I must admit that Armenia is not a country I knew much about until a few months ago, and if asked I may have said it was somewhere in the Balkans. But for the last month its been our destination and every day we’d count the kilometers left until Yerevan where we were to spend Christmas.
When we arrived at the border of Armenia we had done 16 days of cycling with only 1 day off, though most of that was spent searching Tabriz for a hearty feed then gorging ourselves on cream cakes (I think we had about 30 cakes each that day!). So it was with heavy tired legs full of lactic acid and knots like a knarled old oak tree that we began the first ascent into the Armenian mountains. We naively thought that 4 days to do the 380km to Yerevan would be plenty, and at one stage figured that we could do it in 3 days, though we hadn’t counted on the steepness of the Soviet era roads and sheer number of climbs we’d need to do.
We began our first ascent by winding up a narrow valley lined with leafless deciduous trees and shabby houses made of scrap metal sheets. After a short while we got to the head of the valley where the road pointed skywards and we changed down the gears and began climbing up the winding road to the Meghri Pass. Most of the final 20km was a slope of 12% (or 1 in 8), which I reckon is unmatched in Ireland. Even in the easiest gear, we had to push really hard on the pedals and not spin as you should normally do in such a low gear. With a speed of only 6km/hr, it was a long gruelling slog, made more difficult by our inadequate food provisions and wheezing lungs caused by the pollution in Iran. By early afternoon though, we made it to the pass at 2535m altitude – well above both the snow and tree lines – and donned our thermals for the long downhill which undid our mornings climbing effort. We coasted downhill, enjoying our increased speed as we glided around the hairpin bends that were carved into the precipitious cliffs. My disc brakes became so hot that water would steam and sizzle as it splashed on the scorching metal. We eventually made it to the small town of Kadzharan where the gloomy tower blocks, dirty streets and aged rusting cars fitted my idea of what Chernobyl would be like.
The following day was much more frustrating as we didn’t even get to a high pass, or get the feeling that we were getting anywhere. We’d just climb for 2 hours, descend, cross a river then go back up the other side. By sunset on the second evening, after a whole days slogging, we had only done 50km and needed to cycle into the night in order to give us a chance of getting to Yerevan on time. The next day was not much better and we were digging really deep in order to keep going, guzzling on chocolate and biscuits and cycling on the sugar buzz. We were contemplating getting a truck to Yerevan as neither of us had any strength left and were completely shagged and dejected, but the thought of having to come back during the Christmas break to fill in the gap kept us going. Our efforts were finally rewarded by a lovely long fast downhill along a river bank which raised our spirits and we were then too close to Yerevan to give up so we just pushed on.
At dusk on Christmas Eve, we rolled into the Yerevan outskirts, knackered, filthy and smelly (sorry Tom), but got into the festive spirit by singing many a Christmas tune. We were met by Tom in his Santas hat and once back at his gaff, were fed lovely home made mince pies (he even rendered his own lard and suet!), washed down by mulled wine followed by home made burgers and crunchy chips. For that fantastic yummy feed alone, the push across the mountains was well worth it!