Snow began appearing in the mountains of North West Iran. There I travelled along undulating hills and into the barren and often treeless mountains. I passed simple homes made from earth, clinging together in heaps on mountain slopes, forming a patchwork of small farms coagulating at the centre to form a small village. I imagined the fragile buildings tumbling down into the river below if a strong wind passed by, or an earthquake would rattle the foundations and reduce them to rubble but, in truth, they had probably been there for hundreds of years. The landscape was dramatic and beautiful at times cycling past simple villages, finding fresh warm Iranian bread in the mornings but, behind all that, there was a harsh reality for the people living here. Growing up in a country far removed from such hardships, I began to develop an incredible respect for these villages and people I met in passing. Winter was cold here and I was about to experience it first hand.
On the border with Armenia, my passport was stamped without any trouble. Having been through Central Asia, I was prepared to tackle just about any problem in getting a visa. A small ‘problem’ here, a few dollars there … but it was surprisingly easy. Continual conflict between Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan in recent times, but more likely stretching back for millennia, made navigating this part of the world tricky. It wasn’t possible to cross the border between Turkey and Armenia, nor between Georgia and Russia, or Armenia and Azerbaijan. So I picked a route Iran-Armenia-Georgia-Turkey, making the geopolitical passage easier. Cycling this way meant passing through a mountainous region between Armenia and Azerbaijan who are still technically at war. I heard that Russian soldiers even patrol the borders in some areas just to keep Armenia, who is wedged in the middle of larger geographical conflicts, stable.
There were signs of land mines and large barbed wire fences that ran parallel along some of the roads. In other areas, I simply wasn’t allowed to cycle having been turned back by the military check points. The road I could cycle was long and over the mountains and to be honest, looking at the terrain, I was happy there was a road at all. I remember thinking that I could have travelled along the Aras River, a slow gradient in a wide valley all the way to Turkey, but it passed through an island of Azerbaijan that was divided and isolated during war. I imagine this river used to be a easy way to transit, on and along the river for thousands of years, but now conflict made it near impossible. I had a slow puncture in one of my tubes and was lucky I could find a spare. (Tip for other cyclists: 28 x 2.0 tyres, tubes and rims are just about impossible to find anywhere outside of western countries!). I wasn’t sure if I could trust a pink Chinese tube with a valve design older than me, or if I should go with a thick, heavy tube made in the USSR.
I began making my way north through the mountains from Iran with a two thousand meter climb. It was a hard slog and each successive pass meant returning to a river thousands of meters below the pass before another slow climb to the top. It often rained in the lower valleys and snowed on the passes. In desperate need of new rain gear, I found myself wet, hot and sometimes in sweats going up the hill and cold, freezing and shivering going down. It wasn’t easy to maintain the desire to continue but I knew that, if I could just make it to the Black Sea, warmer weather would be waiting.
The scenery kept my spirits high and a friendly local gave me a bag full of persimmons when I entered Armenia to help climb the pass. Initially I refused, but he insisted and I’m glad I did because, being cold and hungry in the afternoon, I swear I’d never tasted anything so delicious and juicy in recent memory. It was like biting into a fresh and deliciously soft fig for the first time in Uzbekistan, or biting into an exploding pomegranate on a hot day through the deserts of Turkmenistan. I remember thinking, “Little fruit, where have you been all my life?” I never knew a persimmon could taste so good! It kept my spirits high and fuelled the tank for the afternoon’s climb.
Before making for Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, I had one last pass. It was a climb that just kept going. I spent the morning being cold and wet and then it began to snow. Soon I was caught in a snow storm on the top of the pass and it made the cycling difficult. All around me was white and I could only just make out 15 meters of the icy road in front. I couldn’t ride quick and had to be careful just to keep the bicycle upright. As the sun began to set, I had hoped to make it over the second part of the pass but it was getting darker and I had to find shelter soon. I’d come down from the summit where the clouds cleared a little and I could see the landscape ahead. There was nothing but white snow laden fields to camp in. I still had a long way to cycle before the next pass and rode on. I realised I was losing feeling in my feet and tried to stop for a while, jumping up and down to try and get the circulation back. For another hour I cycled, jumping off the bicycle to run around in circles and flapping my arms about. I was cold and peering out from under the hood of my inadequate completely worn out gore tex jacket looking for anywhere I could to sleep.
I came upon a village about a kilometre from the road. There was a frozen lake nearby and the place looked like it was snowed in. It was silent except for a few smoke stacks bellowing into the frigid air and some dogs barking at my presence. That’s where I needed to be, I remember thinking. I rode into the village desperate to find somewhere to sleep. After some time I knocked on the door of some locals asking for a place to stay but was refused. I didn’t want to push the point but I was really cold by now. Then I saw some locals braving the freezing conditions to venture around the village and asked for help. While I pleaded in a language beyond sound and with tired desperate eyes, I saw an abandoned building that looked good for shelter. In my thoughts I prepared for the worst. Honestly, I just wanted to stop and rest but, with people about, I wasn’t sure if it was safe. I continued to ask for help but the locals seemed uninterested. Just when I was ready to make for the abandoned building, an older man came up wondering what was going on. I pleaded with him to help while he spoke to the others. Eventually they gestured to follow and for the next half an hour I trudged through the snow and slushy mud puddles along lanes. I was taken to see various people at their houses. At each place we were directed to another before finally coming to a house where an old lady with the warmest of smiles dragged me inside the house. She gave me a change of her son’s clothes, stoked the fire, made a cup of hot tea and enjoyed watching the relief then pain come back to my feet as I dipped my feet into a tub of hot water ( … and people say angels don’t exist?).
I stayed with my adopted family for three days enjoying talking with one of the locals in broken English. I met the whole family and extended family, we shared vodka together and hot meals and I was so happy and enthusiastic about just staying warm and dry. I helped feed the cattle in the barn, learned how to cook a hearty Armenian stew, shared photos and stories of my tale and felt my strength return. On a sunny day with snow all around, I said my goodbyes to this little oasis and left the village for Yerevan.
Near the border with Turkey and Armenia, I stood in awe looking at Mount Ararat. It is still disputed as to who it belongs to but, for the moment, it is on the Turkish side. Supposedly it’s the place where Noah ran aground and it gave me a feeling of biblical proportions. This is the place that the stories of old talk about. It didn’t matter if I believed them or not; the fact was this awe inspiring mountain was before me and it felt like being engrossed by the stories of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ classic or reading with rapture Homers ‘Odyssey’. I was in the story; I was the story and I was travelling these place too! It took me out of a place where I was conditioned physically and mentally and threw me into another place, another world almost, of marvel and wonder. It was breathtaking watching this mountain, with its perfectly sleek twin peaks that were once a mighty volcano, subtly change shape as I rode by all afternoon. I was looking into Turkey.