Cycling from Yerevan to Tbilisi
It was a fairly hot time to be cycling from Yerevan to Tbilisi. Actually there were record breaking temperatures of 42°C in Yerevan and 40°C in Tbilisi, and the roads in between weren’t much better. The route I took from Yerevan to Tbilisi was just over 300km of hot and sweaty pedalling.
Trying to escape Yerevan was a pretty horrid experience, especially because I resumed my default state of drunk-smoker for a week, and I don’t think I had cycled my bicycle once. The traffic was heavy and heading north you need to climb a pretty long and steep hill amongst a few lanes of Ladas and old Armenian buses spewing out black and blue smoke. But once clear from the city, aside from the heat, things became much more bearable. The old main road north is pretty quiet. The first night I camped just outside the city next to an abandoned construction site. There are a few places like this in Armenia, but generally you’re more likely to find outright dilapidated buildings than abandoned projects.
There wasn’t too much to see the following day, it was mainly just climbs through yet more hilly Armenian countryside. I could get a bit of a view of Ararat, the sacred mountain of Armenia, sitting above Yerevan at 5,137m. Though tough history now sees this national emblem of Armenia actually resting in Turkish territory.
It was a slow and steady cycle uphill from about 1000m at Yerevan to almost 2000m to Sevan Lake, one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world, and which provides 90% of the fish for Armenia.
As night began to slowly fall I thought I would make a little more progress and cycle up the main valley joining the lake, as camping next to it wasn’t easy (it is mainly paid beaches and restaurants). Things looked very promising as I pedalled up the valley. I spotted what looked like the perfect place, even a whole series of perfect campsites off the valley…no people, no houses, just empty fields and flowers and mountains! Once I got far enough to surely be nowhere near anybody (I even waded through a river), I stopped and was instantly engulfed in hundreds of mosquitoes. When I say hundreds I mean it quite literally. I was covered in bites in seconds. Camping was utterly impossible and so it was back out, back up the track and hills, wading back through the river and back to the main road with sodden shoes. At least there were no mosquitoes there. Sometimes on a bike tour, you lose.
It was now dark and I was cycling with the lights on. I was so exhausted that I was just looking around for anywhere to camp but the long valley only tightened as I followed it upstream. The road was pretty quiet, and so I figured at the first opportunity—no matter how miserable—I should just camp. It was going to be miserable. When I got to the top, the road was led through a huge 2.5km tunnel into the mountain side, and I didn’t really fancy that. The only place I could see to sleep was a half-built something next to a night club. It all looked abandoned, and there was an acceptable place to camp around the back where nobody could see me. It was doable But just to make sure I peered in through the windows of the back of the club to see if there was anything or anybody there. There weren’t any people, but the fridges were on and they were full of beer and vodka. If you go bankrupt you probably wouldn’t still have gallons of booze left. And there was another room with some tawdry fake-leather couches and chairs that looked pretty suspect. It was like 9pm, and if this place opened, I’d probably not get any sleep especially if they started blaring music all night, so I went to the mound nearby, but I had to keep low otherwise anyone on the road could see me. Just as I moved a truck pulled up and the club opened. It turned out to be a rather seedy place, with the logo of a half-naked girl giving some clues. I decided rather than finding out, just to keep cycling, and so after I ate dinner I reluctantly packed up and left in a huff again.
Luckily just before I went through the long, narrow and unventilated tunnel, two trucks overtook me and so I could slip them and got a steady 50km/h which also stopped the cars behind trying to overtake, making everything a little safer. It stank but didn’t last half as long as I expected otherwise. Out to the other side, I’m sure it would have been quite beautiful, being at such altitude, but I couldn’t see a thing. It was a real shame flying down mountain scenery in the dark. And I was still looking desperately for somewhere to camp. But everything was too steep and rocky. And when it got to the twisty switchbacks I had no chance.
Finally, after searching and failing at nearly every switchback on the way down, one had a small track leading off it, which I followed and it led me to this picnic bench…
It only took 3 hours of looking.
It was a bit unusual sleeping atop a picnic table in the middle of a forest in Armenia. But given how tired I was at this point, I slept pretty well.
In the morning I was woken up by mice scuttling about in the roof of the place. Sometimes I could see them poking their heads out curious as to what I was up to. Who is this guy, sleeping on our table?
There was also this bizarre image of two guys who were protecting me as I slept.
As I continued, now the road was on the whole downhill to Tbilisi along quite deep and beautiful valleys. It led me through numerous small villages, sometimes on smooth tarmac, sometimes on unsurfaced dusty roads or just full of potholes.
At one point I’d just jumped off my bike to turn the back light on, as there was a long and dusty tunnel ahead without lights. At the side of the road was a young guy trying to fix his bicycle. His chain had fallen apart and he had no clue how to stick it back together, and besides he lacked the tools. Fortunately I had everything needed and so could help him, and it was a very gratifying feeling being able to give something back to local people which so freely have given so much for me. He was on his rusty and cable-less bike again in no time, cycling away with a huge smile. Without it he would have some hot walking to get between the villages here.
As for my own bicycle, everything is broken and creaky, and the amount of things now held on by cable-ties surely loses me all credibility as a bicycle mechanic. Building your touring bike in a day isn’t really a good idea. Actually, so many of my things have taken their toll after years of use that basically nothing works as it should any more. My camera’s auto-focus is temperamental, and the battery sometimes falls out. My laptop’s sound doesn’t work, nor the touchpad. My tent has so many holes in it and I’ve stood on every tent peg at least once that not one of them is straight any more. My bags are all ripped. Nothing seems to last as long as it should or claims or as I expect. Furthermore, climbing up some of the last mountains in Armenia, an eyelet holding my rear rack snapped off the bicycle frame, adding to my ever-expanding shopping list in Tbilisi. Tbilisi is essentially the last place (save for Baku, Azerbaijan) to get these kind of supplies until China. I should also get a new sleeping bag for the Pamir Highway, as it gets to -5’C every night (and if you’ve been following my trip for a while, you’ll be aware that my current sleeping bag is so old it’s basically just a towel). Or will I find a sleeping bag in Uzbekistan? Will I even make it there with this junk? I always knew continuing after Athens with little money was risky, but it’s looking more and more unlikely I’ll get to China day by day. Somehow, though, that’s more motivation to try and get there.
Soon after I was again struggling to find a place to camp in the deep forested valleys; everything paralleled the river, the few houses and the road, and there was no free land available. As I had descended a fair bit now, it was also insanely hot and humid, adding to the sourness. So I followed one of the very few side roads away from the main road and it led me to a small farmhouse. I went up to the door much to the displeasure of the insanely barking dog which was (thankfully) tied up. The owners came out a little confused as I asked if I could camp on the grass outside their main gate. The woman gestured that she wanted money, and as I emptied my little wallet in front of her she actually laughed. I had the equivalent of about 0.30€. They let me camp for free in the end, and I thought I should, as a foreigner, at least make a good impression then, since I was already looking a total mess.
And since it was incredibly hot, like still well over 30 degrees even at 8pm (what!?), I was wondering how much water to save, how much I should keep to pour over myself tomorrow, and do I really need to make porridge in the morning?
And in the midst of all this important thinking I spilt my dinner all over the grass.
The sheer intensity of the heat at this point could not be over-exaggerated. “Drink before you’re thirsty,” is the old adage about any exercise, but what do you do if you wake up thirsty? Always thirsty. I really try not to touch anything in my tent because whatever part does is instantly turned to sweat. Every surface is too hot. And it’s only cool enough after midnight to finally drift off and then it all starts again at 8am when you wake up in a small puddle.
Out the tent to avoid baking, slapping on the suncream mixed in with the previous days’ grit and road grime, sweat and mosquito spray. Back on the bike, back to the melting sunshine. It’s so hot that I make several excuses to stop along the way. I linger around shops just to stand under the air-con, buying things I don’t need. Trying not to buy anything too big: that icy cold bottle of juice will be like drinking strawberry bath water in 20 minutes. 20 minutes is also how long it takes for my t-shirt which I’ve thoroughly soaked under a tap—and put back on—to dry. Repeating this at every water supply became the only realistic way to get anywhere.
Sometimes in heat delirium the wires cross in your head so much that you get a great idea. Like, how do you make disgustingly hot, sun-scorched water drinkable? Throw in a teabag!
Or maybe it’s just delirium. I’d much rather be doing the backcrawl in an ice-cold pool of Powerade, squirting the blue flavour out my mouth in a fountain. I actually had that mirage.
Two things I’ve never seen more of: smashed cars and potholes.
Coming back to Georgia was oddly familiar, kinda like coming home. I reckon the feeling was because it’s the first country I’ve returned to in two years. Even though the culture is still unusual to me, it’s less unusual than in Armenia. And I would take a bash at saying it’s a bit more modern than Armenia. I knew the food, I knew how not to stand in a queue in the shops, and how to cope with the insane traffic.
I’m almost used to the shit driving now. But it’s exhausting. More than the heat. More than anything. Nothing sucks the life out of you more than continually brushing shoulders with death. I’ve already vowed several times never to return to Georgia on a bicycle ever again.
To deal with the terrible driving, sometimes I stick headphones in and listen to music. It probably seems counter-intuitive, and I obviously wouldn’t normally do so on roads like these, but I actually found it helps a lot. It took the edge off everything and made riding bearable. I can hear the British health and safety police crying in horror, “What? And where is your helmet…?” Sorry mate, I can’t hear you, I have The Clash up full. What difference does it make if you can hear the car as it splats your body all over the road? As long as you can still hear the horns, should be all right. Scientists have yet to invent a loudspeaker more powerful than a Georgian car horn anyway. Disclaimer: you are responsible for your own dumb shit.
3 nights, 4 days and 0 showers later I majestically cycled down the hill to Tbilisi, sunburnt, smeared head to toe in a shiny, grit-covered, suncreamy goop. Wearing a soggy, sweat-ravished and sun-bleached t-shirt, crispy salt-stained shorts and riding a broken, creaky bicycle with a plastic bottle of tea that looked like piss.
It was so hot that it felt like I was holding a hair-dryer in my face and slowly walking into a microwave.
Not quite the paradise I was expecting.
Was it worth it? Yes.
Would I do it again? Nope.