Assault by mountain.

Before leaving Goris I happened upon this diagram in the hostel guestbook written by a very thoughtful cyclist who had passed through some years earlier.

I very much approved of the clear concise format filled with helpful annotations. What it lacked aesthetically it made up for in clarity. All in all a very useful document especially it's allusion to a deserted monastery at the top of the pass before Kapan.

With the afternoon already wearing on I decided that a 15k freewheel down to the gorge bottom followed by a 10k climb was more than do-able before nightfall and would allow me to sleep at said monastery that night.

During the descent a glance at googlemaps revealed that unbeknownst I had crossed into Azerbaijan. The Armenian road now crosses a good 5k over the border. The muddied waters that constitute the Azerbaijan-Armenian frontiers following the Nagorno-Karanak war that occurred following the USSR disintegration are plenty murky. The most striking relic being the non-continuous Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan which operates semi autonomously and is bordered by Armenia and Iran with no land route to Azerbijan with a predominately ethnic Armenian population. Odd.

Note also the spaghetti-esk switchbacks of the climb south from Vorotan.

So the fact that the main highway into southern Armenia should go through Azerbaijan is perhaps not as odd as it first seems. A healthy respect for the landmines which may still be present in the area kept me on the straight and narrow

The swooping run down to the riverside village of Vorotan was a speedy delight accompanied by some classical music I conducted my way to the bottom rarely so much as touching the peddles.

But what goes down must come up and the sheer sides of the valley were sufficiently vertiginous to remind me of the equally unforgiving ascent out of Kotor Bay in Montenegro.

Fortunately it wasn't quite so high as Kotor and with the dusk approaching after a few hours hot toil I left the canyon and entered the forested hills.I quickly turned off the main road onto a dirt track which wound its way into the trees and after a kilometer or two in the gathering gloom I found my shelter for the night.

Built in the 11th Century this magnificent stone church was lost in the forested slopes for hundreds of years until an writer called Axel Bakunts stumbled upon the ruins in the 1920's while walking.

I was very pleased by his discovery and just had time before the sun disappeared to forage for some firewood to combat the cold night ahead of me.

The cavernous interior was separated into four main chambers allowing me to set up a bedroom, kitchen and lounge arrangement while the discovery of a raised fire grill in the corner meant I could have my fire and eat it... so to speak... by bringing the fire indoors without risk of scarring the churches stone floor.

Unfortunately just as the fire caught my previously discreet room mates voiced their discontent and the air was filled with the sharp cries of the numerous bats above me. Keen not to disturb them I removed my fire to the entrance doorway where the prevailing wind carried the smoke outside.

So with tea, biscuits and fire toasted bread with honey I wiled away the night reading H.P. Lovecraft as the flickering light of fire cast fearful shadows on the pre-gothic walls and bats whipped expertly around my head.

I slept like the undead.

Next morning after a very satisfactory porridge breakfast I rejoined the main road early and continued upwards towards a seemingly never arriving pass constantly teased by false tops.

Taking a rest after yet another disappointment I bumped in to a very friendly Frenchman with whom I shared the last of the climb swapping stories and route plans

Excellent beard

Before enjoying a long, delicious, downhill.

This picture does no justice to the colours this lake held for the naked eye. Every blue, vivid, greens, golds, purples and pinks all shone out as a result of algae, reflection and its shallow icey sides.

The change in scenery and climate from central to southern Armenia over the last 24 hours was palpable with the stark, dry, hills replaced by an altogether lusher, greener, wetter countryside. The snow-topped peaks the only continuity.

The descent came to an abrupt end at the unlovely mining city of Kapan. Such is the mineral wealth here that locals claim compasses can't give an accurate reading. I had little cause to test this theory as my way lay ahead up a long straight valley.

Saying farewell to my French companion who doubled back to investiagte Tatev I began to gradually rise towards Karajan as the beautiful sunny day wavered with a wind rising in the SW and whispers of cloud breaking up the blue.

Aware that Iran might pose communication problems I had been in fairly close contact with my parents/backup team in Loughton. One of the advantages had been access to accurate weather forecasts.

Warned that weather bringing even lower temperatures as well as bucket loads of rain/snow was approaching I had been hastening my way south aiming to reach the lower altitude of Meghri on the Iranian border before the storms broke.

The long sapping road to Karajaran saw me reach the bottom of the serious climbing at about 4pm. I was resolved to try and make it up and over before nightfall.

Almost as soon as I began the weather signaled it true intent. The previously sunny day was replaced in a matter of minutes by gale force winds and a dark threatening sky becoming blacker every second.

At over 2500m (according to my anonymous cyclist diagram drawer) reaching the pass was a serious endeavour and with no altimeter I wasn't sure how far I had to go.

An hours hard climbing had seen me reach the snow level but the top was still a long way off obscured by the increasing murk. The real barrier was the wind which had reached tempest proportions. As I took each left hand switchback the wind was so strong that it was literally pushing me up the severe gradient to be replaced by savage cross gusts which randomly tried to fling me off the mountain. Having a heavy bike, loaded with gear and my own not inconsiderable gravity flung towards the edge with such ease was a most disconcerting experience. Much worse was the right hand switchbacks which had me pushing the bike up hill into its teeth. Often the gusts were strong enough to entirely check my forward motion.

Naturally this did little to hasten my progress and before long the storm broke over my head with icy sleet falling hard and my numb feet and hands giving me plenty of cause to berate my fool hardiness in pushing on up this damn mountain.

Still I had no intention of turning back down and having to repeat the experience the next day and the sheer sides next to the road precluded making camp there and then so I had little choice but to continue.

This mountain had began to feel like my Caradhras, but with no Moria available as an alternative I grabbed one last picture of my nemesis in the twilight and inched forward in the darkness.

Thankfully the bend pictured ahead turned out to be the top.

Blackness descended but I had done it. The long steep descent on the other side through the heavy sleet and pitch dark with complaining brakes and insufficient lights wasn't straightforward but it was nonetheless a wonderful release for my tired body. I dropped like a stone taking an hour to cover 30k+ and descend from 2500m to something closer to 500. On a clear day it would have been exhilarating. In the dark with HGV intermittently destroying my night vision with their headlights it was white knuckle all the way.

Relief was close at hand and as the altitude dropped the temperature rose. The snow and sleet gave way to rain, then thinned before disappearing as I outran the storm while the temperature became positively balmy.

Tired but happy I rolled into Meghri just before the weather and got talking with a local shop owner who phoned a local hostel whose helpful owner came and met me so that I could follow his car to the waiting respite of a hearty dinner and gratefully received bed.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds amazing but terrifying Tom - still, one more country to add to the collection! Juliet xx