The Armenian side of the border was a chaotic shambles, but within 5 minutes of cycling I was cycling in peace and quiet. In the evening sun everything looked golden – the fields a deep yellow and the mountain peaks different shades of blue as they faded in the distance.
In one village not far from the border I was invited by an elderly couple for coffee. They were a nice pair and I’d had enough cycling for the day, so I asked if I could pitch my tent on their land. I usually have an introductory note for this: it basically says in the local language what my name is, what I’m doing and asks if I can stick my tent on the reader’s property. I didn’t have my note translated into Armenian yet, but it’s hardly a difficult request in sign language.
They happily let me put my tent up in the garden across the road and soon I was the most exciting thing in the village. Some of the local kids took me into the ‘centre’ where there were a couple of statues of military leaders who I think did a lot of ‘good fighting’ in the last war with Azerbeijan. We took a million photos at their request. There were no street lights in the village and yet these statues were illuminated by fancy spotlights. Sometimes these ‘cultural investments’ have an odd sense of priorities…
Another guy turned up and wanted me to meet his mother who was an English teacher. She was desperate for me to stay with them even though I’d already set up my tent in the garden down the road. I didn’t really fancy awkwardly relocating but she was fairly insistent so with an army of volunteers we went back to pack up my tent and bring my stuff up the hill.
It turned out to be a good move – it was nice and useful to speak to someone in English. I was well fed and given a bed to crash. My host was lovely – she told me that the village used to be Azeri, and that they all used to live in Azerbeijan but that they effectively ‘swapped’ when the countries were respectively ethnically ‘cleansed’ in the war. This is all very recent history. I’ve cycled through other villages in Czech Republic and Bulgaria where whole communities of Germans or Turks were evicted and the new community is indeed very ‘new’, but not as much as this one.
It occurred to me how many recent war zones I’ve cycled through – Armenia/Azerbeijan, Georgia/Russia and all the way back to Germany’s WWII memorials. Every country seems to have its issues with its neighbours, but none so much as little Armenia.
In the morning I saw for the first time how beautiful the view was from their home! I left with a packed lunch of (all homemade) bread, cheese and peach juice.
I chose the eastern road to Lake Sevan. It looked like it would be a little quieter than the main road to Yerevan, but it meant I had some big mountains to climb. It was crazy hot – for the first time I was really struggling in the temperature. It’s fine when you have a breeze, but when you’re cycling up mountains at near-walking pace you can feel it, believe me.
I stopped in a picnic area near the last pass. The lake I could see was half Armenia, half Azerbeijan. In the other direction there was a little ‘pocket’ of Azerbeijan inside Armenia. In fact, the road I was following occasionally passed through Armenian controlled territories inside Azerbeijan. Very confusing….
A large group came of a bus and took a bunch of photos of me, before leaving me a big back of apricots, plums and other fruit. I like the Armenians. They make me feel welcome even if they all seem to think I’m crazy. They all have gold teeth which makes them look very cool. It’s a shame I don’t speak Russian, just like in Georgia it would have been so useful. Everyone asks me if I speak Russian, but all I can say in Russian is ‘I can’t speak Russian’ – so that conversation never lasts very long.
I stopped in Ijevan to buy some food for camping. I’d planned on cycling 5/10km out of town to sleep but on my way out I was flagged down by a Russian girl and an Armenian fella, and invited for coffee. She asked me if I was going to Rainbow Gathering – ‘huh’? I’d only heard of Rainbow Gathering because a girl I’d Couchsurfed with in Bulgaria had told me about the one she attended in Romania the year before. Rainbow Gathering is a festival, I guess the ultimate hippy fest – self sustainable, not about money, secret location, no alcohol/drugs etc. It sounds super interesting – not quite my cup of tea but something I’d be very curious to experience. Turns out the Middle-East gathering was taking place pretty close by. I considered trying to find it, but she told me that it was up in the mountains and that one Swiss cyclist had arrived there but said it was a struggle.
She was living in a ‘WHOOFing’ (Worldwide Oppurtunites on Organic Farms) house in a nearby village that an American guy owned, and invited me to stay there for the night. I left my bicycle in the restaurant/hotel (whatever it was) where we had coffee and we got a lift up to the village by the landlord of the WHOOFing place. She’d been at the festival but had had to come back to water the plants. It occurred to me there that this was the farm that the guys I’d stayed with in Georgia (with the Chinese wine merchant) had also been working. Small world…
We made a quick stop at the landord’s farm to bring the cows in and then drove up to the village. He drove like a maniac. I felt more uncomfortable inside the car of an Armenian driver than I do driving beside them!
We stopped at a gas station where we had to get out the car while they were filled up. I’ve never seen stations like this before but everyone in Armenia (at least outside Yerevan) seems to have switched their rusty old Soviet box cars to gas.
In the morning I got a lift back to town but again we had to go to his flat in another village (lots of the ‘villages’ are just a bunch of small flats) to get some chicks to take back to the farm…
It was a long climb and the end last section was through a pretty nasty 2.5km tunnel that I hadn’t been expecting. After the tunnel the landscape was totally different – it was my first first pass at over 2,000m in Armenia.
I found a spot to camp by Lake Sevan. It was strange to see such a huge lake so high in the mountains but I was happy to be camping at altitude – the last few nights had been horribly hot.
My campsite (in a neglected picnic area) was perfect but for the millions of midges and colourful spiders… I was happy for a swim in the morning as I was in need of a wash!
Just as I was pulling my bags up I saw another cyclist coming past – it was the Swiss guy who’d been at the Rainbow Gathering! Small world again…
We rode to Yerevan together, but first we stopped at the monastery by Sevan, where we also bumped into two Danish woman on bikes.
The road to Yerevan was stunning – mostly downhill through a steep gorge. The landscape was dry and rocky, it looked so much more ‘Middle-Eastern’ than I’d imagine Armenia to look.
We found a ‘social-activist’ cafe/hangout space (I don’t really get what it was) that my new bicycle friend had heard about that we might be able to crash in. I think it was officially closed and that they were trying to raise funds to re-open but we were given a key and allowed to crash.
Yerevan was a shock to the Armenian image. I’ve been in countries where the capitals are totally different to the rest of the rural country but Yerevan was a real curveball. Everyone was driving nice cars, drinking in swanky cafes and generally everything felt like being back in a Western European city.
We went out drinking and I met loads of American-Armenians ‘repats’ as they could be called. So many of them 2nd, 3rd or whatever generation of Armenians who’ve grown up abroad and come back to volunteer and fulfill their curiosity, guilt duty, or interest in the ‘mother land’. There are so many in this position who come back to ‘help’, but I think most of them only come for a year and would never want to actually settle in Armenia.
Yerevan was really cool – I liked it a lot. But way, way too hot to live… There isn’t really that much to see in Yerevan, but the one place I did want to visit was the Genocide Museum. It’s the 100th year anniversary of the genocide, and you’d struggle not to know that here – there are posters about the ‘denial’ everywhere in town. Some of them have a picture of two stencil faces – one with a big moustache and a fez hat and the next one with an unmistakable Hitler moustache. A fairly clear comparison…
The museum wasn’t exactly a fun day out. I knew a bit about the genocide, but I learned a lot during the couple of hours I spent in the museum and a lot of it was more barbaric than I’d imagined. It reminded me of the American War museum in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam – a totally biased and unashamed bashing of the ‘enemy’. This museum was basically a big ‘fuck you’ to Turkey.
I try and avoid talking about the genocide or any other sensitive topic with the Armenians as they’re all so, well, sensitive! I’ll try and avoid talking about war and that here, but here’s one thing I find particularly interesting: If you speak to a Turk about the ‘genocide’ they’ll often deliver a totally different series of events that the Armenians have in their history. It’s bizarre that two countries can have such a different recollection of history. But I guess it’s similar to our understanding of the Falklands between the UK and Argentina. You might call it Turkish ‘denial’ but if you were taught one story everyday in your school history then you would also take it as fact. The same on the Armenian side. The amount of us that sit around and talk bullshit about politics, football – whatever, when we’re just regurgitating what other people have said. How could I ever really comment on any disputed history without being a real historian myself. I hope that makes sense…
I left Yerevan having seen a totally different side of Armenia. One I really liked, but I was excited to be getting back into the rural side of the country.