Armenia, a ride back in time
Armenia’s been given a bad rep recently what with its association to the vapid Kardashian publicity machine, at least only part association, but we were so pleasantly taken in by the place that we forgot all links to the American reality TV “stars” quickly.
We woke up to greenery next to a brook bursting with the buzz of insects going about their day. The sun provided warmth without scorching us and we enjoyed a lazy coffee with some squidgy, over-travelled fruit for breakfast. Packing the tent, we had to wrestle with butterflies and stubborn grasshoppers who clearly wanted to be rolled up and taken to Yerevan with us. Read to go, we glided along the narrow roads through beautiful
stark mountains filled with morning mist. There was no-one on the road, it was like a dreamscape although it hid the horrors of the Azeri-Armenian conflict which still causes tension to this day.
Eventually we were riding through small villages, which tumbled down mountainside towards a river which cascaded through the mountains and where the buildings were built a sensible distance from the banks. We pulled over for a coffee and proper breakfast which consisted of a meat pie as we were too early for much of the menu sadly. The coffee was excellent however and the lady working there was really kind even though her male colleague had terrible plumber’s crack. Everytime he leaned in to get the fire going for the BBQ later we were treated to a bum wink. It was far too early in the morning for such spectacles….
Soon one biker became two, then three and all of a sudden we were making friends with some Iranian bikers who’d just returned from a mini adventure around Armenia!! They were really friendly and we spoke at length with them about our trip, where we’d been and the local kids warmed to them immediately and so followed a photoshoot with the neighbourhood kids on the bikes! They headed off the way we’d just come to go home to Iran and we carried on towards the North and Yerevan.
The road continued to be excellent with only some minor road repairs happening next to the river but there are so few roads in the mountains you’re forced through them, slowly. We made pretty good time, and exited the mountains (at the point where the Turkish border starts) just as rain clouds pulled in. Funnily enough, a storm began just as we were riding past Mount Ararat!! The clouds thickly spread themselves over the mountain, covering it in grey light and then parting just when we went past so that the peak was bathed in golden sunshine from above the clouds! It was a spectacular sight but one we couldn’t admire for long as the sheet rain was marching steadily towards our direction and we could already feel the first freshness of the drops in the lead in our breath.
Noah’s ark would have to wait for a second visit, one when it wasn’t raining so much.
Before we’d made it to Ararat, and before it had started raining. We decided on a small detour in the red canyons of SW Armenia to see Noravank Monastery and church. It was worth the detour! We rode along a single lane track through a deep red gorge, filled with trees and butterflies. We wound up a narrow switchback road in steps all the way to the top where we were greeted with an impressive, solid little church. Parking the bikes and treating ourselves to an icecream after the hot road, we admired the church. From our vantage point we could see our bikes, neatly parked next to each other, away from all the cars. We noticed a family looking at them and taking photos. The next step was for the father to instruct the boy to pose next to Alex’s bike. He did this by trying to get ON the bike. This is a huge no-no- one never gets on someone’s bike without the owner being around. If you don’t know bike hardware you could destroy something (fellow travelers repeated a tale of woe where a hotel receptionist got on their bike and used the gear shift as a step, snapping the gear shift and not apologising) or you could hurt yourself or worst case, do something to compromise the bike’s safety.
This was all of those moments.
The bike was fully laden and parked on a small slope so although happy enough under its own weight, the kid on top was messing around and it was enough to make the bike topple over, onto Simon’s bike. We ran at full speed across the parking lot, luckily the kid was fine as the panniers knocking together created a separation gap but almost everything on Alex’s left hand side was snapped. The parents didn’t apologise or help pick up the bikes, they simply laughed and walked off with their brat. All the handlebar controls were wonky now, with the clutch not fully depressable and access to the fullbeams hindered. The irritatingly shit Touratech hand guards had compressed themselves in such a way to make access difficult. Queue some roadside adjustments when we were supposed to be visiting the church. So annoying!
We eventually made it into the site and it was beating down with afternoon sun by then. The cool interior of the Noravank monastery made up for it for though. The exquisitely carved doors and stonework was everywhere with clever lay outs of the building which made you find secret nooks and crannies and access points and windows all over the building. It was a pleasure to visit and walk the stone floors which have been there for hundreds of years.
The church and monastery are on the same site and also share it with an old well, cemetery and some now ruined sites including an abbey. Everything is accessible which is a nice as it means we could wander as we pleased and relish the detail in the buildings first hand.
The church has an unusual construction. It is very small in terms of floor plan space it takes up and yet it is very tall and solid. It has two floors, the ground floor with its dark cavernous feel and its candles and carving, and the top floor with its high towered ceiling which lets sunlight pour in as if you’re communing directly with the heavens. The top floor is only accessible through the architectural detail of the door lintel!
One must climb the lintel (in blocks to form steep, single footed steps) around the front entrance in order to access the second floor. But what a reward for your fitness and lack of vertigo! The whole roof void is open to the elements and light is cascading in from all apertures, windows, roof and doorway. It feels light and peaceful in here and a hundred miles from the sombre ground floor.
The views from the church site are pretty fascinating. The rock is literally red and the textures formed are incredible. We spent a little time photographing the area before finally heading up to Yerevan in the rain!
After a restful break in Yerevan for two nights (we finally made it to a supermarket and stashed up on red wine and fresh fruit!) we noted it was the anniversary of the Armenian genocide and there were many posters and leaflets handed out to educate people. We stayed in a great hostel which was set back from a wide road, built in the same fashion as Eastern Europe with its wires and utilitarian feel. It wasn’t unpleasant and it made us feel closer to home even though the mix of urban style was an interesting Europe-Asia hybrid. We ate Armenian food, including a delicious cheese pie which, to Alex’s delight, was 90% cheese and 10% pie (i.e. a good ratio). Eventually, the ferry was booked and it was time to move on to Batumi. We decided to camp one more night in Armenia and found a spot next to lake Sevan which was gorgeous and for a tiny fee (as it was off season) we could use the park’s bathroom and water.
The lake was pretty magical although the water was literally the coldest water ever. Portly Armenian men were challenging each other to get in and the bravest did so only after repeated swigs of vodka! still we heard them shriek in almost unmanly ways. A friendly dog came over to guard our tent and he slept just a short way away. We gave him the rest of our ham as a thank you and then he disappeared off to play with the competitors, perhaps for a swig of vodka to wash down the ham.
The next morning we got up early and set off for a church on the banks of the lake. Alex’s bike was clearly suffering by this point- the seals on the front forks were leaking and the adjustment to the handlebars had clearly put some other things out of whack. However, with a ferry to catch in two days we didn’t have much choice but to press on. We’d fix the bike in Poland as part of the servicing and just hope it survived until then!
Walking up the church we were stuck by how calm the place was- old ladies were selling hand carved miniature Kachkars, pressing us to buy beautiful wooden ornaments. The steep steps wriggled up the hillside to the church which stood over the lake, unimposing, polite and neat with more traditional proportions than those seen at Noravank. Apparently, the church used to be situated on an island but the lake had been drained which then linked the island to the mainland by a thin peninsula and created this steep flank to climb up to the church. We read about the church’s sad history, built in 874 AD, it was built in the honour of a fallen prince who Princess Mariam was in love with. Sevanavank means “black monastery” and probably is linked tot he building material used to make the church. The strictest types of monks lived on the island monastery with the last monks moving out as late as 1930!!
Now the monastery is kept for visitors where one can admire the many Kachkars and the neatness of the church (and its condition, considering its age). Apparently the lake used to be even more beautiful before it was drained in Stalin’s era and ultra clean water formed the barrier to land where one could see a myriad of fish swimming. It has fought off various invaders including the arabs and the persians, the monks bravely defending their island and monastery. However, it couldn’t fight off Stalinism which coincides with both when the lake was drained (hugely) and the monks leaving. It still remains beautiful and surrounded by wildflowers (as is a lot of Armenia) it really feels like one is stepping back in time and enjoying a whole other era.
It was hard to pull ourselves away from the tranquil lake Sevan but we had a border to cross and a ferry to board. With reluctance we hit the road and took the motorway to Georgia (the one which wasn’t undergoing construction without warning- we’d been prepared by a fellow adventure traveler). We reached the border late and went through the process as finally finding the right cabin to speak to (no signage at all on the border and bizarrely, lots of German tourists). After we found the right desk it was straightforward and we shot across the border, driving along a stretch of road made up of potholes tied together with prayers, around the old, disused border point, around a new flashy building across a carpark, back around the other side, more potholes and then we found ourselves in an open steel roofed border processing lane where the unfriendly staff, having processed us over 30 minutes each, proceeded to badger Simon over the photos that he’d taken with his mobile (mobile was in the tank bag and never out at any point). Meanwhile, Alex was gaily filming on the go-pro and they were so busy attacking Simon they didn’t notice the flashing red light! Welcome to Georgia… country number 32!
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