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