Armenia: Breakdowns and Dopamine

I am flying, hovering on clouds of happiness and ecstasy
I am flying, feeling so powerful, immortal and unbeatable
I am flying      flying                     flying…

… And I am falling.
I am falling, raging, breaking apart
I am falling, fading, giving in…

And I am flying…      

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The first lady Lars and I met in Armenia was a tad bit… crazy. Needless to say, Armenia is a quite religious Christian country and this one was a little over the top. Just like all people of her country, she had big, Bambi-brown eyes though her long, bushy hair was pitch-white like chalk. We had been looking for a market in order to buy something cool to drink, and she had enthusiastically waved us over to her tiny booth. It seemed most of the wooden shelves in there were occupied by photos of Jesus rather than things to eat, but we managed to spot some pirate copies of Coca Cola.

                       I camped next to this somewhat creepy God-worshipping nest one night…

The old woman kept kissing the cross she held in her hands as we pointed to the bottles on one of the shelves, and frenetically repeated “Jesus Christ Jesus Christ!!” over and over like some kind of Duracell rabbit. In the next moment she handed us a bunch of spooky photos of herself in a gloomy, godlike light to make her look like Jesus himself. Lars and I exchanged quick eye contact saying “we gotta get out of here as soon as possible!” and as soon as we had paid for the drinks we fled the field. The bottles of coke tasted rather plastic however – just like the Georgian lemonade – and we poured away most of it.

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Luckily, even though many Armenians seemed very religious, none was as fanatic as this first one. After a bit of an up and down ride we descended to Armenia’s second largest city after Yerevan; Gyumri. It was quite an atmospheric city with – unlike Georgia – various big supermarkets, cozy cafés and nice restaurants and we agreed with each other that Armenia seemed a lot warmer and friendlier than Georgia (particularly than Svaneti). This was however the ending of our ride together, since Lars was heading back to Russia, and as for me… I had to rush across Armenia in order to get to Iran in time.

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I had to rush across the country that is infamous among world tourers for hosting the hardest, most exhausting mountain passes in the world.

Here we go, I thought to myself as I left Gyumri, once again riding solo. That first day actually turned out to be easy. Though it seems to me now like the only easy day I have had in ages… The first 15 km I made a short climb for about 500 m if I remember correctly, and then I enjoyed a nice, steady descent all the way to Vanadzor, which must have been for as much as 50 km! Besides, the Armenians were indeed friendlier than the Georgians and rather than bitter stares I was constantly greeted by cheers and smiles and many gave me food as they passed in their cars.

 

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As I treated myself a huge vanilla- Ice cream with strawberry sauce topping, the Spanish couple whom I had met in Cappadocia one month earlier ran into me again! They were coming from the opposite direction and had already been to Iran, now heading to Svaneti and then to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Just like the tradition when you meet a cyclist coming from the opposite direction, we exchanged as much information as possible. I told them about the tough routes of Svaneti, and they told me about the friendliness and hospitality of Iranian people.

“As a female I think I would feel a lot safer in Iran on my own than for instance, Armenia”, the woman said.

“But you will have to wear all those clothes you know”, the man said, “I use hers to wipe my bike with now!” He added with a grin. I knew all too well, and I didn’t quite look forward to that part of Iran.

I also met a bunch of Polish cyclist in Vanadzor, which – just like any sane person would – warned me about all the devastating mountain passes that waited for me… “You got some huuuge climbs and deep slopes ahead of you!!”

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So let’s get it started with, I thought to myself as I made another climb of about 500 m before descending to Dilijan. It was at that small city, the real climbs would begin. “After Dilijan it will go up for all eternity” the Polish cyclists had told me.

The highest mountain pass of the classical, paved route across Armenia is only a little higher than 2500 m – yet cyclists who have been to the Andes and Tibet are willing to entitle Armenia’s mountain passes “the hardest and most exhausting ones in the world”.

How come? I had kept asking myself, and I was soon to find out.

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I loved climbing the mountain passes of Armenia, but nevertheless did I hate it as much.
I loved the fact that the climbs were steep – I much rather do the steep climbs of Armenia than the seemingly everlasting, slowly ascents that I would find later on in Iran. When I get to climb 100 vertical meters in 1 km or more – that’s when my dopamine gets on. That’s when my veins open up and the blood in my body flows faster, when my skin gets goose bumps and my brains feel all ecstatic, enjoying the “living-in-the-moment” so much.

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But the deep slopes took on me. Don’t expect to ever get to keep the elevation you have gained in Armenia – as soon as you have made it over one pass, you will descend to your last starting point again, doing that same climb all over again the very next day. And then again, and again, and again.

It however wasn’t the slopes that killed me. It was the storms. The monstrous thunder and head winds.

As I reached the top of my first mountain pass the thick, grey clouds came nearer from all directions. I witnessed how they were literally hunting me and I felt as if I were in combat with the wind; I had to outrun it to flee the thunder clouds. Once I had made it down to Lake Sevan at 2000 m altitude, the sky opened up in a roaring rain fall and I quickly put on not only rain clothes but also two pairs of extra pants and shirts, two buffs, one hat, and my winter leather gloves. The reason why I hated rain in Turkey, Georgia and Armenia wasn’t mainly the fact that I got wet – but that I got so unbelievably cold, and that’s why I put on so much clothes.

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Riding along Lake Sevan turned out to be quite the disappointment. I had been looking forward to its beauty for so long, but all I saw was grey, grey grey and despite wearing more than I did when biking in winter conditions back in Sweden I struggled to keep myself warm. I could just laugh at the irony of all those advertisement banners next to the road side, showing a jolly family or group of friends in swimming suits enjoying the beach and water in the beaming sun; “Spend your holidays at lake Sevan”. Yeah, sure thing…

What’s more, the thunder drew closer and closer. Just shortly after it lit up the sky the big boom pierced the air and it terrified me as much each time.

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There were not many trees around and as evening approached I realized I’d rather not wild camp but would try to reach the city of Gavar to find somewhere to sleep indoors. I was so soaked that every time I lifted an arm too high the ice-cold pool of water in the sleeve ran down to my chest, stomach and back. The thunder bolts stretched across the whole sky looking like intensely glowing spider web and the loud booms went on repeat. I am not sure what caused me to hyper ventilate that evening. The fact that I was riding an uphill, that I was freezing cold, or that I was scared.

Then finally, I reached Gavar. To my disappointment however, it looked like nothing but a ghost town. There was not a single person in sight, all shops seemed closed and barricaded and there was not even an inch of light coming from any of the windows of the apartment buildings – they were all black.

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At last, I found what seemed to be a bar in which I sneaked into. There were two women in maybe their 40s or 50s there, both with heavy makeup on organizing the glasses and bottles at the bar desk.

“Excuse me, do you know anywhere I can sleep in this city?” I asked them.

“Ruski?” They asked in return, and I shook my head and tried body language to make them understand instead. “Njet”, was their next reply, “no hotel, nowhere to sleep.” And then they started giggling like teenage girls, and they just kept on and on as they repeated “Njet njet njet”. I just stood there, with my clothes so soaked they made a pool of water on the floor, with my body so cold it was shaking uncontrollably, with these middle-age women laughing at my face like school girls. It seemed I had no choice but to face the storm outdoors again, and with feet heavy like rocks I pushed my bicycle forward.

I felt as devastated as this dog in the photo. Poor thing looked like she had just had pups and her whole body was trembling. I gave her some food before continuing my climb in the mountains

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I found a little market next, and the woman working there soon called her friend, who was an English teacher, to speak with me. It turned out there actually was one hotel in the city center of Gavar, but Angela – the English teacher – invited me to stay in her home instead.
Despite the fact that both I and my bicycle and panniers were all muddy, she took us all in without complaints. My bicycle was lifted across the whole apartment to the balcony, whilst the rest of my stuff stayed inside. In a sense Angela reminded me of Liliana, the mother and lone caretaker of two daughters that I had stayed with in Romania. Angela too took care of her five year old son David alone, and they seemed to share the same strength. She was so nice and did not only cook a delicious meal for me but also spent so much time washing and drying my clothes, and I was given a big package of food before leaving.

Angela and her five year old son David. At breakfast in the morning David asked: “wil sister play chess with me?” It’s mandatory for all kids in Armenia to learn how to play Chess in school. My dad and brother would love that!

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The storm kept on the next day, and Angela asked me to stay one night more. I told her I would have loved to, but that my visas to Iran and Turkmenistan didn’t allow me to.
Fortunately the storm wasn’t quite as heavy anymore and after I reached Martuni it faded.

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And as I started the climb up Selim pass of 2400 m the dopamine was on to 150 %. It steadily rushed through my body as I made my way up to the plateau, and the clouds dispersed simultaneously. Once I had made it across the pass I in fact got to enjoy beams of sunlight, and the valley bellow looked strikingly beautiful! I had one of my nicest descents so far, and set camp in a field of high grass teeming with huge grasshoppers and other big bugs.

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                                                    Eyyyyoo amiga! Mind if I join the party!???

My next pass; Vorotan Pass, wasn’t going to be as delightful. I was plagued by a brutal headwind for all those nearly eight hours that I actively rode my bike. I was literally raging as I made the climb, and each time the wind grew so strong that I nearly fell off I screamed. I shouted out loud in fury, over and over. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH not caring whether the drivers in the cars heard me or not.

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Then finally, I had made it up this one too. Only to find out that there was not any nice descent waiting for me on the other side – just a continuous up and down as far as my sight stretched. I met and greeted a cyclist coming from the other direction, and I couldn’t help wanting to stab him in the eye. He looked so cheerful and at ease, pretty much flying up the hill… Whilst I was doing my best to push my bike down the hill.

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I found a little market next to the road in which I could buy some snacks for the evening, and the woman working there immediately poured hundreds of questions over me as she stared at me with those big Bambi-eyes.

” Why are you alone? Are you not married? Does your country pay for this trip? Why are you doing this?” I had to resist the urge to punch her in the face and then instead patiently answer her questions, although with short, quick replies.

“Why not? No, I am not married. No, I provide for this trip with my own money. Because… WHY NOT!??” She then said that “this boy” next to her would love me to have dinner with him, but I had to neglect “this boy” in his 30s since I wanted to descend further before the dark.

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And then my mood went from raging to being devastated. I felt like someone had punched me hard in the stomach; as if I lost my ability to breath, to walk, to stand. I had given it all when climbing that pass, I had no energy left to continue those hills battling the wind. I wanted to give up, I wanted to lie down next to the roadside and cry my heart out. I can’t do this, I told myself in my mind, I am too tired… I can’t, I can’t… But I didn’t lie down and cry. For I wasn’t ready to show those passing drivers, those “why are you doing this alone? why are you not married?”-questionnaires my weakness. Instead, I bit my lip and kept pushing.

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Then I spotted a couple of tents in the distance off from the road – I could even make out the shimmering steel of three bicycles laying next to them! I was sure these cyclists were heading the same direction as me – because if they had had the tailwind they wouldn’t have set camp before ascending the top of the pass. The fact that I wasn’t alone out there; that I hadn’t been the only one fighting the vicious winds, comforted me a little. And I told myself: It’s ok. You don’t need to go further today, it’s ok. You can set camp too, as soon as you find somewhere suitable.

A few hills later, my tent was pitched in the middle of a fairytale, in a sea of wild-growing flowers in the mountains at about 2200 m altitude.

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DSC_0801                          Cooking noodles with homemade vego-beef that I got from Angela

My leg muscles were aching the next morning, but I had had a nice sleep and felt somewhat recovered – my mind was set on the fact that “today is a new day, new experiences”.

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I ran into the other cyclists already in the morning and we were indeed going in the same direction but they however stopped pretty quickly at a roadside café whilst I, as usual, felt rushed to continue. They were making a tour of Armenia and after Tatev they would go back to Yerevan and fly home.

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I descended all the way down to 700 m altitude that day, then the dopamine was on again as I rushed up to 1700 m altitude… Only to find that it wasn’t the real mountain pass, and I would have to descend a few hundred meters only to climb up to that altitude again… Only to realize that I would once more descend to 700 m altitude, and then climb up my last mountain pass of 2500 m. Damn.

Preferably I would have made the second descent to 700 m and then started the next climb already that same day to give myself some advantage the day after, but I was too tired. I had already ridden 100 km and actively biked for nearly eight hours again, and thus decided to set camp at the 1700 m pass instead – well aware that the next day I would first have to descend to 700 m altitude and then make a climb of more than 1800 vertical m.

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DSC_0824Traffic on the road – further up they blocked the way completely!

But it was no match compared to that devastating day with brutal headwind. In fact I enjoyed it quite a lot. By 3 pm I had made it to Kajaran, from which I would climb 1100 m more. The dopamine was on.

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About halfway up, a man stopped his car: “Sex? Sex, please?” I hadn´t had anybody asking me this since those first weeks in Turkey, so I got a bit surprised. Anyhow, it’s amazing how a man like this can magically make you double your speed up the hairpin… And little did I know how much I would have to experience this all over again in Iran later.

Refilling my water bottles at the top with some of the best-tasting, ice cold water I’ve ever had

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At the top of the pass I realized the following descent would stretch all the way to Meghri, a city close to the Iranian border. Why not go all the way there to sooner cross the border to Iran tomorrow? I asked myself, and hence ended up doing another 100 km day in the Armenian mountains. I didn’t quite like the city of Meghri as much as the other cities of Armenia however, and the 10 euro “hotel” I checked into was a big regret.

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DSC_0877mmVictory-selfies at the top of my last Armenian mountain pass – I was happy happy!!

First of all, it definitely wasn’t a hotel in any way. It was more like a way to make some extra money out of a man’s dungeon. Unfortunately, I paid way too soon… only to later find that the yellow-stained sheets in the bed in the prison cell-looking room was teeming with little flies – hundreds of them! So a few spiders is one thing, but hundreds of bugs in my bed is more than I can tolerate.

DSC_0884The mountainscapes got more barren and craggy-looking as I got nearer the border to Iran

‘I walked up to the guys drinking beer in the kitchen, telling them “there’s no way I’m sleeping in there, I will pitch my tent in the garden” and they went to pick up the manager. Of course I wasn’t going to get any money back for refusing the room, and they seemed indeed troubled by the fact that I wanted to sleep in the garden.

“Too dangerous” they said, “snakes, many snakes.” I let out a huge sigh as I rolled my eyes and asked the guy who spoke a little English:

“Have you ever camped in your life?” He bluntly remained silent. “Well I camp nearly every night. And snakes isn’t a problem what so ever. So, I will camp in your garden tonight.” They gave in, and as I pitched my tent the manager tried to help me… he held up one of the poles, staring at it all puzzled and then lowering it to the ground… What now? I had to take the pole away from him, saying “No no, this is how you do it” and then repeatedly take things away from him again as he wanted to make a new try.

DSC_0889At least the “hotel’s” garden in which I camped looked nice with the sunflowers

I felt at ease when going to bed in my tent that night, where neither flies nor snakes would bother me. My time in Armenia had come to an end and it sure had been tough – but amazingly rewarding as well and I would definitely love to come back one day.

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The next morning, it was time to enter the country most different from my homeland so far: Iran.

And in my next post, I will tell you more about it…

Cheers!

8 thoughts on “Armenia: Breakdowns and Dopamine

  1. Hej Elvira,
    Du fixar väl ett nytt schackbräde till mig nu när du reser genom alla dessa länder med betydande schack-kultur.

    Ha det bra
    Pappa

    Like

  2. I read your post and angry with all unpolite people. But ı’m happy to see your face, you’re looking so good and happy. I still pray your safety and hope to meet good people. Take care yourself. We miss you, best regard from Turkey!

    Like

  3. You are a really very strong girl. Armeni seems to be a difficult land. But very beautiful with all the flowers and high point of view. I’m impatient to read you from Iran. Tell us about young women, how they try to live as normaly as possible, what they do. I have some family there. Go on and Good luck !

    Like

  4. Great post! The description of that nasty bed made my skin actually crawl. Can’t wait to read your slant on Iran! Wishing you a tailwind etc.

    Jared Brown

    Like

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