If US rapper „50 cent“ was Iranian he would be called „15000 Rial“ and no one would envy him for being a millionaire.
As I already mentioned, there is an embargo against Iran, so you can’t get money in Iran. Not at an ATM, not at a bank, not via Western Union. It is just not possible to transfer any money to Iran from any western country.
So you need to get all your money before you enter Iran. We started to withdraw dollars in Tbilisi already, where you can choose between Lari and Dollar on most ATMs. We needed to get the money early in advance, since we only have one credit card left and there is a daily limit on our VISA cards. Additionally there are usually no ATMs as soon as we leave bigger cities.
Now in Yerevan we try to get Dollars again which doesn’t work as expected. I can tell you, the comdirect bank, where we have our travel account has pretty good conditions, but it is just not able to help you quickly, especially if your request is not standard. They can clearly see that there is enough money on my other account and that we have a monthly money transfer to our travel account, but still, they don’t want to extend our weekly credit card limit. I don’t want to go into detail, it was complicated and after spending 60 Euro on telephone calls to comdirect we can still withdraw a lot less than we need. So we have to find a bank somewhere in the mountains of Armenia which is able to give us Dollars. Because we have to leave Yerevan, but we still need more dollars. An ATM isn’t sufficient, since unlike in Georgia you can’t withdraw dollars at an ATM in Armenia.
With this in mind we leave Yerevan and head towards Ararat. Maybe you heard of Mount Ararat, which is 5137m high. The Armenians claim it belongs to Armenia, but the rest of the world believes it belongs to Turkey.
Now Ararat is also a little village in Armenia, just on the Armenian side of the border with a great view on Mount Ararat.
On the way we get invited by a wine farmer, because we just happen to have lunch in front of his house. We get home made honey, and cookies and very good home made cognac. His son who now runs the business even speaks a bit French, so we try to communicate in a mixture of French, English and Russian. It works pretty well.
When we are almost in Ararat it gets windy and soon a storm comes up. When we finally arrive in Ararat we are covered in dust and sand. I have to sit down to get the sand out of my eyes with some water.
We have no idea where to stay, since there haven’t been any good places to pitch the tent for the last 20km. But hey, we are in Armenia: And along comes Ema with her son. She asks us if we need a place to stay and yes we do.
Minutes later we enter their house and are safe from the storm. Ema has four children age 6 month to 16 years. We spend the evening with them. Also Ema’s sister in law and her mother in law join and prepare dinner for us. Unfortunately there is a power failure in Ararat, probably due to the storm and the mother in law has difficulties to move around in the kitchen. Guess what, we have two head lamps. Now the old lady runs around like a young stallion.
The next day we start at 6am. The whole familiy is already on their feet and we have a long way to go that day. We give one of our head lamps to the ten year old son. They saved us from the storm, so maybe we can save them from the next power failure.
Now we have to climb up the first of several mountains on our way through southern Armenia. Since we are at the border to Nachitschewan – an Azerbaijanian Exclave – we see a lot of soldiers and even some cannons and mortars. The road up the mountain is long and the region is very dry. Having the right amount of water with you gets more and more important. When we take a break I have the chance to get some pictures of vehicles:
Already at noon we are on top. The other side of the mountain is completely different. Much greener and we just go down a few hundred meters when it suddenly starts to rain heavily. We seek shelter under a bridge.
The rain is gone as quickly as it came and we continue our downhill to Areni. Areni is famous for its red wine. We don’t even have the chance to enter the little village, because we stop in front of a winery…..and get invited. First some wine tasting, then we get a bottle of red wine. Now they want us to stay for some coffee and as always we get offered these fruits we don’t know in Germany. They look like blackberries, but grow on trees. Have a look:
Also in Georgia and Armenia they eat a lot of unripe fruits. Mostly plums and apricots. They are totally green still and sour. But today we are lucky and get offered cherries.
We stay way too long, but eventually continue. We enter Areni and wine is sold all along the road. But again we have already tasted Armenian hospitality. So no need to taste another wine. Besides the wine tasting, that day has been really exhausting and we cannot find a good place to stay in the evening. This is always hurting a bit, because the landscape is beautiful. We end up right next to the street, but at least the river is right in front of our tent. Then we have probably the most unusual way to take a bath:
We wait till it is dark, then sneak around undressed to take a bath in the river. I slip and fall into the river, which is too deep to stand on the riverbed. It also has quite a strong current, since it has high water. For a second I panic a bit, because I absolutely didn’t expect that and I’m completely submerged and drift away. Now it is Cora’s turn. I hold one of her hands while she is diving in the river. You might think, why are they doing this? But if you sweat all day it is just a big relief to feel fresh and clean before you get into your sleeping bag. So even if the water of the river is a bit brown due to the heavy rain, you feel like after taking a shower and tha’`s worthwhile sneaking around at night and taking baths in wild rivers. And to be clear, it wasn’t dangerous.
The next day our first goal is Vayk, which has a bank according to our map. There we want to get another big amount of dollars. It is really hot that day and additionally we have to fix another flat tire on my rear wheel. In Vayk we go to the ВТБ bank and try to get money: Transaction failed. We try at the ATM: Transaction failed. The failure code says, we don’t have enough money on our account. But that’s just not true. So again we have to call the comdirect bank which is still 3 Euro per minute from Armenia. They seem to understand, that it is their fault, because they say, we should try again at the ATM and if that doesn’t work they will call the bank in Vayk and transfer the money directly. This service usually costs 50 Euro, but they promise to do it for free if withdrawing fails again at the ATM. So we try again at the ATM. And voila, we just witnessed a miracle. It magically works suddenly. Now either comdirect finally did something right or they rebooted the OS of the ATM.
We eat a very bad and expensive hot dog in Vayk and then leave.
Actually we wanted to reach another pass at over 2200m altitude that day, but are much too late for that. Well, we wanted to try hitchhiking anyway. So we move up the mountain only a few meters and wait at the last major intersection. From there on, the road is going straight over the pass towards Goris. We wait for roughly an hour. During that time several cars stop, but are either overloaded or just too small for the two of us and the bicycles. A couple from France is coming along on their bicycles. They didn’t take the route via Yerevan, but instead stayed up in the mountains at lake Sevan. They also don’t want to take another pass this day, but plan to pitch the tent somewhere around here. Shortly after they move on, Selic stops. He is the driver of an old school soviet truck loaded with some hay and bullshit (literally). But enough room for the bikes. So here we go, hitchhiking our way through Armenia with our bicycles. Selic is a great tour operator. He has sandwiches and knows all the famous places. And he is driving like crazy. We wonder if he turned on the heating, but apparently the motor just heats up. The road is pretty bad and we are jumping from left to right, of course without any seat belts.
At dusk we arrive in Goris. Selic leaves us in front of a hotel which looks pretty ugly from the outside. We offer him some red wine from Areni, but he declines. He just took us around 100km and saved us two exhausting days. Thanks Selic, that was just great!
We stay in the ugly hotel, which is actually quite good from the inside. With very friendly staff, which – for the first time – help us carry our bags to our room. We get an amply barbecue for dinner and Armenian tea, which is made from Thyme. Very delicious.
Another day starts and we first go to the ВТБ bank in Goris to get some more dollars. The rest of the day is a long downhill, followed by a long uphill, followed by a short downhill, followed by a short uphill, followed by a long downhill.
And we long for the big lake which is on the map. In fact it exists, but you can`t pitch the tent, let alone swim there. It seems to be part of a cement mine.
If you want to start a business in Armenia, build a dam and create a lake. Then put a hotel there and sell beer and wine from the region. Because in all of this country there seems to be only ONE lake. The one and only, the majestic Lake Sevan. The whole country goes there in the summertime, to escape the enormous heat. But as far as we know you have to actually pay to go to the beach. And honestly, during all the days in the mountains in Armenia, we haven’t seen another lake where we could swim. Not even a small one. Well, we saw one other lake, while hitchhiking with Selic. But that lake had a cliff surrounding it and the wind up there was so strong that all trees were standing diagonal.
So we go further downhill to Kapan. On the way down we meet three Iranian cyclists going from Iran to Yerevan. Kapan is a small village with an airport, casinos and some filthy rich kids speeding around in „their“ Mercedes‘. We ask for a room in the first hotel we see, but it is too expensive for the standards it offers. While we are heading towards the main square, we come across PRINCE, a hotel which looks even more expensive. I give it a try, anyway.
Receptionist: We have very nice room, very cheap.
He shows me the room and it looks luxurious. Now what does he mean with cheap?
For only a few dollars we get this:
We go out for dinner and find Kapan is a very dark town. Almost no street lights, even though there are bars and cafes and little Restaurants. You stand in the middle of the main square, but hardly realize it. This makes it a strange experience. People are on the streets, but it looks like someone just forgot to turn on the lights.
We go to bed early, since we want to get up at 5am the next day. Because it is colder in the morning and we have to climb up the highest pass so far.
As you can see on the map we actually didn’t do anything else than slowly move upwards with an average speed of 4 kilometers per hour. We meet several Iranians who give us their numbers, so we already get a good feeling about Iran. And the Russian era seems to end. All the Iranians we meet are speaking English with us. Often badly, but none of them speaks Russian.
After climbing up 1804m in total and after a 12 hour day we finally reach Meghri Pass at 2535m and are done for that day.
Exhausted we move a few more meters up to a good spot to pitch the tent. We prepare some tomato soup we bought in Bratislava by the way. It is actually quite cold up here. When we are almost done preparing the main dish, it starts to rain. So we move inside the tent and eat there. Soon afterwards we fall asleep.
Now this would be a good point to say good-bye to Armenia. But while we are dreaming of the next day, rolling downhill 1500m just to cross into Iran, a major thunderstorm approaches our tent.
We wake up when it is already close. Within a few minutes, the sky is illuminated constantly and lightning after lightning strikes. Additionally it starts to rain heavily. Luckily there is almost no wind. Now I have spend some nights in a tent and I remember one thunderstorm in Norway getting close to this.
But actually this one is frightening. For around 20 minutes we can’t hear anything else than thunder and rain and see this constant flickering like a stroboscope in a disco. I have a look outside, but can’t spot a single lightning. There is dense fog and I can hardly see 50 meters. We lay in the middle of the tent rolled together like a fetus waiting for this to end. I count the seconds to estimate the distance of the thunderstorm. It is still coming closer. At the closest point it is around one kilometers away. Then within a few minutes it calms down, no more rain. I take a look outside again. It is almost clear sky now and I can see the lightning strikes still flickering in the distance.
I go back inside the tent and we want to sleep again. But what is that? We hear voices approaching our tent. Then a flashlight is pointing at the tent and someone seems to try to talk to us in Russian. Alright, what’s next? I open the tent and the flashlight is shining directly into my eyes, so I can’t see anything. I hold my hand in front of my face trying to get who this is. The guy then turns the flashlight away. Two fully armed soldiers are standing in front of the tent and try to explain something in Russian. I only get, that they have a house a few hundred meters away and want us to go there. But they are talking a lot and I don’t get much. So they get out a phone and call a woman who speaks a bit English and she tells us they want to offer a shelter because of the thunderstorm. Apparently they saw us pitching the tent earlier and now just wanted to make sure we are OK. We ask the woman on the telephone: „But why should we go to the shelter…now that the storm is over“. Then we hand the telephone back to the soldiers. They seem a bit confused, then one of them smiles. He then asks if we have a flashlight. I show him our head lamp. He explains that they are at the antenna a few hundred meters away and that we should just give some light signal in that direction, if we need any help.
Then our private army leaves. Well protected we sleep tight. The next morning the soldiers shift seems to end and they move to the road passing our tent. I move towards them and the squad leader just salutes us, then shakes my hand, smiles and shows both thumbs up.
I think we just gained some respect from the Armenian Army.
But isn’t that an overwhelming story? I mean whatever happens during our trip so far turns out to be an example of humanity. And I truly believe people just take notice of the effort we put in our journey and are therefore more likely to help and support us. I mean in a region, that had not only one military conflict, surrounded by Iran, Nachitschewan and Nagorno Karabakh, I wouldn’t expect a soldier to just invite some strangers.
On the other hand, a tent and two bicycles in front of it probably seem pretty harmless.
I salute you, Armenia, you were just great!