Cycle touring in Armenia isn’t on many people’s to-do lists. All the better, then, for those who do turn up on their touring bikes in this tiny Caucasian nation.
And since low-cost carriers such as WizzAir have launched flights to Armenia, travel costs from Europe have plummeted.
Dreaming of returning and carrying out a proper adventure in Armenia, I thought the time was ripe to publish a few reasons to make it your next cycling destination.
Of course there are more than five good reasons to cycle in Armenia, but here are those I’ve focused on:
If you love slogging for hours up 40km ascents and burning down the other side, then repeating the process over and over again for days on end (yes, some people actually do enjoy this!), then cycle touring in Armenia will be absolutely perfect for you.
There is literally no cycling route through this tiny nation that doesn’t involve serious mountain passes. The highest on the through-route to Iran is over 2,500m in altitude, and rides in areas such as Aragats can reach over 3,000m. Heading off-road on bikepacking traverses of Armenia will take you higher still. The gradients are unforgiving and the climbs very, very long, but luckily the traffic is very mild.
If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, a couple of anecdotes may help:
While I was living in Yerevan I offered to host a couple of bicycle-world-circumnavigators over Christmas. They’d been on the road for more than a year and had cycled across Europe, South America (including crossing the Andes) and the breadth of the Asian continent (including crossing the Tien Shan range). Little Armenia, then, should have been easy – right?
Late afternoon on December 23rd I received a phone call:
“Tom, mate, I think we’ve just about had it. These hills are f****** killing us. We’re thinking of getting a bus from here and then returning after Christmas to finish it off.” Little Armenia had done her work. (These cyclists did indeed summit the final pass and complete their ride to Yerevan, motivated by the promise of hot mince pies in reward for doing so!)
Another veteran cyclist once contacted me for advice on routes in the country. Later I asked him for an account of his trip. He told me that the climbs in Nagorno-Karabakh were the most difficult he’d ever experienced. And this was a guy who’d previously cycled across Tibet.
Plenty in Armenia, then, for those looking for a meaty physical challenge!
Armenia is small and the population is low. While it’s possible to cycle tour across the country from Georgia to Iran in a week, it’s really worth taking the time to explore the minor routes that lead off the road down to the Iranian border. Many of these are unpaved and will see very little in the way of foreign tourists from year to year. This, in fact, is at the core of my recommendation for cycle touring in Armenia.
Lake Sevan, a large high-altitude lake at nearly 2km above sea level, is one of Armenia’s natural wonders. Although a popular destination for summer day-trippers from the capital, much of the lakeside is quiet and accessible away from the tourist beaches around the peninsular – perfect for wild-camping and swimming in its chilly yet clear waters.
And if you’re heading south to Yeghegnadzor, the mountain road there from Martuni, via the ruined silk-road caravanserai, is one of the most dramatic you’ll find this side of the Pamirs.
Armenia, on paper, sounds like a risky place to go cycle touring. It’s still officially at war with Azerbaijan, the borders are closed on the Turkish side as well, and there’s no end to the reports of tension between these nations. Georgia is to the north, and Iran is to the south.
But none of this need put you off. The reality of life within Armenia is very stable. Transport by bus and train from Tbilisi is easy and cheap, as is bus travel to and from the Iranian cities of Tabriz and Tehran. As a foreigner, you’ll still be a relative novelty, as most foreign visitors still come from the Armenian diaspora, particularly its American arm. This usually works in your favour. (Except with taxi drivers, who, as everywhere, will try to rip you off.)
The national symbol of Armenia now lies on Turkish land, but the iconic sight of Ararat on a clear day really is one that will stay with you forever, however clichéd that might sound.
It alone is reason enough to visit the up-and-coming capital of Yerevan during your time in the country, and to spend some time relaxing in the modern city centre, marvelling at the contrast between the superficial glamour on show here and the shambolic make-do lifestyle out in the provinces – typical of the region and of the former Soviet Union. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a strong undercurrent of progressive culture, as well as plenty of the historical sort.
Have I spurred your interest in cycle touring in Armenia? Check out the collection of routes and planning resources at CyclingArmenia.com. I also co-author a proper guidebook to the country, should you be inspired to dig deeper.
Mountain-biking pictures by Andrew Welch.