Agarak to Mt Cabin 28km
To Erkenants 74km
Never, since I left PNBHS in 1969, have I had so many restrictions on my dress code, (hair must not touch your collar, you must wear your cap at all times outside the school gate, shirt tucked in, socks up....). Now I'm in Armenia(stan), I'm once again free to choose. I've chosen shorts, and the local female population have chosen tight, really tight, jeans. (Some of them shouldn't). Once again I'm astounded at the difference, crossing an arbitrary line on the ground makes. New money, easier to understand, new language, Armenian, and a brand new script to learn, as well as the dress code. Oh, and did I mention, the mountains.
For two days I've been climbing a hill. From 365m above sea level, to the Maghli Pass at 2365m, over 40km, and it was steep. For almost the whole time, I've been in Grannie gear, often wishing I had a Grannie, Grannie gear, wondering what I could ditch from my panniers or trailer to make my load lighter, and hoping that my jellied legs would support me when I stopped for a break. Probably, the most demanding cycling I've done since leaving NZ. But so worth the effort. I would look up and see a feature high above me, that indicated where the road was, a broken down truck, and then an hour later be looking way below me and seeing that truck, and the feeling was "Yes, woohoo, you beauty". And the scenery was pretty amazing as well, with Autumn colours, and mountain peaks poking through the clouds and mist.
I was sweating, lots. At 1pm, at 28km yesterday, I stopped to rest. A very loud "Hello", and an older fellah was greeting me. This was Avo. He is 74 years old, and lives in one room of a dilapidated house on the side of the mountain. He seems to be a watchman for this part of the highway. His "house" is "mended" with road junk, old road signs, canvas that's fallen off trucks, hubcaps and the like. He's wandered over to see me and chat. He pats me on the back, and realises I'm soaked to the skin. In Armenian. "Are you crazy? You're soaked. You'll end up in hospital. Chai at my house. Now." I'm pretty sure he's slightly deaf, because this is all yelled. Okay. Chai sounds good. "TAKE OFF YOUR WET CLOTHES. PUT THEM TO DRY BY THE FIRE". Okay. The chai is good. And I'm dry, and it's warm and cozy, but I need to do some more kms. "NO, YOU STAY HERE, SLEEP. NO HOTEL, NO CAMPING, VERY STEEP, WOLVES". It's not really what I want to do, but sometimes it's just easier to go with the flow.....okay.
Avo, served with the Russian military. He spent almost two years in Cuba, with Fiedel Castro, he tells me. Then nine years in Afghanistan, and two years in Pakistan, and he fought against the Azibaijan during their conflict with Armenia. It's amazing meeting and talking to people that have been involved in events you've only read about or seen on the news, and especially when the media portrayed them as the "baddies". But he's a really sweet man. He shows me lots of letters and notes of thanks from lots of other travellers, including Allan, the Costa Rican cyclist I meet last week. And he has lots of visitors.
An Irani family call in for a cuppa. They're heading back to Iran, and although I cannot understand the link, they obviously know Avo well. It's funny how just 28km from the border they were so relaxed. Early twenties daughter had no headscarf, and was showing a good bit of cleveage, and mum cuddled up to me, arm around shoulder for a photo. That attitude would definitely change across the border.
Two hours after I've gone to sleep, two Irani guys turn up, bearing gifts of food, cigarettes, and Chai. We get up, and eat and drink with them, and the vodka comes out. Only one of the Irani obliges, and he really regretted doing so, because he couldn't leave his glass full without offending, and it kept being refilled. I saw at least two glasses being emptied through a hole in the floor..... Both these guys ended up doubled up on the third bed, snoring very loudly....
And Avo loves the company. He has a cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth, his pants are always falling down, with his crotch at knee level, and he forgets to do up his fly, but his visitors love his hospitality.
21kms from Avo's shack, three and a half hours of cycling, and I hit the summit. Woohoo. He was right. No hotels, or camping spots, although I didn't see any wolves. And it was cold. I'm sweating under three layers, but the air is cold. There's new snow on the tops. Going downhill, I put on another layer, plus warm hat and gloves. Wow. What a difference to the heat of last week's desert. And it's 40km of downhill, to a typical Soviet town, of ugly tenement buildings and communal heating pipes. It must be washing day, because it's all drying on lines stretched between buildings. But, I understand these towns, after so long in the "Stans", so I find food.... and the best fresh bread rolls since NZ...... oh I wish I had some Marmite. So familiar, but so foreign.