“At the end of a matter ask, ‘what will I learn from this to make me better?'”
I should have listened to Tigran. Tigran always knew best.
Or maybe I should have listened to the signs. But I don’t like ‘signs’. I hate superstition and detest self-fulfilling prophecies (and bad excuses). I would never extrapolate from a flat tyre and a non-existent train to mean that I shouldn’t try.
So off I went. I was going to cycle to and through Karabakh and I’d planned an adventurous off-road route over a mammoth range of peaks, amongst the blown-out shells and repopulated villages of Armenia-occupied Azerbaijan – off limits to foreigners who didn’t dodge the checkpoints successfully, but a perfectly reasonable proposition for those who did. I was then going to sneak into Karabakh proper on another dirt track over a high mountain range. I’d emerge from the woods onto the Armenia-Karabakh link road and pretend to the hapless authorities that I’d never been anywhere else! Simple, challenging, and hopefully fascinating.
For the equivalent of £0.50, the morning train would knock 70km and a thousand vertical metres off the start of the ride. I turned up out of breath, having rushed up the hills to Kanaker station, and was told that it didn’t run on Wednesdays. No-one had mentioned that over the ‘phone.
Annoyed, I set forth on two wheels, taking the old road through the River Hrazdan‘s gorge and the small villages that lined its banks, now bursting with late-spring green and blossom. The road weaved its way gradually up the valley to the Sevan basin. This hadn’t been the plan – the climb would tire me out. I’d wanted to get a head-start and head over the mountains as soon as possible; ideally on the morning of the second day.
But, having little other choice, I emerged early-afternoon overlooking the big lake and its mountainous surrounds and set about a freezerful of cheap ice-creams to get my blood sugar levels back up. My hands trembled as I devoured the cold, chocolatey energy. The woman behind the counter of the budka laughed at my eating power: “Astvats kez het – God be with you”, a familiar refrain sent after the traveller; and I was off again, heading south-east for the far end of the enigmatic lake.
At the end of a long and tiring day I’d cranked out 120km. That was a lot more than I thought I had in me, considering the amount of climbing involved and my recent dip in training – book replacing bike, for the time being. I was now well on the way to the south end of the lake. But I was still a long way behind schedule. A few spots of rain began to fall. The wind gusted. I felt cold.
I’d left Yerevan basking in the warm, thundery start of the long summer season. It had been shorts-and-T-shirt-and-umbrella weather for a couple of weeks down in the city, nestled in the foothills on the edge of the Ararat plain. But high-altitude Lake Sevan is notorious for its flippant micro-climate. The sky above me danced between blues, whites and menacing greys like a harlequin, impossible to read and bearing no resemblance to the wind direction down on the ground. Here, a day’s bike ride from home, winter had barely withdrawn its claws.
Stoically I’d brought just a bivvy-bag setup for my overnights. I hadn’t brought my tent to Armenia. Or my bike, for that matter. But I’d borrowed Tigran’s bike for this trip. He’d lent me his tent, too. I’d left it at home.
But I should have listened to Tigran. Tigran always knew best. He’d spent years trudging and pedalling the forgotten trails of Armenia’s extensive and lofty back-country, summitting peaks and befriending the Yezidi shepherds who still wandered the bald, time-forgotten steppes, mapping near-on the whole nation in the process with a handheld GPS.
One day I’d been out riding in Yerevan and he’d pulled over and demanded my phone number. Since then we’d been exploring by mountain-bike almost every weekend, and I’d come to the conclusion that one could easily spend months or years on foot or mountain-bike in the Caucasus mountains, teetering on the edge of civilization. Before I’d left on this trip, he’d said that it was very possible that the pass would still be blocked with snow.
Crawling into a tunnel under the road for shelter from the rain, I unpacked my meagre sleeping paraphrenalia, cooked a mug of noodles on my beer-can stove, and lay down to sleep. My overactive imagination woke me regularly, having blocked the tunnel’s exits with packs of hungry bears and wolves and little tiny mice. Curse those caveman instincts!
The following morning I was woken by the sunrise and I rode another hour southwards. As I rounded a headland, the peaks I planned to cross came into plain view.
The upper slopes of the mountain range were still firmly clad in white. The trail I’d planned to use wasn’t a road and existed on no map, being only a faint smudge on a satellite image, and was almost certainly still under several feet of snow, just as Tigran had suggested. The stormy weather would only add to the risk of attempting the crossing. And the precious little time I had was simply not enough to wait around or find another way through. The decision was a simple one.
As if in punishment, a headwind blew up and cold rain came down as I turned round and cycled back the way I’d come. My fingers and toes grew numb and I hid in a tiny rock-built shepherd’s hut while my digits reawakened painfully. I would spend the rest of the day dashing from shelter to shelter between brief, thundery squalls, on my way back to Yerevan. And I’ll never really know whether the pass was crossable that day or not. By the end of next week, all the snow might have melted. That’s one of the beautiful things about nomadic travel – you’re always naive to each new place you pass through, unhindered by schedules and commitments, and you can adjust your actions accordingly. But I was bound by bureaucratic chores and a flight back to the UK the following week. At least by cutting my losses early I could still make some other use of my remaining time here.
Woody Allen once wrote that “if you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sure sign that you’re not trying anything very innovative.” And there’s always a lesson to be learned through acceptance of that failure. Mine was that I’d have to come back another time, when the odds were more in my favour, and maybe pay a bit more attention to the wisdom of those more experienced than myself. The plan hadn’t lost its allure for having failed. I’d come back another year and try again, probably in late June or July, giving myself a lot more time – maybe two or three weeks to explore more thoroughly and allow for changes of plan. And next time I’d try to bring Tigran along.
Hiding from the rain in roadside cafes and the passenger seats of pulled-over cars, I made a pleasant discovery. I’d always struggled to learn Armenian (by all accounts a cryptic and difficult tongue, disconnected from anything I’d learnt before and written in an indecipherable alphabet that I still grappled with). But I suddenly realised that not only could I understand what everyone said and asked – once I’d convinced them I didn’t speak Russian – but that I was able to reply, too! I was able to hold conversation in another language, about pretty much anything people cared to talk about! Amazing!
Viewed one way, I’d spent 36 hours and cycled 200km with an elevation profile like a herd of camels in order to sleep in a drainage pipe. Viewed another, I’d left Yerevan one morning and returned the following day with new confidence in my learning of a foreign language, something I’d always found tremendously difficult and time-consuming. This would never have happened if I’d stayed at home. It was a quiet revelation which made the entire jaunt worthwhile.
Part 2 of this article, then, won’t be appearing any time soon. But… one day… it will.