It's funny how we convince ourselves that we'll love one place, but the next not so much. Right from the moment the idea for this trip was planted in my mind, and I opened a map to discover the unknown countries we'd be crossing, Armenia stood out like an ominous storm cloud brewing on the horizon.
I'm not sure why, but everything I'd read didn't exactly make it sound like fun. With a history darker than most, and a topography that would make the legs of any cyclist quiver, Armenia stood as a thorn in the back of my mind. And to top it all off, this sub-tropical species would be cycling through Armenia in winter, with -10 degree days and icey roads the order of the day. So it was with a touch of fear that we cycled into Armenia, and pointed our bikes towards Yerevan.
Two days into our trip we were gifted the travellers favourite dilemma: a fork in the road. Option number 1 consisted of a menacingly steep climb, blocked up with trucks spewing climate killing gases. Option number 2 was a small road the serenely meandered through the canyon. Although it did have one slightly detracting factor: a rather large "road closed" sign.
Now of course any traveller worth their grain of salt would take the road less travelled, and that's exactly what we did. "Road closed" must surely only be for cars, not bikes, we said with complete confidence. And the first 20km was a dream, cycling along surrounded by 1000m high cliffs on either side, as we followed the river upstream.
We were soon met with road work signs, and a few small structures blocking the way. However, these were easily surpassed, and onwards we cycled. Now the first 20 workmen waving and shouting "no, closed" had me a little worried, but it's at this moment we played our best dumb tourist card, smiled our biggest smiles, waved back and just kept on riding.
The moment that really shook my confidence, though, was when we came across a half-built tunnel with a big burly security guard standing at the entrance. We couldn't quite cycle around him so stealthily he wouldn't notice, so it was time to hop off the bikes and get that smile working. After a little bit of sign language and a lot of smiling, this safety conscience gentleman made sure we put on our helmets, before sending us on our way.
With our helmets tied tight, we slowly walked into this half-built tunnel, where workmen were looking on strangely, and electricity bolts were bursting out of half installed lights. When the Russian worksite manager started yelling, we realised that this road really was closed.
Now there was no way I was cycling 20km backwards, and our smile hadn't failed yet, so it was time to deploy the biggest, stupidest grin imaginable. I'm not sure if the Russian felt sorry for these 2 stupid cyclists, or maybe he was an intrepid traveller back in his youth, but he eventually led us through. He even helped lift our bikes over boulders blocking the way, and unlocked the steel doors at the other end. So it was with cheeky grin and a silent laugh that we made it out the other side.
I keep telling Manon I'm not built for below freezing temperatures, but I'm not quite sure she understands the difficulties a warm blooded Aussie faces when surrounded by snow. 5 days into Armenia, the cold became too much, and it was time for a rest. We shuffled into the warmest cafe in Dilijan, and bought the cheapest food on the menu, before getting comfortable for the afternoon.
We must have a special skill for sending out SOS signals, as that evening in strolls the only Irish man in town, who also happened to be an avid cyclist. It turned out he spent 2 years riding through Africa and South America. It felt like being reunited with long lost brothers, as he shepherded us into his home and filled us full of pasta. A lovely evening was spent trading war stories from the road, and we look forward to the day we can shelter cold, hungry cyclists in our very own home.
Unfortunately the days just got colder, as we slowly creeped towards the dead of winter. I've never experienced anything quite like it, and everyone kept asking why the hell weren't we here in summer. Imagine cycling over mountains, snow falling on your face, with the wind blowing right into the core of your soul. I lost feeling in my fingers, my nose was dripping blood, and I thought my bones had been replaced by ice. To top it all off, the roads were covered in snow, and I was riding a city bike with road tyres.
I did my best to smile and look on the brighter side of life, but 3 weeks in was enough for me, and with 100km to the border of Iran, it was time to stick out the thumb and hitch.
Even the lucky truck that picked us up had had enough, though. Half way up our final mountain of Armenia, and the truck got stuck on an impossibly steep section covered in ice. We spent that evening sleeping in the front of the truck, with a 1000m drop on our side, and a little bit of fear in our minds. Not the best night sleep I've ever had.
Although we did make it down the next morning, I think it's safe to say some roads just aren't meant to be cycled.
Armenia, you weren't as bad as I imagined, but I can't say I had a grand old time. Maybe it's my fault for being to soft in the cold, but if I had my time again, I'd definitely choose a summer time visit.