Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Road to Yerevan

Yerevan, Saturday September 19:

It's a Saturday evening in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and the young and beautiful are strutting their stuff on the streets. The city is full of stunningly attractive women, although the men are much less striking. Physically, Armenians look extremely similar to Iranians, and quite unlike Georgians. I was out and about last night, getting a taste of Yerevan nightlife, so tonight will be a quieter affair entirely. It's a good chance to catch up on the blog after a few weeks with relatively little internet connection.

In my last post, I mentioned that I was going to have a day of hiking above Kazbegi, in the far north of Georgia near the Russian border. That day was one of the most spectacular days of the entire Silk Road ride so far. I set out late, having slept in and written up the blog, so I set a ridiculously quick pace up the mountain. I went past the spectacular church high above the town, then walked up along a grassy ridge which gave the impression that I was suspended in space between the massive bulk of Mt. Kazbeg above and the deep canyon below. I had lunch at the edge of one of the big glaciers which pour off the peak, then scampered down for dinner at my homestay. The views, the birdlife (lots of eagles and hawks and a couple of massive vultures), the carpets of colourful wildflowers underfoot, the sunshine, the rhododendrons and the silence made for a fantastic feast for the senses, and left me excited to come back another time to the Caucasus for a long hiking and climbing trip.

The ride out of Kazbegi, down the Georgian Military Highway, was easier than the ride up, but headwinds foiled my idea of riding all the way to Tbilisi. I camped in a meadow between Zhinvali and Mtshkheta (yes, that's really how it's spelled), and spent the next day poking around the old capital of Mtshkheta. It has some of the most important churches in the country, and is the spot where the king of Georgia officially adopted Christianity in the 4th century (a few decades before the Romans, but a couple of decades after the Armenians). It also has a dozen or so archaeological sites scattered around, and I spent a few minutes pottering around a huge prehistoric graveyard on the outskirts before looking through the museum, full of wonderful metal artifacts. Georgia is one of the earliest cradles of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures, and there is also a site in the south of the country which seems to be the earliest non-African human remains ever discovered.

The ride into Tbilisi from Mtshkheta was easy, a coast downhill along the river that cuts Tbilisi in two. I rode into town past endless Soviet-era apartment blocks and hundreds of fishermen and drinkers (the two groups are not mutually exclusive) lining the banks of the river. I found a place to stay, a crowded but cheerful hostel called Irina's full of Israelis and Poles and their inevitable cigarettes. A few minutes after I arrived, an Australian couple, Adam and Cat, riding their bikes from England to Australia showed up and we spent much of the next three days together in Tbilisi, sharing tall tales from the road.

I can't really say that I did much concrete exploring of Tbilisi during my three days there. I did eat lots of food, send the world's most expensive postcards ($3 in postage per card!), buy a new air mattress to replace my defunct ThermaRest (it's a swimming-pool Li-Lo! Not nearly as good as the ThermaRest, and tough to roll over on, and it gets pretty cold from the ground underneath, but it's better than nothing), get my rear axle tightened and rear wheel trued, and celebrated my 41st birthday with a meal at one of the many Irish pubs that have sprung up in Tbilisi. Tbilisi struck me as somehow more liveable than Baku, and with good skiing only two hours away, it could even be quite bearable in the winter. My one regret is that I didn't go to soak in the hot springs that made Tbilisi famous in the nineteenth century.

Since we were going in the same direction, Adam and Cat and I all rode out of Tbilisi together on September 14th under blazing sunshine. We made our way down to the Armenian border through some of the poorest parts of the country that I'd seen yet. The fact that all the people living there are ethnic Azeris may explain some of the government neglect of the region. We crossed the border in the gathering darkness and camped a kilometre inside country number 78 for me.

The next two days were spent slowly making our way uphill up the Debed Canyon, a steep-sided gorge that shelters a number of ancient Armenian churches and monasteries with delightful names like Akhtala, Haghpat and Sanahin. The stone carving in these churches is of the highest quality, and as all the churches were deserted, the atmosphere was wonderful. Armenian churches are generally taller and more spacious than their Georgian counterparts, and are covered with a riot of carved crosses. The church interiors reminded me a lot of Turkish mosques and early Byzantine churches, with a central tower in place of the central dome. The churches were surrounded by dozens of khachkars, stones on which elaborately decorative crosses are carved surrounded by intricate geometric symbols, trees of life and other elements that have a distinctly Celtic feel to them. I spent a lot of time wandering around, taking photos and absorbing the beauty of these ancient sanctuaries.

It was a good thing that the monasteries were gorgeous and the scenery was nice, because modern Armenia is not really a very nice place. Akhtala sports a semi-abandoned copper mine, while Alaverdi has a fully functioning mine and smelter that blights the town and the surrounding mountains. Smog wreaths the valley all the time, while no vegetation grows above the smelter, rather like Sudbury. The town is full of derelict buildings and looks like a typical post-Soviet dystopia. The prize for the ugliest town in northern Armenia, however, goes to Vanadzor, where kilometre after kilometre of decaying petro-chemical plants line the railway tracks and depress passing cyclists. Even the non-industrial towns in the highlands have a mean, decaying, desperate air to them, full of men sitting around idly and Soviet-era buildings in the final stages of decay. Talking to locals, they all agreed that life was far better in the days of the USSR and that many, perhaps most, young people were fleeing these dying towns either to Yerevan or to work abroad in Russia, Germany, Greece and wherever else they can get to. The contrast with much of Georgia is pretty stark: the Georgians have a lot of fertile, well-watered land at low altitude, while much of Armenia is mostly stony high-altitude land with a short growing season.

I parted ways with Cat and Adam just before Vanadzor, eager to push on further towards Yerevan. After camping in a field of construction rubble, I flew up and over a 2300-metre pass near Spitak and rolled through a series of poor highland villages where the aroma of dung fires (there are almost no trees left to burn) reminded me of Tibet. These were some of the poorest areas I'd seen since the Pamirs in Tajikistan, and I hurried through, hoping to drop down into warmer climes (it was only 8 degrees at midday). After a series of ups and downs over various ancient lava flows from the surrounding volcanos, I finally came out on the endless downhill towards the Ararat plain and Yerevan. I spent the afternoon poking around a series of tiny old churches (more great names, like Saghmosavank, Hovhannavank and Karmravor, and more fine carving). Ashtarak, a small town in the midst of these churches, was the first pleasant town I'd found in Armenia; perhaps my view was influenced by the fact that after a few days of spitting rain, the sun had come out. As in much of Armenia, most of the houses and apartment buildings are made from blocks of volcanic tufa stone which gives a very distinctive feel to the architecture. In sunshine, the pinks and oranges in the stone bring the buildings to life, but on a rainy day the buildings seem to radiate greyness. I think that if I lived in a typical Armenian town, I would be like most of my neighbours and develop a vodka addiction.

I made it as far as Echmiadzin, the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church, on Thursday evening and took a hotel room since a wall of black cloud was rolling down from the volcanoes, promising a night of heavy rain. The next morning (yesterday), I slept in, visited the churches of Echmiadzin and their attached treasury (pieces of the True Cross, Noah's Ark, the spear that pierced Jesus' side and various anatomical bits of John the Baptist, St. Andrew and St. Stephen, among other stuff. Echmiadzin cathedral, the Mayr Tachar, is surprisingly small for such an important religious centre, distinctly smaller than several of the more obscure churches I'd seen over the previous few days. Crowds of young seminarians in black overcoats added to the atmosphere, and for the first time I saw more than a handful of Western tourists. One Russian tourist showed a fair bit of cheek by handing me a Russian version of the JW tract The Watchtower inside Echmiadzin cathedral.

I then turned away from Yerevan to visit a wonderful archaeological museum at Metsamor that was almost impossible to find, even with local help. The friendly curators showed me around, displaying their fairly amazing collection of Bronze Age jewellery and metal-work. Armenia, perhaps even more so than Georgia, was a major centre of Bronze Age civilization, just to the north of Mesopotamia, and traded extensively with the Hittites and the Babylonians. Now, thanks to the vagaries of international politics, the Armenians can't even cross the nearby Turkish border, and are almost cut off from world trade. Ironically, the Georgian-Armenian border is clogged with Turkish trucks taking the indirect route to Armenia, while Armenian travel agents flog beach holidays in Antalya.

I rode into Yerevan under sunny skies, the enormous bulk of Mt. Ararat looming immense to the south. I managed to get lost and not get to the Nagorno-Karabakh embassy before it shut for the weekend, so I now have to go on Monday to get my visa for that strange semi-state. Today I spent time at the National Museum wishing that there were more English or Russian explanations (it's almost all in Armenian only), and tomorrow I plan to ride into the nearby mountains to see a Greek temple at Garni and return to make the obligatory visit to the Armenian Genocide museum. And then it will be time for a week-long loop through Nagorno-Karabakh, back into Armenia and off towards Georgia and Turkey. If only the Armenian-Turkish border were open, I could save myself ten days of cycling!

Peace and Tailwinds


Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination
489/144431.880.65746984:4717.053.6Georgia-Armenia border
499/154476.744.911238943:2213.342.7Haghpat
509/164543.967.2155712404:5313.849.6outside Vanadzor
519/174656.2112.3106212756:5616.358.4Echmiadzin
529/184721.965.711215593:5516.649.2Yerevan
539/204811.089.1112117104:4818.653.4Yerevan (daytrip)

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