Michael Bailey finally finds what he came for, as he sets off cycling amidst the monasteries and mountains of Armenia.
I was willing to admit my knowledge failings in the field of classical music but I had never realised the term included “Cotton Eye Joe”. I was in the Republic Square of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, and I was watching the Singing Fountains, wondering for once if my travel radar hadn’t let me down. I’m sure if I’d been sitting in one of the countless cafes and had imbibed a suitable amount of the local wine then I could have been having as much fun as anywhere but, the fountains aside, Yerevan is a city that has lost too many rounds with the Soviet ugly stick. Fortunately, I reminded myself, I wasn’t here to see Yerevan; I was here to see monasteries.I’m not an especially big fan of churches, and even if I were I’d have been far more impressed with Italian cathedrals than the dark grey rock slab constructions of the Apostolic Church. But medieval Armenian monks understood what Estate Agents are so keen to tell you today. When it comes to property the key is location, location, location. For centuries these black-robed figures scoured the peaks of the lower Caucasus and wherever they found extreme natural beauty out came the grey rock slabs.
Given that most people don’t associate Armenia with anything other than genocide, earthquakes and war you won’t be surprised to hear that tourism isn’t huge in the region. For those tourists who do make it here (mostly the French, for some reason) these monasteries are top on the agenda. For a few thousand drams I could have picked several travel agents to show me the sights, but I wanted something a bit more adventurous than several hours on a coach apologising for my nation’s cuisine. I was going to see the monasteries; but I was going to see them by mountain bike.
As I was driven down back country roads from the Georgian border I’d discerned much cause for optimism. An unusually wet summer had left the hills a lush green and I could see cycling potential in abundance. One thing I did not see. Bikes. On a September Sunday on similar roads in France I’d have been counting them off in dozens, but for all the spluttering Ladas I got not a glimpse of gears nor spotted a single splash of lycra. They were no more apparent when I arrived in Yerevan and I began to get a little apprehensive. It was late on the day of my inevitable city tour when I finally caught my first sight of the elusive greater spotted Armenian pedal bike. Greater rust spotted that is – I’m sure it had already been old at the time of Perestroika.
“Don’t worry, the bike will be fine.” She said this with the same assurance that she had used when pointing out a “genuine” piece of Noah’s Ark, and when she’d told me the Singing Fountains would be spewing forth classical music. Nune was a young Armenian girl, my guide for the week, and she’d never been on a bike in her life. You will understand my scepticism.In fact, when I first beheld my vehicle for the week I was moderately pleased with what I saw. Possibly because there was nobody in the country who knew how to ride a bike, the thing was brand new. On the minus side there was nobody who knew how to measure a gear cable or a brake cable properly and they didn’t have the pair of pliers I’d have needed to stop the saddle sinking as I rode. This, I conceded though, was as good as I was going to get.
As I made my way out of Yerevan, riding alone along a busy dual carriageway in the drizzling rain things were not looking promising. My guide rode in a car behind me waving a red flag out the window to warn the local traffic of the crazy Englishman in the luminous yellow T-shirt. I was beginning to regret turning down my flat-mate’s suggestion of cycling in Norway.
The first monastery I arrived at was not a monastery at all but a castle, Amberd, built to repel the Mongols. At another time this would be well worth a visit but in the now pouring rain it looked about as miserable as I felt.Not only was I soaked through, but I was less than impressed with the route we had taken to get there. I knew there were good roads out there – I’d seen them from the window of the marshrutka – but trying to explain to Nune and my driver what makes a good road for cycling was more futile that trying to persuade an Armenian hotel to serve breakfast before 09:30.
But Armenians are a hospitable people and they did try. My mountain bike was replaced with a rusty hybrid but at least the brakes worked. Eventually I persuaded them that the odd pot-hole and flock of sheep was preferable to hugging the curb while lorry drivers stare at this never-before-imagined two-wheeled contraption.
And then, as I approached the town of Dilijan the sun came out, I finally found them: roads to make the most fastidious Alpine road biker drool. As I swung out of my saddle at Haghartsin Monastery, with eagles dancing overhead, all thoughts of Norway had been forgotten. I began to smile at every new khatchkar (ornately carved stone) that I saw.
The climb up to (Unesco World Heritage) Haghpat Monastery reminded me how unfit I’d become but it didn’t take long wandering the grass around that ancient library and refectory to figure out why those 12th century monks had gone to the effort of building it. It was worth every bit of sweat for the view over the dramatic rifts of the Debed Canyon, at the foot of which the silvery waters of the Debed river wound their way towards the Caspian Sea. Then there was Khor Virap, built over the pit where St. Gregory (who brought Christianity to Armenia) spent twelve years with only snakes and scorpions for company. And as I emerged from the dim light of this holy dungeon, I beheld a truly sacred sight. The might of Mount Ararat and it’s glacier clad peaks, locked out of reach across the Turkish border.
After a hard day in the saddle, my evenings were typically spent with impromptu gatherings in a cafe by a river, or breaking out a guitar by an open fire on the shore of Lake Sevan. And if there were any lingering doubts about my affections for Armenia, then my love for the country was sealed with meals of divinely cooked khoravats (barbecued pork).
For the cycling pioneer, for those willing to spurn the Alps and bring cycling to an alien land, there are undoubtedly great wonders to be found among these moss (and not infrequently tree) covered monasteries. Just take my advice and bring your own bike.
Michael organised his cycling trip via www.biketoursdirect.com. BMI airline fly from Heathrow to Yerevan. Visas can be bought on arrival.