Intermission (or maybe Intramission?)

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May 27th 2014
Published: May 27th 2014
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We rolled up the green valley out of Akhaltsikhe and gently back into the steppe. As we climbed, we began to get the sense that we were already in Armenia. Most of the towns in the Javakheti region are inhabited by Armenians and this becomes more so the case as one nears the border post at Bavra. In contrast to the Georgians we met in our first days across the border, the Armenians we were meeting showed a mastery of the Russian language and it was a delight to chat with a dialect that we could largely understand. As we interacted with person after friendly person we began to "warm up" in the language and the wide vocabulary of our counterparts allowed them to get points across to us when we could not initially understand. We were also delighted to partake in another field the Armenians have mastered: coffee.

The bridges between Turkish and Armenian culture are many, and coffee is no exception. As in Turkey, Armenian coffee drinkers grind their beans fresh and fine, allowing the sediment to settle to the bottom. One shopkeep treated us to a rich cup and then gifted us with enough Ugandan arabica to get us through our three day ride to Yerevan. It seemed that as we climbed higher back up to the plateaus of eastern Anatolia, the people got sweeter and the coffee got richer! Not surprisingly, the commerce between Turkey and Armenia is brisk and we could see the evidence of this along our route; the most direct road between the two "enemy" states. Every other truck was a Turkish commercial vehicle and several busses a day passed us, packed to the gills, with "Yerevan, Istanbul, Yerevan" (or the cyrillic equivilent) written on the front. The border may be closed but, with the help of Georgia's juxtaposition, commerce is decidedy open. As we began to look over menus and market products it became clear that the two languages shared quite a bit of vocabulary. Whatever we did not know from Russian, we had picked up from Turkish and many of the foods we ordered were identical to what we had enjoyed in Turkey.

Crossing the border into Armenia put us into one of the poorest places we have seen so far in the CIS. Soviet infrastructure is out there in various states of dilapidation all over Eurasia but these villages were some of the most downtrodden we have rolled through, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia included. The border guards had a great sense of humor and we hung out there for a bit as our visas cleared, chatting about the current situation in Ukraine. Armenia has a tight relationship with Russia despite the desire of many (mostly well-to-do) Armenians to draw more close to western powers. Love it or hate it, the fact remains that Armenia is quite dependent on the Russian Federation. Many Armenians make their living in Russia, or from remittances sent from diaspora relatives working there (and in the US, as well as many other wealthier nations), Russia provides a large portion of Armenia's border patrol, and it was probably Russia that provented the absolute implosion of the tiny, enemy-surrounded nation state on several occasions in the last century. Many young people like to complain of this old relationship but, as in Georgia, and other old satelites of the USSR, they complain in Russian.

Our first big town was the archaicly cemented soviet city of Gyumri. The town had a stellar history and many old architectural elements to accompany it until one day in 1988 when an earthquake nearly leveled the place. The old people's square has been mostly restored and much reconstruction has developed in the 25 years since, but the city still suffers from a depressed economy, and a forlorn feel. At a kebap shop on the outskirts of town, a group of men treated us to fruit drinks and asked us what we made of their town. We had expected less and, actually, we told them that their home city (where the Soviet-brokered treaty of Aleksandrople deliniated the modern Armenian/Turkish border) seemed like it was coming up in many ways. They were politely accepting of our compliments but they returned a good dose of reality to our positivist assertions. Pointing out that unemployment in Gyumri is higher than 25% and huge sections of the city may never be rebuilt, they laid out a truth that we had heard about the "Aleksandrople" of old: the life of the city basically came to a screeching halt in 1988, and began running in reverse after the Soviet collapse of 1991. None the less, we were delighted with the honesty and kindly nature of our hosts. They reminded us that, somehow, a bleak outlook can accompany a positive attitude, especially in a place this far east. We were also in many ways comforted with the sight of a classic soviet city plan. We were not sure if Maggie would get to experience such a layout before her return to Turkey. Of course, we had yet to experience Yerevan....

Several days of blasting winds, freezing rain, and cyclonic cells that pegged us with centimeter+ hailstones brought us into the famous capital of Armenia. Brandy distilleries filled the skyline as we found our way into the old city; dodging into a chic cafe just in time to avoid another downpour. Armenia, like so many other countries in this world, has a distinct contrast between the villages and the city. In the country people are happy to have the threads on their backs. They served us the last of their coffee and curiously chatted with us as they smiled from ear to ear. In Yerevan, folks fancy themselves something quite special. They hit us with disgusted glances as they marched by in their overpriced outfits. It is another one of those places where how much money one spends on an outfit is important, especially if you are driving around in a suped up Mercedes that coud no longer pass emissions in Germany. But for all of it's (perhaps undue) glitze and wannabe mentality, Yerevan is a pleasant city. The density of cafes would rival any western city and, much like southern europe, hordes of people seem intent on spending as many hours of the day in these establishments as possible. We happily joined them for cup after cup of tasty espresso, along with every treat from tiramisu (not even half as good as David's), to fried ice cream. We also sampled a few of the city's famous cognacs, along with more cake and another shot of espresso.

Our arrival in Yerevan was cotingent with a visit from the French president who was there to share accolades on the opening of the country's first Carrefour department store. French flags were everywhere and we had a front seat view of the procession of somewhat important people from (of course) a cafe. Armenia, like so many other countries, takes great pleasure in celebrating such historic moments as the opening of a French version of Walmart. These changes seem like a step forward; not only in spending power, but in proximity to western economies
and interests. Much of this was brought to light for us by our Warm Showers host Avrora, a smart Bulgarian working for a French development firm. A vetern of a trans-US tour, and a newcomer to Yerevan, she was excited to have us and we were honored to be her first guests in a new flat. We hoofed our bikes up a dozen flights of stairs to the landing in front of her apartment. The door opened to a world that seemed as absolutlely defiant to the rotting concrete building as a pearl is to the crusty shell of an oyster. Such renovations are common in these old cities where a rising middle class is creating a new demand for goods and services above the old, delapidated norm. We took full advantage of her very warm shower and her penchant for creating giant salads. Anatolians know how to make a sculpture of meat but nothing tastes like home quite like a big bowl of salad. Also homey were Avi's stories about her years at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and her bike tour from there out to Portland, OR. We have never ridden from coast to coast in our own nation and it was revealing to hear the understanding of American culture formed through such a journey with a perspective much different than our own. It gave us cause to consider our own perspective as we take in glimpses of cultures and landscapes along our travels.

After a few days of ambling about in the tidy old city of Yerevan, it was time to climb back up onto the highlands and head east. On the edge of town we stopped to chat with a policeman on a motorcycle. He asked us a common question: Have you visited our most important museum, the museum of the Armenian genocide?" We tried to visit the museum first and formost on our arrival in Yerevan but found it closed for renovations. A small, temporary exibit of post cards stood in it's place. Many of the cards were well made and depicted the evils of a Turkish insurgancy driven by Habsburg and German hands to commit bloody murder against the Armenians, and concurrently steal their homeland. The policeman was surprised to hear that the museum was closed. It is the crowning piece of history that many Armenians want to share with the world; the fact that in the grim days leading up to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, a large group of Armenians were marched off to their deaths in eastern Anatolia, and their homeland stolen by the modern Turks. The Turkish government has yet to own up to what Armenians call the "first genocide of the twentieth century" and recent half hearted statements by Turkish heirarchy are not likely to sooth this in any way. It was a huge tragedy either way, and the aftermath is burned deeply into the psyche of modern Armenia, but we were a bit troubled by this obsession. In a city so full of nice parks, interesting museums, and a new sculpture park of amazing proportions, the "never forget" air that surrounds the idea of the genocide seems a bit stale. Next year will mark the centennial of the massacre and the city is gearing up for the "festivities" that will mark the date. It is not our business really, and Armenia seems to moving on in the younger generations, but basing so much of a sense of history on the constant reminder historical oppression seems assinign. One might even dare to say that this
attitude has fanned many of the flames that burn between the country and it's neighbors today.

But to the outsider on a bike it is all for naught. The policeman, in pure Armenian super-hospitable form, blocked the intersection for us to pass and up and out of Yerevan we went. We had hoped to make it well down the west shore of Lake Sevan by evening but we stopped to have a snack by the north shore...which led to a full fledged russian conversation...which led to the drinking fo many bottles of vodka...which lead to expressions of eternal fraternity and unity in the eyes of god almighty...which led to three people riding out for a campsite in the highest state of drunkeness possible while still retaining cognisance of the experiance! We found a nice site though, where we laughed hysterically at our good fortune, skipped stones across the still waters of lake Sevan, and fell fast asleep in a flat patch of grass.

In the three days that followed we vigilantly avoided talking with anyone who might get us drunk and rode some long days around the lake and north to Georgia. Going further south in Armenia meant tampering with border regions that could endanger the usefullness of our passports in other countries in the region, followed with a massive amount of backtracking. Little Armenia is a world all of it's own and we will probably be back, so long as it is not swallowed by it's neighbors. This woud be unlikely however, given the Armenian ability to develope relations with powerful nations. With luck, and time, hopefully they will heal their scars and continue to move forward.

Our last day of riding as a team of three brought us down from the highlands of Armenia, across the Georgian border, and into the dusty capital of Tbilisi. It was a letdown of a city after a few days along the shores of Lake Sevan but we needed a place to stash our bikes for a little vacation from the tour. We found a friendly hostel full of kittens and bought our tickets for the mountains. Maggie headed off for coastal Batumi on her way back to Turkey and we said our goodbyes. We later learned that train officials tried to block her from putting her bike on the wagon, but some nice fake tears won them over. Off she went for a solo adventure, and off we went to the Caucasus.

We spent a few days in the village of Mestia taking walks and resetting our minds in the face of a coming change of pace. In 2010 we were a mere 20 km from the Svanetian region when we were on Mt. Elbrus in Russia. At that time the border was closed and we could only wonder about what Svaneti might hold. We found a piece of Georgian culture all it's own and a friendly family in whose yard we set up our camp. The snows were still melting off of higher trails as we made our walks and daily rain kept us wet, but Svaneti really turned on the beauty. Everywhere we went we were rewarded with astounding views of craggy, alpine peaks hovering over lush, green valleys. The patriarch of our base camp was a guide in Soviet times and had a cool, measured attitude about the face of developement in the region and plans to develop a massive ski resort in the region. When we returned from town one night completely put out with several idiotic politicians (ostensibly responsible for the massive resort-to-be) he brought us back to reality with his simple thoughts and a few Bob Dylan quotes. It was all too typical to encounter a group of educated fools with their crazed, drunken nationalism; flaunting their rediculous insight about the future of Svaneti as a world class ski destination (a region that has a very irregular snowpack and is a thousand kilometers from anywhere), coupled with their admonishment that we accept orthodox, and the inane promise that "no gay people live in Georgia". Their English was terrible and their Russian worse. As we sat around that night in a cabin sipping beer and eating meat pies with a fluently trilingual old man with almost no formal education, we had no question where our loyalties lie and where our roots will always be. On the night before we left the Caucasus, before the backdrop of a massive headwall, we chatted with two friendly chaps from London. They asked us where we lived and we gave the usual response; California. When they asked us which city we told them that we live in a place called Lake Tahoe. One of them threw his head back and laughing said: "I hear that place
is pretty much paradise!". "Yep", we replied. "Pretty Much".

Tonight we will leave it all behind and head out into a part of this journey that is in every sense a "different trip". Our flight to Kazakhstan takes us over Azerbaijan (with their ridiculous and expensive visa regime) to the shores of the Caspian Sea. From there we will ride out across the Karikolpakiston desert and across Uzbekistan to Bishkek. It feels strange to be leaving a land of eternal spring for the bleakness of the desert but this intermission in Georgia has served us well. Georgians are hospitable, if a bit confused about their identity, and Svaneti is high on our list for a mountain trip. With our bikes wrapped in plastic vis, we will board a plane to a totally new world tonight, and with it comes new opportunities to commune with old friends. So out there across the great steppes of Eurasia we go again. When the sun burns us, and the dust blows in our face, and the food is hard to chew, we will know that on the other side there are vegetables, fed by the snows that flow from mountains. We are always riding home.

Additional photos below
Photos: 58, Displayed: 33


On bus in YerevanOn bus in Yerevan
On bus in Yerevan

We've seen this on city buses in Kyrgyzstan as well

27th May 2014

Looks like an amazing adventure!
You two are inspiring... what a life you are living! So full of adventure and good will traveling out there in the big, wide world. Stay safe and healthy. Let's hope that this next year's skate ski season has a little bit more snow. Wishing you all the best, Heather (and John) Segale
27th May 2014
Doggie friend with glacier

A perfect photo
Now that is adorable.
28th May 2014

great post
Chad/Allison, Love to hear about your adventure and learn about the people and places you are fortunate enough to experience. Great pics too! Love, Ric

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