Words and images by Evan Christensen with supplemental images by Stephen Fitzgerald
When I walked through Tom’s door and saw a flood of bikes and bags and cameras sprawling over the floor on the other side, I knew I was walking into another adventure entirely. Bo and I had been alone, just the two of us, for months up to the point. We’d ridden with other people for two days at the most, and in the three months riding to Armenia together we had developed a harmonious rhythm. It had been dug deep and as we fell deeper into that entrancing rut we rode through splendor and excitement and pangs and a new world at our own pace. We were happy with it. I felt like it could have gone on forever.
But on the other side of that door were two old friends from the other side of the globe and with them, clean clothes and fresh chains and frame bags full of excitement. Steve and Nick arrived at 3am the morning we found them in Yerevan and from then on, they were both desperately anxious to fill their short two week trip with as much Armenia as possible. I know a lot can happen in two weeks by now, especially in a country like this, but I was worried. I wanted them to leave with a genuine taste of the flavors baked deep into the core of this culture. Flaky lavash and gritty, velvety coffee and angry fruity vodka that bites you from the other side of a shepherd’s dirt stained hand. I wanted them to see the colors of Lori and the Volcanoes of Spitak and the wheat fields and vineyards that separate the two. I wanted them to leave Armenia loving it like I have already loved it. I’m not sure any significant time here can make you leave without leaving behind a piece of your heart. And so we rode- early in the morning and sometimes frighteningly into the night. We rode until we found that beautiful nectar of Armenia, coursing deep across the land. And I know we found it because we tasted it over and over and over…
It was a clunky start leaving the capital, following either a map Steve made in the dark or me, only a quarter familiar with the bustling, sprawling city that reminds me of a Soviet Los Angeles. We scrambled across a freeway and found an alley road that switchbacked into the mountains bordering the city. Bo, full of excitement and a little too much coffee, pushed the pace to the countryside so hard I could barely keep up. We climbed out of the valley and only then did we have our first second to shake each other out. It was a rag-tag group, and I was nervous to see how our competing philosophies would settle out. Nick and Steve, fresh off the plane and cramming life into the corners of their allotted vacation time, were beating the GO drum at every opportunity.
Bo and I, traveling slow and now months into this ride, were not desperate to cover miles. But I knew we would find something in the middle, economics says so, so I dropped weight back in Yerevan however I could and braced for a hard two weeks of riding. And whenever an opportunity to talk to someone on the side of the road popped up I grabbed for the brakes.
Our first day went smoothly, surprisingly smoothly in retrospect. We had little planned except the boys wanted to ride 150km. After about 40 we stumbled into a farm looking for directions. Nick flexed his Russian and I felt three months of language barrier stress fall off my shoulders. Finally, I could take a step back and actually understand what’s going on.
We rode down an overgrown hillside and found a small oasis, complete with hammocks and a spring and a table. We had an early lunch and I stretched out after to let it settle. As we were getting ready to leave, a blacked out Landcruiser drove up. Steve panicked thinking it’s the mafia, and out got a family who started unloading a picnic. We talked about their mega family farm and about what we’re doing and the man offered us food and drinks. He told us to stay a while and share a meal. We took some Coke’s and got back on our way and the first twinge of Armenian generosity was fresh on their lips. The boys laugh and say if that was in America we would have been kicked off their property if not shot. I laughed and said I’m just surprised they let us go without eating anything!
The sun set on our first smooth day of riding. We shot photos during golden hour and laughed at the final distance ridden according to the computers. A full day, complete with beautiful views and challenging climbs and a dozen kind people, totaled to less than 60 kilometers. I learned to stop looking at those numbers a long time ago, but the boys want to get up and start busting out miles early the next day. They’re up before the sun and watch the colors descend down the face of Mount Ararat in the distance. We all watch the first light hit the first snow of the year and have our first epic moment together. “These are those moments that make you jump off the hamster wheel of life, and with enough you might just never get back on” says Steve. We immediately descend back into the valley along a rutted out cliff road and that wondrous experience is rattled into a hidden pocket of the brain.
We then began a 6,000 foot climb out of the valley and onto a high steppe in the center of the country. We rode to 10,000 feet and along vast, sweeping plains and it felt like the horizon would never end. The light was beautiful and as the sun set on a very long day in the saddle we needed a place to stay. We pushed into another valley and were chased by dogs from a shepherd camp. Immediately after those dogs it happened again with another set and the shepherds came over to talk to us. The sun had set, but we were planning to ride on. Nick spoke Russian with one of the two men, both around age 25, and the only ones at the camp. They offered to let us stay with them and we agreed when there was no other option. They warned us of wolves in the area, which had already taken 20% of their sheep herd this year, and said that we would be safe with them and their dogs. We pitched our tents in an old field of sheep poop and wandered into their tent in the dark after we were offered coffee.
The two shepherds lived with very little. They slept three feet apart in their own small, squeaking beds under a canvas tarp and on top of a dirt field. They had a small propane tank to heat water which was kept in a series of jerry cans in the corner of the tent. They chain-smoked thin cigarettes and wore tattered army fatigues and were excited to show us their one small solar panel light. One shepherd was Yazidi and the other Armenian, a rare combination, and they both welcomed us in and passed around a table full of food until we were all absolutely stuffed. Tomatoes and cucumbers and goat meat and cheese and boiled potatoes and lavash. The Yazidi shepherd sings us a song of his people as we rock our food comas to sleep and then breaks out the bottle of homemade grape vodka and the party starts. Steve is showing pictures of his family back home and Nick is translating all of our questions and Bo and I are sitting in the corner letting the vodka settle and our hearts melt. Day two on the bikes and Nick and Steve are having their first real Armenian experience. I knew whatever happened on the trip after this wouldn’t matter. These experiences, these people, they’re gifts. Their generosity is humbling and their gentleness is inspiring. This way of life, huddling in a small tent at 9,000 feet with almost nothing and another man of a different ethnicity is a rare thing to see anywhere. It’s rattled and shaken me. It’s shown me how different a life is possible. It’s not the difference between being a doctor or a lawyer. It’s the difference of either the wolves take my flock or I have food tonight. It’s the fact that different people can come together in hard circumstances for good. It’s another example of brotherhood obeying no boundary, and humanity breaking down barriers. These nights I find my heart full of love and all that anger and angst I feel about the world fade away. Maybe there’s no hope in the world. Maybe it’s all within your neighbor.
We had coffee with the shepherds in the morning just as their families arrived in a massive Soviet truck. They came to tear down the camp and move down to the valley for the winter. We made it to their camp on the final night, and we were so lucky to do so. We pack our little tents onto our bikes in the shadow of them rolling up their tarp and we say goodbye and ride away. I like to think all I do with the bike is connect the dots from one experience like that to the next. It’s just I have no idea where and when it will come. So we headed back out into the unknown, and began with yet more climbing. We rode for hours that day, making our own way when the road disappeared and vaguely following the line Steve traced on his computer from 8,000 miles away. It was a mess but we were there together, and together it sucked a whole lot less than being alone. The support car showed up and Bo made the decision that her food poisoning was too bad to carry on. She was taken to a campground and stayed for a couple days on her own to heal up. Nick, Steve and I pushed the pace in a desperate plea to start catching up to all the miles we were behind “schedule”. An hour later Nick is on the ground bandaging himself and Steve is splicing back together his split Di2 cable after Nick crashed while descending. We pushed on up our final climb of the day but much slower. We were exhausted and had learned our lesson. Armenia doesn’t appreciate being hurried.
The next few days became a complicated blur. As the pace picked up and the timescale squished together the few short days we had together started to melt into one. We meet some boys at a lavash factory and I let them ride my bike and they laugh and wave as Steve flies the drone.
We meet a man selling homemade knives from obsidian and animal bone on the roadside and drink vodka with him for Nick’s birthday. We jump in the car and pile our bikes on the roof to cut off a chunk of miles so we can get north. I wander an old abandoned soviet soccer stadium and we eat at a hotel/restaurant? Or is it just someone’s house? I don’t know but then we do it again 10 hours later. I see a severed cow head on the ground and jump off my bike to photograph it. Steve is mad because we have miles to crush so we crush fast miles out on maybe the only pavement we ride all week.
We do stop to skip stones and eat lavash by the lake though. We get chased by a puppy for an hour up a hill and Nick threatens to take it back to the States but it luckily escapes domestication at the last second. We climb through a long valley and descend into the other side in a blur of fall color and twilight and shoot photos and then it’s dark and we’re bushwhacking with just our headlights through mud bogs. We’re touring a wine factory and eating with a family of three and sleeping when we can. We’re trying to keep everything clean and organized enough to not break and managing the things that already have. We make it to Dilijan and I don’t feel good but maybe it’s just the knot in my stomach because I know after Dilijan we climb into the sky and the sky looks dark. We eat at a feast at the best restaurant in Armenia and then it starts.
The rain started soon after we left Dilijan. The clouds warned us but we rode on anyways. We had to push our bikes up most of the pitches because they were so steep, and the mud made it even more difficult. We had another thousand feet or so to make it to the ridge, where we would descend down to a town on the other side, hopefully before nightfall or before the rain got worse. Up on these mountains there are no trees and few rocks. The dark clouds, throwing off bolts of lightning in the distance and rolling over our path, scared me.
I bit my tongue as best as possible. I was bonking and didn’t really know where we were going but followed my brothers because that’s what we do. We were almost to the top and as the sun began to set, Steve checked the map again and said we had another 250 meters left to climb. We put on our jackets and made a push but lost the road. It all happened so fast. It was like I was riding in a dream state and then was violently shaken awake. We’re on top of a very high, very exposed mountain and it’s windy and raining and lightning might soon follow. The stars are coming out and we need to get down. Now. Steve looks down at the valley below and the straight drop off and thinks we should just go straight there. I see a small pattern across the ridge and think it might be the road and we shoot for it. It’s potholes and weeds and Steve crashes twice and we just go because we have no other option. It’s not panic I feel but it’s definitely adrenaline and I’m very aware of every move I make. We go and go and I’m desperately tired and the three of us are quiet as we stumble through a cloud and into an abandoned shepherd’s hut. It’s really just 3.5 waist high stone walls but we’re desperate and think it’ll be good enough to keep us safe for the night. We eat lavash and peanut butter and fade away until Steve wakes me up at 3am because of the thunder just across the valley, but I’m too tired to be scared. We awake to wet tents and cleared fog and a beautiful shepherd camp just across the way we were very sad to miss in the night.
After that night, it was clear that Mother Armenia was serious. She did not want to be hustled and wanted instead to be appreciated. We quietly agreed to back down the pace and enjoy ourselves a bit more. We descended through a slip and slide mud field and waited out a rain storm in a hair salon. We decided to head to the nice hotel just down the road- there was more rain in the forecast and we were endlessly exhausted and ready for a long nap. They also had a sauna and I hadn’t felt my toes in 24 hours. Steve fell asleep in the chair while Nick and I labored through a game of pool.
From there it was my turn to feel the wrath of food poisoning. Steve and Nick pushed up to Mount Aragats but I had already done it with Bo a month prior and was more excited to sit in the back and put my head down. The foot of snow at the top meant that the boys had to turn around anyways, and we all drove back to Yerevan and the trip just ended. They boxed back up their bikes and did a quick spot of gift shopping and got a PCR test and just like that it’s all over. I took a taxi to go find Bo and said goodbye for however long it will be this time. I remember the phone call we first had when this ride together was initially being discussed. AMR was delayed for months and Steve thought he could figure out a way to get to Armenia in that time. Then two weeks later they were here. They left as quickly as they arrived, but in the meantime I know we packed in those short two weeks an incredible, true to the word adventure adventure.
And I know they left with a feeling of the genuine pulse of Armenia. It was beaten into them, and me, and Bo, along those endless dirt roads lined with endless smiling faces in the countryside. We had a ride. We drank vodka. We sang songs. We slept not nearly enough and so many things broke and I had 15 flat tires and we got lost a couple times. We ate questionable meat and the best produce in the world. We had an adventure and for that I am so grateful. Nick and Steve shook me out of my rut. They made me reevaluate my priorities while bikepacking. And now, I’m so glad my ride is still going.
I was told there would be diesel Land Cruisers . . .