Homage to Shatalonia*

The cold morning of my third day in Armenia soon wilted and a gorgeous sunny day rapidly had me stripping-off layers. The road steepened as I closed in on the Vanadazor plateau and despite stopping to inhale the last of my provisions (bread and nutella) I wasn't making great progress.

In truth I felt tired - which was odd given I had slept like a log from 9pm-6am. Still, I was in no rush and so under the guise of letting my tent dry I gave in and stopped sometime late morning. Having stretched out my Hilliburg I promptly laid down and slept - cold floor chilling my bum while the sun warmed my face.

Waking an hour later feeling not very refreshed I loaded back up and wobbled on.

Something didn't feel right and so I pulled in at a petrol station and attempted to make use of the facilities. Nothing doing - but if the clammy sweat and stomach cramps were anything to go by that state of affairs was unlikely to persist,

Half a mile further up the road things reached their predictable climax. If the sight of a fully loaded English touring cyclist didn't attract enough attention one suddenly projectile vomiting off the bike surely would have. Blessedly there was no one around to witness this low point or indeed to knock me over as the sheer force of my convulsions sent me zigzagging across the tarmac.

Pausing to take stock I reflected that given that I still lacked any local currency and was some 20 uphill kilometers short of anything one might call a city I had little recourse but to saddle back up and carry on.

Scolding myself for being such a wet lettuce I continued on.

Very slowly.

Bar a couple of hasty disembarkments to heave guts into innocent bramble bushes and numerous more leisurely stops to continue a self pitying internal dialogue; the ride into Vanadzor was uneventful and I arrived unscathed mid afternoon.

Usually I don't mind the inevitable attention that looking a bit of a prat on a bike weighed down with bags brings but feeling less than chipper I could barely raise a smile to greet the stares.  I soon found a money changers and with cash now in hand it was decision time - find a place to stay here in Vanadzor or push on another 25k to Spitak where my friend Angie (who had hosted me Zurich) had recommended a YMCA.

Feeling more and more in need of privacy I fatefully took the decision to take a room and go straight to bed. Consulting the photocopied lonely planet (I'd swapped it for a map of Batumi in Georgia) I plumped for the first suggestion: Hotel Gugark. My first hotel of the trip.

"This pre-war soviet building... is not the nicest place around, but its cheap and central, making this a good base for budget travelers."

Sounded perfect for my modest needs. Entering the huge and imposing edifice the initial impressions weren't great. The lobby had no reception beyond a stout middle aged woman who emerged from a broom cupboard, balked at me and my bicycle, before contacting another woman who briskly escorted me to the lift and took me to the fourth floor. Too desperate to question I followed and was greeted by a no less unwelcoming sight.

The Ritz Carlton it was not. 

Entering an odd little office where a matronly woman was chatting with an army uniformed man I was informed that a room was 8000 or 12000 Dram depending on if I wanted hot water, that they would need payment upfront and that I couldn't put my bike inside. Despite my growing desperation for a bed and a toilet I insisted the bike accompany me and after turning to leave they acquiesced and escorted me to my room through what, it was becoming clear, was an all but deserted hotel.

Had I been feeling less shitty I might at this point have listened to the less than subtle signs and  bolted for the door but after a cursory look at the room I was left alone to climb gratefully into the waiting bed.

Although not before I had hauled my bike and gear up to the third floor unaided. (Avoiding the rickety lift after my experience in Thessaloiki.)

Not too shabby at first glance.

Falling immediately into a death-like slumber I awoke in the black of night shivering on sweat covered sheets. It was bloody freezing but I had more pressing matters to attend to. A desperate dash to the bathroom and an excellent ten minute impression of a double ended Vesuvius later I was back standing in my room trying to turn the heating up as my teeth chattered uncontrollably.

My attempts proved futile.

I suspect the radiator not being attached to anything may have played a role.

The lack of heating was compounded by the barely functioning window.

It wasn't so much the cracks in the pane as the bloody great gaps through which a bitter draft was whipping.

Having climbed back under the duvet, trying and failing to sleep, I gave up and tried to take advantage of my expensively bought hot water and have a shower to warm up.

Just like my radiator this proved a non starter.

Agitated, cold, ill and increasingly angry I ventured out into the hotel to demand an improvement in.... well everything. Little did I know that I was entering into a hellish half hour somewhere between the Shinning and Trainspotting.

Things began poorly as the corridor was pitch black and shuffling along the wall each light switch I encountered did precisely nothing. The creepy feeling as I inched my way down the cavernous echoing hallway was not improved but the absolute silence - broken only by the creak of the floorboards underfoot. Having followed a couple of turns I eventually reached a section with windows. The long shadows didn't improve the eerie quality much but I could at least move a bit quicker.

I happened upon the lifts but found to my dismay that you couldn't use them without a key. Despite my half hearted cries for assistance no one emerged and so I went in search of some stairs - more determined than ever to give someone a piece of my mind.

I went up a level looking for the fourth floor but was evidently on different stairs to earlier as I emerged at a different point and so set off into yet more pitch black corridor in search of the little office. It didn't take long for me to become disorientated. The, with barely any warning. I became desperately, untameably in need of the toilet. Helpless in the face of my bodies implacably urgent demands I broke into a jog as I attempted to retrace my steps to the stairwell while trying every other door I came across - all of which were either locked or, having half fallen into them, proved to be entirely empty of anything beyond gloom.

Now nothing short of frantic I succeeded in finding the stairwell and made for my room but on reaching my floor I realized that not only was I unsure of the exact direction but that the darkness made reading the room numbers impossible.


I knew I didn't have the time to methodically make my way along finding locks and trying my key. Frankly I wasn't sure I had the time to do much of anything. So instead I turned back to the stairwell and ran for  the ground floor. While I knew that there was nothing resembling a lobby surely there would be someone there who could direct me.

Fat chance.

I briefly considered running out into the street and looking for a bar or other late night establishment but having neglected to pick up my wallet, lacking the faintest clue how late it was and being  unsure of the Armenian for "can't stop, need to use your loo", I instead began trying doors.

None of the doors leading off the room that in any normal hotel would have been the lobby were open.

Blind panic began to set in and I began to considered the implications of not finding a toilet. Then out of nowhere the third door on the corridor I was advancing up opened and offered me salvation.

Disgusting, disgusting water-pooled salvation. 

The picture doesn't really do justice to how grim it was but my relief and the urgency of the situation ensured I didn't for a moment balk.

Exiting with blank stare, pallid complexion and memories of dreadful doings not unlike a Tommy emerging from the trenches of Verdun I all but bumped into the matronly woman who had ushered me up the stares into this hell hole uncountable hours earlier.

I can't be sure but her tone suggested that she began to scold me for some crime I couldn't fathom. Perhaps something in my dead-eyed expression gave her pause as she seemed to run out of steam and without a word I waggled my keys and gesturing for her to lead the way. 

We entered the lift using her key, exited on the third floor where my escourt produced a flashlight (yes a flashlight) and after a few moments of Blair Witch like wandering she succeeded in locating my room. Oh that she had been an usher leading me to my seat to watch a horror film but the horror was my hotel and I was in no condition escape into the night.

I proceeded to robotically point out that the hot water didn't work, the radiator was a mere husk and that the window was letting in a force nine gale. She nodded went to my cupboard and produced a threadbare blanket. 

Now I had seen a portable heater in the little office earlier that day and I was not to be fobbed off with a titchy and no doubt itchy blanket. Maintaining an almost saint like calm and indulging in not a little amount of polite(ish) remonstration while miming my need for a heater. Still I doubt anything would have happened but that she spotted the paracetamol on my bedside table and, re-sizing me up, seemed to take pity. Disappearing for an unquantifiable length of time she reappeared, much to her credit, with a little heater.

And so I was able to pass a restless night dashing between bed and toilet in something approaching warmth.

With the dawn my nightmare was over but tired, weak and scared to venture from my proximity to the toilet I lingered in a semi-comatose state until midday.

The prospect of another night in Hotel Gugark eventually forced me to take action and so I set off to find somewhere I could send an email (unsurprisingly there was no internet in my delightful accommodation) to the YMCA in Spitak to see if they had a bed for me. The prospect of cycling was bad enough - the possibility of being stranded on arrival was too much to face.

I even managed to take a couple of snaps of Vanadazor to prove, to myself as much as anyone else, that in spite of its hotel the city has redeeming features.

The affirmative response was blessedly swift and without a backwards glance, except to document the horror of my midnight toilet find, I got the hell out of dodge.

The cycle was not pleasant as I toiled away feeling like death warmed up but it was at least flat and on one of my frequent toilet stops I reflected that the good weather and lovely scenery provided much succour.

I rolled into Spitak some hours later and after some difficulty located the YMCA. 

Angie's tip would prove to be nothing short of a God send. 

A haven beyond all my wildest hopes 

I hadn't eaten for over 24hours (not that I had any appetite) and still had weeks of diarrhea to look forward to but the solitary horror was over and despite my best efforts to not seek medical help I would have it thrust benevolently upon me before too long. 

*Credit for the title goes to Richard Millington Esq and my utter lack of imagination.

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