Off the Bike

Well, I’m off the bike.  Mentally and physically.  As usual, an interesting set of circumstances brought me to this table in Tbilisi after enjoying the first real food I’ve had in days.

I left off before Yerevan: calculating the time until my flight home and the distance between Yerevan and Tbilisi, I promised myself that I would spend five days in Yerevan, the capitol of Armenia.  After all, I need to expose myself to new experiences as much as possible in order to soak in the good parts to form new parts of personality.  This promise would be broken.  I arrived in Yerevan and selected a hostel in the dry, hot and sterile city.  Shortly thereafter, two bikers arrive in the hostel!  They’re young – dropped out of their first year of Austrian college, got very nice bikes, and have been partying and doing generally crazy things along the way.  At first, this seemed like sheer stupidity to me, but I realize that I also had this phase in my life – I guess seven years does a lot.

Like every city I’ve ridden to, I feel extremely out of place.  At this point, I’ve been stared at for over two months – it started in Ukraine.  It’s a very uncomfortable experience when I’m just eating some chips on a bench and look up to see multiple people stopped in the street just staring at me…eating chips.  Repeat for two months and I could feel it subtly changing me into a jaded and unwelcoming person.  At the time, I thought the best solution would be to bicycle on, taking a three-day round trip around Lake Sevan.

The first night out of Yerevan, just as I was looking for a place to camp, I get flagged down by another Austrian duo on bikes.  Konrad and Lily; these two are awesome.

We were really hungry. Waiting for pork shashlik (bbq)

We were really hungry. Waiting for pork shashlik (bbq)

Sporting self-made front panniers, “dynamo” front hubs for electricity and an impressive array of spices, I could tell they had planned the tour well.  Unlike most well-prepared tourers, they didn’t have a strict timeline so we decided to ride around the beautiful lake clockwise together.  Unfortunately they caught me at a pretty low point emotionally, but we made a very nice tour around the deserted East side of Lake Sevan.  Almost every building on this side of the coast is abandoned in a state of partial completeness.  It’s also this way with hotels and restaurants across the Caucuses – my speculation is a burst bubble of tourist speculation after the fall of the iron curtain.  Plenty of signs for hotels and restaurants but none are open, all with locks on their gates and grass growing among the tables – reminding me a little of the imagery from “The World Without Us”.  Many even have English names or words on the signs.

These are everywhere

These are everywhere

Making our own shashlik

Making our own shashlik

Break day!

Break day!

Desolate East side of Lake Sevan

Desolate East side of Lake Sevan

We complete our tour-de-Sevan three days later and part ways.  Feeling emotionally sapped, I ride only a few dozen kilometers that day and set up camp early.  Over the next three days, I become physically sick – probably a combination of my emotional state and the sketchy kebab I had in the city of Sevan.  Not sick enough to stay put…yet.  So I continue to ride, uncomfortably, back to Tbilisi.

Experimenting with photo stitching - Vandazor, Armenia

Experimenting with photo stitching – Vandazor, Armenia.  I camped at the top of this hill with a church.  My wild camping has become much more brazen in the Caucuses.

Sunset on the Chapel

Sunset on the Chapel

Delays on the road happen for many reasons

6pm traffic

Geothermal energy plant, derelict

Geothermal energy plant, derelict

An extreme example of the litter everywhere.

An extreme example of the litter everywhere.

Three days into my sickness and it’s bad enough it warrants a hotel room so I don’t have to set up camp.  I ride into Stephnanvan, Armenia and find the tourist information booth (said by the Lonely Planet to be the best outside Yerevan), cool.  Posted hours are 10am-8pm everyday….except today for some reason.  I check at 10, noon and again at 3pm after a long lunch, always locked.  Of course it would be closed….

I also read there is a sanitarium in the forest South of the city.  In the absence of finding a good homestay without the information booth open and not having the energy to converse with my hands to find one, I head South.  I find the place, it looked like something out of a horror movie.  A complex of deserted buildings with broken windows, water stained concrete and playground equipment rusting in overgrown grass.  Then at the back, I see people sitting outside a swimming pool – I walk up and find people diving in the murky and green water that probably hasn’t been changed since this was a popular Soviet retreat.  It takes two phone calls before someone can point me to the reception: on the second floor of another building which doubled as a surprisingly ritzy restaurant with a fine view of non functioning water fountains.  She seemed surprised that I wanted to see the rooms and said she needed 10 minutes but promptly disappeared, nowhere to be found.  I decided to look at the rooms for myself and poked my head in one that appeared empty.  It didn’t seem very appealing and I left about two hours after arriving.

One building in the strange Soviet Sanatorium

One building in the strange Soviet Sanitarium

I find a campsite near an awesome steep gorge a few kilometers North of the city.  The night and morning are not something I want to remember, but the next morning I resolve to ride to the Georgian border and hitch to Tbilisi.  I couldn’t look at bread without a feeling of nausea; all I had to eat that day was a bag of potato chips and 100 grams of Nutella.  Luckily, the ride to Georgia is all downhill.  As I get closer to the border, the road gets quiet and rough.  I eventually get to the desolate border station; cars passing me on the road about every 30 minutes.  So much for hitching to Tbilisi, I need a road with more traffic.  I continue to ride downhill and attempt hitching a few times during breaks to no avail.  Since the riding is easy, I keep going.  There’s a story about the one-eyed Shepard, but I end up camping near the side of road in a planted forest after riding 120 kilometers with over an hour in the night, all things I try to avoid.

I wake up feeling terrible as usual.  Three large cups of tea, another 100g of Nutella, and laying down for another three hours makes me feel much better.  I ride a quick 25 kilometers into the center of Tbilisi in traffic that didn’t seem as bad as the first arrival.  My appetite returned and I got a donor kebab and yogurt drink – fantastic!  For the first time in my trip, I don’t feel out of place in a city – I’ve shed the mental bicycle baggage.  I smile and enjoy the yogurt drink in the shade.

As an addendum, I’ll write down some thoughts I found important during my trip:

  1. Communicating what you need with a few words is easy.  Cultural exchange requires a common language.
  2. Bike touring is unlike backpack traveling
  3. People are friendly everywhere; any claims of one culture being friendlier than another is completely anecdotal
  4. Identity can change fast but personality does not

Armenian Water

I ride from the Georgian border at 3 am and try to find a camping site on the way to the Armenian border.  In order to leave something to the imagination, I’m going to skip the snake story.  Anyway, I end up at the Armenian border the following afternoon and uneventfully get a shiny $5 visa for 21 days at the border and go on my way.  The land is lush and full of water, a glad respite from dusty Azerbijan.

Rotting industry

Rotting industry

As I ride South up the valley to lake Sevan, I pass through an enormous amount of derelict Soviet industry.  Massive rusting buildings with broken windows in the river valley.  There are no working factories anymore – but a copious amount of markets, vulcanizers and auto shops, typical of the Caucuses.  At a huge cost, the Soviet era brought an economic boom to the area.  It’s interesting that the factories haven’t even been torn down, they still stand as hulks of a different era reminding everyone what once was.

Near the Selim Caravansari - built as a housing complex for silk road travelers in the 1300's. I was considering camping inside the complex to get out of the wind, but five cars pulled up during my decision process.

Near the Selim Caravansari – built as a housing complex for silk road travelers in the 1300’s. I was considering camping inside the complex to get out of the wind, but five cars pulled up during my decision process.

The actual Caravansari

The actual Caravansari

 

Along with the factories, I pass by huge piles of trash.  Garbage rolling down a beautiful hillside outside a city.  As best I can tell, there’s no real garbage collection in any of the Caucuses, apart from the capital cities where it’s a bit far on the other end – separate containers for glass, paper, biowaste, etc.  Certainly gives a false sense of the national waste management policy!  I saw a glimmer of light when I passed by two men with yellow jackets on the roadside with plastic bags.  I saw one picking up a bottle, but I saw the other just kicking the garbage into the gutter.  Get your shit together Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan – environmental tourism is a huge part of your economy!

False - the road is mostly asphalt

False – the road is mostly asphalt

These super-old Soviet buses are everywhere!

These super-old Soviet buses are everywhere!

Armenian house that I accidentally walked into...nobody home....

Armenian house that I accidentally walked into…nobody home….

An unexpectedly awesome sight was Lake Sevan, a large high altitude lake which accounts for a significant amount of the surface area of Armenia.  Fed by mountain streams, the lake is super clear, cold, and absolutely beautiful.  I rolled past the ‘resorts’ near the city of Sevan and saw a sign for a national reserve on a beautiful peninsula.  There was a gate all around the lake in this area, so I was sure it was going to be closed off…but I took a chance.  The gate was open!  I ride across the dirt road to a patch of woods where I spot a tent.  By the looks of it, this guy has been here for a while.  I turn the corner and see him standing in the road – he motions me back for lunch.  The young man, maybe 20, doesn’t speak any English but I get a plate of rice-a-roni and vegetables.  As soon as I raise my fork, he gets a cellphone call and looks at me and says something with “droog” in it (Friend in Russian).  A van rolls up and 15 people his same age pile out.  Two of the women speak English (none of the men) and explain that they’re the vanguard of a youth group which will camp in this area for five nights.  One of the days, the Prime Minister will show up for a big photo show judging by the numerous banners they brought along.  They ask me for help with ‘clearing the area’ for camping, which involved raking pine needles and cones from a HUGE area.  Despite the clearing being completely unnecessary, I get a rake and along with everyone else and start raking up toad habitat so these people can set up tents.  After twenty minutes, I noticed only myself and one other was still raking, the rest were back in the main area talking and playing cards.  I also take a break after a while and ask why they need such a large area.  A woman explains that they’re going to have 100 people on this campsite the next night!  This seems crazy to me: let’s rake up this protected area, put 100 people with no waste disposal facilities (human or otherwise!) on this small peninsula for five days, all to get a nice photo op with the Prime Minister.  Although this is probably not the stupidest thing done for a photo op with a diplomat, I decide it is not something I want to participate in so I tell them I’m going to camp on the beach.

Beautiful and clear Lake Sevan

Beautiful and clear Lake Sevan

Faith in humanity was restored on the beach.  I set up camp about an hour before sunset, low enough on drinking water that I was anxious about my morning thirst.  I notice the picnic group of two cars next to me was winding down and they had a jug of water.  I walk over and ask one for water – he promptly fills up my water bottle and sits me down with the other three Armenians from Yerevan for three shots of liquor, toasts, and legitimately delicious pork BBQ.  Although I have usually been hesitant with conversations with people who can’t speak English because the conversation dead-ends quickly, these guys were my same age so we got much further in conversation with simple hand motions and a few Russian and English words.  As the sun sets, they start packing up and stuff all of the leftovers in a bag and hand it over to me.  Watermelon, cucumber, potato slices, awesome Armenian pork BBQ, bread, tortillas, cheese, beer … and four new friends.  I got more than I bargained for!

These guys are awesome

These guys are awesome

So is he!

Some kind of home liquor being made

Some kind of home liquor being made

 

Mt. Ararat

Mt. Ararat

Spoils of the herd

Spoils of the herd