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.

A few coffees, several biscuits and a lot of shame-faced apologising later, hotel owner Mihran sets us on our way again, giving us a bag of apples and a bottle of Fanta.

I’m utterly astonished by his humble, gracious manner. In what other country can you trespass on someone’s property, commit arson and still be invited in for tea?

We manage the rest of the trip without any more major gaffes and, despite the sometimes difficult climbs – where we strain at the pedals, heads down, legs pumping, trying to ignore the lorry drivers tooting with glee at our efforts – we enjoy the beautiful Armenian countryside and visit several of the dozens of ancient monasteries scattered across the rolling hills.

The 13th-century convent at Kobayr, just outside Tumanyan, is in a particularly pretty setting.

A short, steep walk takes us through the hamlet and up to the convent, which overlooks a gorge at its deepest; a place of sublime tranquillity.

Behind the convent, we find a series of small waterfalls and take a very welcome shower among the foliage and overhanging trees, looking out over the dramatic curves of the gorge.

Our journey continues south, covering about 40km a day, through the post-industrial Soviet city of Vanadzor and on to the Molokan Villages of Fioletovo and Lermontovo.

The Molokons, or ‘milk-drinkers’, were a Russian Christian sect who broke from the Orthodox church in the 17th century, and earned their name by refusing to fast on the specified days.

As we enter Fioletovo, three boys gallop past on horses, whooping with delight.

Gaggles of geese wander the tracks, flowers overspill the window boxes of ramshackle wooden houses, and men with scythes tend the fields. It feels like nothing much has changed in these villages since the 1600s.

About 12km down the road, we enter Dilijan National Park, where I’m pleased not to bump into any of the bears that inhabit this heavily forested region.

We stay at the secluded paradise of Daravand Guesthouse, owned by Rajik, an old bear of a man with a big beard and a penchant for vodka. While Rajik barbecues some delicious lamb chops, we relax on the large open veranda looking out over the river.

Our last stop before Yerevan is Lake Sevan, where Yerevanites come to escape the heat of the city in summer.

The Sevan Monastery sits in pride of place on a hillock at the west-most point of the lake, and offers fantastic panoramic views across to the ragged Areguniats mountains enshrouded in clouds. We take a leisurely swim and camp on the beach, eating dinner from our camping stove as the sun sets.

It takes us almost the entire next day to cycle to Yerevan, a leg-aching 70km away.

The capital proves a vibrant city with countless outdoor cafes lining the streets, squares and parks.

This penchant for the alfresco makes for an open, relaxed atmosphere and as Yerevan has a small centre, it’s easy to walk around the main sights, stopping for ice-creams and coffees along the way.

The Vernissage flea market is a hive of activity, with stalls selling masses of Soviet paraphernalia, such as enormous fur hats and military oddments, local handicrafts and the usual market bric-a-brac that make for excellent souvenirs.

I buy a few old  Soviet medals to award to friends and family back home.

We also take an afternoon trip out to Khor Virap Monastery, set against the magnificent backdrop of Mount Ararat in neighbouring Turkey.

I have an old friend, Sevag, who I want to visit, so head to the bar he owns with his brother Hrach.

Calumet turns out to be one of the coolest places in town. This small underground bar is bursting with young and beautiful Yerevanites, dancing on tables, knocking back shots, flirting, snogging and generally having a blast.

By the time we leave at 3am, the party is showing no signs of slowing down.

The train ride back to Tbilisi takes about 10 hours, but there are bunks to rest on and watch the Armenian and Georgian countryside slide gently by, so time passes quickly.

The city itself is truly the jewel of the Caucasus crown, the 4th-century Narikala Fortress dominating the skyline.

A charmingly shabby Old Town takes a day or two alone to explore, with its dangerously askew balconies, rickety staircases and centuries-old churches crowding the streets.

The quirky, fairytale-esque clock tower is a good starting point for a walk around this medieval hub of the capital.

Tbilisi comes from the old Georgian word meaning ‘warm’, due to its sulphuric hot springs bubbling up from the ground.

With temperatures in July reaching 40˚C, it’s way too hot for a subterranean Turkish bath in the Abanotubani district, but for an excellent photo opportunity, take a stroll down there mid-morning and enjoy the view across the bricked domes rising out of the ground, up to the red-brick mosque and the colourful patchwork mess of the Old Town.

We join the young, bronzed and buffed of Tbilisi at Laguna Vere, a slightly run-down outdoor swimming pool, oddly appealing in its own utilitarian, concrete way.

Here, we swim a little and laze around a lot on sun-loungers, listening to summer hits blaring over antiquated speakers.

As with Armenians, the Georgians are incredibly friendly; it’s not difficult to get into conversation with this affable bunch and find yourself being invited along to dinner and then a boisterous night out in one of Tbilisi’s many bars.

Had we been in a car, we could’ve seen a lot more of both countries, as we‘ve only managed a fraction in our 10-day trip. I wonder whether hiring a local Lada might’ve been a better idea.

But no, riding through the countryside on our bikes and camping out meant we were real travellers, more on a par with the people, not just observing them as we zoomed by.

This was definitely the best way to get totally immersed and experience the unconditional hospitality of the big-hearted Armenian and Georgian people first-hand.

Must-see Georgia: Get High in Svaneti

Don’t miss the medieval villages high in the mountains of Georgia for a truly unique trip.

A peaceful place

In the far north of Georgia, close to the border with Russia, lies the stunningly beautiful, mountainous region of Svaneti.

The Svans have retained many of their age-old traditional ways due to their isolation, including an unwritten, unique dialect and simple pastoral living.

Get out and about

The area is perfect for hiking, mountain-biking, riding and more. The Grand Hotel Ushba is an ideal base from which to enjoy all of these sports and its proprietor, Richard Baerug, also offers a wealth of excursions to explore the surrounding countryside and the ancient hamlets and villages within.

Visit Ushguli

About a three-hour drive from the hotel is the spell-binding Ushguli at about 2200m, the highest village in Europe to maintain a year-round population.

It’s made up of four smaller villages, which house the fairytale-esque ninth-century stone towers, or koshkebi, that define this area.

These towers were originally used as a refuge against avalanches and rockfalls, and also as protection against unwelcome visitors.

It’s possible to stay in one of the guesthouses that have popped up in recent years in this truly medieval setting.

 

Getting there

Fly with Air Baltic from Gatwick to Tbilisi from £330 return.

Take the Gatwick Express from London Victoria to the airport
from £21 return.

When to go: For mild weather and the most beautiful seasonal colours, visit between September and October.
 

Currency: £1 = AMD649 (Armenian Dram). £1 = GEL2.6 (Georgian Lari).

Accommodation: The Old Town Hostel is in the heart of Tbilisi, right by the main square. Dorm beds from around £9pn. Email tbilisioldtownhostel@gmail.com.
Daravand Guesthouse, in Armenia’s Dilijan National Park, is a scenic and secluded spot. From £15pn.

See: armeniainfo.am
gnta.ge

Celia hired her trek bike from Action Bikes, which came with a rear pannier rack and bike transport bag. Hire from £100 per week.

Photos: Celia Topping