HIGH PASSES YAKS AND BUZKASHI
life in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor
Tom Allen is an errant writer-adventurer-filmmaker with vast experience of travelling in and around Armenia. This blog entry is adapted with permission from Allen’s excellent blog, Tom’s Bike Trip.
Visiting Armenia isn’t on many people’s to-do lists. All the better, then, for those who turn up in this tiny Caucasian nation which I’ve made my second home. And since Aerosvit and LOT Polish Airlines opened routes to Yerevan, air travel costs from Europe have plummeted. Dreaming of returning and carrying out a proper adventure in the nation, I thought the time was ripe to publish a few reasons to make it your next adventure or cycling destination. Of course there are more than five good reasons to go adventuring or cycling in Armenia, but here are those I’ve focussed on.
If you love slogging for hours up 40km ascents and burning down the other side, then repeating the process over and over again for days on end (yes, some people actually do enjoy this!), then Armenia is absolutely perfect for you.
There is literally no route through this tiny nation that doesn’t involve serious mountain passes. The highest on the through-route to Iran is over 2,500m in altitude, and rides in areas such as Aragats can reach over 3,000m. Heading off-road will take you higher still. The gradients are unforgiving and the climbs very, very long, but luckily the traffic is very mild.
If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, a couple of anecdotes may help. While I was living in Yerevan I offered to host a couple of bicycle-world-circumnavigators over Christmas. They’d been on the road for more than a year and had cycled across Europe, South America (including crossing the Andes) and the breadth of the Asian continent (including crossing the Tien Shan range). Little Armenia, then, should have been a doddle — right? Late afternoon on December 23rd I received a ‘phone call:
“Tom, mate, I think we’ve just about had it. These hills are f****** killing us. We’re thinking of getting a bus from here and then returning after Christmas to finish it off.” Little Armenia had done her work.
(These cyclists did indeed summit the final pass and complete their ride to Yerevan, motivated by the promise of hot mince pies in reward for doing so!)
Another veteran cyclist once contacted me for advice on routes in the country. Later I asked him for an account of his trip. He told me that the climbs in Nagorno-Karabakh were the most difficult he’d ever experienced. And this was a guy who’d previously cycled across Tibet.
Armenia is small and the population is low. While it’s possible to cover the country end-to-end from Georgia to Iran in a week, it’s really worth taking the time to explore the minor routes that lead off the road down to the Iranian border.
Many of these are unpaved and will see very little in the way of foreign tourists from year to year.
This, in fact, is at the core of my recommendation for cycling here.
The even-more-mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh represents a unique opportunity to travel in an autonomous and stable yet still internationally disputed territory, with the same currency and language as Armenia itself and a permit easily obtained in Yerevan. (The only catch is that you’ll be banned from entering Azerbaijan for the remainder of your passport’s validity.)
Lake Sevan, a large high-altitude lake at nearly 2km above sea level, is one of Armenia’s natural wonders. Although a popular destination for summer day-trippers from the capital, much of the lakeside is quiet and accessible away from the tourist beaches around the peninsular — perfect for wild-camping and swimming in its chilly yet clear waters. And if you’re heading south to Yeghegnadzor, the mountain road there from Martuni, via the ruined silk-road caravanserai, is one of the most dramatic you’ll find this side of the Pamirs.
Armenia, on paper, sounds dangerous and difficult. It’s still officially at war with Azerbaijan, the borders are closed on the Turkish side as well, and there’s no end to the reports of tension between these nations. Georgia (remember that ‘war’?) is to the north, and Iran is to the south.
But none of this need put you off — the reality of Armenia is very stable; transport by bus and train from Tbilisi is easy and cheap, as is coach travel to and from the perfectly-safe Iranian cities of Tabriz and Tehran. As a foreigner, you’ll still be a relative novelty — most foreign visitors still come from the Armenian diaspora, particularly its American arm, and this usually works in your favour. (Except with taxi drivers, who’ll try to rip you off.)
The national symbol of Armenia now lies ironically on Turkish land, but the iconic sight of Ararat on a clear day really is one that will stay with you forever, however clichéd that might sound.
It alone is reason enough to visit the up-and-coming capital of Yerevan during your time in the country, and to spend some time relaxing in the modern city centre, marvelling at the contrast between the superficial glamour on show here and the shambolic make-do lifestyle out in the provinces — typical of the region and of the former Soviet Union. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a strong undercurrent of progressive culture, as well as plenty of the historical sort.