Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)
Where it all began: Xian, May 2002

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Long and Winding Road to Stepanakert

Stepanakert, Saturday September 26

I'm sitting in an internet cafe in Stepanakert, the capital of the strange semi-country of Nagorno-Karabakh. Quick, how many of you know exactly where Nagorno-Karabakh is? Be honest, now! It doesn't appear on a lot of maps, because only one country (Armenia) considers it an independent country. It's a small area to the east of southern Armenia (11,000 square km and 150,000 people).

It used to be an autonomous oblast (district) within Azerbaijan but populated largely by Armenians. The Armenians and Azeris didn't get along well, and as the USSR broke up, all-out war started between the Karabakh Armenians (with the help of their ethnic kin from Armenia proper) and the Azeris (with the help of first the Soviets, and then the Turks). The Armenians eventually won, conquering adjacent chunks of Azerbaijan in the process, and ethnically cleansing tens of thousands of Azeris from Karabakh and from Armenia. (The Azeris returned the favour to the Armenians in Azerbaijan; among those who had to flee were chess champion Gary Kasparov's family.)

So does Nagorno-Karabakh count as a real country? I had to get a visa to come here and I went through customs controls on the way in, and they issue their own postage stamps, so I'm going to count this one. On the other hand, people here hold Armenian passports, drive cars with Armenian license plates, are defended by Armenian soldiers and have Armenian social insurance cards, and use Armenian currency. By my count, this is the 79th country I've visited in my life (other than home base, Canada). This count includes a few places that aren't members of the UN: the Vatican, Taiwan, the Cook Islands, Northern Cyprus and now Nagorno-Karabakh. I had an interesting discussion with Natalya, my host in Baku, about what constitutes a country. She teaches a unit to her high school students about this, and she feels that the UN list is the only really legitimate list (although to me the fact that Taiwan and the Vatican don't make that list, and that Switzerland only joined a few years ago, to me makes the list incomplete). I could also count Palestine, but at least when I went there, I didn't get any separate visa or passport stamp, and the place lacked the basic ingredients of a state.

Anyway, to resume the bike ride story, I had a nice three days in Yerevan. On the Sunday, the second day I was there, I left my heavy luggage behind and zipped uphill carrying only my camera bag to Geghard Monastery and Garni temple. Both are located in the barren highlands above Yerevan: not many trees, which I think comes from long-ago deforestation followed by overgrazing by sheep. Not a very welcoming-looking landscape, but a good place to hide an important monastery (famous as the former home of the True Spear that was used to stab Jesus on the cross; there are other True Spears in Krakow, Vienna and Rome, rather as there are seven different heads of John the Baptist scattered around the world--readers of Umberto Eco's fantastic novel Baudolino will remember Eco's explanation of this profusion of holy skulls). It's a common weekend outing for Yerevanis, and the place was packed with busloads of teenagers dancing and shouting in the parking lot and hundreds of souvenir and food vendors. Even inside the monastery, people were selling sheep, which took away a little from the monastic atmosphere. Inside the atmospheric church, however, a choir was singing and the sound of Armenian hymns was absolutely beautiful.

Garni was much quieter and quite a different atmosphere. It's a reconstructed Hellenistic temple, probably to the god Mithras, from the glory days of the Armenian kingdom when they held their own in battles against the Romans and Parthians. I met an older Canadian couple, John and Maureen, from Toronto and their Armenian-Canadian friend Paul who runs a Lebanese-influenced restaurant in Yerevan. They invited me to dinner that evening, and who am I to pass up free food? It was some of the best food I've had in Armenia, and I spent a pleasant evening chatting. The British politician Baroness Cox was at the next table; I think she was in town for some sort of charitable cause.

On my way back into town from Garni, I stopped in at the excellent Armenian Genocide Museum. It's very well done, very moving and understated. It's hard to understand the continuing Turkish refusal to recognize what happened in 1915, when 90% of the Armenians in traditionally Armenian areas of the Ottoman Empire were massacred or marched out into the Syrian desert, dying of starvation and maltreatment along the way. A common Turkish response is "Yes, lots of Armenians were killed in 1915, but it wasn't a deliberate government policy to remove Armenians from Turkey, and anyway there are still Armenians left in Turkey so it wasn't a genocide." After visiting the museum, I would say that this argument does not hold water. The Turkish government also continues to allow old Armenian monuments in eastern Turkey to decay or be vandalized (or to be used as stables by local farmers), in what the Armenians see as a continuing cultural genocide, trying to erase all traces of Armenian culture from eastern Turkey. William Dalrymple's brilliant travel book From the Holy Mountain explores this issue in some detail.

I had a slothful and grey Monday that ended with a drenching downpour as the two Basque cyclists Urdin and Izaro and the Aussie couple Adam and Cat and I walked to a distant kebab restaurant, where we ate the better part of an entire lamb and much of a pig too. Cyclists need an occasional protein splurge like that!

Tuesday morning I rode up to the Karabakh Permanent Representative to Armenia (I don't know why they don't call it an embassy), got my visa, and rode out of Yerevan at 1 pm. For once, the road was almost completely flat (even sloping slightly downhill) as I raced with a brisk tailwind at 25 km/h through the agricultural heartland of Armenia, the valley of the Arax river. This broad, fertile plain is where most citizens of Armenia live, as it's relatively warm and low-lying. On the other side of the Arax is Turkey, in the form of the massive twin-peaked volcanic bulk of Mt. Ararat. It was wreathed in heavy cloud that day, so I didn't get to take the classic photo of Khor Virap monastery silhouetted against Ararat; in fact, while I was inside Khor Virap, a massive thunderstorm rolled past off the mountain, just missing me. I looked through my binoculars, but didn't spot any sign of Noah's Ark high on the icy slopes.

I liked Khor Virap, famous as the place where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in a deep pit for years before he was released to convert King Trdat I to Christianity in 301. Khor Virap was actually the capital of the Armenian state for centuries before that, and was sacked by the Romans in the first century AD and then rebuilt with Roman funding. Sadly the pre-Christian ruins and excavations are not open to the public; they would be far more interesting than St. Gregory's pit.

I rode southeast along the river, past villages with increasingly unpronounceable names (see photos for proof!), getting loaded down with gifts of fruit and vegetables from roadside vendors. Eventually I hit the Nakhchivan border (at this spot, 4 countries come very close to touching at a single point: Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia), then turned steeply uphill to start the climb of the first of four major passes (and lots of smaller climbs) leading to Stepanakert. The landscape turned to barren desert, although when I camped halfway up the pass it poured rain on me all night, turning my campsite to a mud wallow.

The second day I crossed the first pass, with nice views of Ararat, chilly at 2000 metres' elevation, and dropped steeply into a more fertile landscape of fruit orchards and vineyards. I climbed up the valley, and camped just below the top of the 2350-metre Vorotan pass, in a pleasant meadow with a little brook (camping beside running water has been a rare luxury for me this summer). It was cold and very rainy that night, and I awoke to 5 degree temperatures and the sight of snow not that far above me on the mountaintops. Winter comes early to the Armenian mountains!

The third day was long, cold and grey. I finished off the Vorotan Pass, getting yet more views of distant Ararat, descending into bleak moorland that had ridiculous amounts of up and down to it as the road dropped into deep ravines and climbed back out. Eventually I dropped to warmer elevations at 1600 metres in the pleasant little town of Sissian. I had a big kebab lunch there with two Israelis whom I had met in Georgia and Yerevan, who were surprised that I had gotten to Sissian in only two full days of riding. Afterwards I found the evocative, strangely beautiful stone circle (like a smaller version of Stonehenge) of Zorats Karar (or Karahundj) just outside town. Like Stonehenge, it's believed to have been used for astronomical purposes, with lots of carefully-carved sighting holes in the tops of most of the standing rocks. Some of the theories I read seemed a bit far-fetched, but the isolated spot, high on bleak moors with snowy mountains behind, was really quite full of historical ghosts. I rode over another high pass, then plummeted into the large town of Goris in a blinding downpour that had me headed to the nearest hotel for a night under a roof in a warm bed.
Yesterday I climbed out of Goris under clear blue skies and spent the morning undulating across a plateau dissected by a frustrating series of deep canyons. After a few hours, I dropped to a mere 800 metres above sea level and entered Nagorno Karabakh. The scenery changed quite dramatically; instead of the treeless, rather unwelcoming landscape of southern Armenia, the mountains were draped in dense forest (turning very yellow with the rapid approach of winter) and the scenery became much more dramatic, with steeper slopes and glimpses of distant misty canyons. I had one more big pass to climb, and then suddenly I was dropping into Stepanakert, past the cliffs and old Azeri fortress walls of Shushi. I stayed in a little homestay where I met another cyclist, from Spain, with whom I went out for dinner and what turned out to be too many beers.
This morning I was planning to leave for the north of Karabakh, where a jeep track leads over another high pass back into Armenia at Lake Sevan. However, circumstances conspired against me. On the last day into Stepanakert, my cheap Chinese right pedal which I have been using since leaving Azerbaijan suddenly began to give up the ghost, getting loose and then starting to grind up its ball bearings. I barely made it into Stepanakert, and went off this morning to get it tightened enough to get me to Turkey. Pedals are tricky beasts to adjust, and although I know how to fix a pedal in theory, in practice it's harder. With the help of a hardware store I thought I had the pedal tight enough to ride, but a few hundred metres down the road it disintegrated completely, strewing the road with ball bearings and various nuts and washers. I gave up on fixing the pedal and set off to find a replacement. There is exactly one shop in Stepanakert that sells pedals, but they're $4 plastic ones that look as though they might last 15 minutes. (Note: they in fact lasted 10 km before bending into an unuseable shape!)

This has put a severe crimp in my plans, as I will now have to retreat to Yerevan by bus, carrying my bike on the roof, where I will need to find a more substantial pedal, or else get my original good Shimano pedal fixed properly. It's frustrating that I am being held up by something as elementary as a pedal, and that I have to take to public transport. On the other hand, I did manage to ride all the way here, and my legs will benefit from the rest after averaging 1800 vertical metres for four straight days. Once I have the pedal issue resolved, I will ride north from Yerevan to Georgia and the Turkish border crossing at Posof, ready for the final long haul of this Silk Road bicycle adventure.
489/144431.880/65746984:4717.053.6Georgia-Armenia border
509/164543.967.2155712404:5313.849.6outside Vanadzor
539/204811.089.1112117104:4818.653.4Yerevan (daytrip)
549/224899.788.714226754:3519.332.0Near Tigranashen
559/234984.584.8200518956:1413.657.1near Saravan

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