Micro-Adventure: Nagorno-Karabakh (Part 1)

“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.

Early departure

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.

Kanaker train station

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.

Water stop
The most ostentatious building site ever?
Hrazdan Gorge road
Ouch

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.

Map of Sevan National Park
Reminder of eternal anguish and suffering

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.

Statue

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.

Tigran

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!

Drainage tunnel bivvy

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.

Snowy mountain range

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.

Field of wrecks

Part 2 of this article, then, won’t be appearing any time soon. But… one day… it will.

7 Responses to “Micro-Adventure: Nagorno-Karabakh (Part 1)”

  1. Will Hawkins

    Fascinating. I know so little about this part of the world and your posts are very revealing about travelling in this part of the world. A pity you did not make it over the pass but that’s all the more reason to come back,as you say.

    Looking forward to hearing more.

    Reply
  2. Richard

    Very enjoyable and atmospheric writing, Tom. Glad your Armenian language lightbulb moment made the trip memorable. I wonder whether I will ever have a similar moment with German! See you soon.

    Reply
  3. Jamie

    Tom, I have been reading your blog over the last few days and weeks after finding it via Al’s. My favourite was the Mongolia trip; Sweden/Norway good too. Personal travels + others’ blogs + media + books helps me build up an increasingly good picture and understanding of the world.

    I wonder how long you will keep up your not flying. It will present you with a dilemma if you ever feel the need to explore the Americas or Australasia! Flying is what is stopping me being green as I take long haul flights, especially to the US, 2-3 times a year for business reasons which I don’t have much choice in (apart from the choice to accept that job of course). However I make up for this by using green electricity, courtesy of Good Energy, to power my home; and cycling to work. However when I try and promote a low-carbon lifestyle to friends, family and others I do not get very far however after reading some of your blog this has spurred me on to try and do a bit more of this instead of being passive. However I believe that most people do not care about climate change. Partly their brains have been polluted by deniers just enough to raise doubts, but in my opinion the more important fact is that they don’t care, or at least put environmental so low down the list of priorities that they as may as well not care. I also found it sad how far down the political and media agenda it has gone in the last few years.

    Although I cycle to work, I don’t think I have cycled outside of my own town all year. Last year I did cycle 100 miles to my parents’ house in 1 day for a charity challenge I set myself. Incidentally, I had a look on sustrans at the time and found that my route, from Northants to Shropshire, could not use their routes at all, as they all went in the wrong direction for that trip. However it didn’t matter as I just spent a few hours in advance on google maps handwriting out the directions throughout every village on the route in mini maps.

    About 10 miles out of Wellingborough (heading out of Brixworth towards Creaton) I passed over what looked like an old railway line and a cyclable stretch where I could take my young daughter. I imagined it would be a short stretch but on seeing a recent mention of Sustrans on your blog I looked it up again and I now think it is the cycle route from north Northampton to south Market Harborough. I now fancy cycling (on my own) one day a triangular route starting from Wellingborough and going to both these places. Or maybe a leisurely 2-day route. Actually, I don’t really know how far that is yet.

    I have lived in Northants for a few years. It is surprisingly hilly for a place without any hills if you know what I mean, it seems to have a lot of tiny valleys/ big dips in the road. Then again you probably barely notice these with your level of fitness.

    I have never wild camped but, inspired by your blog and Al’s, I think I will try it this summer on a few short UK trips.

    As I have mortgage, job, wife and kid, it is unlikely I will do any big trips, at least not in the next few years and as such blogs like yours are an escapism outlet because I have to somewhat suppress that instinct, or itch, to go to foreign places and travel and micro adventures are more realistic. The irony is that none of the being tied down would have happened if it wasn’t for the travel itself, for that is where, like you, I met my future wife. That was on a 9 months backpacking RTW some years back. I mostly travelled by plane and bus, with the odd bit of hitch-hiking and train and taxi thrown in. I also enjoyed renting a bike for the day both on this trip and others. As a result I have cycled in a few interesting places such as Tanzania and Malaysia and Peru and Bolivia for instance, but only for a day at a time.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Interesting stuff Jamie. I think it’s the Brampton Valley Way cycle route you’re referring to – along the route of an old railway line. Great ride, and a great tea shop just south of Market Harborough!

      About travelling greener… I’ll keep it up as long as I can. It’s worth mentioning that sustainable doesn’t have to mean zero, at least at the moment. I have made (non-cycling) trips by plane twice in the last four years, because sometimes there really isn’t any other way. But if there is, I’ll do my best to use it. The best we can hope for is to keep encouraging people and don’t get disheartened by the many who will ignore us…

      Reply
  4. Adrineh

    And next time bring me too please! I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t make it to Karabakh this time ’round, but I’m glad to hear that you intend to try again, maybe next year, and yes June or July might be best 🙂 And if I’m still ’round these parts, count me in!

    Reply
  5. Meag

    Hey Tom,
    I cycled the Martuni Pass last fall – the top brings a wind-blown plateau with hawks that soar by your side for miles. It’s very relaxing. Are you still living in Armenia? Let’s bike sometime. I live in Yeghegnadzor.
    Meag

    Reply
    • Tom

      Hi Meag. Thanks for the comment. I’m not in Armenia right now, but when I’m there, I’ll drop you a line about a bike ride. The route you’ve mentioned is lovely – rode it myself in ’09 and would love to do it again…

      Reply

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