My plan was simple: keep Mt. Ararat-fabled home of Noah’s ark-to the right and I would not get lost. I was on my way to the south of Armenia to undertake an engineering field visit to a road which the Armenian government had proposed the World Bank finance the upgrading of. I had decided that this was an excellent opportunity for a bicycle ride so I had told my Armenian Road Department (ARD) colleagues that I would meet them *somewhere* on the road south. My goal was to get as much riding in as I could before they caught up with me.
Being the end of May, the weather was very fine in Yerevan, the capital. Our main purpose of the mission was to help complete the preparation of the proposed Yerevan Urban Transport Project, which would see the Bank financing improvements to Yerevan’s traffic signals and management. It was long days so I was having trouble fitting in sufficient training for my upcoming Ironman Switzerland race–especially the cycling and swimming. So when I was requested to visit the Goris-Kapan road in the south of Armenia near the Iranian border, I hatched the plan for the ride.
I spoke with Alex, one of our counterparts, who assured me that if I did in fact leave at 05:30 there would be very little traffic on the road. I believed this since most Armenians seemed to be late night people. Even at 08:00 there are few people about, whereas at 21:00 the streets can be full, as this photo of the fountain in front of the museum shows.
The night before I packed a small bag with clothes and essentials which I left at the hotel. My driver would hopefully collect the bag and I could change when (if?) he caught up with me. Otherwise, there were no other plans except to ride.
Riding my Bike
I was up early and with my waterbottles and hydration pack full, lights flashing, I headed out into the pre-dawn darkness of Yerevan to get as far south as I could. It was brisk so I was glad for my arm warmers and cycling jacket. The city has the annoying habit of turning off the street lights so it was challenging navigating my way. I did not have a detailed map of the city but I knew that the road past the railway station continued down towards the M2 highway which then goes south so I just planned on dead reckoning it. It was slightly challenging in the dark and at one point I stopped at a car wash and asked the attendants which way to go. They pointed me and I was at least going in the right direction. I passed through the old industrial zone of Yerevan and as the sun rose was on the M2 heading south.
Alex was correct: there was little if any traffic and the road was two lanes in each direction with a shoulder so I had lots of space. The road was slightly downhill from Yerevan and then flat for the next 60 km or so. With the sun coming up and the day getting warmer, it was a perfect morning for a ride. Even the wind was not bad – either a side wind or a tail wind.
Armenia is very sparsely populated and the ride took me past some farms, orchards but a lot of places just looked abandoned. The land also does not look particularly fertile so I suspect that it is very challenging to make a living as a farmer, especially with the long cold winters. The photo to the right was taken about 7o km south of Yerevan in an area where there were some vineyards. Apparently during the Soviet era they were more widespread but after removing them for other crops, which failed, they are now slowing trying to revive the industry.
The road conditions were varied to say the least. In some places the road was adequate but in others it was completely failed. In fact, if work was not done with the next year the pavement will probably be lost. The ARD had also asked us to finance road maintenance and having had a very close look at things on my bike it was clear that they had made sensible recommendations.
The photo to the left shows an example of the extreme patching that they are doing to try and keep the roads open. Suffice to say that after a point in time you need to replace the surface, and a lot of sections on the M2 need this done.
The road began to climb after km 68 so I began to work quite hard. As you can see from the elevation profile below there was quite a hill to get over. It was one of those frustrating hills with lots of false rises: just when you think you are at the top you realize that there is more to come. It reminded me of when Lis and I went hiking in Aspen up a mountain and she said that it wasn’t too bad. After the third false rise she kept quiet.
Several vehicles passed me with passengers hanging out the window to cheer me on. In fact the entire morning there had been a lot of double takes with vehicles passing and *everyone* turning around to confirm that they had indeed seen a cyclist on the road. Eventually I got to the top and started downhill. At that point Aram, my counterpart from ARS, drove up. Bother. There is nothing worse than spending some 15 km climbing a hill–with lots of 8%+ grades–only to be deprived of the fun of going downhill. As you can see from the photo to the left, I had done the work. However, since my driver was not here I told Aram that I would go on and keep cycling until they both caught up with me.
So I was able to enjoy some downhills, and even another uphill section, before at km 102 they caught up with me. At least I had done 60% or so of the Ironman distance which was better than nothing! The driver had my bag so I had a hit of my asthma inhaler (the driver was very impressed that an asthmatic could cycle this far), used some alcohol wipes to clean up, broke my bike down, and put on some clean clothes. Then it was off to work…
My road visit was spread over two days. The first day we took the existing M2 road from Goris-Kapan. After overnighting in Kapan, we would take the H45 road Kapan-Goris. This was west of the M2 and had not been maintained since the Soviet time. It had therefore failed and required major work to bring it up to an appropriate standard.
If you want to ‘see’ what the roads are like check out the links below. The slideshow is a series of photos taken as we drove along the road – apologies for the bad camera angles – and the Google Earth files show the location of the road and the photos. This only works if you have Google Earth installed.
Google Earth File with Geo-referenced Photos
Travelling from Goris to Kapan the road is challenging to say the least. It winds its way up and over a mountain through series of tight, switch back curves, as the GPS trace to the left shows. Since this is the only route for trade with Iran, it presents major obstacles for the transport of goods.
Digression: Armenia had a war with Azerbaijan after the break up of the Soviet Union and Turkey closed its border in solidarity with their Turk Azeri cousins. So for some 20 years the only land access options for Armenia has been through Georgia to the north and Iran to the south. Unfortunately, the railway in southern Armenia passes through Azerbaijan and Turkey so this has been closed to the Armenians. This road is therefore a critical link in the transport infrastructure.
The road is only 6 m wide in places and with all the curves can be pretty tough on traffic. The photo to the right shows a fully loaded Iranian truck which broke the chassis of its trailer going around a curve (probably its overloading didn’t help matters). Unfortunately, except for cars and small trucks, the road would be closed until it could be offloaded and moved out of the way. That would take quite some time and the traffic was already backing up the road behind it. During winter storms often close the road for days on end.
The countryside was lovely with the mountains stretching off into the distance. We wound our way up and down – with more up than down – until we crested and then descended towards Kapan which was our terminus for the night. Definitely not a nice road to drive in a truck, especially in winter.
In Kapan we met with the local maintenance contractor. We had passed his crews working on the road doing lots of patching. He was obviously doing very well for himself as he drove the most expensive SUV I have ever been in been in: a top of the line supercharged Range Rover with all the bells and whistles. He had organized lunch for us at his depot, on a picnic table under a hazelnut tree. The Armenians do like to picnic as we had passed many people eating outside, from travellers to local farmers. Our table was soon groaning with an array of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as the delightful Armenian breads. There was an even greater abundance of meats served, along with copious amounts of vodka. The three ladies who served us must have been working overtime to prepare such a great meal.
I was shattered from a combination of jet lag, a very busy week, and a nice ride so by 18:00 I was fading. I crashed big time and slept for 12 h. A few more like that and I’ll be human again.
At 10:00 the next morning we started our return trip on the H45. This was once a well maintained road but after the fall of the Soviet empire there was little money so the road was not maintained and is in very poor condition. The photo to the left shows an example of the road as it passes through a village: it was far worse in other places where there was no surface at all. What was particularly surprising was the way in which we would suddenly come across short sections of road in very good condition, only to be followed by something almost impassible. The area was very mountainous and covered in forest so was a delight to drive through. We passed cattle and one herd of sheep, but otherwise it was just us and the nature. One group of farmers were sitting at a table by the side of the road having a picnic – complete with white table cloth. They do know how to make the most of their eating here in Armenia!
After over 40 km of travels I was surprised to come across the Tatev Monastery. Perched on a cliff over a very deep valley, this dates back to 895-906 AD. It was a combination monastery and fort: the local people would flee inside its walls during raids.
There were a lot of people about and I asked if we would be able to stop and go for a visit. There was a church service on with the priests waving an incense ‘ball’ and saying the liturgy. At the end they held a book which those participating came up and kissed. My driver and the others lighted candles-hopefully they were praying for safe travels amongst others! The Armenian church is ‘Apostolic’ and was founded in 301 A.D., so has a very long history.
The monastery includes the monument “Gavazan”, erected in 904, which is a unique work of Armenian architectural and engineering art. This is a octahedral pillar, built of small stones; eight meters tall, it is crowned with an ornamented cornice. As a result of seismic tremors, and even at a mere touch of human hand, the pillar, tilts and then returns to the initial position. It is said that it is so sensitive that the locals used it to warn of impending attacks: when it vibrated the bell was rung and they fled inside the walls. Apologies for the poor photo: the sun was in the wrong direction. My driver called a friend who spoke English and who gave me some additional background to the monastery. Apparently, it was built on the site of a pagan temple-as many of the Armenian monasteries were.
There were a lot of tourists visiting the site, including someone wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball hat! When I said they were American I was corrected: Armenian-American. There is a very large diaspora, many of which live in America. In fact, some 25% of Armenia’s GDP comes in the form of remittances from overseas Armenians (it used to be 33%). A lot of improvements in Yerevan to the roads and facilities are paid entirely by overseas Armenian foundations.
After the Tatev Monastery the road descends 500 m over a distance of 6 km to the valley where the “Devil’s Bridge” is located. This is a natural bridge about 30 m long and 50-60 m wide. It was formed from warm mineral waters and sediments of calcium salts. This is a World Wild Life Fund supported site where they are working to ensure sustainable tourism. There were again many people out for the day, having picnics. My driver even met someone he knew.
The trip continued until we eventually reached the end of the road. It is clear that the H45 road would benefit from upgrading, but it would be very expensive given the terrain. We will need to carefully consider the options/implications of upgrading the M2 and making smaller improvements to the H45. It’s important that the funds are used as effectively as possible.
We had an uneventful drive back to Yerevan. Lis called on my cell phone as we were passing Mt. Ararat and it was great to chat with here. The only other excitement was us passing a group of foreign cyclists heading from Yerevan towards Goris! One of them even had a folding bike with 20″ wheels. So I am not the only crazy foreigner cycling in Armenia …