Monday, 15 August 2011

Armenia: Ups and downs

I opened the door of the dimly lit cafe and walked in: the haze of cigarette smoke a continuation of the icy fog I had left behind outside.  I felt the curious glances of people at the tables as I made my way to the counter: my attire haphazard due to being caught out at 2010m in freezing conditions and on the side of the road I'd dug from my panniers a pair of thick mountaineering socks which I wore with teva sandles. Green trousers had hurriedly been pulled over shorts and to complete the fashion faux pas they'd been tucked into the socks. A thick down jacket under a bright red waterproof with a black woollen hat perched on top of a blue bandana completed the look of an overweight santa helper. Having had only 15 minutes sleep the night before due to an eventful night of hospitality which had gone slightly awry, ascending 1000m on an empty stomach and generally feeling run down, I felt I was on the verge of becoming hypothermic with uncontrollable shaking as the cold and damp wrapped itself round and infiltrated my core.

I smiled at the girl and said 'coffee'. She beckoned me to sit down but it was then I spotted the electric bar heater on the windowsill. I made my way to it and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. 'Aah!' I sighed as way of explanation to the people at the adjacent table looking curiously up at me. 'Brrr' I continued as I nodded to the outside at the thick fog while continuing to warm my hands on the heater. 'ooh, lovely' I exclaimed feeling I had to say something as they were looking at me expectantly with cocked heads, stern faces yet smiling eyes under thick black eyebrows. I heard a whisper and a chuckle from the other corner of the room and then glanced again at the people at the table next to me as I continued to rub my hands together in front of the heater that.. hold on.. the heater that was not actually giving off any heat with its 3 bluish toned bars, and wait a minute..this heater was surrounded by dead flies..

I mean anyone would make the same mistake after 15 minutes sleep.. wouldn't they?
an electric fly killer
an electric fire

When they joined in with my laughter and realised I was totally insane they started asking me questions. I can now understand in any language the questions being asked. This is how they go..

"England" I reply proudly then try variations "Anglia, Ingelterre, Manchester United" until they nod with satisfaction and I then add "England to {insert current location} by "bicycle, velo, velociped"
"vdsjsglspwvnajraiu?" they ask holding up one finger accompanied with a raised eyebrow
"Yes" I reply "just me, alone" mirroring their solitary digit. This is followed usually by a shake of the hand, a slap on the back or a thumbs up. Free food follows shortly after.
I often misunderstand this.. then I remember how the questioning goes
"4 months" I reply with 4 fingers held aloft still unsure if they think I have abandoned 4 husbands or 4 children to selfishly undertake a solo journey on a bicycle.

Fluent me, I tell you.

I'd left Tbilisi, the captivating capital city of Georgia, in a hungover state one day later than expected having met wonderful 2 girls on a cycle journey from Thailand. A few beers, led to us sampling the local Georgian wine, a sheesha pipe and a 6am finish. In a comatose state I set forth to the Armenian border, a 10USD fee secured me a 21 day visa and I began the first of many ascents in this mountainous country.

Yet I had a blip. I'm not sure what happened, yet I suddenly found tears. I suppose it had to happen at some point. I missed my family and friends as I once again hid and camped behind bushes on a foreign road, wolfing down yesterday's bread, surreptitiously removing spiders with bulbous bodies of black and yellow from my tent, and staring blankly at the patterns of kevlar on the ceiling of my tent, highlighted by a cold moon, as I lay and waited for the morning to come. Overwhelming sadness despite spectacular scenery. I couldn't bear to look at messages on my iphone: father endearingly retweeting one of my tweets despite me being his only follower, emails from mother saying how proud she was, family and friends sending messages of support. These couldn't be read for fear of short-circuting my phone as the tears fell. 

The melancholy subsided within 24 hours as Armenians graced me with their smiles yet was quickly replaced with lethargy, weary limbs and an accusatory stomach that treated everything with suspicion and violently evicted anything that dared enter. Yet this was not a country to be feeble in. Skirting the Azerbaijan/Armenia border where "Danger. Landmines" signswarned me this was not a place to wild camp. Mountain passes of 2400m greeted me daily, accompanied with seering heat, strong winds, vistas of desert rock, deep gorges gouged in arid steppes, alpine meadows, stark plateaus with small villages of bee hives dotting the landscape, fertile hillsides crawling out of rivers, cave dwellings in volcanic rock.

At the top of one of these passes I rested to gaze upon the switchbacked descent outside the relic of Selim Caravanserai; a 13th Century watering hole for those who trod the Silk Road. Having been closed for business for a few centuries it was an Armenian family who proffered refreshments and invited me to share their picnic. As they piled into their car for their return to Yerevan the mother rushed over to me and thrust a bag full of roast chicken, blackened potato skins, hunks of bread and cheese, tomatoes and cucumber into my hands as she leant forward and kissed me on the cheek. Their departure was followed by the arrival of a minibus of delightful Belgian tourists who gathered round me, taking photos and ignoring the ancient relic behind them to talk to the wreck that was me in front of them.  

Another day and another staggering climb accompanied by the strongest headwind of the trip had destroyed me yet a gaggle of fruit sellers surrounded me and my bicycle as I reached the top of the pass.  A bag of grapes, plump apricots and palm sized apples was placed next to me, followed by another bag of nectarines, pears and plums from another seller. The Silk Road hospitality continuing. The first bag lady then reappeared with her husband and a bag of flat bread and cheese was handed to me as the aftermath of the London riots unfolded some 7000km away from me.

Mistakenly thinking that a 30km ascent would be rewarded with something similar of downhill I set off declining an invite to stay with them for the night and a brief descent was followed by more uphill. As the sun was sucked behind mountains and replaced by charcoal clouds I found a motel on the deserted plateau and begged to camp in their garden. They agreed and I pitched in gale force winds, changed into my thermals and within minutes was asleep. I awoke to them calling my name and I blearily undid the safety pins (broken zip) that held the entrance together. The man read from a piece of paper 'come into hotel, you no pay, wind very strong'. I insisted I was ok. They insisted I wasn't as they started unpegging my tent and pulling out my panniers. My walk of shame in threadbare thermals began as I passed a group of vodka infused male voices in an otherwise empty dining hall. An arm led me into a kitchen where Ararrat brandy was poured, a rich dish of aubergines and tomatoes prepared, a basket of bread placed before me. Full and sleepy I was shown to a room after some deliberation being shown first a room with a double bed and a pair of men's trousers on the floor. I closed the door thanking my host and lay on my bed reading the miniature BBC headlines on my iphone as the 2nd night of UK riots commenced.

A knock on my door around midnight. I opened it and there was a bottle of brandy, 2 glasses and an expectant face. I politely declined, locked the door, turned off the lights and returned to the night of violence. Unable to sleep due to footsteps that would pause outside my door I instead recoiled in horror as more mindless destruction passed. At 4am I felt comfortable to sleep yet voices at my door, my name being called, then a rapping at my door awoke me just 15 minutes later. I never did open the door, yet angrily shouted at the sound of keys, contacted a friend, lifted the days before flatscreen tv to the floor and moved the cabinet across the door as people barricaded themselves from the viral mayhem spreading through our cities.

 2 hours of gentle reassurance from a friend, daylight arrived and the hotel lay still as I cautiously moved the furniture away from the door and began my escape. Bike was still in lobby though front wheel was loose. I tried the front door. Locked. I raced to the kitchen and saw a scene from of a Apocalypse Now meets Babette's Feast with an empty vodka bottle for each seat around the table. I opened a door:  the carcass of an animal hung in front of me. Balls! I searched through the drawers of the empty reception desk and found some keys but they weren't the ones for the main door. After trying 6 windows I eventually found one unlocked, threw out my panniers and climbed out.

I'd escaped.

aah.. my bicycle..

I did escape after startling the gate keeper who must have called a hungover chap who was opening the front door just as I was balanced on a table trying to unsuccessfully navigate my bicycle through a narrow window. 

As I cycled thoughtfully away into the icy fog towards the sanctuary of the sleepy town of Goris I realised I could not condemn as the language barrier coupled with my fear had failed to enlighten me as to why they were knocking on my door.

It may simply have been to say "oh by the way, if you want to leave when the sun rises, do let us know.. as the door will be locked" and with a sheepish smile I emailed my friend with the message..

 "On the road again. All ok"


  1. ouaaouhhhhh !!! magnifiques photos !!!!
    i hope to see these country : it's ouaaaaaahhh !!! yours pictures are very very very ouaouhhhhh !!
    bon voyage !!

  2. Good luck from the north east of France. I travel with you via this blog and your photos !! Thx !!

  3. que le destin te protège à chaque instant !!!!!
    et vive les voyages à vélo !!!!


  5. I rolled about floor giggling at language exchange. I shuddered at spiders (no no nononono). I am so enjoying the vicarious travelling (from the comfort of my armchair! - no riots here! - just a bloody depressing election aftermath :-(