Debed Canyon

My days in energetic Tibilsi coincided with the city's annual independence celebration and thus necessitated greater than even usual Georgian alcohol consumption. Vague recollections of drunken horsemen clattering up cobbled streets filled with festive Georgians like some Tolstoyan nightmare bubbled up as I awoke hungover.

I'd enjoyed my time in the city in an aimless way: Meeting a trio of Anglo-Australians driving from Tokyo to South Africa via London, ineptly wooing a pretty Georgian girl named for their warrior queen regent and eating outrageous quantities of khachapuri and dumplings.

At first light, having had my fill, I fled the capital which I have failed utterly to document. Leaving behind its steep valley setting, hilariously bad luminous Eiffel tower rip off and sulphur springs,

The good.

The bad

A crisp sunny autumnal morning greeted me as I followed the course of the Kura heading due south.

It was nice to be back in the saddle on quiet well paved roads with no distractions beyond the ever rising mountains blooming on the horizon.

The original 80k to the border fell away smoothly and by early afternoon I had entered the nineteenth country of the tour so far.

For no reason I can explain Armenia had been tantalising my imagination from the moment I first sat in The Carpenters, my beloved ex-local, looking at google maps and exclaiming "you could go east for a long way on a bicycle without hitting sea!" Indeed I had eschewed the direct route from Turkey to Iran just so that I could see this evocative, mountainous land for myself.

I owed the swell time I had enjoyed in Georgia to the beset nature of modern Armenian international relations which has left the Armenian-Turkish border stubbornly closed since 1993.

But Armenia's geopolitical hand hasn't always been a bum one. At it's zenith Armenia was a regional colossus; huge and glorious stretching from Caspian to Mediterranean.

And just look how glorious!

These two visions of utmost regality, quite apart from modelling the most fetching crowns imaginable, are Artaxias I (of the excellent beard) and Tigranes the Great. Arguably the two most prominent warrior kings of Armenian antiquity.

But before I could begin delving into the marks that history had left I had to find a place to stop for the night.

Although not before enjoying the beautiful lush surrounds of the valley's lower course.

Camping spots were in short supply in the narrow valley with that flat ground which did exist given over to cultivation.

Having followed a few dirt tracks only to be confronted by aggressive farmers dogs keen to make clear my unwantedness I investigated an abandoned church. Peering through the locked gate at the invitingly secluded patch of grass a car pulled out of the driveway next door. Rumbled, I adopting my usual strategy of overly polite bumbling foreigner and strolled over to charade my desire to put up a tent there.

After a few moments of mutual incomprehension I was beckoned down the adjacent driveway - I wanted nothing so much as a quiet place to enjoy some solitude after my days in the city but it wasn't to be.

Rather than a back way to the church the path led to something between a knackers yard and quarry.

Full of intriguing pulleys, grinders, confused and noisy dogs and assorted incomprehensible machinery.

As it turned out it was a stonemasons and I was being offered the use of their office sofa.

Said sofa.

It wasn't quite the beautiful natural surrounding I had sought but the warm welcome made it impossible to say no.

A few cigarettes and a cup of coffee with Erdic and his colleagues was accompanied by well intentioned efforts by all parties to make themselves understood Despite mutual incomprehensibility we passed the time pleasantly enough before I was left to spend the night warm and dry snuggled under countless blankets.

The lack of a toilet posed a slight midnight dilemma but nothing that wouldn't wait until morning...

The Armenian's that I would go on to speak to are proud of their nations antiquity. Especially in relation to their upstart neighbors the Azerbaijanis. Perhaps the key source of this pride is Armenia's claim to be the world's first Christian nation.

Bartholomew and Thaddeus evangelised there in the first century AD and after a couple of centuries of practicing in secret under Zoroastrian yoke Christianity became the state religion in 301. That has left plenty of time for it to leave a mark and nowhere more so than the Deber Canyon which boasts not one but two Monasteries with UNESCO World Heritage status.

Excited I began the climb up the steep valley sides towards Haghpat. Unusually the monastery.

At this point I succeeded in deleting this blog so please forgive an abreviated rehash.

I was very pleased to find that the humility of the medieval monks meant the monestary is situated about half way up the valley side rather than at the top so as not to challenge god.

I was equally pleased by modern day Armenia's generosity when I found entry to be free. [Stonehenge take note] My complete lack of Drams meant I'd spent the climb imagining scenarios where I would be forced to sneak over a wall/ bribe a security guard with the walnuts I had collected that morning etc.

Haghput is not one large church building as I'd imagined but rather a compund containing a number of intriguing structures.

The monastry and it's rival Sahahin were centres of learning and these holes were where books and scrolls were kept.

The rivalry as each attempted to one up the other is preserved in the beautiful architecture.

Examples of the Khatchkars for which Armenia is famed.

Each corner I  turned in the quiet churchyard yeirlded up further intriguing buildings with atmospheric interiors.

As a bus load of French tourists arrived to intrude on my selfish solitude I beat a retreat although not before enjoying the view.

There's something about table top valley sides that I find most pleasing even when you do have to ignore the electricity cables.

The descent back to the main highway which I had laboured up was predicatbly quick and soon I passed Alaverdi a small town dominated by its chemical plant.

Not perhaps traditionally beutiful but undeniably striking and with not a little of Mount Doom about it.

Next I decided to go and investigate the monastry at Kobyr rather than the more illustrious Sahahin. The town boasts nothing so grand as a road and so leaving my bike at the bottom I began to pick my way up the hillside. I helped an ancient woman heading home with her shopping who had no business being anywhere near such gradients but nevertheless dealt with them with admirable stoicism and rewarded my assistance with a point in the right direction.

Five minutes more of following a path with a disconcerting habit of disapearing I emerged at the deserted ruins of the old monastry; covered in scaffolding which looked like it had been there almost as long as the monastry.

Peaking out from behind were some fine frescos  but I was beginning to feel like the reward was a little out of balance with the effort required.

All such thoughts were entirely dispelled when I happened upon this glorious promentory offering sublime views up the valley while eagles circled above.

Naturally I lingered having a spot of tea and a biscuit or three, reading and generally feeling very fortunate.

Eventually I tore myself away determined to find somewhere good to camp that evening.

The Canyon continued to throw up views which stopped me in my tracks.

I eventually found a spot which fit the bill hidden behind a disused railway siding where I cooked up a storm of pasta and tomato paste which I ate greedily with legs swinging off the old railway bridge.

I awoke to a hard frost and some lightly falling snow of which I had been entirely oblivious snug as a bug in my tent.

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