remnants from blown-out truck tires are our nemesis – and have been the cause of all our 5 flats this year). We quickly patched the tubes and continued the ride towards our hostel in Yerevan. The rest of the day, Cédric and I did what we do in every large city: feast and look for replacement bike parts.

Waking up to a frosty morning. Despite honking, the church has not moved away.

Not ready to wake up when it’s cold outside!

We’d be lying if we said that we had great views, all the time. Armenia had a lot of industry, and not sure they all respect the top environmental norms.

Some of our roadside stops are not so glorious

Going down in elevation, we’re greeted once again by haze

Two flats next to the highway and whatever’s rotting on the shoulder

A brand new church

Exhausted, but still walking around Yerevan

A hummingbird moth – we watched this thing for far too long in the Yerevan gardens trying to figure out if it was a bird or insect

The next day, Cédric and I walked throughout much of central Yerevan. We visited the large cascade staircase, the National History Museum (very interesting for an area near the cradle of civilization), and countless churches. Cédric was also excited to go grocery shopping at Carrefour, a French supermarket chain, and was overjoyed by finding all the French delicacies that he’s been missing.

Cow’s feet for the Armenian dish ‘khash,’ a soup made of boiled cow parts

Cédric posing with another Frenchman (RIP C.A.)

Old church, new church

A view over Yerevan with Mt. Ararat (Turkey) in the background

Wandering around the Cascades in Yerevan

 

Learning things at the National History Museum (when it wasn’t written in Armenian)

 

The blue mosque in Yerevan – still with some blue and teal tiling

Not amused with Cédric insisting that we buy all the French things at Carrefour (no we do not need eight cans of paté)

We set out the next day, eager to beat the traffic and cycle westwards towards the Turkish border. Along with Azerbaijan, Armenia also does not have a good relationship with Turkey, so the borders remain closed, and a possibly 200km ride to Erzurum becomes a 500km detour. Our plan was to find some empty, out-of-the-way highways to get back to Georgia and this route seemed reasonable. On the ride outside of Yerevan, we stopped in Vagharshapat to see the Echmiadzin Cathedral, which is the center of the Armenian Church, and the St. Gayane Church. Both places were a little annoying to visit with a bicycle, because the groundskeepers were a little overzealous and adamant that our bike be out of sight in the courtyard and not simply parked off to the side – the Armenian God apparently does not like to see bicycle from the church tower, only four-wheel stinky vehicles. In the afternoon, we continued cycling along the highway and through fruit fields and villages. Along the way, some towns looked run down with huge abandoned Soviet factories looming in the outskirts of the villages. In the evening, we found a camping spot deep in a field and had a great view of the nearby mountains.

Saint Hripsime Church in Vagharshapat, one of the oldest churches in the country

The Echmiadzin Cathedral – the mother church of Armenia. Conveniently under construction

Saint Gayane Church

Eating the first paté pot of many

Cédric enjoying the views. The nuclear plant in the background is a sensitive topic – that stuff could pretty much explode at any time. It was basically considered unsafe right from the beginning during the Soviet Union, got closed not that long after, but because Armenia got stuck with neighboring countries closing the borders, they decided to restart the plant – especially as it is right next to the Turkish border and possibly a good way to pressure Turkey (it wasn’t). It is still running and is the main source of electricity in Armenia. Ah, and because of border problems they get uranium supplies through air-freight from Russia – people under the way of old Ilyushin flying saucers are not thrilled, but it may be Georgians so whatever… Still some ambassies recommend to check regularly the situation with that plant – weirdest travel advise.

Nice landscapes obscured by not-so-nice powerlines and factories

We were told to try the Armenian cognac, loved by Churchill and Stalin, but found it tasted too much like burk to enjoy – so we got a lot of Fanta, and it got better!

The next morning, we continued along the highway, which was now running north along the Turkish border. For both of us, it was frustrating to know that we essentially needed to cycle back up to Georgia, to cycle back down to Kars in Turkey, which was only about 70 kilometers west of Armenia. The roads exist, but there just needs to be two politicians to set aside old grudges and just open the gate. Unlike in Georgia and the eastern part of Armenia, the landscapes became golden and barren once again, reminding us of eastern Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. For lunch, we took shelter from the brisk winds in a bus stop, although we were missing the kindness that we experienced in Tajik bus stops a few short months ago. We continued cycling up over the hills, with the weather changing from sunny to cloudy within a few moments. Towards the late afternoon, we finally reached our guesthouse in Gyumri and quickly went out into the city to explore before nightfall. Compared to Yerevan, with its modern rose-colored Soviet buildings, Gyumri’s center was still full of maintained buildings (or at least the facades) dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries when the city was a part of the Russian empire. We also visited a some of the city’s churches before finding dinner and making it back to our guesthouse before the weather started to turn.

Packing for the day’s ride

What we woke up to

Fall colors in fruit orchards.

Heading west towards Turkey, but unable to cross the border.

The western part of Armenia is drier and feels more desolate than the forests in the eastern part of the country.

Turkey a few kilometers away in the back. We would yet need to do a detour of 200km through Georgia to get there.

On the way to Gyumri, near Turkey.

A church in Gyumri.

The center of Gyrumi- the city is also very much under construction. I think Armenia is preparing to be the top tourist destination in 2020.

All Saviors Church – completely ruined in the 1988 earthquake, but it’s slowly being rebuilt – yep that roof was the one tens of meters higher, it hasn’t moved since.

A bit windswept, but enjoying this curry chicken cordon bleu combo

Comments

    1. Author

      🙂
      Honestly flat tires aren’t a big issue! It’s easy to repair, doesn’t take much time or tools, and we’ve had only 5 punctures this year (all in the last 4 months). About Tannus…well, they aren’t the only ones claiming that you won’t have punctures any more. Punctures are however not the only criteria : grip, surface, rolling friction, weight, foldability, etc. At the end, most of cyclists use some Schwalbe touring tires (we use the Mondial and Tour Plus).
      About the borepanda, that looks like the silliest tires, just good for a few kilometers going to the local store… Imagine going into a muddy track, across a river or through sand with that?!?

  1. I love seeing flora and fauna that I could find here in Minnesota. The hummingbird moth is one and on one of my favorite flowers, Verbena Bonasarius. I also enjoyed reading your synopsis of the Stan’s! Closing in on the slopes of Austria; wish I could join in the celebrating! Oh yeah, we got your postcard a couple of days ago, thanks, that was special!! Aunt Jo

  2. Bonjour Cédric,

    Je suis heureux de voir que vous avez jugé utile de faire un long détour pour visiter ma mère patrie, l’Arménie!

    Savais-tu avant d’arriver à Yerevan que Charles Aznavour était décédé?

    Je compte sur toi pour m’en dire plus à ton retour en Allemagne: on aura peut être l’occasion de retravailler ensemble?

    1. Author

      Salut Philippe,
      Oui on a appris ça quelques jours avant d’arriver en Arménie. C’est surprenant qu’il soit une telle célébrité là-bas, il y a des photos même dans les plus petits villages (où personne ne parle français d’ailleurs!). On a fait une soirée top-Hits de Aznavour sur youtube, il était inconnu de Cassie (et probablement de la majorité des américains).
      Je me disais bien également que le nom de famille sonnait Arménien ! Y vas-tu parfois ? C’est de loin le pays le plus agréable que nous avons visité dans le Caucase, malgré les tensions avec les pays limitrophes ainsi que les inégalités de richesse parfois suspicieuses… Jamais vu autant de Bentley et Rolls-Royce de ma vie qu’en Arménie !
      Ça fonctionne toujours le projet de l’année dernière ? Rien de prévu en 2019 pour l’instant mais prêt pour retravailler ensemble 🙂

  3. Those slaugther houses would be the nightmare of L214 association. Amazing to see some Terrine de canard in Armenia but hopefully you will only find the true one in south west of France likewise foie gras other source of concern for L214. By the way, you did not tell us you were sponsored by Coca Cola… 🙂

    1. Author

      Mouais, pas grand-chose à voir…la c’est plutôt une question d’hygiène, c’est très loin des délires de la viande industrielle.
      D’ailleurs les vaches arméniennes ont probablement une vie meilleure que certaines en Europe de l’ouest.
      Le foie gras, c’est pas originaire d’Égypte et Rome ? 🙂

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