Justine – After leaving the Iranian border, we deposited Stephan, the German hitchhiker we had picked up, in Meghri, the first town we came to as the road started to mount and we were not sure Kabylie could cope with the extra load of man and backpack. We continued to David Bek, which the Lonely Planet said had a lovely village with a river of cascading pools and a place where overlanders and cycle riders could camp. It became quite obvious that the Lonely Plant had never been to David Bek as it lay in a deep ravine which no cyclist in their right mind would descend to sleep and then climb out again next day. I stopped at the village shop to ask where the river and informal camp spot was and was told (through calling the shop keeper’s English speaking niece in Tbilisi) that no foreigners ever stop at the village let alone camp and they would have to ask the village chief if we were allowed to. “Village Chief” sounded more African than Armenian, but a couple of phone calls later and the shop keeper gave us the thumbs up. Two youths squashed into the car with us to show us the way to the river, down a ridiculously steep and very muddy track. We cursed the Lonely plant once more as the river was brown and had no cascading pools. It started to rain which was obviously their fault as well.
We put up the tent in a speed only slightly slower than our speeded up video and bundled inside for our first night with flashes of thunder and heavy drops on the fly sheet. Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home’ lulled us to sleep with his history of the home.
The morning brought us clouds and a wash. A bucket of brown river water over our heads set us up for our climb out of the ravine and we continued on our way to Goris. There is very little development between towns here in the south and the population is pretty sparse as there has been huge emigration from Armenia due to the poor economy. A few rustic villages remain and then nothing but glorious, glorious scenery. Towering peaks, deep gorges, crystal waterfalls and carpets of flowers. The land of purple prose. I have to just bang on about the flowers a little more as they are so wonderful. Very few fields are cultivated and the collective farms abandoned. Occasionally you see three or four small, strip- like fields growing wheat or barley, but even these are dotted between huge expanses of flowers. Everywhere you look is a perfect camp spot and there is no one around to ask if it is OK or indeed to shout at us if it is not. Occasionally a horseman thunders past us whooping and rounding up his cattle, but the sound of hooves, the songs of birds and the drone of happy bees are our only disturbances. There is also very little rubbish in Armenia. Turkey and Iran are strewn with it. Particularly in the places you would like to camp. Armenia certainly has its Soviet legacy of industrial pollution but they seem to be making a big effort to avoid the more casual, roadside type.
You then arrive at a town like Kapan, whose outskirts are old, decaying soviet apartment blocks, but whose centre is faded grandeur, built of a lovely pink volcanic stone called Tuff, which seems to be ubiquitous throughout the country. The curse of the light-weight concrete block has thankfully not yet arrived in Armenia and there is Architecture! Since leaving Italy it has seemed that almost every new building in every town is just a heap of concrete blocks. Northern Turkey has very little else and sadly, apart from the fabulous old structures, Iran’s towns are being wrecked in a similar way. Thankfully, apart from the rusting steel described below, the Armenians still use their Tuff and appear to design buildings. Long may it last.
It seems that Armenia fared rather well under the soviets, especially during the end of the era, and you could see from the grandeur of the municipal buildings that the area was once pretty wealthy. But alongside soft pink buildings is rusting steel. If Iran is built of mud bricks and more recently concrete blocks, Armenia is built of soviet steel and tuff. Steel is everywhere and apparently there is so much un-mined metal ore under Kapan that compasses won’t work in most areas of the town. Almost all the fences in the country are made out of flattened oil drums, the sides of old buses, lorry cabs and bits of old Lada. Massive Soviet steel pipes, pylons, buses, lorries, drums, bars and rods are used for everything. These have now become the building materials of choice or necessity, and hulks from the collapse of the Soviet Union define the architecture of Armenia. In certain areas they make cunning houses out disused steel carcasses.
Our first theft of the trip happened in Kapan on our second day in Armenia. It was not the shovel, from the side of Kabylie, or a ladder from the roof, or a crowbar to the door to get the laptop……..it was the Turkish flag sticker from the side of Kabylie. The drunk perpetrator swaggered towards me grinning and put his arm around me. I had no idea what he was saying, but after many hand signals, he delightedly communicated that he had ripped the sticker off the car. Tom was furious. Knowing Armenia’s relationship with Turkey is difficult we had been at great pains to ask at the boarder if we should cover the Turkish flag but had been told “certainly not” We cursed the flag robber heartily, but as we continued our travels through Armenia and her tragic history, we decided to forgive his misdemeanour. Modern Armenia defines itself through its campaign to have the genocide committed by the Ottomans in WW1 recognised – who knows how many of the drunk thief’s own family were amongst the estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Turks.
At Goris we stopped for a cup of tea at the smartest joint in town, always an error. Generally such places are so much nicer than the other B&B’s or hostels that you cannot help asking the price, and then promptly justifying the non-camping budget splurge with promises to live on cucumbers and bread for the next three days. We were taken in by the rose-filled garden and the palatial bedroom. The cucumber promise was duly made.
We walked to Old Goris, which really is old. So old in fact that it is an ancient cave village. It was gorgeous walking up the steep tracks between the pointy rocks and trying to work out if and how we could get into them. The stillness of the valley was broken by a thundering of hooves and whooping cries as a young horseman riding bareback at full speed galloped towards us. He was rounding up his cows many of which appeared out of a cave house below us. His sweating, frothy mouthed steed hurtled up and down the steep slopes between the rocks, mustering cows, horses and spindly-legged foals from all directions.
We continued our meander through Armenia. Where Iran had been good roads but too many hours on them, Armenia was to be a two week pootle from one flower meadow to the next along empty but awfully bumpy roads. In Iran the roads are so good they need police with speed cameras round every bend, In Armenia we presume they just tax shock absorbers and front bumpers. Most of the cars are Russian and therefore at home with this sort of abuse but as we drove north there are also an increasing number of smart Mercedes almost all of which have had the front bumper removed, either a deliberate or accidental adaptation to the terrain. Most vehicles run on household gas which is compressed in filling stations and squirted into tanks, which sit in the boot of all cars or on the roof of buses. As the gas is not that powerful, all vehicles have to drop down a gear which is good new for us as it slows down the whole country and we are no longer the slowest car on the road.
The further north we got, the friendlier people became. Where we had been greeted on arrival with glum faces, by the time we got to the middle of the country, people had become openly warm with flashes of gold teeth. Armenians love gold teeth. Three or four of their front teeth are often gold which is odd as front teeth are not the normal ones to need fillings. Later enquiries brought the explanation that in soviet times, everyone had to be the same as each other. Same apartment, same Lada, same everything. The only way you could show your individuality or wealth was with your teeth, hence the desire to cap them in gold. Sadly the effect makes the wearer look really dodgy and now everyone has the same gold teeth!
Our next Soviet encounter were the thermal baths of Jermuk. Perched in the mountains, Jermuk was renowned in the days of the USSR as the place to ‘take the waters’ and people would come for 18 day courses of treatment from all over the Soviet Union. Today, what once must have been proud Soviet hotels, lie crumbling, forgotten and sad, but four hotels still offer a variety of interesting treatments. If our Turkish bath experience had been light-years from a beautiful, scented Balinese massage, our Soviet bath was light-years from the Turkish soaping and pummelling. The first eye opener was the menu of treatments
· Mineral bath
· Clay bath
· Stomach and duodenum syringing
· Prostate massage
· Rectal syringing
· Inhalation (hopefully not in the same room as rectal syringing)
We tactfully declined the rectal syringe and thinking it might be an interesting experience went for the clay mineral bath and ‘inhalation’ as they sounded the safest.
We entered the formidable Dr’s surgery and were greeted by a large Russian lady whose forearms looked adapted for wrestling cows. She kept the telly blaring the whole time and took our blood pressure and told us it was dangerous to put our hearts below the water level in the bath – really??
More very large, white coated ladies led us into a tiled utilitarian bathroom, where cloudy, dirty looking water greeted us in vast iron bathtubs with enormous valves clearly recycled from a power station in the place of taps. Next to them were old plastic buckets with dirty mops with up-to-the-shoulder veterinary style rubber gloves adding to the atmosphere. We hung our clothes gingerly on the rusting hooks and grimacing, climbed in to the tepid grey water baths. ‘Tventy minutes’ grunted the large babooshka. Tventy minutes too long, in grey soup, which cooled too rapidly in the iron tub. Feeling more tense then when we got into the baths, we were then led to a room for our ‘inhalation’. We sat in a row with our heads in booths like we were learning a language at school. A little bubbling machine squirted white steam down a long pipe , which ended in a darthvader-like mask that we put over our noses. Hector made a huge fuss as steam escaped from all sides of his nose mask and Tom kept telling him to ‘get on with it and stop making a fuss.’ Hector’s fuss was in fact very minor compared to Tom’s seconds later. The coughing, spluttering and general consternation that came from Tom’s mask was so loud, that the white coated Babooshka declared that Hector and Tom were ‘very weak’ and that only Petra was strong enough to withstand the rectal syringing. Petra and I quickly started spluttering into our nose masks.
We decided to camp that night at the natural hot springs situated up a ‘very very bad road’ in the mountains above Jermuk. We were 15 minutes up the track when we heard a revving of tyres and a Lada Niva (Jeep) and a Lada car, filled with very large Russians overtook us. The Niva ploughed through the mud, bogs and streams, but the overfilled Lada car did not. Kabylie came to the rescue of the bogged Lada and Tom and Hector were beside themselves with pride, particularly Hector as he had worked out the best way of fixing the tow-rope and shackles before Tom had. We were given a bottle of Ararat Cognac (apparently Churchill loved it so much he never drank the French stuff) for our pains and invited to their BBQ at the hot sprigs. The kids were desperate to continue to the springs, but we had seen the photos. Two pools only big enough for two people each. We have also seen drunk Russians before and did not fancy spending the night with them naked in the woods.
Luckily another glorious flower meadow was around the corner and enough wood to quench Hector’s pyromaniac tendencies so we were all happy.
You cannot visit Armenia without spending a lot of time visiting its quite rightly famous monasteries. Armenia was the first country to embrace Christianity in 301 A.D and there is a tiny church or monastery around every corner or perched on a picturesque mountainside. The churches themselves are mini and we wondered if they were small due to the constant threat of earthquakes or the tiny populations when they were built. Our favourites were the ones we had to hike to, through stunning scenery where we were the only people there. These were truly magical, by a small stream, with fabulous views and flowers, silent except for the birds. You could quite imagine those early monks finding inner peace in abundance. Many of the monasteries are in a precarious state, draped in wild flowers and looking like they might topple over at any moment. By contrast, the more famous UNESCO ones seemed almost too perfect and had a lot of other visitors which rather broke the magic.
In the monasteries, which were almost all no longer in use, the kids did a lot of candle lighting and were always surprised to find bags of salt close to the candle piles. We spent much time guessing what the salt was for but none of us guessed correctly………… animal sacrifices! Apparently for weddings or christenings a sheep or goat is often bought to the church, where it is fed salt and water before the priest cuts it throat. – hummm, it wasn’t just the pagan temple sites that were embodied into the new churches when Christianity arrived.
Another observation, which we spent much time musing over, was why many of the dogs in Armenia have their ears and tails cut off. Petra was most concerned when she first spotted this and none of us could come up with a plausible reason why one would do this to a dog. The answer is wolves. Dogs used to round up sheep are at the mercy of wolves, which pin them to the ground by their ears or tail. With no ears or tail to latch onto, the dog has a much better chance of getting away. We liked that answer much better than the salt and sheep one!
After visiting an amazing cave where the oldest shoe in the world was found – 3500BC, we continued to Yerevan. The capital feels a million miles away from the rural villages, where many people live in pretty basic circumstances. Yerevan is very cosmopolitan and feels like you are in the heart of Western Europe, with a great café culture and some lovely architecture. This could not be said for our hotel, – the ‘Venice Palace’ – but it was a total bargain for a huge suite, complete with mock Roman statues on the walls. The dining room had a canal down the centre and a gondola bobbing on it. The kids were in heaven as it had two identical pools each side of reception but we were given strict instructions not to visit the bedrooms up the spiral staircases leading from the pool. It had the definite feel of a Berlasconi bunga bunga venue. There is a surprising amount of bunga bunga in Armenia and a lot of associated signage, which again seems so strange after Iran. We rewarded the kids for their uncomplaining visits to the monasteries with a day at the waterpark next door before heading out of town feeling properly clean for the first time in weeks.
Lovely Lake Seven was our next stop. The sun glinted on black obsidian that lined the roadside on the way to the lake. This wonderful volcanic glass was even more impressive when we actually got to the lake as roadside stalls sold pieces of it in pale green. They called this glass moon-stone and said it came from the bottom of the lake, which was later confirmed by a mineralogist we happened to meet.
The lake was very cold as we were at 1900m, but we braved the water, especially as we had kept my parents blow-up mattress from when they were with us in Iran. Hector and I set sail on the lake hoping to spot moonstone at the bottom of it. We returned empty handed, but with an invitation for dinner with a Russian couple we had met camping on a beach further down the lake. The evening was hilarious. They spoke no English and we no Russian, but they took us all out to a restaurant, ordered us a vast feast, ate nothing themselves and insisted on paying. The evening was punctuated by our host Valory, who would intermittently leap up from his chair to beat his chest and shout ‘Putin – super good! Putin WOW!’ He proceeded to show us wonderful photos of Putin, bare chested riding a vast running brown bear, with cries of ‘WOW PUTIN SUPER GOOD.’ With much sign language, they told us we should definitely go to Russia next and especially Chechnya and Dagestan which they insisted were very safe and looked like Dubai from all ‘Super Putin’s’ investment. Hummmmm… I might do a spot of research before committing to Chechnya.
We stopped in the mountain town of Dilijan where Petra and I did a batik course at the local museum and Hector did carpet weaving, where he made a rather good Kilim for Petra’s dolls house. As Tom was parking outside, an Armenian Iranian admired Kabylie and promptly invited us to camp at his guesthouse because he loved Land Rovers too. Razmik was totally delightful and incredibly generous. He was deeply concerned about us sleeping in our rooftent in the pouring rain and tried to get us to sleep inside but we concluded it would be good to test the tent in extreme conditions when we could always creep inside if it leaked. – it didn’t thank goodness.
At Razmik’s lovely Daravand guesthouse, we met a French couple cycling from Armenia to Annecy in France. Crazy loons, she was three months pregnant and Armenia is seriously mountainous and was suffering a very wet summer. As they helped the kids with their French homework, it transpired that she had been an aupair for a friend of ours (Sigrid) in Grantchester – how small the world is! Armenia is not a big tourist destination, and most of the people we met on our route kept popping up at the next places we went. Another fabulous cycling couple we met were from Holland, aged 64 and 72. We marvelled at their stamina.
Continuing north, we spent our last night in the Debden Canyon, an incredible gorge leading to the Georgian border. In Soviet times it must have been very polluted as every village has vast factories, now broken and ghostly, but once state of the art. They looked fantastic to explore but were such a strange sight amongst the natural beauty of the place. To get there we had to drive though two hair-raising tunnels which were more like driving down mine shafts. Pitch black, we only just missed a digger that was hiding in the tunnel doing some repair work. About 10 invisible workmen were also ferreting about down there and this combined with the quite large river that was running down the tunnel due to the rain and the total lack of a road surface made a perfect recipe for an accident. We knew the pregnant cyclist couple were following in our wake and hoped they would get through without being the cause or recipient of the accident waiting to happen.
As we came to the border, we said our farewells to lovely Armenia and its mix of staggering beauty and nature juxtaposed with the Soviet steel, disused factories and strange yellow gas pipes which line the road and make arches to let traffic underneath.
Armenia Super Good – WOW!!!!!!