The best way to get under the skin of a country is to explore it by bicycle, and Armenia is no exception! This 700km border-to-border itinerary, mainly on quiet provincial roads, takes in the most scenic routes available in the mountainous east of Armenia and also incorporates a section in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabagh). On the way, you’ll visit some of the most significant historical sites in these ancient lands, with a choice of guesthouses, hotels and campsites. We recommend at least two weeks to enjoy the journey to the fullest – maybe more.
From the Georgian border crossing at Bagratashen, take the eastern M16 route via Noyemberyan, where you’ll find a hotel and several cafes. Enjoy the spectacular views east over Azerbaijan, but don’t be tempted to leave the main road: this border is heavily militarised, and for the same reason we do not recommend riding at night. Ijevan, the provincial capital of Tavush, has several good guesthouses and cafes, as well as a large outdoor market to stock up on snacks and delicacies. You might also consider a short (uphill) detour to Apaga Resort above Yenokavan village, which is famous for its ziplines and also allows camping.
From Ijevan, leave the main road and take a scenic mountain road to eastern Tavush. This dirt road is considered one of the most beautiful routes in the country and will bring you within reach of Berd, the largest town in the province with a single hotel. If you don’t need to stay the night indoors, bear south just before Berd to follow the H38 – another spectacular mountain road – to T’tu Jur in the Getik valley. It’s about 40km between settlements, so make sure you have plenty of supplies, though freshwater springs do exist on the roadside.
From T’tu Jur, head to Chambarak, which has at least one good guesthouse, or continue over the Chambarak Pass to Lake Sevan, one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the world. We recommend Wishup Shore near the village of Shorzha as a good place to camp (in the summer season), with a beach bar and restaurant and all the usual facilities. You can also rent watersports equipment if you want to take time off here to relax.
The road continues along the quiet eastern shore of Lake Sevan. Budget a little extra time for this section as the road between Tsapatagh and Vardenis is in very poor condition. Vardenis is a key stopping point to stock up, as well as a potential overnight spot, as you have a long and remote road ahead of you in Artsakh! The newly paved asphalt road crosses the Sotk Pass (2,371m). Make sure you stop at the Nor Kharkhaput checkpoint on the way down into the Lev Valley to have your documents checked. If you don’t have a visa for Artsakh (available at the Embassy in Yerevan), you’ll be asked to report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert to get one. This will be checked when you leave Artsakh, so don’t forget.
The Vardenis–Martakert highway – actually a quiet, single-lane asphalt road – follows a spectacular gorge past Dadivank, an important religious-historical site which is well worth the 1km detour. Several other worthwhile detours exist along this road if you have the time, including the ruined clifftop city of Karvachar, the hot springs at Zuar, Gandzasar monastery, and the house-museum of the freedom fighter Nikol Duman. Rather than join the North–South Highway, our route takes a detour through the villages and follows a back route into the capital, Stepanakert. We recommend spending at least a day exploring the sights, not to mention splashing out on some of the excellent local food available.
A short uphill ride from Stepanakert is Shushi, historically a capital of Islamic culture in the region as evidenced by several surviving mosques and a unique architectural style in many districts. From Shushi the route follows the hilly but spectacular main road back to Armenia proper. Note that there are no other viable road routes between the south of Artsakh and Armenia at this time, with most of the area off limits to foreigners and several known minefields along the border. Again, be sure to stop at the checkpoint at Berkaberd to hand in your permit and get your visa stamped out.
Climbing out of the gorge after the border crossing you will pass on your left the junction for Khndzoresk village. Just below in yet another spectacular gorge is the medieval cave village of Old Khndzoresk with its suspension bridge; a very worthwhile detour. Otherwise, continue to the historical town of Goris. With many good accommodation and eating options, and a network of walking trails available to explore the caves and rock pinnacles of Old Goris, this is another prime spot to take a rest day.
The route heads south from Goris to make a spectacular descent into the Vorotan Gorge through forested canyons, followed by a punishing switchback climb up the other side on the way to Kapan. This section of the route can be done in a day if you are sufficiently fit, but supplies are few and far between, apart from the occasional truck stop. It is, however, a spectacular ride, full of yawning valleys and forested provincial roads that see relatively little traffic, despite it being the principal through-route in southern Armenia. Several little-known historical sites lie close to the road and are included as waypoints on the mapped route.
Plummeting down the final descent into the Voghji river valley, you’ll probably spot a shimmering lake off to your right. Don’t be tempted to swim, for this is the toxic tailing pond of Kapan’s huge copper-molybdenum mine! As you reach the valley floor, turn right to follow the main road towards Kapan. Though Kapan city centre is not on this itinerary, you may wish to head into the town for the night as several good accommodation options do exist, including a rustic campsite operated by ARK Armenia.
The final leg of the tour is perhaps the most remote and beautiful of all. Follow the new paved road south towards Chakaten, just to the east of Kapan. The road climbs and wraps around the lower flanks of Mount Khustup, passing through several small villages. In the village of Shikahogh there is a visitor centre belonging to Shikahogh State Reserve, where overnight self-catering accommodation is available. This is the last formal accommodation before Meghri, some 80km distant, so be sure to plan your overnight stops carefully, or prepare to wild camp.
The road continues through Shikahogh State Reserve, one of two protected forest reserves in Armenia. You’ll follow the Tsav river through wonderful wooded valleys, passing ancient stone bridges and tiny, forgotten villages, before climbing up the last set of switchbacks to the Gomarants Pass (2,227m). It is worth stopping here to take in the incredible view: the sea of rocky mountains stretching south as far as the eye can see is, of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Your final reward of this challenging tour comes in the form of a swooping descent of almost two vertical kilometres to the River Arax, which forms the border with Iran. Follow the paved road west to reach a three-way junction from where you can climb north a final few kilometres to the town of Meghri, where accommodation and transport back to Yerevan can be arranged – or continue west to Agarak to cross the Iranian border and continue your tour there!