Uncovering Soviet relics | Bike touring Southern Armenia

Uncovering Soviet relics | Bike touring Southern Armenia

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Welcome back to our Amazing World Bike Tour! After well over 7000 kms of cycling we reached the southeast of Armenia, a small country in the Southern Caucasus and this time we’re aiming high! We are on our way from Goris to Meghri, just shy of the Iranian border, about 150 kms away. With one mountain pass after another it's literally only going up and down. Doing this at the back end of winter is not ideal, but we just couldn't stay inside any longer.

We also plan to cycle at extreme altitudes a couple of months down the road, making this the perfect challenge to see how we deal with freezing temperatures and steep mountains. On top of this, while Armenia is my home country I’ve never been this far in the south before. So, join us as we cycle breathtaking roads, explore relics of the long gone Soviet times, and even get an adorable travel companion along the way. OMG. Can we even pass there? There is an old airfield.

I hope we can get through. Oh, wow! Is this supposed to be the road on the left? No, no! F***, Sh**! Oh, come on! From there you go to the left... Good bye! Thank you! Come have a coffee… Sorry? Let me invite you for a coffee… Coffee… Ah, thanks! What's up? Oh, your wheel isn't turning anymore... It is an unused airfield, but very close to the border with Azerbaijan, so we were not allowed to film, but of course we got a hot coffee.

While this was a dead end, the soldiers pointed us in the right direction. We had the slight hope that we could use the “Wings of Tatev”. It’s an aerial tramway. Apparently the longest in the world.

But they are not open for the winter and still not open. They will open in five days. We’re just a tiny little bit too early. This means we’ll have to go all the way down the valley and then up again. And it looks pretty steep. Let’s see how this goes.

They are testing the gondolas, doing maintenance and so on. Behind us you can just see it going. This is so mean! Just going there empty! Come on! Now I can see the road we have to climb tomorrow. Very nice, steep, and beautiful. So we have to start down there and climb up to the top of the mountain. We found this place. It’s almost flat.

Also we adopted a dog. He is a stray dog and he is defending us pretty loudly. There was a shepherd going up here and he got super scared, but we can’t tell the dog to stop, because he is not our dog.

So we’re safe here. That’s good! Our good friend here “defended” us the whole night barking every five minutes. It was really loud. And now he wants us to feed him and we don’t have any more food.

Oh, I’m so sorry. I can give you more water. You can have more water.

We’re at the lowest point of the road and have a 6km long climb ahead. It’s above 10% average incline. Which will be a lot of fun today, right?! I’m happy! This is my happy face! Once you’re down in that gorge the only way out is climbing this impressive series of switchbacks. Perfect for breakfast! Ah, take a deep breath! There is nothing better than the smell of burnt clutch and brakes in the morning. It is amazing here! Just to give you an idea how steep it really is.

This truck is empty, because he is going to Iran and that’s its speed. Behind that mountain he started following us all the way down, stayed with us the whole night, kept us awake and now he followed us up this mountain. Actually the climb wasn’t too bad. When we reach Tatev at 1530 metres the clouds are heavy and we make it to a homestay just before it starts raining through the whole afternoon and night. The sun is shining, but it’s very chilly, it’s very cold.

We spent the night in the local B&B and now we are going to see the famous and beautiful monastery of Tatev. Our friend is back. Oh no! Holy moly! The dog is like “hey, guys, I’m back!” Yesterday we were so mean. We went to our B&B and closed the gate and hoped that he would find new friends.

I wonder how far he will follow us. The rise of the famous Tatev Monastery began in the 9th century with the construction of a new church in 848. By the early 11th century Tatev hosted around 1,000 monks. In 1044, armed forces of the neighbouring emirates destroyed the St. Gregory Church

and its surrounding buildings, which were reconstructed soon after. Over the following centuries the monastery suffered a whole series of destruction and looting during multiple invasions by Seljuk Turks, Timurids, and Persians, being rebuilt every single time. This went on until the Russian Empire took control of the Southern Caucasus in the 1800s. The monastery was also badly damaged by several earthquakes, and since the last one in 1931 it’s missing its bell tower. Tatev is one of the best-known monasteries of Armenia today, not least because of its magnificent location. If you should ever make it here, consider taking a ride with the Wings of Tatev.

Next we want to reach Kapan, the biggest city of the Syunik province. Obviously that involves more switchbacks. These nice gentlemen just invited us for a coffee. I think they have a problem with their car. It’s a pretty old one.

Maybe you can help me with the model. We did about 6 kms in the last three hours. But we are almost at the top. Vorotan Pass. And our friend is obviously still here.

Day number 3! These two dogs don't like our dog. This will be interesting now. We’ll try to pass them without them killing our doggy. Right, bro? Okay, come with me! I think after this little encounter with the other dogs, he will follow us forever.

I’m so sorry. Now it goes downhill and we’ll be so much faster than you. I think he will come, he will reach us. We’re at the highest point today, around 2000 metres of altitude.

The landscape here is just amazing. The clouds are huge, everything is rough, the roads are just up and down. We don’t understand how this dog got so attached to us, but the feelings are likewise. The problem is that we will leave Armenia in a few weeks and there is no way for us to take him with us.

On the last descent we lost sight of him for a couple of minutes but he caught up with us eventually as the road started to climb again. We have another dog here. They might pick a fight. It looks fine... I had high hopes that we would not have to do this climb, but looking at this road with this sign, I’ll probably take the climb. This one is particularly steep.

I think it's short and steep. Yeah, I think it’s another 1,5 kms, but it’s pretty steep. We cycle 100 metres, take a break. Unfortunately I don’t know what to do with the dog.

I can’t hit him or something. So eventually he'll not be able to keep up, because now we’ll outrun him for sure. I hope he is not going to get hit by a car while trying to chase us. Ok, here we go! He stayed with us for 3 days and we will betray his loyalty the third time now.

There is no way that he can keep up with us on this 22 kms long 1000 metre perfect descent. On other days we would feel pure joy, but as we are leaving our furry travel companion behind, we are a bit sad. Oh no, no, no…. Oh my gosh. They all panic! We just entered Kapan, which is deep inside the Syunik region in the south of Armenia.

I’m quite glad that we made it that day, as I feel exhausted and need a rest day. These days Kapan is still struggling to cope with the realities of the post-Karabakh war and post-Soviet era. However, there are signs of growth and development, especially in the tourism sector, as the surrounding mountains offer great hiking opportunities. With the history of being part of the Soviet Union for about 70 years, it’s quite obvious that in Armenia you run into relics of the Soviet times. I’m sitting here in the ferry’s wheel of the Kapan amusement park, which has seen better times. Made in the USSR.

We are in the “LUYS” factory. “Luys'' means light. "We shouldn't invent what we want, but what the industry needs."

“Mаster, show the workers the safe working methods.” And there is another one ... Oh, what is this? What?! So it's... Let me see... It show's the different types of lights I guess.

Have a look... Yeah... Well, interesting. “Learn constantly."

"And once you can do it yourself, teach the others.” This is a very socialist idea. It says: ... “Working for the society, you work for yourself.” Smoking is strictly forbidden, In reality however things worked quite differently during the Soviet rule.

The general measure of a job well done was the fulfilment of quotas, as in reaching the production targets set by party functionaries in Moscow. Managing a factory was a delicate balancing act. Deliver too little, and it could mean penal camp for the local functionairy. On the other hand over-fulfilment was also undesirable, and hardly ever achieved, as increased efficiency and or quality did not benefit anyone directly. The income was fixed and higher positions often assumed through cronyism or outright corruption.

Thus there was barely any incentive to perform better on a personal level. On the contrary, over-fulfilment was rather risky for the man in charge, as this led to an upward adjustment of targets. If a bad year followed, there was again the threat of, you guessed it, gulag. There are countless more examples of how the twisted logic of the Soviet command economy, combined with a ruthless, autocratic and corrupt leadership, led to bad working morale, and a generally laughable sense of quality.

If it doesn’t fall apart immediately it’s good enough! Passed down over the generations this is still a noticeable problem in former Soviet societies like Armenia, even 35 years later. We rested two days in Kapan. I was a little under the weather, with sort of a cold.

Now I’m much better, because we stayed another day. So we are fresh and it’s good, because today we have to go up all day long. It’s the last pass before Meghri. We’ll need to go up a total of 2000m of elevation.

We’ll not do in one day. It is too much. We’ll do it in two days. So we’ll see how far we go today. The final ascent before the Iranian border begins in Kapan. It is 38 kms all the way to the top and the landscape looks pretty rough.

After a harsh winter everything is dry and barren. Coming spring and with it rainfall in a few weeks these landscapes will briefly turn green, but even now there is a lot of life around us. Behind these massive mountains, lay the Shikahogh State Reserve and the Arevik National park, home to about 1,100 species of plants, many of them endangered.

Their fauna has not been fully explored, but studies have already revealed rare species of animals such as leopard, wild goat, bear, snowcock, viper, and hedgehog. Speaking of animals: We miss our trusty companion. Although, it was probably better to lose him instead of luring him even further away. The last couple of days when I heard a dog barking I would go look for him on the street.

How likely is this?! Another cyclist at this time of the year. We did not expect this. And another dog… During our lunch break Manel from Catalonia in Spain caught up with us and we have another dog. Amazing! This is insane. 10% average. It’s insane. Holy moly! Let’s train here for the Pamirs.

There is no water! What? Are you kidding me?! Unfortunately there was no water to be found. All the fountains were dry, so… probably no pasta today, or we find enough snow. We’re at 2200 metres now.

Much higher than we anticipated. But the first place we wanted to put our tent was was very muddy. Also we don’t have water.

Eventually we did find a place for our tents. This is the highest altitude we’ve stayed a night yet. In a couple of months we want to ride the iconic Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, which for most of the way is twice as high up.

This was a cold night indeed, but we managed and are rewarded with this beautiful view in return. Morning! It’s 1pm already and we still have no water. We asked a lorry driver yesterday in the evening and he gave us some, but again we are out of water.

Now we have to climb the Meghri Pass. Maybe we will eat some snow… Enough? *Persian* Enough! *Persian* Really great! You can always bet on lorry drivers. They will always stop and help you. We see countless Iranian trucks these days. No wonder, as the M2 is the only road connecting Armenia with Iran. Manel got the visa, but we did not apply for it.

Due to the massive protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, through the hands of the so called "moral police" of Iran, and the following brutal backslash of the government, we decided to skip Iran for now. It was a difficult decision that we had taken a couple months ago, during the bloodiest phase, when our contacts in the country told us that it wasn’t a good time. We made it! Woohoo! We made it! So, this is Meghri Pass! 2535m altitude. It’s pretty cold. Right now we are preparing for the descent, because here at 2500m it’s brutally cold and going down with the wind it’ll be even colder. So we put on everything we have, all layers, and the winter gloves.

I still have some more clothes to put on. The mountains in the back or in the front are Iran. We are right at the border to Iran. They have a very very serious border fence here and there is a river.

We will not cross, Manel will cross tomorrow and we will return to Yerevan. Now we’re trying to find a place where we can spend the night. Time to say goodbye. We had a pleasant night. Manel looks as fresh as ever, because he will cross the border to Iran today.

Arev and I will head this way and try to check out an abandoned place. We’re a little sad that we cannot go to Iran, because we don’t have a visa. It was a pleasure. All the best! Before we hitchhike back to Yerevan and prepare for Central Asia there was one more thing I wanted to see for a while. Another lost place from the Soviet times not far from here. Unfortunately on the road is a checkpoint and the soldiers are terribly sorry, but not allowed to let anyone pass who is not a local or doesn’t have a special permit.

Instead they advise us to visit the grandpa across the street. I’m fairly pissed, but remember that we wanted to go with the flow. Georgi, or grandpa Zhora, was born in Meghri but had worked in Russia all his life.

He still has a wife and kids there, but over all these years his dream to come back to his hometown did not vanish. When he retired he bought a barren patch of land, overlooking the Aras river that marks Armenia's border with Iran and created this little paradise. He has a friend over there, Mohammad. When Mohammad is working his fields just 100 metres away they both wave and shout at each other. Soon Zhora wants to cross over to Iran for the first time in his life and visit him. The shores of Mother Araqs.

Arev, film that beautiful rocks. I'm watering the grass, Mathias. Shall I water Arev? After spending a lovely afternoon with grandpa Zhora it is way too late for hitchhiking back to Yerevan. Instead we cycle back to Meghri, where we want to buy some food and look for a place for our tent. Tigran is taking us to Shvanidzor.

It's another village close to Meghri. We are going to visit the cultural house there. We didn’t have the hope that we could do that today, but we met him. Cultural palace, house, what should I call… It was maybe the first one in the region.

It’s a very old building, but it needs renovation. See what kind of wall painting it has. They were made in the sixties, but are still well preserved. There were tables in this room. Our grandparents, parents... there was no free space here. They would queue up to play backgammon or checkers.

I was a kid and I can still remember how the villagers would come, borrow books, read… My dad read the books of this library at least three times. Now there is no library anymore. Please, welcome.

It was a marvellous master! See what kind of decoration he did back then. Can you imagine it when it was new? Oh, it got destroyed. There was a cinema here before.

Cinema, gatherings, meetings… Our cultural palace… you can call it a palace. Have a look! What a marvel! Concert and theatre groups came from Yerevan, and entertained people. Life was happy.

The film screenings...There were student films for 5 coins. I remember children would shout out “Student film, student film”. In this village we only have a water problem. But it will be solved. It’s not including big expanses.

It's fine, thank god! Ifthere be peace in the country, everything else will be fine. I think so. Let’s go… I want some pomegranates, do you have any? And dried persimmon? No! Is there no dried persimmon in the village? Morning! We are still at the border to Iran in Meghri. We stayed here longer than expected, because we kept on running into really nice people. Last night we stayed down there and now we are on the road and are trying to find someone who will take us back towards Yerevan.

In the meantime we also changed our position. We are going this way, so instead of hitching before the town, we are now behind it, which makes more sense. But it will be difficult, because all the trucks we see come from Iran and they go pretty much empty in that direction and full in the other direction. So it’s hard to tell if we’ll be successful. Hello. Hello.

Where are you headed? Where do you want to go? We are going towards Yerevan. Bring the bikes. Nothing will fall down? No! Ok! Then you come and sit. Come and sit already, so I can see. Okay, thank you! You speak Armenian. Where are you from?

I’m from Yerevan. Are you Armenian? Yes, I am Armenian. Come, come… Tell him, he shouldn’t think so much. We need to act, not think.

We didn’t think long when we stopped. Oh, thank you! Ok, let’s go! If there is anything, knock on the glass. Ok! You are not afraid of closed areas?! No! Here is water for you! We have.. No, no, this is a special water.

And you can eat this. Thanks a lot! Your name? Tadevos. If you are uncomfortable, you can come sit next to me. Thanks a lot! Oh, this is amazing! Just when I was ready to give up…. Is everything fine? It’s fine, fine… Just when I was ready to give up… Now it’s amazing! And they are going to Yerevan! They are going to Yerevan! This is insane! So we are going to Yerevan today, when I thought it might take 3 to 5 days.

The only sad thing is that we will not see 00the beautiful landscapes… Yeah…. But what can you do? It’s like this. We are already in Yerevan. We were shaken wildly. Arev had to throw up in the mountains.

And now she is sitting in the front, which helps a little bit. But we are almost there, which is amazing. So this concludes our Armenia, and in the next couple of weeks we will prepare for the ongoing adventure. We will book a flight to Kazakhstan and skip Iran because of the situation there. And then we'll do the silk road-continuation: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and ... we'll see. Goodbye! Almost there! They ever brought us to our district! So, we'll be home in about 20 minutes.

Join us again, when we take a bold and maybe also somewhat crazy gut decision, change our plans, enter an incredible world, and even become fairly poor multi-millionaires. We will release the next episode once this one reaches 500 likes. By now we sit on 4 Terabytes of unedited raw footage. At the release of this episode you are actually one year behind, so why is that? Editing this type of unscripted and spontaneous documentaries takes us between 1 and 2 weeks per episode, and we have already spent thousands of dollars and many months on it.

A lot of that money went into accommodation and food, but there are also electronics we have to replace, like our drone which we crashed recently in Laos, our laptop that broke and our external hard-drive which is about to fail. In the same time, one entire year of being monetized we barely made 400$ with Youtube ads. At this rate we’re not even sure if we can reach South Korea anymore, which was our minimal goal. We’re trying to squeeze as much editing into each day, while spending as little as possible, but this is not going to cut it.

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And we can tell you with confidence, the best is yet to come! Anyhow, thanks for watching! Until next time, and may the wind be in your back!

2024-04-11 04:50

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