The weather started to turn during our night in Gyumri, Armenia’s quiet second largest city. The clouds had been swirling above us all day, but the evening finally brought the much-anticipated showers. We left the guesthouse a little late, immediately after the morning drizzle subsided. In the border region of Armenia, we were not completely out of the mountain ranges and soon needed to pedal up over a few small passes. Just a few kilometers outside of the city, the clouds broke for a few moments and we saw some of the cold, autumn skies. When we descended down our first hill, Cédric and I were shocked at how cold the weather had become… cycling uphill is warming, but the descent is an Arctic blast. It looked like the last 9 months pretty much continuously with shorts and T-shirt would soon be over. We stopped at a small café for lunch, although we already had food in our packs, to warm up over a coffee. In the afternoon, we continued cycling towards the Armenian-Georgian border and up over a few more hills and past old villages. We finally reached the Armenian-Georgian border in the late afternoon in very cold temperatures, after being caught in a few short showers. The combination of rain and the cold made the crossing at 2000 meters unbearably frosty and we were happy to get through the border within 30 minutes. There was still hail from a storm shower a few hours before on the ground and were just hoping that the custom officers would not ask us to open the panniers – our hands were numb and we were shivering, and we had little motivation to explain the how and the why we have various gears in our luggage.
We got the usual weird questions of the border officers: where do you come from? Cassie replying to one officer “Armenia!” while giving an US passport (we are in Armenia heading to Georgia at the border so obviously from Armenia, duh!), and Cedric told another officer “Kazakhstan” (well, that was where our last flight landed – duh again!) handing a German passport. Not sure what they are really asking at the borders with questions like that (and it has happened a few times) – but apparently no matter what you reply, they seem convinced with the answer (Western countries passports also probably help a lot!).
After the crossing, the roads took a turn for the worse and we had to cycle through thick, wet mud and potholed roads all the way to Ninotsminda, where we spent the night. It looked like the process of doing a new road was done over a decade, with years apart between the destruction of the previous road and the new pavement.
The next morning, Cédric and I packed our things in order to head towards the Georgia-Turkey border. The original plan was to camp somewhere close to the border, if not in Turkey that night. As we were leaving, Cédric and I had a debate about which road to take – my thought was to stay on the main road, despite the crazy Georgian drivers, and Cédric wanted to take a shortcut through some villages. I was a bit wary at first, considering that it had been raining and the Georgian roads from the day before had proven to be in rough shape, but I conceded after seeing a few cars driving down those roads. In the end, however, my first reservations turned out to be true. As we approached the second village, the roads went from manageable gravel to what I called ‘purely medieval.’ (A good reference for these roads would be from the Monty Python and the Holy Grail ‘Bring out your dead’ skit – Link). Within seconds on the path, our bike couldn’t move due to layers of thick, black mud between the wheels and the mud guards. With no other choice, we parked the bike and started poking out the dirt with our flag poles (the dirt was thick enough to break sticks). All too optimistic, we tried going on the path again and only made it for 100 meters before repeating the same process. And again, and again, and again through a village of 100 homes – which meant that people were watching us and dogs were barking all around, but no one came to help. Just a funny entertainment for the day – we had to cycle 60km in Georgia to get from Armenia to Turkey, and we were still not thrilled by Georgia. When we decided to head back to the main road, a guy called us and told us that he’d get us a taxi – but at the price he quoted, we decided that cycling was better, or at that fare accept only a helicopter-shuttle for a 10km leapfrog. By the time we made it to the main road, we had lost the entire morning and the clouds above started to swirl again. In order to improve our moods, we decided to cycle to one of the marked guesthouses in a village called Sulda, a lot before the original plan of reaching the Turkish border. We were hoping that it’s proximity to the main road meant paved village roads, but at this point, it was naïve to think that. We pushed the bike to a guesthouse and enjoyed an evening not toughing it out in the elements.
A short video of the muddy mess:
The next morning, it was very difficult getting out of our warm bed and preparing for another cold and cloudy day with showers in forecast. We had a hearty Georgian breakfast, bade our host goodbye, and pushed our bike through the medieval dirt hopefully one last time. Once we got back to the main road, we pushed out the remaining dirt on our tires and set off towards the Turkish border. As we cycled through the last few villages, we couldn’t help but feel that these borderlands had been overlooked… the difference between here and Tbilisi, just 200 kilometers away – but centuries apart – was drastic, and it felt like being back into remote villages of Tajikistan. We reached the border in the late morning, turned in our passports for stamps (we got an officer testing our German skills – probably just to make sure that we had not stolen the passport – but not understanding our answer… I guess it probably sounded German enough to him), and then cycled off into Eastern Anatolia. The first thing we noticed was the new asphalt (with a shoulder, mindful drivers and even trucks using their blinkers!) and hopes that we would no longer have to deal with mud. We cycled up a large hill and came across two other cyclists who were speeding down. We quickly exchanged information about where we’ve been, where we’re going, the respective hazards of both countries we had just gone through, and where we stayed over the last few days before it became too cold and we said our goodbyes. They gave us a good tip on where we could stay that night (and price), because the weather was continually getting worse. The wind was starting to pick up and the showers were becoming more frequent, so we quickly stopped at a café for lunch in Çildir before cycling the last stretch to a resort on Lake Çildir. Cédric negotiated the prices and we settled into a bungalow for the night, once again glad that we wouldn’t have to worry about the tent crumpling due to the wind. Although the bungalow had three large room, we quickly re-tuned the interior design to condemn two rooms and transform the third into a studio with heater full-on and to not have to get-out of the room until the next day.
We awoke the next morning, tired from a loud, windy night. It seemed like our bungalow was built only for good weather since wind was blowing through the cracks throughout the entire night and sometimes felt like it was going to collapse. When we awoke, we looked outside at the trees bending in the wind and wondered whether it was worth it to attempt cycling this day… since we had time before breakfast to figure it out, we flipped on the heater and watched the news on the TV. At breakfast in the resort’s restaurant, the wind continued to howl outside, and it was predicted to get even stronger to gale-forces by midday… so we decided to stay an extra day and use the time to catch up on blog posts. The next morning, we again woke up early and noticed that the wind had died down over night, but were surprised when we pulled back the curtains… snow! A few centimeters of it, too. The wind was still blowing, but not as strong, but now the roads were covered in snow. Again, we pondered over our predicament over breakfast and then decided to wait it out another day as we watched snowstorm after snowstorm pass.
Finally, after three nights confined to the resort (and having exhausted all our food supplies), the weather became better and we could leave. In true Murphy’s law fashion, our bungalow didn’t have running water during our stay at the resort (a burst pipe or something, maybe laziness), so we were also without shower and a convenient bathroom. As we were leaving, however, the water magically started working again. We packed the bike, said farewell to the resort staff and cooks, and set out for Kars.
The already-melting snowfall did wonders to the landscapes as we cycled around the rest of Lake Çildir- it added another dimension to the mountains that we had not yet seen while cycling. We enjoyed the journey down to Arpaçay for lunch and continued cycling over some hills until we reached Kars. The benefit of Turkish cities is that most people live in large apartment buildings, so reaching the center in towns of tens of thousands of people is quick and tolerable (as opposed to navigating thousands of streets and cars). All shops and restaurants are altogether within walking distance. Knowing that the overnight temperatures were dropping to below freezing, we found a hotel downtown for the evening. Turkish hotel owners have notably always been great at helping us manage our gears and store the bike for the night – no questions or reluctance, they always find a safe indoor spot for the bike (no way it stays in the street, but people don’t always understand that).
The next morning, we set off westward. Our trip in Turkey was only going to last until Erzurum and we still had a few hundred kilometers to get there. After cycling through a few streets, we reached the highway once again. Compared to nearly everywhere we had been cycling over the past few months, Turkey felt like a dream: the highways were empty, shoulders were wide, gentle drivers and everything was newly paved. This is what we wanted after countless roads covered in potholes, gravel, glass and constant honking. Looking at the snow-capped mountains in the distance also made the day even more enjoyable. We stopped in a town to eat our lunch, which ended up being bread and spreads on a curb because we weren’t interested in cycling into the center. In the afternoon, we followed a small road through a few villages to Sarikamis, which again had light traffic and unbelievably smooth pavement. Because the day was easy, we packed our things inside our hotel and walked around the ski town, eating at two restaurants because one meal wasn’t filling enough.
While the morning temperatures were still below freezing, Cédric and I packed our things and left. For us, it was slightly depressing to know that the temperatures for our last stretch of cycling wouldn’t improve (or at least get back to shorts and t-shirt weather). Just like the day before, it might have been a cold start, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We warmed up by cycling up a small pass and through pine forests – although we needed to put our jacket and gloves back on for the descent. As the day progressed, we marveled at the landscapes we were able to see from the road: canyons, cliffs, fairy chimneys (and we weren’t even in Cappadocia!) and the remnants of the Zivin Fortress… all of this aided by the mountains in the background and lack of cars made for an awesome day of cycling. We ended our day just before it dipped below freezing in Horasan.
For our last day of cycling, we had no other option besides cycling along the highway to get to Erzurum since it was the most direct route. The weather was still cloudless blue skies and the day was pretty enjoyable, despite the uptick in the number of semi-trucks cruising past. While cycling through a police checkpoint (they’re looking for guys avoiding the compulsory military service… and terrorists?), we were offered tea by one of the guards who could speak English. He told us that many cyclists go past in the warmer months, but it’s rare to see people so late in the season. We stopped to warm up over a lunch in Pasinler and then continued our journey. In the afternoon, shortly before Erzurum, we met Joscha, a German guy heading towards Singapore and exchanged a few stories on the side of the highway. The ride into Erzurum was effortless and we quickly found a place to stay in the downtown. The hotel was also helpful in finding a bus company that would take us into Istanbul.
The next day, with a bit of extra time do to an afternoon departure for Istanbul, we wandered around the city and saw some of the historical sites. It appeared as though Erzurum was also planning to be a hit tourist destination in the near future, so the castle was under renovation (or possibly reconstruction). We were also being pulled into a carpet shop and spoke a bit of German with the friendly owner as he told us a bit about the handmade carpets and his life. If we weren’t cycling, I’m very sure that we would have walked away with something. In the afternoon, we loaded our bike and made our way to the bus depot, hoping that our luggage wouldn’t freak out the bus driver. When we loaded our stuff, the drivers and assistants rammed our bike into other luggage, which broke our headlight, but still demanded that we pay additional money for the luggage. I tried my best to negotiate the price (mostly by screaming “problem!” and pointing to the headlamp), but we didn’t walk away with a discount. The 20-hour ride to Istanbul was cramped and uncomfortable; we were able to sleep a few hours during the night, but many old guys talked on their phones and the frequent rest stops didn’t allow us to have uninterrupted sleep. The bus driver, probably doing the trip several times a week, managed to even miss Istanbul (15M people) and realize that half way to Bulgaria: 2 more hours in the bus! He was focusing a little too much on his cigarette and buddies on the phone… We rolled into Istanbul the next day in the late morning and quickly packed the bike and rode to the nearest hotel that would take us. Competition between hotels is fierce in Istanbul, and by being in the business area on a week-end, thus slightly outside of the touristic downtown we got to settle in a 4* hotel for a bargain price.