I’ve been in Yerevan for about three weeks and the hold-ups continue. My friends here like to joke that by the time I finally get this deep-winter sleeping bag and pedal south towards Iran, it’ll be spring and I won’t need it any more!
That may turn out to be the case, but in the meantime it’s still well below freezing by day and by night, and I’ve heard reports that temperatures in the deserts of not-too-far-away Turkmenistan are still approaching minus thirty - even the nearby Iranian city of Mashhad is currently experiencing nighttime lows of minus twenty-five, according to an Austrian cyclist. I’ll certainly feel much happier with this new sleeping bag whilst cycling towards the Tibetan plateau, where the altitude will have more effect on temperatures than the time of year.
It’s not a good idea to project too far ahead with this kind of travel, as it’s a recipe for disappointment when - by the nature of bike travel - events have a habit of taking their own unpredictable course, but I feel a strong urge to get back on the road and really make some progress eastwards. With only 1,500km of distance between the Iranian and Chinese borders, the incomprehensible idea of cycling from England to China is edging its way towards becoming a real, attainable accomplishment.
City life is so blinding and replete with facilities, commodities, employment and entertainment; it’s little wonder I hear people saying that you’d be hard pressed to find a passer-by here who had even ventured as far as Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia, a half-hour journey away by car or mashrutka (minibus). By the way, these little Transit vans zipping around the city are an adventure in themselves. I recently boarded one, heading for the centre of town, and after squeezing myself in amongst bemused-looking black-leather-jacket-clad men and full-length-fur-coat-clad women who seemed to consider my unruly, uncut hair and increasingly straggly beard a suspicious novelty, I realised I had flagged down the wrong one. After a moment of annoyance, I decided to let things take their course and stayed put, looking out of the window as the bus headed further and further into suburbia, passing street-sellers warming themselves by the flames of their empty cardboard boxes, 20-storey Soviet tower blocks with wonky staircases and even wonkier elevators, and invincible fringes of dirty ice and snow impinging erratically upon the road.
I found out later that growing a beard as an Armenian is a traditional indication that one is in mourning, which would explain the aforementioned reaction, but a few of the younger generation have decided to grow them as an expression of freedom and changing times. With countless building developments having sprung up over the last 5 years and helped by cash injections from abroad, Yerevan is in the process of transformation from a quiet, Soviet-styled state capital to an increasingly Western-looking cultural centre, where museums depicting the long and troubled history of the Armenian people, utterly ancient monasteries (some of which still host religious services) and roadside markets stand side by side with jazz clubs, fashion-designer shop-fronts and 24-hour supermarkets. The Vernissage weekend bazaar, where vendors sell mechanical parts salvaged from dumped machinery, stray puppies are sold as pets (to save you having to catch your own), and you can eat a hearty plateful of delicious dolma (cabbage-leaves stuffed with spiced rice and ground meat) for the equivalent of about 12 English pennies, is a two minute walk from the Porsche showroom.
Overlooking the city (when not obscured by air pollution or low cloud) stands Mount Ararat, dwarfing the rest of the skyline at more than five thousand metres in altitude. It’s not only a symbol of Armenian ethnic and religious identity, with streets, buildings, cognac brands and a town named after the mountain, but also a constant reminder of the effects of the increasingly-widely-recognised genocide of the early 20th century, during which estimates of over a million ethnic Armenians lost their lives by order of one particularly idealistic (and short-lived) Ottoman-Turkish leadership, and countless families were separated and forcibly re-settled. This has led to today’s situation where three million Armenians live in present-day Armenia and a further seven million are scattered across the globe, either as fully-fledged communities or as individuals and their descendants who started new lives in new countries. I was told that Princess Diana was one sixty-fourth Armenian. Los Angeles-based rock band System Of A Down are Armenian. The singer Cher is (you’ve guessed it) Armenian. (Unfortunately - if you’re a cynic like me, at any rate - an Armenian also invented the television.)
But the slopes of Mount Ararat now stand on the far side of the long-closed Turkish-Armenian border, surrounded by towns that were once part of Western Armenia under the Ottoman Empire, now Turkish by name and population, although a large number of Armenians chose to change their language, family name and religion in order to stay where they felt they belonged. In North-Eastern Turkey, the ethnic intermingling was quite noticeable. I’m pretty sure that the paramedic, who took me to get my face sewn up after a nasty crash near the Georgian border, was Armenian.
I’ve also met a huge number of people here who are partly or fully Armenian by ethnicity, having come to Armenia seeking their roots, from England, Lebanon, Canada, Dubai, Iran, Australia, and the USA, amongst others. A local Armenian girl explained that this romantic idea has in reality led to some differences in opinion as to in which direction Armenia should be developing, as those incoming Diasporan Armenians unavoidably bring with them distinctly un-Armenian ideas and world-views, coming as they do from entirely different social and cultural backgrounds, whether they share the same blood or not. But Westerners (for the most part) have already learnt of the consequences of economic growth without due consideration for the environment, so perhaps learning to listen is the key. Organizations such as WWF can make a difference, as shown by the successful lobbying of the Armenian government to change its plans to build a new highway through a nature reserve in the south of the country, but it’s also up to those in the driving seat of progress to take these considerations seriously.
As a traveller, I’m exposed to all of the opinions that people from town, village or city, native or otherwise, care to throw at me. This means I have to sit down sometimes and consider why a bee-keeper in a village in Armenia can brand the entire nation that lies just over his western horizon ‘bad’, because of what he knows of events that occurred nearly a hundred years ago. I’m still only getting going with this journey, and I’m loathe to try and formulate my own opinions on the conflicting histories of two neighbouring countries, because it’s not really any of my business. I’m firmly in agreement with the sentiment that a little knowledge can be dangerous.
What I am being forced to do on this journey is to collect common threads that, when tied together, start to explain why humans think and act the way they do and why the world is the way it is, and as the journey progresses, I suppose that more and more threads will be added.