Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Meeting up with the Caspian sea

Some days ago we descended to sea level. To be more concrete the level of the Caspian sea. I even dipped my finger in it. I had expected a saltier taste.
When we started this trip this sea shore was not included in our plan. Too far east, was the idea. But Akhbar, our host in Marand, suggested this detour and so now we're here.
It made us realize at how amazingly high altitudes we have been and for how amazingly long, for a month. I'll explain: the second day of this journey, now over a month ago, we entered Armenia at an altitude of 400 meters above sea level. After that we immediately ascended towards 1800 and untill today we never were lower than 1000 meters (this was Jerevan). Most of the time we were at 1300 plus, highest point 2300 plus. And today, nearly 40 kms after we had left Ardabil we were at 1600 altitude, there was a tunnel and then an extraordinary view expanded before our eyes: an immense deep and long valley, the decent towards the town of Astara on the Caspian see. Spectacular views, forgot to take a photo. Alps-like green slopes and a road winding down as far as our eyes could see. Descending we noticed that this region was more prosperous, nicer houses, numerous stalls selling fruit and stuff, especially mulberries, and more reastaurants than usual. Touristic, one would say.
When we were completely down we rode amidst rice paddies! Then there was Astara and the Caspian sea.
We will stay along this coast and ride soutward for a couple of days and then turn inland again.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Arrival in Iran

Getting out of Armenia was an experience that reminded me of ancient, pre-1991 times. Ladies with absolutely expressionless faces tediously studying our passports with a magnifying glass before gesturing us out, without a word or a glance. Bye bye Armenia, pity that your border control is so unsympathetic  We liked you so much.

"Welcome to Iran", that's what the colleagues on the other side of the river repeatedly said. Passports were scrutinized, bags x-rayed, but everything with a smile. Then change money, since western bank- and creditcards are nowhere accepted in Iran. Good exchange rate, better than the app on my smartphone calculated!
The ride to Jolfa was undulating, it was windy and we had to deal with a thunderstorm. A bit spectecular, but we reached a guesthouse in due time. In the mean time we had been addressed by several people, men and women, and we had our first invitations to come and stay. When we were looking for a place to eat, Morat, a man who had been a tapestry vendor in Germany, addressed us, showed us a small restaurant, payed for our meals and invited us for coffee in his appartment.
In Marand we were met by Akbar, a well trained man on a brand new KTM-mountainbike. Not completely clear how he knew we were coming. He said that truck drivers called him when they saw cyclists. We stayed in his very basic accommodation, just a room with tapestries on the floor, a basic toilet and shower, not really clean. But he fed us and had a friend take us to an internet café, as he had no wifi. We were his 741st and 742nd Warmshowerguest in four years. And again we had chats and discussions with many people, sometimes in very good English.
In Tabriz we stayed in a (for us) too expensive, but very nice hotel for two nights. Time to rest the legs a bit and get more used to this country. Did some sightseeing, among which a visit to the Azerbeidjan museum. It made us realize that the people in this region are Azerbeidjani, the province also carries this name. Iran is so big, 4 times France, that the population cannot but consist of several different ethnic groups. We had contacts with various persons, young and old. They come to you spontaneously, offering to help, offering tea or just eager for a chat, men and women alike, very kind.

There is this strange mix of tradition and modernity. People seem to have accepted that politically things just are what they are and they cope with it as cheerfully as they can.  

From Chiva to the Armenia-Iran border

It took some time before I got to writing a blog again. So this will be more like a resume, for detailed and more personal reports go to Eveline's blog and use Google translate (installed) if necessary.

After the leisurely day in Chiva we spent eight more days in Armenia. The first day after Chiva we found a hotel along the main road on a deserted stretch of the road just past the junction with the road to Jarmuk. It had basic facilities with not all amenities working properly. But they had cool beer and served a good meal for dinner. No breakfast though, the kitchen aid simply wasn't there in the morning. Cycling without breakfast appeared to be no problem.
The road to Sisian, our next stop, took us over a high pass (2200) again and we were very tired and very happy to find lodgings in Diana hotel. Old glory, a suite and good service. Then up the mountain again to Goris, which we reached plunging into a deep valley against a scaringly stormy wind.
By now we concluded among ourselves that we were fed up with all the climbing. And as we realized that we had to get out of this hole where we were now via the same road as we had come in order to reach Tatev we arranged a car to get us out of the depth and up the mountain. Two bicycles on the roof rack of an old Wolga car, no problem. Then only a few kilometers downhill to Harsnadzor hotel and guesthouse.
This hotel is on a steep slope in the canyon before Tatev and it consists of a number of barrelshaped rooms or apartments  , some only holding a double bed, some with bathroom. We stayed 2 nights. Nice place to hang around for a couple of days, lousy service. We had to pay the full, rather high, price, though our barrel was not yet completely finished. Not totally satifactory.
Tatev is famous because of two things: first, there is a monestary of which the Armenians are very proud. Second, to get there you have to descend into a 600 meters deep canyon over a good road, then cross a natural bridge, the devil's bridge, and climb up the 600 meters again over a very bad dirt road to reach Tatev monestary on the same level on the other side. Some years ago Italians built “The wings of Tatev”, the world's longest aireal tramway (cable car) over the canyon, which now is an attraction on its own. We rode it, which was impressive, and visited the monestary, which could not impress us that much.
To get out of the canyon where our barrel house was we arranged transport again. This time an old Lada showed up, smaller than the Wolga. Two bicycles on top, it appeared to be possible. 

The car took us 1200 meters up to the pass, it had to stop once to refill the radiator as the engine was overheating. The whole journey was over this dirt road and so was the descent from the pass, which we did on our own wheels and continued for another 20 kms. Slowly we got further down and reached Kapan, where we stayed in an ex-soviet hotel. The sincerely looking lady at a little desk on the landing is still there.
In Shikagogh, less than 30 kms but over a 1000 meters of often too steep ascent, we had “booked” a B&B (someone had phoned a friend). It appeared to be a normal, very basic house where we slept in the bed of the owners, who disappeared downstairs for the night. Very kind and gentle people, who on our request arranged an ex-soviet jeep to carry us up to the pass at 2300 alt. 

From there it was only down to Agarak on the Iranian border, where we found, 4th trial, an amazingly nice place to stay.
The next morning Eveline got on her bicycle wearing a head scarf!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sore legs and an interesting day

Saying goodbye in Jerevan was not easy after such a nice stay. We were helped by Greta, the hostess and two French guests to get all our stuff down the alley and the stairs to the street below. Greta's B&B is situated in a quarter on a steep slope adjoining the centre of the city. Her house can only be reached (and consequently left) by a one meter wide alley and long concrete stairs. Not an ideal place to stay for bicycle travellers one would say, but the hospitality and atmosphere compensates largely.
The way to our next B&B was not hard, as it was largely through the plain south of the city. Urts'adzor is a small village where our lodgings where to be found in a simple house on a dirt road. Our hostess Heriknaz is a lady who lives in this house with her youngest daughter Liana, 22. She has a cow, a garden where she's always workong in, she has chicken, like most (all) of the villagers, she is very self-supporting. Most men have jobs in Russia and elsewhere, she is a widow and has to manage on her own. She is learning English and doing her utmost to make it easy on her guests. We were presented with sweets, pastries, coffee, a good meal etc. And in the mean time she tried to practise her English. The girl next door joined in the evening and we had interesting discussions. Travelling this way makes you learn a lot!

The next day was hard, we had to climb one thousand meters in 20 kms. Need not explain that that's not that easy on a bike, carring app. 20 kgs of luggage. It really was our toughest day untill now during this trip. We ended up in Ashot&Gohar's B&B in Chiva. A very simple, but again very kind, place on a dirt road, but: on Booking.com! We decided to make it a two-day stay for two reasons. One: sore legs. The second: we agreed with the son of the house, Hrayr, to make an excursion to Noravank. It's another world heritage monestary site, not far from here.

So today we had a lovely relaxing day that not only included the visit to the monestary, but also a visit to the oldest winery of the world! No joke, there is a cave in which archeologists have found the remains of a winery of app. 6000 years ago. As proof the oldest shoe of the world, 5500 years old, has been recovered from this site. It's in a Jerevan museum. 
The region is still famous for its wine: Areni. In the one local winery we bought some bottles, one for the hosts, one for Hrayr and one for ourselves. Sometimes you must make life agreeable for yourself and for your companions, shouldn't you?

Thursday, May 5, 2016


Reached Yerevan in six stages after Tbilisi. Not too long distances, but much climbing, as Armenia is only mountains. Stayed in nice and cosy B&B's and on Lake Sevan we spoiled oursleves with a “Best Western Bohemian Resort Hotel”. A whole mouthful. But considering what we got, a central heated (it was 5˚C) two-storey apartment with all amenities for €55, it was not too bad.
The landscape was overwhelming. From the border to Vanadzor an ever narrower gorge, then a wide valley with snowcapped mountains on both sides (3000+ alt. mountains) to Dilijan, then a stunning lake Sevan at 1900 alt. Highest pass 2000 alt.
Weather was not always fine. We had all, sun, rain and low temps.
And now Jerevan. Over 1 million populatian, we're staying in a homely B&B in the centre. Which is nice, some tree-lined avenues, many intensively used cafés, bars and terraces to sit, drink and eat, promenades, a beautiful central square, many musea, beautiful art. We saw old Dutch and Flemish masters, among which Rembrant, van Dijck, Rubens etc. But also very good old and recent Armenian artists. Jerevan centre is a great place to roam around.
Today we made an excursion. Karen, our driver for the day, took us out of the city to Garni temple (1st century Greek) and further to Geghard monestary (Unesco heritage site). We were lucky, the clear sky gave us a full view of mount Ararat, the national Armenian mountain, 5137 alt., situated in Turkey now.(!) 

The monastery is high, at the end of a valley, a small compound with a church, partly cut out in the rock face, partly built. Originating from early christianity, but being destroyed and rebuilt several times. The current situation is said to be from the 13th century. There was a service going on. A small group of beleivers (women), two priests and some fantastic female singers. We stayed and listened quite a while, such a beautiful sound in such an historic environment and such a wonderful artmosphere. Could not last long enough.

After that we visited the Genocide Memorial and museum. Impressive. If one would doubt what happened in 1915 and the years after, here photos and testimonials make it clear. Numbers vary, but roughly 1.5 million Armenians died through political decisions made by the Turkish government. The images are at least as cruel and clear and deterrent as the images we know in our part of Europe from the holocaust. The similarities are striking.
Armenia's history is full of hardship. No wonder so many Armenians live in diaspora all over the world.
Our plan is to remain one more day in Jerevan then leave southward. Some mountainranges to cross before we will reach the Iranian border

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Impressions from a passer-by.

Soviet citizens were not known to live in a consumer's paradise. But there was full employment, free health care and free education. After the collapse of the soviet union everything changed in the many republics of the union, for better and for worse. Armenia had it coming three ways: prior to the fall of the soviet union there was a major earthquake, killing 25000 and making tremendous damage and after war broke out with neighboring Azerbeidzjan.
Now, travelling on our bicycles through the former soviet republics of Georgia and Armenia, we observe some of these changes as passers-by. There is a big difference between the countryside and the cities. But, since we travel slowly and thus spend most of our time in the countryside, our observations are predominantly those of the rural areas. And in general these are not positive:
Cars and public buses dating from the soviet era. Very old second hand vehicles, not always complete, from all european brands and origin. Awfully many aged Mercedes Benz's and BMW's. Pot-holed roads, make-shift architecture. Delapidated and ill-maintained houses, paintless windows and doors. Abandoned factories, abandoned shops. Rusted corrugated iron, rotting concrete. Small one-man/woman shops everywhere, street vendors selling just one kind of vegetable, some blocks of fire wood, home-regenerated engine-oil in bottles. People walking along endless country roads. A man herding three cows in the road side. People waiting, waiting for a customer, waiting for a bus, waiting for something or waiting for nothing at all. Just sitting and staring in front of them. Worn out suits, track suits, a lot of smoking.
These are just some of the faces that poverty confronts us with. Most striking is the boredom that hits you from so many faces. It seems that too many people just have nothing to do. They sit, stare and wait for something and there is no perspective whatsoever that the waiting will result in something. And nearly always in an ugly and depressing environment.
Armenians often seem to grow their own food and rely on the greater family. We were told that an Armenian pension is €90 a month, average wages €220. Prices are very low of course, but still. Petrol is €0,70, a flat bread €0,23. Unemployment 19,6% (Jan. 2016), don't know about an unemployment benefit.
Though Tbilisi and the few other smaller towns that we passed through give a better and more modern impression these observations make the observer sometimes feel uncomfortable and realize how well off a west-european citizen is.

All this does not prevent the people from being very kind, helpful, hospitable and joyous, so as travellers we are fine and enjoying the journey.