We left Tbilisi and rode across rolling sun-scorched hill country. After 50-miles the Armenian border loomed large at Sadakhlo. Our exit from Georgia was full of smiles from the helpful Customs staff and again we thanked them for our wonderful time in their amazing little country. Up ahead; the Armenian checkpoint. Officers with ridiculously broad, Soviet-style, visor hats smiled and one of them, Igor, stamped us into the country. We spent about an hour changing money, paying ‘customs brokers fees’ and arranging bike insurance (all-in-all for both bikes, just over 50 Euros plus some remaining Georgian Lari exchanged at the Armenian bank counter at the post)… I’m sure the insurance papers were fully underwritten by Andrex.
The police warned us to proceed up the road and be certain to turn right on the M6 and not left on the M16… We already knew about this. Since independence, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Christian Armenia has been in conflict with neighboring Islamic Azerbaijan in a war that has killed over 30,000 and displaced millions. In fact both countries are technically still at war because of the ongoing dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an area between the two countries that is now occupied by Armenia who have no intention of giving it up. Azerbaijan maintains the threat that they will one day reclaim the territory. The past few years have seen a number of raids and skirmishes such that the border area is a dangerous place, both as a militarized zone and a lawless area, where people have been robbed and worse. Our target for today was a little mountain town called Dilijan in the Tavush province. The M16 was the more direct route but runs along the Azerbaijani border so we opted for the safer M6.
We rode the first few miles up to the M6/M16 T-junction somewhat in trepidation as to what lay ahead. The road at the border had been pretty mashed up and was splattered with a lot of mud off the big lorries that frequent the crossing. Immediately we noticed a step change in the friendliness of the people as we rode through our first few Armenian villages. Everyone stopped what they were doing to give us a big smiley wave ranging from cheeky smiles from little children playing on the street to toothless grins from grubby farmers working the land with what looked like medieval implements.
If we were expecting military checkpoints, I’m sure the M16 would have delivered; instead the M6 took us on a winding river chase through some of the most beautiful mountain country around. Within a few miles we had relaxed into a fantastic afternoon of motorcycling on an empty road chasing curves though a little slice of paradise. In Vanadzor, the first major town, we stopped to get some Drams (local currency not a wee drink!) from an ATM. On entering the town we were astonished not to be cut up, sliced and diced by the Armenian drivers; they were actually considerate and the opposite of their Georgian counterparts in that no longer were people trying to kill us on the road! At the ATM youngsters came up to chat with Mags while I was at the cashpoint, enquiring where we hailed from and wishing us a warm welcome to their country.
Dilijan is a little town at the heart of a beautiful National Park of the same name and on arrival we called our pre-booked hotel to come and collect us as they’d warned that their place was hard to find. As we waited at the main roundabout for our host, George, we engaged with a number of local folk who stopped to see if we were okay and to welcome us to Armenia. George duly arrived and we set off out of town and then up some hilly back roads that deposited us in a little piece of paradise, the ‘Art Guesthouse’, with beautiful views over tree covered valleys all around.
Armenia is still developing and is somewhat lacking in infrastructure. We hoped to spend a day or so hiking in the National Park but there was no real tourist information available nor marked hiking routes. It was threatening rain too so we contented ourselves with a day in the little town. We ducked out of the first rain shower into the town museum, which held a small collection of fine paintings by Armenian artists over the past few hundred years. Downstairs we had our introduction to the story of the Armenian Genocide, which commemorates it’s centenary in 2015, in the form of a moving photo collection by Armenian photographer Nazik Armenakyan who has spent the past few years photographing the last few living survivors from the genocide. Now mostly centenarians, they were all little children when it happened and in most cases were the sole survivors from large families. I’d highly recommend checking out the photographs at Nazik’s website at www.nazikarmenakyan.com/survivors/
In the years leading up to 1915 the Ottoman Empire had been troubled by the presence of a large Christian community within its domain. Comprising mostly Armenians, Orthodox Greeks and Assyrians they had long been treated as second-class citizens, an underclass denied many basic human rights, by Islamic Turks and Kurds. With Europe and Russia fully embroiled in the First World War the Ottomans took the opportunity to systematically and methodically eradicate their ‘problem’. It began on 24th April 1915, when some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople were rounded up and executed as a prelude to a policy of elimination of all Armenians within the realm. Armenian troops serving in the Turkish army were disarmed, used as slave labour and worked to death. Over the next few years a systematic policy was enacted against the Armenian populace whereby all males were executed followed by the deportation of women, children and the elderly by death marches to internment camps deep in the Syrian Desert. Here the survivors were simply contained and left to die and the whole episode is garnished with tales of torture, rape and mutilation enacted on a whole population. Well over one-million people perished.
The genocide remains an emotive issue for all Armenians exacerbated by the fact that Turkey, to this day, denies any official policy or genocide took place. We later visited the Genocide Memorial in the capital, Yerevan, which houses a collection of compelling records related to the period, both from survivors and also from external witnesses such as foreign diplomats and army personnel who were present at some of the incidents. The point Armenia is making in this centenary year of 2015 is that if people had fully appreciated what happened back in 1915 then 1939 – 45 may have been preventable. I’m not so sure of that but I do believe that this is and other genocide stories cannot be laid to rest especially when both Armenia and neighboring Georgia have seen ethnic atrocities in recent times. How can we, as decent, modern, knowledgeable human beings, still permit these things to happen?
From Dilijan, a wet morning climb on switchback roads rising to 2000-metres delivered us to breathtaking views over Lake Sevan, the rippled hillsides on the far shore all swaddled and swathed in early morning mist. The road wound on to Yerevan with far off views of mammoth snowy mountains lurking through the low ceiling cloud. It all made for a wondrous but short day of motorcycling depositing the pair of us in Yerevan in time to participate in the city’s 2797th birthday celebrations. All of the distinctive pinky-red block buildings were decked out in orange, blue and red Armenian flags and a huge sound stage occupied the centre of Republic Square. Whilst Yerevan lacked any really fine buildings or architecture it was a cosy city and one where we felt instantly at home. We had a little apartment for 5-nights just off the circular gardens that mostly surround the city centre so it was easy to abandon the bikes and hoof it around warm sunny streets.
We visited the colourful Vernissage artists market, where painters and sculptors can put their work on display and also the impressive Cascade complex, a huge stairway that hosts an impressive array of modern sculptures. The fine food we had in Georgia simply got better and I’ll say it here: Armenian wine was the best we’ve had anywhere!, both full-bodied reds and refreshingly light whites. Armenians will tell you that this is where wine all started and after sampling these wares I could well believe it. So there you have it… Yerevan; all the ingredients for a fine party, all that was missing was a bit of company…
Enter ‘Father’ Ken McCreevy. We’d met Ken through the Iranian Embassy in Dublin, where the secretary, on learning of our trip asked us if we could pass on some tips on Carnets to a friend of hers who was hoping to travel that way on a bike. We spoke on the phone and learned that Ken was slowly working his way east on a Kawasaki GT550, doing a little bit year by year as time permitted. The bike was currently in Crete and for this year he planned to ride up through Turkey to leave the bike for another break with a friend in Armenia. Our paths finally crossed in Yerevan…
It was a blind date like no other on this planet… The first thing you see on meeting Ken is a big broad grin and followed closely by a salutation containing several strong swear words that all make up for the warmest welcome anywhere. This is swiftly followed by a big ‘ten-bears’ hug and you are simply friends for life. He had brought along Emma, a pretty young Spanish back-packer who was staying at the same hostel, to join us for the evening. The big grey grizzled Dubliner instantly befriends people all around (even if they can’t speak the language) and with a drop of laughing juice the party was soon in full swing.
The following evening we were all out again looking for a place to eat. Mags stopped a young Armenian lass to ask for directions. Anna, a young lady so full of charm and grace, insisted on being our personal escort to an underground tavern where she got us a table and sorted out the menu with some excellent recommendations for local food. Anna had been an airhostess with Armenian Air who sadly had gone bust. She also taught dancing and had travelled in India. Here perhaps in one person were all the qualities we were growing to love about Armenia and it’s people; kind, friendly, smiling, open and ever so hospitable. This was going to be a hard city to leave.
We took a day-trip up into the mountains to visit Gegherd monastery and the ancient temple at Garni but our stay was cut short by heavy rain. Perhaps our one regret about the re-route through Georgia and Armenia was that it was just too late in the season to visit the high mountains, as the weather was poor there with first snows arriving and short October days. On top of that our appointment to be at the Iranian border on 16th October was beckoning and so, with a heavy heart (but lots of laughs), we had one last farewell dinner before our little company dismantled and set off, each to follow their own separate trail.
From Yerevan the road took us past the spectacular snow-covered Mount Ararat (of Noah’s Ark fame). The mountain dominates the city backdrop on any fine day and was to be the first backdrop to the many fabulous landscapes on our ride to Kapan. The journey was just under 200-miles, but on incredulous twisty roads that had us grinning from ear to ear as we climbed over 2500-metre passes and wind-blown, treeless lands. Billowy clouds gathered up ahead and in the distance we could see what looked like a cloud filled valley. On entering this we were effectively blindfolded for the remaining third of the day’s ride. Thin mizzly mist obscured all but a few metres of the spaghetti mess of a road ahead and we had to ride slowly with visors open as they were completely obscured by the fine water droplets in the air. It was a horrible ride made worse by the knowledge that we were probably missing out on some great mountain views on our penultimate day.
A night in mining town of Kapan and then one final ride in Armenia; a short hop to Agarak, right on the Iranian border. That last day… It was as if yesterday, in the mist, we had been deliberately blinded to save our eyes for the beauty of this special day. We took winding loops up awesome mountains, their arboreal mantle fully resplendent in autumn coppers and golds, russets and reds. At the top we traversed the Meghri Pass (2600m) and then dropped down into sun-scorched arid wastelands, the road chasing green-fingered river valleys towards Iran and that border appointment. Eventually the river turned to run along the border with a high razorwire fence marking the line. Across on the Iranian side we could see our first Paykan cars moseying along country roads and, in contrast, fields of goats tended by shepherds in biblical costume.
And so farewell to Autumn in Armenia! From all the other lands we have visited, only Argentina has made such a deep and lasting impression on us; amazing landscapes peopled by the friendliest examples of human beings on the planet, all nourished with the best tables anywhere! We could have stayed forever…
Please click on the following link to the photogallery for this blog: ‘Armenian Autumn’
For more on ‘Father’ Ken please check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=CV0TDfb59P4