Curry, Dolma and Wilderness Mountain Biking in Armenia

Tom emailed me last week to tell me he was going to follow an old man on a horse to a hot spring at 3000m. That sounded like my idea of fun so I decided to go to Yerevan and do it. I went to the bus station in Ortachala in Tbilisi at 9.30 am and cycled practically straight onto a Marshrutka (transit van minibus). This dispelled my fears of being able to take the bike in the cramped little bus. I was lucky this time whereas the previous time I had taken a Marshrutka, I had waited for 6 hours for the bus to leave because there were not enough passengers.

I paid 10 lari (about £4) (haggled from 20) to put the bike in the back seats and the usual 30 lari for the fare. I had the back seats to myself until a broad-shouldered babouska boarded the bus which meant I could no longer sit on my seat squarely and had to uncomfortably perch my back against the curvature of the seat. Marshrutka rides are never supposed to be comfortable affairs.

Read previous blog post  for a description of a typical Marshrutka journey.

The border crossing went smoothly. I need only to pay $10 for a visa giving me 21 days. It used to be a mandatory $50 for 3 months. At lunch time I procured a juicy kebab at the half way rest stop and sat in the winter sun watching the rocky river flowing past. I wondered where the water was coming from, staring up at a dry baron cliff sided valley that the road ran through. Armenian mountain landscape is about as unforgiving and forbidding looking as it comes and I love it.

I arrived in Yerevan, unpacked my bike and said goodbye to the giggling Russian girls at the front of the bus who seemed very amused by my bicycle. I remembered the way to Tom's so I pedaled past Republika square, up to the park passing the tall silver 'Mother Armenia' statue and to Tom's flat. Inside he was adding final preparatory touches to a fragrant curry, before allowing it to simmer away for an hour or two whilst he went for an Armenian language lesson.

 

Tom told me that the horse-following to the hot spring was off because the hot spring was covered in snow, but we were still going for an epic ride. The next morning we saddled up early and met Tigran, Tom's friend. We racked up the bikes on the back of his car and drove to Garni about 40 km away from Yerevan. We parked next to the Garni temple, which is where we started the ride.

 

A crisp wintery morning. Mist hung over the hillsides. The strong Asian sun evaporated the morning dew. Some villagers were ambling about sweeping the pavement outside their houses. A truck waited outside the local store, to deliver bread.

We passed through the village and descended down a cobbled track to a spring where we filled up the Camelbaks with clear mountain water. A dark green soviet van clattered past. The driver waved and smiled at us, cigarette hanging from his lips. Shortly after we passed a man on horseback who gave us a cheery 'barevzdis'.

At the valley bottom, we followed the river up the gorge, passing a fish farm with a huge dog tied up beside the road. Thankfully it was very docile and dozed in the mud instead of take offence with us.  I pedalled along avoiding puddles to prevent getting covered in mud at the beginning of the ride.

The land of Armenia is higher in altitude than Georgia. You're already above the tree line so the geography in general is noticeable different. Rocky embankments scattered with hardy shrubs and plants somehow gripping on to the loose dry soil and stone. Although the sun was strong that morning, in the shadow it was colder and I pedalled faster to warm up.

The track climbed up to the gate of the Garni natural park and the WWF Norway funded eco-centre - a very quaint and well-constructed looking building with a jolly looking gatekeeper wearing army-issue jacket and trousers and smoking a cigarette.

Tigran chatted with him for an extended amount of time. Tom remarked that he is a very intrepid character. He is in the process of collecting GPS and GIS data for the area. Tom mentioned that he is in the habit of chatting at length with anyone knowledgeable he meets in order to further his expertise of the area.

I had a good feeling about the ride from when Tom initially mentioned it. I knew when Tigran lifted his bike up off the doubletrack and hauled it up the embankment onto a grassy rocky piece of singletrack sided by heather and wild thyme that I was in my element. Gripped with a layer of frost, the plants and trees looked eroded and weathered, worn out by a struggle to survive in difficult conditions – little rain, freezing winters and scorching summer sun. Now well into autumn, winter was just around the corner, offering no respite.

The track trundled delightfully along, through little ruts, and strewn with metamorphic baby-head sized boulders. My legs brushing passed the fragrant shrubs. The path reminded me of paths I used to take on rides in the Yorkshire Dales. Moorland carpetted with low-lying heather. Shale-sprinkled paths which looked like they had formed as naturally as the plants. Perfect for mountain bikes- varied and grippy.

Up we went and passed a family who later we met again at the ruins of a church on a hill. They were gathered to have a barbeque. They had a fire going and big chunks of chicken were being pushed onto long metal skewers ready to be cooked. I started to think of the Basturma (traditional Armenian salty sausage) sandwiches I'd made for lunch. The taste brought back to the forefront of my senses from the slices I'd slyly eaten rather than put in the sandwiches.

 

The next section  of the ride was what is traditionally known in the trade as a 'bike-hike'. The path was invisible to the untrained eye. Luckily we had Tigran with a GPS. That however, proved unhelpful so he asked some people which way. They pointed out a route up the hillside and added that it would be difficult.

Unfazed we pushed and crawled with the bikes up a steep rocky path following a wayward gulley full of dry grass, thorny rose bushes, sandy stone with crumbling gravel underfoot. I struggled to find my footing on the loose ground and used my bike as a support. The air became fresher and clearer and the sun felt strong as we emerged onto the top of the first hill. Our altitude now at 1800m above sea level. A dreamlike snowy alpine plateau was visible in the distance it beckoned and awakened my inquisitiveness as if it was the surface of another planet.

We stopped to eat some berries, round red ones with a pithy orange fruit inside and Tigran pointed our some bear poo. He said that bears also like to eat those berries, clearly visible from the seeds in the poo. I tried to remember which bear between the brown and black you are supposed to fight and which you are supposed to play dead, as it might come in useful.

We decided to stop for lunch in the shadow of a weary looking but sinewy grey barked tree with small yellow and green leaves. It reminded me of a giant Bonzai tree. Lunch consisted of Basturma sandwiches, smoked fish, bread, cheese, corn on the cob, chocolates and then a sleep in the sun – perfect. I awoke after 20 minutes of blissful snoozing feeling refreshed and commented to Tom you never realise how much you need to go to chill out in the mountains until you go and do it.

 

The simplicity of just having enough for the day ride and not bringing camping stuff was a relief whilst pushing and granny-cranking the bike up challenging steep singletrack. We passed along a track barely a tyre's width wide. It was positioned half way down a fairly steep scree slope with a steep loose rocky embankment leading down into the valley on the other side. It was difficult to make out a path at all. The kind of lunacy I tend to enjoy. I flew myself into it, bringing into play the old mantra of focusing on the track and nothing else so not to fall fail to 'target fixation' and tempt my front wheel to point down the scree hill.

The path reached an impossibly rocky doubletrack.  It looked like the boulders had fell there after a impromptu jettison of comets from space. This arduous last major section of climbing was well worth the reward as we reached the plateau and the wonderful tranquil sound of a bubbling mountain stream, stopping to drink and wash the sweat from hot, dusty, and grimy brows atop satisfied facial expressions.

I looked across at the snow on the mountains over the plateau and felt a pull to them but we would not have time to reach them today. We continued on to the edge of a canyon overlooking the Geghard monastery, part of which is built dramatically into the rock. For the next 5 or so km we followed patchy sections of 4x4 track, crossing over boggy pampus grass-patched streams and then off the track across fields with more boulders. After a while I realised it was better to walk than punish the bike as it was akin to riding over corrugated concrete.

Without tracks and landmarks in particular, we were relying on Tigran's GPS and sense of direction. We traversed a shallow gulley. Descending furiously into it, and still pumping from adrenalin I ploughed straight across the river at the bottom as Tom helpfully said- 'it's too deep mate'. I subsequent dabbed my feet, soaking them through- doh!

Tigran would say things like 'we should bare left now if we want to head back' or 'head to that far valley to reach the village'. A discussion ensued about remaining daylight and whether we wanted to end up cycling in the dark. Rather than going back the short route which would have have meant a large proportion of the descent on the road, we headed towards the canyon on the edge of the plateau.

 

The epic canyon came into view as we approached. The distant landscape descended into the afternoon haze. A river meandered it's way along the canyon bottom. Shrubs and trees clung on for dear life to the side of the rocky crags.

The ensuing descent was a rocky doubletrack following the edge of the shear cliffs which plummeted down to the village below. We scooted and skidded, dodging boulders and rutted gulleys.

 

At the bottom we ended up, by accident, in the farmstead of one of the villagers, guarded by numerous dogs enraged with the scent of cyclist in the air.  The lady sent us back the correct way and we found the track that lead us through the village and continued descended down into the valley bottom and followed the river.

Tigran told us that 'it was a good village' and one of only a few in Armenia that still doesn't receive electricity.

Late afternoon sun glowed orange upon the upper hillsides which were still catching the sun as I followed the track which would lead us back to the gates of the park. I passed a man walking up the hill. I said 'I don't speak Armenian', he replied in English – 'Armenia, very beautiful country', and I agreed 'yes, very'.

Hungry and by now pretty tired we hauled ourselves back to the car. On the way we met the same green soviet bus that we had seen in the morning. Tigran managed to get towed by it up the steep cobbled road into the village. Tom was determined to ride and cursed as his tyres slipped on algae covered stones. Admirably he managed to ride the entire climb back up into the village. However, his achievement obviously went to his head a little.

Riding along the road in the village, Tigran was chased by a nasty dog that was snarling at his ankles. In response he tried to kick it in the head multiple times. Tom, on a herioc high from the climb obviously thought he would try to aid his friend, and swerved his bike towards the dog. The outcome of this was that Tom somehow managed to lose control of the bike, flip over the handlebars and role along the ground.

The dog, seeing this crazed human appearing to go extreme lengths to attack him/her (sorry I didn't check), understandably dismissed his pursuit, stopped chasing Tigran and thoughtfully wandered off. I imagine it would make him think twice about chasing bicycles in the future, but I doubt it. Tom was relatively unscathed other than a bruised ego, grazed hands and knee.

We headed back to Yerevan and ate delicious dolma cooked by Tenny.

The ride demonstrated to me the potential for mountain biking and the beauty of the Armenian landscape. It also sparked my enjoyment of being in wild places. Inside me, I felt something draw closer to what I was looking for in terms of an idyllic wilderness riding experience. 40 km from a capital city it was possible to immerse oneself in tranquil nature with views of snow covered mountain plateaus. Tracks running across country lent themselves ideally to challenging wilderness treks by bike. No matter what other future plans I make, I feel that the area of the Caucasus, the countryside of Georgia and Armenia is growing more deeply rooted in my mind, and I hope to explore further routes with new found (and old friends). Tigran, Tom and I are planning another 2 day ride before I return at Christmas to England.

 

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