Motorcycling into Armenia
The road to Armenia was pleasant enough on the eyes. The last 30 kms to the border of Georgia/Armenia wasn’t pleasant on my butt cheeks. Ridiculous amounts of potholes and unfinished roadworks led me to the border crossing. As usual, the Georgians were very pleasant and polite at the border. They were quick and fairly efficient, which cannot be said for the leftover soviet system in Armenia. Evidently the soviet occupation hadn’t done the armenian border control any favours. Bribery, extortion and corruption was the name of the game at this border crossing.
After presenting my passport for inspection at the first gate of Armenia, I was then pointed in the direction of the motor registration office, who then pointed me in the direction of the other motor registration office, who then pointed back to the first registration office… from the first registration office I was then pointed in the direction of the payment office, who pointed me next door to the stamping office, who told me to go and get my bike and bring it in front of that office.
From there, I went back to the boom gate office to inform them I could bring the bike through. After getting my stamps (at the stamping office), I was told to go get insurance at the insurance office, which happened to be closed. What a conundrum. No – I was not waiting around any longer, time to wake the sleeping agent up and get the motorcycle insurance for Armenia. 2 unfunny hours (excluding the procesing officer, who seemed to think it was hilarious) and $30 US later, I was on the way to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
The Armenian tarmac was a considerable improvement on the Georgian roads. There was plenty of scenery about (link video) and even caught two silver haired veterans roaring past me on a Ural with sidecar. Mountains were in abundance and softly rising through the farming fields alongside them. I made an acquaintance with the Armenian highway patrol that afternoon. After showing me their video of me ‘allegedly’ 67km/h over the speed limit, they came up with a $400 fine. Playing silly buggers with them worked out quite well, and I acted like I didn’t understand what was going on and luckily had very little in my wallet. I kept stalling, pretending to look for papers that were mysteriously lost. They were happy to settle for a $40 ‘fine’ with some american dollars instead.
An hour later I rolled into Yerevan, fairly unimpressed with the city, but happy to have a shower in my modest hostel. A wander lead me off to the supermarket, where I was given suberb service by no less then 5 staff members. Gold star treatment that I’ll take any day of the week. A $2 kebab later, I trundled back to the hostel with my $3 bottle of Armenian cognac in tow.
Riding to southern Armenia
The following morning I was fortunate enough to hit on a national park about 60kms outside Yerevan. Riding to the park wasn’t so fun, with road detours every few kilometres. While zooming along towards the grey clouds looming in the distance, I stopped to say hello a lovely old fella with lots of gold teeth, and a gorgeous old bucket of rust and bolts. The sidecar had been modded out into a flatbed with knarled grey timber, much more useful for carrying around his farming gear. It was an old steel soviet bucket of bolts, but did it ever sing of character. A handshake and a hand to the heart later, I headed straight for the incoming rain.
As usual, the common law of damned if you do, damned if you don’t kicked in. I spent five mins debating about whether to slip on my rain gear or not as the rain began to build. On the horizon it was looking greyer then the silver rogue hairs on my head. Changing into my waterproofs, I hopped on the bike, only for the rain to stop… Colourful words cursing the weather sketched a parody as I rode along, and before long, the sun came out and soaked Armenia in a golden warmth.
Reaching the higher mountains in the south, I began the hill climb up towards Kapan, the small town where I’d planned to stop for the night. A long section of switchbacks brought me towards a never ending road of twisties, slowly climbing higher and higher. Before long, a heavy mist took over and thickened up my view, mysteriously covering everything in a heavy white blanket. The amazing views of the southern Armenian mountains I had been expecting had been exchanged for the service of an extra large misty blanket.
An hour later, I rolled into Kapan. Eerie, grey ex-soviet blocks glared down on me as I rolled into the miniscule town centre. Locating a cheap hotel, I parked Trumpet in their tiny wood-chopping garage, heaved my gear upstairs and enjoyed a cold shower in the even cooler Armenian temperatures. Not far away was the local supermarket, where I happily picked up some cold beer, bananas and snickers bars for dinner.
Border Experiences – Armenia and Iran
The misty experiences so far hadn’t been scary until I’d actually gone up the final set of Armenian mountains on the way to Iran. This was hairy dude. I had to continually wipe down my visor with my in built visor wipe on my gloves. Mist had never been so dense, and silence had never been so outrageously loud. My three cylinder engine whined along the spooky mountain passes, half expecting a boogy man to kidnap me off to wherever boogy man hang out. I only noticed oncoming trucks at the last second, which provided a few moments of trying not to lose last nights dinner out the wrong end.
Finally I escaped the mysterious white gloom, and the lower mountains at the Armenian border began to open up. The shone brightly as I navigated the last of the turns out of the pass, and within minutes, I was shedding gear and gloves. As I did so, I took the opportunity to snap up the beautiful surroundings, layers upon layers of mountains stretching out to the border of Iran.
About five kilometres from the border, I took the trouble to buy a $2 bottle of Vodka, and throw it into my tent bag. If I was going into a dry country, I was going in prepared. Filling up with fuel just before the border post, craggy mountains yawned over the cool river splitting the Iranian/Armenian border. I admired the surroundings while smoking a cigarette at the border gates of Armenia, all in preparation of what was going to happen next.
Then it happened… an ever worsening repeat of the entry to Armenia. The captain stopped me, squinted at my papers, then told me to go to office 3, who gave me a fee notice. From office 3, I went to office 4 and 5 to ask for another fee notice, then back over to office 2. The lovely toothed gentleman glared at me like I’d pissed on his shoe, while smoking his cigarette in front of the no smoking sign. He then gave me a stamp, and told me to go to the bankers office. Surprise, surprise, more offices….
It took me 10 painful minutes of standing at the window directly in front of the fat Armenian banker, while he scrolled through his phone, ignoring my series of ‘hello’s’ and ‘excuse me’s’. Finally he looked up at the papers I’d had, and then told me there was an extra 2% fee for processing. That took me to the limit. Taking a breath, I demanded to know what the fee was for again. ‘Processing’ and he went back to his phone. Rightio, I’d had enough…
I flung my $20 american note through the tiny window at him, where he then inspected and gave it back. Here’s how the rest of the transaction went:
‘It’s torn’ he grunted, ‘no good’
‘It’s american $20’
‘It’s torn, no good’
‘Here have this one…’
‘This one too old. No good’
‘Are you kidding me mate?’
Fat banker shrugs and looks at his phone.
So I stormed off to my bike to get a few more pretty notes. After finding a brand new note, I went back.
‘Here you go mate, all nice and fresh’
Fat banker inspects and gestures that it’s not legitimate and still not good enough. ‘Right that’s it’ I thought, ‘I’m going for gold now’.
‘What the @#%$ do you expect mate? I’m not a #$%^ing bank machine. The ATM gives me the money and I give it to you. I can’t help what the [email protected] bank gives me…’
Sighing heavily, the fat banker reaches over for his stamp and punches 3 stamps on my paper. He didn’t bother with giving me any change, but really, at this point I was fuming and couldn’t have cared less for a few dollars. I went back to office 3 for another stamp, then to office 2 for the captain to sign me out.
I didn’t even make it out the gate before I was stopped by an army private who wanted to check my passport, before keeping me in anther office for 20 mins, convinced my passport was fake. So I waited like a good little drummer boy, and finally got my exit stamp and got on my way. (Not before being stopped twice more for passport checks and gear inspections). Thank the gods of the roads I was out.
Iran was much more simple, and fee-less. From the border gate I was sent to the immigration, and from there to the carnet office, the second carnet office and then the third carnet office. (Link carnet de passage) 10 mins later they came out, asked me if I had any alcohol, cats or dogs, to which I replied no. ‘Welcome to Iran’ Mister Haroudi said, shook my hand and went back inside. After handing my exit ticket the border guard at the boom gate, I was in. Finally, I was in!
Finally, Iran at last!
I quickly forgot about the heartache the Armenian border control had thrown at me on the way into Iran. It was impossible not to. The mountains were surging monsters! Knashing their teeth at the cloudy sky, they created one of the most beautiful scenes on the road I’ve seen yet. Raw rock seemed to come alive and tango with the darkening, grey, windy skies. Everywhere I looked was photo worthy, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with the rawness of the area around me. Brown, yellow and orange crags hung out from everywhere, as the drama unfolded around me. The wind was blowing hard, kicking up tiny bits of dust and spraying me in a sandy brown. I guess it was time to get out before the weather got too crazy!
The national park all the way to Marand and beyond was stunning, the wild weather creating all kinds of dramatic scenes with the smaller more colourful mountains. Riding along, I had to lean into the wind just to stabilise the bike and keep a straight line. The intensity of the surrounding landscape just blew me away, and I began to understand why everyone had insisted for me to visit Iran. The scenery was soul enchantingly raw, stealing my attention from the road in front of me. It wasn’t so long before I rode into Tabriz, traffic bustling around me, before I settled down for the night.
Leaving early after a breakfast of honeycomb and yoghurt, I hit the highway to Tehran, the capital of Iran. The first two hundred kilometres were quite nice in terms of scenery. Many collections of low colourful rock formations, running from green to purple, it reminded me a little of the dades gorge in Morocco (minus the dirt roads of course). The crash following over the next 100 kilometres wasn’t so nice.
In short, I crashed because I needed to pee. That’s about the summary of it. I turned off the highway after seeing a clump of trees, hit a deep patch of gravel and sand, forgot I had 40 kilos on the back, gassed it like a lead-hand Luke, and crashed anyway. I managed to smack my head nicely on the gravel, but the go pro managed to survive somehow. After getting up, the first thing I did was pickup the bike and then smoke a cigarette… Well the damage wasn’t so bad – broken mirror, broken screen, damaged foglights, snapped speedo mount, a ripped off pannier, and a nicely bent crash bar. I had juicy scrape on my hip and some skin off my elbow – nothing too crash hot though.
A half roll of duct tape and 20 cable ties later, I rolled out of the sandy mess and continued on the way to Tehran. Of course things went from bad to worse. After all the stop/start rubbish in Tehran for two hours (yes, two hours!!!) my clutch burnt itself out on the way up a hill…
There I was, stuck on a steep hill, everyone honking at me to move, with no clutch and a funny smell coming from the engine. Two older Iranians rushed over and asked if I wanted to wheel poor old Trumpet off the road. “YES PLEASE” I shouted over the noise in relief. So the three of us pushed Trumpet up the hill and into a parking spot on the side of the road. Soon enough a crowd drew up and after translating to a young lady what had happened (friction plates or something I thought) they offered me cigarettes, cold water and coffee. And a phone to dial out to my friend Mahdi to come to rescue me.
I got to work on the clutch cable, really tightening it up to a maximum. I needed every spare milimetre of cable to get me home. I played around with the cable, bringing the friction point to its maximum. After a few minor test runs, Trumpet was feeling ride-able. So with Mahdi leading the way through the quieter traffic, somehow the clutch managed to hang on a little longer up the steep hills and get me to the safe zone of his home. Finally.
By the time I stepped into the shower, I found a plethora of small rocks stuck in my hip. Watching them fall out onto the tiles below was painful but very satisfying. I feel like the days dramas had washed off with them. What a remarkable day. From epic to bad to epic to bad again. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Tuesday morning following, I wandered off to the Uzbekistan consul to pick up my visa – which went smoother then expected! Dropped off my two forms, paid $55 for the visa and got a giant sticker in my passport, awesome sauce!
Fixing the Bike
The mission in the afternoon was a little more tricky. Looking for a specific mechanic by the name of Reza (recommened by this lot), I followed Mahdi through the chaotic traffic of Tehran. Halfway in, I lost Mahdi in the absurdity of it all, and after following another white car which I thought was his, I pulled up to a stop. With the clutch barely even catching, I wondered if I was going to make it to the shop or not, especially in the torrid heat of the city streets. Trumpet’s engine was hot!
Using the reliable offline maps app maps.me, I found my way to the shop and was greeted by a big friendly man, with a huge smile and hammy forearms. The first thing Reza said to me (with a confident smile) was ‘Dutchie, do not worry, we fix everything in Iran’. He must’ve seen the stress on my face, and the worried looks I was giving the bike. I’d been recommended by many an overlander to pay Reza and Mohammed a visit, apparently they could work miracles. How true that was.
That afternoon we talked over chocolate muffins and fruit juice about what happened with the bike and current issues. Reza (the Harry Potter of motorcycle repair) couldn’t stop laughing when I told him how I crashed the bike – by needing to pee. I was glad he saw the humour in it. Mohammed opened up the clutch once the engine had cooled off, and the first smell to come out of the case was burnt metal. It smelt expensively bad. The friction plates had turned black, as had the rest of the setup. Mohammed looked up at me, shook his head, looked at Reza, who gave me the eyebrow and said:
‘Dutchie, your plates should be silver not black. What oil have you been using in Iran?’
‘Hahahaha, really? You can’t use 10w40 here, it is too hot. 20w50 is much better. When did you last change the oil?’
‘6000 kilometres ago’
‘In Iran, you must change every 3000 kilometres, otherwise this happens’
Well, it was turning into an educational class that’s for sure.
So the hunt was on for a new set of friction plates that would fit correctly. Mohammed was already hunting for a set at the garage, while Reza took me for a buzzing spin on his 150cc to the fitter and turner. On arrival, they made me a cup of tea with saffron, and then got to work, turning the pressure plate, eradicating the burns that were all over both sides of the plate.
A quick (what felt like psychotic) trip back through the raging traffic, and Mohammed hadn’t had any luck finding a set of friction plates that would fit. Reza got to work, phoning all his contacts, and then began welding the cracks running through the headlight cover. Amongst all this, the boys were kind enough to offer dinner to Mahdi and I in the garage downstairs. While munching on Tabrizi cheese, tomatoes and bread, Reza (aka Harry Potter) continued working on the welds, waving his magic screwdriver over the cracks.
Visa’s, visa’s and time to turn back
The next day, it was high time to apply for the Turkmen visa. The new North Korea of visa impossibilities. I got to the consul at 9am on the dot, the marked opening time. An hour and a half later they opened the tiny window and the race to the window was on. I’d already pictured this happening and positioned myself accordingly, and was the first in line. A brief five minutes of filling out casual paperwork and I was on my way, wondering if my application was going to be successful.
That afternoon, musing over alternative routes out of Iran, to save the 10 days of waiting for approval for Turkmenistan (moreso as a Plan B and C), I recieved a call from Reza – he had found a brand new set of clutch friction plates! Hamdullah! This was the best news I’d had in days. Things were looking up. I had spoken to Nick from Motoaction, who had the parts ready to go from greece too. Luckily, Reza had sourced what I needed and saved me an extra week of waiting. With any luck I’d be out of Iran and on my way back to Georgia in a few days time.
Wondering why I decided to re-route back to Georgia instead of heading east for Turkmenistan?
I have a tour date starting on the 24th/25th of october from Torugart border (Kyrgyzstan/China). If the approval for Turkmenistan comes through, then great, no problems. If not – it leaves me 2 weeks exactly to turn around and A – get a ferry from Azerbaijan or B – enter via russia to Kazakhstan. (Bear in mind both of these options take time for visas – the Russian visa I can only get in Tbilisi). 2 weeks might sound like alot, but not when you need to rush to get visas and have no allowance for errors on the way. Leaving early gives me 3-4 weeks grace with hopefully a week to spare in Kyrgyzstan.
Next week – Back on the road and heading to big bad Russia.