armenia

Capital to Capital: Across Armenia to Tbilisi

This update is a little later than originally intended.  This is not due to any unfortunate mishaps, mechanical disasters, or internet access issues.

It’s simply down to nostalgia and Georgian wine.  Which is entirely unavoidable here in Tbilisi.

Hold on a minute, though.  I’ve just skipped blithely on to another country.  You thought I was in Armenia.  I’d better rewind a little…

It turns out that Armenia has three features which are hard to miss.  Firstly, it’s small.  I’ve just ridden pretty much right across it in two-and-a-half days.  Second, it’s absolutely beautiful, as you’ll hopefully agree from the pictures.  And third, it’s a little bit hilly.

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As soon as you turn north in Yerevan city centre, you start climbing.  There’s no avoiding it, whichever road you choose.  To get to Georgia, you have to cross the southern Caucasus.  You can get an idea of the climbing involved from the picture above; the TV tower poking over the near horizon is massive, and perched on a hill above the city centre.  So the city is a long way down from where this picture was shot.

You might also have noticed the giant volcano in the background.  That’s Mount Ararat (where Noah allegedly parked his ark).  The Armenians love Mount Ararat, and there are hotels, cognac, and all sorts of products named after it.  The slight downside is that, although the town of Ararat is in Armenia, the mountain is now in Turkey.  This is one of several reasons that the two countries don’t get on too well.

Regional politics were not the biggest issue on my radar on Sunday, though, as I laboured uphill out of town.  Yerevan sits at an altitude of about 1000 metres, so the air’s already a little thinner that one would like.  And the day’s ride would take me up past the huge lake at Sevan, which is another 900 metres higher.  I was gasping a little bit, I must admit.

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Still, the big benefit of climbing hills is that the scenery is generally a little more interesting than on flatter ground.  And Armenia is pretty stunning all the way from Yerevan to the Georgian border.  Wiggling through narrow gorges and straining over passes was a fantastic change after the flat lands of the last few months.

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By Monday lunchtime, I was over my second significant pass (above), and dropping in to the town of Vanadzor.  With the exception of a few minor rises around river bends, it’s about 80 kms of generally downhill road from there, all the way to Georgia.

That’s not quite as easy as it sounds, mind you.  There are a handful of scary tunnels (think pitch black with potholes and trucks), and a few rough-ish patches of road.  And Armenian dogs are the most enthusiastic bike chasers that I’ve yet had the displeasure of running away from.  But to be honest, it was a blast, essentially just dropping down one long, stunning gorge for hours.

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My last night in Armenia was where the blog update procrastination really kicked in.  I stayed at a little B&B in Alaverdi, about 40 kms from the Georgian border.  It was a really nice, family-run place, and they made their own wine.  Of course, not to try would be to offend, wouldn’t it?

A few glasses later, and writing anything was off the agenda.  And my journey to Tbilisi yesterday (Tuesday) also got off to a remarkably sluggish start.  There’s a lesson in there, somewhere…

Still, start I eventually did, and enjoyed a relaxing run down to yet another astonishingly easy-going international border.  The Armenian immigration guy had a quick chat, the Georgian just stamped my passport and waved me through.  Maybe a minute of formalities all told (plus a three or four minute ride between border posts), and I was rolling into country number 22.

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I was looking forward to Georgia, although I’ve never been here before.  Long, long ago, when I was in Russia as a student, I kind of fell in love with Georgian food (and also, their sweet and dangerously alcoholic red wine).  Although I’d seen an increasing amount of Georgian restaurants in Armenia, I was going to hold off until I got to Tbilisi, for the full, authentic nostalgia experience.

It wasn’t a hard run from the border, despite a last-minute headwind whistling down the valley as I entered town, and first impressions of the Georgian capital are really quite good.  Entering from my direction, you run along the river, with cliffs, old churches and fortresses overlooking the road.  Apart from the mildly aggressive traffic, it seemed like my expectations were going to be met in full.

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Having found my accommodation, I ran into an Irishman and an Australian who were about to head out for dinner (if anyone’s got any Englishman, Irishman and Australian jokes, let me know).  This, fairly predictably, meant that I consumed a colossal amount of Georgian food, topped up with the obligatory dose of red.  So a blog update was once again out of the question, and a late night round of talking rubbish was inevitable.  And quite enjoyable.

I had a sore head this morning.  Poor me.

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And so, today (Wednesday) was restricted to a slightly tentative exploration of Tbilisi.  Thankfully, I’m right in the middle of the old town here, so there wasn’t too much walking involved between either sights or strong coffee.

As with so much of the Caucasus region, there’s a lot of history here, from churches to monasteries to castles, to impressive city squares.  There’s also a cable car, which was an especially handy addition, given my fragile condition.  The views of the city from the top are really quite impressive.  Although they do remind you that the hills certainly aren’t over yet.

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My next destination here reminds you of that too.  Assuming the weather stays decent (which it may well not, unfortunately), I’ll be aiming for Gori tomorrow.  And Gori (in Russian) means ‘mountains’.  It’s also home to another side of Georgian history; it’s where a certain, less than cuddly dictator called Josef Stalin grew up.

So Georgia should continue to be interesting, with a bit of luck.  I’ll just have to try to stay off the sauce long enough to update the blog again before Turkey…

All Change

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.