Armenia is sometimes perceived as an unnecessarily mountainous alternative to Azerbaijan when it comes to getting from Georgia to Iran, but it’s actually a worthy cycling destination in its own right. Visas on arrival for most nationalities, stunning mountain landscapes, numerous scenic detours, a rich and tumultuous national heritage, and some of the best-preserved Soviet architecture around are all reasons you might choose to pay this little Caucasian republic a visit.
Routes through the country are more varied in the north, with multiple crossing points from Georgia and several options from there onwards. Maps indicate that stunning road via Noyemberian crosses Azeri territory; with the border conflict a stalemate for decades it’s rarely a problem to travel this route, though you’d be well advised not to venture into no-mans-land. The land borders between Armenia and both Azerbaijan and Turkey remain firmly shut, so overland routes are only possible between Georgian and Iran, whatever your maps may suggest.
Up-and-coming Yerevan is worth a visit; the Genocide Museum sheds lights on the country’s historical woes. As well as possessing a small handful of bike shops and mechanics, it’s also a reliable pick-up point for Iranian visas. If you don’t want to lose an entire kilometre in altitude, however, you can bypass the city on a scenic route via the eastern shore of Lake Sevan, and maybe spot an old Silk Road caravanserai or two on the way over from Martuni to Yeghegnadzor.
The route south to the Iranian border is fairly non-negotiable; only one through route crosses this formidable territory. It’s shared with the trickle of goods traffic to and from Iran, as well as bus services between Yerevan and Tabriz/Tehran, so there are hitching opportunities if the climbs get too much. Expect to tackle five extremely long and challenging mountain passes, the biggest of which is a non-stop ascent from 700m to over 2,500m in altitude.
Detours are usually worth taking; the minor roads are often in a state of disrepair, but they’re much quieter, and as usual it’s here that the memorable and unexpected of Armenia is to be found: lush mountainside forests, naturally-carbonated mineral water springs and thermal baths, ancient monasteries perched on the most unlikely of precipices, and a rural welcome as warm as any you’ll find in the Middle East.
If you’ve time, a side trip to the Mountainous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh in the local language) will unearth an isolated, time-warped version of Armenia proper; a de facto independent nation unacknowledged on any maps other than Armenia’s own. Decades of fruitless territorial bickering have resulted in a stunning mountain landscape left to flourish with little in the way of modern development, and people even warmer and more receptive to tourists than those in Armenia itself. Watch where you camp; minefields do still exist and are marked as such.
Visas for Karabakh are easily procured at the country’s sole embassy on Nairi Zaryan Street in Yerevan. Having any evidence of a visit to Karabakh in your passport will exclude you entirely from entry to Azerbaijan. Don’t be tempted to try any route in or out of Karabakh other than the prescribed one between Goris and Stepanakert; at least not unless you fancy looking down the barrel of an Azeri-wielded Kalashnikov.
In terms of national and international transport, Yerevan is now well-served by budget airlines from Europe, Dubai and various Russian airports. Minibus services – mashrutkas – can usually be persuaded to carry bicycles, running all over the nation from a variety of bus depots in Yerevan, as well as to neighbouring capital cities. The sleeper train between Tbilisi and Yerevan is an experience all of its own, and relatively easy to wangle a bicycle onto too.