Friday, 28 December 2012

Armenian nights

Boxing Day night, Yerevan, Armenia. A Lithuanian, a Ukranian, a Belarusian and an Englishman (like a joke yeah), late in Festive drinking and tired of a tame birthday party, decide to scale a high fence and explore an enormous, tumbledown Soviet lamp factory. The Belarusian assures us that security is minimal; he's been casing the place for weeks on the way to his human-rights course... We creep about inside finding loads of cool old machinery, dusty ledgers and cases of archaic components. There is brandy bravado and, perhaps, an element of that competitive recklessness common to young men. Soon enough voices with torches come and we scatter outside, hiding, sidling around substations to evade searching beams. Hearing dogs I make a dash for the fence a hundred yards, dodge two guards and clear the climb only to run into a punch from a third; floored, stunned and dragged to the office. A goon with a cosh locks the door and shouts at my silence for a few minutes until one by one the others are brought in. The boss comes, stern, and everybody else writes a brief statement in Russian. I write (part of) my name and instead befriend matey with bicycle stories. In broken English he insists that he never hit me; but we have a good laugh at his swollen knuckles and my big eye (perfect with the skinhead). 3am they let us go, all friends and vodka smiles. It is good to cut loose once in a while. And good to get it out of my system before Iran where I will absolutely avoid any industrial compounds... (do they read this?)

Christmas was really nice. I put a note on Couchsurfing, to the effect that I'd be in Yerevan and would prefer to be in company than my tent, and had more sociable invitations than I could manage. A traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve with baked carp and ginny jukebox bars, then a perfect sunshine 25th which I spent getting good jobs well done (camera repair; new chain/rear sprocket) and riding around to meet the international Christmas crew. Yerevan is set amongst hills with a 500 odd metre variance between districts. Nobody cycles! I had a great time testing my new drivetrain and scaring the traffic. Late yesterday morning I finally left, bearing South in ice and sunshine. Azerbaijan maintains a blockaded enclave in Southern Armenia which denies me a straightforward road to Iran; instead a convoluted series of mountain passes - another detour, but a necessary one.

It's good to see Mount Ararat from the other side. Yesterday I must've been within thirty miles of the spot where I last camped beneath it in Turkey back in October. The peaks are spectrish in these blessed bright days; little more than a thin gleam in the sky. But first thing in the morning, and again suddenly at twilight, they loom massive and definitive. Last night pitched on a frosty football pitch before the fading range - full moon rising half bottle sinking - I had such a rare, reflective contentment that when a groaning Lada parked in the goal to offer me home for the night, presumably warm, I didn't even want to accept. This morning the water bottle inside my tent was frozen solid. And it is hard, beautiful going again. I'm excited for Iran but I know I'll miss Armenia. Natural beauty, generous hospitality and ever that edge! Imagine the guard who roughs you up, threatens the truncheon then, look-how-nice-we-are, shakes your hand and fixes you a drink...

As ever, photos when I find an internet computer. Snowy mountain vistas by the dozen.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

du im akbendis

East out of Vanadzor on the Dilijan road I was hailed by a fire officer; into the station for coffee. We had a little French in common and when my former employ emerged coffee became lunch of fried belly-pork and mash with the captain popping in every few minutes to make ever more expansive and apparently obligatory vodka toasts. To me, to us, to family, to world, to God... After lunch a station tour and, finding that my bicycle had been hidden (familiar?), I felt so at home that I capitulated to overnight invitations. The celebration was raucous and alarming, with half the shift relocating to a bar across the road for beer and dancing. The only apparent concession to fitness for duty was a two hour afternoon snooze for all, from which I was roused with coffee for copious cognac, chocolate and cigars until late. Somebody dug me out some spare fire kit in case anything came up and not a word about training recency, let alone sobriety. Fortunately nothing did. The junior officer sat in my dorm all night watching soft pornography and chain smoking. I realised, in the morning, that he´d volunteered me his pit. A warming, if deeply unprofessional episode entire. The fifteen hundred metre climb to Sevan in the minus four morning, brandied sweat in my eyes, cleared my head sharp.

I stole my own thunder a little going on so about the cold last week: kids´ stuff. This week it really has been cold. Several degrees below and everything crystalizes, physically and aesthetically. A fantastic clarity of light on ice that looks well worth the chill. And without the thaw you don't have to bother with the wet; only the rime, which is easier managed. But it takes its toll after a while, the cold. Twelve or thirteen days cycling and physically I am exhausted. Neck too stiff to clear my shoulder, throat in ragged spasm. But I've been assiduous about dry feet and clean finger nails.... And it's been gorgeous out in it! I spent four days riding around Lake Sevan which is large enough to feel sea-like, and deserted in December. Hotels a picture of that retro-futuristic Soviet dereliction; beach huts all locked up. It was lovely to camp by the water, nostalgic Summer noises of water lapping to sleep with a new Winter noise of flysheet snowfall; much softer than rain. On the Eastern bank I struggled. The road here doesn't nicely follow the lakeside; instead it irritatingly cuts and rucks sharply up and down the side of the mountains that contentiously separate Armenia from Azerbaijan. It was covered in ice three days ago and I couldn't get up for wheel spins, nor down for sliding out. I walked slipping, through freezing fog, and worried about my cough and not having any dinner; that if I couldn't get a shift on I'd have a miserable night. I should've loaded up in the last town, Vardenis, but in that hungry indecision, with everybody staring and the occasional schoolboy snowball, instead I'd just ridden on. Atop a little rise I found an unfrozen tap which was a start, and there an army jeep pulled up. Commander Mikhail and Medic Artur wanted to know how they could help. The Commander called his wife, for English, and I was given bread, cheese, sausage, medicine for my throat and an Armenian military telephone to call my mum. Meanwhile a snowchained truck of soldiers was radioed for, to carry me and my bike fifteen miles over the ice to the next town. So it goes.

I am sure the irony of one countryman warning against his neighbouring countrymens' dangerously proud provincialism would not be lost on Alex, my erudite breakfast benefactor in Tbilisi. But caution me he did and I was curious to experience this proud, Armenian boogeyman. I suspect he's more apparent to his neighbours than to an Englishman. I certainly find them proud, but only in that endearing, look-how-nice-we-are! way. Hence most of my story this week is hospitality. Albeit with a little edge: be it forced cognac, uniforms and guns or, finally, the brutal cutting of all my hair by the daughter of the small household who took me in two nights ago. She was dead keen on the curls, evidently wanted to keep them all. I consented to a little trim... but once she started! A terrible, patchy shearing; I had it tidied by a Yerevan barber this morning. Fortunately my attackers' fiancĂ© was meanwhile breaking my camera, so you're spared my Christmas crewcut.

Tonight I've a hostel and Filipino friend, James. Tomorrow I'll couchsurf with ten international students. Happy Christmas!


Wake up in a Christmas card. The clouds that blocked yesterday's sunlight this morning lie all around, reflecting it back through hoary thawing pine, tenacious sea-buckthorn. Last night a fire of huge boughs beneath tall trees and half moon, a freezing waterbag shower before it, then the last of Turkish bulgur wheat; tuna fish olive oil and tomato; two bar signal and an email from each sister. Breakfast on chewy bread and salty cheese; mellowing acrid black coffee through a mouth of dark chocolate. A tangerine and toothbrush. Dig-out, de-frost and de-camp to scuffle up drifted banks onto the lakeside road.


before I was shorn