Take a road trip from the north to the south of Armenia and – if you’ve got your eyes open and are looking out the window – you’ll likely be struck by the vast, uninhabited moorlands between the provinces of Syunik and Vayots Dzor.
As the diminutive nation of Armenia narrows to its most slender point – just 40km between the border of Azerbaijan and that of its exclave Nakhchivan – a solitary paved road snakes up from the gorges of Yeghegnadzor to the Vorotan pass, passes through the monumental Gates of Syunik, and continues to wind its way across barren hillsides towards the city of Goris.
In all of my pre-scouting research, I could not find a single person who knew of a hikeable route across the Vorotan pass and through this bleak landscape. Even Raffi, our advisor and expert on travel in Armenia, shook his head and tutted. “Yep… it’s a problem.”
So off we went to find one.
It would be another case of connecting the dots. We had already scouted a route through Vayots Dzor, from the wine-producing hub of Areni via Gnishik and Martiros to the villages of Kapuyt and Artavan. With Artavan as our starting point, we would find and explore routes over the watershed towards the Spandaryan Reservoir, an artificial lake built in Soviet times as part of a series of hydroelectric projects on the Vorotan River.
Leaving Alessandro and Ani with the Land Rover to research local amenities and alternative routes near Artavan, Vahagn and I set off early in the morning on our mountain bikes, hoping that the jeep tracks we’d pre-scouted with local people would extend beyond the pass and eventually bring us out at the lake. As some readers will already know, the bicycle is where my adventuring heart lies, and as a means of exploring the backcountry areas of this region on jeep tracks, a good mountain bike seemed just as appropriate a tool as foot and pack.
(In answer to a great many emails, yes: a bikepacking-friendly variant of the TCT is indeed in the works, and will be developed and published through my adventure cycling blog, TomsBikeTrip.com.)
Vahagn had recently invested in a fatbike, but had yet to try it for long-distance off-road riding. As we inched our way up from the village, we exchanged notes on uphill riding techniques on tricky terrain: maintaining momentum, pedalling at a low, steady torque, and distributing weight to keep both wheels on the ground – the exact same principles, I noted, as when driving a Defender under the same conditions.
The trails were fine as far as Mirror Lake; a small body of water the locals had told us looked like a map of the world from above. Beyond, however, we found the jeep tracks fallen into disuse – just as we’d been told. Gaining the shoulder of the mountainside afforded us a fantastic view of what was to come: several miles of steep hillside with nothing to follow but the contour lines on our 43-year-old Soviet military topo maps.
The rest of the day was gruelling, to say the least. Navigation in remote terrain is my bread and butter, but doing it while bushwhacking with a bike in tow is tough work.
But that’s what we signed up for. Nobody said this would be easy. And easy it has definitely not been, lest the stream of stunning landscapes flowing from our Instagram accounts deceive you. Indeed, this has undoubtedly been the most challenging expedition I’ve ever been part of – a topic for another post, I feel.
Something curious happens when you’re tackling adversity, however, which is that you tend to focus on the here and now, rather than floating abstractions. This had an unexpected effect. For while these landscapes might look grey and featureless from a car window, we found ourselves pushing through a festival of colour and life. High summer in the meadows of the Armenian highlands is a season of wildflowers in abundance, married together with the ever-present whir and buzz of a million flying insects gathering their pollen. Empty and barren this place is not.
The following day we abandoned the bikes and continued by foot and pack. This time, jeep tracks both passable and disused guided our progress along the hillsides. These mountains were too steep for haymaking, but we would occasionally meet a herder on horseback, each time with the same refrain: “Make sure you don’t get lost – the border is only a kilometre away!”
In reality we knew that the border – defined by the terrain as the highest ridge of the mountain range dividing Armenia and Nakhchivan – was always at least 10km distant. But proximity to this militarised line of hostility has been a genuine concern. Sporadic border skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have continued since the 1994 ceasefire of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, accounts of which may be read elsewhere.
This isn’t me paraphrasing Wikipedia. We’ve heard the gunfire ourselves. While no travel advisories exist from the British government concerning this particular section of the border, keeping our trail at a safe distance is an important responsibility anyway, if somewhat challenging while scouting the bottleneck of the Vorotan Pass.
What we all want, of course, is to see an end to the conflict, and the ability for our trails to pass freely between the territories of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
That’s the dream. For now, we have to contend with reality.
And as for the scouting in this section?
Well, I think we can call it a success for the project, if not for our mountain-biking ambitions.
We’ve confirmed that it is possible to hike across the pass by an alternative – if currently rather challenging – route.
And we’ve identified what I feel will eventually be an important stretch of trail to later build; a new piece of infrastructure that will serve local and foreign hikers and fieldworkers alike, connecting stunning Syunik with well-travelled Vayots Dzor through the bottleneck of Armenia.