The Aras Valley. We go up and down, up and down. The river sometimes winds beside us, sometimes below us. It gushes and surges: a proper river, even in summer. Millenia of travellers have passed through this valley. Traders, soldiers, holy men. Small mountains rise steeply on either side for kilometres. The looming rock looks like loose granite in danger of sliding down onto our heads in many places.
Across the river is Azerbaijan, then Armenia, then Azerbaijan. There is an east-west ceasefire line east of the Armenian border. The two countries still have not resolved the territorial dispute of the 1989-1994 war. Near the ceasefire line villages lie abandoned. It is terrible to think of the villagers, the fear, desperation and sadness of fleeing their homes. Where are they now? The wind whistles through their houses, the roofs are off. We watch the eery emptiness soberly from the other side of the Aras.
There is a strong military presence on the Iranian side. Bored soldiers camouflage well against dark grey rock. We jump as they call to us. Military posts are built of light brick and resemble small medieval forts. There are also lookout points on the other side. Inside Armenia there is movement: a few cars, a small child. There is a railway line too. Built by the Russians? It was the Russians and the Iranians who carved out this border in the early 19th century. There is also evidence of many tunnels. Indeed, there are more buildings in general on the other side of the river than in Iran, which is home to a few sleepy villages and a winding road remarkably free of traffic.
Sometimes there is more space on the Iranian side before the hills rise up steeply, sometimes on the other side. When there is no space on either side, the wind is especially ferocious, coating us with dust, and skidding us across the road.
Apparently, Noah came through the Aras Valley (Gihon Valley in the Bible) with all the animals, bumping into Ilan Dag, or Snake Mountain, before reaching Mt Ararat. As I ride along I like to imagine a huge Ark with animals scampering around, playing with each other, eating each other, the enormous craft ploughing its way miraculously upstream. Even in a great flood, these steep jagged mountains would have the potential to scuttle a ship. Lucky for the animals (which were not getting eaten) that Noah was a relatively good skipper!