2nd Sep 2012 1:50pm | By Celia Topping
We wake with the sun streaming into the tent we’d hurriedly erected the night before.
Having crossed over the border from Georgia to Armenia on the overnight train, and aiming to cycle the next 250 miles to the Armenian capital of Yerevan, we’d disembarked and watched the train pull away, leaving us with our bikes on a lonely, dark platform in the Armenian countryside.
After about half-an-hour’s painstaking cycle along uneven, pot-holed roads, lit only by our head-torches, we realised there wasn’t going to be a motel, so hastily put up our tent near the railway track.
Paul, my travelling companion, pokes his head out of the tent and laughs. In our tired, night-blind state, we’ve pitched up in someone’s garden.
But instead of waking us to ask what the hell we think we’re doing, the homeowners have left us a basket of fruit and some water and allowed us to snooze until 9am.
However, as soon as the children of the household see movement, they bundle over in a frenzy of excitement and drag us into their father’s house.
Amongst much laughter, handshaking, back-patting and miming, we are sat at a table and offered a meal of cheese, tomatoes, bread and coffee.
The house is small and poor, yet Alexander, a small, bald-headed man in his mid-forties, and his younger brother Hajet, a more rotund type, are insistent that we indulge in whatever food they have to offer.
Then they bring out the schnapps. As it’s only 9.30am, I’m pretty sure I’m not ready for hard liquor, but as it would be rude to decline, I accept their toast and while by number five I’m feeling a little woozy, the brothers seem to be just hitting their stride.
The children come in to play and dance, and the men’s wives, Diana and Carine, bring more food. It’s a little party put on especially for us.
At 2pm, we manage to extricate ourselves and wobble away as the whole hamlet waves us off, most as drunk as we are. I guess they don’t have English people pitching tents in their garden that often.
With the panniers feeling incredibly heavy, we begin our cycle up the Debed Canyon towards Yerevan.
Either side of the undulating road are forests and high rocky peaks and ridges, dotted with broken buildings, ruined houses, abandoned petrol stations and rickety Indiana-Jones-style bridges, all shabby remnants of the Soviet era.
Armenia’s history is not a happy one, having been subject to various invasions, wars, occupations and a horrific genocide as recently as 1915.
Due to emigrations over past centuries, there are more Armenians living outside the country than in it, including former tennis superstar Andre Agassi and System Of A Down frontman Serj Tankian.
However, despite past turmoil and national division, since independence in 1991, Yerevan is thriving once more; Armenia is again open for business and the people, as we’ve already found, are incredibly kind and welcoming.
Just a couple of hours down the road, as we strive in vain to cycle off our hangovers, the skies turn a dark grey, a rumble of thunder echoes across the valley, and the heavens open.
We try to shelter under a tree, but the onslaught is so intense, we’re soaked within minutes.
Ahead is what looks like a derelict hotel, so we push our bikes into the grounds and shelter in an unlocked shed.
Using the bits of wood and cardboard lying around, we make a fire in an old rusted tin bath and sit back smugly to wait out the storm.
After just a few minutes, an extremely puzzled man appears at the doorway.
He looks at us, looks at the fire, back at us and beckons us to follow him.
It seems it’s not a derelict hotel at all; it’s occupied, and we’ve just set fire to his shed.