It was probably pretty clear from the last update that I wasn’t likely to be in Kazakhstan for this one. It was time to move on from Aktau. And from Central Asia as a whole.
Enough deserts. Enough camels. And enough full-on ex-Soviet towns with planes on sticks.
The last of those three may well continue to crop up, however, as I’m still in the former USSR.
The plan (once again, proving itself to be a flimsy and unreliable thing) was to follow the standard route of cycle tourists past, but in reverse. The Beastlet and I would take a romantic voyage on a boat, across the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan.
As a result, I had to leave the delightful panorama of Aktau, which I’d been enjoying from my room for the last couple of days (picture below).
And, in the early hours of this morning (Friday), I finally arrived.
In Yerevan. In Armenia.
I know just how sharp many of my readers are. So it can’t have escaped your notice that this was not the city (or even the country) that I was aiming for. It’s not like it’s far away, but it’s definitely not the same place. So much so that Armenia and the country I intended to be in are pretty much at war at the moment.
Not for the first time, though, doing things in reverse has proved to be a bit of an issue. It was, once again, bureaucracy which caused the trouble. This time, it was the Azeri government that was the problem. Their foreign ministry’s website is quite excited about the fact that tourists can now get their visas online. According to them, you just need either a ticket or a hotel reservation, put in an application, and the whole thing goes through in a few days. Hey presto!
So, I sat down in Bukhara (Uzbekistan, for those with short memories) to apply for my Azeri eVisa. I went to an approved travel agent’s website. Only to discover that the foreign ministry is full of fibs. You need to know exactly when you’re going to arrive. You need both return tickets and a hotel reservation. And the visa is only issued for the length of your hotel booking (i.e. you’d need to book somewhere for a week or ten days, and then cancel it after you get the visa).
If you can’t fulfil those criteria (few touring cyclists heading west would be able to: you won’t have a return ticket, and probably only a vague idea of when you’ll get there, especially as the boats don’t have a fixed schedule), you’re stuffed. You’ll need to go to an embassy.
And, of course, by that stage, the last available embassy was already a week’s riding behind me, in Tashkent. Grrr. Bad Azerbaijan foreign ministry.
Thankfully, Aktau has a surprising variety of destinations to fly to, so it was just a case of picking the nearest place for which I didn’t need a visa. That was Armenia, so here I am (that’s Republic Square in Yerevan, above, by the way).
Sadly, that meant that the bike, which had fondly imagined that its days of being stuffed into boxes were over, had to take one last one for the team. I’ve solemnly promised that there are no more planes from here on. But I don’t think it believes me.
Still, I can just mosey up the road for a few days to Tbilisi, in Georgia, and rejoin the planned route. The little research on Armenia that I’ve done suggests it should be stunning mountain scenery most of the way up there (with some big hills to ride, too).
Which will be a big change from the flat, sandy deserts I’ve been used to for the last few weeks. It’s basically been flat ever since I left Nepal, in fact. So it’s time for something a bit different.
Armenia is also, apparently, the world’s oldest Christian country. I’m not entirely sure how you prove a claim like that, but it’s definitely a very different culture from the Muslim countries I’ve just left, whereas I guess Azerbaijan would have been similar. So another change.
And where all the signs in Kazakhstan were written in Kazakh and Russian (both of which use the Cyrillic alphabet), most signs here are in Armenian (and English, surprisingly often). And as you can see from the picture below, the Armenian alphabet is very definitely new to me:
I’m still not sure what I bought in that shop…
Given that Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Armenia were all part of the USSR, it’s amazing how different they are from each other now. Yerevan, with its broad, tree-lined avenues and street cafes feels very European in comparison to the other side of the Caspian. It really is all change.
And, as noted last time, I may actually be in Europe already (though not by any definition of Europe that I learned in school). Yerevan feels European, and looks quite European, too. So maybe it is?
But I still can’t get my head around the geography. Turkey’s border with Armenia is closed (they don’t like each other very much). But it’s just a few miles down the road. To the west of here, there’s nothing but Turkey for hundreds of miles. And the whole of Turkey, surely, is in Asia, until you get to Istanbul. So Armenia, and the Caucasus region as a whole, must be in Asia, too. Mustn’t it?
Maybe that’s something to ponder as I’m grinding up the first serious hills I’ll have seen in months. Maybe I’ll be able to work out the answer by the time I’m definitely back in Asia.
But maybe it doesn’t really matter. It’s different here, for sure. There are so many of those changes to get used to. And that makes it interesting.
Whether it really needs a label on it, or not, I don’t know.