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Armenia: The Final Dispatch

Evan and Bo have wrapped up their final dispatch from their two month ride across, around, through, and into Armenia. It’s been so inspiring to follow along on this journey with them through words and photos. It seems that Rodeo and Armenia have been woven together through our experiences there, and we can’t wait to see where inspiration takes us next. In the meantime, enjoy this final post.

If I were to sum up the first two dispatches I’ve published on the Rodeo Journal I would say this:

Weeks 1&2: Welcome to Armenia. It’s better than expected

Weeks 3&4: Welcome to Armenia, Rodeo. Hang on tight. 

So if I were to sum up these past two weeks (5&6) in Armenia it would be this. 

Welcome to Armenia. Go puke your brains out. 

I left the Rodeo boys behind in Yerevan and went to go reconnect with Bo. We had spent six days apart, by far our longest duration since reuniting after Baja. Bo was battling a stomach bug while riding with the Rodeo boys and finally decided it was too much to handle, so she hitched a ride to a campground and stayed there recuperating. My last two days with the Rodeo crew I woke up in the middle of the night to vomit violently. The next day it was coming out of the other end. I hitched a ride to the same campground and layed around for four days. I was already exhausted after all of our riding, and then this drove the nail home. I slowly edited and caught up on the news. We made friends with the travelers coming in and out of the campground. Bo took good care of me. I owe her a lot. 

After four days, we slowly rolled out of the campground in Yeghegnadzor half loaded trying to loop into the mountains and into Areni two days later for the famous wine festival. My legs were heavy and cramping but we slogged a day and a half up a 4,500 foot pass. We met a drunk shepherd who rode Bo’s bike and later talked with soldiers guarding the Azeri/Armenian border.

We later met a man who lived in a village of three people. He brought us in for coffee and cookies and we talked over Google Translate for an hour. His small house, with mud covered walls and a dirt floor, was the neatest kept house I had ever been in. His wife and daughter were down in the valley so she could go to school, so most days he’s alone at 7,000 feet, tending his 40 chickens and herd of goats. He was so happy it radiated from the walls and we left smiling for hours. Not many other people lived in these mountains, and Bo and I talked for hours straight those first two days on the bike. We had so much to catch up on. It’s amazing how much can happen in a week on a long bike ride. 

We flew, roaring with laughter and slamming on the brakes for photos, down the other side of the pass the morning of our third day back on the bikes. We finally reunited with the asphalt after two days of dirt pounding and bushwhacking and we were giggling through every corner. It felt so good to be feeling normal again, back with Bo, back at our own pace. I enjoyed riding with the Rodeo boys. It’s always nice to shake things up- make you re-evaluate your priorities- but by now I knew where my priorities lie. Stopping for photos and poking our heads around corners and sitting down with locals. Riding with Bo is my heaven. She descends like a tyrant and gives me heart attacks when she goes brakeless into switchbacks, but the other times it’s just bliss. As the descent leveled off just over Areni we stopped to admire the view. The wine valley opened up, a green mess of grape vines and dirt roads and shacks, and stretched to the horizon. The mountains we had just descended from bordered the valley to the east, and a different set, just as massive, that I had descended with the Rodeo boys almost two weeks earlier bordered it to the west. We sat there until we heard the music from the wine festival starting to flow from the village below. We were told a $5 ticket buys you all you can drink wine. We finished the descent and got ready for a long day of drinking. 

We returned to the campground after a long day at the festival and had tea with the neighbors. They were Iranian, an intellectual couple in their 40’s, and it was their first time ever outside of Iran. They left for a week and drove to Armenia (they share a border) and drove from one campground to a hotel to another campground. Ahmad was one of the most docile men I’ve ever spoken with. His soft voice, and heavy Persian accent fluttered and lulled me to sleep, but he was curious and incredibly intelligent (a chemical engineer in the petroleum industry) and made delicious tea. He came to Armenia and tried both alcohol and pork for the first time ever. When I asked him if he liked it, he nodded and with a soft answer and a mouth full of wine said yes.”I don’t know why it is banned back home!” We drank together, we laughed, we talked about our very different worlds. I really liked both him and his wife. Now I sit here and write this, 20 kilometers from the Iranian border, where I am strictly forbidden. I cannot enter without a very special and rare visa, and if Bo visits, she is not allowed to enter the US for five years. Our governments are ruthless to each other, but Ahmad was yet another example of how different people are from their governments. That’s been a big lesson from this trip. Never judge a person by their government. 

Bo and I got back on the bikes the next morning and begun to head south, reconnecting with the bikepacking.com Caucusian Crossing route. We rode to Jermuk, an old Soviet haven for sanatoriums and winter holidays. We hated it there (very quiet and abandoned, but still super expensive), but it was so cold on our climb up we had to stay a night. It snowed overnight, and lightly on us as we climbed out of the city the next morning. We made it over the pass just as the sleet came and bundled up for a cold descent. We made it to the highway connection, and I battled frozen hands fixing a flat tire while Bo thumbed for rides. We hitchhiked out of the cold to the next town, and found another warm bed for the night. 

We arrived in Sisian just before dark. We found one of the only working hotels after we figured out the Airbnb we tried to book was abandoned. The town has several abandoned factories on the outskirts and not much else. No bars, no restaurants, no cinemas. 15,000 people live in Sisian, with almost no recreation. We were sitting down to eat when I started to feel nauseous. I got up to get some air and had a very desperate not this again feeling hit me. I puked violently in the flower bed, heaving pork and onion and snickers out of my nose, and sat back down defeated and depressed. I tried to drink some tea. I puked it out, back in the flowerbed, within minutes. We stayed in Sisian for four days after that, and I was absolutely miserable. 

Is it really a mandatory part of traveling that you get sick? Does it really make the experience all that better? I didn’t have a single day feeling off on the Baja Divide and I was so much happier because of it. There’s no parasites in Armenia I was told. It was almost a part of the sales pitch to come to Armenia. I guess they were wrong.

So most of the past two weeks we’ve been either in that campground, or in a small dingy hotel in Sisian, watching Netflix and suffering through the night. After a couple days we slowly got back on the bikes, but it was pretty obvious the first day I wasn’t ready to ride again. We stayed an extra day in Tatev and two in Kapan. In Kapan, the capitol of the southernmost province, where old Soviet apartments blocks tower over bustling highways and a plastic filled river, we stayed with an Armenian couple for three days. They’re in their 50’s and after their sons went off to college they began a B&B named after their eldest. We got in late and exhausted, so they made us dinner our first night. Garick, a mechanic at the molybdenum mine one city over, speaks some broken English, and we pass Google Translate back and forth to fill in the gaps. His wife Shakhe works as a seismologist and makes amazing food. Our two hour dinner began a small tradition, where we ate every meal together. At first it felt awkward and we didn’t know if we were overstepping, but by our third day we were having a barbecue with Shakhe’s family and cooking dinner together. Bo and I called them mom and dad between ourselves. Armenians can make you feel part of their family so fast, and with such ease, you almost don’t notice it’s happening. One minute you’re tip-toeing and the next you’re shooting homemade vodka and showing family photos. It’s amazing. 

The one other thing that became apparent when we were in Kapan was how the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war reached it’s evil hands into everything in Armenia. Everything, and everyone was affected by it. My country has been at war for 20 years and never have I been personally affected by it. That’s one massively overlooked privilege being an American. At the barbecue, Garick was showing me photos on his phone of a hunt with his friends. Then some photos of his sons. Then he scrolled a little more to a foxhole surrounded by rubber tires. He almost skipped over them. I ask what they are and he just says “war.” I dig a little more. He fought every day in the 44 day war last year, with his sons. He also fought in the 1993 version, even though he’s not military. He was lucky to get out alive both times. We also met a man in Kapan who grew up in America and then in Britain. He spoke wonderful English with a fancy British accent and left a good job in finance to come to Kapan and help rebuild. He’s investing and working with his hands now, close to the border, because he felt called to it. In Kapan motorcades of military trucks go roaring by, and the other day we were turned around while trying to hike to a lake because there is too much military up there now. The war here was everything and everywhere in 2020. It still is. I’m sad thinking of people I admire and respect and love so brutally affected by it. Everyone you talk to says they lost someone. Armenia is a country of less than 3 million and lost 5,000 within a month and a half. The war cursed every family. Both sides. And it still smolders to this day. And we’re just here riding bicycles. 

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